Mayor’s aide reflects on unlikely path to City Hall

In a recent op-ed in the Advocate magazine, Phillipe Cunningham, a senior policy aide to Mayor Betsy Hodges, shared a story about being told by a high school history teacher that he could never become a politician because he was a black woman.

Cunningham later transitioned to a black man while a junior in college in Chicago. “So when I finally pieced together my trans and gay identities and began the process of self-acceptance, I mourned the presumed loss of my dream career,” he wrote. “If I stood no chance as a black woman, there was definitely no chance as a black queer trans person.”

He instead pursued a career as a special education teacher and then moved to Minneapolis for a social entrepreneur fellowship with the New Sector Alliance.

Cunningham, however, realized his dream in July when he was hired to work for Hodges’ on youth and education issues. He first met the mayor while serving on the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Executive Committee and she later urged him to apply for the aide position after hearing him speak at a My Brother’s Keeper event.

He also credits Andrea Jenkins, a former policy aide to City Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden who is now working on building a historical archive about the transgender community at the University of Minnesota, with helping him find his way to City Hall.

“My whole life changed because the legendary Andrea Jenkins raised awareness for trans equity and the City of Minneapolis responded by starting to recruit transgender people to join in making decisions for our city,” he wrote.

Cunningham is now co-leading the city’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative — a community challenge launched by President Barack Obama focused on improving the lives of young black men.

He’s also working on racial equity issues and building connections with the Minneapolis Youth Congress to ensure that young people are represented in decision making at City Hall. 

“I am acting as a circuit board — connecting the different organizations, programs, finding the gaps and helping build power to address those gaps,” he said during a recent interview.

As for advice for young people interested in pursuing public service, he stressed the importance of finding people who share their passions.

“Network nonstop,” he said. “Build a network of people who have access to the things you are trying to achieve.”