Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando

“When we don’t explicitly focus on equity, we implicitly increase economic and racial disparities.”    Commish

As I begin to assemble my notes on this jammed packed interview with Commissioner Irene Fernando on “Conversations with Al McFarlane”, I thought it best to first describe the workings of Hennepin County, which she represents.  There are 87 counties in Minnesota.  Hennepin County is the most populated with 1.2 million people, 1/4 of the state’s residents.  Forty-five cities in Hennepin County are organized into 7 Districts.  Each District elects one County Commissioner.  In 2018, Fernando became the youngest and one of the two first women of color in the county’s 170-year history elected to the County Commission.  District 2, comprised of Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, Northeast Minneapolis, Southeast Plymouth, and St. Anthony, elected 32-year-old “Commish” Irene Fernando. 

She is impressive, and passionate. She listens, observes, and when she speaks, she’s not always opinionated. The Commish validates her declarations with facts and with her achievements. She works hard for the people. 

She saw her mother, a health care worker in L.A. County work double shifts while raising an active Filipino family, and she’s seen success happen against the odds.  Ten days into Fernando’s freshman year at University of Minnesota, the future Bush Foundation Fellow co-founded ‘Students Today Leaders Forever’ (STLF), a thriving non-profit organization where she ran over 600 programs with 22,718 students contributing 318,000 hours of community service across the country in the 11 years she was there.  The organization promoted leadership through service, relationships, and action.    

Program host Al McFarlane recalled meeting with a former Hennepin County Board Chairman who was arrogantly insensitive and dismissive regarding America’s original sin: slavery.  The elected official said America’s legacy of slavery had nothing to do with him and was not his problem. And, McFarlane said, the County Board chair said he felt the County was pouring too much money into North Minneapolis, suggesting the persistent disadvantage and disparity experienced by Black residents was not a product of structural inequity and race-coded public policy.

Fast forward to the present day.

Fernando and her commissioner colleague, Angela Conley, a Black woman who represents District 4, last year introduced a resolution proclaiming racism as a public health crisis. The measure was eventually adopted by the County Board on a 7-1 vote, but not before push-back by some Commissioners who questioned what purpose the declaration would serve.

Minnesota leads the country in livability indexes with high marks in quality education, health outcomes, and general excellence and opportunity. 

The state and county have long delivered stellar results for white people but have consistently failed Black and Brown residents, as evidenced by abysmal disparities in health, education, wealth, housing and jobs. 

Fernando says now more than ever Hennepin County must begin having the difficult discussions.  Policy decisions must reflect the interests of people who, their voices muffled, historically have been underserved, not included and currently in dire need.  “When disparaging health care outcomes are linked and sometimes centered on the policies of the County, different matrixes can be studied.  If our contribution to healing and recovery is not tied into policy, it makes it harder for those implementing and directing the work to be able to do their work and tackle the residents’ concerns,”  Fernando said. “If we truly believe our systems have created such harm to the vulnerable, no doubt we would be willing to ease some of their survival burdens and act with a lot more political courage.”

Commissioner Fernando said society is at an inflection point.  She said people must ask what do justice and equity look like, and how do we reinforce the values and hope in our children that we were raised with.

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