Ilhan Adan

An Interview With Erin Maye Quade, MN Representative and Trailblazer

Erin Maye Quade is a DFL Minnesota representative, she represents District 57A, which includes portions of Apple Valley and Lakeville in Dakota County, Minnesota. I had the chance of speaking with her about her work, teenage activism, and rise to success as a queer woman of color etc. This a lightly-edited transcript of our phone conversation.

Ilhan Adan: When did you first become interested in politics?

Erin Maye Quade: So I became interested in politics in high-school when I was a freshman in 2000 with the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W Bush, I’ll explain why it was super invigorating. That was the year when Al Gore was vice president under Bill Clinton and he was running against George W Bush and there were tons of votes that happened and the election happened and actually really too close to call in one state. Now Al Gore won the popular vote outright, it didn’t matter how many votes he did or did not go in for, he simply won outright, but the electoral votes were tied and they needed to know who Florida went to. George W Bush’s brother Jeff Bush, the governor of Florida, had appointed the state supreme court, who decided the number of votes in the state and they decided in favor of George W Bush, and so Al Gore appealed this to the US state supreme court while George W Bush´s father, George HW Bush, had been the president before that and he had appointed US supreme court justices. At the time I thought how could a person who did not win the popular vote win the electoral vote when the two judicial systems that chose him had been appointed by his brother and father, that did not seem like democracy to me.

I was upset, I didn’t really like the electoral college, I didn’t think it was really fair and also I just felt like that people weren’t very well-represented within that system.

So I paid a lot of attention to everything George W Bush did after that because I felt like he hadn’t been really elected, and so the Iraq War happened and I turned 18 right before his second term happened. That´s really how politics happened for me back then and the way it was decided.

IA: Yeah, It seems so similar to the way the 2016 election went down regarding the electoral college dismissing that Hillary won the popular vote.

EMQ: Kind of, the only difference would be if Wisconsin was the only state that wasn’t decided and the Wisconsin supreme court had been appointed by Donald Trump’s father and the US supreme court had been appointed by his brother or vice versa. It was really crazy and at the time it really made me upset and I can tell you at the time it made a lot of people upset too. But its been 18 years and social media didn’t exist back then, so we didn’t really talk about it the same way we talk about issues now. We went to war so shortly which is why we didn’t have time to criticize the president back then. Oh, it was so infuriating! I was a freshman in high school and my teacher actually changed her syllabus to allow us to watch the recount.

IA: Wow. It honestly is infuriating! Being in a state legislature where its mostly white, straight-male dominated, how did you overcome those kinds of barriers?

EMQ: I think the biggest thing to know is that the country is not mostly white, its 45 percent people of color, but the country as a whole is still pretty white-male-dominated, it’s not something that I wasn’t already really used to. I was used to that in a classroom setting, college, I was used to that in my workplaces. I overcame it by not having to get the new knowledge to be elected.

One thing that my dad told me is that black women and women of color have to work twice as hard to be taken half of seriously. That doesn’t change.

It’s not like being in the legislature changes anything. Being alive and being myself has prepared me just well for the type of situation that I was going into.

I think what was most helpful for me is that being elected amplifies who you are, it does not change who you are. What I found about myself is that I have a strong & tenacious voice, I am not quiet in the face of injustice even if other people might disagree with me. I think being exactly who I am prepared me for the legislature and I hope its true for different kinds of people. I think when you get into inter-sectional identities like myself, I am a queer young woman of color, there is a lot of places where I was prepared to face resistance and putting them all together actually didn’t make me less prepared, it actually collected all my preparedness into one role.

IA: The Never Again Movement sparked national attention and provoked school walkouts everywhere. As a politician, what do you think of teens taking the forefront in activism and fighting certain injustices?

EMQ: I think its amazing! I don’t think there’s an age at which it’s more appropriate or less appropriate to participate in our democracy. Every person who lives in our country or state’s voice is important. It’s especially important for our young people, I think what happens so often is that we tell young people that “you’re so young” or “you can’t possibly know what you’re doing,” but that’s totally untrue. This is your world too and your voice matters, your opinion matters and as an elected official, my job is to listen. I showed up at my walkout because the hashtag that they used is “Hear Us Now”. If I was not there, how could I hear them? My job is to hear my constituents, it does not matter how old or young they are. What I think happens too often is that politicians can correctly so recognize people who are young and cannot vote don’t make us lose our power, it also means that people who are between the ages of 18-24 are the lowest propensity voting block. What teens are showing them is that they’re changing the world for the better and hopefully becoming the most consistent voting block. I am working for my constituents. I am not here to just win an election, I am definitely here to do the work. We have seen the reaction & criticism to the school walkout. We are doing exactly what we hope for students to do which is to stand up for democracy, injustice and exercise their constitutional right. That’s exactly what I want as a member of the education committee. That’s exactly what I want for students.

IA: Wow, I definitely agree, I love that answer. You recently had authored a bill that would mandate affirmative-consent instruction for all public school students in grades 8-12, to “prevent and reduce the incidence of sexual assault” and it received tons of support. Why did your bill resonate like it did?

EMQ: I believe it resonated with people for multiple reasons. This is common sense. No means no is something you do is when you can’t buy the toy you want, not when it comes to healthy relationships.Yes, means yes is what we want to teach people. Our Minnesota state college & universities (MNSCU) passed affirmative consent. This is really about alignment. We cant say we prepare our students for college and not teach them an expectation that will be held in college. You can liken that to plagiarism, we teach students about plagiarism so when they go to college, they’ll know better. The same goes for consent, half of our students in Minnesota matriculate to higher education institutions, these will be the expectations they’ll be held too. If we are gonna teach our students to be college-ready. Then we need to teach them about consent. Its a basic fundamental foundation for any healthy relationship. So, we are doing a disservice to students if we are not teaching them these things. This is information we have if we are not teaching them then what are we gaining from that?

IA: I absolutely agree. You make some very pivotal points. Last question, what is your advice for marginalized teens like myself planning to pursue the political field.

EMQ: Networking is one of the hardest things to do because it requires you to show up and spend a lot of time doing a lot of small talk to a lot of different faces that may not feel comfortable, not that they’re exclusionary, but they may not look like you or that you know but the number one advice that I would give to any person, not just for a political career but to any person is to show up, because networking with them are the people that you’ll continue too see in the work you do. So if I kept going to networking events at a college’s political science department, Its more likely that Ill continue to see these people in the political world after I graduate, its more likely those people work for some sort of organization, non-profit, a campaign or legislature I know. Networking is how you make yourself comfortable in the world you´re going into. Networking is not that hard but the struggle with millennials or Generation Z is that it can be difficult to show up and showing up is extremely important even if it feels like you don’t want to. That’s true for getting a job or an internship. Reliability and consistency of showing up will set you apart from so many people.

Lastly, reach out to people you admire or know, that you might think they will make it comfortable for you, ask them to go with you or ask them to mentor you.

I wish someone asked 17-year-old me, find someone you admire, ask them to mentor you and then hound them about it because adults love to be asked to mentor people. There a very few adults in their jobs that wouldn’t be very excited to share what that is with someone younger then them because all they want to do is to pass on the love we have for our work to someone else who might want to do it in the future. Find a mentor and by that, ask someone who you would love to be like whether its a career or by personality, just ask them for things. One of the biggest gaps for white kids and kids of color is that they’re encouraged to ask adults in leadership for things, we don’t teach that to young kids of color, instead we teach them to obey, so find a woman of color or find a leader and take advantage of everything that they offer you.

IA: Thank you so much for your time, I learned a lot from you!

EMQ: Absolutely! Thank you for the chat!

Photo: Courtesy of Erin Maye Quade