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Hennepin County’s first African American commissioner Angela Conley is a lifelong Southside resident with innovative ideas on how to bring more diverse voices into government.

By Tesha M. Christensen

Photo courtesy of Chris Juhn
Angela Conley (center) is Hennepin County’s first African American commissioner, and she’s staffed her office with other women of color who are working on racial equity issues. On the left is Policy Director Cacje Henderson and on the right is District Outreach and Scheduler Cheniqua Johnson.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series that originally appeared in the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger.

Angela Conley has yearned to be a Hennepin County Commissioner for 20 years so that she had the power to make changes to the system she worked within.

On Jan. 7, 2019, that dream came true.

The lifelong Southside resident was sworn in as a county commissioner for District 4, and became the county’s first Black commissioner in 166 years.

“Being in this level of leadership now has really opened my eyes to seeing how the system is set up in a way that perpetuates disparities, that limits people’s abilities to really live their best lives,” said Conley.

She’s working to shift the narrative and move into a holistic approach for county business. Conley now chairs the health and human services committee, drawing from her years of experience working in that field.

“I feel this obligation to change systems to work better for people,” remarked Conley.

That could be anything from real estate services to tax forfeiture to housing and homelessness.

In addition to being the first African American commissioner, Conley is the first Black female commissioner and is one of two new diverse voices on the previously all-white Hennepin County board. Joining her this year is another woman of color, Irene Fernando, a Filipino-American in District 2. With their election, five of the seven-member board are women.

RACE EQUITY WORK

Bringing more diverse voices into the county is a priority for Conley, who campaigned with a goal of creating a Race Equity Advisory Council.

“Before I was elected, the county would come up with ideas on their own on how to reduce disparities. Well, unless you have people of color and those directly affected by those disparities guiding the discussion you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re not going to make any progress,” said Conley.

She envisions that a council would have a place at the table to inform the board on how disparities can be reduced on issues such as lowering the number of people of color being arrested to the overwhelming number of people of color who are part of the child protection system.  

Inspired by how she saw the Hennepin County Community Advisory Council on Adult Mental Health operate while she served on it, Conley believes that the needle can be moved on an issue when you have many people with a range of lived experiences giving input on a topic about missing pieces and gaps.

Thus far, Conley has met with the county’s new Disparity Reduction Director to learn what’s being done there, and what form the Race Equity Advisory Council could take.

“Disparity reduction has to start internally first,” she observed. She’s glad to see that the new composition of the county board finally reflects the composition of the communities being served and direct-line county staff. Part of what drove her to run for office is that those at the top didn’t look like her.

“I think we sent a very strong message to the status quo Nov. 6 that folks want to see diversity in leadership,” said Conley. “County leadership can function differently now. We’ve got new voices with various backgrounds and experiences.”

She believes that having that those voices on the board can inform how policy changes going forward. 

“It’s changed the conversation,” Conley said. “It’s changed the narrative. It’s changed ‘business as usual.’”

GOING DIRECTLY TO SOURCE

For Conley, the first quarter of her first term in office has been spent meeting people, being out in community, touring homeless shelters and the jail, and talking to people directly impacted by issues she’s concerned about. “That’s how you’ll see my leadership continue,” she promised, “going directly to the source.

“We’re pushing back against outdated ideas and really trying to get innovative in how we approach issues.”

Bail reform is one place where Conley thinks changes could be made for lower-level, low-risk offenses. “What would it look like to have a system that didn’t hold you if you couldn’t afford to get out?” asked Conley.

She intends to be mindful of what the ripple effects are of decisions the county makes, and recognizes that a 1% increase in property taxes might push a resident out of a home.   

EQUITY THROUGH TRANSIT

As someone who didn’t have a car until she was 23, Conley is a fan of transit, and heard from constituents on both sides of light rail during her campaign. She’s advocating for the Rapid Bus Transit D Line along the Route 5 corridor in the fourth district on Chicago and Emerson/Fremont avenues.

She pointed out that the D Line is a modern mode of bus transport that uses technology to keep lights green so the buses can move people from place to place quicker. 

“That will bring transit equity to an area that typically doesn’t have it,” stated Conley. “The 5 is the highest ridership route in the state. It’s always crowded. There are safety concerns. And it runs through four of the seven commissioner districts. It runs through two of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, too. Bringing Bus Rapid Transit or the D Line would bring access to 200,000 jobs.”

Read part two in the July edition of The Alley.

 

Southside resident Angela Conley campaigned as a Black woman, and even her logo identified her as someone who would bring a diverse voice to the Hennepin County Board. 

She continues to focus on diversity and racial equity in a variety of ways — not the least which is staffing her office with other African American women.

Cacje Henderson – Policy Director

Cacje Henderson was born and raised in South Minneapolis, and is a the oldest of seven children. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and is an alumni of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. She began her political career in the grassroots movement as an economic justice organizer and has gone on to work for a variety of elected officials including U.S Senator Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) , Gubernatorial Candidate Erin Murphy (DFL-MN) and most recently as the Senior Policy Aide to Minneapolis City Council-member Jeremiah Ellison (DFL-MN). She has a commitment to building power in low-income communities and communities of color through local policy, and is looking forward continuing this work as Policy Director.

Cheniqua Johnson – District Outreach and Scheduler

Cheniqua Johnson was born and raised in Worthington, Minn. She is a first-generation, TRIO college graduate. She received a bachelor’s degree in family social science from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities College of Education and Human Development. She comes to the 4th District of Hennepin County from the Office of Congressman Keith Ellison, where she served as his Legislative Correspondent. In addition, she has spent the last five years in public service having previously served for the Office of Senator Al Franken (DFL-MN), Governor Mark Dayton (DFL-MN), Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL),University of Minnesota’s Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice, and the City of Saint Paul. Now, she is ready to amplify voices and serve the most diverse district in the county as the District Outreach Coordinator & Scheduler.

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