Bring Light to the Truths of All. Make Our Shared Future Better.

This morning’s address from the floor of the US Senate was difficult for Minnesotans who have been fans of Senator Al Franken to hear. The decision he arrived at, to resign his office, was the right one for Minnesota. His years of hard work on behalf of Minnesotans, his leadership on issues such as education, privacy, mental health, and healthcare are sincerely appreciated and should not be forgotten.

Even in light of that exemplary service, we also cannot forget that power has been and continues to be abused. In all contexts. By those who are widely known and even more who do not gain much attention in the rest of the world. There are sickeningly proud admissions by those in greater power than Senator Franken that should yield consequences. I know I am not alone when I shake my head in disbelief over this juxtaposition.

Power gained through the subjugation and harm to others is not legitimate. It is not earned and is nowhere near sacred. As more and more brave people step into the light and share their truths, more and more people in power are revealed as little more than masks, hollow shells waiting to be filled with insincerity.

We cannot close our eyes. To racism, sexism, all the other isms that may not be headline-worthy but exist. And are worth seeing the light of day, and acknowledged.

At the same time, this is not a blind trust of all accusers – a presumption of guilt until proven innocent. That shifts the sense of power too far to one side. Balance is what we deserve. We owe our future the due process to fully understand these abuses and do right by that knowledge.

When power is abused, no one wins.  Our shared experiences mean we entrust our fellow humans with the power to do good by all to advance our society.

Waking Up to a Tax Nightmare

To my children and future grandchildren: I am so, so sorry.

I am sorry that a vote by the slimmest of majorities, fluffed and prettied-up to appear like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change tax codes for the better, enacted while you slept in your beds, will benefit so few and harm far more.

I am sorry that the tax breaks purported to benefit those Americans who struggle every day to put food on their tables are little more than artificial sweetener, due to fade from your deductions in the next 8 years. While the corporations who paid for every single vote in favor of this sham of an overhaul will reap their deductions in perpetuity, if those currently in power can keep it that way.

I am sorry that, for every single checkbook balanced to work within the funds available will have even less to count on in future years, as the projected deficit created by these “reforms” will be the perfect garnish for the growing arguments to cut services our taxes have paid into for years on the promises that we will benefit from them someday.

I'm sorry that greed, power and ego continue to be the operating principles of our sitting president and his administration.  And I'm sorry the elected officials who had the means to stop it bowed down and turned their backs on every hard working American who is trying to make ends meet.

To the so-called lawmakers who voted in favor of this bill: please, save your shrugs of indifference, your hands raised in the defensive while saying, “just give corporations a chance.” We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We have seen the receipts.

Until we have lawmakers who have the courage to stand up against the greed and almighty powerful lobbyists, we cannot pretend we are a nation represented by those who are for the people and of the people.

The once respectable, reasonable, rational Republican party has abandoned its core value of fiscal responsibility.  It’s time for moderate Republicans to join decent, dedicated Democrats for a better tomorrow.

For Veterans: Our Gratitude and Promises Kept

Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, a time for all of us to recognize and thank the men and women who have stepped up to defend our country since its beginnings. My own father served in the Air Force. I feel immense gratitude for all service members.

Individuals who have served our nation have been in the news lately, heartbreakingly the nexus of tragic and violent events. Too many service members end their tours bearing the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and other conditions that directly affect their judgment, relationships with friends and loved ones, and responses to stresses that come up in every day life.

We owe each who serve to protect us a welcome, an embrace back into our peaceful society as they reintegrate into civilian life.  We must honor their closeting of the tools of war within the safety of our military institutions.  We must recognize that every veteran took an oath to make sacrifices on our behalf.  We must, in turn, commit ourselves to address their wounds, both physical and mental.

The psychological toll of military service has been shamefully ignored by our political leaders, who seem more interested in the flag on the casket than the wound in the soul.  In Minnesota, our valiant returning veterans are committing suicide at a horrific rate.  We need to focus on the health of our veterans and their families. 

There is much more we must do here in Minnesota to lead the rest of our nation in providing a standard of care for service members that is high enough to honor their sacrifices.

I urge each of you to reach out to every veteran and their families to express your gratitude in the most humble way, by saying thank you. Do it any time, not just on Veteran’s Day. It’s a start.

Support for All Families, However They are Made

November, National Adoption Awareness Month, is one full of significance for all families. 

Adoption is a paradox that includes both incredible gain and profound loss.  Being both an adoptee and an adoptive parent, I know the complexity that this duality of adoption can hold.

The loss in adoption can show up in different ways for each individual: loss of country, culture and language are just a few examples. Loss can also include the loss of your first family – most significantly, the loss of the woman who carried and brought you into this world.

The gains of adoption build on love: for the birth parents, for the adoptive moms and dads, and most importantly for the adoptees.  It gives the sense of a miracle in bloom. Isabella Rossellini put it best when she said, “by adopting, we stretch past our immediate circles and, by reaching out, find an unexpected sense of belonging with others.”

Though common themes may emerge from adoption narratives, it is important to remember that each individual impacted by adoption, especially the adoptee, is entitled to their own story and their own truth.

My brother and his husband recently adopted their first child, and he is such an enormous blessing to our family.  May we honor and support all families, including those formed by adoption. And it is my hope, as details of the federal budget continue to unfold, that this support continues in all ways possible and is not sacrificed in the name of other interests.

What Are We Afraid Of?

Whether we’re fully conscious of it or not – we all experience fear.  Identifying and articulating why we are fearful is something that many of us are uncomfortable doing and refuse to address out loud.  It’s that gut sense which kicks in when something unsettling enters the periphery – awakening our recognition, but hesitant to acknowledge – that is the power of fear.

History has demonstrated very clearly the danger in not naming and exploring why and where our fears originate.  Left unchecked, fear becomes a dangerous catalyst for a very destructive and undesirable type of change to occur.  Whether it's the fear of change, fear of another or fear of the unknown - this fear, unaddressed and unacknowledged, can all too easily turn to hate.  Facing and minimizing hate means embracing our own fears; fears that each of us has as a result of our own lived experiences and what our media perpetuates.

Some citizens and leaders have that figured out, but hate is still a very real threat to our nation right now. This goes beyond the obvious hate crimes that have gained news coverage over the past year. 

I look at party leaders who have allowed fear to relinquish their pretense of dignity in order to pass legislation that only feeds a short-term gain and (they hope) keeps them in office.  

I read with sadness the stories of bullying, driven by fear, that go far beyond the confines of the school playground. I’ve witnessed fear seeping into adult disagreements; in a flash of frustration and fear that their beliefs won’t win the day, hate erupts, consuming rationality. What remains of the discourse are hurt, anger, distance, and even more fear.  The cycle continues and what results is a community, a state and a nation who cannot hear one another because of fear.

Thanks to the cyclical arguments in play today, there is no apparent shortage of fear to fan the flames of hate. This fear is the root of our “fight or flight” instinct, but over the ages has somehow warped into a dangerous impetus. For the good of our collective future, this has got to end. 

Think about some of the fears articulated lately, like: “No gun control legislation is going to work, so it’s just a waste of time to try.” Or, “Healthcare is so complex and so expensive, it’s too much work to make it simpler and more affordable.”  Or “Why do we need to take care of those people?  They don’t really belong here anyway.” And let’s not forget the classic, “There’s no real evidence to prove that climate change is man-made.” 

Here in our own community, we’ve seen this kind of fear-driven rhetoric that has deepened divisions and eroded some of the bedrock that makes our community such a wonderful place to live and work. I have been heartened to hear from people throughout our community who have supported my unequivocal stance against hate in our own backyards.  There is an ever-growing contingent of individuals who are ready to move forward from those who are allowing fear to dominate the discourse throughout the St. Croix Valley.

Giving into fear and letting hate win is a losing proposition. President Franklin Roosevelt was spot-on when he declared, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It will never go away, this fear. And yet each of us has the agency to determine for ourselves the role that we will allow fear to play in our lives.  I believe we must repurpose our fears if we are going to move forward. 

It is no secret that I am hate-intolerant.  That doesn’t make me immune from fear, but it makes functioning within the presence of fear easier. The alternative of letting fear lead to hate is not – and never will be - an acceptable end to me. I know fear when I see it – and that’s when I embrace it, and own the fear before it owns my mission to make this world better for all.

Fighting for Each & Every Student

On March 3, 2016, the Stillwater Area School Board voted 5-2 to accept the Administration’s recommendation to close 3 elementary schools in our district. I was one of the 5 who cast my vote in the affirmative. 

Closing a single school, let alone three of them, is every school district’s option of a last resort. In our school district, we had suffered 15 years of unstable, unreliable and insufficient funding from the State as well as a continuous loss of revenue due to declining enrollment. This amounted to cuts exceeding $20 million dollars that impacted student learning in significant and indelible ways. 

I served on the Budget Adjustment Advisory Committee in 2011 that had to identify $10 million in cuts. We faced the reality of eliminating student programming, critical services and much needed support for our students and staff. The cumulative budget cuts had left our district in a place where we were well beyond the bone and were left looking squarely at the marrow.

This awareness did not make the difficult decision easier. Those schools, their history, the many memories that families cherished within those communities are irreplaceable. One parent shared recently that her child will no longer have the opportunity to attend the same elementary school that she and her child’s grandfather attended. She explained how, for people who have lived here for generations, the schools are everything. 

No one denies the realities of grief associated with this loss. No School Board member or district administrator ever wants to make a decision like this, and mine is not the only heart that aches for the families who feel this loss so strongly. 

One of the many reasons I came to the decision I did was because one day I want that parent’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren (as well as my own) to live in a Stillwater Area School District that offers access to the best education possible to each and every child who lives here. 

An organization is simply not sustainable if it is not firmly planted on solid financial ground. Our district was facing the choice between operating costs for bricks and mortar or teachers and programming for our students. When forced to choose, I will always choose for our teachers and our students.

This persistent financial shortfall meant our students were not receiving the services they deserved. Depending on where students lived, their access to services and supports were vastly different. Having spent my entire professional career advocating for public education and believing that our public schools are the bedrock of our democracy, this was absolutely unacceptable to me. 

Parents across the district – from our smaller elementary schools to our larger ones – stepped up and shared that their children were simply not receiving adequate services. Certain staff, whether a specialist, nurse or social worker, were stretched to the breaking point covering up to 3 schools a week. Such fragmented and inconsistent support is simply not what is best for our kids. Not providing our students with the resources they need when they need them is not only unfair to our kids, but it places additional undue burden on our teachers and staff who are already tasked with the herculean duty to serve our students. 

The school board is responsible for using taxpayer dollars in the most responsible, most efficient and the most ethical way possible. Every single dollar must be used in the most prudent and judicious way it can. Our students and families deserved a school district that could prioritize student needs by aligning the limited, finite resources we had available.

Much of the discourse that followed this vote has not reflected what I believe to be the true character of this community. Our students deserve to have the adults in this community stay focused on what is best for our kids with an orientation toward the future so we can work together to make our district as strong as it can be for each and every child. For the individuals who have demonstrated they are more interested in character attacks, thinly veiled threats and hateful rhetoric, they are invited instead to be part of a collective effort for the greater good that seeks to change the system by building it up rather than obstructing its progress by trying to tear it down. 

It would be easy for me to walk away and say that what I’ve been through is too difficult or not what I signed up for. Actually, it is what I signed up for. Elected officials are called to make incredibly difficult decisions, especially unpopular ones, in order to serve the greater good. 

With an increased resolve to fight for our kids and their education, I recognize there is much work to be done at the systemic level to ensure that public education works for each and every child. 

I believe more than ever that it is critically important that we do what we can to protect, invest in and fortify our public schools. I want to do my part to effect change at the State level and I will never stop fighting for our kids and their future.

An Open Letter to My Educator Friends

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Earlier this month I had a conversation with a friend who has worked in public education for almost 20 years. She loves her students. She truly enjoys her colleagues (okay, well most of them, she says.) She is doing what she's always dreamt of doing. And every day she worries about how much longer she can stay in a system that continually asks to give her more and more of herself while providing her less and less support. She is at-risk of becoming yet another incredible educator who is leaving the profession that needs her more than ever.

Though this friend is from out of state, I hear too many similar stories from my friends who work in schools here in MN and around the country. Perhaps even you have felt this way. Your class sizes are too big. You are paying more and more every year out of your own pocket to subsidize the materials that should be provided in order for you to do what you need to do for your students. More and more students are coming to you with such profound needs that in addition to being an educator, you are also feeling that your role has morphed into one akin to a social worker, counselor, nurse, or surrogate parent*. That is NOT to minimize the professionals and individuals who hold those credentials, rather to say that our youth are coming to our schools with such an abundance of needs that those on the front lines are asked to be all things to all kids. *(And yes, of course parents and guardians play a CRUCIAL role in all of this, but that is another post for another time as I believe there is so much to unpack about that particular issue as well.)

In talking to my friends who are in administration, they are feeling the same frustration. There are simply too few resources to fully support their staff. Unfunded mandates from both the state and federal level compounded with funding that doesn't even keep up with inflation puts everyone in a position no one wants to be in. Most of you in #834 know that every year we are spending approximately *$8MM annually* from the general fund to bridge the cross-subsidy gap. That's eight million dollars from our operating budget every. single. year. Do you know how many additional teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses, paraprofessionals and other critical staff our students need that we could add to our buildings at every level with $8MM?

We cannot pretend that the erosion of other systems within our society don't have a direct impact on our kids and our educators. The ongoing stressors and increased trauma that I see in our schools around the state is on the rise and at times it seems that both our students and those who are serving our students are doing all they can to keep their heads above water.

So that's the "What", from my perspective. And here is my version of the "Now what?"

First of all, my friends: Please take care of yourself. Please. Our students need you more than ever and they need you to be healthy. We all know the airplane analogy of putting your own mask on first - and it could not be MORE true when it comes to working in public education. Please take care of yourself and please take care of each other. There is so little we can truly control in the full sphere of our school system, but we can control how we treat ourselves. Please take care of yourself. You pour so much into other people - make sure you allow others - including yourself - to do the same for you. We need you to be in this for the long game. (For my MN friends, I hope MEA gives a little respite and that you will find ways to fill you own cup over the break.)

Second of all, let's stay united. I recently attended the MASA (Minnesota Association of School Administrators) conference in Duluth and met with Superintendents from around the state. Just two weeks ago, at AMSD (Association of Metropolitan School Districts), I sat in a full room with Superintendents and their leadership teams at a ReImagine MN meeting. I promise you that every leader I spoke to and heard from wants to give his or her district the resources they need to succeed and yet, with dwindling, finite and unpredictable funding from both the state and in local levies, they cannot fulfill every need that they know their students - and you - need. From my experience, their "why" is very similar to yours. We all want to do what is best for our kids. We are on the same team.

Lastly, please know there ARE people fighting for public education - they are fighting for our kids and they are fighting for you. Our communities, our country and our world need people like you who have chosen what I believe to be among the most noble of callings. We all know that our students are worth fighting for - and I hope you know that YOU are worth fighting for, too.

Let's stay strong together.

With love and gratitude for all that you do,

p

 

On Hate-Intolerance

When I made the decision to launch this campaign, I was more motivated by what I was running for rather than against. There is a lot of good we can do, changes that will make life better for everyone.

That said, there is something I’m unapologetically against. Anti. With every beat of my heart.

I am hate-intolerant.

Hate doesn’t always come in white robes carrying pitchforks. It doesn’t speak with a regional accent. Hate and intolerance are living and breathing in our own backyards, right here in District 39B. We must not look the other way, because hate thrives on ignorance. Choose to ignore it, and you lose any right to express surprise over its manifestations throughout the community. Insidious, unchecked hate has the potential to unravel the common threads so many generations have toiled to weave together.

We may want to believe this isn’t possible in Minnesota, but just yesterday news organizations around the metro area shared the uncomfortable study showing Minnesota ranks 2nd in the nation for racial inequality. Want to feel even more uncomfortable? Our next door neighbor to the east – Wisconsin – is #1.

Sometimes it takes a comic to get to the heart of things. Back in 1992, in response to the Los Angeles race riots, Denis Leary said “Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.”

How do we work towards an end to racism? The Southern Poverty Law Center offers some useful, actionable suggestions that can be put to work, right here, right now.

I hope you’ll join me.

Time to Remove the Mental Health Stigma

Over the course of the past week, two friends shared their experiences of coping with - or helping a love one cope with - depression. Those who follow my personal FB page know that I, too, have struggled with this very common and very treatable medical condition. Mental health issues are far from rare: according to NAMI, one in 5 adults experiences a mental health condition every year.

I am fortunate to have affordable health insurance that allows access to the resources I need to successfully manage this condition and live my fullest life possible. There are two different but equally critical reasons why I share this:

  1. We must start eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health. A better understanding of what mental illness is, what causes it and how it can be treated is a good place to start. Make It Ok is an incredible resource that provides facts around mental illness, personal stories and a common language we can all use.
  2. Healthcare in this country should not be a privilege available only to the few. Our vigilance must be heightened right now, as our path to healthcare for all is under siege by this current administration,our vigilance must be heightened. I find it unconscionable that any medical condition - mental or physical - can bankrupt the average family.

There are political reasons why sharing this is a bad idea. My core values compel me to stand and speak my truth and call for common sense in health care access:

  • Too many young people carry the stress of all that is going on in their own lives as well as the effects of what is occurring in our country and in our world. According to NAMI, half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14; 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24. That is why, as a school board member. I have advocated for increased access to mental health support. For the health and well-being of our future generations, we must start talking about mental health not as a scourge but as a manageable condition.
  • I want Minnesotans to have a quality of life that allows us to care and provide for ourselves and our loved ones. Supportive services for Minnesotans struggling with mental health is something I will continue to fight for when I am elected.