Alright – so, sadly Bernadeia Johnson who is the superintendent for Minneapolis public schools decided to leave her post. Friday was her last day – Jan 30, 2015. To say Bernadeia has my gratitude and appreciation is an understatement. I visited her yesterday at her office to tell her our thanks and to let her know that it is Black leaders like her that made my day in my little autism advocacy.
If you can believe it – this was only my second meeting with Dr. Johnson. The first time we met Bernadeia was when she first started and we were also starting our autism advocacy journey. As we all know now – I took my son to Mpls public schools after another Somali autism mom told me how good their autism program was. My first phone call there – I spoke with Anne Harrington (yes, Anne and I go way back) who invited me to a meeting and I went. What I saw there was the beginning of our advocacy journey. There were dozens of other Somali autism parents just like me. I felt good because I wasn’t alone, yet sad because autism was so high.
To make a long story short – we contacted Bernadeia and asked for a meeting. She said yes and invited everyone in Mpls public schools that had anything to do with autism including the director of special education Ann Fox, Said Garaad & Abdirahman Adam among others. She asked what we needed – we told her data. We needed the numbers because no one believed us at that time that autism was higher in our community. In less than short few weeks – they sent us the numbers which said While Somali kids make up 6% of Minneapolis public schools, they made up 25% in autism classes.
That was it – one meeting and one request which was the biggest and the best for us because then we took those numbers to any reporter that would talk to us which at that time was only WCCO’s Mike Caputa. And as they say – the rest is history.
That was the first time I met Bernadeia and she was right to the point without any sugar or salt. I have admired her since that day and she has energized me in my little advocacy. To see a person of color in a position of power does something good to one’s psyche that is hard to put into words here. I am saddened that she is leaving and felt so much pressure from every corner. First of all – it is tough for a Black person to lead anything in Minnesota. Every failure in whatever agency you are leading becomes your personal failure. This harsh and different standard is not used in more male and White agency leaders. For example, we know Minnesota has a horrible health racial disparity, but you don’t see the media reporting how Commissioner of MDH has failed and must be replaced. You also don’t see average Minnesota citizens blame him for that record. And, when was the last time you saw Mayor RT being blamed for Mpls having the worst gap in every category? There is this subtle double standard here that is sort of standard. Blame the Minority leader for whatever is wrong and give the Caucasian leader the benefit of doubt or even promote them.
On the other hand, the fact that Mpls schools have wide achievement gap between Black and White students was solely on the personal shoulders of Bernadeia. Then add that when Black Minnesotans join ganging up and blame the only Black leader we have. Then add that when Mpls public school board many of whom take their own kids to private schools join this ganging up. This can take a toll on you was some of Dr Johsnon’s words to me yesterday. Now, I am in no way or shape in her shoes, but I told her about my little autism advocacy in when they say – she does not speak for us and to that she should ‘ve said “unless you have better or different ideas then step aside”. To those that doubt your ability and try to bring you down – take all of their negative words and energy and drink it like was the best latte, vodka or energy drink you ever had.
I think Dr. Johnson is a powerful Black woman who is articulate, educated and full of ideas that Mpls and its school board failed to see. Who else would’ve had the backbone to say “before you suspend any more Black or Brown students – you better check with me”. We all know when a black child acts out in school as all kids do, they are suspended or expelled. But when a White child acts out – well then they are just being kids. Oh please – kiss my you know what. Bernadeia had the guts to stand up to this horrible disparity that is from school to prison pipeline for many Blacks especially boys.
Who else would’ve supported the LIFO (last in first out) bill that Dayton vetoed which said schools can not just keep a bad teacher because they have been there a long time, rather they will hire and retain good & effective teachers. ” If you have last in first out then you are not looking at quality, you’re just looking at a seniority number” she said to Minnpost reporter. Plus who are the teachers to be hired last and to be fired first – minority ones. Who else would’ve supported public charter schools and close failing public ones.
Dr. Johnson – please know that you are a trailblazer and a hero to so many parents and students. It was Bernadeia and Hussein Samatar that started teaching Somali language in Mpls public schools and put extra resources for ELL. In her office was a gift she received from those Somali students.
Whatever your next chapter is in life – I am sure you will make a huge difference and people will respect you for it.
I cannot thank you enough for your help, support and guidance in our autism advocacy – it took one meeting which is rare in Minnesota. I wish you well and luck and please keep your head up and know that every journey starts with a small single step.
Above words do not reflect any agency, candidate or committee.
Idil – Somali Autism Mom & Minority Advocate