Renee Van Nett will be the first Native American ever to take a seat on the Duluth City Council. She is Red Lake and Leech Lake Ojibwe.

Van Nett is a foster parent, and works as an employment liaison for Community Action Duluth. “I work hard every single day to end the cycle of poverty within my own life,” she wrote in a Duluth News-Tribune op-ed. “Although I never saw myself having an interest in politics, I decided to run for the Duluth School Board in 2015 because my kids were falling through the cracks of the educational system. When I didn’t win that election, I evaluated where my voice and experience could be most useful.”

She defeated City Council incumbent Howie Hanson for the 4th district seat with 51.85 percent of the vote. Hanson's perspective was, “We should tell city government to stop trying to take the money out of our wallets, and we should reinvest back into our things that are working: tourism and business economy.”

Van Nett says she bases her life on the core Anishinabe values of humility, truth, courage, honesty, respect, love and wisdom. She told Minnesota Women's Press, “The 4th district gets left out of decision making historically. Being a Native woman who historically gets left out of any decisions that are best for me, I know what that’s like. If I have the power and relationships to help someone’s life improve then I am going to do that.

“Generational poverty is not my choice, I was born into it, and I know what it takes to move through and out. I want to model what hard work can do for people to improve their lives by being that example, and yet being that person who can communicate and listen across socio-economical, racial lines and be that bridge for everyone. In my view political leadership is just a fancy way of saying ‘Helping the community and people live better lives!’”

Women and political leadership

EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, reports that nationally in 2017 more than 22,000 expressed interest in running for political office, compared to 920 women who did so in 2015 and 2016 combined. Politico reports that a “Women for Winning” organization “has been working the past year to build a conservative counterweight to EMILY’s List.”

In Minnesota, the statewide organization womenwinning reports that 30 of the 39 candidates it endorsed in 2017 won their elections, including 17 first-time candidates. Says political director Becky Rothmeier, “In the wake of 2016, women have come forward in overwhelming numbers to march, to run for office, and to help other women win their elections. The community of support for women candidates has grown exponentially over the last year and we are looking forward to gains on the horizon in 2018. Not only are women today better trained and more equipped to run, they are more fired up and determined than ever before.”

In Minnesota, Andrea Jenkins, a transgender woman of color, was elected to the Minneapolis City Council. A Huffington Post summary of nationwide firsts also includes mayors in Charlotte, N.C. (first African-American woman), Manchester, N.H. (first woman, who unseated a male incumbent), Seattle, Wash. (first lesbian), Santa Barbara, Calif. (first Latina mayor).

Sheila Oliver, first African-American woman elected lieutenant governor in New Jersey, says, “This may not be the first glass ceiling I have broken, but it is certainly the highest,” she said. “And I hope somewhere a young girl of color is watching and realizing that she does not have a limit to how high she can go.”