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Melissa Hortman
Changemaker: Listening to women of color at the State CapitolListening to women of color at the State Capitol
Melissa Hortman, courtesy photo.

We're going to sit at the table, say what we need to say, and take credit for our ideas. When we see other women struggling we're going to support each other.
- Melissa Hortman

by Shannon Drury

It was the call-out heard 'round the world when Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman stepped to the mic on the afternoon of April 4, 2017.

"I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game," occurring in the private break room reserved for state House members, Hortman said, "but I think this is an important debate."

When a white male colleague on the floor objected and demanded an apology, Hortman remained steadfast. "I have no intention of apologizing," Hortman replied, adding, "I am really tired of watching women of color in particular being ignored, so I'm not sorry."

By the end of the week, Hortman was an international sensation, racking up millions of views on YouTube and featured in news outlets as varied as Al-Jazeera and Teen Vogue.

The debate Hortman referenced, whether or not to increase penalties for public protests on highways and other routes, included remarks by Rep. Ilhan Omar, who compared Black Lives Matter protests to 1960s civil rights marchers, and testimony from Rep. Rena Moran, who began by noting that she is the great-great-granddaughter of a slave. "Nobody else in the House could make that statement," Hortman says, remembering that day. "[Moran] fought to have a seat at the table, to represent her community, to make sure her voice was heard."

But Hortman noticed that more than a few colleagues had not only excused themselves from hearing these extraordinary speeches, they had their break-room's monitors changed from the House floor video feed to a baseball game.

"I've thought long and hard about my role as minority leader in the Trump environment," says Hortman, who was elected to the post on January 3, 2017. "The one thing all of us have in the minority caucus is a microphone. We need to use it to say hate is not normal. Racism is not normal. Sexism is not normal."

The response of Rep. Bob Dettmer to Hortman's concerns on April 4 gave the video the biggest boost, she says; "It wouldn't have been [an internet sensation] if [he] hadn't asked me to apologize. I had a chance to explain why I did what I did. It gave that moment the resonance and drama to go viral."

Hortman insists that the point of her speech on the House floor wasn't internet fame, but to highlight the speeches by Reps. Omar, Moran, Jamie Becker-Finn, Susan Allen and Peggy Flanagan; she was gratified that media attention helped the DFL House Caucus publicize their words.

Hortman is blunt about the way forward for women in her caucus - and for all women tired of feeling unheard. "We're not going to wait in line," she says. "We're going to sit at the table, say what we need to say, and take credit for our ideas. When we see other women struggling we're going to support each other."

Melissa Hortman recommends:
• The book "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg for tools and techniques to be more assertive in the workplace.
• Indivisible activist groups for resources to take political action locally and nationally. indivisible.org

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