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What does having an equity officer do for Minnesota?

Stephanie Burrage is Minnesota’s first equity officer.

Stephanie Burrage
Stephanie Burrage: “When equity shows up in the room, then you are always making sure that the lens is for all.”
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

In April, Gov. Tim Walz appointed Stephanie Burrage, the former deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, to the newly created role of state chief equity officer.

Burrage has a bachelor of arts in secondary education from Western Michigan University, a master’s degree in both elementary education and educational administration from the University of Wisconsin and Saint Mary’s University (Minnesota) and a doctorate in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota.

She was a teacher in Minneapolis, and later went on to be superintendent of school districts in Minnesota and Michigan.

Last year, Burrage led an initiative called “Mind, Body and Soul,” which was monthly meetings of up to 700 people to gather input, particularly from the Black community on how to improve outcomes for Black people in the state.

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Many of the ideas that came out of those meetings were then allocated in funding through Walz’s two-year budget. MinnPost sat down with Burrage in the governor’s office to learn more about where Minnesota is when it comes to equity, and what her role will bring to the state.

MinnPost: What drew you to school and education settings?

Stephanie Burrage: When I was 16 I was a teacher aide. I’ve known since I was younger that I wanted to be an educator that I wanted to be a teacher. My parents are both educators. My mom was a fourth grade teacher and my dad was a social studies teacher, history teacher, and then he became a principal and superintendent. Education was all around me all the time. I remember as a fourth grader, in high school and in college, that I would come back and help my mom get her classroom together as she would prepare every year for school.

MP: Being in school settings early on, and your parents being teachers, how did that inform your early understanding of equity? What were the issues that you noticed what right off the bat?

SB: Right away with equity, you always have a sense of what we call in the education world, “differentiated instruction.” You always have to meet students right where they are when they come in. I have a cousin who is special needs and she has educators that meet her right where she’s at. Every parent wants their child educated, and that should happen. So you can see the differences of education and equity based on how kids and show up to school. And you have to meet kids right where they are. There are some kids who may need just a little bit more based on their specific needs.

MP: I’m curious what your job was like as an education consultant and how it related to equity, diversity and inclusion efforts? How did DEI improve through that?

SB: When you are working anytime with the school district, you’re always looking at what does that school district need at that time? (DEI) shows up in so many different ways. It is how to make sure you’re meeting the students’ needs that are right there in the classroom. When I look at (DEI), as a whole in education, it is about educating people about the students that are sitting in front of you. It’s about making sure that we’re looking at ways to educate students about each other so that the individual self of identity shows up in the classroom to see themselves.

Also, training (like) professional learning, because if you are unaware of a person that’s a diabetic, you then have to make sure that staff are aware of that. My daughter (is) a great example because every year I would have a meeting with all of her teachers to share, ‘Here’s what it looks like for Octavia. Here’s what her day will be like. This is what will happen if she has a low or if she has a high.’ Then there were things that I would bring in for the teachers if they needed an understanding of what does it look like for her in this classroom if she has a low. What things do we need to train you with to help you? And so it’s the same way in education for all for students that are coming in with many different needs, it really is about training and making sure that we’re teaching around what that student may need.

MP: What are the dangers of if you have parents who don’t know to do that every semester and have you seen that happen?

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SB: I have. That’s where you’ll see a lot of people who advocate for that type of support. And that’s where it is our job as educators to make sure that we are having training around the different needs of students. That is our job as educators to build that into our staff development plan. There are many parents who may not know sometimes the access point is there and that’s the equity side that is, I feel my job, and it’s always been my job to then be a voice for sometimes the voiceless. To be able to help people understand what supports are there and what’s available to them.

MP: What areas in Minnesota have you seen that equity side really come out?

SB: You see it quite a bit. In my current role as the chief equity officer, as we’ve been working through, what’s called Mind, Body and Soul, that has really been a great space to see the equity side of conversation. Some of it is just that making sure that people are very much aware of what’s happening, but it’s also then providing a voice for our community to have a seat at the table to be able to talk about what’s working for them, what’s not. It’s the same thing within schools. You have to make sure that you’re listening to your families to hear what they need, and then you’re building the programs to meet their needs right where they are. It’s the same way that we did with Mind, Body and Soul, inviting people to the table to be able to talk to the governor and he became a listener. He and the lieutenant governor really strongly listened to hear what community’s needs were. Then to see how does this affect state government through policy through the budget process.

MP: With Mind, Body and Soul, what were some things that came out of those conversations where community was passionate about or wanted to change in the proposal?

SB: Definitely the need for different areas to have funding available to help first time home time buyers. That was a big conversation around making sure that there was tools to educate around a first home or if you’re struggling with down payment. There were conversations around nonprofits, how to help them understand and educate around different jobs that are out there. You could see conversations around health, around Black women and children. There were many different conversations that people were very passionate about. The big piece I can tell you that was huge was around the lunches, so now that parents will not have to pay for lunch or breakfast in schools. That was a huge conversation. Parents and community really were going, ‘That is a help to our community where our kids don’t have to worry about are they going to eat.’”

MP: So you feel those conversations reflected then in policy?

SB: My gosh. It showed itself. That was a huge policy win in education, I would say they (the conversations) showed up in multiple spaces around policy pieces in each of the different areas: in the home buying and in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) through employment and development.

MP: I want to go back to your background. You’ve been in the education sector for quite about a long time in Minnesota and Michigan. What are some persistent equity issues that you’ve seen in the education sector?

SB: A lot of times families are taking care of their children, they’re going to work; they may not know some of these policy changes and how those things affect them. In education, it’s the same thing. In a school system, the school board will make decisions and make decisions to best meet the needs of the families. But then if people don’t know about it, then how do they access that information? Equity for me, also is about information. It’s about making sure that our community has the information to understand these policies or these budget changes that you’re aware of them to know, to access them so that you too are able to benefit from these different changes. It’s the education of people to make sure that they know what’s happening and how it’s (going to) benefit them.

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MP: With Minnesota now having a chief equity officer, how do you see that making changes in the state?

SB: I received a text from someone the other day to say, who sits on Mind, Body and Soul and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we heard the conversation in different spaces.’ That is a big deal because when equity shows up in the room, then you are always making sure that the lens is for all. To make that type of change, it is having conversations with people, it is sharing the different things that are happening throughout the state that people can benefit from, it is making sure that the voice of the people are there so that when conversations are happening, I can say, ‘I met with this group and they share this with me. I need you to keep that in mind as you’re thinking about certain decisions.’

MP: As far as your top priorities for the first year, what have you discovered based off of the listening sessions that you want to get into?

SB: I thought I was going to be able to complete the listening tour in probably a month and a half. That’s a no. I am extending it to November because people are calling in saying, ‘We want to talk to you, we want to share with you what we need’ and I don’t want anything missed. Many people are saying that they want Mind, Body and Soul for different groups, LGBTQ, (for example) their community may want to have one.

It (is going to be) connecting community to what’s happening in state government, so that is probably for the first year, and then it’s growing this office to see how it will sit, what it will look like in state government. As I had a vision, you still have to listen to the people. That’s why this listening time is so important because I want to hear from the people to see what meets their needs and that just is so important.

MP: How do we get from talk to action when it comes to equity? What strategies can be successful to achieve the equity goals you set?

SB: I think we’re doing that. I think that that Mind, Body and Soul was a strategy. That’s an action point. You’re bringing people together, you are having conversations, you’re educating, you’re also saying, ‘Here’s what you need to know.’ I think we are in a space of getting to that point of action. Even right now looking at all of the spaces of where equity did show up in our legislative process so I’m building that list right now to be able to say, here’s where equity did show up.