After co-launching day-care provider training for the Latino community, spearheading Blue Cross Blue Shield's health equity program in Minnesota, and fighting apartment purchases that displaced low-income families, it is perhaps no surprise that Richfield Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez received the 2021 Woman of Power Award from YWCA Minneapolis. Gonzalez, a former City Council member, has been Richfield's mayor since 2019 and the first woman of color to serve in that position. She reflects on her childhood, racial disparities and her work helping Minnesota families, people of color, and immigrants find decent housing, education, healthy foods and jobs.
Q: Where did you develop your desire for an equitable society?
A: That is how we grew up. Our parents raised us from a very young age to make sure we understood that it was our obligation as community members to give back to our community and serve others. Unfortunately, for all different reasons, whether it is race, ethnicity or immigration status, people do not have equitable access to opportunities. So my brother and I grew up volunteering in our hometown of Janesville, Wis. My mom, who won the Woman of Power Award 20 years ago, started the first culturally appropriate services in the region for victims of domestic and sexual abuse at the local YWCA. And she worked at a local shelter for 11 years, providing support and services to victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
Q: I think you, too, were involved in that shelter?
A: That shelter was just blocks away from our school. So every day after school, my brother and I would walk to the shelter and wait for my mom to finish with her clients. We would babysit the kids staying at the shelter. We'd clean up the shelter storage space. On holidays, we didn't get all these presents. Instead our family said, "We are going to volunteer. We are going to go bring food to the women and families in hiding over the holiday. We are going to go bring furniture to them." So that is how I grew up as a kid.
Q: You were involved in racial equity work even before you joined Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2015 and Richfield's City Council in 2016. Is that right?
A: One of the things I am most proud of is being a co-founder of a Latina child-care provider training network here in Richfield. It's called La RED Latina de Educación Temprana Minnesota. We started that maybe eight years ago when I was working at the public health department serving Richfield. I learned that people love their community and that there was this mismatch and an opportunity gap. It was not necessarily intentional, but with our families there were some really stark inequities. What we had seen is that the early childhood system and all of our systems have really disenfranchised immigrants and people of color disproportionately to the point where our kids are starting school already behind. But the community said, "No. We are concerned about this, and we are not going to accept this as our reality! What we are going to do is be the change ourselves."
Q: So how did you get involved?
A: I connected with my co-founder Ruth [Evangelista] because she was running social services out of the local church basement. I said, "Talk to me about the Latino community in Richfield. What do you know? What are you hearing from the families?" We came together and applied for some grants [to] start offering free, culturally appropriate, Spanish-language training for child-care providers and parents to learn about what they can do to support school readiness and educational outcomes, healthy eating practices and physical activity practices for their kids. We started with 13 women. That was the inception of La Red Latina, which now is the community-led network of Latino child-care providers providing high quality child care and school readiness and support for families all over the metro. It is probably one of my biggest sources of pride. We have a whole robust network of certified trainers. Today, La Red has trained [and certified] over 350 child-care providers.
Q: You were working at Richfield's public health department when you started La Red?
A: Yes. I was a program manager and oversaw several chronic disease prevention programs that were culturally specific and tailored to the diverse communities here in Richfield. That could be obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or multiple conditions. In Minnesota, even though we are one of the healthiest states in the nation, we have the worst racial inequities in health outcomes. So in local government, we have the purview and the ability to really close those gaps, which impacts health and happiness. That is when I fell in love with local government. I found my calling.
Q: Tell me about your work on the City Council and as Mayor of Richfield.
A: I really focused on affordable housing. Before I was on the council, we did not have an affordable housing public policy agenda. When I got on the council, that was one of my biggest priorities. We created strong, affordable housing public policy platforms with an agenda that focused on preservation and improvement of existing housing in Richfield, building new affordable housing and protecting tenants rights. Before I joined, there was the largest mass displacement of low income community members in the state of Minnesota in Richfield. Richfield is a growing suburb and what we were seeing is the purchasing of apartment complexes and mass evictions and displacement. Before I joined the council, The Crossroads at Penn apartment was purchased and thousands of people were displaced. The school district lost so many children and students; they had to immediately lay off 33 staff members as a direct result of the purchase of that one apartment complex. It devastated our community. This was in 2015. The tenants filed the lawsuit. At the time, it was the largest fair housing settlement in the nation's history. It put very important precedents in place.
Q: Government is your part-time job. What is your other work?
A: I joined Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2015 in the Center for Prevention. I was a health equity program manager. So my focus was on health and racial equity. Right after starting at Blue Cross, I was getting my master's degree in public health at the University of Minnesota, which took me five years to do because I was doing it part time. But I graduated [almost] two years ago. Only 4% of Latinas in the country have a master's degree. So it is very important.
Q: While mayor, do you still work at Blue Cross Blue Shield?
A: Yes. I work in the Population Health Department. That is the implementation arm [that strives] to embed racial and health equity into our core business. I design interventions that address social determinants of health, look at measures and metrics and ask questions such as, How do we get providers on board and increase utilization rates? How do you reimburse for it?' How do we get doulas for [pregnant] moms of color? We can close racial and health inequities and improve mother and baby health outcomes. So I design all those interventions.
Q: Why this work?
A: I am a cross-cultural bridge. It is literally in my DNA. I am a bicultural, bilingual, biracial Midwestern Chicana. I grew up playing ice hockey and I grew up going to the cabin on Lake Mille Lacs. My mother is Mexican. And my father grew up in Mora. My grandma is Swedish. My grandfather is Irish. They came to the U.S. following the lumber trade. In my family are immigrants from Mexico. So this work is literally my identity. I help bring people together across differences. I do that well and I love it.