Rep. Susan Allen: An Inspiring Story for Everyone

Susan Allen. Photo by Sophia Hantzes
Susan Allen. Photo by Sophia Hantzes

Susan Allen. Photo by Sophia Hantzes

The problem with profiling State Representative Susan Allen is figuring out where to start.

Do you begin with the fact that she’s the only American Indian (Allen’s of Lakota, Dakota, and Anishinabe heritage) in the Minnesota Legislature? Or that she’s the first openly lesbian American Indian in any state legislature in the country?

Or that occasionally, she’ll treat herself to a fancy hotel stay, just for fun?

Maybe the best starting point is that she’s a recovering alcoholic, a veteran of multiple detox admissions before finally getting sober at age 25. Most people with that kind of history never make it to college, let alone to elected office. Yet, Allen’s a living example of what’s possible when people face their issues. Her resiliency and strength have made her a role model for anyone who’s ever had to wrestle with personal demons. Humble and reserved, Allen is proof that anyone can overcome life’s hurdles and thrive despite them.

Allen’s near-miss in life took her to many dark places. She dropped out of high school and became homeless. Her parents assumed guardianship for Allen’s then-infant son because she wasn’t able to care for him. Eventually, she found the inner strength to quit drinking and reclaim her son. Once she became sober, she attended a community college where she obtained a high school equivalency degree and college credits. She later transferred to Augsburg College and earned a bachelor’s degree. From there it was to law school at the University of New Mexico and an advanced tax law degree from William Mitchell Law School. She eventually built a law practice advising American Indian tribes on tax and gaming issues, something which she continues to do when not legislating.

I’m not disclosing some private information about Allen here. In fact, in order to secure the DFL nomination, Allen shared her story—about loss and recovery—with the 300 DFL delegates involved in the nomination process. Allen and three men battled for the nomination.

“I showed my vulnerability,” she confided about the DFL selection process. “I revealed something of myself that was traumatic and difficult. It was tough. How far do you go in talking about yourself?”

It appears that Allen went as far as necessary. She snagged the DFL nomination on the third ballot. Allen then went on to win the special election for her District seat, hands down.

If it sounds like I’m a Susan Allen fan, it’s because I am. We previously dated briefly, and we’ve been friends ever since. Simply put, her story inspires me. I hope that qualifies as full disclosure.

Allen credits her father, Phillip Allen, with giving her the tools that she uses every day. Phillip, born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, “beat the odds,” according the Allen. He became an Episcopal priest who moved his family away from Pine Ridge and ministered to the Native American community. “His whole life was based on community service,” said Allen. Philip died in early 2010. Allen has put her father’s model to real use. In 2008, she and her sister Martha started a weekly meal at the First Nations Church in the Powderhorn district. Allen’s impetus (apart from her father) was the fact that Allen’s mother (also born at Pine Ridge) died from diabetes. “There are no grocery stores in the neighborhood near the church,” Allen reports. “If you live in poverty, you eat processed foods.”

The weekly meal at First Nations Church (every Sunday from 5:30 to 6:30) incorporates indigenous foods, including buffalo, wild rice, elk, deer, and turkey. This isn’t a soup kitchen meal, either. Instead, there are several courses (salad, main course, desert) served by volunteers. On most Sundays, you can find a hairnet-clad Allen cooking in the kitchen, doing her part.

In short, Allen’s one of those rare people who actually lives what she advocates. Indeed, she cites her core values as “fairness, generosity, equality, and compassion.”

In reality, Allen isn’t a natural politician. She’s far more introverted than extroverted. Still, she again looks to her father. “To be electable, I had to be able to connect with people,” Allen confided. “He [Phillip] was good at that. People felt they knew him, even if they were around him for just a short time.”

Allen understands that politics “is about building relationships.” She also might appreciate that sometimes, politics is like a game of dominos—Allen was tapped to run for House District 61B (south Minneapolis) when Jeff Hayden vacated that seat to take the Senate seat held by Linda Berglin (who resigned to take a health policy position with Hennepin County). An Elder in the American Indian community approached Allen and suggested that she consider running for the House seat. Allen viewed the suggestion as “an honor and something that I couldn’t say no to.”

More personally, Allen came out as a lesbian when she was in her early thirties, soon after graduating law school. “It was difficult,” she said. “It’s hard when you have a small child.” However, Allen’s family was supportive. “They felt they knew me better,” Allen said of her family’s reaction to her coming out.

Ever since then, Allen’s been in the background of the Minneapolis GLBT community. Presumably, her new stature and visibility will give her more of a chance to advocate for GLBT causes, such as the anti-marriage amendment, which she adamantly opposes.

As importantly—if not more so—Allen’s now in a position to do more for the American Indian community. For too long, that community has lacked a voice in the Legislature.

Still, Allen’s not looking for labels. “I want to be known as a legislator who happens to be lesbian and Native American,” she stated with a smile. “I didn’t want to be known as the GLBT candidate or the woman of color.”

With all that she’s achieved, Allen quickly identified the one thing of which she’s most proud. “I was able to be a mother to my son,” she said with clear emotion.

Good for her son. Actually, good for all of us.

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