Como Park High School seniors about to graduate, including Kalid Ali (right), stand as the MCJROTC Color Guard present the school colors at the beginning of the graduation ceremony. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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A third of Minnesota’s schoolchildren are people of color. But only 5 percent of their teachers are.

Over the past decade, the gap has only grown wider. Every year, as the state’s student population grew more diverse, the number of teachers of color remained stagnant.

But 2021 might turn out to be the year that started to change. The push to diversify Minnesota’s teacher workforce saw unprecedented success this year, even as some school districts were embroiled in debates about “critical race theory” and education policy makers grappled with the role of ethnic studies in Minnesota schools. The legislature provided $30 million over two years to recruit and retain diverse teachers, tripling previous funding levels. Through it all, students, teachers, and parents of color proved to be an effective force of change. 

Students provided powerful testimony to the legislature in a January hearing, pleading for more teachers who look like them.

“Having teachers of color can motivate students to achieve bigger things in life,” said Daisy Molina, a senior at El Colegio, a Minneapolis charter school. “When they see themselves reflected in people of color that have made it, it gives kids hope with their own education and dreams.”

Legislators took notice. Over the past four years, lawmakers of both parties had championed bills to increase the number of teachers of color, but never at the same time.

“I think we are at a crossroads with everything that has happened in the last year, the death of George Floyd as well as the civil unrest,” Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL–Minneapolis) said in a February press conference. “If this is not the year that we make change, I don’t think there will be another year that we will have this opportunity.”

Roger Chamberlain (R–Lino Lakes), who chairs the Senate education committee, told Sahan Journal in February that diversifying the state’s teacher workforce was “common sense” and predicted a large funding increase in the final omnibus bill.

When the legislature passed its budget in June, that funding came through. Grow Your Own programs, which provide funds for diverse school staff to obtain teaching licenses, got the biggest boost, going from $1.5 million annually to $6.5 million. Mentorship and retention programs for teachers of color, “Come Teach in Minnesota” hiring bonuses for out-of-state teachers, and scholarships for aspiring teachers of color also received funds.

Paul Spies, the legislative action team lead of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota, described the investments as “historic,” both in Minnesota and nationally.

Still, he noted that the legislation fell short of what the coalition had asked for. While advocates had urged $26 million in scholarships for aspiring teachers of color, for instance, the legislature allocated only $3 million.

Students hoped the legislation would have a ripple effect. By creating a better school environment for students of color now, the bill would encourage more of those students to consider becoming teachers, said Salma Abdi, then a junior at Rochester’s Century High School.

“It’s not only meant to undo the systemic racism in education, but be an investment for the future,” she said.

‘A game changer’

Students testifying in January spoke with particular enthusiasm about legislation that would have required ethnic studies classes.

“We can’t truly understand American history without having ethnic studies,” said Sylvia Jong Soon De Shazo, a student at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School. “Racism is not going to go away, but if people had a better understanding of it, and a better understanding of each other, then we could have less racism. Having ethnic studies would bring us together with more mutual understanding of everyone’s contributions to history.”

For Asian American educators—and students like De Shazo—the absence of their own history from school lessons felt especially painful after a white gunman in Georgia killed eight people, six of them Asian women. Police initially reported the gunman said he was not motivated by race, but rather a “sex addiction.” Scholars and advocates quickly pointed out this false distinction erased a long history of the objectification of Asian women.

Erika Lee, a University of Minnesota professor of history and Asian American studies who also serves as director of the university’s Immigration History Research Center, told Sahan Journal that most of her students have never learned any Asian American history at all.

“That has real-world consequences when we see police officials easily dismiss racism as a motivation,” she said. Ignorance of the history of anti-Asian racism, she said, can “help to fuel racism even more.”

The final education bill scrapped the provision to require schools to provide ethnic studies coursework. With the help of a diverse committee of volunteers, however, the Minnesota Department of Education proposed an update that would incorporate ethnic studies into social studies classes statewide. If an administrative law judge approves the revised standards early this year, they will go into effect as soon as the 2024-2025 school year.

Indigenous education funding also got a boost last year, through the Minnesota Department of Education operating budget. In a $1.3 million investment over two years, the department will fund curriculum resources and expert staff to help teachers and districts improve their lessons on Indigenous history and contemporary knowledge. The department also plans to hire a staff member to help districts implement ethnic studies.

Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, never learned her own history and culture in schools. She spoke with Sahan Journal about her work to fund Indigenous education and ethnic studies for all Minnesota students. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | MPR News

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, hailed the investments in an October interview with Sahan Journal.

“I think making sure that our Black, Indigenous, and students of color see themselves reflected in their curriculum, and that it is taught in a way that also makes them feel valued, is a game changer,” she said.

‘At the end of the day, people care about who will provide a solution’

The record investments for teacher diversity came in the year of the “critical race theory” panic. “Critical race theory,” an academic branch of legal studies, came to be used as shorthand for everything from diversity and equity to social-emotional learning. Driven by conservative operatives and Fox News, rural and suburban parents stormed school board meetings across the country in rage.

At an Elk River school board meeting in May, where community members gathered to discuss the continued employment of the district’s equity specialist, these tensions were on full display. “Our children’s minds are being hijacked by the woke mob,” one mom claimed. Equity specialists only teach children resentment, she said, lumping them in with “the evil cabal that is the equity-sustainability-climate-change whoremongers.”

Most of the parents storming school board meetings to decry critical race theory were white. Some ran for school board themselves. But parents and teachers who wanted stronger racial equity measures in schools organized, too.

Elizabeth Mukanga Kingoina, an Apple Valley mom, had never gotten involved in politics before. But when she heard a school board candidate for Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan schools describe George Floyd as “Fentanyl Floyd,” she started organizing. She knocked on doors and posted to her extensive social media networks.

“There’s absolutely no way that somebody who is saying things like this is going to represent my child,” Mukanga Kingoina said.

Dakota County United Educators, the local teachers union, endorsed a slate of three progressive candidates.

All three won—including Sakawdin Mohamed, a father of six and finance manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Sakawdin will become the district’s first Somali American school board member.

Sakawdin Mohamed holds his lawn sign in the City of Eagan’s Nature Park. Sakawdin secured the most votes of 16 candidates to earn a spot on the District 196 school board, representing Rosemount, Apple Valley, and Eagan. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

The wins for Sakawdin and the other union-endorsed candidates demonstrate that voters want the district to be inclusive and welcoming, said Kate Schmidt, the union president.

“At the end of the day, people care about who will provide a solution, and who is best representative of our community and our students,” Sakawdin said. 

Sakawdin’s win echoed trends across the state. 

Most of the candidates whose platform opposed critical race theory lost.

And two other Twin Cities suburbs—St. Louis Park and Burnsville—elected their first Somali American school board members.

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