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ChangeMakers: Phillipe Cunningham, choice to be Minnesotan 'the best'

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Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham at City Hall.
Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham is photographed at Minneapolis City Hall on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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

Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham, 31, is the first openly transgender man of color elected into public office in the United States.

Cunningham is a native of rural Illinois and was a teacher in Chicago. After moving to Minneapolis, he served on the city's Youth Prevention Executive committee. He also worked as a senior policy aide for former Mayor Betsy Hodges, where he said learned a passion for local government and the impact it can have on communities.

The representative of Ward 4 said he was inspired to get involved in politics because he had "never known what community or home felt like" until coming to north Minneapolis.

"I fell in love with my community and I just kind of looked to my left, looked to my right and I was like, 'Something needs to be done and I think that I might be that person to do it,'" he said.

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 made the choice to be a Minnesotan.

It was the best decision that I made ... being a black Minnesotan for me means being a devout northsider. That means that I experience community in ways that few other people do in this state, and probably the country because northsiders are so interwoven. There's so much love amongst neighbors and the community. 

Being a part of the black community in Minnesota, we have a smaller population. So our interconnectivity and power, there's just so much potential there because of the fact that a lot of us within some activist spaces and whatnot know each other. And so building power around black legislative agendas and things like that, it's been really amazing to be a part of and to witness. 

The one thing that I would say is that I am so grateful to be a black Minnesotan because being a black Minnesotan also means being in relationship to African immigrants. That is a new part of my experience, as being a part of the black experience, [and] expanding what that means has been a true blessing

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

I would say [one of] the folks who have had the largest impact and shape who I am is my dad, who was one out of 16 kids from Alabama raised during segregation, graduated from a segregated high school was a part of the black Great Migration from the south once desegregation happened. That's how he landed in the middle of nowhere Illinois to meet my mom, who was one out of five raised by a single mother. Both my parents were raised in extreme poverty but they are two of the hardest working people I've ever met my entire life. That's definitely where I get my work ethic from.

I have an amazing mentor here. His name is Gordon Goodwin. He works now for the Government Alliance on Race Equity and he is their Midwest director. He's been my mentor since I first moved here. I've never had a mentor and it was amazing to have a black man really helping me navigate the nonprofit industrial complex and [learn] how to navigate stepping in to policy and being able to talk about racial equity in spaces that have been historically racist institutions.

And then I would say in terms of spirituality -- because I would say I'm a very spiritual person -- it would really be with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

And then also Beyoncé. 

The reason why Beyoncé, for a multitude of reasons, but one of the most impactful moments in my life was when I was probably like 12 years old and Beyoncé had a music video out where she was just dancing in the sand and rolling around in a cute bikini.

I was a black girl growing up so I had body issues because my thighs were a little bit bigger, and because I was a dancer, and I was a little bit curvier. And so I always felt like, "I'm so ashamed of my body." And I'll never forget my mom said, "Look, look. Look right there at Beyoncé. Look at her thighs. Her thighs look like her and everybody thinks that she is really attractive and sexy. So don't let anybody tell you that there's only one way." 

That came from a white mother who recognized that the lack of representation reflected back at me was hurting me. And so she actively was like, "See. Look. She's beautiful. Everybody thinks she's beautiful. They love her body and her body looks pretty similar to yours."

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

I would say that the vision for black Minnesotans, and really black folks beyond, ... is for black folks to have a life of limitless possibilities because the wrongs of the past have finally and fully been made right. I would also say that the vision is for all black folks to be able to participate and prosper and that everyone has the ability to unlock their full potential. 

Right now what we have  seen historically is that the systems that have been built were not built for us, and in fact were built to keep us out of any sort of access to power let alone being in positions of power. Now that I am here in this position of power I recognize I'm the first trans man of color to be elected. I recognize that my voice is new at the table in terms of my perspective and what I'm bringing. There are not many folks out there who have lived their life 23 years as a black woman and then eight as a black man and then bring that analysis of racial equity into their policy analysis. 

When I come together and think about the vision, it's around being able to truly dismantle the systems of white supremacy that have limited our potential. I just think about the generations of talent that has been squandered because of white supremacy and how often people -- like trans folks -- brilliant people have to waste time talking about, "Where do we go to the bathroom?" That we had amazing, amazing civil rights leaders who were just trying to get places to eat at the lunch counter. Imagine what could have been possible if that was not the barrier. The vision is to keep moving that forward, eliminate those barriers and truly get to the vision of reaching the mountaintop as Dr. King said.