Shannon Nordby: At Home on Leech Lake and Roosevelt High School.

10168093_10152378534258033_6780100279175478209_nMy mom was born on Leech lake. She spoke only Ojibwe until she was five. She was put in foster care, and grew up in various places between the Reservation and Minneapolis. I was born in Minneapolis and I have lived on the south side my whole life.

I grew up a block from Barton, where I went to school, where my kids go to school, where, as a parent, I am still very involved.

As a kid I loved exploring outside. I was into rocks at a very young age. One of my favorite things to do when I was really little, before I could go anywhere on my own, was to look at the stucco of the houses on my block. We lived near Lake Harriet. There was so much nature there. There was a great big hill near my house and all us kids used to play there together without adult supervision. We felt very safe.

My dad used to take me rock hunting at a gravel pit near Osseo, when that area was still country. (It’s a first ring suburb now). I loved the baked smell of the biosphere. You don’t get that in the city. We searched for agates. My dad said I had eagle eyes for agates. That always made me feel good. He is the one who got me interested in science.

Dad is a house painter, in his 70s now and still working. He says “motion is lotion.” He knows if he stops he won’t start again. He grew up on 36th and Garfield. His mother was a union activist in the servers union at a fancy hotel down town and his father worked in an adding machine company. Dad went to Central high school. He was in the Painter’s union when he was younger.

My mom was a media specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools until she got hit by a car. I got the call on the first day of school during my second year of teaching. She quit after that.

I grew up with one brother — five years younger than me. About four years ago I found out I have another brother. My mothers first child. He was adopted when my mom was in her early 20s. I have never met him. I want to, but we need to buy haircuts, food, a car. I don’t have any money for the trip right now.

K-12 Schooling, and Finding my People in Uptown.

I went to Barton school from kindergarten to 3rd grade. I was lucky to have Mrs. Finch as a teacher. She was African American. She was very kind. To have an African American teacher was life changing. I had had all white ladies up until that time —- I grew up in privilege — not a lot of diversity — she was really supportive. She knew what life is really like. A lot of people loved Mrs Finch.

Then I went to North Wind Warriors —- a district-wide program for Indian kids in 4 and 5th grade held inside the Seward and then Lyndale schools. I had Mrs. Roberson. She was not a good teacher. One time she was reading a story I got in trouble for closing my eyes and imagining instead of looking at the pictures. They picked us up on little buses. I felt no stigma about those buses. They were cool. I knew we had a special class — we did not mix with the school.

I went back to Barton 6-8 grade. After being crushed by Mrs. Roberson for being creative, I was now instructed to be think on my own. Barton was now an “Open” school, but they had yet to figure out how to guide student’s in the open program. I had a hard time. The principal thought I was selling drugs. I didn’t even know what drugs were.

I went to Regina Catholic school in St.Joan of Arc for one year, and then to Southwest. I didn’t take high school seriously. I could have done better if someone was looking out for me.
I started to get in trouble in Uptown — hanging out with skin heads and punks. Anti Racist Action (ARA) — that was my group. We hung out— we did political stuff too — went to rallies. My boyfriend did more than I did, but that was still my crowd. Among those friends at Southwest I was the only one to graduate from high school.
My identity was formed by anti-racist, punk Uptown. I was not punk myself and I wasn’t a skin head, but that was where I wanted to be — where I found interesting people and I could be myself. I did not fit in Southwest. I fit in with the misfits in Uptown. We all still know each other. Some of their kids have gone to Roosevelt. They are still my connections.

But once I got to college I did not go back. That is when Uptown changed — there was a new library, the greenway, gentrification.

I went to St. Thomas University because I was accepted there. That was another place where there weren’t people of color. I don’t claim to be a Tommy. I had a job, went to college parties, but mostly it was a waste.

I knew I wanted to study science. I thought about pre-med, but I did not like how drugs were being developed. My Plant Biology professor, Chester Wilson accepted me for who I was. We did interesting experiments in his class. I got a Life Science degree and a teaching license in Life Science education. I can teach biology, 9th grade physical science and middle school science.

Idle No More, Native Lives Matter, Leech Lake Council.

I have four children. Avery (14) and Aneila (12) and Biiwan (6) and Tyr (2). When I had three kids and a car and I was able to get involved in a lot of things: Idle No More, my teachers union and the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council.

Idle No More was formed in Canada — four women saying we are not going to sit back any more. The movement moved to the U.S. A big part of it was round dancing. If you had a rally you had a round dance, if you shut down traffic you had a round dance. Round dances make community. Everyone holds hands and is looking at each other, having fun and making friends.

No one recruited me to INM. I went on my own, made my own flyers. It broke down because of personalities. People wanting to take ownership over what was going on. The same thing happened to Native Lives Matter.

The person I had best time organizing with was JR Bobick. He is open to other people’s  opinions and brings people into the work. You go hang out with him and he is so positive. We organized together with Idle No More when there was an oil spill in MN. We went to the company headquarters downtown and round danced there on the mall, sang some great songs. We also connected with Save the Kids, organized by Anthony Nocella — until he moved away.

After that we formed our own local chapter of  Native Lives Matter, to mourn and organize against police brutality and missing/ murdered Native woman. I got out of it when I was pregnant with my fourth child. I also wanted to get away from all the drama — especially around people’s native identity, criticizing people for not being Native enough.

A big issue that has arisen recently is how heroin is killing our people. My students tell me how they are involved in Natives Against Heroin. I would love to be involved with them. Maybe when my youngest baby is in day care…..

I became the secretary of the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council nine months ago. We have monthly meetings to open communication links between Leech Lake and the tribal members in the Twin Cites. I write the minutes — keep us going. There is a dichotomy between Indigenous people having an oral tradition versus me writing everything down. What I am doing is making sure people who are not there know what is going on. Increasing communication. We talk about heroin —how it is affecting kids, the education our kids need, supporting our elders. All of the work is really political. It is hard to keep out the jealously and ego stuff in order to get stuff done.

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About six years ago  I started a Facebook group for all staff of Minneapolis Public Schools — a place to organize. The union president saw that and asked me to run for secretary of MFT executive board in 2012. I won. I really enjoyed my two-year term — getting involved in how our union works.

Our new union president Michelle Weiss is working on “leveling out our union — so there is less hierarchy. I just said yes to being the assistant steward in my building and running for the MFT executive board. It is an important time to be doing union work. Minnesota is in danger of becoming a Right to Work state. That would be devastating for our union. Fewer members, less clout. People who are not in the union can’t vote on the contract. That is just the beginning of how it would affect us.

Teaching.

I teach urban farming right now at Roosevelt High School. I’m teaching the kids the basics of sustainability. I tell them this is the most important class they will ever take; learning to grow their own food. They hate it when I tell them that.

The food surprises them. They say “I didn’t know cherry tomatoes were so small…” There is no standardized test that goes with my course. That gives me freedom to design my own curriculum. We can go outside. I love the plants. I am learning and teaching indigenous farming. I am signing up for great conferences.

I need to get a car first though..

Its fun, because the kids tell me the school is like a prison — they hate the seating chart, the time limitations. They don’t want to be there…

Does anyone like high school? I just want to be a positive force in their lives, empowering them in anyway I can.

These days, instead of being so involved in social movements outside of work, I am taking it into school. I am planning a Native club. We will have eight meetings a year. I got someone to donate Tanka Bars and Leech Lake is donating wild rice.
I never thought I would love teaching as much as I do this year. In addition to Urban Farming I teach a class with RISE, for 12th grade kids who are in danger of not graduating. I love that as well. I can use positivity to help kids get through, so they can move on to the dreams they have, for after school.

I had a kid yesterday who got his diploma. He came down to see me. We were both so happy.

My principal is great. He supports my course and is excited that I am teaching it. He wants the students to have a voice. He understands we need to deal with white supremacy. After Philando Castile was murdered, he brought it up in a school meeting. He said “I know this makes you uncomfortable..”

I told him “For some of us, bringing it up makes us more comfortable.”

As a white man he has no idea what we go through as people of color and Indigenous people, but he opened the door. He wants to hear how it affects the school. This is different from other places I have taught where the principal did not want to hear it.

But I’m grateful for all my experiences, even those dysfunctional times at other schools. I learned from them. All the work I’ve done inside and outside of work, Leech Lake, Native Lives Matter, I can now use in my classrooms at Roosevelt.

The job I have now is not for first year teachers.

I’m living a good Ojibwa life. I want the best for everyone else. I hope my ego will not be called into question in breaking movements down. We Ojibwe have our Seven Teachings. One of them is humility. I strive for that.

These days when I’m done with work, I stay home with the kids and husband and the house and the dog and the cooking and the dishes and the laundry. The thing I need now is time —to do all this work, and watch the plants grow.

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Minneapolis Project. 

Racism and the Labor Movement. From $15Now to Philando Castile. Which Side Are We On? An historical view.

IMG_1656 4 On July 19, 2016, educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention marched through downtown Minneapolis shouting “Black Lives matter”, “Justice for Philando,” and “We want justice, we want peace, in our schools and in the streets.” Leaders of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations sat in the street in their union colors as an act of civil disobedience aimed at local banks that fund prisons over schools, and local police that brutalize and even kill communities of color with impunity.

The Police Federations of St Paul and Minneapolis were quick to chastise the teachers for showing a lack of solidarity with their union brothers and sisters in blue.

This schism in the labor movement is nothing new. From its early years the labor movement moved along two opposing paths, capitulating to racist divide and conquer tactics of the bosses, or organizing against them.
One of the first victories of the nascent labor movement was a major capitulation. As the primary proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,  labor committed it’s original sin —  criminalizing  brethren paid the least, using racism as a tool.  It is a sin echoed over the decades, crystalized in the cry THEY  take OUR jobs. 

It is a sin we continue to commit  when we allow immigrant workers  to be criminalized, dehumanized, denied citizenship and basic human rights. Today  there are union leaders in SEIU and UFCW, among others — who are championing immigrants and undocumented workers. In nearly every local ,when it comes to immigration, there is an opportunity for workers to decide which side they are on.

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In that same era that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Ku Klux Klan had its first major success when it divided and conquered tenant farmers, sharecroppers and cotton textile workers who had organized unions made up of Black and White workers in the South. Some White people, like the Georgian Tom Watson, actually went from leadership in  biracial labor movements to leadership in the Klan— so great was the victory for southern factory bosses and the old plantation elite.

In the early 1900s the still new American Federation of Labor set about organizing “skilled” white, male, workers into separate trades.  The Industrial Workers of the World on the other hand, flourished by doing the opposite — uplifting those on the bottom of the pay scale and organizing women and non-whites –which at the time included workers now considered white. (The race idea, made up by elites, proved so flexible, so divorced from science, that it could turn a person white over night, or vice versa.)

IWW members were no less prone to bigotry than their AFL siblings, but they had that motto, an injury to one is injury to all.  In the 21st century that sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul Wellstone We all do better when we all do better.  

In the first half of the 20th century, some workers of color formed their own unions– Black sleeping car porters, left out of the white train conductors brotherhood, and Latina Pecan Shellers in Texas and New Mexico. Likewise today some workers of color, are organizing outside of the AFL-CIO. Some, like CTUL in Minneapolis, have since been embraced by the union federations they out-organized.

In the 1930s The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) left out farm workers and domestic workers at a time when opportunities for African Americans and Latino workers were limited to jobs as maids, janitors, garbage pick-up and farm work. Unfortunately some leaders of the AFL helped to make sure those workers remained unorganized, and helped keep the unionized plant door closed to people of color.

In the 1960s — the Teamsters — that beloved union that made Minneapolis a union town in the 30s — showed up in the fields in Northern California where Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were struggling to bring farmworkers into the AFL-CIO fold. Instead of picket signs and solidarity banners the Teamsters brought billy clubs, to beat up the striking workers.

Likewise, today some union members are protecting their fellow members when they commit race crimes. The Police unions are the worst, the most egregious, but they are also the canary in the coal mine — forcing us to look at how unions can operate as white clubs, keeping people of color out.  This labor activist Cathy Jones’ recent experience is indicative of an attitude we must fight:

On the day that Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, people gathered at the Minnesota Governor’s mansion in St. Paul. One of those who spent that first night in front of the Mansion was Cathy, a postal worker  who recently helped organize People of Color Union Members, (POCUM) through the Minneapolis AFL-CIO. Cathy  called in sick and and filed her day off as an emergency. When she came back to work management had approved her absence. The next day her Union steward told her she might be in trouble with management since she was on the news.

“He did not realize management had already approved my absence”Cathy told me. “The union was trying to get me in trouble because they don’t like Black Lives Matter and my work with the movement. In this instance, thank goodness the union doesn’t have the authority to discipline. Only management can do that. I’m glad my employer had my back.”

Cathy’s experience is shameful and indicative. We need a principles to guide us as union members that don’t allow a union brother to do that to a union sister; that don’t allow a union to cover up the high crimes and daily harassments of people of color, be they union members, or the public we serve as workers.

And we need to look at our solidarity. Are we out there for those who are most oppressed, singing their song? The fast food workers — predominantly workers of color, are demanding $15 minimum wage. It is time for the rest of the labor movement to follow their lead. In Minneapolis right now that means pressuring City council DFLers who have or seek union backing, to allow the voters to vote on a $15 minimum wage for the city, or pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance for the city. No council person who rejects the petitions of thousands,  (and the sweat equity of  dozens of labor activists to collect them) should receive a union federation endorsement.

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To paraphrase the old  miners union anthem: Which side Are We On?