Every Friday, from noon to 4 p.m., Nikki Villavicencio, 36, set up a table and a few chairs in her front yard in Maplewood. Residents in her neighborhood, legislators, even her political opponents would stop by to learn more about the city council candidate.
Villavicencio’s “Yardside Chats,” as she called them, paid off when she won a Maplewood City Council seat Wednesday. In a field of four candidates vying for two open seats, Villavicencio received 7,975 votes, or 28.6 percent of the vote.
“I was in shock at first,” Villavicencio said. “But I’m excited and ready to get the people’s work done.”
She’s concerned about how democracy is playing out at the local level and, realistically speaking, Villavicencio said, that starts with the city’s budget. As the former chair of the Maplewood Parks and Recreation Commission and as someone who uses a wheelchair, Villavicencio said her priority is to make the city more accessible.
“People have asked me why I would want to run for office,” Villavicencio said of some residents she met while campaigning. “If I can make a community work for me, then it’s going to work for the majority of the community.”
Villavicencio, a Filipina American woman, has been advocating for disability rights for the last 10 year, in part as a client advocate for the union of United Home Care Workers. Villavicencio testified before the state Legislature to help form the union in 2013, increase wages and provide more training for home-care workers.
She has also testified to increase voter rights for people with disabilities who have a guardian.
“My struggle is so tied with other people’s struggle,” Villavicencio said. “That’s what really drives me to do the work that I do.”
‘People with disabilities aren’t told they can be leaders’
The Maplewood City Council represents a growing population of more than 40,000, in a suburb just east of St. Paul. Four members serve on the Maplewood City Council, all part time.
The council appointed Villavicencio in 2014 to help write the parks-and-recreation master plan for 2020. She was then elected to serve as parks and recreation commissioner.
Villavicencio has also worked on a number of political campaigns. In 2009, she conducted voter outreach for the former secretary of state Mark Ritchie’s campaign. In 2010, she helped develop accessible ways to door-knock, a system she implemented in the election campaign for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Villavicencio said the system was meant to reach people who have disabilities and encourage them to participate in the political process. That message comes through clearly when the door-knocker herself has a disability.
“I really feel it’s important that elected officials and candidates are doing their due diligence and being available to their residents,” Villavicencio said. Along with a team of about 10 people, she phonebanked and dropped pamphlets around the city during her own campaign.
Both her political and advocacy work sparked an interest in Villavicencio to run for office, she said.
“People with disabilities aren’t told they can be leaders,” Villavicencio said. “We don’t even get to participate in politics the same way.”
Door-knocking, for instance, can be overwhelming for Villavicencio. She said she needs to be accompanied by another person who can physically approach each door. For the campaign, her friends also helped drive her around in accessible vans.
‘Democracy should start at the bottom’
As a city council member, Villavicencio is looking forward to tackling a difficult budget.
“I’m an organizer, and I always told other advocates that we need to look at budgets and the values of what we value,” Villavicencio said. For her part, she’ll be prioritizing funding for parks.
Villavicencio also said she wants to restore public comment periods at city council meetings. As someone who has made a difference testifying at the state capitol, Villavicencio said it seemed wrong that Maplewood residents haven’t been given the same opportunity at the municipal level.
“I don’t think that is a good way to have democracy,” Villavicencio said. “One of the main reasons why I wanted to run for office at the city council level was because I believe that democracy should start at the bottom.”
While door-knocking, Villavicencio said she would speak with residents of Maplewood who weren’t citizens, and therefore couldn’t vote for her. About 15 percent of the city’s population is Asian, 9.2 percent are Black, and 8.7 percent are Latino. Foreign-born residents make up almost 13 percent of the population.
During her campaign, she would assure these residents that she intends to represent them, too, as a city council member.
Learning what prejudice looks like—and the value of community-mindedness
Villavicencio herself is a third-generation citizen. Her grandfather Celso Villavicencio came to the United States from the Philippines in the 1920s as a physician. Celso moved to Portage, Wisconsin, after he married Mary James in 1956. But Villavicencio said their marriage was delayed, since it was illegal at the time for Celso to marry James, who was white.
Villavicencio and her family, who continued to live in Portage, faced their own challenges as the only minority family in town. “You really understand at a very deep level what prejudice looks like,” Villavicencio said. “Being one of the only disabled women in town—it magnifies that.”
Still, Villavicencio grew up watching her grandfather volunteer at church, schools, or anywhere else he was needed.
“My grandfather is one of the main reasons I do a lot of what I do in the community,” Villavicencio said. “He helped out in the community everywhere he could, and I always wanted to be like him.”
Villavicencio now lives in Maplewood with her partner, Darrel Paulsen, and 8-year-old daughter, Alexandria, who helped her hand out pamphlets during the campaign.
The family invited a few friends over for a bonfire on election night while they waited for the results to come in. They sang songs to distract themselves and sat near a grid of lawn signs in Villavicencio’s yard, where she’d held her last Yardside Chat two days prior. She wore pants printed with stars and stripes.
“It was such a beautiful night,” Villavicencio said. “When these big things happen in our lives, we need to celebrate them, no matter what.”