Listen Now: Are You Authentic Enough? With Mitra Jalali and Cheniqua Johnson

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When women of color run for political office, they are scrutinized for every flaw. They’re expected to be everything for everyone – they must be authentic, but they can’t alienate broad audiences. They must be youthful, but also mature. The list goes on. In this episode, Maya speaks to two St. Paul City Council members who are ready to change these expectations. Mitra Jalali and Cheniqua Johnson are a part of the first city council in Minnesota history to be composed of all women, and mostly women of color. They are redefining the leadership in the state and beyond.

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To follow along with a transcript, go to shortly after the air date.



Mitra, Cheniqua Johnson, Maya Rupert, News

Maya Rupert  01:10

Hey, Good Things listeners. This is Maya Rupert, the host of When We Win. A podcast about women of color who have run for office defied the odds unfairly stacked against them. And one, having more women of color in public office is a very good thing. Which is why I’m thrilled to present you with our very first episode of When We Win. In this episode, I meet with Mitra Jalali and Cheniqua Johnson from the St. Paul City council and talk about political authenticity and what it means to them, enjoy.


Maya Rupert  01:49

The future is female, let Black women lead. Latinos fight Latinos win, elect women. Over the last several election cycles, we have seen more and more calls for greater representation in our political leadership. women, especially women of color, have been called on to run for office by voters who said they were ready for change and ready to vote for them. But the outcome of those races tell a different story. Despite more women of color running in each election cycle, we remain woefully underrepresented in elected office. And the same women candidates that voters begged to run are often still losing those races. And it’s no wonder our political system, the way we run campaigns, judge campaigns and talk about their ability to succeed wasn’t designed with women of color in mind. The world in which candidates run for office has transformed so much in recent years. That means we need to change the way we run to elect new types of candidates in a new political world. It’s time for a new campaign playbook. That’s why I’m talking to some of the most exciting women of color in office today. I’m Maya Rupert, welcome to Win We Win. In each episode, will focus on women of color who have won will explore the conventional wisdoms, a typical campaigning that they challenge, how that worked for them, and what we can learn from how they want.


Maya Rupert  03:29

Authenticity is one of those things that somehow seems to mean everything and nothing in politics. And this is especially true for women of color. When we run, our authenticity is demanded. But it’s also placed under a microscope. We’re told that we must win the voters in our own community, but that we must also appeal to white voters in order to be taken seriously and make everyone feel like we’re being unapologetically ourselves the entire time. And if holding all of this at the same time gets too heavy for a candidate, we questioned her authenticity and deem her unelectable. This same double bind doesn’t exist for white male candidates, largely because we have so many narratives that they can authentically embody. White men can be the plain spoken truth teller, the erudite wordsmith, the tough and principled war hero. When it comes to women of color, we have fewer examples. So these candidates are unceremoniously shoved into the few narrow models that we’ve seen before. And failure to fit within those visions means voters are less likely to find their narratives resonant being exactly who you are as a privilege that’s only ever afforded to those who have never had to answer the question. Who do you think you are? So the yardstick for authenticity has Whiteman, as it’s true zero. But new candidates are ready to change all of that.


News  04:55

I do solemnly swear to support the Constitution of the United States of America. of the state of Minnesota that I would discharge faithfully the duties devolving upon me as a city council member.


Maya Rupert  05:10

On January 9 2020, for the first all women City Council in St. Paul, Minnesota, officially took office, and six out of the seven members are women of color.


News  05:22

For the first time in US history, a majority American city of our size, has elected a council, a city council of all women and a super majority women of color.


Maya Rupert  05:30

This is a big deal for St. Paul. As recently as 2017. There wasn’t a single woman of color on the council.


News  05:38

Let’s just say a whole lot of people who are comfortable with majority male majority white institutions for nearly 170 years of city history are suddenly sharply concerned about representation. My thoughts and prayers are with them in this challenge.


Maya Rupert  05:54

It’s an incredible story. In order to help me tell it today, I’m joined by Mitra Jalali, the council president and Cheniqua Johnson were recently elected council member Mitra is the Trailblazer of the council. When the Korean Iranian organizer won a special election in 2018, she became the second woman of color, the first Asian woman and the first openly queer person to serve on the council. She was the youngest member of that council, the only renter, and almost certainly the furthest to the left politically, in the five years since she’s become a political powerhouse in St. Paul, and helped mentor the next generation of women of color in elected office. Cheniqua Johnson is one of the members of that next generation, a black woman. She was born and raised in Worthington, Minnesota, a small rural town near Minnesota’s border with Iowa and South Dakota. She made history in 2018, when she became the first woman of color ever to run for state representative in that area. She lost that race, but continued to be very involved in politics, moving to the city to work for a who’s who of Minnesota politicians. That experience paid off with her election to the St. Paul City Council. Mitra, Cheniqua welcome to When We Win.


Mitra  07:14

Thank you so much for having us.


Maya Rupert  07:18

I am just incredibly excited to be having this conversation with you. And I want to start off and really just kind of talk a little bit about how you all got elected. You both ran for office for the first time in 2018. You know, Mitra, you were running for city council. Cheniqua, you ran for state rep. But you were running from very different sort of areas. And I want to talk a little bit just about what was it like being women of color running for office from urban and rural communities? How how did that play out for you two, I just would love to hear you both speak to those experiences.


Mitra  07:52

It feels like a different lifetime. To think about that. I’m Mitra Jalali. This is a really fun podcast experience for me already. I love this. In 2018, I think about like where we were in society, right. And you know, Donald Trump had been elected president. We felt like we were still in the throes of that I was working in a congressional office, I was helping constituents with, like immigration casework, which was brutal. There were terrible things happening to our constituents under the Trump administration. And there was just this like, deep national anger and like sense of injustice and fear. And a special election opened up in the city that I live in and love. St. Paul, and I got just a whole bunch of text messages all at once. Like you should think about running for this seat, I think you should run for this seat. And I just had this sense of like, just calling and desire to do something in the local conversation at a time where it felt like everything in our national realm was very broken. And so that ended up being a year where a lot of women of color kind of like came into the collective political consciousness at once, like in the national scene. That is the year that are now Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. I think Congresswoman Rasheeda Talib, Congresswoman Ayanna Presley, like all of those women of color got elected on the national level and it was a big deal. And then locally, myself, Irene Fernando and Angela Conley were like three women of color that ran to that point. We just hadn’t really seen that many women of color candidates. We certainly like you know Ilhan was our state rep and things like that. But it was that Genesis feels clear to me as I look back on it so. So that first election for me felt like I was just stepping out as Mitra to define myself in terms of what our St. Paul community cared about. And also like just really wanting to be myself like just wanting to to not hide who I am in terms of like my personality, and what I care about and what I’m into, but to really be like very focused on, you know, St. Paul, voters need housing stability, they need a community safety system. They need like community centered economic development, they need like a sustainable, resilient city as we look at climate change, so all of that was like what propelled me into public service and what was really wild. And this will probably pivot to Cheniqua, and in a nice way is when I went through, like I ran again, in 2019, I ran again in 2023, just last year, so I have run for this job three times in five years. Sidebar feels very, like worked three times as hard for half as much time in the same job type of thing. But like, that’s my story. And when a bunch of women of color in the next major cycle, also all started running for office, and they were sharing in the group chat like comments, they were getting reactions, they were getting pushback, backlash, things like that. I felt strangely validated, like five years after going through it almost entirely by myself, because I was like, oh, so this is just what people are like, this is just what they’re doing to us. Like, you’re either too qualified or not qualified enough. You either like look like you were smiling, and that’s inappropriate, or you weren’t smiling, and like that was inappropriate, just all of it all of it. And so like, I got a second unexpected wave of empowerment, like being so in this very closely with the wave of candidates that Cheniqua was a part of, and all of that feels very connected and meaningful and personal to me so that’s some of what it was like.


Maya Rupert  11:40

Thank you. And I would love to delve more into some of that text chain and to hear a little bit about the experiences. But Cheniqua I think that does actually bring us really nicely then to you to talk a little bit about your experience in 2018.


Cheniqua Johnson  11:52

I think, you know, just kind of carrying on with what council president Jelani had mentioned. You know, one of the things I think is super important about my journey, too, is that it has just been a little bit of all around the state of Minnesota as far as just like kind of finding, you know, for me, a lot of times it’s was finding my political voice, somebody who was born and raised in rural Minnesota, I often did not talk about politics, not at the dinner table, like our family voted, you know, but it was kind of like, there was an election coming up. But there wasn’t really much input emphasis, especially on just like running for office. My mom often asked me, like, what made you get into politics? And why are you doing this work? I think I got into politics, really, because I genuinely was very baffled by how many people would be like, hey, Cheniqua, where are you from? And I would say I’m from Worthington, Minnesota, and they would say, where’s that? And I’m like, it’s a small town, you know, just south of Mankato, and then they would be like, there are black people there. Wow, and you’re just like, okay, and then you go on from the, you know, I’ve actually represent the Eastside. Oh, we’re on the east side and Ward seven. Okay, where’s that and they’re like, Oh, the East Side, wow, and I was like, listen, I’m going to need you to care about our communities. Because we have work to be done, I’m going to need the wells to stop, you should not be surprised when you come in contact with like, one black person from one community or one area. And then I would recognize, though, in the same breath, right, we just had that conversation, the next minute, you’d be making a decision that quite literally easily could harm that same black person you just had contact with, but you don’t feel the need to contact me, then you don’t feel the need to invite me then to make a decision with you or to have a conversation with you about the impact it’s going to have on my family, or on the impact that’s going to have on my household. And it felt very stark, like the invitation to political spaces, or maybe the lack thereof, for people like me with my experience with my background, my story, but it’s like, you know, a lot of this work in politics, for me has been about not just like what it feels like in the moment, but the long term game and knowing that a lot of policies that are made that impact families like mine were often done without people like us that were at the table. And so that, for me, has been like a huge part of the journey of the spaces like even the campaign’s that I work on the elected officials that I’ve come to know and grow to really appreciate. But for sure, when it came down to running on the east side of St. Paul, you find the full circle. I’ve just like, wow, I’ve had these conversations with neighbors and Worthington, just like I’ve had these conversations with neighbors and Battle Creek and St. Paul, and some of the same concerns that were issued to them, like overall with access to knowing what a local government person does. You know, like a lot of the questions before like, you must have had some really hard questions. And I’m like, a lot of times it was like, well, can you tell me what a city council member does? Because I’ve never met my council member, when I was in rural Minnesota, it was like, can you tell me a little bit more about what a state representative does, because I’ve also never met my state representative. You know, I think for me, it was transitioning from understanding state government and federal government to understanding that I wanted to advocate and join the fight here in St. Paul, around things that were as simple as Potholes, potholes, normal to the most outspoken issues here, when we’re thinking about just everyday activities of Minnesota, you have to get through, you know, our city still has to function sometimes with several feet of snow, how we get to and from work is really important to the average person. And as a city council member, every decision that I make in the, in that regard impacts the day to day lives of people that we currently experience. And you know, both me and I go right back home to our wards every night. And so we also feel the impacts of what we do. And for me, that’s really motivating when it comes to just thinking about what the future looks like, and what it hasn’t looked like in the past.


Maya Rupert  15:55

Absolutely, and I think you both sort of touched on something, you know that it’s about everyday people. So everyone should feel welcome in our political system. But we know that that is not always true. And I think, Mitra, you you sort of indicated that you felt, in some ways, kind of alone in some of the stuff that you were facing. And it was, you know, knowing other people felt some of those same barriers, obviously, it’s not good, but it’s sort of like, there’s sort of almost solidarity in that understanding that that’s just some of what it means to be a woman of color doing some of this work. I wonder if you all have examples of some of the things that you either you hurt yourself or you, someone else came to you with just examples of the kinds of things that people would say to you, or ask of you that you feel like were specifically being posed to you because of your identities, and how that impacted your willingness to keep going with it.


Mitra  16:49

Yeah, like the one I remember the most in 2018 was she’s not like, really from here. And I was like, okay, so we’re gonna, like have a conversation about like, perpetual foreigner syndrome, and like how people treat Asian Americans like, right, is that what we’re doing in 2018. And like, I was born and raised in Minnesota, I, like have this Twin Cities family story. And, frankly, Greater Minnesota family story. I mean, my parents are from Korea and Iran. They like individually found their way to Greater Minnesota, and then they found each other, and then they relocated to the Twin Cities. And then I was raised all over Minneapolis, and St. Paul in the suburbs. And then back in Minneapolis, and back in St. Paul. And it’s like, I felt a stark contrast between having like so much connection to this place, but because of how I look being questioned, and then my opponent and her supporters who were like really pushing this narrative at the time, she was an older white woman, she lived in like a much wealthier part of the ward. She moved here from like Iowa. And she was doing the like, you know, I’ve been a homeowner here for 20 years. And it was just like such a palpable contrast. And my whole thing was, we’re not like doing that anymore in our city. If you live here, you have a stake in whether it works well or not, you should run on your vision and values and what you’re willing to do as a councilmember not like, I’ve lived here for 20 years, and therefore I get to, like have more clout and say, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to residents with a very long view of our city. But it certainly means is that we shouldn’t exclude people who haven’t lived here as long because of their perspective. And we also should not perpetuate, like, racism, and like our criticisms of candidates. So like, that’s just a 2018 example I can think of, but it just like, you know, I’m in this place in my career right now, where like, I feel almost aggressively bored with all that. And I’m just like, anyway, like, it’s 2023, we’re here to do a job, the systems aren’t working. Minnesota is a place where the failure of our systems exploded outward, and like the most painful way on an international stage in 2020. And, you know, we sent a trifecta to the legislature to like, get what needs to be done, done. And now our city councils look, the way they look just coming off this cycle. So I’m saying this to say it used to really like, pull that anymore. And now I’m like, this is just a pebble in my shoe. Like, sometimes a person will say something, and it just like stings. But then I’m like, I just flick it off. It doesn’t mean those 1000 paper cuts aren’t there. But I have had to just forge ahead because like, we just don’t have time for that anymore. And if you stop and address every single thing, like you would never get anything done. So it’s always this tension between no I am going to like call out how this isn’t right for our culture, and we deserve better. But also there’s times where like derailing the work from that is not the right movie, there is always that balance that I feel like I’ve had to forge so yeah.


Cheniqua Johnson  19:53

And I found it really interesting to see just how people have or they assume based off of what they were doing at my age that somehow that means that I’m doing the same thing. You know, I’m, I’m 28 years old, and the amount of times that I hear people at the door be like, you know, when I was 28, I wasn’t doing X, Y, and Z. And I’m like, you know, that’s you, not me, you are in the space, when you’re talking to people at times, like, it just feels like they assume based off of your age that somehow you are less qualified than the person who’s twice your age. And it’s such an interesting example of hypocrisy when he or not understanding that a lot of the young people that are in our current political system are often the people running campaigns, they are often people getting hired to write the legislation advocate for the bills at every level of government, they are the people on Capitol Hill. And I know that because you know, I am that person, I am that person who has been able to do that work. And you find that sometimes people may assume your lived experience for you. And I feel like that is, you know, everything that’s happened, that means you’re given that example, in 2018 100% happened to me on the campaign trail in 2023. You know, my predecessor was, we did the math three times my age, and just thinking about the changing of what that looks like, and the transition of leadership between it. And then in addition to that, I’m also like the youngest councilmember, that’s was elected in Ward Seven by like, 20 years plus, including the people who came before her. So when you just think about, like, how the faces are changing, it’s important to also understand that Ward Seven, had almost a third of the population under the age of 35. So when we think about representation, and just people that, you know, that piece is often used, I think it gives people I started to see things like in campaign ads that for my opponents that were like she’s the mature choice. What does that mean?


Maya Rupert  21:33

So subtle. I love the subtlety, yes wow.


Cheniqua Johnson  21:54

So you know, somehow you’re just like how?


Maya Rupert  21:57

Absolutely. So I wanted to hear some of those stories specifically. And I appreciate both of you for sharing them because it’s incredibly generous, but also Mitra what you were making. I completely agree. This is the kind of stuff that we have to say, you know, it’s not worth it to address every single incident. But I do think it’s so important for people who are hearing the story about this historic Old Woman City Council right now, to know that it didn’t happen without some of those things. It happened in spite of those things, right. So I appreciate these stories, because I think they say a lot about the resilience of when we’re successful. This kind of stuff still happens, but people are resilient enough to move past it. So I really do appreciate those stories. We’re gonna take a quick break, but we’ll be right back with more on When We Win.


Maya Rupert  22:56

Wonder if we could talk a little bit about kind of something more forward looking. I’d love to hear a little about the coalition of people that elected you all because I think this is the future of politics, especially representational politics. We need to bring together coalitions of people who share our identities and people who don’t, right. And so I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you did that kind of organizing? And specifically, was there pressure to sort of message differently in different parts of the ward or different part, right? That did was there the sense of, okay, that might work with these people, but you’re gonna need to say something different here. And especially for two people who just talked about wanting to run as who you are wanting to be, you know, sort of really embracing that sort of authenticity. How did you resolve that? Do I have to be a different person for different audiences?


Mitra  25:44

Where my mind went, my, when you asked me that, like, I have this powerful memory of like, I think it was like three days before the election. And we were all more tired than ever. I just got like a little iPhone memory that was like, remember this day when you looked like absolute garbage and hadn’t showered. And I was like, oh, it’s giving three days before election date. But like, we basically like we had a united door knock for all of the endorse candidates. And so that was like our whole squad and the all these different campaigns for school board. And it was like the most diverse and left leaning class of candidate leaders in like City history. And we packed out this Rec Center in St. Paul. And it felt like everybody in their mother was there, like campaigns from all the different like St. Paul constituencies. Very young group of people, people brought their children. There’s videos of like, the mayor was playing basketball with our state rep and with me and with another candidate, and we’re just like whooping it up waiting for the doorknob to start. I think Nelson’s campaign brought like egg rolls, and there’s tons of like, […] food. And so there was all this, like, just there was food, there was community and we had this amazing, like, little pep rally in a city gym. And it just was this feeling of like, this is our community, like our community is in this room. These are the folks who fight for us at the Capitol. These are the people who, like organize the backyard barbecues, these are the people who like run our churches. And what we’re going to do today is do a massive city wide door knock, where we probably move like, I don’t know, I feel like we must have hit 10,000 doors that day. Like we just it was so many people in all the wards and, the photo of it is so it made me like wildly emotional, because that at that point in the race, we were up against, like, very serious outside spending from mostly like out of city interests, like a pack that was put together by some more conservative labor unions. The like real estate blob of organized money, different corporate financial interests, right. And, and they were like, just, they were just trying it. Like in every way and, and I was like, anyway, like our communities in this room right now. And this is what St. Paul is like, our mayor plays basketball with like, children, and we feed each other, and we have each other’s back. And so that was like a day that I remember really clearly where I was like the coalition is in this room. It’s like our labor folks. It’s our faith allies. It’s honestly so many people that aren’t part of an organization. They’re just like, people, they’re like, I care and I’m a voter. And I’m in this campaign because I’m really excited about like Cheniqua or Zara or like, I really want […] to be my council member. And like, I’m just here because I like it. Like politics is really fun. If you create a culture of joy and like nourishment, people go there because they’re like, this is this feels like home, this feels like community. So I just keep thinking about the Linwood Rec Center City wide door knock like to me, that was the coalition. So I didn’t know we were really feeling ourselves. But because we were like fighting for our lives, I was like, go wait, stop, like one candidate in our crew had like six different mailers get mailed against her. And it was like outside expenditures to be clear. And I was like, cool, you’re gonna get seven pieces of paper from this one candidate, or on behalf of this one candidate, but sorry, has been to your door probably at least four times by now, like we are working our asses off. So that’s to me the coalition, its leaders that were like I’m all in and doing this hand in hand with community and then like our whole ecosystem, kind of putting their arms around us to be like, yeah, this is St. Paul.


Cheniqua Johnson  29:33

There was a bit of a shift this cycle as well. I was directly in it. But I also was watching from, I would say on the outside in when it comes to just how folks are reacting to politics like as somebody who enjoys watching the electorate and like […] how do people vote? What are some things that they’re voting on and I felt like to change myself this election cycle or to alter the things that I really felt at the core of my you know, value system, my political spectrum just altered my responses and questions would take away their ability to choose the direction they wanted to head. And then would also mean that I would be doing that for the next four years. And so as somebody who had also ran, you know, an area where I did not personally feel like I could be always as open, but my political viewpoints in 2018, I was further left than we were campaigning and in questions, there would be times where I would be like, oh, you know, your campaign manager is acting in your best interest by telling you, this is how you should speak. This is what some of the things that you should talk about. And it was because we were in a very predominantly conservative House District that had not voted for a Democrat ever. And that also was predominantly you know, more moderate leaning conservative Republican. And so you find that change when you’re in an area where in on the east side of St. Paul, I genuinely in my ward feel like a lot of times our ward continues to vocalize their values and their thoughts, and often it’s in alignment with voting for things like rent stabilization. Board, seven continues to vocalize that the issue is that they hadn’t always had the representation that they needed to continue to further that, at least from a voice on the council. And so when you’re just looking at what that means for politics moving forward and what that means for our city, I think it’s, you know, when we are grassroots organizing when we’re talking to everyday people, when everyday people are voting, they’re electing candidates that look like Mitra, they’re electing candidates that look like me. They look like our council. They are young, they’re young, progressive leaders in both cities. And so that said something to think about the hearts of the voters who and how my Coalition on the east side was intentionally made up of people who often did not get centered in political spheres at all. We were in apartment buildings, we were talking to renters, we were talking to homeowners, but we weren’t just knocking on the door asking for their vote. We were also asking them about the issues that they cared about and why, you know, they had or had not been voting in the past. Most of my campaign staff who were under the age of 40, we were knocking on doors with people who had lived there for 30 years, because we have East siders who grew up here who were born and raised here. And then we had these sliders like me to who had moved here within the last five years, folks that didn’t even know that there was an election. And so you come in contact with a lot of different people a lot of different voices priorities. So if you personally shape or change up who you were, I felt like that would be doing a disservice to the people who were electing me. Because ultimately, we, you know, it was like interviewing for the job for a year and a half. But every time if your responses were different, that’s actually the the type of leadership I felt like we had and it wasn’t working. Maybe it was working for some people, but it wasn’t working for me. And I found that a lot of people would talk about just how they were pigeon holed in, like having to do that constantly. And I remembered when Mitra was there years before my run, and she reminded me that if you run a campaign, running as somebody else other than yourself, if you get elected, that’s what people are gonna expect you to be. And so I did not want to continue to have that hold over me like I get to lead now as a city council member, and a way that I can do my best and ensure that like, I’m representing what I campaigned on. So when people are like, what are your issues, and I’m like the same thing. I campaigned on housing, we had jobs services, they are still written on my website, we have not edited it since I got elected because we don’t need to we I don’t feel sorry for the things that I’ve been able to write in newspapers and ads. And in quotes, I’m not saying anything new, because there isn’t that nothing has changed after Election Day. And so that, for me feels really amazing. And also being that the opposition was so loud and they didn’t come out on top, it gives an opportunity to just simply say that the people spoke and my ward and a mini awards across the city. And that’s why the women are elected. That’s why they’re standing here today. And we had people that were not in agreement with overdoing, but the majority was in every case. And so just to be in that space to say that and to be able to be like, you know, people elected what I ran out and I ran it as myself, you know, and will work really hard to make sure that I lead like myself because that’s what got me here in the first place.


Maya Rupert  34:15

Okay, sit tight, everybody. We’re gonna take one more quick break, but we’ll be right back with more.


Maya Rupert  36:01

I love to hear you talk about the relationship that you two have had both as you’re running and even now. And I wonder I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. I mean, you know, it feels like Mitra has sort of taken on this mentor role. And I wonder from both of your perspectives Cheniqua what does that mean to you? Are you able to in those moments, come and talk to her? And what has that meant for you? And Mitra? I wonder how that has been? I mean, I know that’s an extra, you know, role that it feels like you’ve played not just with Cheniqua, but a number of women of color who are either in office now or seeking office, and I wonder how that has impacted? You know what you’re doing? And is that something that you want to continue?


Cheniqua Johnson  36:47

Yeah, like Mitra was my friend. And just being real. It’s like, as a new person, as a woman of color. I’m constantly thinking about how is this person perceiving me? You know, what is this? Like? What, how are we being? There was one there was a not to elevate this comment. But literally someone being like, oh, you know, they’re scowling at each other. They’re just looking for little nitpicky things and pictures that you’re just like, that makes no sense. But that’s the world that we live in. A lot of times, women don’t run for office, because they don’t they feel like they’re going to be everything they’re going to be doing is under a scope or under a microscopic lens. And I feel like having me be the council president here in St. Paul, for me. And I was explaining this to just a grouping that I asked us about, like, you know, what is it like working with your friend, it’s like, it’s really in a situation where I know, at the end of the day, I can assume best intentions from her. So there may not always be things that I agree with, maybe we don’t always see eye to eye on an issue, maybe we will vote differently somehow or sometimes. That’s not the point. The point is, I know that she’s going to act in the best interest for the city of St. Paul. But you know, I don’t shy away from the fact that for me, there’s this work has been a lot of times working with people that you’d ever know where they’re going to end up. I didn’t become mudras friend because I thought she’d be council president one day, I became a co worker first when I was working for then Congressman Keith Ellison, we basically have had just a journey to really get to know each other values, values first, not just about elections, not just about campaigning. And I have had the benefit of being able to do that across the spectrum. And so for me, that has been really helpful just in learning the basics of this job. Like, I don’t expect, I think when we’re looking at it, we’re making different news headlines, people are interviewing us, we’re having these conversations, I hope that they go really far. And I hope that people don’t expect this to come and save the world in four years. Because we didn’t break it. I hope that people are like, having these really huge goals for us, and that they can understand that we too, are human, but we are like, literally in a space where we are seven girls, seven women, excuse me, trying to make a difference in housing and economic development and climate justice work. And we recognize that these systems are centuries long. And so friendship or relationships is like a small piece of it that just takes away that ease of like, hey, how’s my makeup today? Do I have something stuck in the middle of it while I take this camera picture that now I’m going to be seeing circulated multiple times?


Mitra  36:47

Cheniqua you want to go?


Maya Rupert  39:18

And Mitra, what about you is that? What does that mean for you? Particularly as someone who maybe didn’t have that same relationship with someone that you were coming up?


Mitra  39:30

I’ve definitely been reflecting on this a lot. I guess I think about like, not having mentors for most of my career that really shared my life experiences like all of them, not like we have nothing in common, but like, you know, I either had mentors who were like white women or white men or men of color. Like never just okay, that I now have a like woman of color who is older than me and has my similar like personality and whatever, whatever. So like I’ve cobbled together what I’ve learned from so many other leaders who I just I am a product of like all of that mentorship. And suddenly to be like, what I didn’t have to other people has been just an interesting thing I’ve been unpacking. And one of the things I think about all the time is like, I do think the mentorship goes both ways. I do think that having my collection of leaders that I’m in this with, they’re always like shoring me up, I am scared a lot of the time in this job. And in this work, and in this leadership journey, like, I do a lot of things, while being actively like afraid or stressed out or just like, worried. And to like, look into the eyes of my peers, my mentees, mentors, whatever, and just be like, okay, these women are like, reaffirming that I’m on the right track with this. And they are like my compass, and they’re my energy. And like, they’re my representation, honestly, like Cheniqua is representation for me, I am always watching her speak. And I’m like, just so like, my reactions are so visceral to just the way that she is like, putting down what needs to be said. And I just like, have to kind of keep it together. Because I feel like I’m gonna just light a trashcan on fire and like, throw it through a bank window, like, you know, just like, I get like these wild like emotional reactions, because I’m getting something for the first time that like I haven’t gotten to have. So it like went in reverse for me where I like, I just was like, Fine, I’m just gonna do this, because this is like what’s in my heart. And then it created all this like representation around me, that’s reflected back at me. And that’s been like very profound to reflect on. And I just get a lot of affirmation. Because I do think that this experience of public leadership can feel a lot like what I talked about, like people chipping away at you, or like your own anxiety like sapping You from within, and like, I am constantly blessed with just my girls who are like, hey, did you know you are the baddest in the game, like, I will just get random unfettered kindness and compliments, and it’s so meaningful to me. And like, I just like, soak it up, because it’s everything. Because most of the time in this work you’re experiencing, like criticism or scrutiny, or someone being negative or something not going well, or like you have to kind of like, untangle some wires, or it’s just something, it’s always something. And I also know that if Cheniqua comes to me, and she’s like, hey, I hate this, like, she will say that we have enough trust for her to just be that honest with me. And then I’m like, tell me more. And we just figure it out. And like, that’s what so much of this work is it’s just figuring it out together. But you have to be able to have the safety and the trust and honesty, to grapple with all of it. We each represent 46,000 people, like every single one of us, as leaders now are in a public role with public responsibility. So I’m working to hold all that across the group and to make sure that I don’t lose sight of myself and that I’m not like, my therapist said to me, we’re going to show up from each are the same way she shows up for everyone else. And like, how dare she like, who authorized her? Just, I beg your pardon? So like that is some of my 2024 mood board, so yeah.


Maya Rupert  43:37

I don’t have words for how that that just made me feel that conversation between the two of you, I think it is. So it’s, it’s incredibly inspiring. It’s incredibly meaningful. I think it is a big part of what we get when we get women of color in office, because we get told over and over again, that politics is sort of zero sum, it’s a competition. And we don’t hear about this piece nearly enough, but it is the reason people are able to deliver for their constituents. And I’m just thank you for sharing that. Um, I wanted to get to one additional question that you both kind of alluded to. And I think, again, this is one of these double binds that I think that as women of color, and especially progressive women of color, comes up a lot. And it’s basically that, you know, there is the desire, you will ran on this and you very clearly it’s your values you want to deliver for your people you want to deliver for people who have been marginalized. But there’s also an understanding that none of this stuff can happen overnight. And I think sometimes there is this thought of great, you all got in, go fix all the problems. And over four years, we can’t undo systemic, huge, huge systemic issues of systemic disenfranchisement, and all of the issues that need to be undone to meaningfully change things. So how do you deal with that sort of, you know, you want to deliver for people, you want it to happen quickly. But you recognize that the systems are what they are. How do you to sort of deal with that? How do you resolve it? How do you talk about it?


Mitra  45:12

I think this is like a huge mental focus of mine right now looking out over this new council and being like newly elected as the council president, right is just how are we showing people where we’re going together. And there’s a lot of power in what Cheniqua just said, which is like, yeah, the pressure is on us to undo all of this in four years, but like, we didn’t break this. So I think it’s about holding that relationship with the communities that elected you, and developing a first year governing plan together a second year governing plan, like really just maintaining that so that it’s not like, okay, we elected you, and we’re sending you off to City Hall now. And you’re gonna like, you know, be a vending machine. There’s like the vending machine gym membership, kind of analogies that come up in my mind, right, it’s like, you don’t just like buy a gym membership, and then your body like changes over time you like go to the gym, and like work on yourself. And some people think it’s more like, I just want to put my quarter in and get out like the candy bar picked. And like, that’s not how this works. And those are kind of crude analogies. But that’s just like something I’ve heard over the years that stays in my mind, and.


Maya Rupert  46:21

I think those are great, I haven’t heard them, I think that’s such a great way to talk about it.


Mitra  46:26

It’s like, we want to be different, right? We don’t want to be transactional. We don’t want to be entirely relational, because outcomes matter. But we’re holding all that we’re holding all that toward the, you know, the platform that we ran on, right.


Cheniqua Johnson  46:39

And when you think about just like the expectations of what can be done in four years, a lot of work can be done. But also the reality is like, eventually there will be someone else in this seat. And so just thinking about how I, you know, from the day I got elected, and I think just in any position that I occupy, I’ve really taken that mindset of the, the timing that I’m here is up to the people of my community. But while I’m here, I can set the groundwork, and the steps have put steps in place that can have lasting impacts for generations forward. And so it’s like walking that balance between knowing you’re not going to be able to undo everything that people have done, but also knowing that you can participate in, like even the little things that transform or hopefully shift an entire neighborhood in the future.


Maya Rupert  47:24

Right, I think that’s incredibly important. And I’ve got to just say, I am so excited for your leadership, for this entire city council for your futures. I feel so inspired hearing from you both. And just knowing you’re out there and working. And I’m just really rooting for you. And I hope you all feel that, especially on the days when it’s hard, especially when people think that you can undo systems overnight, single handedly. I hope you feel a little extra strength and know that I’m thinking of you both I’m so grateful we got a chance to have this conversation, and thank you, I feel like you guys have very generously shared a lot of these stories. And I think that’s really important. So thank you very truly for doing this.


Mitra  48:09

Thank you for thinking of us and like rooting us on we are you know, we’re in a moment. And I feel both excited and anxious. And also I just think of like the times I’ve served our community through in the last five years and how they’ve absolutely been like some of the pain, most painful experiences of my life. But then the other side of that is like, look at this group of leaders that St. Paul chose to say we’re going to trust you and it doesn’t mean we’re gonna agree on everything. But we are like entrusting you with directing our city forward. And I just feel so lucky to get to do this work and to get to do it with Cheniqua and with all of my colleagues and I love this particular combination choice for a podcast because I was like, hey, best friend do want to be on a podcast with me. It’s really cool, with Maya Rupert. It’s a national organization. They really liked that. It was just like fun. It’s just fun. You did enjoy the fun parts.


Maya Rupert  49:03

Good, yes. Mitra, Cheniqua thank you so much for joining us.


Mitra  49:08

Thank you for thinking of us.


Cheniqua Johnson  49:09

Thank you for having us. I really appreciate it.


Maya Rupert  49:23

When Mitra first ran for office, she didn’t see herself reflected in her political mentors. Now she is that reflection for Cheniqua and the rest of the city council she presides over. These women have created an environment where women of color will feel more comfortable running authentically as themselves. One of the most dangerous pieces of conventional wisdom for women of color and politics is that because it’s a competition, it has to be zero sum. If you win, I lose. But that’s not true for us. We have to operate from abundance. Because we all benefit when there are more of us. Try this, close your eyes. Now think of the word presidential. What image comes to mind? With precisely one exception, our historical collective answer to that question has been a white man. This means we don’t have to stretch credibility to see another one in office. When a white man runs, I can see him in office and others like it, it strikes me as real, as authentic. But here’s another thing that struck me as I was talking to Mitra and Cheniqua. Now when I close my eyes, I can see them too. And their colleagues, and so many more women of color who are winning, some of whom I’ll get a chance to talk to on this show. And soon, our imaginations will expand to that will have so many visions of women of color in office that when another one runs, regardless of her background, her experience can resonate with voters as an authentic narrative. We’ll be able to see her in office because we’ll have seen people like her in office. That will be the legacy of moments like this one in St. Paul. That’ll be the cycle we build, When We Win.


CREDITS  51:23

There’s more of When We Win on Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content. That includes more ways you can support women candidates of color in local and national elections. Subscribe now on Apple podcasts. When We Win is Lemonada Original. I’m your host, Maya Rupert. This series is presented by Ms Foundation for Women, and by the Marguerite-Casey Foundation. When We Win is produced by Tony Williams. Our supervising producer is Jamela Zarha Williams. Mixing and Sound Design by Noah Smith. Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Jessica Cordova Kramer and me, Maya Rupert. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. You can follow me on IG at @maya.rupert and Lemonada @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. Follow When We Win wherever you get your podcasts and listen at free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.

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