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History made: Worthington native Cheniqua Johnson joins all-female St. Paul City Council

In World
January 23, 2024

Jan. 23—ST. PAUL — Worthington native Cheniqua Johnson made Minnesota history, and the national spotlight, when she was sworn in Jan. 9 to serve on the all-female St. Paul City Council. Six of the seven council members are people of color, and Johnson is the first woman of color elected to Ward 7, the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of East St. Paul.

The ceremony at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts included remarks from Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, and was a celebration of achievement for the women — all of whom are under the age of 40 — elected to serve.

“From start to finish, truly for me, it was incredible,” shared Johnson via phone earlier this month.

Born and raised in Worthington, Johnson said she never saw herself having such a leadership role while in high school. Looking back, however, she sees how life had a way of building her up for the challenge.

“I think I was doing advocacy work before I recognized it,” Johnson shared, recalling how she advocated for her mom to get power of attorney when her dad was diagnosed with dementia, and then advocated for her brother as a vulnerable adult. “I think that really played into my experience.”

Throughout high school, Johnson was involved in organizations such as Business Professionals of America — where she competed in job interview, prepared and extemporaneous speaking — FCCLA, band, choir and theater.

“I used a lot of activities to explore beyond Worthington and high school,” she said. “If I hadn’t participated in BPA, I wouldn’t have had a resume coming out of high school. Those experiences made me comfortable talking to people.”

She was also active in the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, where she met influential women of color — Aida Simon, Lakeyta Swinnea and Leticia Rodriguez.

“They were the reason I went to college tours,” Johnson shared. “My first college visit was St. Cloud State with NCIC.”

After graduating from Worthington High School in 2013, Johnson attended the University of Minnesota. She found a job at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs during her freshman year, working as a research assistant. It was then that she began meeting elected officials, hearing about policy and social justice.

“It was the first time I could see a glimpse of what people can do for a living — go into policy (work),” she said.

The experience, she said, “put me in the room,” and her lived experiences of growing up in Worthington — rural Minnesota, in a community with a growing immigrant population and surrounded by friends of different cultures — built within her the framework to be a bridge.

“There’s never been a time that I’ve been bored,” shared Johnson, who returned to Worthington briefly after college and campaigned for the District 22B House seat then held by Rod Hamilton.

Of that race, Johnson said, “I didn’t run for state representative to just win, I ran for my community and my hometown, for people to see what it means to step up.”

Johnson’s 2018 race included supporters who’d never worked on a campaign before. It resulted in a field office opening in Worthington — for the first time in many years — and Johnson and her supporters knocking on doors, oh-so-many doors.

In the end, she received over 4,000 votes from people she met on the campaign trail, and she learned so much more about herself and the process.

The last decade has also included twice working for people in Congress and assisting with more than a handful of political campaigns, from local to presidential.

“It’s really a blessing now to be able to be an elected official myself,” Johnson said. “I hope people realize you can get into this work without even recognizing that you’re doing politics.”

It’s conversations with people and having an impact through the decisions you make, she added.

With her Worthington roots and her passion for Minnesota, Johnson said she’s excited and eager to serve as a councilwoman in St. Paul. The people there are not that different from the people of her hometown.

“We have a large Karen population, there’s a Buddhist temple in my ward,” she described. “We have an East African population. I also have a large population of seniors, a lot of people on fixed incomes — a lot of the same conversations I had in Worthington. A lot of this has been full circle.”

Johnson campaigned on, and will be a champion for quality, affordable housing in St. Paul, and particularly the East Side, where people are living in shelters, poverty and on fixed incomes. It’s because of that base that Johnson earned a seat on the St. Paul Port Authority and will serve as vice-chair of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority for the city.

“It’s the first time in over a decade that Ward 7 has had leadership on those,” Johnson said. “I took that very seriously. Port and HRA are two of the most important roles we have.”

She also campaigned on economic development, climate justice and improved public safety. Johnson said she earned the support of firefighters and developed better relationships with law enforcement.

Her ward is home to Harding High School, where a student was fatally stabbed in February 2023. That has resulted in numerous discussions about school safety, but Johnson said there are other crimes, including copper wire thefts and carjackings, that have made residents of her ward feel unsafe.

“We knocked on a lot of doors (during the campaign),” Johnson said. “No matter what their race, they talked about public safety.”

There are other concerns Johnson will likely work to address during her first term. For now, she’s settling into her committee assignments and learning every day.

Johnson was appointed to serve as the council’s representative on a workforce innovation board, which is a partnership with Ramsey County to bring jobs to the community, provide access to internships and find opportunities for young people. She will also serve on the Red Rock Corridor Commission, an economic tool for Ward 7, and the joint property tax advisory board.

The St. Paul City Council meets every Wednesday, with the exception of the fifth Wednesday of the month, and Johnson said her committees meet monthly or bi-weekly, and some are quarterly.

While serving on the St. Paul City Council is considered a part-time job, Johnson said she’s giving it her full-time attention.

“This is my primary assignment at this time,” she said, noting that Ward 7 consists of approximately 43,000 residents.

While Johnson represents East St. Paul, in a way, she’s also representing Worthington and what young people from southwest Minnesota can accomplish. She speaks of Erin Schutte Wadzinski, who graduated from an Ivy League school and chose to return to Worthington to open a law firm; Andrea Duarte, a Truman scholar who could go to college anywhere in the nation for free and chose to return to Worthington to teach; and of other young leaders and women of color who continue to pave the way.

Her dream is that some day, her hometown community will have boards, commissions and committees that better reflect Worthington’s diversity.

“We can’t just encourage diversity in our community, we have to intentionally be a diverse city,” she said. “We should not be comfortable with an all-white council, an all-white board. If I’m not consciously trying to connect (with my constituents), I’m going to miss the diverse populations in my ward.”

Johnson said until representation reflects what the city looks like, there will be voices that will be missed.

“I hope more people of color, more women in general (seek office),” she said. “What I’ve learned so far is there’s no right person for politics, but there’s definitely a wrong way to lead. I hope it’s the JBS worker who decides one day to get into politics; or a teacher who cares enough to run because they care about their streets, the kids, their taxes.

“It doesn’t need to be people with a degree,” she added. “It can and should reflect what Worthington looks like now.”

And her advice for students today?

“Don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible,” she said. “It’s because I’m from Worthington that I’m able to relate to the people of East St. Paul.”

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