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The presidential race may have been the biggest prize in Tuesday night’s election. But some of the races that most affect voters’ lives happen at the local level. For many families, what goes on for their kids at school is the real news of the day.

In Minnesota’s three biggest cities, voters elected new school board members from the Latino and Hmong communities who pledged to fight for the most marginalized students. 

Adriana Cerrillo, an organizer and parent advocate, won a seat on the Minneapolis school board. 

In St. Paul, voters chose Jim Vue, whom the board had appointed to fill the vacancy left by Marny Xiong’s untimely death from COVID-19

And in Rochester, Jess Garcia, a clinical psychologist, became the first woman of color in recent memory to win election to the school board.

All three said their personal and professional experiences would make them effective advocates for students, families, and staff. Come meet them, here. 

Rochester

Jess Garcia: ‘Staff of color keep bumping up against a brick wall, and people won’t listen’

Jess Garcia, a clinical psychologist, plans to use her expertise in mental health and the criminal justice system to help the district heal racial divides. Credit: Courtesy Jess Garcia

Jess Garcia, a clinical psychologist, will become the first woman of color in recent memory to serve on the Rochester school board. A Latina who identifies as part of the queer community, she hopes she can use her personal and professional experiences to help address systemic racism in Rochester schools. 

Garcia jumped in the race because she thought that her professional training could help Rochester Public Schools address racial disparities in school discipline. Over the last five years, the school district district has reached agreements with both the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to reduce racial disciplinary disparities. 

But throughout her campaign, as Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and the pandemic shuttered schools, the need for a focus on racial justice and mental health became even more apparent, she said. “It just fueled my fire,” she said. “It kept hammering home, This is my purpose. I’m in the right place.”

As a school board member, Garcia said, she hopes to “help the district heal itself for the sake of staff and the educators and the students.” 

School discipline disparities aren’t the only symptom of systemic racism in Rochester schools. State data shows that while nearly half the students are people of color, only about 4 percent of staff are. Some of those educators have described a toxic work environment, Garcia said.

“Staff of color keep bumping up against a brick wall, and people won’t listen or truly understand what they need,” she said. “One educator told me I was his last hope. I feel that really deeply. We could lose a really effective, talented educator because he doesn’t feel supported by his district.”

Garcia grew up in a single-parent, low-income family in Arizona, a Latina girl realizing she was queer. These experiences and identities shaped her tenacity and a creative approach to problem-solving. “You get this kind of grit that you can’t really teach,” she said.

Garcia currently works as a clinical psychologist in a forensic mental health hospital. She has also worked in state and federal prisons. 

“Asking civilly committed patients or inmates about their lives, a lot of the help they needed was very obvious in their school-age years and they didn’t get it,” she said. “The school-to-prison pipeline is very real to me.”

Policies as simple as a dress code that doesn’t recognize different cultural hair or clothing styles can get students of color in unnecessary trouble, she said. Patients and inmates have sometimes told her that their problems started when they were harassed in school because of their appearance. 

Other patients have told her they had to start working at a young age to support their family and ultimately chose work over school.

“Schools often see different pieces of that happening, but maybe they don’t understand the full story,” Garcia said. “They’re not always equipped to be able to help students in the way they need, but they could mobilize to do that if they understood the issue.”

Providing culturally competent wraparound support to students, like mental health services, can help teachers fill those gaps, she said. And those services are even more important in a time of collective trauma and an economic crisis.

“We can argue about what the kids are learning via Google classroom,” she said. “But how are they?”

St. Paul

Jim Vue: ‘You can’t give up on these students who don’t fit into how we define success’

Jim Vue, a Hmong father and cultural educator, won a special election after the death of 31-year-old Marny Xiong from COVID-19.

Jim Vue, a cultural educator at an arts nonprofit, won the special election for St. Paul school board to complete the term of Marny Xiong, the 31-year-old school board chair who died this summer of COVID-19. The school board appointed Vue to fill her seat after Xiong’s death in July. 

Xiong’s death touched him personally, he said: As a Hmong parent, he knows what it’s like to lose a daughter too young. In 2017, his six-year-old daughter drowned in Lake Elmo. On that horrible day, as his wife rushed to the hospital, several families stepped up to help him carry his other children back to the car. Those families’ kindness and action in the face of tragedy stuck with him.

“I always said I’m not going to be standing around and looking when a crisis happens,” he said. “I’m going to do something.”

Though he never met Xiong, he hopes to carry on her legacy of leadership. “I think sometimes, especially in the Hmong community, we have a tendency to defer leadership, and that shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “We should all have a role in doing our part to make sure our whole community succeeds. I think she embodied that.”

Vue, 40, counts himself as part of the first wave of Hmong children to be born in the United States. He grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. He recalls feeling like an “outsider” in Oklahoma schools, which treated English language learning services as a kind of inconvenience. The cookie cutter model of education his schools used for all children didn’t serve him and his cousins well.

“I barely graduated high school, and I failed out of college. But I didn’t let those things define me,” Vue said. He returned to college 10 years later, and now has a master’s degree from Metropolitan State University. “You can’t give up on these students who don’t fit into how we define success.”

His experience as an underserved student in Oklahoma and Texas has shaped his view on his kids’ education in St. Paul. “I appreciate the heck out of this school system because where I grew up we didn’t have any of this stuff,” he said. “When I saw what we had here I thought, Let’s not make it go to waste, let’s make it better.”

Vue has four children, from ages 1 to 13, enrolled in Saint Paul Public Schools (the youngest through early childhood and family education).

In the rest of his term, he plans to prioritize improving communication with different parts of the St. Paul schools community. “I think historically we have top-down communication,” he said. “I’d like to stop that practice, for people in neighborhoods to be more informed about what’s going to happen in their schools and not just be reacting to information once they get it.”

Vue’s campaign didn’t run just through the typical political channels, he noted. He relied on the relationships he’s built over his years in the school district. That style of leadership will translate to his school board service, he said.

“I’m really going to come from a neighborhood background,” he said. That means looking at each school and neighborhood and how they all fit together in the school district. “I’m going to weigh those nuances into any kind of decision-making I’ll be presented with.”

Minneapolis

Adriana Cerrillo: ‘The real liberation of our community will be when we invest in education’

Adriana Cerrillo plans to bring her community organizing skills to bring the voices of families and educators to the Minneapolis school board. Credit: Courtesy Adriana Cerrillo

Adriana Cerrillo edged Christa Mims for a seat on the Minneapolis school board representing downtown and parts of southwest Minneapolis. She’s the first Mexican immigrant to serve on the school board.

“I’m super grateful,” Cerrillo said in an interview the day after her win. “The work is just starting.”

Her priorities on the school board include reducing suspensions, providing more counseling services for students, improving access to information in multiple languages for immigrant communities, and engaging with families. She also plans to push for more equitable school funding, which includes pressuring the state legislature.

Cerrillo immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a teenager. In Texas, she had to navigate the experience of being an undocumented high school student long before any movement existed to recognize the challenges of undocumented youth. 

She moved to Florida as a young mother at 18, where she became involved with advocacy work for immigrant rights. There, she helped form a nonprofit called UnidosNow that focused on empowering the Latino community.

Since coming to Minnesota in 2013, she’s become involved in advocacy for immigrant rights and police accountability. She’s pushed the city of Minneapolis to adopt a sanctuary platform for undocumented immigrants, and state legislators to expand access to voting rights and driver’s licenses.

Immigration is a personal issue to Cerrillo. She says that several of her family members have “self-deported,” or chosen to leave the country in the face of immigration problems. That includes her mother, who recently passed away in Mexico, and her sister-in-law, who left her son in Cerrillo’s care.

As her fifth-grade nephew’s guardian, and through her work with the family advocacy group Minnesota Parent Union, Cerrillo provided one-on-one support to families of Minneapolis Public School students. She was active in the debate over the Comprehensive District Design, which redrew Minneapolis school boundaries, criticizing the district for not providing translators at public meetings and not soliciting enough community input.

Cerrillo plans to bring a grassroots approach to the school board, listening to families and staff at each school. Her personal experiences as her nephew’s guardian and working with other MPS parents will shape her role on the board, she told Sahan Journal.

“This is about our children,” she said. “The real liberation of our community will be when we invest in education and fund education fairly. This is a message to our state leaders as well: Our children need to be the priority of every single elected official.”

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