Tracine Asberry flashes a huge smile, then answers a question with a question:
“How do you think I got these teeth?”
The question was why the impending new school board member for southwest Minneapolis has been unable to garner the endorsement of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers after 10 years as a dues-paying member of that union.
Her perfect teeth come courtesy of braces paid for by the United Auto Workers dental program. Her father was a 30-year UAW member on the night shift in Ford’s River Rouge plant. She said she understands how union membership can help reshape economic fortunes as it did for her family, one with roots in the sharecropping South.
The sole candidate for the district seat said the question of lack of union support is one the union ought to answer. The federation endorsed Alex Phung, who vied with Asberry and two others last spring for DFL endorsement but later dropped out.
Union President Lynn Nordgren said it picked the Cargill lawyer over the former teacher and union member because Phung’s Asian background would add to a board that racially represents nearly all the major students populations in the district. She denied that the union is snubbing Asberry. That’s despite the union mistakenly listing her as endorsed on its web site this month until a reporter inquired. Nordgren also said the union doesn’t revisit endorsements if its first endorsee doesn’t run, although in 2008 it did just that in endorsing Chris Stewart.
Although the DFL eventually endorsed Asberry when she was the only candidate to file after dominating a deadlocked party endorsing convention, the union didn’t budge. One clue may be that Asberry told a spring voter forum that she didn’t know whether she would have voted for the pending union contract, a contrast to three other candidates who said they would.
That lack of endorsement means that she’ll become the first southwest district representative on the board without owing the union anything. That potentially swells the pool of board members willing to buck the union on contract issues to at least three of nine, and possibly four of nine members.
Asberry said she starting to think about how to expand her influence on schools even as she was finishing her doctorate in 2009. After 10 years as a middle school teacher at W. Harry Davis Academy, she’d taken a leave and a Bush fellowship, just as that school was closing, to study critical pedagogy and family involvement in schools.
She began teaching as an adjunct at several local teachers colleges while also administering the African-American Academy for Accelerated Learning, which does black cultural heritage education outside of schools.
Her prime goal for her district is addressing burgeoning class sizes, in a district of the city in which mainly white student enrollment is swelling. She said she wants to understand why dollars flowing to popular schools don’t pay for smaller classes. She said big classes inhibit the ability of teachers to spend time with both high- and low-achieving students.
But Asberry is also hoping to use her board seat to bolster the district’s parent involvement efforts, an area where lots of talk about engaging the community on school issues has so far produced only wheel-spinning. She studied the topic for her dissertation, focusing mainly on low-income women and how to incorporate their voices in schools even when lack of transportation or work conflicts kept them from traditional parent participation like going to a meeting.
That grew out of her Davis teaching days. Her parents sacrificed to send her to parochial schools that were better than the public schools available in Detroit, and never failed to correct her grammar, so she assumed all parents took an active role in their children’s schooling. When many parents at the high-poverty Davis didn’t, she reached out to them.
As a mother with three children, two of them old enough to go to Washburn High School and Barton Open School, she’s tried to enrich their knowledge of their cultural background. She’s taken the two oldest to Ghana, and taken the family to Detroit to expose them to their roots.
That’s much like her parents. They’d take the family home to her maternal grandparents in central Georgia, a world of cooking on a cast-iron stove, using the outhouse, and what she remembers most fondly, rocking on the shaded porch to hear the family stories of struggle and activism that often morphed into family singing or her grandfather playing spoons.
“That’s when I first learned to sing from my soul,” she said. Those are the stories she wants to pass on to her children, she said, along with the stories of parents not currently engaged in their schools.