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Clare Oumou Verbeten, 27, is running to represent District 66 in the state Senate, which includes Roseville, Lauderdale, Falcon Heights, and parts of St. Paul. Oumou Verbeten is a St. Paul resident, equity manager for the City of St. Paul, and chair of the Roseville Area Schools Foundation.
Oumou Verbeten’s answers have been edited below for length and clarity
Why are you running for office?
We’re in such a critical moment right now in Minnesota. The racism and the inequities that have existed in our community for years have really been highlighted by the pandemic and namely the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide uprising that was sparked in our community.
As a Black woman who grew up in this state, and in this district, I love my community so much, and that’s why I’ve done the work that I have.
We have become infamous now for deadly interactions with the police. We have an opportunity to really lead on racial justice, on building a community that’s safe for all. That’s my top issue. Safety is about all of these things that take care of our community: housing, health care, reproductive rights, education. Making investments in those areas actually keeps us safe. We need strong, bold leadership in the Senate that’s going to fight for those things. And that’s what I’m running to do.
And also, representation really matters. Having this amazing cohort of five Black women potentially coming into the state Senate is going to be huge and is going to really allow us to advance this conversation around racial justice, equity, and keeping our community safe.
What would it mean for you to potentially be among the first Black women elected to the Minnesota Senate?
I was amazed to learn that we’ve never elected a Black woman to the Minnesota Senate. It’s 2022. With what has taken place in our community over just the past few years—George Floyd, Philando Castille, who was killed in my district, Amir Locke, Daunte Wright—I can’t state enough how important it is to have that perspective at the State Senate. And I would be bringing in a whole community with me. I’d feel the weight of making sure that I’m fighting every day to keep us safe, and that I’m fighting for the things that we need in order to address the disparities in our city.
This is about taking that first step and making sure that we are providing space for everyone else to have a seat at the table for generations to come. We might be the first, but I’m so excited that there may be five of us. And we certainly should not be the last.
What do you hope to accomplish, especially as Minnesotans recover post-pandemic?
It’s really important that we don’t try to recover back to what things were. What things were was not working for everyone. It certainly wasn’t working for Black Minnesotans particularly. If we look at any of these indicators of success—education, income, housing, and health care—we’re not provided the same opportunities. We’re not getting the same outcome. I don’t want to go back to that. We need to build in a way that is going to work for everyone.
With a surplus, we need to make sure that we’re fully funding our schools. We need strong champions in the Senate to advance the police reform legislation that DFLers in the House had been trying to get through since 2020. That’s going to be a top priority for me. And we’re also in a moment right now where our trans kids are under attack. We need to hold that line and make sure that they are protected and the really terrible legislation that the GOP is trying to pass does not happen. We need to make sure that we’re protecting our reproductive rights, which are also under attack. Minnesota is going to be one of the few states just in the Midwest where people will be able to access safe abortions.
Because it’s a Republican-controlled Senate right now, there’s a lot of defending and holding the line. But we have this opportunity, especially if we win and flip the Senate, to go beyond that.
Let’s dive into a specific policy issue. As you know the teachers in Minneapolis are currently on strike. What would your plan be to address funding for things like English language and special education services?
I’m really glad that our educators in St. Paul were able to come to an agreement.
I’m totally supportive of what they’re doing, what they’re fighting for. We’ve got to deliver on that and the state has not not held up our end of the bargain. We have not even kept up with inflation. And that’s why so many local districts have had to keep trying to pass these referendums and these levies just to barely make ends meet.
We’ve got a surplus. Let’s make sure that we’re doing what we promised to do and fully funding our schools.
We’ve seen just how difficult it is to operate in a divided legislature and Republican-majority Senate. If the same outcome occurs in November, how do you plan to push for the DFL’s agenda while also engaging with Republicans?
I will be working very hard not only to get elected, but to help our DFLers get elected across the state and hopefully become a majority in the State Senate. But if we do end up in a similar situation, it’s really important that we center everything in our values and what it is that we came there to do. We cannot let extremist views of legislation off the hook right now. I think about things that they are trying to pass around outing our trans youth in schools and making those climates really scary for them. That has to be called out. I do think that we can hold our larger objectives in mind and keep pushing what we can get through in the meantime. There’s a lot of amazing legislators on our side who have been able to find some of those compromises and still get things passed, even when we are in the minority.
I’ll definitely work with folks across the aisle to try to find common ground where we can. Everyone should recognize that we want our kids to have a great education. We can start from that place as Minnesotans and then figure out where we align from there. There’s going to be some places where we disagree but I am hopeful that we will find some common ground and be able to do some good.
How do you plan to engage immigrant communities and communities of color?
My mother is a Senegalese immigrant. She came to this country in the ‘80s. Now, this is home. So I’ve seen her experience of becoming a naturalized citizen, learning a new language, making it work in a new place, and doing it all alone because all her family is back home. She started her own small cleaning business that she’s still been doing through this pandemic as a frontline worker. And it’s been tough. My mom’s faced a lot of racism being not only an immigrant but a Black woman. So I carry that experience with me.
St. Paul is a city where the majority of our residents are of color. We have Hmong Americans, Oromo Americans, Somali Americans, Karen Americans. I will be making sure that I engage with community leaders throughout the campaign, making sure that people are able to connect and have access to our work, like through language and translation.
We’ll make sure that we’re lifting up that experience that our immigrant communities are having and centering that throughout our campaign. Whether it’s education, housing, or health care, we have such deep racial disparities there. Within that, it’s not just people of color that have lived in our communities for generations, but also our newer Americans who have an added experience of navigating new systems. They deserve to have culturally competent folks in these positions, giving them access to services in a way that makes sense for them.
That’s a lot of the work that I’ve been able to do in St. Paul. And I’ll certainly bring those experiences with me to the stateside.
Communities of color have felt a lot of trauma—going through a pandemic that disproportionately impacted them, living through the killing of George Floyd and the uprising that followed—how would you describe the mood of Minnesotans right now?
We’re tired. We’re frustrated. Because everything’s really come to a head in these past few years, it’s like, ‘See? This is what we were talking about. We’ve been telling you for years.’ A lot of other members of our community who maybe don’t directly experience that day-to-day are finally getting it.
We need to bring our allies along with us, but it’s still tiring and frustrating to feel like it takes someone putting their knee on the neck of a Black man for nearly 10 minutes and killing him in that excruciatingly painful way for you to finally understand that we have an issue with racism in Minnesota. It shouldn’t have to get to that level. That’s what’s behind a lot of the frustration. It has had to get this bad for people to finally understand and agree that we need to do something about it.