Women with a Vision for the Big Picture

Nisha Botchwey

The new Hubert H. Humphrey School dean believes the only way up this hill is together.

Years before she became dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, it was clear that Nisha Botchwey would someday become an indomitable woman.

After her family immigrated from Jamaica to South Florida, she spent her childhood exploring her small world—biking until the streetlights came on at dusk. Botchwey had an insatiable curiosity, she says, “about everything; the how and why of things working, but also, ‘How can it work better?’” Those questions stuck with her through graduating as valedictorian of her high school class to studying public policy at Harvard and then to pursuing a master’s and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

After eight years as an assistant and associate professor at the University of Virginia, Botchwey became the associate dean for academic programs at Georgia Tech. Now,  as the first Black woman and immigrant to be dean of the Humphrey School, she is mindful of the legacy of Hubert Humphrey.

There’s one Humphrey quote she especially likes: “The road to freedom, here and everywhere, begins in the classroom.” It’s Botchwey’s truth.

“That’s what motivates me,” she says. “It’s moved me from being a professor in front of 30 students to running the Humphrey School, where we can create these human rights leaders that are going to advance our society in ways that benefit people who are not always seated at the table.”

And she understands that it can’t be done alone. Botchwey  lives by a phrase that comes from the Swahili word Ubuntu: “I am, because we are”—that she is part of a broader society is essential to the work she does and the life she lives.

“When I think about my journey as a mom, as a daughter, a sister, it’s about knowing I’m capable. I can persevere to the top of the hill,” she says—whether it’s staying up late to help her son with algebra or coaching her daughter through elections for student government or watching her other son practice guitar for the school talent show. “Even though I want to sleep, I can persevere because it allows them to get to the top of that hill with my hand at their back and coast downhill, and they can take the next hill better on their own.” —C.M.

Peggy Flanagan

Minnesota’s lieutenant governor—the first Native woman to hold the office in the country—sees a Minnesota where everyone has a seat at the table.

“My grandma was big into political campaigns before a lot of women really were welcome in them. She worked for Hubert Humphrey. I remember her saying, ‘Peggy, I don’t care who you marry, Black, white, Protestant, Jewish—as long as they’re a Democrat.’ I was like, ‘Grandma, I’m 4 years old!’

“I just always knew to be at the table. No decision about us without us. When I was a senior in college, I was driving past the Paul Wellstone office and thought, ‘I like him. I’m going to go in there and see what’s going on.’ And the trajectory of my life changed. I got involved doing Indigenous community outreach, and I remember people saying, ‘Don’t bother; those people don’t vote.’ I thought, ‘I am those people. I am Native. I vote. My mother and grandmother vote.’

“[My 9-year-old daughter] is going to be a Native girl growing up in Minnesota, and the world she steps into has to be as safe and fair as we can make it. I’m so happy she’s growing up in a world with real representation. Auntie Deb [Haaland] is secretary of the interior. Auntie Sharice [Davids] is in Congress. Auntie Jamie [Becker-Finn] is chair of the Minnesota Judiciary Committee.

“Every day, I wake up in a system that was not created for and by us and was created, in many ways, to eliminate us as Native people. It’s our right and our job to be in the spaces and places where decisions are being made about us, then hold open the door so the next generation can get in too. My daughter gets to live in a world where it’s normal to have a Native woman as lieutenant governor.” —D.M.G.

Tonya Allen

The McKnight foundation president knows that sometimes the only way to change your community is to change the world.

As president of the McKnight Foundation, Tonya Allen leads a diverse team in supporting the community through grants that go to a clean-energy economy, global food systems, artists and culture bearers, and innovative neuroscience research. Outspoken about racial inequity, in her first year at McKnight, Allen helped lead the charges to rebuild invaluable Twin Cities neighborhoods and small businesses that were struck by civil unrest and for the foundation to commit to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its $3 billion endowment by 2050. —C.M. 

Shari Ballard

How do you move from the well-appointed confines of the Best Buy C-suite to the professional soccer pitch? Bend it like Ballard.

Shari Ballard spent more than two decades rising from store operations manager in Flint, Michigan, all the way up to an executive position at Best Buy before ditching the corporate world to become the chief executive officer of the Minnesota United Football Club last year. To Ballard, a lifelong sports lover with a competitive spirit who’s also a dedicated community advocate, going from exec of a retail giant to chief exec of a pro soccer club really isn’t a huge change.

“I felt pretty confident that the experiences I had would be applicable to the club,” she says. “Every leadership job, at the core, is a people job. You’re trying to build a team environment where people truly believe that those around them have gifts that they themselves don’t, and you’re trying to create this one-plus-one-equals-three equation, where you’re trying to make the whole of what you do better than what any of us could do alone.”

As the club grows, so do Ballard’s goals.

“Our ambition is to win a cup and to be a winning club on and off the field,” she says. “So, on the sporting side of things, yeah, endeavoring to win [a Major League Soccer] championship keeps us going. But the community aspect of what the club does, we get to see the impact of that on a daily basis.”

MNUFC’s community focus—from an unforgettable in-stadium fan experience to the multitude of ways players and club staffers volunteer with local nonprofits—helped Ballard fall in love with the club well before she became CEO. And under her leadership, those initiatives have increased. The club now staffs two full-time community outreach employees instead of just one. And during All-Star Game week, staffers and players packed 100,000 meals for Twin Citians facing food insecurity and helped build soccer fields in neighborhoods with none.

To Ballard, leading a club that improves the Twin Cities is better than winning matches or cups—because in her mind, great leaders don’t stop serving when they’re at the top. In fact, for Ballard, that’s where they really begin.

“The person who gave me the best advice was Brad Anderson, who was CEO of Best Buy for a really long time,” she says. “Essentially it was to get very, very clear on who and what it is that you’re serving. Make sure it’s something outside of yourself. And then get ready for the world to test you nonstop on how much you really mean what you say.”

It’s a test she’s clearly had no problem passing. —M.B.

Kate Nordstrum

The executive and artistic director of The Great Northern Festival and founder and director of Liquid Music knows how to get to Carnegie Hall.

“If people don’t know Liquid Music, we do things like Sun Dogs, which is film and composer pairings—the filmmakers and composers working together to create a new film paired with live orchestra accompaniment. Liquid Music has commissioned and produced so many new projects that went on to the major stages of the world—Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, London’s Barbican Center.

“The pieces are born and launched here because my artist relationships are so strong, and also because Minnesota is such fertile ground for creative innovation. There’s such support for risk-taking. People here just really get that new work is important in a way that maybe other places get but aren’t ready to support. When I connected [with Justin Vernon of] Bon Iver [for our 2018 work Come Through] and Ashwini Ramaswamy [of Ragamala Dance for our 2019 work Let the Crows Come], the question was, ‘How can you build something from the ground up that’s supportive and new and collaborative, where everyone wants to work together?’ [Let the Crows Come] premiered here [in Saint Paul, then] made its way to the Baryshnikov Arts Center and got a rave review in The New York Times—that’s Minnesota on the world stage, and it’s very gratifying.

“For my work at Great Northern, the question is, ‘How can we get people to travel to Minnesota for 10 days, January 26 through February 5, for our five categories of programming: music and performance, food and beverage, public art, ideas programming like climate solution talks, and outdoor activities?’ I think it’s already given a lot of people who live here the chance to reexamine our lives. To see how winter provides us with creative benefits, time to work, time to go deep inside and create, and of course that color of winter that we all know, but maybe took for granted.

Last year, Jovan C. Speller and Andy DuCett created an incredible piece—a greenhouse encased in ice in a St. Paul alley, filled with black plants and dark-hued plants. Such a moving experience to be in there thinking about thriving Black lives in a cold and inhospitable world. Speller is an amazing artist, but The Great Northern gave her a chance for her to build with a budget bigger than she’d worked with before. Big things come out of big opportunities.

“What drives me? I want to support incredible voices and get messages out and change hearts and minds and move us all—but I don’t think any of this happens if I myself wasn’t nurtured by our shared incredible place.” —D.M.G.

Zaynab Mohamed

What had you accomplished by the time you were 25? Come November, Zaynab Mohamed’s list will be substantial.

This November, Zaynab Mohamed made Minnesota history—and on more than one count. The DFL-endorsed Gen Z community organizer, Somali immigrant, and working-class renter won her state senate race in District 63, becoming the first Black woman, first Muslim woman, and—at 25—youngest woman ever to be a Minnesota state senator.

“People will always tell you to wait your turn,” Mohamed says. “That you’re too young, that in a few years you’re gonna be so much better. No. You know when it’s your time.”

Mohamed’s family immigrated to Minneapolis from Somalia when she was 9. As a kid, she translated for her parents at Immigration Services, helped them pay bills, and read each piece of mail out loud, watching them navigate the challenging day-to-day of their new life in the U.S. Accordingly, as a senator-elect, she’s less interested in political flash points than in making everyday life easier.

“Obviously there’re bigger political issues of democracy, public safety, and abortion,” Mohamed says. “But I got in [to politics] because I care about the everyday systems people use that aren’t accessible. How do we make those affordable and easier for people?”

When she’s not campaigning, Mohamed stays busy. She hangs with friends at the Stone Arch Bridge and goes to the movies. And she’s learning to skateboard.

She looks ahead with both excitement and solemnity. In August, Mohamed won her primary with 68 percent of the vote. And she did it the old-fashioned way—knocking on more than 15,000 doors, attending block parties, and pulling up to the picket lines with teachers and nurses. (Labor rights are another key issue for her.) When elected, she’ll take the baton from another state senate pioneer, Minnesota’s first Latina senator, Patricia Torres Ray, who is retiring.

“It’s exciting, because there have been so many young women who’ve reached out to me across the world,” Mohamed says. “But I wish there were five other people who look like me there so when I go in there’s a group of us. But the beauty is that we keep the door open. There’ll be more of us coming.” —J.J.

Gloria Perez

She spent her childhood navigating poverty with her single mom by her side. Now, she fights to make sure others don’t have to do the same.

Gloria Perez, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, has spent nearly her entire career fighting poverty and advocating for women and kids. In a way, Perez has become the very person she needed when she was younger. She grew up in a low-income neighborhood in San Antonio, looking up to her dad, a social worker, who dedicated his life to helping his community members.

“And then he died when I was 10,” Perez says. “My mom really struggled—both financially and socially, emotionally.”

Her family became just like the families her dad had worked to aid and protect. Knowing she wanted to spend her life lifting others out of these struggles, Perez volunteered during college at Macalester and eventually became the founding executive director of the Jeremiah Program, where she advocated for families like hers for years. She took her current gig running the Women’s Foundation in 2020—a challenging but fortuitous time to begin such a role.

“We recognized we couldn’t keep doing business as usual,” she says. “When we invest in these nonprofits, they’re investing in women and girls and gender-expansive people, which, to me, feels like we can be a catalyst for change as a foundation.”

The foundation is currently in the early stages of a comprehensive campaign to drive investment into gender and racial equity—something Perez is incredibly proud of and feels the bulk of her personal and professional life has led to.

“My father was very intentional about wanting to make sure I found my life’s purpose,” she says. “Those were his dying words to me: that God had a plan for me, and my job is to figure out what that is.”

Figure it out she certainly did.  —M.B.

Tammi Kromenaker

Just as quickly as North Dakota tried to outlaw abortion, the director of the Red River Women’s Clinic moved it to the other side of the river.

Tammi Kromenaker is the director of the Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion clinic in North Dakota. That is, it was—until August, when North Dakota officially moved to ban abortions (although, at press time, that trigger ban was delayed indefinitely) and Red River officially moved out of North Dakota—to Moorhead, just a few minutes over the state line.

And it was a move Kromenaker, who had worked in Fargo clinics her entire career, never wanted to make. But she knew her team didn’t have a choice if they wanted to continue providing care to their massive patient base.

“The next-closest clinic is in Minneapolis–St. Paul,” she says, noting that South Dakota now doesn’t have a single abortion clinic. “To the west, the next one is in Billings, Montana.”

Kromenaker knew it was possible that the 1973 court decision would eventually be overturned, so she quietly began looking for a building in Moorhead—just five minutes away—last fall. When the decision was leaked in May, she sped up the process.

“I bought our Moorhead building on June 23, and then Roe was overturned on June 24,” she says.

Starting a GoFundMe never crossed her mind until a supporter called on June 23 and offered to run one.

“I was just like, ‘Sure, why not?’” Kromenaker says. “So, she set up the GoFundMe that morning, we signed the paperwork for the new building, and the next morning, Roe v. Wade was overturned.”

Since then, the fund has reached over $1 million, mostly earmarked for building repairs, equipment replacements, and the mortgage itself. Eventually, Kromenaker hopes to expand the new space to include a wellness center and telehealth options.

“I still haven’t quite come to terms with it,” she says of the GoFundMe’s success. “I think, for a lot of people who felt powerless after Roe was overturned, it was a way for them to take action. I haven’t even had a chance to think about those long-term goals, but at least the doors are opening rather than closing.”

Because through it all—the years of fighting laws and politicians in North Dakota, the nearly million-dollar move, the 17-hour workdays that have made it all possible—closing never crossed her mind. —M.B.

Winona LaDuke

Never giving up the fight for the future of Earth.

It has been a challenging year for Winona LaDuke. Her organization Honor the Earth was unable to stop the Canadian fossil fuel conglomerate Enbridge from completing its Line 3 replacement despite LaDuke’s best efforts, among them spending three days in Aitkin County Jail after being arrested during a protest.

“I grieve what has happened,” she says. “And I’m angry that I am facing charges and Enbridge has no charges.”

But she’s celebrated some big wins too. Both the White Earth Land Recovery Project— the nonprofit she founded in 1989 aiming to regain lands taken from the Anishinaabeg over the centuries—and Honor the Earth—the environmental justice org she founded with the Indigo Girls in 1993—keep on growing, with more than 50 staff members between them.

“I have never managed something this big,” she says. “We’re growing, and I want new leadership because the bad guys are still out there, and we need new people to challenge the bad guys.”

She says she’s spending most of her time planting and cultivating hemp on the six farms near Ponsford the Recovery Project manages around the southeast corner of the reservation.

“I feel like I want to write the blueprint for Minnesota’s solutions,” she says. “And now that I’m 63, I should.”

The WELRP recently purchased 160 acres from the R.D. Offutt Company, a massive local potato farmer, and is converting the acreage into a hemp farm.

“We’re supposed to grow hemp because it bioremediates and sequesters carbon,” she says. “And you can make all of the things that you make out of plastic out of hemp.”

This work is drawing young people from all over the region who are just learning organic farming.

“I do my share of planting,” she says. “I can’t say I do my share of weeding.”

She’s been telling the young leaders this work attracts to do good, to look into their hearts to find their passion, and to always look for solutions. “Don’t be all about what’s wrong,” she says. “Be about what’s right, right?” That doesn’t mean LaDuke is completely averse to throwing the occasional rhetorical stone, though. “I’ve spent a lot of my life fighting stupid ideas of white men,” she says. “Whoops, did I just say that?”

She rattles off some of the most recent, and enduring: “Pipeline, power plant, just dumb ideas, just wrong,” she says. “Now, I love young men—the Creator has blessed me with so many grandsons in my house—but I believe that you need a steadying hand of women’s leadership so that all that testosterone doesn’t keep them doing dumb stuff.” —S. Marsh

Heather Kim

An artist whose work is intrinsically connected to the human body, Heather Kim is an outspoken organizer with a deep cache of influential friends to help fight for the causes she holds dear.

This past summer, Heather Kim, artist and owner of Lucky Cat Collective, cohosted a reproductive rights potluck with her pal Christina Nguyen at Nguyen’s restaurant Hai Hai. The event raised nearly $100,000 for abortion rights organizations.

“It’s exhausting to think about all the things going wrong,” Kim says. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Fuck it.’ But I’m really grateful to Just the Pill, which helped me focus my energies to raise money for their truck, which will head out to the border and help women in other states.”

Not surprising to hear from a woman whose tattoo appointments are some of the hardest in the city to get, unless you’re a breast cancer survivor—Kim makes mastectomy tattoos a priority. —S. March

Rochelle Cox

Rochelle Cox, the interim superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, has been with the district for a quarter century. Her current role being “interim” doesn’t make it any less high-stakes as she seeks to right the ship after a tumultuous couple of years that have included the pandemic, a district-wide reorganization, and a teacher strike.

“The reason I got into teaching was my uncle Ronnie. He had a terrible fever when he was 4, then a stroke and cerebral palsy, and he lived with my grandparents almost his whole life. Schools wouldn’t take him, but I made worksheets for him, I sat with him, I watched the incredible community of support around him, my grandparents’ friends, neighbors, church, all the love for him and for those caring for him. That’s what made me want that for every child everywhere.

“I’m proud of the mental health supports we’ve brought in for every child in Minneapolis. I’m proud of the way we’ve been able to change the way Black children on the Northside were getting referrals for emotional and behavioral disorder evaluations at rates five times that of white children.

“The road to getting MPS to be a destination everyone can be proud of? It’s going to take a lot of leadership. I’m excited that thousands of new and returning families have enrolled for this year. We’ve been going out to community events, not just sitting in a booth but in MPS shirts meeting as many people as we can. I met a little girl; she said, ‘I’m nervous about going into that building.’ I said, ‘I will walk you into that school. I will be right by your side.’ That’s what my uncle Ronnie had, a community right at his side. Are we there yet? No. Do I think we can get there? Yes.” —D.M.G.

Sharon McMahon

When misinformation started clouding people’s understanding of how democracy actually works, Sharon McMahon went into teacher mode and began educating the nation, one Instagram follower at a time.

A former high school government teacher from Duluth has the attention of millions of people looking for clarity, and maybe comfort, about our democracy. Armed with a viral Instagram account (@sharonsaysso), a podcast, and a group of subscribers she calls “governerds,” McMahon dissects and explains misinformation to deliver facts in a nonpartisan way.

“Democracy is in peril because people don’t know what it is,” she says.

Maybe it’s her “powerful golden retriever energy #pgre,” but people are engaged. Recently, she and her governerds raised and distributed more than $1.2 million for teachers in three weeks. —S. March

Susan Bass Roberts

She believes One of the most visionary things a philanthropic organization can do is listen to the community it serves.

The two years since George Floyd’s murder have been transformative for the Pohlad Family Foundation, which for the first time is sharing power. “We know that there’s a history of philanthropies thinking, ‘We know best,’” says executive director Susan Bass Roberts. “We reject that. The community knows what they need. We are here to support their direction and their strategies first.”

By engaging with those on the ground doing the work, the foundation’s Racial Justice Grants Committee has been led to focus on Black homeownership. —S. March

Andrea Jenkins

Minneapolis City Council president Andrea Jenkins is the councilperson for the ward where George Floyd was murdered. Her intersectional identities—a Black trans woman, a mother, a grandmother, a poet, and a former social worker—make her uniquely well-suited for the tall task ahead.

“Today I feel like I’m between two competing ideas. One is a desire for normalcy, public safety, a return to peacefulness. The other is a righteous call for justice. But we must have both. Each is a condition for the other. Trying to accomplish those two things at this dramatic inflection point has been enormously challenging, but it’s work that has to be done, and while I don’t ever know how well I’m doing it, I’m willing to step into the space and do the work.

“In 2022, I have really been trying to live the values expressed by Dr. Cornel West, who said, ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’ I sign all my emails, ‘Love, Andrea.’ Even the ones responding to the angriest, nastiest letters you can imagine.

“There’s a lot of hate in our community right now. Where we are is growing pains, labor pains—we’re birthing a baby. People wonder why babies cry all the time: It’s painful to grow up. Those bones, those teeth, they hurt coming in—but you can’t grow up unless you go through it. So, you love and hold on.” —D.M.G.

Em Cassel

When City Pages shuttered, its first female editor In Chief took a leap to co-create Racket, an outlet imbued with genuine indie spirit.

“It was scary in the beginning. Asking people to buy into your vision, literally, can be stressful. We understood that it was very possible that we’d launch this thing and people would be like, ‘No, we’re good.’

“There were things we weren’t proud of when we were [at City Pages]. Paying low rates to freelancers, that didn’t feel good. Taking ad dollars from places that didn’t feel right. So, it’s been very empowering to be owners/editors.” —S. March

Tammy Kimbler

The former General Mills employee is saving the world one miracle grain at a time.

Tammy Kimbler, director of communications for The Land Institute, knows that farmers—maybe more than anyone—feel the sting of climate change.

“They see it, they feel it, and they consistently say, ‘We need more choices, we need more technical expertise, we need new systems,’” she says. “So, at the end of the day, that’s where we all meet.”

One of those new choices is Kernza, a perennial grain that Kimbler believes will change how people farm and eat. A former farm kid, Kimbler speaks to international media about it multiple times a week and sees her job as connecting the dots from the science to the consumer.

“I see this giant bubble around Kernza beer. Those people are agitators, the most grassroots of grassroots fans. They’re like the grit in the oyster,” says the onetime General Mills manager. “I will tell you every farmer that I talk to wants that connection with the consumers, and they’re just deeply unhappy with the vilification of their profession. If you can get people into a relationship, they don’t have to agree. They just have to hold space for connection.”

Kimbler’s team has doubled in the last five years to meet the demand. She’s looking at the next 10 years as a chance for The Land Institute to scale operations globally, but the truth is that the strategy has a 100-year timeline.

“One of the institute’s research hubs is run by a university in Palestine,” she says. “They’re working on ground which literally had 10,000-year-old wheat on the landscape. So, when the team plants Kernza? It escapes no one. It means something.” —S. March

Source link

Latest articles

Related articles