3 questions for the 3 Black women about to make Minnesota Senate history

Three Black women smile for a posed photo
Minnesota senators-elect (from left) Clare Oumou Verbeten, Erin Maye Quade and Zaynab Mohamed pose for a portrait inside the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on Nov. 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In 164 years of Minnesota statehood, no Black woman had ever served in the Minnesota Senate. That changes in a big way starting Jan. 3.

Minnesota voters earlier this month elected three Black women to the state Senate. All three are DFLers. One is the youngest woman ever elected to the state senate. 

MPR News host Angela Davis brought all three women together for a candid conversation about what drew them to politics, their goals for the upcoming term and the perspective they’ll bring to the chamber.

Guests:  

  • Zaynab Mohamed, 25, is senator-elect for Minnesota Senate District 63, which includes parts of south Minneapolis. 

  • Erin Maye Quade, 36, is senator-elect for Minnesota Senate District 56, which includes Apple Valley and parts of Rosemount and Eagan.   

  • Clare Oumou Verbeten, 27, is senator-elect for Minnesota Senate District 66, which includes Roseville, Lauderdale, Falcon Heights and parts of St. Paul. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

1) Let’s go back to the night of the election. What was going through your head when you found out you won?

Mohamed: It was exciting. It was a roomful of family, close friends and supporters. It was pretty private. We didn’t make it public because I wanted to be intentional about who was in the room. I was right in front of my mom and next to me was my current senator. There were a lot of tears, excitement and screams.

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Maye Quade: So Dakota County is notorious for being a little bit later than the rest of the counties in getting their votes in. I have a 6-month-old baby and my wife was also organizing so she was downtown doing the statewide stuff and I was home with the baby. I put her down to bed and and it was just refreshing. I did a really really silent big dance so I did not wake up the baby. There was no screaming, no crying but a lot of happy smiles and a nerdy dance by myself.

Oumou Verbeten: I was at home. I wanted to be with my family and friends. I actually got an amazing surprise, just a few days before the election my sister and her husband and little nephew came in to surprise me and be here for the election, I had no idea they were coming. I just wanted to be with people who really made this happen and got me here. It was refreshing to see the numbers come in, just this sort of relief and excitement, I just felt so thankful to be there with my people.

2) When you think of the absence of the Black female perspective in the Senate, what was missing?

Mohamed: We’ve been missing not making policies on the perspectives and experiences of Black women. There have been 165 years where we have created policies and budgets and our life experiences have never been at the table. We know good policies come from people who understand the experiences and the impacts of the policies we create.

Oumou Verbeten: Just so much. I’ve been asked about this question a lot and I always think about my mom. She is a Black woman and the role model in my life. She had to go through so much to bring me into the world. She immigrated and had to start over, learn a language and build her career. She is at a small cleaning business, so she’s been cleaning throughout the front lines of the pandemic so now my mom gets to have her daughter be one of the first Black women to serve in the Senate.

We all come from strong moms, there’s just so many amazing Black women working every day to survive in this state and I just really want to honor that. I think it’s a really really heavy burden but I am also really proud to be holding it.

Maye Quade: I think when we have conversations about people without people, they become very theoretical conversations. It’s not as personal and it’s not as rooted in experience. We have had a democracy entirely without Black women in the state of Minnesota, and I don’t think you can have a democracy without Black women. We are finally going to be at the table. I think the fact that we have some of the largest racial disparities in the nation is evident of the lack of representation in both chambers.

Four Black women smile inside a recording studio
Erin Maye Quade (from left), Clare Oumou Verbeten and Zaynab Mohamed sit with MPR News host Angela Davis inside the MPR News studios in St. Paul on Nov. 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

3) Did people tell you that you were too young to run? Were there discouraging voices?

Mohamed: I cannot tell you how many people told me I was too young to be doing this. They would say, “Are you ready? What do you even know? What does your resume look like?” And often it is people who’ve never lived outside this country or never been through war or whose family never had to immigrate here and help their family. It’s an unspoken rule that you need to wait your turn and that’s just not true.

Oumou Verbeten: I hear it so often and I just don’t care. I know my community, I know they’re ready for this and I had to trust that and bring a message that resonates with folks. I had conversations with people directly so they know what I am fighting for. I will put in the work for my community because I love them so much. It’s not about your age or your race, it’s about your fight and fierceness.

Maye Quade: I’ve had people feel lots of different ways about me running for office and I had a really tough primary. When people say wait your turn I think what they really mean is well, we’ll tell you when it’s your turn, but it’ll never be your turn. You have to own it and that is how I got past the age thing and mom thing.