Neighbors: Jen White brings perspective to power

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By Kenzie O'Keefe Editor  |  Photos by David Pierini Contributor

Jen White has spent her entire career working at Minneapolis City Hall for some of the city’s most recent influential leaders: Mayor Jacob Frey, former City Council President Barb Johnson, and Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. As Frey’s senior policy aide for public safety and youth and family development, she also works closely with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. 

This month she talked to North News about her passion for making city hall accessible, her deep love for the Northside, and being a strong woman of color who feels community pain personally—and brings it to her job.

You’ve worked at Minneapolis City Hall for 13 years. How did you get your start? Through one of my regular customers at the 50s Grill in Brooklyn Center. I was working there in 2005 after I graduated from the U and could not find a job. The customer, Patty Marsh, was an associate for Council Member Don Samuels. She said “give me your resume and I’ll bring it down to City Hall.” I got my foot in the door as a paid intern in Public Works Administration. One day everyone was like “council member so and so is coming down.” I didn’t know what a council member was at that point. Elizabeth Glidden and [her policy aide] Andrea Jenkins were the ones who walked in. Andrea and I really hit it off in that moment, and then they had an opening [for policy associate on their team]. I applied. Ultimately, I think Elizabeth let Andrea decide because the aide and associate work so closely together. Andrea decided to take a chance on me. I was the youngest person on the floor. There weren’t very many people of color working for the council at the time. 

Why devote your life to civil service in Minneapolis? I never intended to get involved in politics, but I’ve always been a helper person and a people person who wanted to make a difference. 

Would you ever run for office? I’ve thought about it. People have brought it up to me for a long time, even when I was working for Elizabeth. I’ve considered it; I’ve thought about it. Maybe!

When Barb Johnson lost her reelection, you were hired as one of Mayor Jacob Frey’s Senior Policy Aides. Do you feel a more palpable pressure working for the Mayor versus a City Council person? Yes, it’s very different. I remember when I was on the council side, I’d be like “what do they even do down there? Why do they have so many staff? We move all the policy.” But I get it now. It’s a really high profile, high volume office. You’re representing the entire city, not just a portion of it. With my area too, public safety, it’s a lot of pressure.

Jen White and her boss, Mayor Jacob Frey, meet with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

Jen White and her boss, Mayor Jacob Frey, meet with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.

Your current boss is Mayor Frey. Your previous boss was former Council President Barb Johnson. What have you learned from each of them? What do you think they’ve learned from you? I learned patience from Barb. It really took a lot to ruffle her feathers. Her quiet leadership—she let you come into your own and do the things that you wanted to do. She led the council in that way too. The importance of relationships in getting things done and recognizing staff when they did a great job. Barb also held a lot of power, but she did so in this very graceful, unassuming way. I always called her a political ninja. So many times, I would see her as the only woman in the room, but everyone listened to what she had to say – I think in part, because she brought people in close in a very personable way. She always sat in this sitting room chair and had everyone sit on the couch in her office for meetings, so it felt as though you were in her living room chatting with a friend. She would always begin meetings by asking people about their families and lives, always remembering very specific, intimate details before talking business. It put people at ease. 

What do you think you taught her? I like to think I was able to offer up new perspectives at times, about race in particular. She got it. She would always talk to me and have a conversation and really would listen. I felt really valued working for her.

What about Mayor Frey? He is very high energy, and I think that’s infectious. He works really hard; if you put in the hard work, that matters a lot to him. Jacob is like go go go all the time. He is a lot of fun to work with and he has a really good heart. He really cares about people and is very open to learning new ideas and perspectives. He is not afraid to be vulnerable with what he doesn’t know and has an eagerness to learn.  

What do you bring to him and his office? Diverse perspective and experience. He’s not from Minnesota, and I’m from here and have worked for the City now for almost 13 years. My relationships working on both the south and north side of the city. Being able to move in spaces that he can’t as a woman of color. Being able to talk to people and identify with different communities in different ways. 

You mentioned bringing diverse perspectives to both of them. I imagine that’s hard, draining, difficult work. How do you think about that? I’m mixed race and from Minnesota, so being “the only” is not foreign to me. I’m used to that in a lot of situations. Sometimes I get frustrated being that person all the time, but I feel like it’s kind of an honor and privilege to be able to represent and give voice to people in communities who aren’t in those spaces in City Hall, the halls of power. I hear it from community and the chief that they’re really glad that I’m in my role because I can be helpful navigating issues and policies. That kind of keeps me going when it gets tough, because it’s really a tough position.

Did you know it would be this tough going in? I had somewhat of an idea, but no. The volume of work is huge. In our first year we had the Super Bowl, two officer involved shootings, Ketamine, and we had the sexual assault investigations series, “Denied Justice,” that brought to light various ways we were failing women who were reporting sexual assaults.  It’s been major things one after another. 

A white board in White’s office showcases both her busy schedule and how beloved she is in community.

A white board in White’s office showcases both her busy schedule and how beloved she is in community.

You’re helping with the selection process for the new Fourth Precinct Inspector. Describe your ideal inspector.  What the community is really looking for is someone who will connect with them and not be afraid of coming into the neighborhood and getting to know the people and being in tough positions. The Fourth Precinct is a tough precinct. [We need someone] with [former inspector Mike Friestleben’s] finesse and genuine relationships with community but also someone who can handle the administrative aspects of that role. 

Tell us more about the youth and family development component of your work. What are you advocating for now?  A big thing for me is the equity and inclusion piece. We talk about how Minneapolis and Minnesota are a great place to live and raise a family and yada yada. I’m always saying: “but for who?” We have such a great racial disparity in outcomes for people of color, and black and indigenous people specifically. I’d like to see is what we can do as a city to create policies that are supportive of BIPOC families and communities so we can bring everyone up and make this a great place for everyone to live. 

Who do you look up to in our city? Andrea Jenkins. I call her my forever work wife. I wouldn’t be where I am without her. She supported me through all of my major growth. I had my first real professional job because she decided to take a chance on me. She has always been true to herself and has stood up for those of us who are on the margins; I still call her when anything’s hard or I need to vent or I need advice. That’s a lifelong thing.

Who do you look up to on the Northside? Chanda Smith Baker is my dear friend and mentor. I always joke with her that I want to be like her when I grow up, both personally and professionally. She has a blended family like we do. She has been such a steadfast community person who has used her position to uplift the community and bring resources and highlight the good things that are happening. She is definitely an inspiration. Her sister Shannon as well. 

How has your work changed moving from the council side of city politics to the mayoral side? I worked with and for very powerful women my entire career. Now I work for a very powerful man. That was a big difference for me. I had to get used to that more masculine, bro-y energy, [but] Jacob is a lot of fun and he will admit when he doesn’t know something. He wants to argue and banter and back and forth to get to the best outcome. I had to learn how to embrace that debate team kind of style and work differently. 

Working for city leaders, you’re often on the receiving end of community pain and anger. How do you handle that? The most important thing is that you can’t take it personally. It’s not about you; it’s about the systems, issues, or underlying problem. You have to recognize and  know that whatever people are angry about, it’s valid. It’s for a reason. Their stories matter and their perspectives matter. Sometimes people just need to vent and know that people who have access to power are listening to them. I learned that you cannot bullshit anybody on the Northside. People see through that in a heartbeat. Even if you can’t give them the response they want to hear, be honest and truthful about that and people really appreciate that. I have also dealt with a lot of pain, loss, and trauma in my personal life, so I can identify with people who are going through it with their own battles. I can empathize with them and feel that pain very deeply. It helps me lean in and get closer to the struggles and then I am able to take that and translate it to help guide my work and ultimately influence the policies and decisions being made that can have an impact to address those issues. 

Anything else? I also want to say that there is something very special and unique about North Minneapolis. The community has a way of drawing you in and holding you close. If you spend any significant amount of time there, you fall in love with the people and the culture. You become a part of the fabric of the community in this really profound way that is very special and unique.  

Kenzie O'Keefe