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‘In seeking justice, you can’t be timid’: a Q&A with Alan Page

The retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice and Pro Football Hall of Famer reflects on one of the lesser known aspects of his career: education advocate and philanthropist.

Alan Page: "To have the first word of the school’s name be ‘justice’ — which is at some level what they were seeking in the name for their school — it’s pretty neat."
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

On Tuesday morning, newly retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and Vikings Hall of Famer Alan Page took pause to reflect on a third — perhaps lesser known — part of his identity: education advocate and philanthropist.

Most recently, Page was thrust into the spotlight when students at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis notified him his name was being considered in their efforts to rename the school. They’d decided they weren’t satisfied paying tribute to the state’s second governor, Alexander Ramsey, whose legacy was tarnished, they decided, by his role in driving Native people from their land during the U.S.-Dakota war. So they set out to request a formal name change for their school. With the school board’s support, they accomplished just that.

Page and his wife, Diane, started the week welcoming students back at the Justice Page Middle School. It was energizing to be there, celebrating with the students, he said. On Friday, they’ll be back at the school for an all-school assembly to mark the renaming of the school in his honor. And on Sept. 9, they’ll be honoring students and raising education funds through another initiative that bears the former justice’s name: the Page Education Foundation.

Over the course of the last 30 years, the nonprofit has provided more than $14 million in scholarships to support nearly 6,500 students of color in their pursuit of a postsecondary education. These students — known by those who are familiar with the program as “Page Scholars” — have given back to the community by volunteering as tutors and mentors, at least 50 hours per semester, to students in grades K-8.

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Sporting a T-shirt with the school’s new name, Page sat down in a reading room at his Minneapolis home near Lake of the Isles for an interview with MinnPost. There were signs of other projects in the works, like a living room filled with African artifacts ready to be curated and a freshly printed box of children’s books — featuring the story about boiling maple syrup that he’d written with his daughter — ready to be signed and distributed. But he was immersed in thoughts of students and education.

MinnPost: When you found out you were going to be the school’s new namesake, what were your initial thoughts and reactions?

Alan Page: My initial reaction was one of surprise and excitement, I think. It was not something that I’d expected. In fact, I was surprised when I found out that I was being considered. When it actually came about, I was not the only choice. So it was kinda neat when they let me know in their process I’d come out on top as their first choice and that they were going to recommend that the board make the name change.

MP: What does it signify to you?

AP: Well, a couple of things. One, I suppose on some level it affirms those things which I have been trying to focus on over the last 50 years: education and its importance for children. But two, and more important to me, the process that resulted in the name change — the kids deciding they would like to have a name change and then figuring out how you do that, figuring out the process, then taking all those steps — I mean you talk about a learning experience, an experience that you couldn’t buy,  that’s the best part of it. It wasn’t as though this group of 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders knew what they were doing when they started off. The other thing that sort of warms my heart is the fact that in changing the name, they captured the spirit of what their concerns were with the old name. Because they didn’t change it to “Alan Page School.” They changed it to “Justice Page School.” To have the first word of the school’s name be “justice” — which is at some level what they were seeking in the name for their school — it’s pretty neat.

MP: In the context of Charlottesville, what does this signify about what could come? Or where youth are at today?

AP: That’s the beauty of what they did, in coming up with “Justice Page.” Because as I say, they were looking for justice. And in seeking justice, you can’t be timid. You can’t be: “Well, we changed this name. You might have to change some other name.” Well, maybe you should change the other name. Maybe not, but maybe you should. Maybe you should at least think about it. I think Charlottesville is a key example. We talk about changing or taking down confederate monuments and their history. Well, they’re not history. They’re glorifications of people or events that were involved in history. But the monuments themselves, they weren’t, for the most part, there at the time the history took place. So the notion that somehow we’re tampering with history doesn’t do much for me. That is not to suggest that we shouldn’t remember history. That is not to suggest we shouldn’t confront that history when its nature is something that, quite frankly, is offensive. But the glorification of those who were involved in — and I’m just thinking about the Charlottesville confederate monument argument — the glorification of those who were treasonous, quite frankly, ought to give us pause. It would be something different if we were talking about hiding the actual events of the Civil War, the actual events of slavery, the events of what took place in the Jim Crow South. If we were talking about hiding that, that’s one thing. But the monuments that glorify what took place, that’s something entirely different.

MP: What advice do you have for educators when it comes to countering racism?

AP: I think we have to talk with kids about our differences. Recognize that we have those differences. But also recognize that those differences, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty minute. We’re all pretty much alike, far more than we are different.

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MP: Why is the Education Foundation a passion project for you?

AP: You look at the things that are important to you and you try to do those things. Football was important. The court was important. The foundation is important.

MP: It’s one part scholarships for students and one part mentoring. The scholars come back and do the mentoring. Why is that second part so important?

AP: The second part is actually more important than the first. Because we set off with the goal of encouraging, motivating and assisting students of color in the pursuit of a postsecondary education. Obviously one way to do that is to provide financial assistance. But given the educational deficits that students of color face, given the history of education and how it’s worked for students of color, it was important for Diane and me to do what we could to create a sense in young children that education is important. And the way to do that is to spend time with kids talking about education, helping them through their education. And that’s what our scholars do — they act as tutors, mentors and role models, specifically in the area of education. And those young children have the opportunity to see someone who maybe is from their neighborhood — a neighborhood where maybe education hasn’t been focused on, or hasn’t been a priority or for whatever reason hasn’t taken hold — well they get to see somebody using education as a tool to make their lives better. It’s one thing to talk with someone about “education is important.” It’s something else to show them that it’s important. And it’s also something else, again, to have somebody come into your life to help you understand. And that’s what our scholars do. I’ve spent a lot of time in schools over the last almost 55, close to 60 years. And having the ability to talk through the importance of education — I had parents who did that for me. There are a lot of people who either don’t have it or who don’t have the support that I had. It seems to me that our scholars are a good substitute.

MP: What can you say about the impact, after 30 years?

AP: The fun part for both Diane and me is when you’re out and about in your daily life and you run into someone who comes up and says, “I was a former Page Scholar.” We’ll ask them what they’re doing and they’re being productive citizens, making a contribution to this city, this state, this nation, and to the world. What else could you ask for? We have scholars who are doctors. We have scholars who are lawyers. We have scholars who have gone into business. We have scholars who have sort of everyday jobs —who go to work every day, love what they do, and contribute just like everybody else. I happen to believe that when you give people opportunity, you create hope. And in the end, isn’t that what pulls us all along: hope for the future? So we get to see what that future is like, some 30 years later.

MP: Looking at the persistent achievement gap in Minnesota, how do you keep from getting disheartened?

AP: Because I get to see our scholars and the impact that they have. It makes me hopeful. It gives me the sense that the future can and will be better. Because through their service projects, they are literally changing the future. Slowly, yes. Because this year, this will sound like a big number, 508 scholars, but that doesn’t fit the need. We could use 5,008 scholars. But it’s 508 more than we would have if we weren’t doing it at all. What’s frustrating is we know what the problem is. And I think we know what the answers are. And we like to talk about the problem. But when all is said and done, more is said than done. We need to act. We need to take the steps necessary to ensure that every child learns to think critically. We spend a great deal of our time — certainly an inordinate amount of time — worrying about the next test. Well you know those — whatever the percentage it is today of kids who drop out — they don’t need another test to tell them they’re not making it. They understand that. They understand that they are being or have been left behind. We need to figure out a way to educate children one school, one classroom, one child at a time. And it all begins with a good foundation. Whatever success I’ve had is built on the foundation I got when I was very young.

MP: Tell us a bit about your educational experience?

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AP: I was one of those kids who thought life was great because school was easy. I’d get an assignment and just be able to sit down and do it. Now that’s great,  except you’re not learning anything because you only learn when you have to work at it. If you know how to do it, you haven’t really learned a whole lot. It was the hard stuff that was kind of discouraging. I’ve always been fascinated by the kids who sort of lose contact because it’s too easy. I think it really switches for them, though, when it becomes hard because you haven’t learned the process for learning. It took me — I mean I could get by — but it took me until law school to fall in love with the educational process. When I fell, I fell hook, line and sinker. I just love it. I love working with words, working with the challenge of figuring a particular problem out. The challenge of working through to come to some answer, or not even necessarily an answer, but at least some understanding.

MP: In your work with Page Scholars, what do you see as some of the most persistent barriers to college for students of color?

AP: Our scholars go to virtually every postsecondary institution across the state. So they’re going to two-year schools, four-year schools, trade schools, vo-tech schools. As long as it’s an accredited program and the school will accept them, we will consider the person that’s a scholar. Looked at in that context, the barriers to entry, the obvious one is economics. But the more significant barriers are lack of preparation. So while some of our scholars might be able to get into some school, with a little bit more preparation, they might be able to get into — I don’t even know that higher-quality school is the right way to describe it or a better school — but they might be able to take advantage of their skills and abilities at a higher level someplace else. But without that preparation, you’re sort of limited in terms of your options.

MP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AP: We’ve been really fortunate with the foundation. We have a staff that works really hard. It fluctuates between four and five full-time equivalents. And the amount of work they do is pretty amazing. Diane and I sort of oversee things and do all the fundraising and promoting. But they’re the ones who do the work. We’re pretty excited about them. One of the highlights is one of our scholars is a regent on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents — having served on the board myself, having a scholar follow in those footsteps. He’s just one example. But that’s what we’re trying to create. That’s who we’re trying to create. He’s just one visible example out of the 6,500 or so Page Scholars we’ve had over the years. That’s what it’s all about: creating the opportunity for people to be successful and then having the privilege of sitting back and watching them create their own success.