Community organizer. Artist. Campaigner. Activist. Amáda Márquez Simula has held many roles over the course of her inspiring political journey. In 2020, she added two important new titles to her resume: elected official and trailblazer. Now serving as Mayor of Columbia Heights, Amáda Márquez Simula is the first person of color elected to public office in the city’s history.
As she steps into her leadership in the Mayor’s office (really, in front of a Zoom camera), Women Winning was thrilled to connect with Mayor Márquez Simula for a deep conversation touching on everything from authentic leadership and why representation matters, to purple hair and Star Trek!
Women Winning: In 2018, you campaigned for another Women Winning endorsed candidate, Nelle Bing, who was running for Columbia Heights City Council. Nelle ran a hard-fought campaign and lost by just 50 votes to Nick Novitsky. Two years later you ran against Novitsky for Mayor and won by an impressive 10 point margin! What did you learn working on Nelle’s campaign?
Mayor Amáda Márquez Simula: Nelle ran for office as a candidate with purple hair! Initially, we were worried that it would have a negative impact on her campaign. But Nelle said, “I don’t want to change it. I want to run as me, as the person I am.” We found that the overwhelming majority of voters, when they got to know her, didn’t care at all! We even encountered some older folks who said, “I wish I could do purple hair. I feel like my grandkids would laugh at me.” We told them, “Do it anway!”
It may seem trivial, but as women we are judged on our appearance. If we don’t think we “look the part”, we might not even try. Seeing Nelle run as her authentic self was educational and empowering. It was eye-opening.
WW: You launched your campaign for mayor in January 2020, shortly before COVID-19 came to Minnesota and the world was turned upside down. You ended up campaigning, winning your election, and starting your first term as an elected official all in the midst of a global pandemic. What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered campaigning and governing during the pandemic? Have there been any unexpected silver linings?
Mayor Márquez Simula: The first challenge was coming to terms with what COVID meant for the world, for our community, for jobs, for health. But it never occurred to me to not continue the campaign. I knew we needed a leader who could be creative and look for solutions to help our community move forward through the pandemic.
I’m naturally a social butterfly, so it was also a challenge not being able to connect with people in person. I’ve met hundreds of people through my job in public works, at the school district, and as a community organizer, and I was looking forward to doing that on the campaign trail. I’d even arranged my whole summer work schedule around door knocking! But I had to do what I thought was right and what I thought was the best leadership — following health department guidelines that people should stay home if they can. I found other ways to connect with people. We increased our fundraising efforts to support additional mailings. We had a great volunteer team that flooded the whole city with flyers. Volunteers were able to engage in their own neighborhoods, and it really helped people feel like they were part of a movement. During such a scary time, people felt like they had some power to do something positive for their community.
The silver lining has been that Zoom meetings are more accessible. We have people checking in to council meetings while they’re making dinner, folding laundry, or cleaning. They can participate more easily. Zoom has also helped me connect with other elected leaders. I’m in groups with other mayors and BIPOC elected officials, which is really awesome! If these were in person meetings, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to drive up to Bemidji to attend. The opportunity to meet leaders from across Minnesota, and dream together about how our entire state can move forward and take care of more people has been incredible.
WW: What are the biggest differences you’ve experienced between making change as a community organizer and activist, and making change as an elected officeholder?
Mayor Márquez Simula: When I was a community organizer, I’d say: “Let’s have a movie night. Let’s have a dog festival. Let’s have a Pride festival.” And then I and other volunteers made it happen. As an elected official, the process is different and it takes more time. But my purpose is different and the end results are different, too. As Mayor, I have resources that allow me to effect more permanent change for the community. As a community organizer, I couldn’t just build a new park, for example. I could help from the outside, but I couldn’t actually make it happen. As Mayor, I can be part of creating and building a new park that’s accessible, that’s designed for the community.
WW: Columbia Heights is one of the most diverse cities in Minnesota, with 35% of the population identifying as non-white. (For comparison, roughly 17% of Minnesota’s overall population identifies as nonwhite.) Yet you are the first person of color to hold elected office in Columbia Heights in recent memory. What do you see as some of the barriers that keep people of color from running for and winning elected office? What can we all do to break them down?
Mayor Márquez Simula: Whenever I’m asked this question, I think about Star Trek! There’s an incredible story of a little girl who was inspired by Nichelle Nichols [the Black actress who portrayed Lt. Uhura in Star Trek] and dreamed of going to outer space. Ultimately that little girl, Mae Jemison, became a NASA astronaut and the first Black woman to travel to space! Seeing people who look like you in those positions helps you see it in yourself. That’s why representation matters so much.
See people, especially people of color, who are already leading and doing the work. When someone is standing up for something or speaking out, tell them, “hey, you have leadership potential!” Ask them, “have you ever thought about running for office?” Plant that seed.
Then support those candidates. Contribute financially. Get involved in campaigns. Everyone who runs for office is putting themselves out there, and that only increases for women, for young people, and especially for people of color. When people step up to run, we’ve got to have their backs. Otherwise, we’re missing out on quality people who have so much to offer their communities. That’s a really sad thing. So let’s not do that anymore!
WW: Women continue to run for and win elected office in record numbers, but there are still significant gaps in representation — especially when it comes to women in executive offices. Those gaps are even greater when it comes to women of color. Only 18% of governors are women and 20 states, including Minnesota, have never elected a woman governor. Only two states have ever elected a woman of color governor and no Black women have served as governor. As of June 2020, of the U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, only 23% had women mayors. What do you think we need to do to improve that statistic and elect more women to mayor’s offices and executive offices in general?
Mayor Márquez Simula: See women as leaders. In all of your circles — your neighborhood, your church group, your PTO — see women as leaders and ask them to run. When a woman is running for office, do what you can to help. Women are typically juggling a disproportionate amount of family responsibilities, regardless of family size or structure. Women are carrying the diaper bag and the briefcase and whatever else. Step in and say, “I will pick up the kids from sports practice. I will drop off a meal once per week. I’ll mow the lawn or shovel the sidewalk so you don’t have to worry about it. That will be my campaign contribution.” Help level the playing field so that women can campaign and govern on equal footing with men.
WW: It’s early in your term, and we know you will continue to do great work for the city of Columbia Heights. What is your proudest moment thus far as an executive office holder?
Mayor Márquez Simula: I am bringing up color and asking questions about race in our council meetings. I’m asking, “How can we do this better? What barriers are we looking at? How can we be a more inclusive, diverse city government?” If I wasn’t there, I don’t know that these questions would be asked. I’m proud that we’re having these conversations and pushing our city to continue forward.
Columbia Heights Mayor Amáda Márquez Simula
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