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Strong Women: Running for Office in Northern MN in 2022: Erika-Bailey Johnson

erika bailey.jpg

Erika is a member of the Red Lake Nation who felt called to run this election cycle as DFL in MN House district 2b in Beltrami, Cass, Mahnomen and Clearwater County

KAXE/KBXE covers a wide swath of northern MN and every legislative office is up for re-election: MN House and Senate. I've been participating with our partners in Public Television - Lakeland and WDSE - to be part of the debates and candidate forums. Out of 22 candidates only 3 have been women.
Erika Bailey-Johnson describes here why she is running right now.

You can watch her debate with opponent Republican incumbent Matt Bliss here:

Debate Night 2022: District 2B - Rep. Matt Bliss & Erika Bailey Johnson

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Heidi: What made you want to run for the MN House?

Erika: You know, that's such a good question and I feel like every day I have a little bit different answer - but lately my answer has been that things are messed up enough that I feel like I have some of the tools and skills that would benefit trying to fix things.

I just think things are going in a weird direction a lot of times in the wrong direction. And I feel like a lot of the skills that I bring from my own experiences in work can be brought to this next level of working in the Legislature to try to help our people, right? Like, to try to be better humans – try to have things that help people in our community.

That’s kind of what I do day to day and I feel like I'm able to work across the lines - which is something that people like to say, but I haven't honestly seen too many people that are great at that yetFor my own experience - my own work that I have to do that constantly.

I have friends from all across, you know, the political spectrum, all kinds of religions, all kinds of ages and gender identities and all of that. I'm just really excited to pull people together that can help our people in this district and make good decisions.

Heidi: Are you one of the first people from the Red Lake nation to, to run for the Minnesota House?

Erika: We were just asking that question this last week. I'd never thought of it before. It's funny because a lot of things I've been thinking about - I don't really see any other women around . Yeah. And that was happened like during the debate, you know, there was no other real women that were until I think the next week that were debating. And then I also was wondering, somebody asked me that like a couple of days ago about being a Red Lake Band member running and I don't know, honestly, I have no idea if anybody has run. I know that there's been indigenous people, like Ojibwe people for sure, but I'm not sure about, , Red Lake Band member running or being in office for sure. I don't think so.

Heidi: Well now that you say that. So I had just recorded or just was part of 11 debates, so that means 22 candidates. - there were two candidates that were three female candidates.

Erika: Wow. Yeah.

Heidi: So tell me what it's like to door knock being a woman - does that have any bearing on that work, does anyone ask you any questions about that?

Erika: For sure . So I will not door knock by myself - especially now when it's getting darker out and earlier. So since the beginning I’ve had a partner and I just felt like I needed to… it was interesting because there's another person that was door knocking a lot at the same time I was, but he was super, comfortable going out by himself and door knocking.

But I, I haven't, I have yet to do that and I don't think I ever will. And I've kind of been reconfirmed a couple times why I wouldn't go out by myself. And so that's something that is very different - asking somebody for their time have to organize getting together. So it's a lot more planning and prep work that goes into door knocking for sure for me.

And then - with the women running, I know there's a lot of initiatives and efforts. I know Vote Run Lead is one, women winning is another one that are really trying to promote more women getting into politics. We all come with different strengths and gifts and lenses that we see the world and work in the world by. So we want to, if our population is like 51% women across the United States, we want to try to get closer to that. I don't know, I can't remember the percentage that we're at right now for women working in like the state legislature or the federal, you know, in federal legislature. But I know we're not anywhere close to 51%.

Heidi: At the beginning you said you thought you had the tools to do this job. What does that mean to you?

Erika: I've been thinking about that a lot and I think there's kind of two different types of categories that I think of when I think of what's needed. And lately I've been thinking a lot about being a woman and what that means and what we bring. And then I've also been thinking about being Indigenous and I think that the two places where they, or the place where they really connect well is in relationship building.

I feel like women, and again, this is generalizing, you know, so not all <laugh> not, you know, everyone, but in general women tend to be more relational. So they are kind of paying closer attention to people, , working on building relationships. And I would say with Indigenous people it's really the same. We would also extend the relation building not only to people though, so it would be people and like the rest of the ecosystem.

So for example, with water and trees and other animals and plants and those kinds of things. But I think that relational piece is a really interesting connection that is needed right now. I actually believe globally that we need more women in roles that are associated with decision making. I feel like we're good at being humble for one thing and realizing that we don't have the answers, but I can find somebody that has the answer and then make those people feel comfortable to be at the table to help with decision making. That would be something that I think both women and Indigenous people can bring that will help this very divisive, very polarized political climate that we're in now.

Heidi: Tell us about the work that you do in the community right now.

Erika: The work that I do in the community: I am currently the sustainability director at Bemidji State University. I have been in that role since 2008 and I wear a few hats. I am the sustainability director and then I also am the coordinator of the people of the environment program. It's a liberal education or core curriculum course taught by a bunch of different faculty. And I coordinate that program and teach one class a semester. And then I also am the director of the Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin program, which is, it started by some grant funding about five years ago, and we created a new major and minor called Indigenous Sustainability studies. And then we also have an internship program that I coordinate in the, the summers. Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin means of doing the right thing in the right way.

So it's not saying that any one way, which in our case we're focusing on western science and then also indigenous ways of knowing. And so we're trying to say that there's these two ways of understanding and working in the world and trying to uplift and respect them both - for helping to solve problems. The whole goal of the internship program is to be able to practice that and see it and experience it and help our communities in that, that are working in that area. And then the other is to take the classes in the major and minor into practice and learn from the instructors about what that looks like. So those are kind of the three hats that I wear right now. I am half time, I couldn't handle both of the running for office and having this full-time work at Bemidji State University. So I started being halftime in, in early August so that I was able to focus more efforts on the campaign.

Heidi: So if you are elected as the next representative to House District 2b what are a couple of the issues that you would really like to dig into and tackle when you get to St. Paul?

Erika: So I would love right away to work on transportation funding for rural districts. I've been thinking about it a long time - I think I read about it about 10 years ago and I started talking to legislators and trying to figure out what to do and they said “ a lot of people benefit, a lot of the legislative districts benefit from the way it is now, so it's never gonna pass.” And so I know that they have put in supplemental funding in the last couple sessions for schools. I don't think it passed this last time, but that's not going to cut it. That's just kind of a bandaid. So currently they have, , one formula, which is based on a per pupil basis.

So however many students are in the district is how much you get in transportation funding. So as you can imagine, the very tight districts that are very small, they get a lot of money that they can actually use on other things. But in our district that's very big and very spread out. We actually end up having to pay out of our general budget normally for transportation costs. So my thought is that we have the per pupil formula, which a lot of people are good with that and like that, and it works, but we also have a, we should also create a per pupil mile formula and that the school districts could choose between one of those two. I need to learn a lot and ask a lot of questions, but I feel like that would be something that I could work on right away.

My gosh, there's so many things I'm learning right now that I would love to work on and I haven't really narrowed it down to another thing… any education issues. I feel like I know a lot and have a lot of connections obviously. And then I just went last week to a session in Bagley at the Cornerstone Nursing and Rehab center. There are some really crazy things that are happening with legislative timing and process that are very hard for these nursing homes. And so I was really happy to be there and learn about this and I feel like I could dig into that and figure out how to help because we have an increasing aging population and really need to figure those things out. And I would love to try to figure out is what's happening with our daycare providers. I don't know if it's a funding issue, but I'm not quite sure. I really want to figure that out because I know that's limiting a lot of folks currently.

Heidi: That is Erica Bailey Johnson. She is a DFL candidate for Minnesota House 2b. You can find information www.erikaformnhouse.com. If someone listening to us right now thinks, you know, my vote doesn't matter. Why should I go to the polls on November 8th? What would you say to them?

Erika: I've had a couple people say that but I would say we're in a critical time. There is so much on the table right now and every vote matters. Like your neighbors are the people that are helping with this election process. It's safe, it's secure, and every vote should be cast. So I know that Minnesota's always been pretty good during presidential cycles to have a good turnout, but I really want to encourage you that this midterm cycle - this local cycle - a lot of our Minnesota values on the docket. So please get out there and vote on November 8th or earlier.

Heidi: Erica, thanks for your time today.

Erika: Yeah, thank you Heidi. I really appreciate, appreciate the opportunity.

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 22 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director where she manages producers, hosts local interviews and programs, oversees and manages web stories and establishes focus areas of programming like phenology, clean energy, Indigenous voices, Strong Women, local foods, clean energy, economic development and more. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota. During the pandemic, Heidi hosted 14 months of a weekly statewide conversation on COVID-19 for the AMPERS network.