From ethnic studies to healthcare, Minnesota lawmakers of color played pivotal roles in advancing policy

two women hug each other in a park
Deqa Muhidin, who coordinates Somali language programs for Minneapolis Public Schools, hugs Alex Vitrella, an advocate for Education Evolving. The two celebrated a new law that would make it easier for heritage language teachers for languages like Somali, Hmong, and Karen to get a teaching license. "I don't have the words to describe my emotions," Deqa said. "This is a big deal for students. Kids will have the opportunity to learn their mother tongue."
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

Becky Z. DernbachHibah AnsariKatelyn VueAlfonzo Galvan and Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

It was not yet ten in the morning, and hundreds of people had converged last Wednesday on the south lawn of the Minnesota Capitol to see Governor Tim Walz sign the Minnesota budget.

Many wore colorful shirts indicating the reason they were there: pink for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights; orange for infrastructure workers; blue for the educators union and the homelessness coalition; purple for service workers. 

Some people supporting marijuana legalization sported green cartoons on their shirts. One woman was draped in the Somali flag.

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They had come for different reasons and from different parts of the state. But they all had something to celebrate in the budget bill.

“This is one of the best days of my life,” said Khali Jama, a flex worker in an Amazon warehouse. 

The Legislature passed a law to protect workers’ safety in warehouses for Amazon and other companies. Many Amazon warehouse workers are East African. 

Khali said that advocating for the warehouse bill helped her show her community that they have rights in this country. 

“You don’t have to live in America for 10 years to have rights,” she said. “You can live here for 30 days and have rights.”

Jessica López Martinez, a sophomore at Richfield High School, and Xitlali Torres Sedeno, a freshman at El Colegio High School, were excited about the new requirement that schools offer an ethnic studies class. Both teenagers had testified at the Legislature about the need for such classes. Both said they hoped ethnic studies classes would help students understand other cultures better.

“It feels like we did something powerful in our community, and we’re really proud of it,” said 15-year-old Jessica.

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan noted that the crowd looked like Minnesota—and so, increasingly, did the Legislature. Diversity in the Legislature has grown exponentially: this year, at least 35 of 201 lawmakers identify as people of color.

“That’s also why we’ve had some of these big wins this session,” Flanagan said Wednesday. “Our democracy thrives, our democracy functions better when it accurately reflects the people that it seeks to represent.”

a man passes the microphone to a woman
Governor Tim Walz passed the microphone to Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan before signing the budget bills.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

What was accomplished during the 2023 Minnesota legislative session?

Minnesota legislators’ list of accomplishments this year, with the help of full Democratic control of state government and a record budget surplus, is lengthy and sweeping: 

  • They codified abortion rights into state law. 

  • They expanded health insurance to undocumented Minnesotans and passed protections for transgender health care. 

  • They passed Driver’s Licenses for All, allowing undocumented Minnesotans to apply for a driver’s license in the state.

  • They legalized marijuana and restored voting rights to 55,000 Minnesotans with felony convictions. 

  • They created new paid sick time and family leave benefits for Minnesota workers. 

  • Breakfast and lunch will now be free to all Minnesota schoolchildren. 

  • College will also be free to students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually. 

The trifecta control of the House, Senate, and governor’s office made these policies possible, DFL legislators say. But something else was at work, too: a commitment to racial and gender equity, driven by the most diverse Legislature in state history.

“We want equity to be the butter in the batter, not the frosting on top of the cupcake,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL–Brooklyn Park) said in an interview. “This session should make a huge dent in the disparities that we have.”

She said she deliberately appointed legislators of color to chair powerful committees—a change she implemented after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020. Previously, chairs were assigned primarily on the basis of seniority, which “benefited older white men,” Hortman said. 

three people hold posters that read Justice for Amir Locke
Andre Gray II, Neka Gray, and Cheryl Locke—Amir Locke’s cousin and aunts—attended the budget signing in support of a provision that would restrict no-knock warrants. Amir Locke was 22 when he was killed by Minneapolis police officers in a no-knock raid in February 2022. Neka Gray described the law as a bittersweet victory, and said she hoped it would save more lives. “Part of the battle is won,” she said.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Fue Lee, DFL–Minneapolis, chaired the bonding committee; Hodan Hassan, DFL–Minneapolis, chaired the economic development committee; and Jay Xiong, DFL–St. Paul, chaired the workforce development committee.

“They weren’t the only voices of color at the table, but they were voices of color directing large investments of state resources,” Hortman said.

Minnesota has long been known for its gaping racial inequities, but this raft of new legislation could mark a turning point, Hortman said.

“The Minnesota Miracle 2.0 is an inclusive miracle that should reach all parts of Minnesota and all people in Minnesota,” Hortman said. “But the other thing that I think people will remember this session for is that Minnesota also turned on the lights on the porch and said to people in other parts of the country, ‘You can come to Minnesota. You’ll be safe here. We take care of people here.’”

Expansion of housing support

Representative Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, said she was the only person of color out of ten lawmakers on the conference committee that finalized the Health and Human Services omnibus bill. Keeler is Native American and an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

“It was my job to make sure I stand up for those dots on those graphs, because to me, those dots are my family. Those are my communities. Those are the people that I know and understand,” Keeler said of Native Americans facing some of the worst racial disparities. “I fight for that, I think in a different way, and I carry that purpose very differently.” 

Native Americans make up 1 percent of Minnesota’s adult population but 12 percent of the homeless population, according to Wilder Research.

Keeler said she saw children at some events walk up to lawmakers of color in awe of seeing themselves represented. 

“Doing the work politically this year was amazing. But like I said earlier, planting those seeds for the future generation, I think is really where it’s at,” she said. 

Keeler paved the way for the Pathway Home Act, which passed through the Health and Human Services omnibus bill. The act provides funding for programs aimed to prevent homelessness across Minnesota. 

The funding for youth homeless prevention services tripled from the initial request largely due to Keeler’s supportive efforts, said Beth Holger, chief executive director of The Link, a nonprofit that provides resources for youth homelessness, juvenile justice, and sexual exploitation. The Link advocated for the Pathway Home Act, which is expected to add 30 to 40 new housing units. 

“Representative Keeler was on the final conference committee, and I think she really fought for these youth in there,” she said. “We had a legislator that really cares deeply about the youth that was in the final decision making process. I think that helped a lot this year, where we haven’t always had that.” 

Senator Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, also expressed a personal connection to one of the bills she helped pass this legislative session. She was chief author of the Bring it Home, Minnesota bill, which aims to create a state-based voucher program administered by local public housing authorities. This program will provide about 5,000 state-based vouchers to low-income renters every year between 2024 to 2027. 

Mohamed said her family was able to afford and stay in a stable home most of her childhood because they had a Section-8 voucher, a federal program that provides rental assistance to low-income individuals. 

“When somebody has a stable home, we know that leads to them having a better outcome, like taking care of themselves and going into the workforce and getting education,” she said. 

The $1 billion housing omnibus bill will fund major investments, including housing production and preservation, the state-based voucher program, and housing opportunities focused on closing the gap in racial disparities. 

a person poses for a photo
Marco Loera Alvarez came to celebrate a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance through MinnesotaCare. Growing up, he watched as his dad was denied health insurance and had to rely on free clinics to access medications. “I’m really glad that it was extended for more than just children, because this affects our elderly folks, too,” he said.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Undocumented Minnesotans gain access to MinnesotaCare

The state Legislature passed a healthcare spending bill that allows undocumented Minnesotans who meet income eligibility requirements to access MinnesotaCare, the state’s health insurance for low-income individuals and families.

An estimated 81,000 undocumented people live in Minnesota, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., research agency. The bill’s fiscal notes say about half of that population would be eligible for MinnesotaCare because they have an income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Representative Esther Agbaje, DFL–Minneapolis, authored a standalone version of the bill as a symbolic move to ensure that the House would pass the Minnesota Immigrant Inclusion Act. 

“People were looking at us to make sure that Minnesotans of color were getting their fair share, particularly when it came to the surplus,” Agbaje said. “People were very excited, especially once there was a trifecta.”

Agbaje said DFL legislators were committed to making sure adults were also included in the bill after speaking with advocates, particularly Unidos Minnesota, a Latino community advocacy group. 

The House and Senate passed their own versions of the bill, but the Senate version would have only expanded access to undocumented children under 19 years old. Lawmakers reconciled the differences between the bills in conference committee before sending it to Walz’s desk; the final version allows undocumented adults to apply for MinnesotaCare. 

“We have a really strong health committee chair—Representative Tina Liebling. I know it was a priority of hers to ensure that we were expanding the options to adults,” Agbaje said. “Without her, we would not have gotten that far.”

Koushik Paul is a medical student at the University of Minnesota. Paul, who is based in Blaine, often works at mobile clinics across the state that offer free healthcare regardless of a client’s immigration status. Paul’s family used to be asylum seekers who were undocumented, and they often depended on similar free clinics for care. 

“This legislation is really going to motivate families to seek care for all of their family members without the fear of getting deported or losing their eligibility for citizenship down the road,” Paul said. “A lot of chronic conditions as adults are preventable if you’re able to establish access early on.”

Paul often works at volunteer-run clinics in southern Minnesota, where he’s noticed that smaller healthcare systems aren’t able to support programs catering to uninsured patients. This legislation, he said, will allow undocumented people in rural Minnesota to access healthcare services that some undocumented people in the Twin Cities can access through community clinics. Those Twin Cities clinics often have long waitlists. 

Paul’s father is diabetic, and his mother and grandmother both have hyperthyroidism. The family was uninsured and had limited healthcare options through community clinics before they eventually gained legal residency status. 

Worrying about the cost of healthcare often causes undocumented people to delay important care and stretch resources within a family. 

“For my grandma and my mom who have similar chronic conditions, it meant splitting up their dosage. They were basically sharing their pill,” Paul said. 

Splitting doses of medication can lead to complications that necessitate visits to the emergency room, he added. 

“You’re further discouraging them from interacting with the health system altogether,” Paul said, “It becomes a vicious cycle and it has profound implications.”

The state expects to implement the changes to MinnesotaCare by 2026. In the meantime, Paul recommends that undocumented Minnesotans seek out free clinics or places that offer a sliding-scale payment option. In greater Minnesota, he recommends keeping an eye out for mobile healthcare fairs. For example, Paul is part of an initiative that brings mobile healthcare services to schools across Minnesota.

a young man holds a sign that reads Ethnic Studies For All
Ethan Vue, a 17-year-old junior at Spring Lake Park High School, came to support the ethnic studies bill. Ethan did not learn about Hmong history in school, and hopes the new law will change that for future generations.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A boost for education funding, shaped by student voices

Some of the first people to testify before the Minnesota Senate this session were students.

Mary Kunesh, DFL–New Brighton, chair of the Senate Education Finance Committee, recalled that about 30 students shared their experiences during a January committee hearing. Elementary students testified over Zoom from their classrooms; some high school kids logged on Zoom from their cars before heading to class. Many of them spoke about the need for more mental health support.

“Their voices really had a huge impact,” Kunesh said. 

That was one reason the Legislature allocated $64 million over the next two years to help schools hire counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses, she added.

Ethnic studies marked another major priority for many students of color. After years of hearing student testimony, the Legislature voted this year to require schools to offer ethnic studies classes starting in the 2026-2027 school year.

Ethan Vue, a junior at Spring Lake Park High School, pushed for the change in hopes that future students would be able to learn about different communities in school—including their own.

“The Hmong community helped the CIA during the Vietnam War, and all throughout my life I never knew because the school curriculum didn’t include that—like our contribution was not historical enough,” Ethan said. “My hope is that all contributions from marginalized communities are represented.”

Overall, the education budget will increase school appropriations by nearly 11 percent next year. That includes increases in funding for required special education and English language services, as well as a major investment in literacy.

“I wanted to go into the session giving our schools as much financial stability as we could,” said Kunesh, a longtime school library media specialist. “As a teacher myself, I saw year after year that lack of investment.”

Kunesh, who is of Standing Rock Lakota descent, also helped steer through some policy changes to help Native American students honor their culture in school: students can now keep medicine pouches of sacred tobacco around their necks, and wear tribal regalia during graduation ceremonies. The bill will also require all schools to teach students about Indigenous communities.

“All of these things are going to have a huge impact on our communities—not just communities of color, but for communities in general—understanding and building that empathy for the historic trauma that so many have had to experience,” she said.

Kunesh expects that the education bill will help schools better meet students’ needs at school by providing more mental health services and free breakfast and lunch, for example. But she also hopes that other bills—investments in transportation, housing, and cutting child poverty—will help kids meet more of their needs before they arrive at school.

“I’m hoping that over the next few years, we will be able to address the social-emotional needs of our kids,” she said. “I want to see happy kids again in schools.”

a woman poses in front of a Capitol
Khali Jama, who works a flex position in an Amazon warehouse, went live on TikTok in celebration of the bill to protect warehouse workers. “I didn’t want to leave Amazon until I knew this bill had been passed,” she said. “This is one of the best days of my life.”
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Warehouse workers gain safety protections

Senator Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, was chief author of the omnibus labor bill signed into law on May 24. The bill was a collaborative effort by lawmakers in the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus and their colleagues.

Champion, the first Black senator to serve as Senate president, said having the most diverse legislature in state history helped make sure everybody was represented in state government. At least 35 out of 201 legislators identify as people of color, according to a Sahan Journal count verified by DFL and Republican party leaders. There were 27 lawmakers of color in the 2022 session.

“When you interact with each other, it reminds you of the fact that we’re state legislators and I’m not just doing policy just for north Minneapolis or downtown or northeast. I’m doing policy that’s going to impact the whole entire state,” Champion said.

East African warehouse workers celebrated the passage of the bill. The Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that supports East African warehouse workers, called the bill “inspiring.”

two Black men in a park
Mohamed Mohamed and Mustafa Omar both used to work at an Amazon warehouse, and now drive Uber. Mustafa said he was injured on the job at Amazon, and had to fight two years for compensation. “I’m so happy people working right now have a good opportunity,” he said. “They don’t have what I used to.”
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Abdirahman Muse, executive director of Awood Center, said the new law adds protections that will be a “huge” improvement to warehouse workers across the state, including those at Amazon.

“We know that too often, East African and other immigrant workers are treated unfairly by their employer and we knew we needed change,” Abdirahman said. “We worked with our legislative champions and demanded action, winning this historic bill.”

The labor bill included a section pushed forward by Champion—the Providing Resources and Opportunity and Maximizing Investments in Striving Entrepreneurs (PROMISE) Act.

The act establishes a program aimed at giving grants to businesses in communities that have been adversely affected by structural racism, civil unrest, lack of access to capital, loss of population or an aging population, or lack of regional economic diversification.

Champion said he’s been working since about 2015 to pass bills with an emphasis on racial equity and direct appropriations.

The omnibus labor bill helped carry different bills forward like the warehouse worker safety bill authored by Senator Erin Murphy, DFL–St. Paul, and Representative Emma Greenman, DFL–Minneapolis.

Environmental protections for communities of color

Lawmakers shocked many Minnesotans by emerging with a $2.6 billion bonding bill, the largest debt-financed infrastructure package in state history. 

For weeks it appeared DFLers were going to forge ahead with a smaller cash-financed infrastructure bill, but at the last minute they garnered enough Republican support to pass a statewide package that will invest significant sums into state agencies, local governments, colleges, and nonprofits. 

Behind the back room scramble was Representative Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the capital investment committee. 

“I think that having a more diverse body enriched the conversation we were having about investment,” Lee said. 

The bonding bill funds projects for roads, buildings, water treatment facilities, and trails across the state. Lee said as someone who lived in public housing when he was young, he was particularly happy to see an additional $70 million allocated in the package for public housing.

It also allocates money to efforts serving communities of color. There’s $4.5 million to expand the Native American Community Health Clinic in Minneapolis, $1 million for Reconnect Rondo’s Innovation Center in St. Paul, and $3 million for the African Career and Education Resource Center in Brooklyn Center. 

The bonding bill included financing that aims to help the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute buy the Roof Depot site from Minneapolis. 

This was Lee’s fourth session representing north Minneapolis at the Legislature. He authored bills with critical environmental justice provisions: 

  • The Frontline Communities Protection Act, which requires regulators to consider existing pollution when approving new permits in environmental justice neighborhoods.

  • Air toxics reporting requirements for facilities with pollution permits. 

  • Mandating that 40 percent of any environmental settlement go directly to the local community impacted by violating polluters. 

Lee has submitted those bills in previous sessions, but finally saw them pass into law this year. Environmental justice is an issue the state needs to take seriously, he said. 

“We just want to let community members know that communities are being heard,” he said.  

This year’s session was exciting and exhausting, Lee said. But he’s already starting to think about what didn’t get done, and how to best address critical issues facing Minnesota’s next session.