Champions of Change in Minnesota: Andrea Jenkins

The Vice President of the Minneapolis City Council can feel the world’s weight on her shoulders
Vice President, Minneapolis City Council
Vice President, Minneapolis City Council

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis/Photo by Conrad Zbikowski

Andrea Jenkins, the country’s first Black, openly trans woman in public office, says she can feel the world’s weight on her shoulders. The Minneapolis city councilmember’s jurisdiction, Ward 8, abuts on ground zero: where a police officer crushed George Floyd to death last May. Soon after, CNN aired Jenkins singing “Amazing Grace” at a press conference.

Ask Jenkins how she is, and 2020 has taught her a response: “I’m choosing to be well.” Over the phone, the vice president of the Minneapolis City Council walks through an explanation, slowly: “I’m struggling, but making a conscious decision to not let the events of the world, and the national state of being and challenges that we are facing as a city, move me into a permanent state of depression.” By the end, her voice crumbles into a dry laugh.

But, since last summer, Jenkins’ voice has shown tensile strength, melding protester’s rage with councilmember’s reason. In June, she pledged, along with the council, to disband the Minneapolis Police Department—an issue still on the table. Soon after, she led the city in declaring racism a “public health emergency.” Later, she also approved Mayor Jacob Frey’s request to bolster the MPD through the final months of 2020, with almost $500,000. “[Minneapolis police] are overworked,” she explains, of that decision. “That, in my mind, is a recipe for disaster.”

Simultaneously, the pandemic has “uncovered this level of intrinsic, inherent racism,” Jenkins notes. “It was clear that the coronavirus was negatively impacting Black and brown people at higher rates. … Then the murder [of George Floyd] really exasperated that feeling.” (As part of its response to COVID-19, the council has funded mental health resources, particularly for communities of color.)

Lake Street borders Ward 8 to the north, where much of the damage caused by civil unrest occurred. In November, Jenkins backed Frey’s Rebuild Resilient initiative, which put $1.2 million toward rebuilding businesses with energy efficiency in mind.

Before that, in the fall, Jenkins introduced a resolution for a truth-and-reconciliation commission. The City of Minneapolis recently included this “long-term commitment” in a plan to establish a racial-healing process and reopen the intersection where Floyd was killed, following former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial in March. Regarding that push—for Minneapolis to come to terms with its racist past and present—Jenkins says she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity from a conversation with Andrea Jenkins in November for the magazine’s “Champions of Change” feature.

You say that you’re “choosing to be well.” Has been today been extra hard, or have you just been feeling this way?

Oh, yeah, I’ve been feeling like this for a while. In fact, if I went on today—today has actually been a relatively decent day. It’s been a very full day; I’ve had multiple meetings all day, from 10 a.m. till now, and I still have two more meetings to go, before I can call it a day. But yeah, today has been a pretty decent day.

Are you someone who enjoys busyness?

You know, prior to March 16, when we locked everything down, yeah. I do; I thrive on busyness. That has been my MO for the past 20 years. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when I was not working two jobs. I’ve always been, at least for the last 10 years or so, I’ve been a public speaker … so yes, busyness is sort of my trademark, I guess. So, you know, it’s a different kind of busy, locked down at home. I am on Zoom seven, eight hours a day, every day. It’s a different kind of busy, but, yeah, I do appreciate the busyness. It gives me a sense that I’m doing something.

When you were called on by national media outlets to speak on behalf of south Minneapolis after George Floyd’s killing, is there anyone you wanted to channel?

So, in my initial response, at the first press conference, my first public comment, I literally sang “Amazing Grace.” And so, in some ways, you can suggest that maybe I was channeling Barack Obama, in his response to the nine church members who were killed in Charlottesville. But moreso, I was reflecting on my Christian upbringing, too, and leaning on the faith that so many people in the Black community feel compelled to lean on in a country that doesn’t give a lot to be hopeful about, for Black people.

Rebuild Resilient is a $1.2 million city initiative to rebuild businesses with energy efficiency in mind. What does this mean to you?

It was important, as we began to try to rebuild in these communities that have been deeply, negatively impacted by the unrest, that we helped these small business owners to build energy efficiency into their business planning, recognizing that if they can lower their energy costs, then, potentially, they have more money to invest into the business, or to pay their employees, or even build wealth for themselves.

I see it as a two-fold strategy: helping businesses recover and return to operations, but also helping us to meet our climate-change goals, of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 100% by 2030. Which is a very lofty goal, as you can imagine [laughs]. But we have to start. And it’s only one part of a rebuild strategy; it’s not the only thing we’re doing to help businesses rebuild. The “resilient” aspect is how we address environmental justice, which is what I’ve been really concerned about: how communities of color have been negatively impacted by climate change and environmental harms.

Could you tell me about the decision to fund the MPD through the last months of 2020?

I know for a fact that the system of policing that we have in the city of Minneapolis must change. However, we cannot be a society with no police while we are redesigning that system. So, when [the Minneapolis City Council] made that statement [to end the MPD] in June, we had a certain level of police, and now, for November through December, the ranks of our police department have decreased pretty significantly. The chief has said we’re down 174 [now closer to 200] officers. And we’ve had this tremendous uptick in crime, which has been occurring all over the country. If we are going to deal with that, I, personally, think we need some outside assistance. Police officers are human beings. They live and breathe just like we do. They’re overworked, and that, in my mind, is a recipe for disaster, if they are unable to do their jobs effectively. And so, this temporary infusion of $500,000 is to help calm things down until we can get to some more community-based solutions that will still have to work in concert with well-trained, professional, armed police officers.

I wanted to bring up trans rights, which I have heard framed in terms of policy and cultural change. Does one come before the other?

They have to come together. Just think about African American communities; we had policy changes. The Civil Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, you know—the Emancipation Proclamation. There have been policy changes. But there has not been a cultural shift, and that is evidenced by the fact that 75 million people voted for [Donald Trump]. So, you can’t have policy without culture shifts, which is part of my whole process of incorporating poetry into my advocacy work, because I believe that we have to change hearts and minds, as well as policy.

Read about all 22 Champions of Change featured in our Jan/Feb 2021 issue.

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