College of Education and Human Development

Connect Magazine

Alumni profile: Public service is her calling

johnson in city council chambers

Photo Credit: Jairus Davis 


Growing up in Worthington, Minnesota, Cheniqua Johnson (’17 BS) wasn’t particularly into politics. Her family would discuss issues when it went to cast ballots for presidential elections, but that was about it. “I had never really heard of Hubert Humphrey or Roy Wilkins or Josie Johnson, or really taken the time to look further into elected officials or anybody who is really civic-minded,” she says.

Today, things are a little different. On January 2 of this year, she began a four-year term as a member of the St. Paul City Council. Johnson is part of an all-women council—the first in St. Paul’s history. She represents the east side area of Ward 7, which includes the neighborhoods of Dayton’s Bluff, Swede Hollow, Battle Creek, Mounds Park, Highwood, Conway, and Eastview.

“It feels like a college experience again,” she says about her first few months in office. “You’re like a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond, depending on the day.”

Johnson was a first-generation college student. She started in CEHD and in the TRIO program as a freshman, not really knowing yet what she wanted to do. “I explored a lot of different majors and minors and took a lot of classes,” she says. “I had planned out going to college, but when I got there, I hadn’t really planned much further out than that.”

She quickly found her interest piqued in the Department of Family Social Science. “I really appreciated the dialogue in the classrooms and what I was reading,” she says. “It helped me make a lot of sense of my upbringing and my experience. I really felt seen. And so, I stayed with it because I really enjoyed digging deeper into not only my family story, but also the story of so many families worldwide.”

Her experience at CEHD helped Johnson realize that public service was where she belonged. She soon took on many roles—legislative assistant, field organizer, campaign manager—and served on various boards and committees in the political arena. Her degree in family social science has been a great asset as she moved into politics, particularly now as a St. Paul City Council member.

“You’re serving 46,000 people and there’ll be a variety of different issues ranging from potholes to the next big development that’s going to happen,” she says. “I’m talking to people from a variety of different spaces and lived experiences. In order to be approachable, I have to understand how to respond to them.”

And they come to her in different forms. Sometimes they don’t come as nicely as they should. Sometimes they come in anger or frustration, sometimes in desperation, sometimes they come from a place of grief.

“I found that to be really helpful in the work that I do, it’s about being adaptable, flexible, understanding, and responsive to the human that is speaking to me,” she says.

Part of that empathy comes from what she’s learned at CEHD. Part of it comes from reflecting on political gatherings she’s attended. “Sometimes I’d be in spaces where people didn’t look like me. They didn’t have my lived experience. There are so many people who have yet to see themselves represented in public office of any sort,” she says. “Yes, I’m the first person of color to be elected in Ward 7. I’m the third Black woman elected to the St Paul City Council and we are part of an all-women council. But it’s taken a very long time to even get representation.”

Since her election, Johnson has been selected for the 40 under 40 list by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and was named a 2024 Minnesota Educational Opportunity Association (EOA) TRIO Achiever.

She stays close to her CEHD roots. So much so that her TRIO advisor is going to walk her down the aisle this August at her wedding, as he is considered an extension of her family. “A lot of folks have made a direct impact on me,” she reflects on her time at CEHD. “It’s part of the reason I still stay in touch and continue to invest in young leaders that come after me, because my community did that for me too.”

TRIO cohort
Johnson, middle, bottom front
row, with her TRIO community;
Johnson at CEHD Block Party
Johnson was an involved student as part of
CEHD Block Party 2017.


—Kevin Moe