Council Member Saura Jost got bit by the politics bug back in the early 2000s when she was a student at Central High School in St. Paul. At the time she didn’t know of many other girls of color who shared her aspirations.
A lot has changed since then.
Jost now finds herself as one of seven women on St. Paul’s seven-seat, part-time city council — a first for the city. All the council members are under 40. And all except one are women of color.
“I never would have thought when I was in high school working on politics that one day, you’d so quickly really have an all-women city council with so many women of color, and that also [I] get to be one of them.”
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Four of the seven members are incoming freshmen: Anika Bowie, Ward 1; Jost, Ward 3; HwaJeong Kim, Ward 5; and Cheniqua Johnson, Ward 7. They join incumbents Mitra Jalali, Ward 4; Rebecca Noecker, Ward 2; and Nelsie Yang, Ward 6.
During Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony held at the Ordway Theater, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan told the freshmen members and incumbents, “while this is historic, it should also simply be the way it is. The norm.”
Flanagan also said this group of young, diverse, women leaders is part of the reality her daughter and other young women are growing up in.
“It is my daughter’s reality that a group of really smart and talented, dedicated women can get elected to lead their community,” Flanagan said. “I am honored and grateful that I get to go home tonight and I get to tell Siobhan that in St. Paul, the city council is led by all women and I hope she thinks ‘well why wouldn’t it be?’”
What’s happening in St. Paul is happening across the country, particularly in urban areas, said Heidi Heitkamp, a former U.S. Senator from North Dakota and current director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.
“What’s so dynamic about what’s happening in Minnesota and in St. Paul is… that it’s not just women, it’s the diversity of the women and the age of the women,” she said.
Heitkamp said these new public officials see the importance of local government. She said she believes more women will want to serve in their communities because they don’t want to disrupt their personal lives and move to Washington.
Council Member Bowie has a consulting business called Run Like Harriet — as in Tubman. She works with county and state organizations to help them connect to millennial African Americans.
Her goal as a council member is for her office “to be a place that’s accessible and empathetic to people’s needs,” she said. “But most importantly, being solution oriented. So just know that we’re doing our due diligence to make sure that we value everyone’s concerns and also know… we’re able to leave the public more connected and empowered within our city.”
Bowie’s already started working on that vision. She and other incoming council members moved into their offices last week. They received an orientation akin to a City Council 101 course featuring lessons in parliamentary procedure, ethics rules and technology training. Each member received a legislative aide and an executive assistant. And perhaps most importantly, they learned where the conference rooms and bathrooms are located in City Hall.
Jost said the three-day training included a practice city council meeting, too.
But it turns very real Wednesday afternoon when the newly sworn-in council holds its first official meeting at 3:30 p.m. The moment is one Bowie is eager to experience.
“I’m excited because we come with so much experience, we come with a heightened level of expertise when it comes to policy issues,” Bowie said. “We’re bringing forward not only our voices, but a coalition of other people who helped us make this day happen. But also I’m excited for what we’re ready to accomplish and get done.”