Saturday, August 13, 2022

Housing Issues Hit Homes for New Minnesota Lawmakers

For attorney Esther Agbaze, the desire to make a difference sealed her case for seeking alternate office.

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“I’ve always had jobs that were in this place of helping people,” said Agbaje, who works on human rights affairs with the US State Department, as a law student protecting tenants from evictions and currently Try to help sick or injured persons through therapy. misconduct lawsuits.

But those roles leave him asking, “How do we help more people at once? Often that means going to the levers of the government.”

Agbaze is completing her first year in the Minnesota state legislature, helping to pull the legislative lever in the upper Midwestern state. Elected in November 2020 as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party—the Democratic Party’s version of Minnesota—she represents District 59B, which includes downtown Minneapolis and parts of the city’s north side.

“It’s a very vibrant district. Its economic classes are diverse, and its ethnic groups and racial groups are diverse,” Agbaje said. “And it’s really a fun place to live.”

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The 35-year-old was born a few kilometers across the Mississippi River in the state capital, St. Paul. Her parents came from southwestern Nigeria – she from Ekiti State, she from Ogun State – and met as students at the University of Minnesota. He married and had Esther and two young sons.

Agbaje’s father, John, is an episcopal priest. His mother, Banami, a retired librarian, once ran a homeless service centre.

“As the child of parents whose mission was to serve others, I have followed in their footsteps throughout my life,” Agbaze wrote on his campaign website.

While majoring in political science at George Washington University in Washington, DC, she advocated for labor rights. Earning advanced degrees—a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree from Harvard—she worked on building healthier communities, preventing homelessness, and helping renters. Meanwhile, she worked for the State Department’s US-Middle East Partnership Initiative management projects to build more independent judiciaries and advance the rights of women and minority populations in Egypt and the Gulf.

“After law school, I wanted to come home,” Agbaje said. “And the home for me is Minnesota.”

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‘Hands in the dirt’

Agbaje returned to Minnesota in 2017, joining Ciresi Conlin’s Minneapolis law firm as an associate, working mostly on his medical malpractice team. He also volunteers with the Hennepin County Housing Court, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, and local environmental justice organizations.

On many Saturday mornings she meets with children in low-income neighborhoods, pulling on work gloves to plant or clean up debris.

“She has appeared to work with us, planting trees, starting a new garden,” said Annalia Schlager dos Santos, who coordinates youth programs for Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. The non-profit organization’s projects include building tree canopies to improve climate and community health.

Schlager dos Santos praised Agbaze’s ongoing engagement.

“She gets her hands in the dirt with members of the community, and that speaks volumes,” she said.

Agbaje, whose law-making duties are considered part-time, also volunteers at pop-up workshops on rental assistance and legal aid.

“My role is really to help the community where I can,” she said, “whether it’s putting forth policies and laws that (address) problems that help all Minnesotans or helping people on other levels. to resources where they can get help directly.”

Minnesota State Representative Esther Agbaze’s district includes downtown Minneapolis, shown by the Stone Arch Bridge spanning the Mississippi River. (Carol Guensberg/VOA)

changing demographics

The district of Agbaje has downtown buildings, sports stadiums and parks, businesses large and small, neat neighborhoods and tent communities.

Its approximately 50,000 residents are minority-majority, with white residents accounting for the largest share (42%), then black residents (37%), followed by a mix of Asian, Hispanic and other residents, census data show. “There is also a significant population of African Americans, East Africans, Hmong Americans and some Latinos,” Agbaje said.

Agbaje said she wants to make sure that “the voice of this community resonates with the rest of the state as well.” She stressed that Minnesotans are “people of all kinds, from all walks of life, and that our policies across the state should reflect that.”

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, one in five Minnesotans are identified as “other than white,” state data show, while waves of immigrants have come from Europe in recent decades, they are from Mexico, Somalia, Came from India, Laos and Vietnam.

As the composition of the general population changes, “demography is changing in the legislature in some important ways,” said Christina Ewig, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Women, Gender and Public Policy. . It has analyzed data from the current state legislature, where 12.4% of its members self-identified as Latino or Hispanic, Hmong, Native American and Black or Somali American – up from 3% two decades ago.

Agbaje represents part of that change, Ewig said, “It’s really important to have diverse views in your legislature for a healthy democracy.”

lessons in conversation

In the Minnesota Legislature, Republicans control the Senate, and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party controls the House. Partition has taught Agbaje more about the art of conversation.

“When you’re preaching, you’re full of ideas, and you’re full of hope, and you’re full of vision, which stays with you once you start legislating,” she explained. But then, it’s a matter of persuading 200 other Minnesota state legislators to “implement their views and the ideas of their constituents to create policy and change. So, once legislators are elected, there is more conversation.”

Agbaje has put forward a handful of ideas shaping the new measures. Most include housing in view of his service on the Housing Finance and Policy Committee of the Assembly.

One measure protects tenants from eviction for nonpayment until June 2022 if they have applied for federal aid related to the pandemic. Another, which Agbaze said it is “really proud” to sponsor, allows individuals to obtain personal records and medical equipment from rental storage units before auctioning off materials due to nonpayment. It aims to help vulnerable people, such as those fleeing domestic violence or who are otherwise homeless.

A tent camp stands in contrast to sleek brick residential buildings in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn.  State Representative.  Esther Agbaze's legislative interests include increasing affordable housing.  (Betty Ayoob/VOA)

A tent camp stands in contrast to sleek brick residential buildings in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn. State Representative. Esther Agbaze’s legislative interests include increasing affordable housing. (Betty Ayoob/VOA)

In early November Minneapolis voters defeated a controversial and closely watched proposal when Agbaze, dismayed, supported reforming the city’s policing and turning it into a new department of public safety. The proposal came in the wake of demands for racial justice following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd after a black man knelt on his neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

“It’s unfortunate that it didn’t pass,” Agbaje said of the motion, which she said could still lay the groundwork for change.

“The fact that 44% of people said they wanted to try something different is good news. And even the people who voted for it, if you talk to them, also want some sort of police reform.”

Asked about Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests last year against police brutality, Agbaje drew a parallel.

“Young people were rising up, taking a stand against a government that works for them,” he said.

“I applaud their efforts,” she said, “of young people across the United States and around the world who are standing up and saying, ‘You know, our rights matter to something. I wholeheartedly agree with them and wish them success in their endeavours.”

VOA’s Betty Ayoob contributed to this report.


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