Cheniqua and I met up in Minneapolis at Hazel’s Northeast the week after Election Day. For the first few minutes, we laughed about what we’d order. Apparently, we both have a tendency to order the same thing and we tried to push each other to be a little bit more adventurous. We were met with moderate success.
I first met Cheniqua a few years ago when we briefly worked together. We instantly connected partially because Cheniqua had, coincidentally enough, been a close friend of my wife before my wife and I met.
Cheniqua walked in to Hazel’s wearing a red, black and white Worthington High School letter jacket. When the two of us met up, she had just lost her race for District 22B of the Minnesota State House of Representatives.
Her hometown of Worthington, which is located in District 22B, is about 175 miles southwest of Minneapolis. The city is the home of about 15,000 people and is incredibly diverse. According to the United States Census, about 40% of the residents identify as Latino, 9% identify as Asian, 6% identify as Black and .6% as Indigenous.
We talked about a variety of things as we ate, but something that kept popping up was the numerous, unsuspecting calls Cheniqua had received over the past year. The first call came from “Brother Keith.” He asked her to be a part of his team. She served as the staff assistant intern coordinator, overseeing Congressman Keith Ellison’s District internship program.
A while later, Cheniqua told me about the time when, while she was getting her nails done at a salon, she received another unsuspecting call. She said she was so shocked by the caller that she almost dropped her phone in nail polish remover.
“So, I grabbed the phone and went out there and was like ‘Ilhan Omar?’ Her response was priceless: ‘You know many Ilhans?’”
Ilhan had called Cheniqua to tell her that she was planning to attend her undergraduate commencement ceremony from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. She had heard that Cheniqua was one of the commencement speakers.
After commencement, Cheniqua met up with Ilhan again to talk about potentially running for office. Cheniqua opened up about her anxiety over the visibility a campaign could create for her private life. Ilhan encouraged her to run and assured Cheniqua that she’d be okay. Since Cheniqua trusted Ilhan’s judgement on the matter, she decided to take steps toward a potential run. The first step was seeking the DFL endorsement. Cheniqua decided that if she didn't get the endorsement she wouldn't run for office. She won the endorsement and became the youngest DFL-endorsed Minnesota woman. On June 1, Cheniqua filed for office, becoming the first woman of color to run in Southwest Minnesota.
She had five months to make something happen. And during those months, a lot more calls happened.
Rena Moran called and told Cheniqua that she was going to basically adopt her campaign. Rena would go on to become a great mentor and supporter. Cheniqua then got called by a foundation that wanted to invest in her as a leader, not a just politician. Later on, at a conference in California, Cheniqua got called over to meet people who would eventually lend support to her campaign. Near the end of October, Cheniqua called in to a Minnesota Public Radio segment. The segment focused on the surge of women running for office in 2018. Cheniqua shared the challenges women--particularly women of color--candidates face, as well as the immense value they bring.
However, the most important call is what drove her to run for office.
“I needed to prove to the community that somebody could do this, and they can do it, more so than I needed to win a race.”
Of course, Cheniqua and her campaign team worked to win. Of course Cheniqua would have been an amazing elected representative for the people of Worthington. But even though she did not win her race, Cheniqua became a representative for her hometown and for women across the state.
“Even now, people from across the state are excited about what we're doing in Worthington...My prayer for my community is that it doesn't stop. I hope that people are so energized that we can continue building.”
Cheniqua had such a draw that a woman who heard her commencement speech traveled out to Worthington to help with her campaign. Cheniqua would soon find out that a number of women were inspired and activated by Cheniqua’s race.
“This woman I had never met said, ‘I want to run for office.’ This woman I had never met...a woman of color, a young person of color. Women who had contemplated whether or not to run and would be like, ‘I don't know.’ All throughout this journey they've been like, ‘I have seen you. I have seen what you did and now we have to answer. We have to do it.’”
Near the beginning of our conversation, a young, brown girl walked in with two white women and sat in the booth behind Cheniqua. From time to time, the young girl would stand up in her booth, turn around and pop her head into our conversation. After a few seconds, she’d turn back around and sit down.
At a certain point, the girl turned around and became engrossed in our conversation. She looked at me and then stared at Cheniqua as she talked. There was something different in the girl’s eyes as she watched Cheniqua speak. I don’t know what she saw as she looked at Cheniqua. Maybe she saw herself? Maybe she saw who she could be?
All I know is that, as the young girl watched Cheniqua, she--like so many people throughout the past year--saw someone who captivated them.