For attorney Esther Agbaje, the desire to make a difference sealed her case for seeking elective office.
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"I have always had jobs that were in this space of helping people," said Agbaje, who worked on human rights cases with the U.S. State Department, defended tenants from eviction as a law student and currently tries to aid sick or injured individuals through medical malpractice lawsuits.
But those roles left her asking, "How do we help more people at once? Often that means going to a lever of government."
Agbaje is wrapping up her first year in the Minnesota State Assembly, helping pull the legislative lever in the Upper Midwestern state. Elected in November 2020 as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — Minnesota's version of the Democratic Party — she represents District 59B, encompassing downtown Minneapolis and parts of the city's near north side.
"It's a pretty vibrant district. It's got diversity in its economic classes, and it's got diversity in its ethnic groups and racial groups," Agbaje said. "And it's really just a fun place to live."
The 35-year-old was born a few kilometers away, across the Mississippi River in St. Paul, the state's capital. Her parents had come from southwestern Nigeria — he from Ekiti state, she from Ogun state — and met as students at the University of Minnesota. They married and had Esther and two younger sons.
Agbaje's father, John, is an Episcopal priest. Her mother, Bunmi, a retired librarian, at one point ran a homeless services center.
"As a child of parents whose mission was to serve others, I have followed in their footsteps throughout my life," Agbaje wrote on her campaign website.
While majoring in political science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she advocated for labor rights. While earning advanced degrees — a master's in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree from Harvard — she worked on building healthy communities, preventing homelessness and assisting renters. In between, she worked for the State Department's U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative managing projects to build more independent judiciaries and to advance women's and minority populations' rights in Egypt and in Gulf countries.
"After law school, I wanted to come home," Agbaje said. "And home to me is Minnesota."
'Hands in the dirt'
Agbaje returned to Minnesota in 2017, joining the Minneapolis law firm of Ciresi Conlin as an associate, mostly working on its medical malpractice team. She also volunteers with Hennepin County Housing Court, St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral and local environmental justice organizations.
Many Saturday mornings find her alongside youngsters in lower-income neighborhoods, pulling on work gloves to plant saplings or clean up debris.
"She's showed up to do the work with us, to plant the trees, to start a new garden," said Analyah Schlaeger dos Santos, who coordinates youth programs for Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light. The nonprofit organization's projects include building up the tree canopy to improve climate and community health.
Schlaeger dos Santos praised Agbaje's ongoing engagement.
"She puts her hands in the dirt with community members, and that speaks volumes," she said.
Agbaje, whose lawmaking duties are considered part time, also volunteers at pop-up workshops on rental assistance and legal aid.
"My role is really to help the community where I can," she said, "whether that's putting forward policies and legislation to (address) problems that help all Minnesotans or directing people to resources at other levels where they can receive direct help."
Agbaje's district has sleek and soaring downtown buildings, sports stadiums and parks, businesses large and small, tidy neighborhoods and tent communities.
Its nearly 50,000 residents are minority-majority, with white residents accounting for the largest share (42%), then Black residents (37%), followed by a mix of Asian, Hispanic and other residents, Census data show. There's "a significant population of African Americans, East Africans, Hmong Americans and some Latin people as well," Agbaje said.
Agbaje said she wants to make sure "that the voice of this community also resonates with the rest of the state." She stressed that Minnesotans are "people from all types, all walks of life, and that our policies across the state should reflect that."
One in five Minnesotans identify as "other than white," state data show, While earlier waves of immigrants came from Europe, in recent decades they've come from Mexico, Somalia, India, Laos and Vietnam, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
As the general population's composition has shifted, "the demographics have been changing in the legislature in some pretty important ways," said Christina Ewig, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and director of its Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy. She has analyzed data from the current state legislature, where 12.4% of its members self-identified as Latino or Hispanic, Hmong, Native American and Black or Somali American — up from 3% two decades ago.
Agbaje represents part of that change, Ewig said, adding, "It's really important to have a diversity of views in your legislature for a healthy democracy."
Lessons in negotiating
In the Minnesota Legislature, Republicans control the Senate, and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party controls the House. The division has taught Agbaje more about the art of negotiating.
"When you're campaigning, you're very full of ideas, and you're full of hope, and you're full of vision, which stays with you once you start legislating," she explained. But then, it's a matter of convincing Minnesota's 200 other state legislators "to bring your idea and your constituents' ideas into fruition to create policy and change. So, there is much more negotiating once you become a legislator."
Agbaje has brought forward ideas shaping a handful of new measures. Most involve housing, given her service on the Assembly's Housing Finance and Policy Committee.
One measure protects renters from eviction for nonpayment, through June 2022, if they have applied for pandemic-related federal aid. Another, which Agbaje said she is "really proud" of sponsoring, allows individuals to retrieve personal records and medical equipment from rental storage units before the contents are auctioned off because of nonpayment. It's aimed at helping vulnerable people, such as those fleeing domestic violence or who otherwise are homeless.
Agbaje was disappointed when Minneapolis voters in early November defeated a controversial and closely watched proposal that she endorsed to revamp the city's policing and fold it into a new Department of Public Safety. The proposal arose from demands for racial justice following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the Black man's neck.
"It's unfortunate that it didn't pass," Agbaje said of the proposal, which she said nonetheless may have laid a foundation for change.
"The fact that 44% of people said that they wanted to try something different is good news. And also, even the people who voted it down, if you talk to them, do still want some type of police reform."
Asked about Nigeria's #EndSARS protests last year against police brutality, Agbaje drew a parallel.
"Young people were rising up, standing up against a government" that should work for them, she said.
"I applaud their efforts," she added, along with those of "young people across the United States and across the world who are standing up and saying, 'You know, our rights count for something.' I wholeheartedly agree with them and want them to succeed in their efforts."
VOA's Betty Ayoub contributed to this report.