Even though she had the advantage of the St. Paul DFL Party’s endorsement — along with that of the local teachers union — Marny Xiong and her team of volunteers hunkered down at their campaign headquarters on Payne Avenue on Election Day, squeezing in one last round of phone calls to potential voters.
As a first-time candidate for an elected office (not counting her board seat on the District 5 Payne-Phalen Community Council), Xiong says she wasn’t comfortable relying on any endorsements to carry her through. She, along with a core team of about seven supporters, had spent the last eight months phone banking, door knocking and fundraising. Yet the 28-year-old newcomer says she still had trouble falling asleep those last few nights.
When the final votes came in, after the polls closed on Nov. 7, Xiong learned that she’d won a seat on the St. Paul Public Schools board by a good margin. In a six-way race for three open seats, she locked in 30.4 percent of all votes, at a count of nearly 36,500. The other two winners, incumbents John Brodrick and Jeannie Foster, took 21.8 percent and 24.9 percent of the votes, respectively.
While many of the campaign issues Xiong ran on align with district and union priorities — equitable outcomes, setting high expectations so all students graduate college and career ready, creating a safe learning environment using initiatives like restorative practices, and increasing student enrollment — she’s still the biggest wild card heading into 2018.
On Friday, MinnPost met Xiong at Hmong Village — a cultural hub of food and apparel located off Phalen Boulevard on the edge of St. Paul’s east side — to hear more about her experience on the campaign trail, her ties to the district and what she hopes to bring to the board.
‘Someone needs to go upstream’
If anyone had asked her if she would consider running for a seat on the school board back in January, Xiong says she would have “totally rejected the idea.” Even though she enjoyed playing a support role for others running for office — whether it be coordinating campaign efforts or electoral organizing — she says she didn’t really view herself as a possible candidate.
But as the filing period approached, she found herself talking with friends a lot about how the upcoming school board race seemed to be taking a back seat to the mayoral race — a real shame, she thought, given how crucial having a strong school system is in laying the foundation for the success of future generations.
Then she started recalling her own sense of frustration with the current school system, in which schools she once attended were no longer in existance. And she began feeling a sense of impatience over the fact that many of the challenges she and her family faced were persisting.
For instance, translation services are not always readily available to parents who don’t speak English. Even though she doesn’t have any kids in the district, Xiong says she’s volunteered to help parents, at times, by volunteering to translate at parent-teacher conferences.
“As a student, I had to interpret for my parents,” she said, reflecting on her time as as student in the district. “That didn’t sit well for me. I had to be my own advocate, interpreter, and also the voice for my parent. Yet, at the same time, the conversation was about me.”
In helping to fill this void, Xiong recalled a folktale she’d first been introduced to through her community organizing work nearly a decade ago. In the story, villagers keep saving babies who are being thrown downriver, by pulling them out of the water and building them hospitals and schools. But the steady stream of babies doesn’t end. Finally, a fisherman decides to go upstream, to investigate the source of the issue.
“I can only help a parent advocate for their student so many times,” Xiong said. “If we don’t tackle the root case of the issues, the system will continue to be the same. With that realization about the need for a better schools system and to see change happen, I decided that someone needs to go upstream.”
With her mind set on running, she pulled together a dedicated campaign team that set out to raise $20,000 in campaign financing — a goal they ended up exceeding by a few hundred dollars. There were a few large contributions, but many of the smaller contributions were raised through competitive fundraising events led by various team members, including an egg roll sale and a garage sale. Each time a member hit their goal of raising $300, they got to dump a bucket of water over the rest of the team.
Xiong says securing the DFL endorsement was key in helping win over the confidence of many at the convention who had raised initial concerns over her age and inexperience. But she wasn’t content just relying on the endorsement to carry her through to a victory, she adds, because she felt compelled to mobilize more nontraditional voters.
With that aim, she was very intentional about setting up her campaign headquarters in her old stomping grounds on the east side, where she wanted to mobilize more residents to vote.
“What we saw at the city convention was it’s a lot of the usual delegates who are part of this process,” she said. “The outcome we wanted was to bring more people into this process … to create a more inclusive environment and pathway for people to feel welcomed, especially new voters.”
Developing an understanding of equity
Xiong was born in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. But she’s quite familiar with the challenges faced by many new immigrant and refugee families, along with the assets they bring. That’s because her parents came to the neighborhood, fleeing persecuting in Laos. They had already given birth to two children in the war-torn nation, whom they’d feared may not survive.
Xiong grew up as a middle child in a family of eight children. They lived in public housing — moving from one unit to another across town — while she worked her way through the St. Paul Public Schools system.
Her parents were staunch supporters of her education, she says, because they never had access to more than a few years of a formal education when they were growing up. Her mom sent the kids off to school, after working through the night. And her dad tucked them in at night, after working all day. Together they “made sure we got to school on time every day and that we came home to a warm meal,” Xiong said.
In addition to having parents who instilled an appreciation for education in her, Xiong says she was fortunate to have some really great teachers, including the former president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Denise Rodriguez. For instance, she remembers how her middle school teachers supported her history project on the Hmong diaspora out of Laos during a unit on the Vietnam War.
However — for better, or worse — no current St. Paul student could follow Xiong’s pathways through the school system. The Longfellow Humanities Magnet elementary school she recalls fondly has since closed. The middle school she attended, Washington Middle School, was repurposed to serve high schoolers. And the school she graduated from — Arlington High, which was put under probation while she was there for not meeting academic standards — no longer exists.
While at Arlington, Xiong joined a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program because she liked the work they did in the community and the camaraderie that it built amongst student participants. She quickly became a student officer and the first woman to lead the color guard at her school. For a while, she figured she’d join the military once she graduated from high school. But through conversations with family members — an older sister who was studying at college, in particular — Xiong had an epiphany about the intersection of race and economics and war: Poorer kids were going straight into the military not necessarily because they wanted to, but because they felt it was the only affordable opportunity for them to advance in life.
“I decided it wasn’t for me. I wanted to do and make impact differently,” Xiong said, noting she decided to go to college instead and pursue a degree in political science. “I decided I wanted to come back and contribute to the community and also work with youth.”
At the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she majored in political science and minored in African and African-American studies. She gets a lot of questions about her minor, she says. But, for her, it symbolizes one of her first victories as an education advocate. On campus, she’d become active in a student group focusing on issues of social justice and racial equity. Part of that work included advocating to establish the African and African-American studies minor, an idea that had been stuck at the administration level for years.
“We were able to prioritize it, get it on the agenda,” she said, noting it was approved her senior year. “Surprisingly, I already had all the credits for it. I was glad to be part of one of the first cohort of students that minored in that.”
‘I see how policy trickles down’
In addition to her new role on the school board, Xiong works in the Minneapolis Public Schools district as school administrator. She’s based out of a home office at Hmong International Academy, but she works with a team of principals across different schools.
Her day-to-day workload involves a wide range of tasks, from helping principals oversee school budgets, supervising nonlicensed staff, and helping employees read their contracts to serving as a backup for student behavior issues, and overseeing lunch and recess operations.
“At the school level, where I’m at, I see how policy trickles down,” she said. “I see how it gets translated at the school level with kids and how it impacts the school environment.”
She says people often ask her if she’d ever want to be a principal, but she’s more interested in tackling issues “at the root cause” through policy work. No matter how politically charged it can get, it’s the sort of thing she feels well prepared to engage in because she’s comfortable with face-to-face conversations and she’s a fast learner. She says she’s big on listening to diverse perspectives, as well as gathering data and parent input, before making any important decisions.
Looking at the issue of implementing earlier school start times for high schoolers— one of the agenda items that the current board recently approved, with an intention to sort out the details later on — Xiong says she would have been a third opposing vote.
“The details were not all there. To say we will figure it out later on, that’s not good enough for me,” she said. “I’m not opposed to changing start times, but I think we need to do more, we need to know more about the impact on elementary students.”
Asked for some more specifics on the types of things she plans to champion, Xiong talked about the need for improving family engagement efforts.
“We need to do a better job of authentically engaging families and building the relationship between the district and families — as well as showing up in the community differently,” she said.
She commends the new superintendent, Joe Gothard, for making an effort to meet community members where they are, through his listening tour. But she’d like to see that sense of responsibility extend to other district leadership. Offering an example of one such missed opportunity, she says that, in years past, she hasn’t seen a strong SPPS presence at the local Hmong New Year celebration.
“I do see a lot of charter schools at the celebration, and they’re highlighted because of their ties to the community,” she said. “That’s where I feel we need to do a better job of building those relationships, because we’re lacking that.”
She’s also concerned about boosting alumni engagement and finding a way to better track the trajectory of graduates, to get a better sense of how the district is preparing — or failing — students for adulthood. And she’s a proponent of the push to adopt more culturally relevant curriculums.
For now, she’s hoping to start getting oriented by meeting with the other board members, as well as parents, and lining up informal tours at all of the schools. She’s also finishing up a book that was on her reading list: “Rebuild the Dream,” by Van Jones.
“It’s about education and how, the millennials, we’ll be the ones with the solutions,” she said.