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A group of 17 college-age men and women pose for a photo in the Minnesota State Capitol building.
The 2019 Capitol Pathways interns tour the Minnesota State Capitol during the program's orientation in January 2019. Photo credit: Citizens League

Building a ‘pathway’ for the future leaders of Minnesota

The Citizens League’s paid internship program, Capitol Pathways, aims to remove financial barriers and open access to the Minnesota State Capitol for the next generation of leaders of color.

April 24, 2019

Since its founding in 1952, Minnesota’s Citizens League — a nonprofit organization that champions the role of Minnesota’s residents to engage in civic life and govern for the common good and promote democracy — has sought to solve the state’s problems through community engagement coupled with a nonpartisan look at the facts.

This straightforward yet effective strategy has guided the organization — which counts Wells Fargo as a founding member — as it has helped make Minnesota a better place to live for its citizens over the past 67 years.

In recent years, one of the challenges the St. Paul-based organization has worked to solve is the barriers faced by college students seeking internships in Minnesota’s legislature and other government bodies. For many students, committing to a semester-long, unpaid internship is not a realistic financial option.

Tunrayo Olanrewaju attends Univ. of Minnesota-Twin Cities & interns at Capitol Hill Associates. She says: Being a person of color, we are often excluded from these spaces. Capitol Pathways gives me the connections and a chance similar to my peers.

“An internship in the Minnesota State Capitol may often be a student’s best chance to land a job in state politics after graduating,” said Bob Butterbrodt, who is a member of the Citizens League’s board of directors and part of Wells Fargo’s Government Relations team. “However, because all current internships with the Minnesota House and Senate are unpaid, it creates the unintentional consequence of limiting access to these positions for all students, but especially for low-income students and students of color.”

The Citizens League addressed this problem by creating Capitol Pathways, a paid internship program that opens access to the Minnesota State Capitol to ensure its next generation of young leaders better represents the diversity of the state’s citizens, in 2016.

Now in its fourth year, Capitol Pathways has helped finance internships for 127 Minnesota-based college students. These students come from diverse ethnic backgrounds and many identify as African American, American Indian, Hispanic, biracial, Pacific Islander, and Hmong American — including Kalia Xiong, Capitol Pathways program manager and a member of the internship program’s first cohort in 2016.

Amy Zhou attends Univ. of Minnesota-Twin Cities and interns at Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. She says: My time as an intern has solidified my passion for public service and has given me a better idea of what kind of career I want to pursue.

“I had participated in several other internships earlier in college, but it never felt like I was doing the type of meaningful work that could actually impact people’s lives,” recalled Xiong. “But as a Capitol Pathways intern, I was working directly with legislators, providing research that was being used to inform policy decisions, and was given the opportunity to work in a space where I felt valued as a person.

“My transition from intern to now leading the program perfectly exemplifies our Capitol Pathways philosophy of pulling in and creating opportunities for young people of color,” she said.

‘Building and strengthening connections for young leaders’

In one of the most famous speeches in American history — the Gettysburg Address — President Abraham Lincoln spoke of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Over 150 years later, that sentiment is, in many ways, at the heart of the Capitol Pathways internship program, noted Xiong.

Abdihamid Badri attends Hamline University and interns at Education Minnesota. He says: Capitol Pathways will give me a step up in continuing my studies and eventually working on education policy.

“Our goal continues to be about building and strengthening connections for young leaders from communities that have long been underrepresented in policymaking across Minnesota,” said Xiong. “From its inception, the long-term goal for Capitol Pathways was to make our government truly representative of our communities, and it is amazing to see the significant steps forward we’ve experienced in the first four years of the program.”

In addition to placing students in internship roles during Minnesota’s legislative session, Capitol Pathways furthers their professional development through monthly cohort meetings that include mentoring, guest speakers, networking events, and specifically designed curriculum that addresses unique challenges for people of color pursuing political careers.

Jacqueli Bonete attends Hamline Univ. & interns at O'Rourke Strategic Consulting. She says: The endless opportunities and networks provided by this internship experience has boosted my confidence and brightened my outlook of my future career path.

“One of our internship curriculums — which was originally funded by a grant from Wells Fargo — focuses on racial equity training and aims to prepare our students to navigate the power and racial dynamics that exist in politics,” said Xiong. “The course promotes the importance of seeing the world via a racial equity lens and practicing compassion when discussing race.”

In just a few years, many of Capitol Pathways’ intern alumni are already fulfilling the program’s objective to improve diverse representation in Minnesota’s government agencies, securing leadership roles in community-focused organizations like the Great Plains Institute, Minnesota’s Coalition for the Homeless, and Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

“One of the ways to improve the public’s trust of governing bodies is to proactively find ways to introduce diverse perspectives into our state’s policymaking decisions,” said Butterbrodt. “We’re so proud of the students who have participated in Capitol Pathways and who are now using it as a springboard to pursuing their civic careers. Outcomes like these are a big reason Wells Fargo continues to financially support the Citizens League.”

Contributors: Christopher Frers
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