WASHINGTON - As the United States marked the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman, the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the office — other lawmakers with foreign roots are breaking barriers across the country.
Among them is Representative Esther Agbaje of Minnesota, who this month became the first Nigerian American to serve in the state House of Representatives.
“There’s always going to be naysayers,” Agbaje, who represents portions of Minneapolis, told VOA in a recent interview. “There’s always going to be people that say, ‘Oh, you don’t have experience. Or, ‘You should wait your turn.’ And I say, ‘Don’t listen to them. You know yourself.’”
Agbaje is among several lawmakers who are first- or second-generation Americans of African descent elected to hold office in the United States.
In Washington, D.C., Representative Oye Owolewa, who has Nigerian roots, was sworn in as a shadow representative to the U.S. Congress, a position that advocates for D.C. statehood.
In New York, state Senator Samra Brouk, whose parents are from Ethiopia, represents the state’s 55th Senate District.
Oballa Oballa, a former refugee from Ethiopia, won a seat on the City Council of his adopted hometown of Austin, Minnesota. Representative Naquetta Ricks, originally from Liberia, was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. Omar Fateh, the son of Somali immigrants, was elected to Minnesota’s state Senate.
Agbaje, 35, was born in the Minnesota state capital, St. Paul, after her parents immigrated from Nigeria. Her father is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and her mother has worked in homeless services. After high school, she graduated from George Washington University and received a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Agbaje worked for the U.S. State Department, where she traveled in the Middle East promoting issues including the rule of law, freedom of expression and women’s rights. She returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard Law School, where she decided she wanted to make an impact closer to home.
“When I went to law school, I really saw that a lot of the laws and policies that we were promoting overseas, we weren’t doing as great a job promoting them in the United States,” she said. “And so, I took the opportunity after law school to return to my home state.”
While in private practice in Minnesota, she worked on issues like ensuring inmates have access to hepatitis C medication at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. She became passionate about the right to affordable housing.
“I just saw that our society still doesn’t have a great answer for people who are struggling with maintaining their housing,” she said. “Everything is money-based, and if you don’t have enough money, you’re out on the street, which for something like housing, that really shouldn’t be the case, because I believe it’s a fundamental human right.”
Agbaje decided last year to run for the Statehouse representing a diverse district in downtown Minneapolis. In the Democratic primary, she faced four-term incumbent and community activist Raymond Dehn. Some friends advised her to wait for a better time to run. She decided to run anyway.
“I think as women we can no longer let men, in particular, dictate our timeline,” she said. “When you know that you’re ready for something or that you’re ready to step into something or ready to take that leap of faith, I say go ahead and do it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made campaigning difficult. She held socially distanced pop-up events, made phone calls, and sent out texts and emails. She said she tried to focus less on selling herself as a candidate and more on asking people, “How are you?” and “What do you need?”
Her campaign organized drives to collect food and helped people sign up for resources such as unemployment benefits. On August 11, she defeated Dehn with 48% of the vote before easily winning the general election in November.
Agbaje said she got a boost from the West African diaspora in the state.
“Across the state of Minnesota, there is actually a pretty decent-sized population of West Africans,” she said. “And so many of them were really excited about the campaign and jumped on board, and helped to volunteer and make phone calls, and helped us at many different stages of the campaign. So, I’m really grateful for that.”
Agbaje hopes other young women will consider running for office, particularly those of African descent. She said they cannot wait for the perfect time and just need to take the plunge.
“If you want to step up and lead for your community, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t,” she said. “So, I would say go for it, and enjoy the ride.”