Halla Henderson, 27, won election to the St. Paul school board Tuesday night, becoming the first Eritrean American elected to office in Minnesota. She hopes to bring student voices to the school board. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Halla Henderson called her parents Tuesday night as soon as she learned she had won a seat on the St. Paul school board. She wanted to be the first to tell them she had made history.

Her mom told her how proud her grandmother, who immigrated from Lebanon, would be. Then she called her dad, an immigrant from Eritrea.

“Being able to say that his daughter is the first Eritrean woman elected in the country, that’s what you come here for,” Henderson said. “It’s to give your kids the best possible life. And he did it.”

With her school board win, Henderson, 27, became the first Eritrean American elected to public office in Minnesota. She believes she is also the first Eritrean American woman to win elected office anywhere in the country. And she won after a campaign powered by high school students.

As the policy director of the Minnesota Alliance with Youth, Henderson helps teenagers from every congressional district make their voices heard on legislation that affects young people.

Now, she plans to bring student voices to the school board.

“The one thing about Halla is she sits back and lets young people do the work,” said Juwaria Jama, 17, the co-coordinator of Henderson’s campaign. “She makes the connections with who we want to be connected to, but she allows us to do the work ourselves. Whenever we need help, she’s always just there so that we can ask her for anything we need.”

Last summer, when the St. Paul school board voted to remove police officers from its schools, Henderson and her students noticed a gap in the board’s communication with students. “There was something missing between the board and the way they were engaging with students,” Henderson said. “Parents had a voice. They weren’t always heard, but they had a voice. Educators, again, were not always heard but they had a voice. But students really didn’t. We started thinking about what it could look like.”

Henderson wanted to make sure that if she were to run for office, her campaign would be led by students.

“The only way we were going to do it was if we were led by young people,” she said. “So we built a team of predominantly high schoolers, college students, and folks of color.”

Juwaria, who attends Spring Lake Park High School, and two students from St. Paul’s Central High School helped lead that team, learning about communications, graphic design, and campaign data as they went.

“We all wanted her to run,” Juwaria said. “And when she finally took that leap of faith, it was like okay, it’s go time. We’re going to make sure that this campaign goes as well as it can go.”

The result? Henderson received more votes than any non-incumbent candidate, earning a spot on the school board. Two incumbents won reelection; she’ll be one of two newcomers to join the board in January.

From North Minneapolis to Mankato

Halla grew up in North Minneapolis, raised by her mom. She remembers a tight-knit community there. “We had folks in our neighborhood who took care of us and looked out for the kids,” she said. “The folks at the park and rec who watched us in the summer were the same folks who lived in my community.”

She attended Putnam Elementary School in northeast Minneapolis, which she recalls as an “incredibly safe and welcoming community” with multiple staff and teachers of color serving a diverse student body.

But when Henderson was in middle school, Putnam was one of a number of schools in the city’s northern neighborhoods to close. In 2008, the Minneapolis Public Schools sold the building to the charter school Yinghua Academy.

“I remember it being a really painful thing,” Henderson said.

Though Henderson had left Putnam and was by then attending Northeast Middle School, she felt the impact. Putnam’s recreation center also closed, eliminating a safe place for kids to go after school. As more north Minneapolis kids left the district for charter schools and neighboring districts, the school board voted to close several elementary and middle schools on the Northside.

“That dramatically impacted resources in our community, where kids went, and what access we had to things,” Henderson said.

She also didn’t have the resources she needed at school, she said.

“It was clear we weren’t getting the education we deserved,” she said. “The classrooms were always packed. I didn’t have access to a lot of the programming my family thought I should have access to.”

Her family also moved frequently, which meant she attended three different middle schools in the Twin Cities. In some cases, she’d leave a school on Friday and start attending a new school on Monday. She fell behind in math and science because she had missed lessons that had already been taught by the time she enrolled. Ultimately, she and her mom moved to Mankato, where her mom had grown up and her Lebanese immigrant grandmother ran a restaurant.

The move was a culture shock to Henderson. Instead of her diverse north Minneapolis community, she was now one of the only students of color.

“I can vividly remember the first time I got on the bus my first day, and looking around and not seeing anyone who looked like me, which was so very different from the experience I had just left,” she said. She tried to downplay her differences and shrug it off when kids mispronounced her name.

In high school, Henderson struggled to find her place. “I was never quite the kid folks were overtly worried about,” she said. “I wasn’t the kid exceeding or excelling. I think I was slipping through the cracks for quite awhile.”

As a teenager, she also became a caretaker for her mother, who suffered from heart problems. Her father was still in the Twin Cities and now had other young children to care for. Henderson had support from a mentor at school, but largely had to figure out the puzzle of getting to college and navigating student loans on her own.

‘A fierce social justice warrior’

Henderson enrolled first in Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato before transferring to the University of St. Thomas, where she majored in psychology. Both schools were small, predominantly white liberal arts schools. But at St. Thomas, she was glad to be back in the Twin Cities where she felt at home.

Jean Giebenhain, a retired psychology professor at St. Thomas, taught Henderson’s psychopathology course. Giebenhain described Henderson as “one of the standouts in my 37-year career.” 

“She’s tireless,” Giebenhain said. “She can manage to have many balls in the air, keep track of all of them, do them all well with compassion and integrity, and she just does an excellent job at everything she does.”

At St. Thomas, Henderson found stability and a voice. Throughout college, she worked two to three jobs at a time, including as a preschool teacher and a mental health provider. She loved working with young children, but found the wages unsustainable. Then, after the 2016 presidential election, she started to volunteer in local Democratic politics.

“I saw my community being targeted,” Henderson said. “So I really dug into it.”

After becoming a “super volunteer,” Henderson took a series of political organizing jobs: as an intern for state Representative Dave Pinto (DFL–St. Paul), organizing college students for the DFL, and then running Kaohly Her’s successful bid for the state House of Representatives.

Giebenhain praised Henderson’s “enthusiasm, her passion, her depth, her maturity,” she said. “She’s a fierce social justice warrior.” She was “in tears” when she presented her student with the University of St. Thomas’ prestigious service award during her senior year.

A St. Paul voter, Giebenhain was thrilled to vote for her former student. She proudly displayed a Halla lawn sign in her yard. “I will keep it in my home on a wall for the rest of my life.”

‘Are you going to run? I feel like you will.’

Henderson knew she wanted to work with young people after she graduated. Juwaria, then 15, helped interview Henderson for her current job at the Minnesota Alliance with Youth. There, she provides mentorship and political guidance to teenagers on the state-funded Minnesota Youth Council.

Juwaria remembers being impressed with Henderson’s experience at the state Capitol and organizing college students. “I really felt that confidence,” she said. “Somebody who could relate to us and already knew the ins and outs of policy seemed like a really great fit for the Minnesota Youth Council.”

Minnesota Youth Council members start their positions in the fall, and by January are testifying before the legislature. Henderson loves helping them grow into confident advocates.

“I see myself in a lot of them, when I see young people who are sure they should be in these spaces but they’re unsure of how they step forward,” Henderson said. “Watching their growth to when they started in September, when they’re quiet and they don’t ask a lot of questions, to January when we put them on the stand to testify….That’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do the work.”

Henderson has acted as a mentor to Juwaria, bringing her to dinners for women of color in politics. She also introduced her to the group TakeAction Minnesota, where Juwaria has performed poetry.

Juwaria remembers talking to Henderson shortly after they met about a possible future school board run.

“We went back and forth with it like, are you going to run? I feel like you will,” she said. But Henderson always dismissed the idea, she said.

When Henderson decided to run, Juwaria was one of the first people she called. 

Engaging students

Henderson will take office in January. But before then, the school board may decide the fate of five schools slated to close. 

For Henderson, remembering her experience in Minneapolis, the school closures are personal. “I continue to think it’s not the right call,” she said, noting that many of the schools serve primarily immigrant students. She plans to engage with current board members, and hopes the pushback she is seeing from families will make a difference.

But now, she’s shifting from a student-led campaign to thinking about a student-led school board seat. Some St. Paul students are already engaged in the board through a student group that includes a nonvoting school board seat. But Henderson wants to reach out to those who don’t have a voice on the board.

“What are we doing to talk to other students who aren’t the most engaged members of our district?” she asked. “That’s what I’m hoping to do.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.