One of our favorite things to blog about is Alpena natives who are out “making waves” in this world. Perhaps you’ve read previous stories about Alpena natives becoming inventors, filmmakers, actors, opera singers, and more. Today we’d like to shine the spotlight on Helena Antoni, Alpena native and member of Swedish Parliament!
From the trials and tribulations of growing up in two different countries to finding a passion in politics and living out her dream job.
What are some of your favorite things/memories from growing up in Alpena?
When I was young we used to visit Alpena every other summer. The summers were the best. The warm/humid days, the lakes, the 4th of July celebrations. I have great memories from those summers. The highlights were going camping with the family on Lake Michigan and going over to my aunt and uncle’s house for a 4th of July potluck. I think what I loved about those summers the most was that everyone was there. The entire family would gather on several occasions and it wasn’t strange for friends and family to randomly pop over. That’s something that is very unusual in Sweden. It’s quite frowned upon to come over to someones house without warning.
I was born in Alpena but I grew up in Sweden. I usually say that I spent my childhood 50/50 between my two countries even though I’ve spent the most time in Sweden. However, I spent very formative years in Alpena – my teenage years. Most people either love or hate high school. I was one of those who loved high school. I was a cheerleader, I was in choir, I cared about my grades, and I loved a good party! I was all over the place and I had the time of my life.
I’ll never forget the feeling of freedom of having my driver’s license at 16 and being able to drive out to Rockport to go swimming with friends. Alpena has given me so much.
What was it like going back and forth between two countries while growing up (pros/cons) and how do you think it shaped you into who you are today?
I think about this quite often. I think it has shaped me more than I can imagine. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity that my parents gave me and my brother. They both made enormous sacrifices for us to be able to have the childhood we had. My mother and I moved over to Sweden when I was only 10 months old. She was then 20 years old and impressively learned Swedish in just two years, which makes her basically a genius. The Swedish culture is tough to enter as an American. People tend to be colder toward strangers and we eat a lot of weird things like pickled herring and blood pudding (It’s so good though). I can’t stress enough how much I respect my mother for making this life-changing decision and putting herself through everything that came with the move. We lived in Sweden until I was 13 and decided that I wanted to experience the U.S. Apparently (I don’t remember this) I was the one who decided that we should move back to the U.S. So, we packed up our things in just 19(!!) boxes, sold the rest, and within a year we had shipped them off to Michigan and were on our way.
It was difficult. Extremely difficult. My mother, my brother, and I moved in with my grandfather in Alpena march 2009. Leaving my dad in Sweden still kind of hurts to think about now that I’m older and realize how much it must’ve hurt. He had by then re-married and just had twins which I think (and hope) helped soften the blow.
Another con is that I’ve never had one place to call home. I realized a few years ago that I’ve never lived under one roof for longer than 3 years, making the house I’m living in with my fiancé right now the most ”home” I’ve ever had. I’ve had a lot of places that have felt like home, and being with mom or dad has always been home to me, but I still feel like there is something special about having that one childhood home that is filled with all your childhood memories.
Nevertheless, to get into the pros, it was an exciting childhood! I was on my first airplane before I could even sit up straight, I moved around, switched schools, got to know so many new people and experienced so many different cultures and backgrounds. I grew up in an area in Gothenburg where a lot of immigrants lived which meant I was immersed in at least 50 different cultures every single day. Then I moved to Alpena, a less diverse situation but still oh so demanding in its own ways. I had to adapt to completely different social norms and learn how to be “American” when I was 14, yikes.
This all has shaped me into the social chameleon I am today. I’m what you would call the ultimate “people person”. I know people and I love people.
The reason I think about this question so often is because I wonder what situation is best. I loved my childhood and I’m so thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been given, but you can’t have both the diversity and the secure childhood home at the same time. If my fiancé and I decide to have children, what would be best for them? I have absolutely no clue.
At what age did you become interested in Political Science as a career?
I was actually 100% sure that I wanted to be a police officer from the time I was 5 until I was 15. I wanted to make a difference and help people. However, as the typical millennial I am, I wanted more. I had a great teacher at Alpena High School who inspired me and found ways to make AP Government interesting to me. I totally fell in love with the intensity and severity of politics. The idea that I could make a difference for so many others lured me in and I’ve been stuck ever since. It’s a wonderfully terrible world that requires a lot of personal investment, but it’s worth it in the long run.
What are the details of your job at Sveriges Riksdag?
Being a member of parliament is a lot like running your own business, and the product I’m selling is my “personal brand”. You have a lot of freedom to prioritize as you wish and you don’t really have a “boss” in the same way.
I have a few things that are mandatory each week. Voting sessions are usually Wednesdays and always at 4 pm. I also have meetings with the infrastructure committee which are usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is where we do most of the political work to prepare for the voting sessions.
Other than that, I meet with a lot of lobbyists and organizations. I go to about 5 different seminars every week and try to learn as much as I can. Being pretty “new on the job” most of my time is spent trying to learn about different policy areas. I do a lot of research and reading.
Has it always been your dream to live in Sweden and become a member of parliament?
I actually decided on a whim that I wanted to move back to Sweden. (Another con to growing up in two places is that I easily get restless). I had decided that I didn’t want to go to college right out of High School because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So, I moved to Chicago and worked as a nanny for 9 months. Then, out of the blue, came the idea that I should move back to Sweden to study. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet so, off I went without a plan. It just so happened that when I arrived in 2014 it was “Super-election-year” in Sweden which meant that in May we had elections for the European Parliament and in September we had regular elections for the municipality, region, and the national parliament. So, I joined the party I agreed with the most and got to work. I started studying political science in 2015 and after a year I was elected to the board of my local political youth organization. A year after that I became chairman (2016), then chairman on the regional level (2017), then elected by my party as one of the top candidates for parliament (2017).
It became my dream when I was at my first meeting with my party back in 2014. I was at a speaking event and thought to myself “I can do that”. I told myself that I wanted to enter Parliament before I was 30. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to try. I had finally figured out what I wanted and I was going to give it my all to get there. Four years, two degrees, and a tremendous amount of work later I’m able to write this email from my office in Sveriges Riksdag.
What are some major differences between American and Swedish politics?
Swedish politics is much more focused on the actual topic and not as much the person. For example, we don’t vote for a Prime Minister. He/she is typically the party leader for the biggest party that is able to create a government. So we vote for parties that represent certain views, and the parties (internally) elect lists that decide who gets into parliament.
To clarify, I was elected 4th on the list from my district making me a first replacement since my district got 3 mandates. When one of our parliamentarians was elected into the European Parliament I was next in line for the Swedish Parliament.
Swedish politics is very calm and easy-going compared to the U.S. We even have a button in Parliament that lets people know that you “agree” with what is being said in the debate. There is no bashing of other people in the chamber. Everything has to be said in a calm and professional manner. Media focuses on our political work and not so much on our personal life, which is a huge difference. Our previous Prime Minister was able to get a divorce while in office and no one even batted an eye.
Would you ever consider moving back to the U.S. to pursue a career in U.S. politics?
I actually chose to study political science instead of law so I wouldn’t tie myself to one country. I try to keep all doors open, so you never know where I’ll end up! However, I’m highly skeptical of the U.S. political system. More than anything the U.S. political system requires you to have either money or powerful sponsors. Preferably both. I ran my entire campaign in Sweden on less than $600 last year. The Swedish system is much more democratic and focuses on including representatives from all different backgrounds giving basically anyone the chance to run. Nevertheless, it was U.S. politics that got me interested in the first place so I definitely try to stay up to date and I make sure to vote from overseas.
Politics aside, what would you recommend to Swedish tourists coming to Alpena, MI? (Places to eat, what to see and do, etc.)
What do you miss most about living in Alpena, MI?
I miss the closeness of the community. I love seeing people come together in the way that people only do in small towns. Going to the grocery store and bumping into at least 3 people you know can be an annoyance, but at the same time gives an amazing sense of belonging. I miss the people. I made some of my absolute closest friends in Alpena and it will always be a place I come back to.
We are so proud of Helena’s accomplishments and will continue to follow her journey through her political career in Sweden. Who knows, maybe someday we will say a former Alpena resident is now the Prime Minister of Sweden!