Sahan Journal interviewed all seven St. Paul school board candidates: Chauntyll Allen, Yusef Carrillo, Zuki Ellis, Carlo Franco, Abdi Omer, Erica Valliant, and Gita Rijal Zeitler. Voters can choose four.
Name: Erica Valliant
Current day job: Equity director at People Serving People, a family shelter in downtown Minneapolis
Kids in district: Four
Erica Valliant thought that after she lost her job, she would be able to get another one. “It did not happen that way,” she recalled. Her landlord let her stay a few more months even though she could no longer pay rent. But soon, Valliant, then a mother of three kids, found herself facing homelessness. At first, she didn’t tell the school district what had happened.
“My kids were always late for school,” she said. “We got a truancy letter. When I got that letter, I felt like I was getting beat up, because I was trying my best.”
Valliant confided in a staffer in the Cultural Wellness Center at Benjamin E. Mays International Baccalaureate World School about her family’s situation. That staffer told her about the state-funded housing assistance program Homework Starts with Home. She applied, and her application was accepted.
Valliant then got involved with housing advocacy at the state Legislature. She has since adopted two more kids from foster care. Now she is the equity director at the Minneapolis family shelter People Serving People. Previously, Valliant worked for big corporations like U.S. Bank and Ameriprise trading securities. That combination of experiences makes it easier for her to understand multiple perspectives, she said.
“It makes it easier sometimes for me to meet people in the middle or ask the right question,” she said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running for St. Paul school board?
Number one, because people were encouraging me to do so. I have children in the school district, and also an older child who graduated in 2020. I could bring in a strong parent voice, and experience working with the school district in different capacities—being the parent of kids with a 504 plan or IEPs [individualized education programs], whether it’s for a learning disability or for medical. I’ve also got seven nieces and nephews in the district right now. So I’m always at the schools, talking to teachers, talking to the staff and principals, figuring out what’s going on, how are things going for them.
In 30 seconds or less, why should voters choose you?
Number one, because I’m a parent with kids in the district, so I’ve got literal skin in the game. I have experience working with the district as a parent, but also just showing up for teachers and other staff members.
I want to make sure our kids are getting financial literacy skills so that when they graduate they can navigate things like leases, student loans, car loans. I’m also big on making sure we invest in early learning, making sure that we’re talking about critical thinking skills in the age of artificial intelligence, and making sure that we are treating our kids and families in a just manner and doing what’s best for them.
List three things you think are going well in St. Paul Public Schools.
The district has invested in restorative justice practices that need to be fully funded. It’s doing a good job of attempting to meet kids where they’re at. It’s been a very traumatic three years with COVID and the George Floyd incident, and the kids have been immersed in it. So I think that the district is doing a good job of trying to figure out how to meet people where they are. They’re trying to do a better job of communicating to parents.
St. Paul Public Schools has historically seen many kids from immigrant families leave the district for charter schools. What do you think the district is doing well to attract and retain immigrant families, and how should it improve?
They’ve recently opened the East African school. They’ve got a couple of schools that focus on a specific culture. One thing they could do is attract more teachers and staff of color. There’s a lot that goes into that—the kids see themselves reflected in the adults responsible for them, but also, the adults feel a sense of belonging. A lot of staff at schools do cultural celebrations. They ask kids and parents to come and represent their culture for that night. But they can take it a step further, bringing that culture into the school culture or policy. The main thing that they have to realize is that when we’re talking about culture, equity, and diversity, you have to figure out ways to operationalize it.
Last year, the district saw a few very scary incidents at schools—including one high school student fatally stabbing a classmate. What do you think the district is doing well in regards to school safety, and what does it need to do differently?
I’ll go back to restorative justice practices. It’s good that they are implementing those practices, but they can do better. I don’t think that it’s all on the district. A lot of this is in the culture we live in. For sure the district can do some things, but it’s not something that the district, regardless of what we do, can just change overnight with one policy or another. You don’t want to further traumatize kids. But then you have to figure out like, Okay, well, what do I do? And who do I have to partner with to make sure that we are collectively raising our kids the way that they need to be raised or address the issue that needs to be addressed?
There’s not a simple answer. Part of being a leader is understanding that you may not have the answer, and reaching out to other people to help you start changing things. When we talk about culture shift work, you may not see the effects of that for another year, two, three, maybe 10. Because it’s a slow walk. It takes time for people to change. Culture shifts if people shift, and that doesn’t happen quickly.
What’s another issue that would be a priority for you on the school board, and how would you approach it?
Focusing on how to support families experiencing homelessness, housing instability, and children who are experiencing instability due to being in the foster care system. I have personally experienced homelessness, I work for a shelter, and I know how hard it is for the students and the parents—and the teachers, too. So that’s something that I will always make sure I’m paying attention to.