When I moved to Minnesota over 20 years ago, I was a young immigrant who had arrived in the U.S. thinking that everyone here lived well, like the Americans I grew up watching on TV. It did not take me long to learn that, though Minnesota was a rich and prosperous state, there was deep and abiding poverty here, that communities of color bore the brunt of it, and that children of color carried the heaviest load.
During the 1980s Minnesota was home to a strong movement on behalf of children of color, led by African-American, Latina and white social workers, who tried to get state and local leaders to pay attention to the persistent gaps that existed between minorities and non-minorities. They tried to educate political leaders about American-Indian children living in poverty, about the large percentage of African-American children being removed from their families and placed in foster care, and about the increasing number of Latino children who were being expelled from the schools without ever being given a chance to return to finish their education.
I knew what poverty was when I came here. I had seen devastating, soul-devouring poverty in the streets of my native country of Colombia, South America, but everything here seemed so beautiful, so clean, so orderly, and so perfect. I had a hard time accepting and believing that there was so much poverty and economic and social injustice here in Minnesota, but I continued to learn about the tremendous disparities here.
Almost half of the child population of color in Minnesota lived in poverty in the ’80s. Less than 40 percent of Indian and black children were graduating from high school, compared to almost 90 percent of white children. Latinos were not even counted then. I knew then that I had to learn English quickly so I could speak up about these inequities, so that I could join with these amazing, tireless women who were speaking up for these children.
I learned English. I learned to advocate. I became one of the women who speak up on behalf of children. I have to be tireless . . . we have to be tireless . . . because change comes slowly. The statistics on child poverty have changed very little in Minnesota in 20 years and children of color are still the principal victims.
Now that I am in the Minnesota Senate I can speak on behalf of our children inside the halls of power, but more than ever I need to be a voice among a multitude; calling for justice, calling for change, calling for opportunity for all children. The need for tireless women has never been greater than it is today.
Patricia Torres Ray is the first Latina elected to the Minnesota Senate. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons. She has a B.A. in urban studies from University of Minnesota and a Master’s in public affairs from the Humphrey Institute. www.patriciaforsenate.org
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