Local government officials inspire students to take political action

Danny Reinan, Staff Writer

The Sabo Scholars hosted a “Politics of Empowerment” event, which gave students the opportunity to speak to local government officials in roundtable-style discussions on Thurs., Feb. 21. This year’s Sabo scholars are students who work in public policy, study political processes and explore community engagement opportunities. Arianna Antone-Ramirez, a Sabo scholar who provided opening words for the event, made her intentions in organizing students clear. “We know that marginalized groups have a lot of obstacles getting into politics,” she said.       She hoped that connecting with individuals involved with local government — all three of whom are women of color — would help students overcome these obstacles and learn more about how to become socially and politically involved. Each of the three government officials offered insightful words. Kim Ellison, who has served on the Minneapolis Board of Education for seven years, did not initially intend to pursue a role in government. “I had no interest in being in politics,” she said. “But because I was a mother of four, I was immersed in education.” This deep passion for education led Ellison to pursue her position in hopes that she could use it to aid children all across Minneapolis. “I still am helping kids, which I did as a mom and a teacher, but I’m doing it in a different way.” Ellison wants to make sure that students keep an open mind and allow life to lead them along on their paths in activism with the knowledge that they may end up in a position that they didn’t expect.

Maria Regan Gonzalez, the current mayor of Richfield and first female Latinx mayor in Minnesota history, similarly did not expect to pursue a political position. However, she was inspired to run for office when she saw the ways that the Affordable Care Act policies excluded undocumented Americans from receiving critical care. She was also spurred on by the efforts of activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. She spoke about the thought processes that she had during the critical point in time at which she chose to run. “There is an all-out war on people of color. Am I just gonna keep going to protests? Am I gonna do nothing? So I turned to my husband and I said, ‘I’m gonna run for office!’” Gonzalez initially felt discouraged running as a young, female, Latinx mayoral candidate in a suburban area, but her 58 percent win convinced her that there is a paradigm shift occurring in American politics. “We are changing the narrative of our political system!” she declared. “It’s an exciting time for us in politics right now because the status quo is no longer the status quo.

Mary Anne Quiroz, a city council candidate for St. Paul’s Ward 7, wants to make sure that students know that not all government officials have to conform to a specific narrative. In her eyes, her decision to run made a powerful statement. “Running was showing the community that you don’t need to come from a certain class or race or educational background to run.” This defiance of the traditional narrative also extends to Quiroz’s educational background, as she did not pursue the typical path of political science or law, majoring instead in family social science. Her experiences in running the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center in St. Paul have allowed her to meet people with many skills, which she thinks are valuable to have in governmental positions. “We need engineers, we need artists, we need people in the medical field,” she said. “Our greatest power comes from people.”

The roundtable discussions throughout the two hour event gave students many opportunities to learn about the paths that these government officials walked, as well as any advice or resources that they had for students who want to find a bridge into politics. Ultimately, the message of the event was that all voices are valuable, especially as people from marginalized groups are being heard and acknowledged in ways that they never have been before.

Sabo Scholars with Mary Anne Quiroz, Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez and Kim Ellison seated left to right. Photo by Andrew Aoki.

This article was originally published in the March 1, 2019 issue.