EDTalks: Peggy Flanagan “Knowing Where We Come From”


(uplifting music) (applause) (speaking Ojibwe) My name’s Peggy Flanagan, I’m a citizen of the White Earth Nation and my family is the Wolf Clan, and I’m really honored
to be here with you. You know, I think Tom Rademacher is a pretty amazing guy. And clearly, based on Miss Whitley, is a really powerful teacher who helps young people find their voice. And so I’m honored to also be able to share the stage with them and super psyched that this was sold out, which is the closest that either of us will probably be to being rock stars. (laughter) So… A sold out show at Icehouse, yeah! Whoo! So some of you may be like, “Why is the girl from Glee here “talking about education?” (laughter) I was a little bit like
Rachel Berry growing up. There’s nothing ironic about show choir. It’s why I went to school every day which is what we’ll talk
about here in a second. But I grew up in St. Louis Park which, if you don’t know, is like God’s country. (laughter) So grew up in St. Louis Park and there weren’t a whole
lot of Native students. I’m sure you’re surprised. But my mom moved us to St. Louis Park when I was a baby because she knew that I would have access to good schools, stable neighborhoods, and
an opportunity to thrive. And I believe that my community was really influential in my development, but I’ll also tell you that I struggled as well. I didn’t have a teacher who looked like me until I was a sophomore in college. And growing up I had
those handful of teachers, Peter Redmond who is a teacher at St. Louis Park High
School, who changed my life. Who helped me find my voice. He was the only teacher of color at St. Louis Park High School. And he truly saw and heard students. And he continues to be
an incredible mentor and active cheerleader in
my life to this very day and that is the power of educators. But I also know a handful of teachers who were fairly destructive
in my life as well, and did not handle me with care. And so during my education journey, and I’m going to tell you all a secret. Shh, okay? Keep it here and on the TPT website. (laughter) But I graduated from high school with a 1.75 GPA. And I did really well, I
did really well in speech, in English, in creative writing, in math classes where I had teachers who used different ways to
teach instead of just being up at the front of the room and asking you to write down problems right on your paper. But it was the teachers that
I built a relationship with and were able to really see who I was as a young Native woman who were why I survived. And those teachers in particular in the arts and music and theater who got me through. And so I went to St. Cloud
State my freshman year. And coming from a community
like St. Louis Park where we kind of all
just hung out together, and going to St. Cloud State where it was very clear at the time that the African-American
students hung out, the Asian students hung out, the Native students hung out, the White students hung out. And I was like, “Where do I go?” Because that was not my experience. And there were also folks, I started having pictures
of American Indian mascots printed off the interwebs hung on my door. And it was like, “What?” And it took me awhile for it to get like, “Oh, that’s derogatory!” Right? And then started putting, there were like a couple of articles about Native students on campus who were holding pow-wows and community meetings. And someone was cutting those out and putting those also on my door with racist comments
about American Indians. And you know, I went to the administration and I complained a couple of times. And we figured out who it was. But it wasn’t until the last time we went to the administration, I said, “Wow, this is going to make “a really powerful letter to the editor “in the St. Cloud Times,” that they actually took
any action about it. And I didn’t really know
what threat I was making at that point, right? I just was like, “I think
this is what you say.” Right? And so from there, I was in show choir, shocking. And my choir teacher was
leaving St. Cloud State. And he said, “You can either stay here…” He said, “You can either go
to the University of Minnesota “or you can come with me to
the University of Michigan. “This is not a safe school for you, “for a whole host of reasons.” And I went to the University of Minnesota. And the first class that I walked into was Intro to American Indian Studies with Dr. Brenda Child
at the front of the room who looked just like me. And it changed everything. I was in a classroom surrounded by other American Indian students being taught by an
American Indian educator and my whole life changed. Suddenly I was a sponge and I wanted to know everything. I took honors level coursework for fun. And for the first time,
was told that I was smart. And that I should start
taking graduate level courses as an undergrad, by Dr. Brenda Child. Several folks that I
know who are Indigenous or people of color have a similar story. That things didn’t sort
of fall into place, they didn’t fit until they got to college. If they got to college. What an incredible loss of young people who do not feel seen or heard or valued. Now I had teachers who were not of color who were incredibly
instrumental in my life, but I can’t tell you the
difference that it made to just have a teacher who knew who I was and knew where I came from. And frankly, challenged me to say, “You are here, you have a responsibility “to other Native folks who are not here.” And that was just a different way to look at my education. So I graduated with a
degree in child psychology and American Indian studies, and I went on to the
Division of Indian Work as my first job out of college. And my job was to help bridge the gap between the community and
Minneapolis public schools. Now like, easy, right? This was like, “Done and done.” No, so it was a hard job. I was 23 at the time. And you know, really
saw for the first time how families of color and Native families were treated when they
walked into school buildings. And I could stand there for a long time before anyone
would talk to me, right? And I’m a fairly assertive person, right? But for families who had
had a traumatic experience, boarding schools are one generation removed from my family, that is trauma within itself. And when folks are not kind, when they are not welcoming, we’re telling families what we expect of them, frankly. So it was through that process, Carol Johnson was the
superintendent at the time, who was also my superintendent when I went to St. Louis Park High School, who used to give me rides home from school after Student Council. Shocker, I was on Student Council. She was great. I gave her a call, I didn’t know that you don’t usually just call
up the superintendent, be like, “Hey I got this new job, “I need your help.” Right? But she put me on a couple of committees that I was clearly way in over my head, but realized then how the district worked, or frankly didn’t work. And spent about six months sort of all during this time. I had also worked and volunteered on the Wellstone for Senate campaign in 2002 which also made me go, “Oh electoral politics can
be a force for good! Whoo!” And so that’s all happening. It’s like, “Well, if there’s never been “an American Indian on
the school board before “and we’re not having our issues “frankly, really listened to, “we got to do something about that.” And spent about six months
trying to find that person. And like, weird, American Indians didn’t want to be part of
a government structure. You know like, we’ve always
had a really positive relationship with the government. Yeah. Like just saying, “Just sign this.” “What does it say?” “It doesn’t matter, it’s fine.” So that took awhile. And then we had this
event at the Indian Center down here on Franklin. And it was a community meeting to talk about education. I was like, really excited and fired up. And Clyde Bellecourt for those of you who, folks know who Clyde Bellecourt is, from the American Indian Movement? So he just finished
giving one of these, like, “With the blood of Geronimo
running through our veins!” Kind of like big speech, like mic drop. And then folks were like, “Does
anyone else have anything?” And you never like, “Yep!” You know? And I was. I said, “Yeah I sure do! “Uh, so just wondering if anyone “wants to run for the school board. “If you do you should come talk to me, “thank you very much.” And then I sat down. And at that point folks were like, “Why don’t you do it?” I was like, “What? No! “That’s not what I meant at all! “I don’t have any kids, I’m like 24. “Ugh, no. That’s probably a bad idea.” And then after talking to
folks in the community, I was like, “What the heck?” Right? Like, I’m not going to win, so at least we’re going to talk about the issues that are really important
in the community, right? We’re going to talk about poverty, we’re going to talk
about the opportunity gap and how young people don’t see themselves reflected in their curriculum. And you know, surprise, surprise, people actually cared about those things. And I remember a
high-ranking elected official at the time said to me, “You know Peggy, “you really should stop
talking about poor children “because you make people uncomfortable “and it’s hard for folks
to connect with you.” I was like, “Wow, well you know, “if folks don’t like
what I’m talking about, “they just probably just
don’t have to vote for me. “So, I don’t know.” And so we ran a really
great grassroots campaign and registered voters and
went to all the folks, you know the places
where people would like, “Don’t bother, those people don’t vote!” And I’m like, “I am those people, “so I should go there.” And were able to do
some pretty great things in Minneapolis public schools with our memorandum of agreement between the American Indian community and the district, and
we’re still working on it, we’re still moving. But sort of through that experience, and a full host of others, I got to Wellstone Action as
the job that I had before CDF and ran the Native
American Leadership Program and taught folks across the country at how to organize and run for office and work on issues that
were of importance to them. And that led me to CDF. And CDF, Children’s
Defense Fund Minnesota, has this program called Freedom Schools. How many of you have
heard of Freedom Schools? Yeah! All right, good. So Freedom Schools is this, primarily a summer learning and literacy program for students K-eight. And the purpose of Freedom Schools is to have young people
fall in love with learning. And the way that we do that is by having curriculum that looks like
the students in the classroom, books that are written by
and for students of color, and by having servant leader interns who are the educators,
who are in the classroom around young people. It’s very powerful. And focus primarily on the
African-American community, we also have Latino Freedom Schools. And the overwhelming majority of students who go through our program, 87% of our kids who go
through Freedom Schools either maintain or accelerate
their reading level over the summer. 87%. (applause) And so when we talk about like, “Man, we just don’t know “how to reach these kids!” We totally do know how to
reach these kids, right? It’s that at times we
lack the political will to do what’s necessary. To not talk about
diversity but to talk about an anti-racist classroom. That’s a different kind of conversation. And that’s what Freedom Schools
were born out of, right? Sort of out of the Civil Rights Movement and now in the way that they’ve been created by Marian Wright Edelman 20 years ago was to create alternative spaces where our young people could feel valued, heard, respected and could fall in love with learning. And so when I was brought onto CDF, part of my job was to create American Indian Freedom Schools. Again, I was like, “Easy.” (scoffs) Right? No, not so easy. But I would say that Superintendent Bernadeia
Johnson, who is here… (applause)
Whoo! Was incredibly instrumental
in helping us to create American Indian Freedom Schools. So we had the first American
Indian Freedom Schools, Focus Freedom Schools, this past summer. We had one site that was K-five at the Division of Indian
Work, was our partner. And then another site
which was six through 12 at the American Indian Center. And had a young man named Nation Wright who was a senior when I was elected to the school board in 2005, who now I have to remember is a grown man with a family. I hired him and brought him on board and he has started to run this program. We now are at three sites after school. So we are at Andersen
Open Community School, we are at Sanford Middle School, and Emily Palmer is here
who’s the principal. Whoo! Yeah, hey! (applause)
(laughter) And we’re at South High. And so we’re running after school program and then we’ll be moving into, again, our summer Freedom School program. And I tell you that whole thing because I’ve sort of watched this
come full circle in my life. I am now the mom of a
two and a half year old, her name is Siobhan. Siobhan Myinggan Hellendrung. So the first day of school is always going to be a
little rough on her teachers as she confidently walks into the room and asserts who she is. But I care about this more
than I ever did before. When you turn on the television and you see images of American Indians or you go to a movie or you turn on the Sunday football and see a particular football team with a particular mascot, the images that we see of American Indians are perverted images. It is not who we are as Indian people. We do not see images of contemporary American Indian people, and that’s why programs
like Freedom School where our young people see other leaders from the community who look like them, who care about them, who are doing community building work, are reading books about who they are and
where they come from and modern day heroes,
that is powerful stuff. It is very powerful stuff. And that is what I want for my child, and frankly, for all children. To be able to see folks
who look like them, who value them, who are doing good work in the community that they
can aspire to be like. And you know, I’ll just do a quick aside, I posted, Viola Davis won last night, an Emmy Award, whoo! (cheering) And I posted this image
of part of her speech, is that she talked about, women of color are just as powerful as actresses. They just simply lack the opportunity. One of my sort of conservative relatives, I have them, believe it or not, conservative relatives posted under it a link to the Wikipedia page of all of the
African-Americans who have ever won Emmys before. And I was like, “Huh. I’m not exactly sure “what you’re trying to tell me with this.” But the first
African-American woman to win as lead actress, that matters. But it also matters that
there are no images, I don’t ever turn on the TV and see an American Indian
person, ever. Right? And my daughter just doesn’t have that in her life and popular culture and media. And so that is part of, I think, our role as people who care about children and as educators, is
to provide those spaces and that opportunity. And how many of you are teachers? Awesome. So thank you for being here and valuing young people and seeing them and working to create anti-racist space within your school. It is challenging, it
makes people uncomfortable. And in Minnesota, man do we have a hard time talking about race. My husband is from New Ulm. I didn’t think I’d marry an Eagle Scout from New Ulm but it happened. And we’ll talk about some tough issues, and you know what inevitably happens is someone’s like, “Who wants pie?” Right? Which is like the response that we have in Minnesota when we talk about tough stuff. Young people will not let you do that. And so in this space and in your classroom, to create that welcoming community where young people can be heard and tell their truths, it took me 19 years to
be able to tell my truth and I’m still telling my truth
and it’s still uncomfortable. But we have answers, right? We have some answers
of young people feeling heard and valued, reflected
in their curriculum. Being intentional. Some of you have heard, we
have a teacher shortage, right? Being intentional about
growing new teachers. It doesn’t happen on accident that people decide to be educators, right? And we have a responsibility to the folks in our classroom and to the young people in our lives, in particular of color, to say, “This is a pathway for you.” That’s also the additional
layer within Freedom Schools that I hope that we are able to move. To have young people
who are in the classroom who are teaching folks who are just coming up underneath them that say, “This is a pathway for me.” And we know that that has happened with several of our students, but we want to be more
intentional about it and hope that you will join
Children’s Defense Fund in that work. So in my language, I say “chi-miigwetch”, big thanks for the
opportunity to be here today. (applause)

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