The days following Amáda Márquez Simula winning the Columbia Heights mayoral election this past November were intense. “I was holding my breath all week,” she recalls. “My husband and I bought a bottle of champagne, but in the excitement of watching the results come in, we forgot to open it on election night. It was hilarious, we didn’t remember the champagne until the next day.”
The victory made Márquez Simula the city’s first Latina mayor and only the second in Minnesota history (after Regan Gonzalez was elected mayor of Richfield in 2018). Located north of northeast Minneapolis and south of I-694, the community of about 20,000 has a charm all its own, from the historic Heights Theater to a wide range of restaurants and stores representing cultures worldwide. Columbia Heights has blossomed in recent years in part due to the progressive HeightsNEXT organization that Márquez Simula helped form. With initiatives advocating for sustainability, justice, and equality, HeightsNEXT’s accomplishments include developing the Blooming Sunshine Garden food forest and sponsoring the city’s first Pride Festival in 2019 (which received metro-wide publicity when a proclamation request was denied).
Although she had done boots on the ground work for a few campaigns before, winning this election felt different for Márquez Simula. “A lot of people said to me, ‘You already feel like our mayor. I think you should be the mayor,’” she says. “The next level of trying to create change is to help with policy.”
How did HeightsNEXT develop and how do the initiatives work?
When we first started HeightsNEXT, we were looking for a way to help our city reach for the future, for what is “next” for Columbia Heights. There were growing pains figuring all that out and a lot of discussions. At one point I heard someone in town had said, “What does HeightsNEXT even do?” I said, “Do you mean we can start doing things?” And that was it. Immediately we had a plant exchange and street cleanup. We had a garden tour. Bam! We didn’t have to keep talking about possibilities. We realized we could make things happen, and we did.
Everything we do has at least two layers. For instance, volunteers come out and help with mulching or harvesting the food forest. We’re getting the job done by putting mulch in the garden. But while working volunteers realize they’re not the only ones who want to do good things. We connect with other people and our community becomes that much tighter. The first goal is to feed someone, the second is to feed their soul and humanity.
You’ve backed many initiatives associated with gardens and growing food here in the metro. What life experiences brought you to this point?
Growing up, my family and my grandmother both had gardens. Not for hobbies, but for food. It was a part of feeding the family through the winter. Over the years I’ve learned more about gardening and how much time it takes to maintain a garden. And then there’s the harvesting. It’s a change in the value of what land is. The HeightsNEXT Blooming Sunshine Garden spreads food justice awareness. This food forest was developed on city land by volunteers, so the community can work in the garden and also take part in the harvest.
What things make Columbia Heights unlike anywhere else you’ve lived?
We’re kind of a jewel. People have joked, “Everyone’s going to find out how awesome we are and move here.” We have Minneapolis with great things happening nearby, but Columbia Heights is small enough you can wrap your head around it. We have a mixture of housing from big lake homes, to affordable homes, to multi-family dwellings, and even some Section 8 housing too. We have an incredibly diverse population; people with different skin colors, different cultures, immigrants and refugees, and also Native and white people who have lived here for generations. My neighborhood is very much like the demographics of the city: 60-65% white and 35% people of color. We’re even-keeled—moderate and moving more progressive over the last few years.
How has living in Columbia Heights opened your mind?
I grew up in the Wisconsin countryside. Except for my dad’s side of the family, everyone in my life was white. Then as an adult, I lived in Edina, where most people are white. Now that I’m in Columbia Heights my friend bubble has bloomed to include more people of color. It’s been eye-opening and validated my own dealings with racism. When you’re the only person of color in your friend group and something racist happens to you, it’s hard for your white friends to believe it because they don’t see you that way. My friend bubble has become more multidimensional, especially working in the school district. I’m meeting families, senior citizens, and seeing more points of view. I feel like I belong here and it’s great.
What do you hope people carry with them from the racial justice uprising of last year?
Togetherness is what I hope people will carry with them. I have never had so many white people want to continue to talk about it (white fragility, systemic racism). Usually, people get uncomfortable and quit. They say, “Can we move on to actual stuff now? That’s just your feelings.” But this past summer, First Lutheran Church organized a community conversation on race at a city park. Black community leaders spoke about living in Columbia Heights. They were sharing pretty traumatic stories about what they’ve experienced, and the crowd really listened. It felt like we were moving forward, from a skin color and cultural point of view. About 15 minutes after it started, there was a huge downpour. But then the sun came out and we had this amazing double rainbow. It was kind of magical.
How did it feel to have HeightsNEXT put on the first Pride Festival in Columbia Heights?
People really connected. I’ve had many LGBTQ+ people say to me, “Before the Pride festival I thought I was the only gay person in town, then I met my neighbor.” When we had some negative publicity, tons of people showed up in support. It definitely woke people up, and they said, “This is my community.”
What are some of your goals as mayor?
One of the things I’d like to learn more about is the possibility of bringing Wi-Fi to the city as a public utility. The pandemic has brought to light that if you don’t have access to the internet you’re at a big disadvantage. It’s a critical form of communication and connection. People can’t do their homework or look for a job without it. I’m also worried about food and housing insecurity as this pandemic continues and people are losing their jobs. We can’t look at past years and assume things are going to be the same during COVID. This is uncharted territory, and we’re all doing our best. Hopefully, people will see good things are happening, and as a community, I know we’ll continue to work together.
Learn more at Amáda Márquez Simula’s website.