ChangeMakers: Judge Juanita Freeman, bringing diversity to the bench in Washington County

Washington County Judge Juanita Freeman stands for a portrait.
Washington County Judge Juanita Freeman stands for a portrait inside of the courthouse in Stillwater, Minn., on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

State District Court Judge Juanita Freeman's interest in the justice system began as a very young child growing up in Rock Island, Ill. Her parents moved to Minnesota when she was in the fifth grade.

Freeman, 36, says she focused on her educational and career goals from a very young age. She got her undergraduate degree at Hamline University, and studied law at what was then William Mitchell School of Law (now Mitchell-Hamline).

In 2018, former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her as a judge in the Tenth Judicial District in Washington County, where she is the first black judge on the bench. She is married with three young daughters.

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Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be a black Minnesotan?

It means, I think, chance, opportunity, I hope community — for me it means those things. I think it's a difficult question because I think different black Minnesotans experience Minnesota differently. And so to say "what is it like to be a black Minnesotan" would imply we all have the same experiences. I don't think that we do; I think that depending on your socioeconomic status, depending on your geographic location, you experience it differently.

But if we're just talking about it broadly, I think we feel here in Minnesota as a people, hopefully, that we've made strides, I think, for equality and things of that nature. So I think as a black Minnesotan speaking for myself, I feel like I'm at home. I don't feel like my home is a perfect home, but I feel like it's making strides to be that way.

What figures have shaped you into who you are today?

I have always been a person that's been very grounded in faith and so I would say that my faith has shaped a lot of who I am. Obviously, I have a very strong family, a very close family, a very crazy family — but nonetheless my family. So my parents and my brothers and sisters have all kind of shaped who I am, and I would add one layer of that is even my extended family. I look to my aunts and my uncles and my cousins, and the things I learn from them that they didn't even know I was learning from them.

When I think about being the first black judge in Washington County, I think about the first black judge in the state, in the country (and) Jim Crow and civil rights and things like that. ... So all of those people also have shaped me. I think about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and all of the other activists during that time.

I remember talking at my investiture about having what I consider to be the perfect balance between my mother and my father, because they are very different people. And I think that I do have that balance. That balance of my mother as a social worker, for example. She has a little bit of that social worker ideology in her and she's touchy-feely and all of those (qualities), and my father is more black-and-white, "this is how it is." And I actually have what I think and hope is that balance.

And my husband. That's the last thing I'd say. I mean you should always, in my opinion, be with somebody who shapes you to be better. So when you talk about why am I the person I am today, I'm continuing to evolve into that person and he plays a large role in that as well.

What's your vision for the future of black people in Minnesota?

My vision for the future of black Minnesotans is that we continue to build strong positive relationships within the black community (so) that we actually feel like as a people that we are a community, that we are together.

I hope that people break down barriers that they have of distrust in systems, in particular systems of government, systems like the justice system. That black Minnesotans can start to feel like not only are we better because we're in Minnesota, and you know it's a great place to live, but it also feels like home to us and that we're breaking down the racial divide that continues to exist.

I would hope that education becomes a really key focus for black youth. We look at the achievement gaps in Minnesota for black kids and I think that's the focus of Minnesota for the black community going forward is, how do we start with these young people so that going forward their experiences are going to be even better than mine, and so forth.

So my hope is any barrier that exists either literally or figuratively within people's minds — because sometimes we do create that mental space of our own because of our own learned experiences and those experienced by others — that we can break some of that down by pushing forward, by becoming stronger as a people which comes with bonds within the community but also cross-culturally as well.

How can we make sure those kids when they are our age ... experience life better in Minnesota than we have? Minnesota is great. It's not perfect, but it's great, and it's my home now.