People of color scarce at State Capitol

Lone Black lobbyist invites help raising legislators’ awareness

Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker

Well-respected policy expert Sarah Catherine Walker holds the lamentable distinction of being the lone African American contract lobbyist at the state capitol, noting, “and there are almost no people of color there.”

Representative Rena Moran is the only Black member of the Minnesota House; there are but three Black legislators, Senators Hayden and Champion the others. Peggy Flanagan and Susan Allen are the only Native American representatives.

Moran says the lack of diversity also hurts the state because it sometimes leads to lawmakers making poor decisions on education, health care, and other issues because their perspective is limited. “Because something is working for one individual or one community,” she says, “does not mean it’s going to work for another community. So often it doesn’t work for communities of color.”

African Americans make up 5.9 percent of Minnesota’s population but less than 1.5 percent of the legislature.

Founding chair of Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, former chief operating officer at 180 Degrees, Inc., and receiving the Hennepin County Bar Association Advancing Justice Award only partially list Sarah Walker’s accomplishments in working for the public good.

“One of the reasons I [became] a lobbyist was I felt the time had come that there needed to be people of color lobbying full time with legislators,” says Walker. “Too often our community ends up hearing about policy changes [after the fact]. Without someone working every day, reading bills, we don’t have a pipeline that funnels information to the community.”

Walker is contracted by a considerable list of clients, including the Council on Crime and Justice, Minnesota Community Center and Minnesota Coalition for Justice. “When [lawmakers are] in session, I literally live there,” she says. “By being there, I can [serve as] a conduit to the community.”

Why aren’t more such individuals working toward the same end? “I’m not typical. The major way you become a fulltime lobbyist is you work on people’s campaigns [in] the House or Senate caucus, one of the major parties and then you get hired. They want you because you know the system and you know the legislators.

“Until recently there’d been almost no people of color working at the capitol in staff positions,” she continues. “That’s one reason. There hasn’t been a lot of access. Another reason is contract lobbying is highly competitive in an almost all-White world.

“It’s harder for people color to make the contacts that would get them contracts. A lot of people from our community don’t necessarily have parents who [help them with] connections.”

She adds that powers that be sustaining the status quo hasn’t helped. “There hasn’t been concerted effort to bring in people of color. So, it hasn’t been a career that many have considered.”

What would the impact be were she not the lone African American contract lobbyist? “One thing that would change automatically is how often diversity is incorporated into everyday conversation at the capitol,” she answers. “More legislators are likely to think about it. You’re more likely raise awareness.

“For instance, [awareness] of why it’s important to have teachers of color, why it’s important to have a diverse business community,” says Walker. “If people of color are absent from the conversation, they are absent from the process.”

 

For more information on Sarah Walker, visit www.sarahcwalker.com.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.

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