Public service

Pioneering Former Public Service Diversity Champions – Newsroom

St. Thomas alumnus Kelsey Dawson Walton ’02, ’09 MA likes to flash passers-by with a warm, welcoming smile.

“It’s the kind of thing that I think can sometimes be lacking in our world,” she said. “I think when you show humanity, you open doors for yourself in life.”

And some doors have opened for her that were previously closed to others. For one, she is the first African-American woman elected to the school board of the Osseo Area School District in recent years, and subsequently, she was elected president of the board.

“When I think of my children and the legacy I want to leave behind, it’s this kindness, this connection and this feeling [you get] when people feel like they can come to you and you can be a resource,” she said.

It all comes down to connectivity, which is at the heart of its approach to systems evolution. She attributes this approach to her time at the University of St. Thomas.

“It gave me a voice I didn’t have before and a path to follow,” said Dawson Walton.

In 1998, the Brooklyn Park native was part of the inaugural class of the Reaching Excellence in Academic and Leadership (REAL) program, a five-week summer academic and orientation program at St. Thomas to transition students from color freshman accepted before their freshman year. . There, she made lifelong friendships.

Majoring in political science with a minor in black cultural studies, Dawson Walton interned at the American Bar Association during the Washington semester and worked at a homeless shelter after graduation. These two experiences made him understand the need for systems-level change.

She spent a few years working for US Congressman Jim Ramstad before returning to St. Thomas for a master’s degree in public policy and leadership. The program taught her a lot about the importance of relationships and effective policy-making. Dawson Walton interned at a lobbying firm before working for a county commissioner and eventually landing in a new division of Hennepin County, building internal capacity around engagement and cultural responsiveness.

You are one of the first African-American women on the Osseo school board. What prompted you to run for the school board?

My parents always instilled in me the value of education and the importance of standing up for your child, especially if you have brown and black children. You have to be their number 1 advocate. So I was and was super involved in [my kids’] school.

One day, one of our district’s board members made some really racist statements. This piqued my interest. I was like, I have to be on the school board because I can’t let my kids or black kids be bullied by someone who’s racist.

Kelsey Dawson Walton '02 '09Liam James Doyle / St. Thomas University

You were also elected chair of the school board. Are there any challenges as an African-American leader?

Being a female leader, especially of African American/Black descent, becomes a bit isolating. He becomes lonely. You’re constantly trying to be careful not to say something that’s perceived as overly aggressive or even trying to make it all about everyone. People have many assumptions: “You only care about black kids.” And it’s like, no, I care about every child. You get locked up so easily.

What are the initiatives that have inspired you?

With the school board, I’m really excited about some of the things we’re starting.

Finally, we have representatives from the student school boards. It’s always been something I wanted to have. We want representatives from all of our high schools to have a voice at our board meetings and when things are on the agenda. It has just started.

This year, we will be launching a Legislative Action Committee within the district. I think it’s another way to involve our families, the district community and academics. We get a lot of our money from the state and as we develop our legislative platform and listen to people’s lived stories, this is probably the most impactful aspect of any legislative advocacy.

We also have our RISE committee, which is focused on parents and caregivers of color, to start telling the stories and to start advocating for the voices of our families of color and how we engage and how to address all kinds of issues, academics to accountability measures.

Hennepin County launched a new division to kick off community engagement in January 2020, shortly before it *gestured around* everything. How has the division used community engagement to serve the community?

Back then we weren’t able as a county to be in the community all the time but there was such a need to connect because two huge things were happening that were changing the whole world .

Recognizing that internally many of us in Hennepin County are employees of color, we began bringing together our cultural leaders to begin influencing when Hennepin County makes decisions to ensure the participation of diverse communities that have always been disenfranchised from the system and from decision-making. -manufacturing. And then using an approach where we would bring in people from the community and compensate them, like having a trusted messaging program where we talk to people to get feedback.

We would ask, “Here are Hennepin County’s priorities: what do you think?” What do we need during the COVID pandemic? But I would hear from our Somali leader, “Hey, that’s great information on COVID-19, but really, we need information on opioids.” There is an opioid crisis and we are losing so many young people.

So being able to pivot and say, ‘OK, Hennepin, what kind of resources do we have? How do we support and provide access to contracting? ” It is enormous.

We’re launching a new program to really make sure we have an outlet so people can easily contract with us around different engagement jobs, and we’re also developing a translation program this year.

Why is community engagement important?

This is so critical because Hennepin County tends to be like a safety net first organization on so many levels. Sometimes people are in crisis. But in a lot of our systems, there’s a huge disparity between who’s represented and who’s not represented, who’s affected. Who is disproportionately represented in our correctional system. Who is represented at any type of employment. In Minnesota at large, we know there are pervasive racial disparities in nearly every area of ​​life, housing, and more.

I think one of the things that the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic has really made clear is that the communities that have been disproportionately impacted the most expect them to have a voice in the table.

It’s not so much like, ‘OK, you tell us what you have and then we’ll find out.’ Now it’s like, ‘OK, let’s solve the problems together. We also want to be at the table. and I think the government needs to do that more.