Huldah Hiltsley and campaign volunteers door knock in Brooklyn Center on March 18, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Huldah Hiltsley, 36, is running to represent District 38 (formerly District 40) in the state Senate, which includes Brooklyn Center and the southern part of Brooklyn Park. Hiltsley is a resident of Brooklyn Center and a data privacy analyst for NuVasive, a medical technology company. 

Hiltsley’s responses have been edited below for length and clarity.

Why are you running for office?

I’m running for office to really address the core, root issues that our community faces through policy and passing laws that address that. As a community leader for the past 15 years in the Brooklyns, I have seen the gaps. I truly believe that the only way we can address the root causes and create sustainable change is to be a part of making the policies and the regulations. 

I came here when I was 9 years old, and there are a lot of challenges that immigrants go through. It was because of Senator Paul Wellstone, who literally lobbied for my family to stay here when we only had 48 hours before being deported back to Kenya. He worked with the Baptist churches in the Twin Cities, who had petitioned Paul Wellstone to come to our aid, lobby for my father’s case, and in the last hours the court overturned our family’s deportation order. 

He planted the seed back then. I mean, I was just a kid, right? I didn’t understand the magnitude of what he was doing for my family. But he went out of his way to fight for a family that he didn’t know. That drive and that motivation really has driven me to also fight for my community and the residents of this community that are struggling. Because we all belong here, we all deserve to live in a safe community that fosters opportunities for everybody to thrive.

What would it mean for you to potentially be among the first Black women elected to the Minnesota Senate?

I wasn’t even looking at that when I first started thinking about running. I just wanted to run because I wanted to meet the needs of my community. But then the first person who actually brought that up was Representative Rena Moran at my campaign announcement. When she brought it up, that’s when it dawned on me: We’re chasing history here. But in the same breath, I was thinking: Wait a second. How is it that in 164 years of the Minnesota State Senate we have never elected a Black woman to office?

Why is that? That goes to show that we have a lot of work to do from an institutional standpoint—breaking down barriers that have been built to support certain types of candidates. And then it also comes down to our community leaders as well. What are we doing to cultivate an environment where minority candidates, especially Black women, can thrive, run for office, and actually succeed in running for office? 

What do you hope to accomplish, especially as Minnesotans recover post-pandemic? 

My drive has been doing better for our families, our schools, our students, our small businesses, and our community as a whole. What I’m excited to really do at the legislature is to see what we are doing as a legislature to promote a thriving environment for all of Minnesota. There’s some great policies and bills that are out there that need that support.

I’m not going to sit here and say: ‘As a first-time candidate for the legislature, I’m coming in here and I’m going to change the world.’ We have to be realistic about the situation. I’m not naive to the politics in the playing field. It’s all about collaboration. It’s all about looking at what are my community’s biggest needs and challenges.

I believe that when you sit down and have a genuine conversation, you truly get a picture of what matters to residents most. A lot of people ask me: What is your platform? I’ve been going door-to-door for the last couple of months and having conversations with my neighbors, small business owners, and religious leaders. I’m running for this seat and I want to make sure that when I’m there, I’m fighting for what matters for you most and not what I think is most important to me personally. And from there, I’m going to be championing bills that address the core needs of my community as I’m on the campaign trail.

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 a huge supporter of our educators and our students. I’m in full support of them getting what they’re asking for: mental health support, manageable class sizes, and livable wages. You can’t tell me that we are expecting a teacher to have 30-40 kids in a classroom, we don’t provide them with mental health support that they need, pay them pennies, expect them to provide the best education and support system for kids, and then sit here and expect them to create magic. 

We also have to be able to provide an environment where educators of color are in the classroom, especially in my district where close to 60 percent of the people are from the BIPOC community. A large percentage of that is African immigrants. When I’m sending my kid to school, I’m trusting that my kid is seeing somebody who looks like them, somebody that can relate to them, not only from an educational perspective but from a cultural standpoint as well. We have to dig deeper and make sure that educators of color are also supported. 

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?

Politics is messy. We know that. It comes down to creating relationships, getting to know your colleagues and how they operate, and listening to understand. One of the words that came out of door-knocking this past couple of months? Compromise, compromise, compromise. 

Obviously I’m not going to sit here and compromise to the point where it’s hurting my constituency and not getting things done. But it comes down to: How do we put our pride aside? How do we put our selfish agenda aside? And say, ‘We were elected to do better for the people of Minnesota. Let’s come together and make that happen.’ So that’s the type of mentality I’m taking into the Capitol.

How do you plan to engage immigrant communities and communities of color?

I am absolutely honored and humbled to have an opportunity to represent some of the most diverse communities in Minnesota. How do we engage this population, who normally do not participate in the political process until, maybe, the general election? We’re talking about the Black community, the African-American community, and then also, adding another layer, African immigrants. That’s where I come in. 

My campaign is making a lot of noise and people are seeing the momentum because of the turnout of individuals who have never participated in this process.That goes to show you that you know something special is happening in the Brooklyns. That something special is turning out a base that has never participated, especially at this level. And the majority of those people are African immigrants. 

How we’re doing that is, we are going door-to-door. And then we are also hearing information that is coming out that is completely untrue. We were door knocking the other day and somebody was like, ‘We’re hearing that you’re recruiting people from outside of the district.’ That was sad. It goes to show you that these are a forgotten population of people that we have energized, and people are like, ‘Wait a second, are you sure those people live in our precinct?’ At the same time, that’s a good thing. Because that means we’re turning out a base that normally doesn’t participate. We are meeting people where they are, talking to them, and creating literature that is simple. We are holding delegate trainings. We have been very intentional about making it easier for them to understand the process, and then making it easier for them to participate. On the 26th of March when we have our convention, we’ll provide daycare, transportation, and translators. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we make it easier for them to participate on the 26th, and use that momentum in the primaries and general election in November.

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?

As a Black woman who has brothers, uncles, friends, we continue piling trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma. I don’t think most people know that Daunte Wright was killed in my neighborhood. We are in a state where we’re just trying to survive. That adds another layer of complexity in campaigning and trying to let people know that it’s still important to participate. We are dealing with multiple layers of trauma, especially the Black community. I am hoping that we will go from surviving to thriving. We will get through this but we have to do it together.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with new redistricting information.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...