Neighbors: Robert Lilligren brings an indigenous approach to the Metropolitan Council
Robert Lilligren brings decades of experience as a community organizer, nonprofit leader, and Minneapolis City Council Member to his new role as the Northside’s Metropolitan Council representative.
By Kenzie O'Keefe Editor | Photos by David Pierini Contributor
Robert Lilligren is a self-described “scream-y activist” from the Phillips neighborhood who found his way into local politics. He served three terms on the City Council, representing Ward 8 and then Ward 6, from 2001-2013. Currently, he is President and CEO of the City’s Native American Community Development Institute.
In April, he was appointed to the Metropolitan Council, replacing MEDA CEO Gary Cunningham in the District 7 seat, which represents North and South Central Minneapolis, along with Robbinsdale. He is the first tribal citizen (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) to occupy a Met Council seat.
This month he spoke to North News about equity, access, and his commitment to regional problem-solving.
Explain the Metropolitan Council and your new role as a representative of it. The Metropolitan Council is the regional governance body for the seven-county metro area. It's made up of 16 representatives who are appointed by the governor and represent geographic areas. The chair, Nora Slawik, is the 17th member. The Council has four key policy areas: regional waste water management, regional parks, regional housing authority, and planning. The Met Council also owns and operates the Metro Transit System. It's a fairly obscure unit of government. A lot of people aren't even aware of it.
You’ve held many community leadership positions. Why, did you want to be a Met Council representative? When the [gubernatorial] administration changed and it became pretty clear there would be a shift in the Met Council, since the governor appoints the Met council members, I saw an opportunity to bring my experience within the public sector and my experience at the very grassroots level in the community and everything in between to the Met Council. I have been doing all this regional work. In its fifty year history, no tribal citizen has ever served on the Met Council. With my experience and knowing what that level of visibility in leadership roles means to the community, I thought, "I'll do it. I'm going to go for this."
The recently appointed Met Council has been called “the most diverse” in its history. What are the “diverse” identities you see yourself bringing to it? There’s certainly a Native identity I bring but also a Native approach. The strong Native perspective is that we're planning for seven generations. As we become more and more aware of the damage we're doing to our planet, to our air, to our water, to our people, to our food systems, it has become apparent to me that indigenous approaches are a valuable response—indigenous writ large. How do we bring those values forward in regional policy? In regional investment? I think that, for me it's an indigenous approach, but I think that approach resonates with a lot of different people in the sort of equity group that's forming in the council.
What other “diverse” perspectives do you bring? I understand how to manipulate the levers of a large public institution. I did it for twelve years [as a city council member]. I lived in Phillips for 36 years. Also, I am openly gay, or Two Spirit as we say in the Native Community. I have been very open about being gay throughout my activist, political, and professional lives.
It seems like the bulk of your community work has happened on the Southside, but your Met Council district is mostly Northside. Tell us about your connection to North Minneapolis. The further you get from the Southside, that's where I need to focus more energy on familiarizing myself with the issues. But a lot of those core Southside issues that I worked on in my activism and political life are similar to issues on the Northside: lack of investment, disinvestment, blight. A lot of it was created in similar ways: wrong decisions of public investment, where freeways go, things like that that really were to protect downtown and the central business district, to buffer it from any blight to the near Northside and near Southside, and with racist decisions made about investment. And that's always been apparent to me. I have a family connection to the Northside. My relatives were displaced by 94 construction. During my time on the city council, I learned to navigate the Northside.
Earlier, you listed the Met Council's responsibilities. These are huge topic areas. What are your priorities? I worked to be appointed to the chair of the Met Council’s community development committee. I felt like if there was a committee where the concept of equity and equity work would land, it would be that one. The Met Council does equity things all across the operation, but as I learned from my time on city council, if you want to make any progress on equity you need to define it to focus. I feel like the community development committee is the place that that can happen.
How do you define equity today? Equity means engaging and hearing from the communities who aren't experiencing equity in our region. As a policymaker, how do we capture that community voice? How do we engage that community voice? How do we engage in a way that has meaningful impact in the work that we do and on the outcomes that the work produces. It’s co-defining.
Do you have any formal plans in place for how you'll do that co-defining in North Minneapolis? Not yet. When talking to people, part of my approach, not just in politics but even in an activism and organizing, is to find where people are already coming together to address community desires, initiatives, and needs. It makes sure that what I'm working at has authentic community involvement and support. I'm not telling a community what we need to be working on. And the other is that I'm not trying to start energy. There's already energy, there's already movement.
Who on the Northside inspires you? People like now Attorney General Keith Ellison. He's a really remarkable person, and also, if you look at his family, the legacy of leadership that he's creating. Kind of intergenerational transference of leadership and responsibility for a community, and I think that's really something. The other person I thought of is Lucille, of Lucille’s kitchen [which used to be on Plymouth Avenue]. What a place that was, you know?
What does the Met Council need to do to ensure the long-term prosperity of North Minneapolis during your time on the council? Transit investment. The C line, the D line, the Blue Line extension. These are transformational investments in what has historically been community underserved and actually damaged by transit investment. Here's an opportunity to repair what was interrupted and to really bring a community level prosperity.
What haven't we asked you about that you think the community should know? I moved to Phillips when I was 20, and I bought my first home, and I very much felt a part of the Phillips community. We worked very hard at the grassroots level to make it clear that we knew what was best for ourselves. Then I got elected to city council, and I was in the power structure that I had been fighting against for twenty years. As soon as that happened some people who were my allies began to mistrust me and my motives because I was part of the system. I had to learn that people have reasons to distrust government. I distrust government at times too. How do I work within this construct? My White Earth sister, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, speaks about this very well and openly and passionately and emotionally to native audiences: "I am appointed access for you, be my ally. If you're critical of me, great. I expect you to be. Then come and let's be critical of me, and let's figure out how we move forward together." It’s trying to find that balance where yes, I'm a representative of the government system. Government may have caused you pain, your family pain; you have good reason to distrust it, and how do we figure how to get beyond that?
As you were thinking of running for your first public office position, did you wonder whether you’d be able to do more good in the system or as an activist? What I was more concerned with was the risk to myself—of becoming a crusty insider. I was very deliberate at setting up strategies to keep me tethered in my real life and in my real way of thinking, and with who I really am. And I felt like I was very successful. Everyone grows and changes, but even at the very end of my City Hall career, I could still be surprised by things. I'm glad I can still be naïve about things. I made a personal policy that I would never vote for something simply because [I thought it] was the right thing to do. I had to have better reasons than that. What I think is right may not be what you think is right. Another policy was that I would never say to anyone, "Trust me on this." If I couldn't earn their trust by my actions, words, and votes, I didn't deserve it.