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The biggest surprise about the woman almost certain to be the first Nigerian American in the Minnesota legislature is that her political success should be no surprise at all.
Ask the childhood friends of Esther Agbaje, who ousted an incumbent earlier this month to win the Democratic primary to represent parts of North Minneapolis and downtown in the state House of Representatives.
“She has told me since I’ve known her that she is going to be the first Black woman president,” said Jenni Lange Gonczy, a friend since fifth grade in Brainerd.
Megan Sheppard, who has known Agbaje since high school in Faribault, recalls sitting on the school lawn as her friend told her she wanted to run for office someday. “Every step that I’ve known her to take has been to further that point,” Sheppard said. “And I’ve never really known anybody to do that before in quite the same way.”
At 35 years old, Agbaje has a law degree from Harvard, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a stint in the U.S. State Department, experience working with city government, and accolades at a prestigious law firm. In many ways, her resume seems tailor-made for a run for public office. Yet if she wins the November election—as is widely expected in the safe Democratic seat—she’ll be the first Nigerian American in the Minnesota legislature, and one of only a handful of Black women in the statehouse’s history.
Agbaje, the daughter of an Episcopal priest and a librarian who worked in homeless services, says she knew from a young age that she wanted a profession where she could help others.
“Whatever I wanted to do, I wanted it to be in service of people,” she said in an interview.
‘We were the only Black family’
Agbaje’s parents, both born in Nigeria, met as students at the University of Minnesota. Esther, their first child, was born in St. Paul. Two brothers soon followed.
Like many clergy families, the Agbajes moved frequently. The Diocese of Minnesota sent the future Rev. Agbaje to seminary in Virginia. After completing his studies, he moved the family back to Minnesota in 1995, when Esther was 10, to become deacon of a church in Brainerd.
Brainerd, which had a 0.3 percent Black population in 1990, was a major demographic change from the diverse D.C. suburb their family had left.
“We were the only Black family for the first 18 months,” Agbaje said. “Definitely people knew who we were.”
Standing out wasn’t all bad. The church and many of her classmates went out of their way to be welcoming. She quickly formed close friendships with other fifth graders, bonding over riding bikes and listening to the boy band Hanson. Rev. Agbaje opened tween get-togethers with sermons about friendship and prayer.
Yet when Esther was 11, some kids broke into the church and vandalized it, setting a fire, burning a Bible and leaving scorch marks on a cross. Their motive, they admitted, was that the church had a Black priest.
But the church rallied around the family, condemning the racism, and affirming that they had chosen Rev. Agbaje as their deacon.
“You see both the good in people and the bad in people in situations like this,” Agbaje said. “We’ve been blessed enough to be around people where the good weighs out and they stand up.”
Foraying into politics
After a few years in Brainerd, Esther’s father accepted a position in a church in Chicago. Esther, now in middle school, made her first foray into politics making campaign phone calls for a young state senator named Barack Obama.
Esther returned to Minnesota for high school to attend Shattuck-St. Mary’s, an Episcopal boarding school in Faribault, while her family remained in Chicago and then moved back to Virginia.
Gonczy recalled that Esther, levelheaded and mature for her age, transitioned smoothly into attending boarding school away from her family in a way that many kids of her age could not. Her parents and those of other Brainerd friends would pick Esther up for long weekends, and they came down to watch her perform in school plays. She played the flute and covered her friends’ dance performances for the school paper.
A native English speaker who understands Yoruba fluently, Agbaje learned French and German in high school and decided to explore careers in which she could use her language skills. A counselor suggested the Foreign Service.
At George Washington University, Agbaje pursued her passion for languages studying French and Arabic and joined the College Democrats, traveling to Cleveland and Orlando to knock doors for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run. The D.C. political scene was ideal for a college student beginning to think about a career in public service.
“That was really nice, to just be around other people who were interested in making a difference in the world, to see things be better for people,” she said.
During her senior year of college, Agbaje won the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which supports students from underrepresented backgrounds joining the State Department. She pursued a master’s in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with the city of Philadelphia to develop tools to measure how homeless services programs were working. After she graduated, she became a civil service officer for the State Department based in Washington.
She traveled to Egypt, Qatar, and Kuwait to visit projects and work with activists in the Arab Spring who were fighting for freedom of speech and assembly for marginalized groups.
Around the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement was stirring back home in the United States after the death of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. In cities across the country, thousands of people filled the streets to protest Martin’s killing and the legal system that protected his killer.
At the same time, while women overseas were fighting for equality, women in the United States were still struggling for pay equity and reproductive rights. And the struggles against deeply entrenched inequities in education, wages, and housing were very real at home.
Agbaje concluded that if the U.S. wanted to tell other countries how to ensure equal rights for marginalized communities, it would have to address those same issues at home. She decided she could work on those issues by attending law school.
“When we’re encouraging other countries about the types of laws they should put in place, and how they should implement them and how they should enforce them, we should also be standing on a similar footing,” Agbaje said.
‘Whoa, you’re the candidate and you’re at my door?’
After graduating from Harvard Law School, where she worked as a student attorney for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, defending tenants facing eviction, Agbaje came back to Minnesota as an associate at Ciresi Conlin LLP. Her parents were now based at a church in Ohio, and her brothers working for TV networks in California, but she had always considered Minnesota home. She was glad to be back in the same state with her childhood friends and extended family—and to be working for a “firm focused on advocating for the rights of people,” Esther said, “taking the side of the quote unquote underdog.”
At Ciresi Conlin, she was part of the legal team representing prisoners in a class action lawsuit demanding the Minnesota Department of Corrections provide medication for Hepatitis C, which afflicts up to one in ten incarcerated people, on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Shortly before trial, Agbaje’s firm reached a settlement with the Department of Corrections, compelling them to provide the medication to prisoners at all stages of the disease. Minnesota Lawyer named the legal team, including Agbaje, as Attorney of the Year for their work on the case in 2019.
Agbaje knew she wanted to run for office someday, but thought it might still be off in the future. She saw her opportunity when she began speaking with community leaders who expressed an interest in bringing new energy and passion to the district’s House seat, and more attention to issues like housing, environmental justice and education. She decided to go for it, launching a primary challenge against Rep. Raymond Dehn—a four-term incumbent known and respected for his work on criminal justice reform.
She found that by knocking on doors and talking to potential voters, she could surprise people with her accessibility and willingness to listen. “One thing that came up all the time in my conversations was, ‘Whoa, you’re the candidate and you’re at my door?’” she recalled.
After the coronavirus hit, she couldn’t knock on doors. But the campaign held meet-and-greets in local parks and helped potential constituents directly over the phone. One woman knew she had made a mistake on her application for unemployment insurance, but couldn’t fix it without reliable internet access. Agbaje found her a phone number to call.
When police killed George Floyd and civil unrest rocked Minneapolis, Esther’s campaign team made wellness calls to check in on people rather than campaign calls. Through talking to voters, Esther found that her district, which encompassees both North Minneapolis and downtown neighborhoods, isn’t as divided as some people think. Residents of north Minneapolis and downtown may talk about public safety in different ways, she said, but their values are the same. Downtown residents are more concerned about property, while north Minneapolis residents are worried about gangs, gun violence, and humane treatment from police. But they share a vision, she said.
“There was a thread that people wanted their communities to be a place where they could go, walk around, bike around, shop, have businesses, and have their kids be safe at the end of the day,” she said.
After all the mail-in votes were counted, Agbaje won the primary by 607 votes. She’ll face Republican Alan Shilepsky and Green Party candidate Lisa Neal-Delgado in the November general election. Even though she is considered a shoo-in, she says she wants to make sure people know how to vote, get them to turn out and earn every one of their votes.
Meggie Wittorf, the executive director of Women Winning, a Minnesota-based political advocacy group that endorses pro-choice women—including Agbaje—said that her focus, tenacity and ability to build connections both with constituents and legislators outside her district would make her an effective, dynamic leader at the Capitol.
“At a time when in-person gatherings and traditional campaigning is impossible, Esther goes above and beyond to build relationships with people in north Minneapolis and the North Loop, to understand their pressing needs and the advocacy that they need and deserve,” Wittorf said. “So if this is what she is doing as a first-time candidate during a pandemic, just imagine the dedication and leadership we will see from her at the Capitol.”
Attorney General Keith Ellison, who once held the legislative seat and still lives in the district, endorsed Dehn in the primary. But he said he was impressed with Agbaje’s organizing skills.
“If her demonstrated ability to organize and mobilize people for the DFL endorsement and primary carries forth into her service, then she should be very successful,” he said.
The ongoing health, economic, and racial justice crises will be a challenge for the next legislature, Agbaje acknowledges. But, she said, the crises can provide moral clarity on what is necessary to serve people.
“These crises put in sharp relief that we don’t have time to wait for these issues anymore,” she said. “We have to move on them, and we have to move in a way that people see results.”
During her time in office, Agbaje wants to help achieve lofty goals: moving people into housing, getting to 100 percent renewable energy, and providing universal health care.
“I’m a big believer that we can make bold progress,” she said.
‘Just the very beginning’
Gonczy, Agbaje’s friend from Brainerd, is now a stay-at-home mom in Pequot Lakes. She and Agbaje have remained close through the years, even living out a childhood dream by going to a Hanson concert together two years ago. They don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on every issue. While Agbaje considers herself a progressive, Gonczy describes herself as moderate on some issues. But she calls Agbaje to ask questions on everything from defunding the police to abortion rights. Their friendship has resisted adult pressures to gravitate toward people in the same sphere of jobs and income. It’s an example of the kind of compassion she’ll bring to the legislature, Gonczy said, and a contrast to the ego that drives many national political figures.
She still believes Agbaje could be the first Black woman president. But what drives her friend, she said, is being able to help people. And politicians at the local level are often able to help more effectively than a president.
“I think she’s exactly who we need in office,” Gonczy said.
Megan Sheppard, Agbaje’s high school friend from Faribault who now is the equal employment opportunity director for St. Paul Public Schools, agrees.
“I could definitely see her running a campaign for a much higher national office like the presidency,” she said. “We’re seeing just the very beginning of her, for sure.”