Clare Oumou Verbeten became aware of politics as a child tagging along with her mother, a Senegalese immigrant, as she emptied trash bins and polished desks at the DFL Party headquarters in St. Paul.
Years later, when Verbeten was on summer break from college, her mother marched into the party office she had cleaned for years and asked if her daughter could get an internship. It worked.
Now, Verbeten is poised to head to the state Senate representing a Roseville, Falcon Heights and St. Paul area seat in January, becoming the first Black woman to serve in the chamber in its 164-year history. She has company: Zaynab Mohamed and Erin Maye Quade won their primaries in Minneapolis and Apple Valley on Tuesday and are also expected to prevail in November, sending not one but a caucus of Black women to the Minnesota Senate for the first time next year.
"When you're in that place of being a trailblazer and making history, you represent people, in a sense, beyond your geographic boundary. There are going to be Black women looking to us across the state," said Verbeten, thinking about her mom and other Black women who paved the way for her run. "[She] literally brought me to this moment."
By being there, the three women say, they'll push for equity in health care, housing and education and bring perspectives to the chamber that have never been represented in state history. Zaynab, 25, who fled war-torn Somalia as a child with her family, will be the youngest woman to ever serve in the Senate and the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab on the floor. Maye Quade will the the first Black mother in the chamber and the first out lesbian.
"Every law and policy that this state has made has not been done with the inclusion of Black women," said Maye Quade, who added that people were shocked when she mentioned during the campaign that the Senate had yet to elect a Black woman. She was the third Black woman to serve in the Minnesota House when she was elected in 2016, which has had a growing People of Color and Indigenous Caucus for years.
"It probably has to do with the structural barriers in place in politics," Maye Quade said. "It takes a lot of money to run for office, it takes a lot of support, it takes a lot of a lot of things."
Maye Quade made national headlines in April when she went into labor during the DFL endorsing convention for the Apple Valley area state Senate seat. After two rounds of balloting, she left the convention to give birth. The endorsement went to her opponent, seen by many as an encapsulation of the barriers Black women face in politics.
Maye Quade handily beat opponent Justin Emmerich in Tuesday's primary. In the Senate, she wants to immediately bring institutional changes to the upper chamber, which is guided by a strict set of rules and doesn't allow senators to drink water on the chamber floor. As a nursing mother, she said that's not going to work for her. Other senators have unsuccessfully tried to change that rule in the past. "I'm going to bring that back," she said.
Mohamed said she grew up wondering why there weren't more people who looked like her in all walks of life. After moving to south Minneapolis from Somalia, her parents started working in union jobs in the hospitality and food industry and got interested in the labor movement. In college, she realized in a classroom of 500 people, she was often the only Black and Muslim woman in the room.
"I couldn't help but start to question why there weren't many more of us, why was it just me?" she said.
She got involved in politics, moving from organizing to policy work at Minneapolis City Hall. When DFL Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, the state's first Latina senator, announced she was retiring, Mohamed thought about the representation being lost in the Senate and the fact that no Black woman had ever served in the chamber.
"Black women have never sat at that table, meaning the issues we go through have never been represented," she said. "It's exciting — there's also a level of heaviness and responsibility that comes with it."
All three women are running as Democrats in DFL strongholds or DFL-leaning districts, meaning they are all but assured or likely to win their races in November. Two other Black women — Republican Marla Helseth and Democrat Farhio Khalif — are running in more competitive districts this fall. But the state's history still weighs heavily in their races.
"If my race opens doors for other young Black girls to think about it as well, that would be wonderful," said Helseth, who got more politically involved in 2020.
She listened to news reports on the conversation about policing in the wake of George Floyd's death. "I thought, it's going in this direction and they're talking about race and they are not really giving the perspective that I have, and I'm a Black person," she said.
If elected to an Eden Prairie state Senate seat, Helseth said she wants to target more police and education funding to close the state's persistent racial disparities.
Verbeten, after her mother helped her get her first internship in politics, went on to do more work organizing and campaigning for the DFL. Most recently, she worked in St. Paul as the city's equity manager.
She said that work will continue on a broader scale in her new role when she's sworn into the Senate, where she's not shy about her No. 1 goal.
"My reason for doing this is to dismantle systemic racism, and to tackle every issue through that lens," she said. "The disparities in Minnesota are the worst in the country. I love this state so much — I'm going to die here, I'm sure, this is my home — I just know that we can do better."