Andrea Jenkins, the sole Minneapolis City Council candidate for Ward 8, looks natural behind a podium. On March 14, in a small third-floor conference room in the Sabathani Community Center – at the heart of the South Minneapolis ward – she greeted attendees, introduced panelists warmly with a big smile, invited them to enjoy the food at the back of the room. She thanked everyone for coming and introduced the topic of the evening.
“The G-word,” she said. “Gentrification.”
She and a panel of experts gathered for an event titled “Equitable Development,” to discuss issues like what it means when a community is “discovered” and repurposed in a way that displaces the people living there; how an influx of people and businesses and redevelopment plans can make it more difficult for residents to find work, get affordable housing, earn livable wages and move around freely without being the subject of police attention.
“Because of the society that we live in, there’s always a race and class analysis that has to be made as we are navigating everyday life, because of the inequities that are present where a very few people control all of the resources. It is, in my opinion, detrimental to a fair and equitable society. That is what I am working on,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins’ campaign message, “Leadership, Access, Equity,” includes a platform that reflects her decades of work as a community leader and an advocate. She has been thinking about running for office, she said, for 20 years.
“It’s more than just having a seat at the table. It’s having a seat at the table and being able to speak to power,” she said. “It’s about being present, and people knowing you will speak out against injustices. That alone will sometimes limit the number of injustices that happen.”
A lifetime of service and resistance
Jenkins is a Black transgender woman – and an advocate, an artist, a poet, a mother, a grandmother, an athlete. She brings all of those experiences with her whether she’s speaking on a panel, door-knocking, doing a poetry reading, competing in a tennis match or reflectively journaling at the end of the day. She cannot be any one part of herself without the others, she said.
“It is essential to go forward with my whole self,” she said. “My identity is an intersection of a lot of communities. I’m always bringing my whole self.”
Because she brings her multiple identities to her policy work, she brings all the communities she represents with her to the table. Over the course of her career and her life, Jenkins has learned the impact she can bring to her communities by showing up, and the influence of organizing. The first time Jenkins remembers taking a stand and trying to change the world around her was when she was a high-schooler in Chicago, where she grew up.
“It was during a time when Black History Month was not a month yet,” she said. “It was still Black History Week.”
Jenkins and a group of other students had wanted to hold an assembly for Black History Week in the school auditorium. When their principal said no, Jenkins helped stage a walk-out. A majority of the students in the entire school joined. A short time later, they had their Black History Week assembly.
“That small act was part, I think, of a lot of smaller acts that eventually led to Black History Month,” she said. Ideally, she believes that Black History shouldn’t just be one month out of the year, nor should it be classified as “Black History.” Black history, she said, is America’s history.
That small victory was the first in a long line of campaigns Jenkins undertook in the name of justice, of fairness. Looking back, she doesn’t see it as anything special. She was just trying to make life better for herself and the people around her – and she hasn’t stopped.
Jenkins came to Minnesota in 1979 as a college student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, suddenly finding herself one of very few people of color in a mostly white, mostly frozen city. Her arrival in Minneapolis coincided with a pivotal reflection on her identity.
“It was trying to understand what was happening to me as an individual, but also trying to navigate this new landscape that was very white, and how do I blend my culture into this new culture that I’m entering into, and at the same time exploring my gender and my sexuality,” she said, recalling those first years in Minneapolis. “And really, at that time, to be quite honest, trying to deny those feelings and overcompensating in many ways – like joining a fraternity, and dating lots of women, really trying to sort of solidify myself if you will as a macho guy.”
“As a young child, though, I absolutely knew that I was a woman, and at some point in my life, that was going to be outwardly expressed and realized,” Jenkins said. Now living that reality, Jenkins has worked to increase the visibility of the transgender community. In 2015, she published a collection of poems called “The T is Not Silent,” bringing to light issues of unemployment, housing instability and discrimination in multiple areas of social and economic life through her writing.
Wanting to serve her community, Jenkins got her bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University and she went into human services at the Hennepin County Government Center, specifically with the Minnesota Family Investment Program. But as she worked, she began to notice the same people cycling through the door, stuck where they were, constantly at risk.
“Something needs to change, policies need to shift,” she said. “I realized that I needed to offset change at a different level.”
So, she went back to school and got her master’s degree in community and economic development. After years working in human services, she felt she needed to make changes at a higher level in order to make a lasting difference – this time at City Hall.
Applying experience to innovate on policy
Jenkins has served as a policy aide under two Ward 8 Minneapolis City Council members for combined 12 years, including working for the sitting Ward 8 representative, Elizabeth Glidden – who has endorsed Jenkins.
“I worked every day with Andrea for about 10 years and I really miss her,” Glidden said. Glidden saw in Jenkins a complement to her own skillset and her own connections. Jenkins wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, she said, or to disagree with her.
“She knew more than I did that I needed her at certain meetings,” she said.
Working under Glidden, Jenkins was integral to the creation of Minneapolis’ Trans*Equity Summit, an event created to support and continue to raise awareness of the social, legal and health issues critical to the transgender community.
Glidden described Jenkins as, “someone who has that natural ability to build relationships and build agreements.”
“She has such deep connections to the community, but she has just a natural ability to make people feel welcome and included. I think that [shows] her understanding of how our work is important in the local sphere,” Glidden said.
One project that Jenkins helped to bring a wide cross-section of the community together – from residents, to business owners and organizers – was the redevelopment of the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. Where there were once empty storefronts and high crime rates, the area is now home to numerous businesses and arts initiatives – many led by people of color – as well as multiple community advocacy and organizing groups like Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) and the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO).
Glidden recognizes that as capable as Jenkins is, there are challenges ahead. There’s something uniquely challenging about being in this moment in history, when more and more, residents are turning to their cities with their needs and their desire for change – and more and more, the federal government is decreasing the cities’ means to address them.
Camille Gage is an artist and who has been living in her Ward 8 neighborhood for 30 years. Gage once worked with Jenkins on a chapbook for Mayor Betsy Hodges’ 2013 inauguration, and is excited at the prospect of having an artist on the City Council. Chief among Gage’s concerns are improving relations between police and the community, as well as maintaining Minneapolis’ sanctuary city status and keeping Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) out of the work of the Minneapolis Police Department.
“I think cities are going to be the front lines of a lot of our efforts battling elements of the Trump administration,” she said, “And with her many years of experience in City Hall, [Jenkins] is going to come in ready to roll.”
Jenkins is well aware that she’s making her City Council run at an especially critical time. With a presidential administration, Congress and state Legislature that threaten cuts to key programs as varied as environmental regulations, affordable housing and arts funding, Jenkins has set a platform that would protect the concerns and programs of the city’s most vulnerable populations.
For example, Jenkins wants to implement accessible green initiatives – like lowering waste, composting and recycling – especially in communities of color and low-income communities, who are the most vulnerable to the immediate dangers of polluted environments and climate change. The long-term effects, she said, are everyone’s problem.
“It is the actual one issue that impacts everyone negatively,” she said.
She also wants to develop more affordable housing and she wants to raise the minimum age to $15 an hour. In Ward 8, more than 28 percent of residents make less than $35,000 annually – the income bracket with the largest percentage of residents in the ward, according to Minnesota Compass data. Jenkins supports both measures to ensure that low-income workers and older adults aren’t pushed out of their own neighborhoods. With more than 31 percent of Ward 8 residents under the age of 24, Jenkins wants to address youth violence not as a criminal issue, but a public health issue: decriminalize marijuana, strengthen mental health programs and hold police accountable for needless fatalities. And, as she has for the majority of her career, she wants to support artists of color and incorporate the work of artists in city development. That includes creating an actual government office just for the arts and culture.
“Our world is shifting to some very right-wing directions, and our country is chief amongst them in being led by a cabal – I think is a very accurate term – of right-winged extremists who are hell-bent on destroying all of our safety nets, all of our environmental protections, all of our investments in young people and education, all of our cities in terms of gutting the Housing and Urban Development agency,” she said. “We as cities have to stand up and fight back. And I definitely want to be on the front lines of that battle.”
In that battle, Jenkins’ first enemy is complacency – at least, according to her campaign manager, Moira Marek. Jenkins is running a campaign without a challenger, so their biggest challenge is making people care – and making sure they don’t give up hope that things can change for the better.
“We don’t currently have a challenger, but we want to run a full campaign,” she said. “She’s going to be representing the ward, right? It’s important that the ward shows up for her.”
Jenkins’ campaign is the first Marek has ever run. She met Jenkins the conventional way, through mutual contacts. But Marek is unequivocal about why she chose to run it.
“She’s the most qualified person in my life that I’ve met to run for office,” she said. “She understands what the job is and what it means. She’s everything you’d want or need from a city council member.”
With her many years of experience, Jenkins is, in some ways, exactly who she was at 16 years old, when she first staged a walkout: a person who cares deeply and fundamentally about fairness, and will not stop until every obstacle that stands in its way – from gentrification to gender discrimination – has been overcome. To her, getting onto the Minneapolis City Council about more than just having a seat at the table:
“Half of life is really showing up,” she said. “When you show up, your opinions are going to be in the mix. While it’s a struggle to show up, it means we care about this issue, and people acknowledge, respect and support that. That’s what I’ve been doing.”