Reading, writing, and legislating: Educators of color seek to shape Minnesota schools from the state Capitol

Educators seeking office shown side by side
Mary Frances Clardy, left, and Samantha Sencer-Mura, right, are running for Minnesota House seats representing Inver Grove Heights and Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Mary Frances Clardy was in her mid-thirties, well into her career as a housing advocate and civil rights commissioner, when her first-grade daughter came home from school with a note from her teacher.

The teacher’s complaint: The beads in her daughter’s braided hair were too noisy. It was a complaint rooted in “cultural insensitivity,” Clardy said.

“I decided that I had to do something immediately,” she said. “I needed to be a mentor, caregiver, and advocate for kids of color.”

Decades later, after 27 years as a teacher in St. Paul and a stint on the Inver Grove Heights school board, Clardy is hoping to take her activism to the state Capitol. Clardy, 63, is running as a Democrat for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The newly redrawn district includes parts of Inver Grove Heights, West St. Paul, Lilydale, Sunfish Lake, and Mendota Heights.

Clardy says her classroom experience provides an on-the-ground perspective on how government decisions affect people’s lives.

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“There’s so many policy deficiencies that are exemplified with the achievement gap between the white students and the students of color,” she said. “In teaching, everything I see reflects our community. It’s like a big mirror.”

Last year, the state legislature tripled funding to recruit and retain teachers of color in Minnesota schools. Now, more educators of color may be headed to the State Capitol to craft their own laws. Samantha Sencer-Mura, a Minneapolis Democrat who headed the education nonprofit 826 MSP, is also running for the state House. And Mary Kunesh, a state senator from New Brighton who spent two decades as a librarian in Robbinsdale Area Schools, is headed for reelection for a fourth term in the legislature.

Dara Beevas, a board member of 826 MSP, believes that educators’ resourcefulness, classroom perspective, and community experience can translate well to the legislature.

“What I love about educators in the capacity as a legislator is that they know how to solve problems,” she said. “An educator is always operating from a position of seeing the humanity in someone.”

For her first few years in the legislature, Kunesh kept her school job, taking leaves of absence from school during the House session.

“The fact that I was fresh out of the school, fresh out of the classroom, seeing everything that was affecting our students in real time, had credence,” she said. “And I think the legislators were listening to that.”

Some education programs have not been designed to meet the needs of students of color, Kunesh said. Having more educators of color in the legislature could help change that.

Samantha Sencer-Mura: ‘This isn’t working for everyone, and it’s not the students’ fault’

Samantha Sencer-Mura’s grandparents spent their teenage years in internment camps. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that authorized the U.S. Army to forcibly relocate more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry to isolated incarceration camps.

But Sencer-Mura didn’t learn about this important piece of American history in school; she had to study it independently. Decades later, as she became an educator, she found that injustice helped shape her drive for a curriculum that reflects student experiences. Her family legacy also sparked her interest in running for office.

“Government policies can change lives,” she said. “Having people in power who don’t see people of color as full citizens, as fully human, and are making policies based off of fear or misinformation can have devastating consequences.”

Sencer-Mura, 33, knew she might run for the legislature when her state representative, Jim Davnie, retired. In the decade she’d spent working in education, she’d come to understand the vital role the legislature plays in allocating funding and setting policy.

But Davnie’s January 2022 announcement didn’t match her intended timeline. The previous August, Sencer-Mura had given birth to a baby, Tadashi—and the first months of his life proved tumultuous.

“It felt like a very tricky time to choose to run for office,” she said. “But I also think I felt galvanized by my experience as a young parent.” Tadashi was born five weeks early and spent time in the neonatal intensive-care unit. After Sencer-Mura got out of the hospital, she would visit the NICU during the day. But she noticed that many other moms could come only after finishing their workday.

“We had kind of a turbulent start to his life and felt overwhelming support from our community, but in so many ways, were confronted with the failure of our government to show up for families in times of need,” she said.

On a recent fall afternoon, she spoke with Sahan Journal in her backyard as Tadashi, now 14 months old, toddled around in the leaves.

Sencer-Mura grew up attending Minneapolis Public Schools. As a child, school came easily to her: She was good at sitting still and listening. But she noticed at an early age that her brothers experienced school differently. One had dyslexia, and the other got into behavioral struggles with teachers. While she had always felt supported by her teachers, she saw that her brothers did not.

“That opened my eyes: This isn’t working for everyone, and it’s not the students’ fault,” she said.

At South High School, Sencer-Mura served as editor of the school yearbook. She also stood out as an exceptionally thoughtful student writer, said Corinth Matera, who taught at South for 21 years and now teaches writing at the University of Minnesota. Matera recalled an essay that Sencer-Mura wrote as a teenager. In that essay, she wrestled with her multiracial identity and the expectations that came with being the daughter of a prominent author. (Sencer-Mura’s father is the poet and playwright David Mura, an influential figure in diversifying Minnesota’s literary scene.)

“It still stands out to me as one of the best memoir pieces of student writing that I’ve read,” Matera said.

Matera, who was also Sencer-Mura’s yearbook adviser, recalled that she brought that same thoughtfulness to the yearbook. The yearbook historically privileged the popular students, who tended to be whiter and wealthier, Matera said. As editor, Sencer-Mura widened the spotlight to include a broader range of student stories.

Choosing creativity over strict discipline

Sencer-Mura’s path to becoming an educator didn’t quite go as planned. After college, Sencer-Mura taught English and social studies in a New York City public school, while participating in a teacher training program. By completing the program, she would have earned her teaching certificate for free, Sencer-Mura said.

But she left after a year because she disagreed with the program’s pedagogy. It came from a particular charter-school philosophy that required rigid behavioral standards, she explained.

Ultimately, the approach felt like “controlling students’ behavior over freedom and intellectual curiosity,” she said.

Sencer-Mura moved to the Bay Area to work for a nonprofit, teaching creative writing and digital storytelling in after-school programs. In this role, she helped students create short movies about moments in their lives.

“We would get every single student to finish the project,” she recalled. “And teachers would constantly be like, this never happens. We never get everyone to do something.”

It was a stark contrast from her teacher-training experience in New York.

“One of the things that I took away from that was, if you give young people space to talk about the things that are important to them, to be creative, to tell their stories, you can engage pretty much any student,” she said.

Sencer-Mura earned a graduate degree in school leadership at Harvard, hoping to work with students outside the traditional school day. She moved home to Minneapolis in 2017, and became the executive director of writing and tutoring center 826 MSP. The nonprofit helps students of color with creative and academic writing, and publishes anthologies of student work. It’s a vibrant and culturally affirming environment: A mural featuring mermaids in hijabs adorns the building.

When Sencer-Mura arrived, the nonprofit was operating under the name Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, conducting workshops in an industrial business district in St. Paul. Dara Beevas, whose publishing company Wise Ink partners with 826 MSP to print youth anthologies, described Sencer-Mura as a “quiet force” in helping the group to evolve.

It was a big undertaking to move the organization to Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood at the same time it was undergoing a rebrand, becoming a chapter of the national 826 organization, Beevas said.

“Sam had the vision of saying we need to be in a different location,” she said. “We’re serving predominantly Black and brown kids, a lot of Somali youth. We need to be in a community where those people can see us just walking by.”

‘They’re just as important as any other texts’

In 2018, Sencer-Mura reconnected with her former teacher, Matera. She proposed creating a writing center at South High School in partnership with her nonprofit. To Matera, whose previous writing center had shuttered due to budget cuts, Sencer-Mura’s proposal was “like magic.”

The organization worked with students to publish three anthologies of student writing: one by Native students, one by English language learners, and one by Black students. They’re the kinds of books Sencer-Mura wishes she’d had as a student; she hopes that Minneapolis schools can adopt them in their curriculum.

“These words are published on a page, they’re just as important as any other texts that you may read,” she said.

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in Sencer-Mura’s neighborhood, she again turned to student voices for guidance. After attending protests during the day, she watched the Unicorn Riot livestream at night. She recognized students in the livestream interviews, and felt impressed with their clear analysis of Minneapolis policing, even amidst the chaos of an uprising. When 826 MSP’s landlord told her she needed to board up the windows, she stapled student writing to the boards.

The organization had just finished a writing project on leadership. The students’ words on the boards proved an interesting contrast, Sencer-Mura recalled, “juxtaposing what young people were saying they wanted from leadership and what was actually happening,” she said.

Now, Sencer-Mura is on her way to becoming a political leader herself. In a safe Democratic seat, she is all but assured to win. She hopes to bring the clarity of young people—on issues like education, climate change, and policing—to an institution where change often comes slowly (or not at all).

“It’s going to be a big shock, in many ways,” Sencer-Mura acknowledged, to go “from a place that was very open to creativity and imagination and new ideas, to a place that’s very much mired in the way it is and has always been.”

She hopes that her experience working with kids stays with her at the Capitol.

“That’s where I think the urgency piece comes in: this feeling from young people that we are not waiting,” Sencer-Mura said.

Mary Frances Clardy: ‘This was something that required legislative solutions’

Activism runs in Mary Frances Clardy’s family. Back in the 1950s, her integrationist parents moved to Burnsville in order to become the area’s first Black family. They need to make a 45 percent down payment—far more than white families. Her family faced death threats, but also received support from farmers who drove by their house to protect them.

When Clardy became a teacher, she brought her family’s intergenerational spirit of activism to the classroom.

“I taught in ways to really engage kids,” Clardy said. “I worked on their strengths.”

“The level of rigor that she expected of kids was high, but she was also kind in the process,” said Sue Braithwaite, an elementary curriculum supervisor at St. Paul Public Schools. “She really listened to kids, as well as the adults when she was coaching.”

Clardy is currently teaching reading to elementary students at The Heights Community School on the East Side of St. Paul.

“I have 13 reading groups a day,” she said. “Because of COVID, there was some unfinished learning. I refuse to say it any other way. We have some third graders right now that missed first grade and part of kindergarten.”

As a candidate, Clardy highlights her longtime work advocating for students and teachers of color. Over the last decade, she became involved with the advocacy group Educators for Excellence.

As part of that work, in 2015, she co-authored a policy paper proposing legislative solutions to recruit and retain teachers of color.

Though teacher diversity is now a topic legislators discuss every year, that wasn’t the case in 2015, recalled Madaline Edison, former executive director of Educators for Excellence in Minnesota. Clardy helped bring the issue to legislators’ attention, she said.

“She and other educators felt very passionately that this was something that required legislative solutions,” Edison said.

In 2014, Governor Mark Dayton appointed Clardy to what was then called the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Then in 2019, Governor Tim Walz appointed her as the teacher representative on the Minnesota Board of School Administrators. She launched her campaign for Inver Grove Heights school board later that year, and won.

‘I don’t blame that child. It was the system’

Six years ago, Clardy was teaching what she considered a large class: 29 kids, including some who needed specialized settings of just four to six students. One first-grader hit her over the head with a chair. Clardy suffered a traumatic brain injury, and had to relearn how to walk, talk, read, and write.

“I don’t blame that child. It was the system. This is why we say schools need to be fully funded,” Clardy said. “That was a clear case where there wasn’t the right ratio between the social worker and the student, or that child couldn’t get access to health care.”

Edison recalled that it was difficult to watch Clardy face an injury that “set her back significantly.”

“What was challenging to observe is that she definitely, I could tell, got tired much more easily,” Edison said. “She wasn’t able to do all of the things that she loved to do.”

Clardy followed her doctor’s orders to take things slowly, and when she was ready, “dove back in” to her passions, Edison said. She believes that incident showed Clardy’s resilience.

“Despite the fact that she was significantly injured and it deeply affected her, it did not deter her from the student-centered person that she is,” Edison said. “She went right back to the thing that she loves most, which is teaching.”

When legislative district lines changed earlier this year, a House seat in Clardy’s area opened up. Suddenly, Clardy was receiving calls from legislators asking her to run.

“My life really has been dedicated to serving every day,” she said. “When I looked at it and put it all together, from dealing with discrimination to housing to teaching, then also being on the school board, it all made sense.”

Bringing her perspective to the legislature, she hopes, will result in better laws for students and teachers. That includes fully funding special education, providing wraparound services for schools and apprenticeship programs, and addressing bias in standardized testing, she said.

Edison described Clardy as a “quiet leader” who listens to many perspectives before making a decision.

“I think that is particularly important in today’s political climate, given the divisions we have,” Edison said.

Clardy said her classroom skills will translate well to the legislature, too.

“I’m used to noise,” she said.