This profile is part of our “Seat at the Table” series highlighting seven new LGBTQIA candidates and candidates of color running in the 2017 Minneapolis City Council election. Catch the kick off of our series here, and check back every week for another installment of the series.
Carma Coffee was quiet on a recent Friday morning, where Jillia Pessenda and her campaign team had set up a table for a “coffee with candidates” meet-and-greet. The shop decor had a funky, retro-mod feel, with a sleek red fireplace and a shelf shaped like the tail end of an aqua Cadillac. The placed looked young and hip – as did most of the staff. If not for the sign on her table announcing who she was, Pessenda would have fit right in.
Pessenda is running for the Ward 1 seat on the Minneapolis City Council, a ward which covers most of the working class neighborhoods of “old Northeast.” The seat is currently held by incumbent Council Member Kevin Reich, who is seeking his third term.
For the past few months, Pessenda has talked to upwards of 2,000 people all over the ward – often over coffee. On this day she wore her long dark hair over her shoulders and a pair of big, bright cloth earrings. She leaned forward when she spoke and made small, neat gestures with her hands. When she was thinking hard about her next sentence, she looked straight ahead and was quiet for a moment, as if navigating the words by a beacon only she could see, just over the horizon. Her campaign members – fellow young activists and friends – kept her loose and laughing when she needed it. She always refers to the campaign as “our campaign,” she says, because she doesn’t see it as something that only belongs to her.
There hadn’t been too many takers that morning before Theo Langason walked in.
Langason is a theater artist living in Ward 1. He grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. One of his several jobs is at Edison High School, where he works with a lot of students of color and students who are learning English as a second, third or fourth language. He can’t help but see the barriers that hold them down. He has seen a series of deaths, from Tamir Rice to Philando Castile, of young black men at the hands of police officers. He sees a crowd of people unable to get by, to keep their homes, to stay in their apartments. These are the problems in his world. Until now, he has been skeptical about the power – or willingness – of the City Council to do anything about them.
“Often, communities of color complain that they’re being marginalized, only to have those complaints be met with ‘oh, we did this already, so it’s fine now,’” he said. “I’m looking for someone to say, ‘yeah, you’re right, we’re not doing enough. Here’s what we can do to do more.’”
He found out about Pessenda and her platform, which promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, to strengthen the rights of tenants with just cause eviction policies, to increase funding for the affordable housing trust fund and to hold police officers more accountable with more training and hiring officers from the communities they serve, among other things. His interest was piqued, but he was still cautious.
“I wanted to meet her to see if she was actually about it, or just paying some lip service,” he said. “I wanted to see for myself what all the hubbub was about.”
After he sat down at Pessenda’s table, they talked for an hour or more. Later, he made up his mind.
“I felt listened to. I felt like she had good things to say,” he said. And besides that, Pessenda didn’t seem to fit the usual profile for a city council member. She’s a young, queer woman gunning for a job more often than not held by older, straight white men.
“I’m excited to see Black people, trans people, queer people running,” he said. “I do feel like straight old white men have had their due – not that they can’t do great things, but it’s really hard not being a person affected by systemic oppression to recognize that oppression.”
That’s what Pessenda hopes to bring to the Minneapolis City Council Ward 1 seat: progressiveness and progress, fueled by her determination, her long resume of organizational experience and her ironclad work ethic. Her day-to-day schedule consists of a morning coffee with a constituent, heading to work in direction and communications for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, making campaign calls on her lunch break, events and meet-and-greets after work, three hours of call time and debriefing with her campaign team from 9 to 11 p.m. Then she gets ready for the next day. She doesn’t have much time for fun these days.
Sometimes, yes, it does get to be a lot. She opened up about it a week later in her home, a tidy house in Ward 1’s Windom Park neighborhood.
“I think that there are moments that are hard, that one would feel intimidated… the sense that you don’t belong in the room, or that you are not enough,” she said. “Especially as a queer woman, I feel that. And yet, I try in those moments to know that I am enough and know that the best thing I can do is be me and be true to my values. That usually gets me through.”
Pessenda grew up in the working class Hillside neighborhood in Duluth. Her father worked in the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department, and she said that while growing up the family didn’t have a lot of money. But because Lake Superior was open to the public, she spent her childhood days on the shoreline.
When she was still small, her mother took her to her first protest. The neighborhood public school was in danger of being closed in order to cut costs.
“They often have a tendency to close schools that have some of our most vulnerable students or communities attending,” she said. “So, we fought back.”
The school remained open for the time being. It was enough to teach Pessenda a lesson.
“I learned from a really early age that you have to fight for justice – for your neighbors and your communities – oftentimes against institutions where your voice may not be at the table,” she said.
That was the first organized movement of Pessenda’s career. There would be many to follow, and with nearly every one of them she would gain friends and allies. She moved to Ward 1 when she got her first apartment in Como, while she was studying theater and dance at the University of Minnesota. While she was studying abroad, she participated in the largest anti-war march in Europe’s history, protesting the United States’ invasion of Iraq. She later got involved in the Occupy movement as one of the many young people hit hard by the 2008 Recession and drowning in student debt. It was through Occupy that she really bonded with her current campaign manager, Elliot Altbaum.
“I think we created a lasting friendship,” he said.
Pessenda had always been trying to get him involved in politics when they were both working as restaurant servers. That ability to get people engaged enough to take action is part of why Altbaum thinks she has a shot.
“It was so clear that she was someone who knew how to bring people to the table and knew how to get more people involved… we need that now more than ever in our city,” he said.
While Pessenda was working with Project 515, an advocacy movement for LGBTQ rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage, she met Monica Meyer. She and Pessenda have been together for about two years now – or, at least, they think so. They’re not really sure.
“We’re both super romantic,” Meyer said with a smile.
“It’s good we’re both bad with dates,” Pessenda said.
Meyer is the executive director of OutFront Minnesota. She and Pessenda are both heavily involved in politics and activism, but it was decided early on that Meyer wouldn’t be a part of Pessenda’s inner campaign circle. It’s good for the campaign, they say, and for their relationship. Because Pessenda works full time while she runs her campaign – mostly, Meyer said, living on vats of Holy Land hummus – so there aren’t many hours left in the day where they can just be together and be happy.
“You’re busy from morning to night,” Meyer said. “That’s what I see.”
When they’re together on the rare night off, they enjoy walking their dog, Romeo, going to local events and having people over. Their house, they said, is always full of friends and family – when it’s not an event venue. That was, Meyer said, the “second thing they thought about” when they toured the place.
“We said, ‘we could have big fundraisers and we could have meetings here,’” she recalled. “We didn’t say ‘campaign center’ yet.”
In the summer of 2015, Pessenda began work on the campaign of Ilhan Omar. The experience would be formative to her own candidacy.
Omar is now a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and has the honor of being the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold an office at that level. But back then, Pessenda said, people expressed doubts about whether such an outcome could be possible.
“A lot of people told us… not to run, that it wasn’t her time,” Pessenda said. “When everyone tells you something is impossible, I think it makes you fight harder.”
When election night finally rolled around and Omar trounced the competition with 80 percent of the vote, there was this fantastic feeling of joy and power at the afterparty.
“We were in this complete bubble of victory, of hope, of inspiration,” Pessenda said.
Right about then, as Omar was giving her victory address – a speech about changing a narrative of hate and suspicion, a speech about her past as a young Somali woman and a refugee, a speech about a hopeful future – notifications pinged on Pessenda’s and her fellow campaign workers’ phones. Donald Trump had been declared the President Elect. The bubble, Pessenda said, popped.
“It was physical,” she said. “We all sort of collapsed as we came out of Ilhan’s room.”
Fighting for representation is a two-sided coin. The victories are sweet and uplifting and galvanizing. The defeats can be devastating. They can sometimes seem like further evidence that the status quo will never change, and that the systems of oppression keeping everyone down are simply too entrenched to excise. It can make you feel alone in a long, uphill battle. Pessenda and her team know these feelings. They know the crux between hope and despair. But from their perspective, despair is a luxury they can’t afford.
“We don’t have a choice,” campaign communications director Alex West Steinman said.
Pessenda stays in the mindset that she and people like her have power to change things for the better.
“That’s where I need to be right now, and that’s where our team is right now,” she said.
Working with Omar was one of the main reasons Pessenda was inspired to run for City Council.
“Ilhan is not only a dear friend of mine, but she also is a mentor when it comes to how she does this work and how she approaches this work,” she said, “unapologetically, but also with such grace and integrity and determination no matter what comes at her.”
Being a queer woman with the audacity to vie for a seat of power isn’t easy. Moments of discouragement happen. Moments of sexism and prejudice and dismissiveness happen. All Pessenda can offer in these moments is her drive, her competency and her confidence in her team. These days, she said, she’s trying to live up to quote from Audre Lorde, which she uses as a personal mantra:
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in service to my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I’m afraid,” she said. “We’re still here, and every day there are more people who join us.”