If you ask Andrea Jenkins what she does for a living, she won’t tell you she’s a politician. She won’t mention being the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to office in the United States. And she certainly won’t talk about being featured — along with 47 other women who broke barriers by running for public office — on the cover of Time magazine this past January.
Instead, as Jenkins, 57, shakes your hand and offers a warm smile, she’ll probably answer that question about her occupation by telling you she’s a poet.
“I always lead with ‘poet,’ because it’s my deep passion to be an artist, an educator and a humanitarian,” she said. “The ‘politician’ label is a new one. I don’t shy away from it, but that’s not how I introduce myself.”
Jenkins — the City Council Member for Minneapolis’ 8th Ward — is also the Vice President of the City Council.
But she is so much more than that. As someone whose election made national and international headlines, Jenkins has been a groundbreaking figure for the transgender community. It’s clear that she’s serious and thoughtful about being a role model in the LGBT community.
But her philosophies about leadership and democracy transcend her own identity (and apply to all her fellow citizens).
Jenkins, speaking on a recent anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, described the lasting significance of that day 55 years ago.
“There are moments in history that prove that this grand experiment — that we call the United States — is working,” Jenkins said.
“We have to remain hopeful,” she said. “My ancestors were enslaved in this country, and they hoped and prayed that someday, somebody like me would be able to have a role in shaping how we live. Now that dream has come to fruition. And even though we have a long way to go, we have to hope that we’ll reach our goals. Otherwise, why get out of bed in the morning?”
Jenkins, who was elected a year ago this month, said she feels proud of her first year in office.
One of the highlights of her political career so far, she said, was the Dinner on the 38th Street Bridge this past August, organized to restore a sense of community before the reopening of the newly renovated bridge over Interstate 35.
More than 300 residents of the Kingfield neighborhood (on the west side of the freeway) and the Central and Bryant neighborhoods (on the east side) met in the middle of the new bridge to share a meal.
“It connects to one of my biggest goals and that is to revitalize the 38th Street Corridor. It was a tremendous undertaking that brought several community organizations together,” Jenkins said.
Partners included Jenkins’ office, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, organizations from the Bryant, Kingfield and Central neighborhoods and Marnita’s Table, a local nonprofit that helps bridge communication barriers.
During the past year, Jenkins — as chair of the city’s new Race Equity Subcommittee — also helped establish a Racial Equity Community Advisory Committee made up of city residents.
Designed to address the equity gaps facing Minneapolis, the committee will advise the City Council, Mayor and City Departments, including the city’s Race and Equity Division, which is a permanent part of the municipality’s structure, not subject to the ups and downs of political elections.
Finally, there’s a third accomplishment that stands out for Jenkins: Almost immediately after taking office, she was elected by her colleagues to step into the role of Council Vice President.
“It is a distinct honor to be in the leadership of this Council,” Jenkins said. “And it fulfills my campaign goals of ‘Leadership. Access. Equity.’”
Early family life
Jenkins grew up on the south side of Chicago.
“It was a low-income, working-class community,” she said. “We lived in some pretty rough places, and my mom, who was a single mother, would move us every time it got bad.”
Jenkins said her mother was “very loving and very much concerned that we get a good education.”
Fortunately, Jenkins achieved those goals, and then some: She holds a bachelor’s in Human Services from Metropolitan State University, a master’s in Community Development from Southern New Hampshire University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University.
She was awarded a Bush Fellowship in 2011 in to advance the work of transgender inclusion.
She also served as the curator of the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.
These days, her mother, Shirley Green, lives in Ward 8 in south central Minneapolis, where Jenkins also lives. Green, age 76, is a foster parent to two children, ages 9 and 10.
“I’m so proud of her for stepping up and taking on that role,” Jenkins said. Jenkins has a 29-year-old daughter, Nia, and two grandchildren, Aniyah, 11 and Kennedy, 6.
“They live in the metro area, and I do get to see them, but not as much as I’d like to, since my life is so busy,” Jenkins said. “I am incredibly grateful to be here to see them grow up and be on the route to making their mark on the planet.”
Of her partner of eight years, who lives in southwest Minneapolis, Jenkins said: “We don’t live together, which some days is the subject of concern. But we are deeply in love — and, for right now, it’s a good idea that we live separately.”
‘I’m not that different’
While her transgender status has made her a trailblazer in politics, Jenkins said it was simply a matter of deciding to truly be herself.
“I made a choice to be open about who I was internally, and people do respond to that. I speak to groups all over the country, and people are positive. I think they respond to my authenticity and my self-acceptance. When they meet me and hear me talk, they recognize that my life is similar to theirs,” she said. “I have grandkids. I cut my grass. I put gas in my car. I’m not that different from everybody else.”
It’s really not all that complicated, Jenkins said: “We’re not all the same. But there are many things we all have in common.”
Jenkins’ good friend and local entrepreneur Gloria Freeman has known Jenkins since they were both college students in Minneapolis.
“We did the things that young people do together,” she said. “Now we’re old ladies together.”
Freeman said she’s always admired the way Jenkins remains serene, even when the situation around her may be chaotic.
“She is always calm and collected, and she takes things in stride. She was open about being transgender when it was not popular,” Freeman said. “Sometimes I felt sad for her — with what she had to go through and knowing how hard it would be — but she had to live her life. Even though people can be cruel, she took it in stride. It made me love her even more.”
Freedom to be herself
Living a full, vibrant and healthy life is a priority for Jenkins, especially since some authorities estimate that the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of color is 35, primarily because of violence.
Her most recent volume of poetry is titled The T is Not Silent as a way to signify that the T (transgender) of LGBT can no longer be overlooked.
“The only way we can change that horrifying statistic is through understanding. I have been able to live my life out, but not all transgender people have that opportunity,” she said. “I realize that my age is a blessing, and I’m thrilled and grateful for my relative longevity. I try to advocate and lift up the narrative of my community every opportunity I get.”
After a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Jenkins is more aware than ever of the need to take care of herself.
As often happens after a longtime illness is finally diagnosed, she felt a sense of relief: “I was having a rough time before I found out what it was, and I was so concerned about what was happening to my body.”
Now that she’s received a diagnosis, and has started treatment, she’s feeling much better.
“I’m working with some wonderful doctors and healers, and I’m grateful for every day that I get to wake up, say good morning, go out in the world and do my part to make it a better place,” she said.
Jenkins has been asked if she’d ever consider running for a higher office.
To that she says: “All of the work we do has a national impact, so I hope what we’re doing here in Minneapolis reverberates and maybe helps people think about what they can do in their own communities. I’m trying to improve the life of people in the 8th Ward. But if an opportunity arises in which I can be helpful to more people on a broader basis, I would pursue that.”
It’s impossible to spend any time with Jenkins without noticing her deep reserves of serenity. How does she manage to be so Zen during such tumultuous times?
“For me, it’s about loving myself and giving myself permission to be who I am,” she said. “I do feel like I still have a lot more work to do — and a lot more life ahead of me.”
Here’s an excerpt from Andrea Jenkins’ most recent volume of poetry, The T Is Not Silent: new and selected poems, from the poem Love Letter in Seven Stanzas.
Live your life dear don’t hold
Back because the sun is too bright
Or success seems just out of reach
You deserve all that you will experience
Welcome each moment, exuberant
Whether winds are gentle or ill
They will all blow eventually
The winds will sing to you
A song that will guide you
It is so difficult to remain sad when you sing
The sound of the winds will soothe you
The work will get done and you
You my dear will feel relieved and I
I will feel loved.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.