Heavyweight support won't keep her from criticizing those her party helped to power
Earlier this year, Peggy Flanagan was working with School Board veteran Judy Farmer to try and find someone from the Native American community to run for the Board. Minneapolis has the third-largest urban Indian community in the country, which includes about 2,150 students, or 4 percent of the Minneapolis public school population.
Flanagan said she knew some parents who would be perfect. But when Farmer expressed her frustration at her inability to recruit any of them, she told Flanagan to do it herself.
Flanagan, a single, 25-year-old member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe and the only candidate from North Minneapolis, picked up the gauntlet and surprised even herself at how good she was at politics, winning DFL endorsement and finishing second of 16 candidates in the Sept. 14 primary for three open school Board seats.
Her advisors include political veterans such as former Sen. Paul Wellstone advisor Marcia Avner, fellow White Earth member and 8th Ward City Councilmember Robert Lilligren, former Councilmember Jim Niland, Minneapolis State Sen. Karen Clark and State Rep. Neva Walker. Julie Mattson Ostrow, who ran the "Yes For Kids" campaign for the school referendum a few years ago and is married to City Council President Paul Ostrow, agreed to be Flanagan's campaign manager.
Asked how she would go a different way given that she has the same ties to the DFL power structure that helped elect six of seven current Board members, she said, "I think I have a unique perspective. Being a 25-year-old Native American woman from the North side itself brings a new voice that hasn't been heard before. My endorsement from the DFL, labor organizations and community organizations says that people trust me to make decisions. There may be times when I disagree with the party and Board members, but I believe in the DFL party and its message. I will follow my heart and my mind to make the best decision possible."
Though she has no kids, Flanagan thinks she will be an effective Board member. "Schools are the basis of our community, and too often I run into people who say, well this doesn't apply to me because I don't have any kids in school. I say neither do I, but that is no excuse for not being involved."
Flanagan thinks the school district is partly to blame, for being unfriendly to parents. Despite district rhetoric about working to engage the community, she feels its decision-making process actually shuts people out.
"Getting to know and understand the maze of politics and procedures in the Minneapolis schools is daunting for an educated person. It is even tougher for people who don't speak English and don't have an education," Flanagan said.
She is also critical of the district's community engagement process, which she witnessed firsthand this summer at a meeting at Webster Open School at 425 5th St. NE. She thought it was a good opportunity for people to get involved; instead, they were given were given colored dots to express a preference on a piece of construction paper without any conversation about what the different options meant.
"It is indicative of the school district not really wanting to know what people think," Flanagan said. "They never reached out to the communities of color. And they really did not know what they were doing.
"They paid consultants $140,000 to run [the community engagement process]," she said. "I was totally shocked. There were people willing to do this work for free."
One of her complaints about the current School Board is its lack of vision for what the Minneapolis schools should be. She said that the Board is disconnected from what happens in the rest of the community.
She cited two examples: the Board's abortive replacement of Supt. Carol Johnson with David Jennings and the proposed school closings last winter. At the two public meetings about the school closings, individuals were given two minutes to state their opinions, and that was not enough time, she said. That was one reason both meetings generated such hostility from the parents in attendance.
Despite her criticism of the process, Flanagan believes the School Board should've closed schools for the current year, as it originally planned before delaying it until 2005-06 in the face of community opposition.
"The school closing process was extremely flawed. To force the decision to two weeks, two meetings and two minutes for parents to respond at those meetings was not enough for people to react in a logical manner. ... By delaying the decision, we are in more trouble than we were before."
Flanagan feels it was the same troubling dynamic played out again with teacher realignment. There was no warning, not even for the teachers. She attributes both problems to the district's lack of a long-term strategic plan.
Flanagan was born in Minneapolis at St. Mary's Hospital, but grew up and went to school in St. Louis Park. She was adopted by her stepfather, and within the past two years, discovered she has five siblings she never knew about. Flanagan reconnected with her biological father, who runs a Native American cultural center and art gallery in Detroit Lakes and lives on the White Earth reservation.
She graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in child development and American Indian studies. Flanagan said she loved college in part because her coursework allowed her to learn more about her culture and her history.
"I was given the opportunity to go to college, and a lot of people in my community were not afforded that same opportunity," she said. "I felt responsible not only for myself but also for people who came before me, as well as those who will come after me to do well in school."
Currently, Flanagan works for the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches coordinating a program called Urban Immersion Service Retreats. The program teaches young people about poverty and social justice issues through service learning.
Academically, she is passionate about social studies, culture, the arts and music.
"Those are the subjects that kept me in school," Flanagan said. "When we cut them and say they are not part of the core curriculum, it really bothers me because sometimes they are the only subjects that speak to kids."
Closing the achievement gap is the biggest challenge facing the district, she said. And while the district pays lip service to its importance, she doesn't see it as having a plan.
"The thing that made a difference for me is having a teacher who looked like me and had my values and shared her history [with me]," she said. "We need more teachers of color. Multiculturalism is a real gift and a real resource, and we do not treat it as such. We need to invite people into our classes to share their culture and their history. I will be the person promoting that on the Board."
Flanagan said she believes the community does not have a voice or representation on the Board. She wants to be that voice, and while she acknowledges the learning curve is steep, she thinks her enthusiasm and dedication will take her very far.