Lisa Skjefte poses for a portrait at her alma mater, South High School. Without mentorship from teachers of color at South High, she said, she might not have gone to college. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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Lisa Skjefte, 40, is running for an at-large seat on the Minneapolis school board. Four candidates are running for this position: Skjefte, Collin Beachy, Sonya Emerick, and KerryJo Felder. All Minneapolis voters will have the chance to vote for two of these four candidates. 

Name: Lisa Skjefte

Age: 40

Day job: Vice president of community impact and engagement at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center

Kids: A 7th grade nephew at Justice Page Middle School and a 2nd grade niece at Barton Elementary School.

Neighborhood: Central

Lisa Skjefte, who is Anishinaabe from the Red Lake Nation, grew up in south Minneapolis attending Minneapolis Public Schools. She hopes to bring her experience working to eliminate disparities, in Native-led nonprofits and as a health equity specialist for Children’s Hospital Minnesota, to the Minneapolis school board.

“A lot of the work I do is community-focused and community-led and co-created with community for solutions to eliminate disparities,” she explained.

She decided to run for school board when parents, teachers, and community leaders asked her to.

“When our community asks you to do something, you humbly accept,” she said.

Through her work with health equity, she’s seen the importance of education. “The access to quality education that our students receive really sets them up for what kind of life that they’re going to have,” she said. “I want to be able to bring some of the skills that I have around equity and working within a system to try to eliminate disparities.”

In one sentence, why should people in Minneapolis vote for you?

I would hope that the people in Minneapolis will vote for me because I can bring community voice and I have experience with system change to eliminate disparities.

What do you love about Minneapolis Public Schools? Can you give your answer in two to three bullet points?

  • The teachers. I’m still really connected to a lot of teachers I had in high school. They’re still my mentors. Their belief in me is probably why I went on to college. True mentorship and being able to have teachers of color who support and believe in me and saw the potential of what I could do really changed my life. Retention of teachers of color is so important to me.
  • From my experience working as a community member with other organizations who partner with Minneapolis Public Schools, I think we have a unique partnership. I know a lot of community-based programs that have access to students to help fill some gaps. And also we have Minneapolis Indian Education, which I know is so important to my family. 
  • The engagement, the community building, the connection back to community. Some of our families really rely on that sense of community-building that I think the Minneapolis Public Schools does foster. I think that it’s important to continue to foster those types of relationships and then dive deeper so that they can be sustainable and supported within the schools.

After a tumultuous term, superintendent Ed Graff left the district at the end of June. Selecting a new superintendent will be one of the next school board’s most important duties. Briefly, what do you think are the three most important criteria for Minneapolis’ next superintendent? 

I think the Minneapolis superintendent should be from Minneapolis and/or live in Minneapolis. I think that’s important. I think having experience within the school system either as an administrator or as a teacher is very important. And I also think a strong belief in anti-racism work and equity work is important, especially in Minneapolis, and the willingness to try new things and be creative and courageous. 

In March, teachers and education support professionals held a 14-day strike, which made many staff frustrations public and kept kids home for three weeks. What are the two or three most important lessons you learned from the educator strike?

I learned that we have a lot of opportunities to partner better with teachers so they feel supported. I learned that some of the challenges that the teachers have are fixable, and we’ve got to learn from that feedback. And I learned that it’s also hard on communities that are already struggling. I know it was hard on my community. With COVID and going virtual, a lot of these challenges impact our community negatively. So, I want to be able to think about that so that we don’t have to get to that point again. I want to just be able to figure out how we can support the teachers so that they feel confident and supported within their place of employment. And that’s going to also have a ripple effect on the students.

How would you apply those lessons as a school board member?

A lot of my work is about elevating or listening to community and getting feedback, and then elevating that towards some sort of systems change. And you can’t do that unless you truly have a good working partnership, and you’re able to hear feedback that’s challenging. But then to take that feedback and look for opportunities: where within the system can you change policies or practices to make some system improvements?

Over the last few years, Minneapolis Public Schools has struggled with steady enrollment declines. How would you help Minneapolis Public Schools reverse enrollment declines and attract and retain students? Please give your answer in bullet points/action steps.

  • I would first like to look at what kind of data exists that can tell us the story of why.
  • I would like to partner with those who either work with Minneapolis Public Schools or the parents of the students who are leaving the district so that we can create some sort of engagement feedback so that we can design interventions that are centered on those students specifically.
  • We need to retain and recruit teachers of color, or BIPOC teachers, because it’s so important for the students to see themselves reflected. 

Over the last year, the school board has sometimes appeared sharply divided—not just in split votes, but in dynamics at school board meetings. That includes one board meeting where the superintendent, then some school board members, walked out. Do you think the current school board dynamic is working? If you think it isn’t, how do you propose to make this a more effective governance body?

I think that all things can be improved. We should always be seeking for a more collaborative approach where folks feel engaged and empowered. From my experience, when folks aren’t being heard or not empowered, then they don’t feel like they can believe in the process. And I think that we have to create a process that we can all believe in. 

Pandemic disruptions exacerbated racial academic disparities, in Minneapolis and around the country. What investments do you think the district needs to make now to help accelerate student learning and close gaps?

I’m seeing this even within my own family, and we’re reaching out to community organizations to fill the gaps of where my niece might need tutoring. So, really focusing on those community resources that exist and how to utilize them, because I believe that they do exist. Sometimes it’s just about letting families and parents know where the resources are. I hear about a lot of things from Minneapolis Indian Ed. If we had liaisons who could make sure that families of second language learners have access to resources in the community that already exist. One of the programs that we got my niece in has a strong reading component. But it also has a strong cultural component.

Statewide, students have reported higher levels of mental health needs than before the pandemic. How do you think the district can better meet student mental health needs?

Again, I think it’s looking at what already might exist and examining its effectiveness. And then also looking at mental health models that exist. For that, you need experts in that field to be a part of that development. Also, making sure that we’re staffed adequately for some of those mental health needs.

In two sentences, what’s another issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools we haven’t talked about and what’s your plan to tackle it?

When I’m trying to reduce disparities within policies and practices, I use tools already created by community: One tool that I use is from Voices for Racial Justice, a racial equity impact assessment. In my work currently, and in my work prior at Children’s Minnesota, I worked with leaders on how to apply the principles behind a racial impact assessment so that we are forcing ourselves to have very specific conversations about race inequities. But we always have to be really clear on what it is that we’re discussing and what it is that we want to eliminate. One of the things that I would love to bring to the school board is really championing these tools created by community already, and implementing them so that we can be intentional about reducing disparities.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...