His Own Words: Phillipe Cunningham
The Minneapolis city council member sits down with Twin Cities Pride Magazine to talk community, engagement, and finding a home in the 4th Ward. (Photos by Brent Dundore)
When I lived in Chicago, I lived on the North Side, near Boystown area, and I experienced a lot of racism from my neighbors, from people I lived around, from cops in the area. When I transitioned, I saw very clearly the change in behavior. Harassment increased. The animosity and resentment and assumptions and suspicions, I watched them grow. So when I moved here, I needed to be intentional about being around folks who share my experience and share my culture so that I don’t feel so isolated. I landed here, in North Minneapolis, and the 4th Ward specifically, purely by chance. But I would say a couple months in, I looked to my left, I looked to my right, and I’m like, “Oh my god, this is what home feels like.”
The north side that people talk about is not the north side that I experience. You can ask anybody around here, and they’re like, “Oh, that reputation.” It’s such a great community. We know it’s so much more than that.
It’s very interesting to watch progressives operate as people who govern. And to watch people who are progressives interact with the governing system. We need progressives to show up and be willing to work, building an inside-outside strategy. There’s talk—but people don’t walk the talk. Both within city hall and in the community, in ways that have been a little jarring to me. It’s like, can we get a little more energy?
It’s about showing up. And not just showing up to complain, showing up to be part of the solution.
I’m trying to think about solutions and some people are focused on the system as an abstract idea. I’m actually here, looking at the system itself, and seeing areas where I can work and push and pull some strings and unravel that mess. I can’t do it alone. I would love folks to deepen their analysis to a more concrete place of how we take action. A lot of times progressives are like, “We got this, we have the answers, we’re really smart and educated.” But that plays into this paternalistic dynamic. We need to do better.
I was raised in the cornfields of Illinois. I was raised in a predominantly white community, surrounded by a lot of racism. But here, in Minneapolis, it’s so insidious. It’s so pervasive. And it’s coded in politeness. It’s sugar-coated. Folks are stuck. There are people that say racism straight up doesn’t exist. And then there are [those who are] like “racism exists; I have white privilege,” and they’ve at least acknowledged it, but haven’t had the deeper conversation.
We, as a country, are not well equipped to talk about race or racism. There are folks of color who ebb and flow in this space of “Do I have the energy to walk folks through this process of awakening?” I would say that I need white folks, and cisgender folks, and straight folks—as a marginalized person—I need folks to have challenging conversations with people from their communities that don’t identify with me. Because it’s a lot of emotional labor to expect me and [council member] Andrea [Jenkins] to constantly be the people that are starting conversations and pulling people in.
I love the job more than I expected. I knew I was going to enjoy the work, but I truly love it.
Sleep is pretty important. Otherwise, I get pretty cranky. And nobody likes a cranky councilman. I’m also a vegan. I’m intentional about what I eat. I meditate every day. I do all the things. I do a lot of spiritual rejuvenation, if you will, to keep up with the energy of it all.
If I’m going to be a successful leader in this time of political turmoil and social nebulousness of major changes in our social awareness and our society overall, then I have to operate with compassion. That’s how we do things differently. Rather than individualism, and “I’m here for my political gains,” I want to help set the model of what leadership looks like from a progressive vision. Compassion. Pragmatic. Intentional. Wonky. My personal work is cultivating mindfulness and presence. I want everyone to walk away from me feeling like they were really heard and cared for.
We need to be doing the public health approach to public safety! That approach is looking at prevention, intervention, enforcement, and re-entry as a cycle of a person’s involvement in crime, and offering off-ramps along those ways for folks to be able to choose alternative paths that don’t involve the criminal justice system. But all of these are still mechanisms of accountability. You don’t get a free pass, you need to do these things or you’ll be diverted right back to where you were diverted from. The research is just there. Prevention works. Intervention works. Re-entry works. Exclusively enforcement? Does. Not. Work. We still need good enforcement, but policing is a sliver of public safety. Unfortunately, due to just the dynamic of policing, and what it’s grown into today, it’s completely absorbed the conversation.
Not all marginalization is created equal. I think that it’s necessary for folks to understand that if some of us are not safe, all of us are not safe. If some of us are experiencing injustice, all of us are experiencing injustice. Privilege creates blind spots.
False equivalencies between the experiences of homophobia and racism. I can not tell you how deeply that enrages me. I don’t usually get pissed off, but that makes me so mad! How do I explain that your pain is real, but it’s not the same as mine? And that your pain should inspire you to care about my pain and recognize they’re not the same? And also that we can acknowledge that and honor both experiences?
I’m not reforming systems. I’m building new systems. I’m creating new processes that are filling gaps. The goal isn’t just to tweak things, but to have a clean, new perspective with all of us now at the table. Actually seeing that, and being able to push that, and seeing little by little the changes that happen, is helping to grow my confidence and optimism.
I believe that all good things are possible. I genuinely believe that. With the right people, the right conversation, the right resources, and the right time. It’s a matter of getting up every day and doing my part.