Minnesota senator speaks about race and gender in politics

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The SCSU Women’s Center welcomed district 63 Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL) as a guest speaker for the second session of their weekly event “Women On Wednesday,” which introduces new topics dealing with women’s issues for discussion each week.

According to the DFL senate caucus website, she is the first Hispanic American to be elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2006 and the first minority woman to run as lieutenant governor in Minnesota.  

Now in her tenth year of office, she currently serves as the chair for the Education Policy Committee and the Senate’s Education Finance, Higher Education and Workforce Development Division, and State and Local Government Committees.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Torres Ray. Originally born in Columbia, she immigrated to the U.S. with her husband. Soon after, she began to learn English and became a U.S. citizen. She received a B.A. in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota and went on to receive her Master’s degree at the Humphrey Institute. Before being elected to the senate, she worked in child advocacy and human services. It was there that she began to envision doing more for her community.

Overcoming her own personal challenges has helped Torres Ray get to where she is today. She believes that having this background has helped her stay in touch with her constitutes and continually learn more about the communities that she serves. High expectations are placed on her from community members that know she understands their issues first hand and will work hard to make the best choices for the people she represents.

Torres Ray explained some of the challenges that she has faced being a Latino woman in the Senate.

She showed statistics from 2014 that proved just how underrepresented women and minorities are in the senate and the House of Representatives. According to her statistics, only 34 percent of the U.S. Senate is female and only 32 percent of the House of Representatives. Minorities make up less than 8 percent of the Senate and a mere 4 percent of the House. Similar staggering numbers are present when looking at the majority leaders in both the Senate and the House. Again, women and minorities are substantially underrepresented.

“One of my greatest challenges that I have faced, in my opinion, has been meeting my own expectations and meeting the expectations of the people in my community,” Torres Ray said. “Because I am the minority, I always feel like I am the one who needs to respond,” she said. She further explained, “We (minority Senators) tend to be asked to author these legislations (regarding minority issues) and we tend to pursue these types of ideas.”

“I do know what is going on. I am part of that community, I do speak Spanish, so I have no excuse,” Torres Ray said. “I’m in communication with that community, therefore I have that responsibility.”

The challenge of the present and how to resolve it for the future is another task she is always working on. For example, she was asked recently about early childhood education funding and English language learners to decide not only how to fund it now, but also how to keep that funding in position for years to come.

“I’m not going to stop the conversation with early childhood education and pretend that we are done,” Torres Ray said, and continued, “No, we’re not done, we have so many students that need funding in middle school, in high school, and many in college who are in need and I need to resolve those issues.”

Another challenge she faces is continually being used as a token among her colleagues. However, she tends to see this as a plus. “Being a token plants a seed,” she said.

“As a person of color in a position of leadership I am constantly called to be in a position where I really don’t have a lot of power, I don’t have a lot of influence, and the public perception is that I am in that position so I would be able to change the outcome,” she said. “The truth is I won’t.”

Torres Ray chooses to focus on the opportunities she has experienced while in office. “I had to think of some of these challenges as opportunities in order to get here,” she said. “In reality, if you are challenging me, if you are daring me to do this it’s because you know that I can,” Torres Ray said. She encouraged audience members to follow in her footsteps by taking challenges and turning them into opportunities. She listed some of those opportunities as follows:

  • Most stories are yet to be written, you could be the author.
  • Most strategies haven’t been shaped yet and you are in the position to shape them.
  • Doing your homework, participating and engaging are key to positioning yourself.
  • When you get attention, use the visibility to promote a cause.
  • Opportunities to make a difference are endless.

She spoke of how much she enjoys serving the state of Minnesota. “It’s not simple, but it’s an absolute privilege,” she said. She invites her colleagues to join her when she goes to events in the Latino community where she is certain that it helps them not only to better understand the people they serve but also to learn more about the issues they face.

In closing, Senator Torres Ray encouraged audience members to do the research and vote this year. “You will define the future for our community and our country,” she said.

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