Mayor-elect Amáda Márquez Simula wants to help create a Columbia Heights where "people can become friends with someone whose kids aren’t in the same grade, whether they’re a cat person or a dog person, or have a different skin color or culture.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Amáda Márquez Simula grew up in the Wisconsin countryside. As an adult she’s lived in Denver, San Francisco, and Edina, Minnesota. But it wasn’t until she moved to Columbia Heights seven years ago that she felt at home.

“This is the first place I’ve lived where I feel like I truly belong,” she said.

As an active Columbia Heights volunteer, Márquez Simula has organized events and built a nonprofit organization to help neighbors from different communities get to know each other and make sure they can feel like they belong, too. Now she plans to take that community-building ethos to the mayor’s office in Columbia Heights. With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Márquez Simula declared victory over tow truck operator and Council Member Nick Novitsky with a comfortable lead of about 1,000 votes—more than 9 percentage points. Though Novitsky lost the mayoral race, he will remain on the city council.

Columbia Heights, a first-ring Minneapolis suburb of about 20,000 people, has never elected a person of color to the mayor’s office or the city council. Márquez Simula will be the city’s first Latina mayor, and only the second in the state. 

“I think it means that Columbia Heights is ready to embrace the changing demographics of our city, and that one doesn’t have to have grown up here to be able to be a part of the city government and how things happen in the city,” she said.

Márquez Simula currently works for the city’s public works department on the composting program and as the adult enrichment and program manager for Columbia Heights Public Schools. Her opponent, Nick Novitsky, a 40-year resident of Columbia Heights who has served on the city council for four years, had hoped his independence of party politics would foster widespread support in the nonpartisan race.

Lexy Courneya, a college student volunteering on her campaign, said Márquez Simula could unite the city’s diverse communities at a difficult time.

“We really need a leader that brings people together and also does not waver on their commitment to acknowledging that communities of color, Black people, and immigrants are all welcome and valued in our community,” Courneya said. “It shows that our community is ready to start embracing different voices.”

‘Everyone else was white’

Márquez Simula was born in Madison, the daughter of a white mother and a Mexican father. When she was seven, the family moved to rural Wisconsin, where they kept a hobby farm.

“Everyone else was white and I had a different name,” she said. “I had friends and everything, but I definitely experienced being the other with some racism.”

Young Amáda was active in high school theater and cheerleading, and cultivated her sense of civic responsibility as a member of 4H and the Girl Scouts.

“Girl Scouts very much taught me you should leave a place better than you found it,” she said. “I take that to heart.”

After college, Márquez Simula headed west: to the San Francisco Bay area and then Denver before settling in the Twin Cities. She moved to Edina, where her four children attended school and she was active in her church community. She served as a Girl Scout leader and campaigned for Paul Wellstone. But as a rare Latina in a predominantly white suburb, Márquez Simula has said, she was sometimes mistaken for a nanny.

When she moved to Columbia Heights seven years ago, it was the first time she felt like she belonged. 

“There’s space and there’s room for everyone here,” she said. “Everyone belongs here. They have the same validity in this space.”

New to Columbia Heights? Join the club.  

Columbia Heights, which borders northeast Minneapolis, is one of the most diverse cities in the state. About 30 percent of residents are people of color, including large Somali, Tibetan, and Latino communities. This diversity, Márquez Simula said, is what made her feel so at home. “It feels like the world in a small city,” she said.

The population—just shy of 20,000, according to 2018 Census data—is low enough to create the intimate feel of a small town just outside a big city. “You can wrap your head around the whole town, and people can become friends with someone whose kids aren’t in the same grade, whether they’re a cat person or a dog person, or have a different skin color or culture,” she said.

Civic engagement and volunteerism through institutions like the Lions Club and Rotary Club, thrive in the small community—and Márquez Simula belongs to many of them. She became a neighborhood block captain as soon as she moved to town and stepped up her civic involvement from there.

Novitsky, too, is active in these civic organizations: He serves as president of the Lions Club and belongs to the local Kiwanis Club and Columbia Heights Athletic Boosters. He also leads the Twin Cities Walk for Apraxia. 

But it’s her activism through a different type of civic group, HeightsNEXT, that ultimately propelled Márquez Simula to run for office.

The group, which Márquez Simula helped found, builds sustainability in Columbia Heights through projects like plant swaps and a city food forest. On a broader level, the group focuses on environmental sustainability objectives like solar panels and composting. In both cases, community building is central to the group’s philosophy.

For Márquez Simula, encouraging environmental sustainability and building a strong social fabric are intertwining goals. “When a tragedy happens, communities that are strong are the ones that can weather the storm,” she said. “To truly be a community, people need to depend on each other and work together.”

Many adults form their relationships through their children’s school activities or involvement in a faith community, she said. But “if you don’t have those things and you’re an adult and you don’t have children, it’s much harder to meet people and meet your community,” she added. “Anybody can come to our events or be part of volunteering. There’s no gatekeeping.”

So community building is woven into every event. The group structures plant swaps, for instance, so that gardeners can actually meet and talk to each other, instead of just grabbing a plant and leaving. “You realize you are in a community where other people care about the things you care about,” she said. 

That’s how she met Abdirizak Adan, a 33-year-old small business owner who moved to Columbia Heights last year. After he posted on Facebook that he was looking for local volunteer opportunities, he met Márquez Simula through organizing storytelling events with HeightsNEXT. Each month, a different community—Somali, LGBTQ, renters—shares personal stories about Columbia Heights.

“We give them a voice where they can share how they feel, and that gives other residents a way to know what their neighbors are going through,” Zak said. For example, in the Somali community, he said, many people don’t speak English well and don’t know how to reach out to other neighbors. This story exchange provides them a way to connect with other communities and feel less isolated. 

And she’s had the same impact on Zak personally. When he bought a house in Columbia Heights a year and a half ago, he didn’t know anybody. “Now I know the whole community, based on the things I did with HeightsNEXT,” he said. “I have so many friends now, and I know what’s going on within Columbia Heights.”

For Márquez Simula, finding ways to bring people together comes naturally. That talent will be central to her leadership as mayor, she said.

“I am a networker and a connector,” she said. “That’s my superpower.”

Amáda Márquez Simula holds her chicken Lucille, looking down upon fellow chickens Nina Simone, Marilyn, Maleficent, and Merida. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A Columbia Heights humanitarian

Márquez Simula’s commitment to helping her neighbors at city hall started well before she ever thought about running for office, said Lexy Courneya, the 22-year-old college student who volunteered on her campaign.

Courneya’s next-door neighbors, for example, were worried that traffic on their street could be dangerous to their children.

Because of the curve of the road, it could be difficult for oncoming cars to see kids playing. When a vehicle is parked across the street, it creates a blind spot for drivers and danger for the kids, Courneya said.

So Márquez Simula went to city hall to advocate for a No Parking sign to go up across the street from Courneya’s neighbor’s house. “That was something that Amáda achieved just because she wanted her neighbors’ kids to be safe,” Courneya said. “She is somebody who is incredibly proactive even as a private citizen.”

The first activity where Jackie Kurki, 72, got to know Márquez Simula was a litter cleanup of Central Avenue, the city’s main commercial drag. “She was just very nice and warm,” Kurki said. “She cares. She cares what happens in this city.”

Last summer, Márquez Simula and other volunteers with HeightsNEXT organized Columbia Heights’ first ever Pride festival. The current mayor, Donna Schmitt, refused to issue a proclamation in honor of Pride, saying the celebration didn’t fit within ceremonial guidelines. But Schmitt then confirmed to KSTP that those guidelines were created the same week HeightsNEXT began asking for a proclamation. (Schmitt did not run for reelection.) 

Undeterred, Márquez Simula and HeightsNEXT asked for—and received—a proclamation in honor of Columbia Heights Pride from the Minnesota State Senate, signed by Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic Senator Carolyn Laine. The Senate resolution honored HeightsNEXT and celebrated the “commitment, enthusiasm, and resilience” of those who organized the city’s first Pride festival.

Even Márquez Simula’s hobbies center on volunteerism. “I like to sew. I like to garden,” she said. “So what do I do? I sew things to volunteer, and I garden to volunteer.” She’s currently working on a quilt square for the city’s centennial next year, and has been volunteering to create a food forest called Blooming Sunshine. The urban gardening project will fill an unused baseball field with fruit trees, herbs, tomatoes, and strawberries.

It’s because of efforts like these that Márquez Simula received the 2017 Humanitarian of the Year Award from the city of Columbia Heights. “I had only been working in the community for two or three years,” Márquez Simula said. “It was given to me in noticing, This is what you’ve already done and we know you will continue to keep doing going forward.”

A ‘yes’ city

As mayor, Márquez Simula will have a powerful platform for community building. One priority is to make Columbia Heights more inclusive at the city government level. “When the city is looking at park improvements or streets,” she said, elected officials should “make sure we have a council and commissions and boards that are actually representing our community.” 

That also involves listening to constituents’ ideas to see how they can be realized. “I want our city to become more of a ‘yes’ city,” she said. “When someone complains, the answer isn’t No, we’ve always done it this way.”

She plans to use her networking skills to bring more businesses and jobs into Columbia Heights, working with the community development department. In the era of COVID-19 when so many things are virtual, she wants to look into making the internet a public utility for Columbia Heights residents. Affordable housing is a priority. And many residents are concerned about walkability, she said.

She hopes her win will open doors for others in Columbia Heights, too.

“We have a lot of community leaders that are here and they’re already doing stuff in their diverse communities and want to help make Columbia Heights a great place,” she said. “I’m hopefully opening that door for them to come on board, and I will be aggressively reaching out.”

For Zak, Márquez Simula’s win marks a new generation of leadership in Columbia Heights.

“I hope she inspires people like me and others to run for office, volunteer and do a good job for the community,” he said. “I hope she inspires my daughter to run for office.” 

His five-year-old daughter was excited to learn Márquez Simula was running, he said. “She thinks it’s a great idea.”

Amáda Márquez Simula’s chickens–Nina Simone, Marilyn, Lucille, Maleficent, and Merida–cluster around a xylophone. The chickens play the xylophone by pecking off feed Márquez Simula places there. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.