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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Binta Kanteh, a young Gambian-American Muslim making her mark in Minnesota politics

Binta Kanteh, a young Gambian-American Muslim making her mark in Minnesota politics

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Salam Binta! Tell me a bit about yourself and your personal background.

I’m Black, Muslim – born and raised in the United States. I’m a second generation American and a first generation US citizen. My upbringing is central to the lens that I bring to my work. My family is from The Gambia, one of the smallest countries in Africa. [Gambia is] inside of Senegal and a majority of it is landlocked. My parents came to the US in the mid-90s, settled in Minnesota and had my younger brothers and me.  My father was deported back to The Gambia when I was nine. That had a big impact on me because of having to mature faster than the average kid. But it also introduced me to power, the power our systems have that I’d never known of before.

I didn’t know there were Gambians in Minnesota! I’ve noticed in general, West Africans here tend to be less visible than other groups, for example East Africans. Is there a large Gambian population in Minnesota?

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The Gambia is such a small country, a couple million people. It’s already not a large community, especially when you compare it with other large diasporas. Gambians live primarily in the West metro and in Minneapolis. Brooklyn Park has a big population. I think we’re about 1,500 to 2000 [here]. We’ve had a presence in Minnesota since the 90s.

Could you speak more to how your father’s deportation and your family’s immigration story impacted you?

Immigration policy had a really devastating effect on my family growing up. [For example], my mom was left a single parent to three children, working two jobs to support her children and all while maintaining a semblance of normalcy.  I owe a lot to my parents [because] they made a sacrifice to come here. Being the eldest of the three, I witnessed how hard she’s worked and I knew I had a responsibility to do my best in my education and my career to make it all worth it.

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That’s powerful. So, talk me through your educational and career trajectory. How did you get to working in Minnesota policy/politics?

From [ages] nine to 18, I was in the performing arts and theatre. In senior year [of high school] I started reading more about social justice through political texts, including the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I said, “I want to dive more into this, I want to study power and politics”. So I sought out political science programmes and landed at DePaul [University] in Chicago.

I started off in poli sci, then went into international studies. I have always been interested in how power plays out outside of the US. My concentration was immigration and refugee studies. I thought that was the path I’d pursue after graduation, but I ended up working at the Minnesota House of Representatives a couple months after graduating from undergrad. I worked with Representative Mary Kunesh (DFL 41), now the first Indigenous woman in the Minnesota Senate. I was a legislative assistant for her and assisted her in efforts around missing and murdered indigenous women. Specifically, at the time I was with her, she created a bill that would form a task force around why our indigenous sisters are going missing and being murdered at high rates.

MashaAllah that is incredible. Who else have you been inspired by in policy?

I worked with Former Representative David Bly (DFL 20B) from Northfield, and Representative Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL 42B) who is also an indigenous woman. Eventually, I started working with Representative Rena Moran (DFL 65A), who is now the Ways and Means Committee Chair. At the time, she was one of few Black women in the Minnesota legislature. It was very inspirational to see how connected she was to her constituency.  The representatives that I assisted had a high level of engagement with their communities and a vision for what could be possible in Minnesota that really laid the groundwork for me in understanding what good governance looks like.

So, how did you land your current role with Commissioner Angela Conley? What issue areas have you been working on with her so far?

In November 2018, when the DFL took the majority in the House of Representatives, I was promoted to work with the Majority Leader Representative Ryan Winkler (DFL 46A). I learned a great deal from working with, and for, a caucus leader. I had the amazing opportunity to support him in his legislative priorities, one of them being driver’s licences for all regardless of immigration status. After being in that role for a little over a year-and-a-half, I was offered an opportunity to serve in local government.  With Commissioner Angela Conley, in 2021 we’ve been working on increasing housing capacity in her district and Hennepin County at large, advocating for supportive housing and shelter. [Housing] was her priority before I came to work with her and will continue to be until we get the housing capacity and supports we need. Also, [we’ve been working on] increasing resources for our domestic violence and victim witnesses work in Hennepin County, as well as environmental justice.  The former Roof Depot building in East Phillips is another issue happening right now. The City of Minneapolis wants to demolish [it], but residents want to keep it and create an urban farm–which would create more jobs.  Although this is a city issue, it’s in Commissioner Conley’s district and she’s very supportive of East Phillips. That community has been subjected to a lot of environmental injustice and high rates of asthma. From the county, a step in the direction to address environmental harms is through our Climate Action Plan which we will be adopting soon. We’ve been working with our communities in developing that plan.

Have there been challenges on your journey? How have you overcome them?

Being in [politics] comes with its difficulties. Despite my genuine excitement to be working in this field, you still need to remember who you are, especially as a Black woman, in whatever institution you’re in. We see cynicism and burnout and people leave when there isn’t a boundary between who you are and your job. I maintain capacity by trying to keep in contact with other Black women and women of colour in the field, to vent and hold space for each other. I love working in a team of all Black women. The protection and support [we have] for each other is inherent. And maintaining friendships where we don’t talk about politics all the time. I try to paint in my free time.

What strikes me is how young you are, and how much you’ve been able to accomplish. How do you stay grounded with all the intersectional work you’ve already done?

What grounds me is keeping in mind: what can I do today with what I have that could have possibly made 10-year-old Binta’s upbringing better? What can I do with what I have that would have helped her single mom not feel so overburdened? So much goes into that: affordable and quality housing, resources for our parents to be able to balance life between taking care of their children and providing shelter and food. I was born in 1995, which I think is the end of the millennial generation.  So, I feel so grateful to have been in the spaces I’ve been in and contribute in the small way that I was able to and continue to do. I credit a lot of that to my mama, she’s always so proud of me and supporting me to be in alignment with my best self.

Does Islam and faith play a role in helping you stay grounded? What else?

Gratefulness. I always give thanks to the Almighty for the blessing that it is to be able to do such incredible work. I also credit the blessings I’ve had to the people I’ve worked for and been matched with, including my current employer Commissioner Conley. They all work from a place that is value-centered, community and constituency-centered, vision-centered. They have given me the opportunity to assist them and to identify opportunities that I think they should explore.

Do you have any last reflections on how we should think about policy or organising work?

Another lens to employ in this work is love: doing work based on love for other people. When we fail to employ intersectionality and love for our fellow human beings, people fall through the cracks. [Love is important] when we’re talking about liberation and equal access, climate change and disability justice.  And also, not thinking in the binary. Things are not entirely one way or the other. Acknowledging that nothing exists in the binary – that’s a path to transformation. There is a connection between this and the intersection of identities that exist in the world, no matter who you are and what you look like.

Disclaimer: This interview took place in May 2021. Since then, and as of the date of publication, Binta and Commissioner Conley have worked together on additional policies. These include: passing $10 million in funding for Black and Indigenous maternal healthcare, making Juneteenth an official paid holiday for Hennepin County employees (9,000 people), support for fully funding the county’s housing initiatives at US$74 million, and supporting mental health/substance dependent funding at US$20 million.

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