Preparing Minnesotans of color to wield more power at the Capitol

A woman standing in front of the state Capitol building.
Miah Ulysse, pictured Sept. 15 at the state Capitol in St. Paul, is the program director of the Community Equity Program, a community leadership program to engage Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in legislation and policymaking.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

When Aarica Coleman decided to run for the Minnesota Senate earlier this year, she was motivated by deepening racial inequities across the state that have led to catastrophic crises in housing, health, income and community safety.

Coleman was increasingly concerned about how the pandemic was playing out in communities of color, as well as the injustices brought to light by the police killing of George Floyd.

“There was nobody running that, in my opinion, cared about the issues that matter to me, my family, my community, as I do,” said Coleman, who was one of 40 women seeking office as part of a group called Black Women Rising.

Coleman, of Maple Grove, was part of a surge in the number of Minnesotans of color running for elected office in August. Although she lost the DFL primary, she credits a program in St. Paul with helping her prepare for her foray into politics and igniting a passion for influencing policy.

Coleman graduated from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s Community Equity Program, a free, nine-month intensive program specifically for Black, Native American people and people of color to get to know the lay of the land at the state Capitol in St Paul. Her cohort spent nearly a year getting to know their way around the buildings, the underground tunnel system, the policymaking protocols and the culture of the place.

By the end of the program, Coleman — who was seeking to be the first Black woman elected to the state Senate in its 162-year-history — said she felt comfortable being in those halls of power.

“I truly understood the Minnesota state Capitol to be my house,” she said.

The program is necessary because of the culture at the Legislature, said program manager Miah Ulysse, who is Black and has years of experience in advocacy and lobbying in Minnesota. 

“The vibe of the Capitol is not welcoming to people that look like me because it was never created to be welcoming towards people like me,” Ulysse said.

The number of lawmakers of color has tripled over the past 10 years, but the Legislature remains 90 percent white. To put that into context, the state is 80 percent white, meaning that the people in power do not reflect the racial diversity of the state.

Given that racial imbalance, Ulysse says it can be draining for legislators of color, lobbyists and community advocates to work there. 

“For someone that doesn't necessarily understand what it's like to be a Black person or a person of color and Indigenous person, it's very hard to explain because it's not a feeling that you will ever understand likely,” she said. “Anybody can go up to the Capitol, advocate for a bill they care about and get rejected and have that feeling of, ‘Oh gosh, I wish that meeting would have gone better.’”

But as a Black woman, she said, she is at a disadvantage because of “elements of myself, that I cannot change.” 

And it’s common for people of color at the Capitol to be on guard because “someone’s going to pick you out of a group of people and ask why you’re there,” Ulysse said.

That sense of isolation is something that Rep. Fue Lee can relate to. When Lee was elected to the state House in 2016, he was one of only two Hmong state legislators. 

State Rep. Fue Lee.
State Rep. Fue Lee.
Courtesy of the office of state Rep. Fue Lee.

Lee said in the beginning, he felt out of place and questioned whether he should speak up on matters important to him. 

But in his first year in office, he recalls, a group of residents from his north Minneapolis district came to his Capitol office to talk with him about a proposal under consideration. He was so impressed with their effort to reach him and their tenacity; they sat through hours of committee meetings in hopes of making a difference, he said.

“I just thought to myself, if I’m not going to raise my voice and be the voice for them when they are here to really advocate for what they believe in, then I shouldn’t be serving in the Legislature at all,” said Lee, a DFLer from north Minneapolis.

Now, Lee makes sure to advocate for things he cares about. But challenges still linger. He’s been frequently mistaken for another legislator, Rep. Tou Xiong. Others assume Lee represents St. Paul — which has a larger Hmong community — rather than Minneapolis. 

That’s even after he’s been in his position for four years. The microaggressions are exhausting, and they require time and energy he could be spending on more important things.

“You have to defend yourself or have to explain to them that, ‘Hey, this is who I am, this is the district I represent,’” he said.

But as more people of color are elected to the state government, Lee and others hope the tide may be turning.

Esther Agbaje
Esther Agbaje greets future constituents who recognized her ordering iced tea at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery in north Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Political newcomer Esther Agbaje won her DFL primary in August, and she is heavily favored to win a House seat representing north Minneapolis alongside Lee. Agbaje, who is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, said if elected, she hopes she can help change the culture of the Legislature. 

“The fact that there will be more of us to bring forward these culturally contextually rich experiences to the Legislature will have an effect on what the culture looks like there,” she said. “And [it] will also have a direct impact on the work that we do and how effective the work is.”

Ulysse, of the Community Equity Program, said interest in getting involved in the state Legislature is growing among people of color and Indigenous communities. Her program had a record number of applicants for its sixth cohort, which starts this month; 50 people applied for only 15 spots.  

So far, only one person who completed the program — Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham — has won an elected seat. But Ulysse says she will be pleased if program graduates are just more comfortable in the halls of power in Minnesota.  

“The change is coming, and you can get on the change bandwagon and know that it's going to be a bumpy road and that you have your own work to do, but that ultimately it is going to be better for everybody,” she said. “Or you can hop off the bandwagon and be left in the dust, and that's OK, too.”

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.