At 22, Raie Gessesse isn't waiting to inspire change. Appointed by former Gov. Mark Dayton, she served as a member of the first-ever Young Women's Cabinet, working to elevate the voices of future female leaders, and received a $2,500 microgrant to invest in her vision as a Women's Foundation of Minnesota Innovator. She currently trains young women to run for office as Midwest Program Manager for IGNITE National, and aspires to run for office herself someday. She graduated in May from Hamline University with a double major in public health and political science, and hopes to begin law and public policy school this fall. Gessesse is Minnesota-born, but her story begins in a different place.
Q: Let's start at the beginning. How would you describe your childhood?
A: I was born in Minnesota, but I like to start with my parents' story. My parents were born and raised in Ethiopia. When my mother was pregnant with me, they received notice that they had won a diversity visa; this is a lottery program that allows people to gain permanent residency in the United States. They first came to Boston in 1998 but heard Minnesota was the place to be to start a job. They arrived here with nothing but a vision and a dream and a baby.
Q: Your lovely name certainly attests to that dream.
A: Raie (pronounced Rah-EE) means "God's vision."
Q: I'm guessing that in 1998, your parents faced challenges as emigrants. What have they told you?
A: We have a thriving community now but when my parents came, they were among few Ethiopians. For seven years, they lived in St. Paul in the heart of the Ethiopian community. Growing up, I felt surrounded by my extended family. Then we moved to Cottage Grove, where we've been ever since.
Q: Is this when you got an inkling that you were different from your classmates?
A: I grew up believing that this is the land of opportunity. Moving to the suburbs, I still didn't know I was different until I was made to feel that way because of my braids, complexion, traditional foods. In elementary school, I got pulled out for English Language Learners (ELL). But I spoke fluent English, along with Amharic. My parents had to fight to get me out of ELL. As the only Black girl, I started to feel lonely, isolated, awkward. My household was my safe harbor. I was a smart kid but it was always, "How did you get to be so smart?" Up to college, there was always skepticism about what I could accomplish, always the question, "Are you sure?"
Q: How did your parents comfort you, mitigate that?
A: I remember one conversation with my mom. I was telling her how lonely and isolated I was. She said, "Your identity is your gift." That was a shattering moment for me. Why am I sacrificing my story and experiences for folks who don't matter? The story of my life is the product of my parents' dreams. For four years, I had been straightening my hair every single day. In 10th grade, I let my hair be natural for the first time. I said, no more! I need to re-center myself to when I was 4 or 6, feeling like I could be anyone I wanted.
A: I signed up for a talent show doing traditional dance. I joined the step team. And I founded my high school's first Students for Justice club, becoming its inaugural president. Shortly after graduating, I was appointed to the first Young Women's Cabinet.
Q: Tell us about a Cabinet project you spearheaded.
A: In 2019, we championed the Women of Color Opportunity Act at the state Legislature. I wrote and introduced an amendment for paid job internship opportunities; so many internships are offered but I, and many others like me, can't afford to take on an unpaid position. These are pipelines to future jobs. The act didn't pass but we're advocating again this year. No more unpaid internships!
Q: Where were you when you heard that George Floyd had been killed?
A: A friend texted me and I was so overwhelmed. This is in a part of Minneapolis that a lot of us are very familiar with. I was feeling grief, but also was very angry. The Minneapolis Police Department has a history of misconduct. I just couldn't believe it had to get to this point. For the next few days, I posted to social media e-mails and phone numbers for senators, City Council members, the mayors, attorney general, governor. I saw my role as sharing resources to make sure that everyone knows this is not OK.
Q: Why do you think race is such a fraught topic? Do tragedies such as the death of George Floyd make it easier or more difficult to begin conversations?
A: Those who are not racially oppressed say, "Since I haven't experienced it, I don't know what to do with this information." Yes, this is a land of opportunity and a place of refuge for my family, but it has also not acknowledged an ugly past. That's hard for a white person — to be part of centuries-long oppression. On the other hand, when we finally get to a place where we can acknowledge the truth, we can move forward. My mom always said, the truth shall set you free. That speaks so profoundly to the moment we're in right now.
Q: How might you help us engage in this essential conversation in a productive way?
A: Learning is so important. Make sure you're reading books by authors of color. I'd recommend "How To Be An Antiracist," by Ibram X. Kendi, and "Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot," by Mikki Kendall. In your organizations, be conscious about how many people of color are present. Where are they in the leadership line? In meetings, are they participating or hesitant? If it's the latter, that might mean that it's not a safe space for them to talk. Create change where you're at.
Q: Would you share your story about your pre-COVID encounter on a plane? It's a good lesson.
A: I was on a plane from Chicago to Minneapolis, chatting with a woman. She asked me what my name was. I told her "Raie," and she said, "That's more American than I thought." Like, boom! She couldn't even see me as a person born and raised in America. I took this as an educational opportunity. I told her all about my childhood.
Q: Did she catch on?
A: She was mortified. She later apologized and realized how her comments were misguided and harmful. As a movement-builder, we need as many allies as we can get. If someone makes a mistake, I can respond in a graceful way that brings her into the conversation. We ended up having this great conversation.
About this series
Beginning today and continuing throughout the year, the Star Tribune's Inspired section will engage in regular conversations with a variety of Minnesotans on the topic of race.