Profiling Rep. Athena Hollins

By: Cirien Saadeh

Additional support on this profile was provided by Thuba Nguyễn (Communications Specialist with the POCI Caucus and Queer Caucus). However that support in no way influenced the editorial direction and independence of this piece.

As we continue working through the 2023-2024 legislative session here in Minnesota, The UpTake is sitting down with legislators, specifically BIPOC and QT legislators. These personal profiles aim to introduce all of us to these returning and new leaders, and help us understand the incredibly diverse Minnesota State Legislature. 

Our next profile is with Representative Athena Hollins (DFL – District 66B). Hollins, who serves as Majority Whip in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Athena is currently serving her second term, representing portions of Saint Paul. 

Here’s what Rep. Hollins had to say in our interview: 

This interview has been edited for length.

Let’s start at the beginning. Who are you? What should people know about you? 

Rep. Hollins: Oh, that is always the hardest question. I am always interested in this question because it is how people define themselves and I think that is really telling. I am a lawyer, community organizer, wife, and a mother. I did not ever expect to be in politics, I suppose that is the beginning of many stories of leaders and politicians of color and complex identities. We experience firsthand the effects of oppressive systems that perpetuate violence and disenfranchisement in our communities and decided at some point, enough is enough, it is time to act. When I was in undergrad in Oregon, I did a lot of activism and I got very frustrated with that because I did not feel like there was any tangible change that was being made. I thought that maybe I would be more effective if I could work from within the system. I moved to Minnesota in 2008, I went to law school, and I was really focusing my efforts on civil rights and human rights law. 

Folks like you & I graduated in the recession, and I know for many, that experience became a defining moment in their lives. What was that experience like for you? 

I graduated during the recession, so I just took whatever job I could get. All my internships and jobs on the side were all in this area of civil rights and human rights. I worked in family law and estate planning for a while, but even when I was in law school and doing human rights and civil rights work, I was frustrated again. I had a little more flexibility and little more say in what happens in the work, but in the end, I still had to adhere to the laws as they are written. We have a lot of laws that reinforce harmful outcomes and disproportionate gaps in equity for BIPOC, queer, and disability communities. Many laws are rooted archaic systems and are not reflective of the current reality that we live in.

I think that was really what motivated me to get more involved in politics. As I got more involved with working on campaigns, I found a niche with relationship building and expanding networks. Eventually, I got on the district council of my neighborhood, which is in Payne-Phalen, and started making connections with city council members and county commissioners and talking to them about the concerns that we were hearing from our community. I decided that it would make sense for me to run for office and get involved in politics in way that allowed me to transmit voices within the communities straight to the Minnesota Legislature. It is a major responsibility to carry the weight of your community but its also thinking about our youngest citizens and creating a world for them that denounces harm and violence and uplifts humanity and equality.  

You run for the legislature and you win. What’s that experience like? I mean, there’s an onboarding process. You’re in this new space, in a space that I might add is not meant for folks of color, it’s not meant for women of color, it’s not meant for women leaders of color. It is not a space that if you go into necessarily feels welcoming to folks like us. What’s that like to be in that space and to now be there in a leadership role?

I would not be at the Legislature without my incredible family, friends, and community. It is a humbling feeling to be the reason that people from different communities and lived experiences join forces for a greater cause. They believed in me and my ability to help improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It is an honor to be back at the Legislature for my second term. In my experience running for my seat, I was up against an 18-year veteran who had established relationships that set a status quo for behaviors. With any change, there comes a sense of fear of the unknown. When you couple that with a racialized lens, a woman of color challenging a white man of influence and authority, it adds more barriers and challenges. 

This place was built with the intentions to exclude people of color, women of color, queer people, all the above, from participating in the democratic process. In this role and specifically in this place, I am often reminded of the fundamentalism that our nation created. The walls are permeated with patriarchy and the culture of disposability is abundant. I will credit the people and communities across Minnesota for increasing the diverse representation among the Legislature. We have a historic 20 member People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus, and we have openly queer and gender expansive legislators. There are affinity groups that are branching from the POCI Caucus because people of color and complex identities are not a monolith, and we do not have the same challenges- that is why it’s incredibly important that we continue to apply an intersectional lens to all of our work and legislation. Whether people are ready for us and our ideas or not, we are here, we will continue to work towards dismantling systemic racism and restorative justice. 

When I was elected to leadership this year as Majority Whip, at some point it came out that I am part of the Democratic Socialists of America. I have been questioned, “well, you’re a Democratic Socialist, how do you think that aligns with the DFL platform?” I said, “I think our generation, my generation, went through some really rough times and saw what this trickle-down economic theory actually looks like and how it totally screwed us over in so many different ways.” I think we are hyper-impacted by it to this day. Our nation was not created by corporations it was created by people and I intend to remind our state and nation that we need to work towards the liberation for all people from marginalized communities and putting the power back with the people and not corporations. 

How do you define power, and where do you think your own power comes from?

For me, I do not associate my power with dominance. My power derives from the people that I represent. I feel more powerful when I am advocating on the behalf of people who are experiencing marginalization. Being a Black woman, we often find ourselves being the ‘caretaker’ of our community. Simply put, Black women do not get the respect and acknowledgment we deserve. That gives me an immense sense of power. Sometimes it’s stressful and overwhelming, and I take it very personally when something happens in my community or even within my broader community as a Black woman. 

Community gives me strength and feeds my empowerment. In our line of work, community is essential. We need people who we can entrust and disperse that responsibility with to ease the burden. I am grateful for my colleagues within the POCI caucus and my colleagues in the Queer Caucus who uplift me and rally around my passion projects. When I feel exhausted or when I feel discouraged by the archaic traditions of the Legislature, I know they will care for me, and pick up those reins and continue the fight. Collectivism fuels my power- we must work in unity to ensure we uplift and the most marginalized voice. 

Do you have any mentors and or heroes that have propelled you into who you are now?

I always look at my parents. My mom is a social worker, my dad’s a small business owner and they disagree on politics constantly. Being able to see that respectful disagreement is powerful, to be able to see how you can disagree with somebody but still love and respect them. That is something that I want to emulate. That is something that I want to move in the world with. I think that when you move that way, it allows people the freedom to change, to change where they are coming from. I think when you allow people the freedom to change, they are more likely to do it and they are more likely to do so if you allow them that space to change their mind and to come to it in a natural way without needing to feel defensive. 

Sharon Sayles Belton was my boss when I worked at Thomson Reuters. She really helped me wrap my head around how to use politics to influence the world. When I first came to her, I said, “I’m thinking about doing this, I’m not really sure what area I’d be interested in working on.” She sat down with me during my formative years and helped me figure out how you engage with individuals and the political arena. 

Then I think the last person I would say is Mitra Jalali from the Saint Paul City Council. She was a huge part of encouraging me to run as who I am. When you become a public figure, you experience levels of ‘imposter syndrome’ or trying to be someone you are not. It was Mitra, in a lot of ways, who helped me realize, “it’s okay for me to just be me and to be authentic and people are either going to love me or they’re not, but it’s okay because I’ve got to be myself.” Being a Black woman working in a predominately white institution, I felt the need to assimilate to colonized standards of talking, dressing, and acting. Mitra’s emphasis on the need to be authentic and genuine have influenced a great deal of my success. 

This is, let’s say, an interesting legislative session. What has the session been like for you so far, and what do you hope comes out of this session? Not just in terms of policy, but personally as well.

The unexpected Trifecta has given the DFL a lot of agency to pass bills that have been long overdue for justice in a swift manner. In lieu of the fast-moving session, my new role as Majority Whip, there was not a lot of lead-up time or runway to get my feet under me. It has been a learn-as-you-go situation, when usually you would have more time to figure out exactly how you are going to do it and what you are going to do. Although I did not have the opportunity to strategize a plan, I was able learn firsthand the interworking’s of how the House works with the Senate and the Governor to accomplish things. The things I want to see out of this that are not policy related, because I think I could go on and on about policy that I want to see, but the things I want to see for the House as an institution is some real meaningful change in our expectations about what is normal and how we function as a Body in almost every single way.

I do think that we are making progress, but my goal for the end of these two years is hopefully to really have a framework that is more welcoming and has diverse representation. I want to help create a space at the Legislature for future trans, queer, BIPOC, and disabled leaders. The Legislature also needs to address and mitigate micro and macroaggressions and gendered normativity ideals legislators and staffers of BIPOC/queer representation experience daily. 

Overall, the Legislature also needs to increase its accessibility measures. Quite frankly, our buildings could do better to improve ADA regulations for our disability community. We need to make it easier for everyone to participate in their civic engagements. We have a responsibility to our Greater MN neighbors and tribal nation to give them ample opportunities to testify and share their stories on important bills that impact their lives. We need to adopt high-quality technology that allows for people across the state to watch and interact during committee hearings. 

How do you think about sustainability within the scope of your work? 

I think that part of the way that we must do this work is to build movements. It cannot be one person. Movements needs to occur both within the institution and outside of it. A big part of what I try to do during session is stay in touch with the organizations and the people who are making these things happen realistically and who are organizing the people to influence what happens at the Capitol. We call the Capitol “The People’s House” for a reason. It is our people and communities that come together to make sustainable change. Change for the people, by the people. 

The co-governance model is where our next generation of legislators are going to be coming from. I am a big believer of handing over the reins, and potentially handing them over before you’re even done if it means the greater community will benefit.  I never want to be in that situation where I have refused to step down because I think that I have just got one more thing to do, because it’s always one more project. There will never be an end. At some point, you must trust the people that you have brought along with you. You must believe that, and you have to be there for them, too. Be there as a support, be there as a guiding hand, be there to answer questions for them, and ultimately, that is where I would rather be. I would rather be a mentor to 10 people doing this than be one person struggling to do it alone.

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