Political newcomer Esther Agbaje has become Minnesota’s first Nigerian-American legislator after winning the seat formerly held by long-time state Representative Raymond Dehn.
In August, Agbaje was one of four progressive newcomers who prevailed over established Democratic legislators in the primary—two in the state House and two in the Senate.
In a discussion with The Appeal in October, Agbaje said her state is facing a “million dollar question:” why are there such huge racial discrepancies in Minnesota given the state’s progressive income tax, and a Fiscal Disparities policy that shifts tens of millions of dollars within metropolitan areas to meet different school districts’ various needs?
“I think a lot of it [is due to] remaining vestiges of segregation and institutional racism,” Agbaje said, which persists even though “we have all of these institutions that are meant to be progressive and support the people of Minnesota.” To counter issues including vastly lower Black home ownership rates, poverty rates, and high school graduation rates, Agbaje plans to support bills to change the income eligibility to qualify for current subsidized housing options and build more affordable housing.
Housing is a personal issue for Agbaje. While attending Harvard Law School, she volunteered in a legal clinic representing clients being threatened with eviction—work she continues today as a volunteer with Hennepin County’s Volunteer Lawyers Network Housing Court Project. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said, to work with people who are suffering economic hardship, “and our response as a society is to put them out on the street.”
Agbaje is also interested in prison reform, a set of issues she became aware of during her successful lawsuit that forced the state’s Department of Corrections to provide incarcerated people infected with Hepatitis C with antiviral medication in 2019.
The case “opened my eyes,” Agbaje said, to issues including the kind of food incarcerated people are given and “how we look at punishment,” including solitary confinement, which she would like to prohibit. In addition, she said, although she is still learning about incarceration in Minnesota, she is definitely looking forward to “using my platform to advocate for prisoners and making sure that while they are serving their time, they’re not treated unfairly.”
Agbaje said she’d like to ensure incarcerated people have access to educational opportunities and that they and their families aren’t faced with the “costly imposition” of expensive phone calls as they work to stay connected.
As a new legislator representing the city where George Floyd was killed by police, Agbaje has also joined the call to divest from the police department and invest in social support work.
Agbaje is the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and a librarian who worked in homeless services, parents who raised her “with the outlook that you’re always giving back to people,” she said. The drive to give back led Agbaje to continue service work during her postsecondary education, including spending part of her time at Harvard Law School representing poor people facing eviction. It’s also the reason that, while pursuing a master’s in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked with the city of Philadelphia to create tools to help evaluate the city’s homeless service programs.
As she has traveled in different parts of the country and the world, Agbaje said, she’s had the opportunity to see “people have a lot of the same desires and needs—to come home at the end of the night to their families, to have a good paying job, and to be able to have a stable place to call home.” Those realizations, she said, “are the kind of things that have kept me grounded in my job.”
“I have always had a focus on public service, always a desire to make sure that I’m using my skills and talents to help people and to make the community around me a little bit better,” she said.