A seat at the table: Phillipe Cunningham’s vision for youth and building community wealth for Ward 4

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By Michael Kleber-Diggs Twin Cities Daily Planet

FEBRUARY 23, 2017 — 9:01PM

This profile is part of our “Seat at the Table” series highlighting seven new LGBTQIA candidates and candidates of color running in the 2017 Minneapolis City Council election. Catch the kick off of our series here, and check back every week for another installment of the series.

Two minutes into my conversation with Phillipe Cunningham, the Ward 4 candidate for Minneapolis City Council, said, “Y’all gonna tell me a story about myself, but that’s not my story.” He says this as he recounts what it was like growing up Black in a predominantly-white, blue-collar town called Streator, Illinois (population 13,710), and how the stories people told him and about him were never his own truth. He felt many people tried to define him because of his skin color.

Cunningham’s mother worked at a dry-cleaning business. His father graduated from a segregated high school in Alabama and was an active union member who spent 40 years building tractors. Cunningham’s parents are an interracial couple which made them unique in those parts at the time. Even though Cunningham was an overachieving student, musician, an accomplished dancer and martial artist, he was called “the n-word” for the first time at 5 years old. In high school a teacher told him he could never be president of the United States.

When Cunningham left Streator it was to attend college, first in the San Francisco Bay Area, then in Chicago. After graduation he stayed in Chicago and worked as a special education teacher on the south side of the city where he saw firsthand how policy decisions trickle down.

Two years into Cunningham’s teaching position, Mayor Rahm Emanuel extended the school day by one hour, the school year by 10 days, froze teacher pay and closed 50 of the city’s schools.

Although the school where Cunningham taught was spared during Emanuel’s closures, this moment, this chaos of 50 schools closing, shifted something for Cunningham.

“I was able to see, so clearly and concretely, the way decision-makers were empowered. The decisions that they made had a direct impact on my kids and me,” he said.

He’d come to terms with the life he didn’t want to live and the person he didn’t want to be. He begrudgingly said goodbye to his students, life as a school teacher and eventually the south side for good. This turning point would also be the time Cunningham decided to start publicly identifying as transgender.

“I spent 23 years of my life as a Black woman at those gross crossroads of racism and misogyny. Then one day I woke up, stepped out of my house and everybody saw me as a Black man, saw me as myself. I wasn’t prepared to be public enemy number one,” Cunningham said. “My experience of oppression really shifted.”

Cunningham also realized he needed to leave Chicago. He thought about going back to the Bay Area and also considered Portland and Nashville. He posted about it on Facebook and asked friends for advice. One friend, a Black queer woman, commented that he should check out Minneapolis. For her, it was the only place where she felt truly safe.

“Up until that point, up until I moved to north Minneapolis, I felt like a wandering vagabond almost. I was very nomadic, and for the first time I had two feet on the ground, and I was home,” he said. “This is the first place that I felt like I was truly seen, just as a person.”

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Lane Cunningham