Bruce Drewlow. From Northern Minnesota to North Minneapolis, the Education of an Educator.

img_1536In the Twin Cities I met my partner Carl in 1985. He worked in the florist industry. Our circle of friends were dying right and left. AIDs was still not understood — still called the gay cancer. At gay gatherings today there are very few men my age. My age group died out during the aids crisis.

Growing Up in Rural Conservative Religious Family.

I am a farm boy from outside of Barnesville in Northwestern Minnesota. We had dairy cows, hogs, sheep, chickens. I have four older siblings. When I was five my father gave me a sheep, “for my college education.” I was to keep the proceeds from its off-spring for my tuition. What does a five year old name their sheep? Mary, or course. Mary had little lambs — triplets every year — which is unusual. We kept the females, sold the males and sold the wool. All the proceeds went into my college fund. So I knew at the age of five I was going to college. They didn’t have money to send me, but they showed me a way.

We didn’t raise sugar beets, but our neighbors did, and so there were migrant workers in our community who came up every summer. I saw how they were treated. They were housed in 8 by 10 rooms with no running water or electricity; buildings meant for animals! I remember driving by and hollering out “Hola!” I wanted a connection, but that was the only word in Spanish I knew. I saw whole families working the field. I think that’s where my passion for social justice began.

I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, one of the most conservative branches of the church. Our town church was founded by my parents and twelve other families. Prior to that they went to a Missouri Synod church my grandparents founded. So yes, added pressure. We were in church early every Sunday, in the same pew.

Coming out as gay was not an option.

Rural Activism

I went off to college on my sheep money, to Moorhead State. In college I met these gentlemen from Ethiopia who were looking for someone that had sheep, — they liked the meat. I brought them home to meet my mother. We slaughtered the sheep and they told my mother — who had never traveled more than 90 miles from where she grew up — about their lives. “Their skin is kind of dark!” she said. But she was fascinated to learn about them. After that I made it a practice to bring different friends home to expand her horizons.

While I was in college an electric company began building a power line from coal fields in North Dakota to the Twin Cities. Farmers I knew in Northwestern Minnesota objected to the line crossing their land. I joined the campaign to halt the line, working with the young Carleton College professor Paul Wellstone.

I majored in education. After taking a Black Studies class I decided to minor in African American studies. That instructor had such a huge impact on my thinking. He brought us to Minneapolis and we went to call-and-response churches. It changed me. I don’t remember his name. I have been trying to figure out who he was to tell him. He was arrested half way through the quarter, incarcerated and forced to resign at the end of the term.

I got my first teaching job at an elementary school in Marshall, Minnesota, while working on my Master’s degree in Education at Morris. A parent of one of my students suggested she and I and another friend create a non-profit together to facilitate grassroots leadership and address the economic crisis in rural Minnesota. Family farms were going out of business, schools were consolidating and rural towns were dying in the 1980s.

We called ourselves Community Quest. We didn’t pay ourselves anything. We all had full time jobs. Our logo was the geese flying. You know the head goose only flies for a while before taking it’s place at the back of the V and then the next one moves forward? That was our model for transformational leadership.

We found money to bring welfare mothers in Marshall to the state legislature to testify about issues affecting them.

We fought the public utilities commission to keep those costs down for rural people.

We did farm mediation training to help farmers collaborate to save their farms and fight the banks. That was the time of the Artichoke Scam. Farmers had been talked into growing jerusalem artichokes when there was no market for it. The sellers made a killing on the fraud. Artichokes are like weeds. Once you plant them they take over your land. Farmers planted hundreds and hundred of acres of these artichokes and then the market crashed.

Alaska

We went to a national conference on grassroots leadership in Washington D.C. There I met a gentleman from Alaska. We exchanged contact information. A few months later I got this call “Would you like to do teacher training in Alaska?” I said I’d like to think about it. He said “You have until Friday to decide. I’ll book your flight.” So that is how I came to do math training workshops for elementary teachers, across the state of Alaska.

The first day of the workshop I hid in the bathroom during a break and listened to what people were saying. I heard

“The presenter is really good but he is not using enough artifacts that our students will be able to relate to.”
So at lunch time I went out and bought local things. I came back and said “ You know I realize this morning thaI was not using enough local examples. It is important to make connections to students’ cultures so they can relate to your stories.” I was learning from my mistakes about the importance of culturally relevant teaching.

After that I taught second grade in Marshall, Minnesota. I had eight special ed students with emotional behavior disorders. For some reason the EBT kids had an affinity for me — they saw me as a calming personality. I liked them too, but they drained me. One morning toward the end of the year the secretary paged me. “Bruce you have a long distance phone call.”

I thought it was a family emergency so I left my class to take the call. It was the University of Morris.They said “We have a one-year position. We contacted professors at the U and your name came up on eight of the nine lists as someone we should ask, so we’d like you to come for an interview.“

College Teaching, School Administration, and a stint with the Demons.

I had never thought about teaching at the college level, but I was exhausted. It had been a rough year. I took the one-year position at Morris. I liked it. It was more flexible, less draining. You are impacting education in a different way. I helped form a student leadership group, continuing my activism outside the classroom.

At the end of the year I saw an ad for a position at Augsburg in Minneapolis. They were starting a master’s program in Educational Leadership. I had the background in both. I was offered the job.

At Augsburg I was asked to join the advisory board of the Hans Christian Andersen School — the training sight for designing multi-cultural, gender-fair, disability-aware curriculum. I was on their board for ten years. I also became a Humphrey fellow at the U.

I enjoyed my time at Augsburg, but private colleges don’t pay well. My students were graduating and making more than I was. I got a job in Maplewood as a teacher but before the school year began they had a resignation in the district.

They made me coordinator of “Diversity” and the K-12 gifted program. Later they piled on other roles: ELL, homeless/highly mobile and special needs.

I trained teachers in cultural competence and recruited teachers of color. I learned about the wall created by budget cuts and tenure that makes it difficult to keep new teachers of color — The last hired are the first laid off. So I was recruiting teachers of color and trying to create a support network — and then they were laid off.

I think there is a way to deal with that by giving teacher specific roles that make them immune to the budget-cutting. I see this problem diminishing in urban schools as White teachers retire. Young white teachers who are not prepared to teach in an urban setting are leaving the district, creating openings for teachers of color.

Another barrier is the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examination. Many students are afraid to take it. Others struggle to pass it. We have a new test that began this September that I’m hoping will be better than the old Minnesota test which was clearly biased against students of color. The math section is supposed to be easier….

Since I was the diversity coordinator, a high school student came to me when he wanted to start a GSA — Gay/Straight Alliance. We worked on a proposal that would not get shot down. His Principal would want to know objectives, outcomes, target audience, budget. We put it all together. I said, “Now go meet with the Principal.” He said “I thought YOU were going to meet with him” I said “No, this will be much more powerful coming from you.“ The Principal was positive but had more questions. We made sure he had answers.

After facilitating GSAs in the high schools, I worked with this student to create a training program for teachers district-wide on how to create safe zones for GLBT students. This student knew some graduates who were gay. We invited them to come back and tell of their experiences being gay in the Maplewood school district. Their stories brought the teachers to tears and made them realize something needed to be done.

The Maplewood school superintendent asked me to apply for a principal position they had open. I wasn’t excited about the idea. I spent the whole day meeting with each teacher. I told them I feel like our parents asked us to go to the prom. Let’s spend the day finding out if we want to dance together.” I worked as a principal for six years. My sixth year I had a kindergarten student who kicked his pregnant teacher and the baby died. It hit me hard. I felt responsible because I put him in her classroom.

For a short while I went to work for the Demons — Pearson Testing corporation. I wanted to know the back story of how the tests were developed and scored. I found math questions where a correct answer — chosen by 10% of students — was scored as wrong. They moved me to reading and writing. Under Common Core, students have to read three articles and write a persuasive essay. They had one about Zebra mussels. I said “I predict that half the students will be writing about the muscles on Zebras.” As it turned out, 60% of the answers were about muscles on Zebras.

Chipotle and ICE

After that I thought about opening a Bed and Breakfast but I needed income right away. Someone told me Chipotle was hiring. I became a Chipotle manager without a day of kitchen or chef experience.

All of my employees were undocumented. All of them. Chipotle gave us a black light to check to to see if employee’s papers were doctored. That was when I became aware of the need for drivers licenses for undocumented people. My employees would get pulled over on their way to work. I stayed there for 18 months and then saw the handwriting on the wall. ICE was attacking different states where Chipotle had employees. I resigned a week before 1500 Chipotle employees in Minnesota were fired — including all the employees in my store.

I had developed friendships with workers and other managers — many of whom were undocumented too. They were kept on until they could train in the new employees and then they were summarily fired. I wrote letter of support for my new friends fighting for green cards and citizenship. A few were gay men. After Marriage Equality, they contacted me to be best man and write letters to help them get their papers.

My Coming Out Process

My friend Joe says “Bruce is gay but it doesn’t define him.”

Growing up in a conservative church in a rural town in the 1960s and early 70s, I did not have the opportunity to come out as gay. We had bible passages to memorize. It wasn’t something you could even think about, if that makes sense. I was very active in extra curricular activities — music, plays. I had a close knit group of about ten friends who were focused on academics. We studied together. That was my social life.

Then I went off to college and discovered — Oh! There are other people like me! There were no gay student organizations, but I was involved in a traveling musical group — we went different places. I still more experimenting than actually coming out.

As a teacher in Marshall, Minnesota in the 1980s it was not an option to be out at work, but there I met other gay people and was able to come out within the Marshall gay community. We would visit Sioux Falls, which had some gay bars.

In the Twin Cities I met my partner Carl in 1985. He worked in the florist industry. Our circle of friends were dying right and left. AIDs was still not understood — still called the gay cancer. At gay gatherings today there are very few men my age. My age group died out during the aids crisis.

Augsburg was not a workplace where I could be out either. The Lavender Magazine was banned from campus. Early 1990s. When I went out to any of the clubs I worried about somebody at Augsburg seeing me. I could lose my job. So my personal and work lives were separate. I had never socialized with my work mates, for my personal safety.

When I got job at the Maplewood school district my partner was diagnosed with cancer. The staff was very supportive. When he passed away I came in to say that I would be taking off for a few days because Carl died. I was allowed family leave time which was not in the contract at all. All of the secretaries and staff came to the funeral and administrators came to the visitation. That felt really different.

I have not come out to any of my family. My partner, when he was alive, came to family events. They saw him as my roommate. Even when we lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment, it still didn’t dawn on them. My sister now knows. She found out when she came to Carl’s funeral and the priest talked about what a wonderful partner he had been. I have not talked to family because I am not sure how they would react. I am at the age where It doesn’t matter if they are accepting or not. I host the family holidays for those who live down here. I was very close to my mom, even though I was never out to her. We talked on the phone every Saturday at 8pm from the time I went off to college until she died last year.

I have a family that I was born into and a family that I have chosen. I tell my students who are dealing with difficult families and pasts that don’t represent who they are today. “Sometimes you have to just put that stuff in a suitcase and leave it at a bus stop. You don’t need it.”

I did not leave the Lutheran Church. I am a member of Central Lutheran in downtown. It was not an open congregation for a long time. When ELCA had their convention here and decided to allow gay ministry, tornado lighting struck the cross of our church. Those who were anti -gay said, “See! God does not approve!” Central Lutheran held a vote at one time about being an open congregation. It lost by two votes. A lot of gay members left. I did not. The religious piece is grounding to me. When I don’t attend Church I feel a void. Luckily Central Lutheran has evolved. It is an open congregation now. The president of the church council is a friend of mine who is openly gay.

Living and Advocating on the North Side

For years I lived downtown. I was involved in neighborhood politics. Joan Grow was the parliamentarian in my neighborhood group. I decided I wanted to live in a real neighborhood where I could work on social justice issues I was passionate about on a grassroots level. I decided to move to Near North twelve years ago.
I have been adopted as “Dad” by two African American men who live on the North side. Neither have parents alive.

My youngest has never know his father. His mother and sister have died.  One day I went to pick him up at his manufacturing job in Crystal. While waiting for him I was stopped because I fit the description of someone they were looking for in the nearby apartment building. Five minutes later when my son got in the car, we are pulled over because he “fit the description….”.

My oldest son was picked up while walking to a doctors’ appointment at North Point clinic. He was detained for six hours. Only later was he told he “fit the description” of a robbery suspect. He is 5 foot 8 and has short cropped hair. The person they were looking for was six foot two with dreads.

My son DT lost a job when they found out he had a minor drug offense some time along the way.

Inspired by my sons’ experiences, my passion the last few years has been working on the Justice for All campaign with Take Action Minnesota on Ban the Box — eliminating the question on application forms “ Have you ever been convicted of a felon. ” and Restore the Vote — extending voter’s rights to former felons.

We won on Ban the Box, two legislative sessions ago. Our strategy was to get 120 people with records to apply for jobs at Target just before the Thanksgiving rush. They all had to check the box and none got interviews. One woman had a record that had been expunged. She got an interview but when they did a deep background check, they denied her the job.

The head of Target was head of the Chamber of Commerce at that time. Once we put pressure on them, they were the ones who got it through the legislature. They are also taking the issue nationwide. We met with Target’s legal team, lobbied them to hire younger people to work at their warehouses.

My oldest son and I went to the Governor’s Mansion after Philando Castile was killed and we were there when the governor came out. I know governor Dayton a little bit, so I pulled him aside after he spoke and said “I want you to meet my son and have a conversation about his experiences.”

I have white friends that I worked with on the Hans Christian Anderson Multicultural Learning program who have said, “We are against the Black Lives Matter shutting down the freeway, the airport or the Mall.”

I said to them “Let’s step back a minute. So, someone was inconvenienced and had to sit in traffic for an hour or two. How many Black lives have been inconvenienced for more than an hour?”

They said “We never thought about it from that perspective” I was like, “You folks have been involved in this work for 30 years and you hadn’t thought about it from that point of view?!

They said “I guess we need to keep in touch with you because you help us reframe things.”

That is what it’s all about. Seeing things from other people’s point of view.”

A Master’s Degree in Homelessness. 

Five years ago I began teaching at Metro State University in the Urban Education Program. One day on my way to class I got a call from a young man I’d met in North Minneapolis, wanting to know if anyone was living in my basement.

“My girlfriend doesn’t want to go to the shelter because she wanted the whole family to stay together. Can we stay spend a night or two — maybe a week at your place?”

I told him I was on my way to class. I’d talk to him after I found a parking place. In the parking lot I took out my notes for the day to see what I would be talking about. “Keeping homeless families connected to the school system.”

[Bruce points up, indicating he got the celestial message.] I called him back and said “Sure.”

So mom and dad and six kids turned up at my doorstep. My basement has a bathroom but otherwise it isn’t finished. I found blankets and rugs for them to sleep on. We shared kitchen facilities. One day turned into a week, two weeks, three weeks, turned into a month and a month turned into three and a half months.

The mother was a cook in the St. Paul schools so the kids were able to get meals. She didn’t want to let the school system know she was homeless so at first they would all leave the house at 6:45 AM to catch the 19 downtown, to the light rail, and then separate buses to their schools. Finally I convinced her to let them know they were homeless/highly mobile. Then I had school vans began showing up at all hours of the morning and evening to take the kids to school.
With my experience coordinating the Homeless Program, I thought I knew about homelessness, but during those 15 weeks I earned a Masters degree. How do you contact housing or employers if you don’t have a cell phone that works, or one with limited minutes? You might have money to pay rent but not enough to pay first months and last months and a security deposit.

The second night they were with me I asked the kids, “What did you learn in school today?” They had the typical kid response: Nothing. I told them at Coach B’s house “nothing” is not an acceptable answer. So then every night they would line up and tell me what they learned that day. One day I was getting supper together and they all came and stood there behind me.

I said What? What do you want?

They said “You forgot to ask us what we learned!”

I asked them about their homework. They said “We don’t have homework— we’re homeless.” I shook my head “At my house you are not homeless. If you don’t have homework you can read a book.” I pointed them to my huge library of children’s literature.

They finally found a place. I was relieved. It became exhausting for me, trying to be supportive but keeping my own space too. I was paying to heat an unheated basement and providing laundry. When you are homeless you don’t have many clothes. They did laundry all the time. Six kids and two adults….

Taking stock.

I have lived a life. I have so many stories to tell my Metro State students. I always ask them, “Which hat do you want me to wear when I address your question — the teacher hat, the principal hat, the professor, hat? Then I tell them, “My goal is not to answer your questions but to raise more questions.”

I am blessed to be still in contact with my Augsburg students and Metro graduates. They call for teaching advice. It feels good to be connected even twenty years later. I am passionate about teaching but I am at the point where I can retire. People have asked if I would run for school board and I said ‘No!” but will be involved in education in someway. My Somali students want me to donate my books to start a library in Mogadishu. I have about 2,000 volumes. That would be a large library in Somalia. I’ll continue working on voter restoration. It impacts my community on the North side.

When my partner died of cancer, it was before we had Marriage Equality. He put his hospital bills on a credit card. When he died I realized it was good we were not married. When the creditors came calling they couldn’t hit me up. My sons have health care issues. When I retire and lose my health care package, I will too. Universal health care is another issue I’ll work on.

I have been having a party once a year where I invite people from all the different parts of my life. Due to popular demand it’s become a twice-a-year event. So many different circles coming together.

No matter what circle I’m in, I perceive my role as empowering others to become advocates for themselves. The question is what tools do they need and can I provide those tools.

My advice? Carry an activist back pack or a tool box with you at all times.

Leave a Reply