Minnesota House District 61B is bordered by Lake Street to the North, east to Cedar Avenue, south to Minnehaha Parkway, and west just a couple of blocks past Interstate 35W. It is a district made up of over 60 percent persons of color, with nearly a quarter of its population considered poor.
This district, located in the heart of Minneapolis, is where the first African American female has served in the Minnesota Legislature for the past seven years. Rep. Neva Walker has created a legacy in several areas of public policy, including education, access to healthcare, and even racial profiling.
Rep. Walker submitted a letter to her constituents in mid-December announcing her decision to leave her post. No one declared an interest in the seat until January 2, when community activist Farheen Hakeem made her official announcement at Sabathani Community Center. Later the same week, native son Jeffrey Hayden declared his candidacy.
Both candidates have experience campaigning for political office. Hakeem ran as the first-ever Green Party-endorsed Minneapolis mayoral candidate in 2005 and for the Fourth District Hennepin County Commissioner seat in 2006. Hayden lost his bid for the Eighth Ward City Council seat in 2005.
Both candidates’ campaign platforms for District 61B are fairly similar, citing issues of education, homelessness, transportation, economic development, affordable housing and the environment. But the candidates’ methods of approaching these issues are slightly different. To get a better sense of what their leadership may look like, it helps to be familiar with their personal backgrounds and professional experiences.
Hakeem is the child of parents who emigrated from India and settled in Chicago, Illinois, where she was born and raised. She grew up in a South Asian working-class community, and unlike many of her peers, she decided to remain active in urban areas even after she left home.
A graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, she came to the Twin Cities to further her education and to teach. “I thought my activism was in the classroom…teaching math to youth that weren’t supposed to succeed at all… That I thought was my goal, my life,” she said.
Hakeem says this was retribution for the friends she grew up with who were being profiled. “I saw myself as an Asian woman being lifted through the system in math and science, while my friends who were mostly Black and Latino were kept down. I knew I was being promoted because teachers had higher expectations for me, unlike my friends.”
Hakeem never envisioned a career in politics until after September 11. “I really thought that it was a duty for every American citizen to be politically conscious.” On September 11, 2001, Hakeem was teaching at a local charter school. “The history class came into my room and the teacher turned on the television.” Hakeem described watching footage of the Twin Towers falling and, interchangeably, dated footage of Palestinian women dancing.
“My students were looking at the TV, then looking at me…looking at the TV and then looking at me, and finally one [student] said, ‘Farheen, you shouldn’t go home alone. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you,’” she recalled. The students were able to see the propaganda that was being disseminated, and this concerned Hakeem.
“The propaganda was very strong and very thick and it was very clear that I went from being a dorky math teacher to enemy number one,” she said. “I couldn’t live without getting harassed, and I realized that I really needed to do more than just the activism in the classroom… I needed to do some broader activism, so I joined the anti-war movement.”
As Hakeem became more involved in the anti-war movement, she was also learning about the political process and, more specifically, the Green Party.
For Hakeem, the appeal to run for office stems from her own experience while campaigning for former Green Party Congressional candidate Jay Pond. She became attracted to building momentum through campaigning.
“I realized how much of an impact that made, because even when he lost, people began to think about who their Congressperson was, what they’re supposed to be doing for you and why it’s not okay to blindly check names for no reason…that 18,000 votes is nothing to sneeze at,” she said.
Hayden has family roots in Minnesota dating back to the early 1900s. He comes from a family of public servants. His aunt, Mary Merrill Anderson, is at-large vice president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board of Commissioners, and his father, Peter Hayden, is president of North Minneapolis’ Turning Point. Although his rearing transpired between Minneapolis and San Francisco, Hayden says he spent most of his childhood in South Minneapolis.
Hayden credits a prospective career in the political arena to past experiences where he worked closely with constituents and their needs. Hayden chose Hennepin County as an employer to begin a process of working for the community. As a financial worker in the rental assistance division and as a Section 8 administrator, Hayden has had direct contact with many of the communities and constituents he will serve.
His knowledge of governance came from service on the board of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association. “The NRP [Neighborhood Revitalization Program] neighborhood structure really mirrored local government,” he said.
Hayden remained active and secured a policy aide position under Minneapolis Ninth Ward City Council Member Gary Schiff after working on his campaign.
The Hakeem campaign
Growing politically for both candidates has been about learning the ways of the system as well as accepting the advice of mentors. Hakeem took the advice of artist Ricardo Levins Morales: “You need to run a campaign where you’re not going to have a bad win, but a good defeat.”
This advice had special meaning for Hakeem after she lost for the first time. “As you run, you start changing peoples’ minds, thoughts, and systems to the point where people start behaving differently, and others start building a momentum that’s greater than yourself and your campaign,” she said.
She also learned that the name recognition, political capital, and the following she did attract are also valuable. “I thought about how I’d use my voice and my image to push a broader agenda,” she said. “I’m passionate about really elevating the image and status of Muslim women and women of color in this country. Because obviously, we’re constantly being told something completely different than what we are, and we have to always prove ourselves and work twice as hard to be seen as half as good.”
Hakeem attributes her leadership and growth to staying “green” but is committed to recruiting more communities of color into the Green Party. Prior to her own campaign in 61B, Hakeem was working on former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney’s presidential campaign, which she believes will increase the party’s attractiveness to marginalized communities.
“The people in the party don’t do enough to make it a welcoming space for people of color… They can do more.” She says she has been asked and has even thought about running on the DFL ticket, but it “came down to a question of, How do you preserve yourself? And I didn’t feel comfortable as a token,” she said.
The Hayden campaign
Drawing on his experiences, Hayden looks forward to an opportunity to fight on behalf of the people. “You go from advocate and organizer to policymaker and implementer…from the person calling the office to the person receiving the calls,” he said.
Hayden is looking forward to continuing the work of Rep. Walker with his own special approach. With jobs and job creation as one of his campaign platforms, he believes that the 38th Street Small Area Plan will produce businesses that can hire people locally with a theme that is culturally sensitive to the people who live there.
Such branding ideas for the business corridor include “Eat Street” and/or “Soul in the City,” which would complement African American business.
He upholds a strength-based philosophy for solving problems. “I like to find a community’s strength…figure out what has worked, and promote those as well… If you start to do that in tandem with dealing with the issues, the vibe changes to look at all what’s wrong to what’s right,” says Hayden. He calls citizens with the ability to strengthen a neighborhood “diamonds in the rough.”
“Every community has them, and if we can work with them, then the very people in the community can solve a lot of the issues going on in the community.”
As the candidates pursue their post, there remains the shadow of Rep. Walker and the legacy she has left. “I’m running for 61B to continue to build upon what Neva started,” said Hakeem. “I want to run for office so that the voices of people in South Minneapolis get heard.”
“Running for office, for me,” said Hayden, “is really about trying to get things done and being a voice of the community more than it is about being in power or being a politician.”
Lauretta Dawolo welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.