From the archives: Mauri Friestleben on being a "wounded healer"

Mauri Friestleben stands in front of Lucy Craft Laney Community School in 2016. She recently announced that she will leave the school to be the new principal of North High School this year.  Photo by Kenzie O’Keefe

Mauri Friestleben stands in front of Lucy Craft Laney Community School in 2016. She recently announced that she will leave the school to be the new principal of North High School this year. Photo by Kenzie O’Keefe

Mauri Friestleben has been a leader at Lucy Craft Laney Community School for nearly a decade; most of those years she served as principal. On Friday, Aug. 2, she announced that she would be leaving Lucy Laney to take over as principal of North High School for the 2019-20 school year. On the Lucy Laney Facebook page, she wrote that the driving force behind her decision to lead at North High is her desire “to help provide a strong, healthy high school experience” for Lucy Laney graduates like her daughter who will be a freshman at North High this year.

Awareness of Friestleben’s skills as a principal was raised this spring when a documentary about her leadership at Lucy Laney premiered at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. “She was absolutely unflinching and honest with the children in a way that blew me away. I thought she had such a powerful voice, that she was honest and raw, and I wanted to be around that and I want to learn more about her. That was part of the reason we started the work,” said Ben Garvin, one of the films directors.

Back in the summer of 2016, Friestleben (whose last name was then Melander) talked to North News about her students’ resiliency, facing her own childhood demons as an educator, and finding love with an unexpected person – a Fourth Precinct Inspector. We’ve brought that Q&A piece, which published in our June 30, 2016 paper, out of our archives for you.

By Kenzie O’Keefe Editor

You have a long history on the Northside. Tell us about it. I grew up at 33rd and Morgan. I went to Northside schools – Jenny Lind, Jordan, Lincoln. My childhood in North Minneapolis had some pretty painful pockets, and I feel that fate and destiny brought me here, just a few blocks from where I grew up, to stare back into the eyes of my childhood.

Describe your student body to us. I have about 500 students here at Laney. They’re Pre-K through fifth grade. They’re as young as four and as old as twelve. All are from North Minneapolis. We pull from Plymouth Ave. N to Dowling Ave. N, and Penn Ave. N to I-94. About 90% of our students are African American. 94% live at or below the poverty line. 87 of our students were homeless or highly mobile during the last week of school this year.

Your students experience many barriers and challenges. How do you create an effective school environment for them? It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around how you could get a school with such great concentrations of poverty and race in times that are not technically segregated. The question we have to ask ourselves here is: how do we be strong and soft with our students at the same time? If a child in a classroom is having an outburst, how do you hold that child to high standards and expectations while also having compassion for the trauma that they are trying to overcome in that moment? At Laney, we’ve cut our suspension rates in half every year for the past four years. We ended this last school year with 57 suspensions. In 2013, we ended with 427. Yet, I demand the right to suspend children. I feel strongly that there are times when you break the sanctity of your classroom so strongly that you need to be removed.

Your school’s theme this past year was “Worth the cost.” Explain that to us. As human beings we’re constantly doing cost benefit analysis. The biggest one we do is in our relationships with others. We decide whether people’s bene ts are worth their costs in order to determine whether they are worth our investment. I want to create a community where we see everyone as worth the cost.

Do you have an example of that you could share with us? We have lost a lot of parents this year. The death has been shocking. We had a mom who was run over by a car on New Year’s Eve and killed in front of her children. We had a dad who died in gun violence. We had another dad who experienced kidney failure and then died. Incident after incident, our Laney family knows that investing in the children from those families is worth the cost. When that mom was hit by a car, we received confirmation from the Fourth Precinct Inspector that she was the mother of three of our Laney children. The next day we had seven Laney staff people in that house, bringing groceries, holding hands, praying, and hugging. We stayed the whole week and filled many pews at the funeral.

How are those kids now? They are amazingly resilient. We check in, but we keep it moving and keep it going. That’s the type of educational service we provide. We are aware of signs of trauma, and we catch kids and get them back on their feet when we need to. We push, and we stop. It’s a dance. We have to be instinctive, sensitive, and constantly aware.

You mentioned the Fourth Precinct Inspector earlier. I understand you’re in a romantic relationship with Michael Friestleben, who is currently on leave from the position. Yes! I am head over heels in love in a way that I never would have expected. I met him after he called the school to let us know of a potential threat happening near the school. He stopped by the building after the threat was resolved. That made me pause – no Inspector had ever shown that care about the school like that before. A lot of time passed between that initial meeting and us getting together. We developed a very strong professional and then personal rapport. We had a lot of mutual respect for each other, and we both have a heart for the Northside. I realized that we have a lot in common. Every day he amazes me with his intelligence, his courage, his honesty, and his love for the Northside, for people, and for children.

You’ve said that your kids are experiencing more than an achievement gap – a “life” gap. What do you mean by that? If you look at the state of Minnesota, the Native and African American communities experience the achievement gap and many other gaps most obviously. We have housing gaps, employment gaps, nutrition gaps, health gaps; there is a plethora of areas we could point to. The gap doesn’t begin when you’re five – we don’t have white and black children walking into kindergarten at the same starting point. To look at the doorstep of a school and isolate out an achievement gap as though there ar- en’t other gaps is a disservice. We have deep rooted issues happening here in our society, and they are evident in all of these gaps. We are facing a life gap, and it is going to take much more than a certain type of reading curriculum to fix it.

How could the larger community better support you and your students? If I had a magic wand, I’d change how we define academic success for children. I’d open our eyes and ears to everything that children bring beyond standardized test scores. Children who that tool was created for perform well. Children who it was not created for don’t. Nationally and locally there seems to be an awareness that the tools that the standards are measured by are not in the favor of African and Native American children in particular. Yet we continue to use them.

Is there hope? What has to happen? I believe that good can outweigh bad. I believe that people with pure hearts can overcome. I choose to focus. I keep my urgency high, and I choose to believe that change is possible.

Talk to us about self care. How do you stay emotionally afloat amidst the trauma and ongoing violence? Right now I feel like I could sleep for about a week straight. Sometimes I need to cry it out. I’ve had people tell me that I’m too close for my own emotional well being. Coming back to the Northside in the first place was a risky thing for me to do emotionally. There were times in my life that I couldn’t drive down Lowry or couldn’t be off Penn Ave. N and Dowling Ave. N. Memories would hit me so strongly that I would be paralyzed. I knew when I found out that I was assigned to Lucy Laney that this was my time to face my demons and pain from my childhood experiences. I’ve heard people talk about being wounded healers – people who had been wounded by experiences but those wounds put them in a prime position to support people who are in a similar spot. I knew I couldn’t come in here with a “you poor babies” attitude. I knew my message to my students had to be that I made it. It was gritty and hard at times, but I made it, and they will too. Someday they’ll be sophomores in college, and we’ll meet at Starbucks and share stories of overcoming. We will be empowered, victorious overcomers together.

Kenzie O'Keefe