Youth activism sparks run for commissioner

Meet Commissioner Irene Fernando

Meet Commissioner Irene Fernando

For Irene Fernando, serving as Hennepin County commissioner feels like a natural next step in a life of serving others.

The former youth worker said her activism began as a way for her to make a difference. In 2016, she thought about the various public officials who made decisions on her behalf and began attending county board meetings to better understand what was at stake.

One meeting stood out in particular: Fernando paused to respond to an email. In the amount of time it took to compose and send, the board had voted to spend $110 million.

“I was in awe. I had no idea what went into [the decision-making process]," Fernando said.

Youth work fosters interest in service

The newly elected commissioner representing District 2 grew up in California, the middle daughter of Filipino immigrants. Fernando moved to the Twin Cities as a 17-year-old college freshman in 2003 to attend the University of Minnesota. While there, she and some friends started a student leadership nonprofit that took college students on service trips across the country. It later expanded to students in high school and middle school.

“During my 11 years (at the nonprofit), 22,000 students came through our programs," Fernando said. “Serving alongside that many young people, I was really motivated to ask the question, 'What do you believe is possible for our communities? What are you willing to do to contribute to your community?' It's that central question of dreaming about and believing in what's possible that's led me to my current job."

Fernando later served as a Bush Foundation Fellow and worked at Thrivent, where she started a division leading organizational design, culture and talent.

Those experiences got her thinking about how she could serve others. County government offered one of the greatest chances to influence policymaking.

Early impressions and big challenges

One of the things that has surprised Fernando most is the speed with which staff respond to commissioners' requests. Recently, as the board awarded grants to expand the tree canopy, Fernando asked how adding trees might affect air quality. That wasn't the primary purpose of the grants.

“By that afternoon I had in my literal mailbox a little study about air quality," Fernando said.

Listening to staff's expertise is important for Fernando.

“I'm one person," Fernando said, calling employees' decades of service and expertise an “amazing asset and gift to be able to unlock."

“A lot of what ends up crossing my inbox is a result of some collection of people asking meaningful questions five or 10 years ago," Fernando said, adding she's committed to asking the same kinds of thoughtful questions now to ensure leaders five, 10 or 50 years in the future can build on work being done now.

“I believe strongly that the voices of those being impacted by decisions and those implementing decisions should be the loudest. The staff here fall in one or both of those categories almost every single time," Fernando said. “It's quite literally every person's job here to be the loudest, strongest advocate on behalf of residents."

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