Andrea Jenkins once resisted advice to run for public office, knowing the stress that politics would entail. But after the election of President Donald Trump provided a push, Jenkins, a longtime policy aide, won her seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2017. The following year, she graced the cover of Time magazine, alongside a few dozen other participants of the Women’s March who had leapt into the political fray. Other news outlets covered Jenkins, too, as she was making history as the first Black, openly transgender woman elected to public office.
Five years later, the job has proven even more stressful than expected. “It’s been way worse, because I became elected during the 100-year pandemic and the racial uprisings of a century,” she says. After she won re-election in November with more than 80% of the vote, council members unanimously chose Jenkins as president in January. She now reportedly leads the most diverse city council in Minneapolis’ history. Time covered her again, publishing a Q&A in January 2022 wherein Jenkins said her first priority was “to set a tone of healing for our city”—in addition to addressing public safety concerns and rebuilding the community around George Floyd Square, the area abutting her ward where George Floyd was murdered in 2020.
How did Jenkins get here? The politician, published poet, and trans-rights activist grew up in 1960s Chicago, informed by the city’s Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party. She moved to Minnesota in 1979 to study business at the University of Minnesota, although she wouldn’t earn her undergraduate degree until after she became openly trans, studying human services at Metropolitan State University. She went on to get a master’s degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University and an MFA in creative writing from St. Paul’s Hamline University. Today, she lives two blocks from where Derek Chauvin held Floyd under his knee.
“After working in public service [and] government service for such a long time and seeing the revolving door that surrounded people receiving public assistance, et cetera, particularly women with kids—I made a commitment to myself that I want to work on policy,” she says. “Like, I want to help people.”
We spoke with Jenkins in mid-March at the Sabathani Community Center in her south Minneapolis ward.
Since you moved to Minneapolis, what sticks out to you in terms of what has changed?
From the time I moved here in 1979 until now, the population of African Americans has probably increased fivefold. When I first moved here, outside of campus, I would see another Black person maybe every three weeks or something. And now, I think the population of African Americans in the city is pretty close to 25%? [Editor’s note: The U.S. Census Bureau places this figure closer to 19%.] [That] was not the case when I moved to Minneapolis. … And I think that’s a positive outcome, that the city has certainly grown in its population, but also just in development. I mean, the University of Minnesota looks completely different now than it did 42 years ago, when I first moved here.
Growing up in Chicago in the ’60s, did a moment or a person influence you to think of yourself as someone who could lead? Although I’m not sure ‘lead’ is even the right word.
Here’s what I’ll say to that question, because I do think there’s something about family placement that contributes to quote-unquote leadership, whatever that means. My dad was a firstborn. He had eight sisters and one brother. My mother was firstborn. She had five siblings. And then I was firstborn, so I was my parents’ first child. For my grandparents, I was their first grandchild. And I have a huge number of cousins, just one biological sibling, and then my mother raised two of her sister’s children. … So, four of us all together. But, again, I’m the oldest, and I think that played a role in it. But in Chicago, I met a person when I was in high school, and there are so many people who influenced me growing up, but one person in particular is Haki Madhubuti. He’s a poet.
Did he train with poet Amiri Baraka?
Yes. They sort of were the founders of what’s known as the Black Arts Movement. I met Haki in high school, through some of my classmates. … One of the things that Haki said is, ‘Leadership starts in your family.’ Right? Like, if you can’t lead family, how do you lead in community?
The first time I met him was at a Kwanzaa celebration. I was about 13 years old, and they were doing a Kwanzaa celebration at Kennedy King College, which was a Black junior college in Chicago. And we went over there, and then I got to meet him, and then we would do study groups over the years, and he would help us. He was probably in his late 30s [and] married with children. He had started a school system called the Institute for Positive Education, IPE. He also had a publishing company, Third World Press, and he published Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He also subsequently went on to become the chairperson of the Gwendolyn Brooks School of Creative Writing at Chicago State University.
I have a tradition in my family now. My mom, she will host Thanksgiving, and my sister will host Christmas, or vice versa. But I always have a Kwanzaa celebration—and have for, like, over 30 years. … And that’s one of the things that came directly from [Madhubuti]. I’ve been doing this long before I ever dreamed of working in public office or became an elected official—hosting Kwanzaa, trying to be a positive influence in my family.
You’ve said you want compassion and love to be part of your policymaking. That sounds kind of abstract. Can you expand?
I think it enters in through empathy and compassion, which are components of love, right? And I think love enters into it as the why you do it. And for me, I genuinely love Black people. And I believe that, in this city—and all the numbers bear it out—Black people, Black families, have been woefully undermined and oppressed in this society, in this very neighborhood, which was redlined. It was the only part of town where Black people could really live, here in south Minneapolis, in parts of North Minneapolis. And then the freeway came through and disrupted those communities even further. And so we have the lowest graduation rates, the highest unemployment rates, the lowest homeownership rate, the highest incidence of low-birthweight babies. … Out of a deep, deep and genuine love for my community, is why I’m willing and interested to be engaged in politics. And in my mind, politics is about ensuring that the right resources are provided to the right communities, in order for those communities to thrive.
The Black Panther Party was influential to you growing up in Chicago in the ’60s. How so?
I’m actually thinking about a title for a memoir potentially being From Fred Hampton to George Floyd: A Life, or something like that. No, literally, I grew up about three blocks from where Fred Hampton was murdered on the west side of Chicago. And all that political stuff was just swirling around in the air. You know, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement. Chicago is a hotbed of Black intellectualism. When people think about Chicago as this crime-ridden city—and there is a lot of that there—there are a lot of really influential thought leaders and deep thinkers and community builders. Harold Washington became the first Black mayor. Barack Obama became the first Black president. I know 1,000 young women like Michelle Obama, just from growing up in Chicago. Multiple degrees, great jobs, taking care of their families, beautiful. Maybe 1,000 is a little bit of an exaggeration, but a lot.
Fred Hampton and George Floyd—that really is a parallel, even in terms of your distance from where they were killed.
And political impact, right? People are still talking about the death of Fred Hampton to this day. And I think 100 years from now, people will still be talking about the murder of George Floyd.
In your poem “Black Pearl,” you describe finding a book by the 1950s transgender celebrity Christine Jorgensen at the library in downtown Chicago. How did you find it, and was that the first time that you learned about trans people?
I was probably 15. I think somehow I did see something about Christine Jorgensen in something, in a newspaper. And clearly, I didn’t go to my neighborhood library. I went all the way downtown to the library. And then I didn’t even take the book out of the library. Like, I read the entire book in the library. I was a really avid reader as a kid, and I read lots of biographies. I probably read all the biographies of the most famous Founding Fathers.
Did reading that Christine Jorgensen book feel different than…
Any other thing in my entire life? It felt affirming. But it also felt impossible. Like, I could never do this, right? That would never happen for me. But I know that it happened! She went overseas to have surgery, and she became a star-ish kind of thing. I would have never dreamed that that would be my reality. But it felt like it affirmed what I knew I was feeling inside all along. But even still, like, I didn’t think it could be a reality for a Black person. I didn’t think it could be a reality for me. Here I am in inner-city Chicago, where “macho macho” is celebrated and you can’t show weakness. I grew up in some really tough communities, man, and you just couldn’t be. But even when I tried to hide it, people still, somehow, could see through whatever veil I thought was there.
It sounds like you were willing to let go of that veil when you were in your 30s?
Yeah, because I just couldn’t keep hiding from myself and the people I love. And ever since, I’ve been more authentic with myself and more authentic with the people around me. My life has sort of catapulted. I mean, I was able to finish my undergraduate degree, obtained two more graduate degrees, got the best job I had ever had in my life up to that point, subsequently went on to go to the University of Minnesota and become the transgender oral historian, and run for City Council. Now, I’m the City Council president.
You told Time magazine you feel a mandate toward pragmatism. At Powderhorn Park in 2020, you pledged to defund the police—when passions were high—yet told the Star Tribune you were conflicted about it. You similarly saw the activist occupation of George Floyd Square as unsustainable. Where does this “pragmatism” come from?
Again, I think it comes from being a descendent of firstborns, in being a firstborn, being responsible for my siblings growing up. And a lot of it is, again, around the love for my community and understanding that there’s a huge component of the Black community that, quite frankly, is not ready to live in a lawless society. And I do believe in democracy. Do I think it has been all that it was designed to be, or desired to be? No. But I think that Black America has really helped to continuously push this country to—to use a cliché, or to quote Dr. King—live out the true meaning of its creed. And in order to do that, we have to have some laws, and we have to be able to have someone to enforce those laws, right? So, we can’t live in a lawless society. And maybe—maybe that kind of utopia can exist. But we’re not there right now.
Last June, your car was held up by activists for a long time, as they urged you to sign a list of demands [one about leaving George Floyd Square alone, another about the law-enforcement killing of Winston Smith]. What would you say to those activists right now?
Retrospectively, I would say, “I understand. I share your passion. I share your concerns. My ideas around how to overcome these issues may not be the same as yours, but I think we do have the same goals in mind. And I’m willing to listen to what you bring forth as solutions. And I hope you’re willing to listen to what I bring forth as solutions and that we can come to a rational path forward.”
Lastly, any thoughts on leading your new council?
I can’t change. I’m still pragmatic about “Is this sustainable? How is this going to land in support of the most amount of people, or have a positive impact on the most amount of people?” [I will] try to guide council on a path towards healing.