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ChangeMakers: Angela Conley changing the system from the inside

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Hennepin County District 4 Commissioner Angela Conley sits for a portrait.
Hennepin County District 4 Commissioner Angela Conley sits for a portrait inside of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

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

Angela Conley is the first African-American elected to serve as a Hennepin County commissioner. She was voted into office in November 2018 and represents District 4. 

Conley was born and raised in south Minneapolis, right in the district she represents. 

She was inspired to go into public service because she was a former recipient of county services as a young, single mother and wanted to change systems from within. And as Hennepin County worker, Conley said she saw how institutions impacted day-to-day lives. 

"I never thought I would be running for office but I did out of necessity," Conley said. "I had to because people's lives were depending upon change and we just never had our voices at that table before."

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

In the context of Black History Month, what does it mean to you to be a black Minnesotan?

I have this history that comes with being someone who was born and raised in Minnesota. I have a mother who grew up in Mississippi, who spent the first five years of her life in Mississippi. My grandmother spent all of her life in Mississippi. My great-great grandmother was probably picking cotton on a plantation in Mississippi. There was a time when slavery ended, and there was this migration north — a lot of freed slaves who wanted to find jobs and a lot of folks went to the Midwest to Chicago.

We escaped the South en masse ... and some folks came up to Minnesota and that's kind of how my family arrived here. To me, that means that I'm part of this whole line of women and men who were finding their freedom and finding their voices and their autonomy to be able to go and take their families and find a better quality of life for themselves. 

So to be a black Minnesotan means that I'm a part of that. It means that I'm a part of this really, really great story that's an integral part of United States history. It's an integral part of our collective story and that's really important to me. It's really powerful when I think about it. 

It also means that I'm part of this rich ethnic culture here in Minneapolis where we may be a small part of the population but we've got so many great stories to tell. I live in one of the most historically black neighborhoods in south Minneapolis. The Bryant neighborhood was the first neighborhood where black people were allowed to live. There was a realtor who was selling homes to black families. This was before Interstate Hwy. 35W came and split black people from white people. You can still see that today as you just cross over one bridge and the demographics of the neighborhood look completely different. 

So in this neighborhood black families were allowed to buy homes ... and so realizing that history and understanding that in my neighborhood Prince went to school and the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder is right there and so many of these historically black institutions. The area of 38 Street and Fourth Avenue, which is just blocks from my home, was where black folks were coming to perform. Celebrities in the 60s and 70s [and] musicians in the 50s would come to perform. We had black businesses all along 38th and Fourth where that was the only place that they could go because even though they were performing downtown they couldn't sleep in the hotels. 

We had this bustling, booming historic area of south Minneapolis and I get the privilege to be able to live there right now today. Being a part of this historic Minneapolis [and] iconic black history and then being a part of a narrative that's so deeply rooted into our history, that's what it means to be a black Minnesotan to me. 

What figures have shaped you into the person you are today?

When we think about characters, I think about these collective life experiences. Every person that has touched my life has touched it in a way that has changed the way that either I think about an issue or the way that I act on an issue. 

I remember being a financial worker at Hennepin County. I was someone who was receiving direct applications from people who were experiencing extreme poverty. They would tell me their stories about [how] they haven't eaten in two days, their kids haven't been to school, they absolutely need these benefits so they can survive. They're facing eviction and they need Hennepin County. They need emergency assistance so that they can keep their apartment or find a new apartment. 

The characters or the people that have shaped who I am right now are people who have experienced hardship. People who through their own experiences became experts on the issue of poverty. Became experts on how we change the narrative so that we can get people up and out of poverty, ultimately what led me to this work. 

I think about my mother. She was a hard union labor worker all of her life and showed me what what a strong work ethic was like. That determination comes with a work ethic. 

That's what made me go even harder in terms of wanting to be in a position where I can make change for the people who have shaped my story all through the years — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who shared their own life experiences with me. That's what makes me want to work extra hard for them because they're shaping how this office takes place. 

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

Prosperity. Economic prosperity. Wealth. Booming business districts. Healthy families. Children that aren't ripped away from their parents. Where we're not so overwhelmingly represented in the juvenile justice system, overwhelmingly represented in suspensions. We're thriving. 

I envision this future where our neighborhoods and our communities are thriving and they're beautiful, which they currently are. But more in a way where everyone has access to the same resources, to the same No. 1 park system, to the same avenues of wealth creation that everybody else has or has historically been given. 

I see my work right now as helping to build that future for us. We've got a black-owned credit union coming to the north side. We've got a brand new black commissioner in the Hennepin County Government Center. We've got so many strong leaders in the community who are doing this work and it's going to pay off. 

It's going to pay off in the next generation. It's going to pay off in the generation after that. We're building a foundation right now so that the future of black Minnesotans is very, very bright and it's going to make this a great place to live — not just for a select few but for all of us.