This interview is part of our School Board Voter Guide. The interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length. Lisa Skjefte is running for an at-large seat on the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education. There are four candidates for two at-large seats. All Minneapolis voters can vote for two candidates for at-large school board representative.
Melissa Whitler: Can you share with readers a little bit about your background, and how it's relevant to being a school board member and for the seat that you're running for, particularly being a representative at-large?
Lisa Skjefte: I'm Anishinabe, from the Red Lake Nation, but I grew up here in South Minneapolis. I attended Minneapolis Public Schools from kindergarten. I graduated from South High. I have a niece and nephew who currently attend Minneapolis Public Schools. I have a background in racial equity work and systems change. I also have spent most of my career working within the community– by community, I mean the local urban American Indian community– towards eliminating disparities, trying to make sure that Native people have healthy, vibrant, thriving lives. I work within systems. I know that if we do good by Native folks or Black folks, we do good for everyone. I'm running because a lot of members in my community asked me to. We have this kind of community, if you are asked, then you show up.
MW: The second question that I had is the board has released a proposal for a hiring process for the next Superintendent. I'm wondering if you have looked at that proposal and what you think about it.
LS: I haven't had a chance to dive into it, the hiring proposal.
MW: So alternatively, is there something that you have in mind if you were elected that you would want to see as part of the hiring process for the next Superintendent?
LS: I feel really strongly about someone who is in that position living in Minneapolis and [to] be a part of the community or Minneapolis Public Schools in some way. They should have some sort of connection to a school here. I think that's really important for being able to lead. And I also think a strong justice or racial equity background is important.
MW: That leads into my next question, which is if you are elected as a board member, what would your priorities be for the next Superintendent? Is there anything you want to elaborate on?
LS: Hiring and retaining teachers of color is very important to me. I went to Minneapolis Public Schools, but I didn't have my first BIPOC teacher until the ninth grade. She was Black. Having access to teachers who are– I'm American Indian, but it was just as important for me to have a Black teacher because it was with her influence and guidance and support of me, I was able to graduate high school. We still have a good relationship to this day. She's one of my mentors and it's a lifelong connection. And I don't have that kind of connection with a lot of the teachers that I've had, and I've had a lot of teachers in my life. But I do think it's because we have familiar backgrounds. She was a BIPOC teacher who took interest in BIPOC students, cared about how they survived within the Minneapolis school culture.
I know that one of the things in my racial equity work within systems is using tools. I want to use tools designed by community. The one tool that I use is the racial equity impact assessment, and it was created by Voices for Racial Justice. It's a policy tool that you can use for policy consideration, budget. Anytime you are trying to make a decision that's going to impact people is a good time to use it. A lot of folks have never used a tool like this, but in my experience when using a tool such as this to impact systems to make them more equitable– because a lot of people can say things like I want to make the system more equitable. But nobody has any idea about how to design, or a blueprint on how to get there. I like to go to community and hear what community says works, and then implement it within systems. I would like to use something like that to help guide the process or introduce it, so that we could make more equitable, informed changes to policies, practices or any sort of decision making around budget even.
MW: Have you looked at any of the EDIA work that the district has done? I believe that stands for equity diversity impact assessment.
LS: I have.
MW: Is this similar to that or is it different?
LS: It's quite similar, and I feel like it's based on the Voices for Racial Justice assessment but I don't know if they're really using it at the board level.
MW: My understanding is typically they do one EDIA assessment each year.
LS: What I've done is used the assessment and laid it down next to policies. I used to do racial equity work at Children's Hospital. Right now, [in] my current role at the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, I'm trying to work internally, but also with other agencies on how to develop a way that we can track our efforts. How many equity recommendations are we making, but how many are being implemented so that we can start changing the narrative around equity.
Let's say we've met with community and they've given us the same feedback for the last twenty years that we've only chosen to implement maybe three percent of their recommendations. And then we wonder why these disparities persist. That's the kind of stuff I like to try to get a group to do.
MW: And so you think something like that would be useful for the school district to be doing?
LS: Yeah, for sure.
MW: The current board and the former Superintendent passed a new strategic plan last winter. And currently the interim Superintendent is working to implement that. If you were elected to the board, would you support continuing to implement that strategic plan? Or would you seek to make changes to the strategic plan?
LS: Sometimes, it's useful to go deeper, though. Currently with the strategic plan, there's some really good stuff in there, but there needs to be some more. We need to be able to incorporate the voices of folks into the process that can help go deeper with solutions.I always think that that's always community and that's always parents, parents of students who might not be engaging but have a definite stake in terms of achievement of their children.
In my community I know that we have a lot of American Indian student-based after-school programs. My niece goes. My niece unfortunately started school during the pandemic. Unfortunately for her, her part-time teacher had to be me. And I say unfortunately, because I didn't realize how hard it was to teach someone to read. Right now at least, I'm trying to catch up. She just entered the second grade. We really rely on community resources that are available to us. She goes to the Division of Indian Work. They have an after-school program that's culturally based, but it's also tailored around literacy. =
My point being is that there are community programs or parents or aunties, like myself, who are actively engaged in education, but we're not necessarily a part of those conversations on how to make things work.
MW: You mentioned something about engaging community members who may not already be very engaged. And that's another one of my questions. The district has a lot of avenues where parents can give feedback, and those include things like site council, the parent advisory councils, public comments at board meetings, parent participatory evaluations. You could e-mail or call board members. These avenues already exist. At the same time, in my conversations with parents, I hear people say they engage sometimes, but they don't get the response they want. As a board member, do you think the current parent engagement efforts are sufficient or are there things that you would like to see the district do differently in terms of engaging with parents?
LS: When I hear that parents or community don't feel heard, my first thing, and this is just because I'm a community organizer, is I'm all about affirmation. I believe them off top and then quickly where I go back [is] to the system. Within the system, it is really hard for this parent’s voice to be elevated. Those mechanisms that you just listed off, they might not be approachable, accessible, [or] culturally relevant. Whether or not they have a language barrier, whether or not these meetings are during times when they're working. There are voices that we're not hearing from, and sometimes the system is designed for the loudest in the room.
I know with my community work we can get real loud together. But individually, I see parents struggle. And even outside of the school district, I'll hear from folks who are having a hard time with their schools or whatnot. We have a lot of community events where we gather and we'll hear from parents about what's happening with their school. But my thing also is, right now, within our community, in the Native community, we have so many disparities that are making it so hard to be at the table.
When I hear community say they're not being heard, I believe them. And then I look within the system to say, how can we make whatever currently exists more accessible and culturally appropriate? Is there a new way that data needs to be collected? From my experience, data is being collected from families and I don't think that we're looking at experience data from some of the complaints we are getting, or some of the feedback we're getting from families. There's another way to look at how families are engaging with the system that might be critical to rethinking how we either engage them or change the system.
MW: You have had conversations where parents talk about this issue. Is there anything out of that you specifically see the district should be doing X or the district should be doing Y? Or are you seeing more that the district should be going to the community and asking them what is X and what is Y?
LS: I think it's a little bit of both because going to the community but also already hearing– Most of the time when you go to community, they get a little frisky because they feel like we've been asked these questions so much. It's always something new, some new workers, some new system, some new something that has never heard from community. Or they've never even walked into our community. So it's all brand new for them and it's all a learning curve for them. But for us, we're fatigued.
This is why racial inequities exist, because they make us fatigued. My approach is, how can I go about getting feedback from my community that's not going to exploit the negative? And number two, is not going to fatigue us. How can we use our feedback or our intellects or our solutions? Then it's an investment. You're going to the community with an investment. You're going to work in partnership and collaboration with this after-school program. You're going to know about it. You're going to support it. You're going to help them retain their grants by writing letters of support as the principal or teacher.
But there's got to be some sort of partnership where the energy goes both ways. I do have an example. I had a relative in my extended family who I was taking care of, and she was an at-risk youth. I was really upset because she got disenrolled from her high school. I posted about it on Facebook. I said, I'm so upset. I can't believe they turned her away. They should have never closed the doors on her. I said something along these lines and then all of a sudden everybody in my community started tagging all the appropriate people. Then the assistant principal at that school called me and wanted to talk to me about it. Then other groups like Minneapolis Indian Ed reached out to me because they're in the school. Suddenly it felt like I had this frustration, and then my community helped me navigate it, and then folks responded.
Suddenly, where I felt like I had no allies, I felt like I had started understanding how the school worked, who within the school was a resource. It gave me a way to peer into the school and find someone who was going to listen or cared about what happened to this young person. It helped me figure out whether there are resources within the school and I utilized that. I then became actively engaged with emailing the assistant principal, one of the counselors, and they helped me figure out her IEP, and trying to navigate that.
But I say that to give an example of how people think that frustrated feedback is negative and not useful. I think that there are a lot of solutions even in a parent experiencing frustration or fatigue. I really know that frustration was created to be another barrier to prevent change from happening because people want to discount their frustration. Or their fatigue because they don't show up.
MW: I hear in this example that it sounds like there are systems in place in the district to assist students like your relative, but that as a caregiver you didn't know that they existed or how to navigate them.
LS: I do feel like that's a part of a parent engagement. And this idea of a champion. I don't know if every assistant principal would have reached out to me at every school. But this particular one did. Sometimes I worry about those families getting lost and not having a champion. That's where other community voices or other allies come into play.
MW: Switching gears a little bit. In addition to hiring the new Superintendent, one of the other pieces of work that is ahead for the new board is to balance the budget. Currently the budget is balanced using temporary COVID funds. Those funds can't be spent after September of 2024. Do you have thoughts about how the district should address future budget shortfalls once the COVID relief funds have expired?
LS: I think we should continue to be building relationships with the state no matter what. We need to be thinking about how to supplement more funding now, and not waiting for that to happen. I know that's going to be really hard. Yes, it's asking with urgency that we can't wait. And that we know that this is going to happen.
We have to try to figure it out. It's going to be hard and complicated. But at the same time, I want to make sure that those who historically are forgotten when when a budget is trying to be balanced– because I know that there's not enough money– the thing that always worries me is that the BIPOC communities at our schools have been historically not invested in are going to continue to bear the brunt of those budget stressors. I don't know exactly how to do that, but I know if I'm in the room, I'm going to be advocating to not forget about those schools and not to forget about those students.
MW: And do you think that ties back to using those racial justice tools?
LS: Yeah, because the first question in the Voices for Racial Justice [racial equity impact assessment] that I use is who are we talking about? What are we talking about when we're talking about this issue? And then what is it that we're talking about? Are we talking about that we want to balance this budget from a lens–So we're trying to eliminate the achievement gap because then ‘the who’ is really clear on who we are talking about. Are we talking about Black students and Native students or second language speakers because then that helps you go in a direction that puts them at the center of your decision-making.
That doesn't have to be the one BIPOC person at the table. It could be everybody who's there, who's going to be very conscious of the fact that we're going to be talking about a group that is largely more historically disadvantaged when these decisions are being made. I don't want to keep perpetuating the same problem. And that means that we have to be very deliberate about talking about Black students or talking about Native students if we're trying to eliminate the achievement gap.
MW: You mentioned the achievement gap. A few weeks ago, the board saw a presentation on the standardized assessments from last spring, the MCAS. There were declines in proficiency across all student groups, but also widening gaps between BIPOC and white students, as well as gaps between students who qualify for special education, English learner and free and reduced price meal services. I'm wondering first, what was your initial reaction to seeing that data?
LS: I don't think we're surprised. By we– I've heard my community talking about this, community members and parents talking about not being surprised because we knew COVID was disproportionately impacting us. Even for me, when COVID happened, I was able to work from home, and work with my niece while she was in distance learning school. But I know that there are folks, and grandmas who had custody of their grandchildren, who couldn't figure out the Internet hotspot, how to connect the hotspot then to the iPad. It took them weeks or months to get the iPad and then when they got it, there was no one there to come into their house to set it up.
These gaps only get worse. Everyone talks about trying to make it better. Even when I was in high school, the graduation rate for Native students was around 23%. We've only climbed a little bit higher than that since, and I graduated 20 years ago. It's back to that fatigue. This keeps happening and in Minnesota is so bad and in Minneapolis is so bad because we don't really have a good understanding of how structural racism lives within the system. We don't get how it's written into the policies, how everybody who's making a decision about a budget is coming there with an implicit bias. We're not talking about how that shows up in our decision-making. We can barely talk about Black and Native students, specifically, we want to say ‘all’ and ‘everybody’ all the time. That's a tactic to get us from addressing the real needs.
MW: Some people responded to this data by saying that the data simply reflect the poverty that students experience or the racism that students experience in our society– that without fixing those external factors, student academic outcomes can't improve. That's one viewpoint that's out there, and I'm wondering, as a candidate, how do you respond to people who say that?
LS: Diagnosing racism as the root cause of multiple disparities is definitely on point. Looking at the achievement gap and thinking about, instead of what these communities are lacking, focusing on changing the narrative. It's not what they lack, it's what they don't have the access or opportunity to.
MW: One of the things that goes along with that viewpoint I described is that then schools can't fix this. That schools are absolved of responsibility because these are external issues that students bring into schools. The school system can't be held accountable for the outcome because this school district doesn't control these extra factors.
LS: The part about external factors. I would change my first thoughts and say it is the responsibility of the school because they perpetuate– folks who don't realize how an education can transform any of those outcomes. For me, I do think it is the responsibility of the schools and every single system that touches or influences children or in society. It is the responsibility of them to do the internal work on where their policies, practices reinforce structural racism. Where within their own system are they perpetuating racism at the point of contact with community? It is absolutely their job to figure that out and then to do everything they can to eliminate it. Racism is perpetuated within structures, systems.
MW: My last follow up on this is, if you're part of the board, what steps would you advocate for the district to take to address the academic outcomes for all students, but as you've mentioned, particularly Black and Native students?
LS: I'll go to community or go to parents or go to those who can't be at the table. I would find out why they couldn't be there, but I would also try to figure out what has been done, what has been said, what have they already suggested. I would work with other board members on how to understand things around structural racism and how it's perpetuated. It's perpetuated within the practice of going to school every day. Getting folks to see how racism is perpetuated in policies I think is really important. Also, change the narrative that there's nothing wrong with these communities or these students. There's just something wrong with the way that we choose not to invest in them.
MW: This is my last question. For the at-large seat, two of your opponents have been endorsed by MFT and the DFL. And one of your opponents is a former board member. One is a current special education teacher. The other is a disability advocate. Why should voters vote for you instead of someone else?
LS: I hope to bring real life experience around trying to get a group of people to advocate change with their policies and practices within those systems. I bring real life experience to advocates for uplifting community voices or those typically not heard. I am a community organizer. I am in spaces and have access to spaces with people and folks who are usually forgotten.