Minnesota Humanities Center

Our House: The Capitol Project Podcast

Posted February 26, 2024

When thinking of the Minnesota State Capitol, it may be helpful to recall The Wizard of Oz. From a distance, we see a majestic and imposing facade, a place where it seems power is wielded as though by magic. But once we peek under the curtain, we find a person frantically pushing buttons and levers to keep the machinery working. The key difference between MN state government and Oz is that instead of one person, there are a whole bunch of people. And no one person is sure what each button or lever actually does. What first appeared all-powerful and all-knowing turns out to be human, flawed, and confusing. My hope is that once we all recognize this, just like in The Wizard of Oz, we get over our initial disappointment and understand that we have the power to shape our state within our own hands.

I’m the co-Artistic Director of a theater company called Wonderlust Productions, and we’ve been collecting stories about the behind-the-curtain reality of state government since 2014. Wonderlust believes that art and theater is the best place to have complex conversations about how we live together in community. We wanted to know how government actually continues to function on a day-to-day basis when “culture wars” seem to be tearing the country apart. In 2018, we produced a play that we performed live in locations around the state capitol, and in 2023, we recorded the play for audio and launched a podcast. What we learned is that what happens behind the curtain is not like what we heard about government in school or in the media. It’s not Schoolhouse Rock.

Photograph by John Whiting

#1: Do you have the votes? In our first episode, former Department of Human Rights Commissioner (and current CEO of the MN Humanities Center) Kevin Lindsey explained that even though we may want people to follow certain norms of behavior, you cannot hold people accountable unless you have the votes to do it. In subsequent stories, especially in episodes 9 and 10, our guests explain how the process that appears in public–with hearings, deadlines, comments–is not ultimately how the issues they care about became new law.

And, yes, we recognize that the opaqueness of that revelation, how power really works, is what turns so many people off government. Still, over the course of our conversations with an amazing collection of civil servants, activists, legislators, former commissioners, and others who were willing to be open and honest with us, we think there are a few consistent themes.

#2: Relationships matter a lot. In episode 8, former Executive Director of the MN Council of Latino Affairs and current CEO of the Latino Economic Development Center, Henry Jimenez explained how he spent time with legislators in both parties, their legislative aide, and even visitors at the Capitol who might appear to be a little lost. All of that tedious, seemingly unproductive work paid off years later. Now legislators know to ask for his help and advice when they’re trying to understand how bills will affect the Latino community. We also heard civil servants in episode 3 explain how hard their work becomes, and how difficult it can be to move forward with people, when people don’t treat each other respectfully.

#3: Understand why things are the way they are. The laws you want to change are generally doing what they were designed to do. If you want to change them, understanding their original intent is essential. In fact–

#4: Be an expert in your subject area, and you will make yourself indispensable. In episode 10, we follow the journey of a relatively small but essential piece of legislation about adoption that took 40 years to pass. Penny Needham, a citizen activist, shares remarkable anecdotes about helping legislators with their own adoption experience while coming back year after year .

#5: Build a truly representative coalition. The goal of government is to represent and work for all Minnesotans. All of those Minnesotans come from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. They are entitled to participate in state government, whether you agree with them or not. In episode 2, Rep. Athena Hollins describes how, for maybe the first time in the legislature, some of the people debating a bill about foster care had actually experienced foster care. For so many years, the government was only run by white men from relatively similar life experiences. Now that more people are involved in the process, it’s much more complicated but the legislation and administration that arises from that can become, slowly, more just and equitable.

You can do all of these things and many more (please listen to the whole podcast!), and still not get the result you want. Rather than suggest that a sixth theme is to be patient–which considering the issues involved is really an infuriating bit of advice–I want to adapt into #6 a direct quote from community organizer and current executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center, Justin Terrell. In episode 11, he said:

              “If you can’t win, build.”

#6: Build relationships, build understanding, build coalitions. Learn, share, grow and help others do the same. Don’t wait–build. Then, when the moment is right for change to happen, you will be ready to act.

No amount of advice can change the fact that state government action or inaction can have real-world and sometimes negative consequences. In our 12th and final episode of Season One, we explored the emotional toll that working at the Capitol can take on even the best people.

#7: You’ve got to find the right place for yourself.  Patience really is essential–but it isn’t comforting. No one person can bend the state to its will, like in The Wizard of Oz (regardless of what you see in other movies). So, trying to affect the system that governs our lives can take an emotional toll. But you can definitely be one part of building a better Oz–whether it’s as an activist, an artist, a researcher, or even, eventually, an elected official. Find the role(s) that can sustain you and that you can sustain.

The important thing to recognize is that simply by being a Minnesota citizen, no one is better qualified to do this work than you.

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Alan Berks Headshot
By: Alan Berks

Alan Berks is a theater-maker whose work has been seen all over the country. He is the Co-Artistic Director of Wonderlust Productions where he has written or co-written and co-directed the majority of plays and other art produced by the company. Wonderlust’s mission is to activate imaginations and illuminate community stories to build a more inclusive world.