Zuki Ellis poses for a portrait at her home in St. Paul on March 17, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Zuki Ellis, 48, is running to represent District 65 in the state Senate, which includes downtown St. Paul, as well as the city’s Frogtown, North End, Rondo, Summit-University, West 7th, and West Side neighborhoods. Ellis is a longtime resident of St. Paul and a board director for the St. Paul Public Schools.

Ellis’s answers have been edited below for length and clarity.

Why are you running for office?

Seven years of school board experience has taught me a lot of different things. This journey on the school board has been eye opening, it’s been educational, it’s been uplifting, it’s been painful. It’s been a myriad of things. Each year I have gotten better at understanding how bigger systems work. I’ve gotten a better understanding of not just the district as a whole, but its connection to the city, its connection to the county, its connection to the state, in ways that I did not understand until my time on the board.

In May of 2020 with George Floyd being killed, I found myself thinking about my family members—all three of my boys, my dad, my husband—and hoping and praying everybody would get home safe. 

We are a state that is continuing to grow in diversity and we should be embracing that and we are not. There is so much negativity and racism happening. 

When I’m watching the hearings that are happening at the Senate, I would think, Can I see myself there? What level of experience can I bring to that? How can I get better at understanding what others’ experiences are around me? Those are not conversations I’m hearing at the Senate.

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

Teenage Zuki didn’t know anything about politics. Teenage Zuki remembers going to the high-rise at the end of my block where I voted for the first time when I turned 18. That was my first introduction to politics.

When I first initially started thinking about running, I knew that several Black women had run for this seat and not been elected. When people had told me that there had never been a Black woman senator, I started researching like, That can’t be true.

It’s emotional because there are women who have been here before me. To have people coming before you lifting each person closer to getting there, that is not lost on me. And if it doesn’t happen in this senate district, the fact that it could happen in four other places is amazing, too. 

I’ve had people who have reached out to me and told me that I should run for the House instead. I understand why they think that would be easier. It’s not like I wouldn’t add the same credentials in the House. But the Senate is where I am needed. Ultimately, the people will get to decide if that’s where I’m wanted.

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

That’s the important part, right? We’re not post-anything yet. That’s where we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re still in it. People are still getting sick, people are still dying, and it may not be at the same numbers as it was in the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s still happening. 

When we’re talking about the future of this senate district, when we’re talking about the future of the state, we can’t just be talking about how we’re going to get past all of this. Instead, how are we working our way through this? What are we doing, very purposefully right now, to be helping us build toward a future of 2040? What does that mean in education? What does that mean in health care? What does that mean in jobs? What does that mean in providing for our communities? What does that mean for law enforcement? What does that mean for our BIPOC community when we’re talking about laws? It’s everything, right? 

And everything is interconnected. I care about all of these interconnected pieces that help us build a better state. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you would be the education senator.’ No, I care about more than education. Is it where I have a great deal of knowledge? Yes. But I also have knowledge and understanding of other things that are just as important. 

You want people to thrive. That’s what makes for a healthy community, a healthy senate district. It makes for a healthy state. We have to start with what is very fundamental to us to get right as we’re still making our way through a pandemic. And that is, how many of our folks in the community have access to the vaccine? How many of our folks don’t have access to the vaccine? How many opportunities are we creating within our community to support 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 currently sit on the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. We create legislative platforms and the three priorities are the special education cross-subsidy (costs school districts incur for mandated services), the English language cross-subsidy, and the per pupil funding formula that doesn’t include inflation. For decades, inflation hasn’t been attached to the formula. All districts within this state spend money from their general fund on special education, ELL services, because the state isn’t funding it. The majority of it is coming from your general fund budget, which keeps you from doing other things that support students. We have to make sure that we are serving students fully to the best of our ability. 

We talk a lot about fully funded schools and people are always like, ‘What does that mean?’ To me that means that there is no cross subsidies in ELL and special education. It is just funded by the state. And we’ve got a surplus. I saw the governor’s budget and I was like this is very huge and ambitious. I liked that. But then I’m like, what is going to end up on the cutting room floor of the House and Senate in order to get something done? 

It affects whether we have money for contracts from our general fund. It affects whether we have money to hire additional teachers and/or support staff for students. It affects everything that we can do as a district when we’re not fully funded. 

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 your agenda while also engaging with Republicans?

It may possibly be divided. I’m not sure how it’s all going to shake out. That doesn’t change what I believe needs to be our work going forward. We still have to be pushing for these things.

Everybody’s like, ‘Well, it’s got to be relationships.’ And sometimes it is a lot more complicated. There is a possibility for that learning and growing to always be happening. And it’s not just from my side. If you’ve never talked to anybody who has a different perspective than yours, then how are you getting to a better place in this state? I’m not saying just being in the space changes it, but having a voice in a space that hasn’t had a voice like this before is really important.

We are more ethnically diverse than we have ever been. We know not every person is at the table that needs to be at the table. There are voices missing here. But there are opportunities for us to grow in the Senate and continue to grow in the House. 

What are your plans to engage immigrant communities and communities of color?

It’s been good and it’s also been challenging. People are skeptical about politics anyway. You have to prove that you have the opportunity together to change things right. And that’s not an easy thing to do. 

Outreach has been difficult because people see me in school board mode. A lot of my conversations have been about schools. But I do have this elected role as a school board member and that’s how a lot of the community sees me.

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?

Talking to students, there’s lots of fear. Talking to adults, there’s lots of fear.

I’m just wondering: What is the next catalyst going to be that pushes us over the edge? People in the community are sitting at the edge of our seats waiting for it. In my conversations with folks, they’re worried about jobs, their housing, the continued impact of the pandemic. 

Everybody is stressed. Everybody is exhausted. Everybody has a little bit of fear of what comes next. But I also think that there’s still fight in people. We’ve got drive. We don’t know how but we’re going to get ourselves through it. I hate to be in that survival mode, but I think that that’s sort of how people are living right now. Are we going to be okay? When and how will it be determined that we’re done with a pandemic? What will the state of hospitals and healthcare be? What is going to be the outcome of taxation? Is inflation going to go up? Things are getting more expensive and the shelves in the grocery store are looking a little bit bare and there’s fear there. 

There are lots of things that are happening right now that suggest a level of uncertainty. I understand that, I recognize that. And I feel all of that, too.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.