In 2018, Commissioners Angela Conley and Irene Fernando made history as the first persons of color elected to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. It was only 13 years earlier, in 2005, that Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter became the first African American ever elected to a county board in the state of Minnesota.
Since then, Commissioner Carter has been re-elected to the board five times. She uses her platform to boldly advocate for those historically excluded from the political process and to assure that county government works for all people and that it reflects the people it serves. We were honored to speak with Commissioner Carter about her work to protect reproductive rights at the local level and how policy discussions change when women are at the table.
Women Winning: You were first elected to the Saint Paul School Board in 2001 and four years later you stepped up to run for Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. When you were elected, you became the first African-American to serve on a county board in the state of Minnesota. It wasn’t until last year, after more than 160 years, that Hennepin County elected a person of color to its Board of Commissioners. How can we build on this progress, however slow and overdue it is, to ensure that our government reflects the people it serves?
Commissioner Toni Carter: Progress is important, isn’t it? It has been slow, but I believe that we have reached a tipping point whereby the election of women and people of color is understood as essential. After 160 years, it’s wonderful to see Angela [Conley] and Irene [Fernando] as the first persons of color elected to the Hennepin County Board. It’s also important to understand the difference that women and people of color make and the change that happens in communities when they are represented in elected office. I’ve served for many years in Ramsey County and have seen it first-hand.
I look forward to participating, encouraging, and mentoring women, and supporting their elections for local, state, and national offices. The fervor and enthusiasm for women candidates is widespread. There is a growing understanding that women’s voices and the voices of people of color are critical — and we need to sustain the momentum. We have to think beyond just the next election. That’s what Women Winning has been doing, and together we are creating an incredible movement to boost us not just over the next hill, but even higher.
WW: Recently, we’ve seen states like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and others roll back reproductive rights in the state legislature. Can you talk about the importance of defending women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and what can be done to protect choice at the county level?
Commissioner Carter: This is a critical moment for our nation. We’ve always had to fight to maintain a woman’s right to choose, but the extent to which our rights are at risk is especially clear today. We can’t count on the federal government or the states to ensure reproductive rights, so people are coming together in their communities to protect reproductive freedom.
At the county level, we may not have the power to legislate, but there is a lot we can do to set an example — as an employer and as a contracting body. For instance, we make certain that the insurance plans we offer for Ramsey County employees provide a full range of women’s health care options. When we hire contractors, we look to ensure that there is no bias — bias that would run contrary to women’s rights and protections for which we have fought so hard.
WW: We know that across the state women are still underrepresented at all levels of government. The Ramsey County board is an outlier in that it is comprised of a majority pro-choice women. How do conversations change with women in elected office?
Commissioner Carter: Women in America have been fighting for their rights for centuries — that’s a large part of our history. It is that sense of struggle and the need for progress that invites us all in. It’s not simply about “women’s issues”, it is about inclusiveness, fairness, and equity. We know that when those who are most impacted are included, the conversation changes.
With women at the table, children and families automatically become central to the conversation. Women understand that needs go beyond the individual. On issues ranging from homelessness to employment, transportation, economic development, and criminal justice reform — all issues on which I have focused my attention — it is so important to broaden our perspective. Women and people of color bring unique, direct experience to the table and it keeps us centered on inclusivity and progressive change. With women in leadership, it won’t just be “business as usual.”
WW: You’ve spoken before about your commitment to mentorship and building a pipeline of leaders and public servants. What advice do you give to women who want to get involved and are considering running for office?
Commissioner Carter: Don’t wait to get involved. When we become committed in the areas of our lives that are important to us, regardless of how small they may seem, then we can make real change. And our ability to make an impact in other areas grows.
Becoming involved doesn’t necessarily mean that you set up shop and launch a campaign. Look out for opportunities that might be right in front of you. For example, if you’re a mother and you encounter challenges with a childcare system, there are opportunities to advocate for your needs and the needs of other mothers.
It takes practice — so practice your leadership at every level and grow your leadership over time. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to run, because they will become available. Know that you have unique experiences and valuable perspective. Ask yourself to run — and say, “yes”!
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