Interview: Meet Minneapolis’s First Autistic School Board Member
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Being the first autistic director on the Minneapolis School Board is no easy feat. Throughout the years, the board has had a diverse array of members, including Black, Latino, Asian, Muslim, LGBTQ, and even the country’s first elected Somali official. Peggy Flanagan, the board’s first Native American director, is now the lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
However, Sonya Emerick has achieved a unique milestone by becoming the board’s first autistic director after being elected in November. It is believed that Emerick is only the second autistic school board member in the United States, and one of four transgender individuals elected to a school board in 2022.
Emerick, aged 41 and transgender, decided to run for the board after struggling to obtain basic instruction for their son Foxy during the pandemic. Foxy, who is homebound and relies on assistive and augmentative technology for communication, received in-home therapies but did not receive the mandated hours of interaction with a teacher for kindergarten and now first grade as outlined in his Individualized Education Program. This resistance sparked Emerick’s unique campaign, which ultimately led to their election.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
According to the law, children with disabilities who cannot leave their homes are entitled to the same free and appropriate public education as other students. However, your experience trying to obtain support for Foxy tells a different story.
My younger child, who is currently 7, has been a student in the Minneapolis Public Schools system since the age of 2, when he first started receiving special education services. Initially, my experiences advocating for him were challenging but generally positive. However, as he grew older, advocating became more difficult, especially with the additional challenges posed by the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the city of Minneapolis. Everyone, including myself, had to advocate more intensely for themselves and their families.
In the case of my child, due to the nature and complexity of his disabilities, he essentially stopped receiving the educational services outlined in his Individualized Education Program, services that he is legally entitled to. As a parent, I exercised my rights under the law by engaging in alternative dispute resolution to collaboratively address the delivery of my child’s education.
I dedicated a whole year of hard work, attending 40 hours of Individualized Education Program meetings, in an attempt to resolve this issue. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach a resolution. While my direct interactions with the Individualized Education Program team were not completely conflict-free, the true obstacles to fulfilling my child’s fundamental educational needs were rooted in systemic issues that surpassed the scope of the team’s authority.
I was left with two choices: to pursue litigation against the district or to seek a platform where I could address systemic problems and barriers. I chose the latter. Litigating in the field of special education demands significant amounts of time and financial resources. It also takes a tremendous emotional toll on families, even if the outcome is positive. Most often, the outcome only benefits one child. I believed that I could make a greater impact by taking action on a larger scale, and that is why I decided to run for the school board.
Additionally, there is another layer to this issue. Ableism, a systemic form of oppression, has a profoundly dehumanizing effect. As a disabled parent with two disabled children, advocating within the school system for one of my kids has led to traumatic experiences. Using the term "traumatic" is not an exaggeration. I endure trauma as a disabled person navigating these systems and as a parent witnessing my child facing this oppression.
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During an IEP meeting, a special education director made a comment about my child being difficult to engage. I had to interject and explain that if my child is having trouble engaging in their education, then that’s a problem with the instruction, not with my child. My child is actually very engaged. The way we talk about disabled kids needs to change, as it is often overlooked. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t spoken up. I think about the times when I have stayed silent, and I realize that as a white, English-speaking person with expertise, I possess certain privileges that others trying to navigate these systems may not have.
I have seen some incredible videos that you created for Foxy’s teachers. What motivated you to start doing that?
I actually created a website where I upload videos and images of him, and as part of his IEP, the district agreed that this website can be used as an official evaluation tool. I do this because I don’t always trust that traditional methods capture everything. The evidence I upload onto the website is used to determine the services he receives.
Foxy has been able to read since the age of 3, despite being non-speaking and having communication difficulties. He can even type out entire books like "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and use proper punctuation and spacing. However, when he was 5, I was told that academic goals didn’t need to be included in his IEP because focusing on basic self-care skills was enough. They believed that investing in his academic instruction wasn’t worth it, so they only focused on teaching him life skills like washing his hands or picking up toys.
So you changed people’s perception of him?
I’m not sure if I did. The advocacy has been effective with educators, as they can see what he is capable of and adjust their instruction accordingly. However, it hasn’t had a significant impact on higher-level decision makers. Sometimes it feels like showing off a party trick rather than creating real change. It’s frustrating to put so much effort into advocacy and see little results. As a parent, there’s only so much I can do to make the system meet my child’s needs.
When the idea of running for office first came up, did you have a moment of realization?
No, not really. My initial reaction was actually shame. I couldn’t believe that I, someone who is autistic with other disabilities, who struggled in school and didn’t go to college, who had failed in various career paths and lived in poverty for decades, would think that I could run for office. I’ve never been told that this kind of opportunity was for someone like me. So my initial experience wasn’t a moment of realization, but rather a painful realization of how foolish I felt for even considering it.
You ran a non-traditional campaign, yet you attribute its unique aspects to your success.
Filing to run was easy, just a simple one-page form and a $20 fee. But actually running a campaign was completely new to me. I had never been involved in electoral politics before. I had been a community organizer and activist, but campaigning was uncharted territory. My involvement in electoral politics was limited to voting.
As far as I know, there is currently no comprehensive disability support system for individuals with autism in the country. This system should focus on addressing adaptive support needs, which are essential for many autistic individuals. These needs are often overlooked and can be easily concealed by individuals who strive to appear "typical".
While autistic individuals are capable of doing many things, they also face limitations. Personally, I am only able to accomplish two out of ten tasks today. For the remaining eight tasks, I have to seek assistance from others due to limitations in my processing power and the need for ample rest and recovery. Assessing these limitations can be challenging.
A strategy that worked well for me was to engage in an activity, evaluate its effectiveness, and then determine the next step. We planned our week accordingly, deciding to engage in activities such as phone-banking or attending events. However, it was difficult to gauge how many events and hours per day I could manage. The uncertainty made it challenging as an autistic person.
I discovered that door-knocking was not feasible for me, which posed a challenge as a candidate. Tasks such as climbing stairs or walking on inclines presented risks of falling or losing balance. Additionally, approaching a stranger’s door and initiating a conversation was overwhelming, as I didn’t know who I would be speaking to or how they would react. Trying to deliver an effective elevator pitch was beyond my social communication abilities, causing even more uncertainty.
However, I excelled at attending community events and engaging with people in that setting. Approaching individuals, handing them campaign literature, and conversing with them was effortless for me. Little coordination was required as I simply walked around a parking lot or a designated area. In comparison, during an hour of door-knocking, I would interact with only ten people on a good day. Yet, at an event, I could converse with 100 people within the same timeframe. As a result, I made an effort to attend as many events as possible and even managed to participate in eight events over a weekend.
At one point, it was suggested that we hire a social media person. However, considering our limited budget, I didn’t prioritize this expense. Instead, I devised a plan where volunteers could take on different roles. We needed someone to create a calendar, design graphics, compose text, and handle posting. I wondered if it was feasible to find four volunteers, each willing to contribute to one aspect of the task. Surprisingly, not only did we find three volunteers for the other roles, but we also received positive feedback. This approach provided more opportunities for people to get involved with the campaign. For instance, one person who was unable to attend events or engage in door-knocking was still able to help by scheduling social media posts late at night.
Throughout the campaign, I realized that door-knocking was problematic for me, but I discovered a passion for engaging with voters at events. By offering various volunteer opportunities that didn’t require a specific time or place, we successfully recruited almost 100 volunteers by the end of the campaign. This number excludes individuals who attended meet-and-greet events or displayed yard signs in support of our campaign.
When I reflect on special education, I believe it is essential to provide differentiated opportunities so that everyone can participate regardless of their abilities. It is crucial to create avenues for anyone who wishes to contribute to be able to do so. These ideas were influenced by the principles of the Disability Justice Movement and the goal of dismantling white supremacy culture.
We often repeated the saying: "The means is the work." This emphasized that the process itself is where the true work lies.
However, it is important to acknowledge that initially, we did not prioritize these principles or our own needs.
I suffered from impostor syndrome, constantly fearing that the people investing their valuable resources in me would discover that I wasn’t who they believed me to be. However, what I eventually realized was that I didn’t truly know myself. I saw myself as unworthy, only capable of putting on a mask to convince others of my value and skills. However, they saw me as someone who could truly contribute to the role I was in, and they were correct.
Their unwavering belief in me helped me find confidence in myself. I underwent a transformative experience because a group of individuals chose to believe in me wholeheartedly and consistently, regardless of my actions. Even on days when my symptoms flared up and I couldn’t get out of bed or when I made mistakes, they still had faith in me.
Once I experienced what it felt like to be believed in for the first time in my life, I realized that every student in our district, and beyond, needs to have this experience. Imagine the impact if all students could have an unshakable belief in their own goodness, worth, and abilities. This belief wouldn’t be conditional on their behavior in school, test scores, or assignments, but rather on the fact that they deserve to be believed in simply because they exist.
Many disabled individuals have experienced the belief that they are incapable, and this belief becomes ingrained in our self-perception. Similarly, there are numerous children, including those with disabilities and others for different reasons, who are taught that they are not worthy of belief. We often discuss the belief gap in relation to racism, which is certainly valid. Children of color, particularly Black and Indigenous children, are often not believed in simply because of their identities.
Consider the inseparable connection between ableism and racism. One doesn’t need to be disabled to experience ableism. It is a set of beliefs that certain bodies and minds are inherently more valuable than others. We make decisions about which children are capable of learning to read, who are worth investing in academically, and who deserve support to remain in the classroom even on difficult days. This is ableism.
I could spend hours discussing this topic, as well as the impact it has on the parent-child relationship. However, before we delve further into that, I’m curious about your thoughts on the matter.
I appreciate your inquiry. During the majority of my campaign, I didn’t anticipate winning. To keep pushing forward, I had to consider our goals beyond just winning. I had mentally prepared myself for the aftermath if I didn’t win, but I hadn’t prepared for the possibility of actually winning.
In that moment, I reached out to the person who had been my strongest supporter in terms of disability and access. I expressed my feelings of loneliness and uncertainty, as I had previously relied on an entire team to support me on a daily basis. Now, that chapter was over, and I was becoming a school board director solely responsible for my own actions. As a disabled individual, I will always require significant support to utilize my considerable strengths. I didn’t believe I could handle it all on my own.
She responded, "Who said you have to do this alone? You needed a high level of support during your campaign, and nobody expected that to change once you were elected. There’s no magic that suddenly makes you independent."
There’s a saying I appreciate, although I’m unsure of its origin. It goes something like this: "If you feel like you’re walking in circles, look down, because you’re probably moving on a spiral. You may appear to be in the same place, but you’ve actually progressed to a new level." I often find that my life reflects this sentiment.
In order to enhance my cognitive functioning and effectively process information in meetings or situations that require a lot of executive thinking, I have found that sitting on a yoga ball and engaging in continuous rhythmic movement is beneficial. By using a yoga ball behind the podium, it provides support for my processing abilities, allowing me to fully integrate the information, participate in discussions, and give effective presentations while remaining fully present.
When I became a member of the board, one of my first actions was to acquire a yoga ball specifically for use during board meetings. I have already brought it to the district headquarters, knowing that it will be essential for me. However, there may be instances where I need a break during a meeting, or if I require someone to repeat something to me. It is uncertain whether these needs will arise, but if they do, it is important for us to have a conversation to determine how to address them. Since these needs are experiential and cannot be anticipated fully in advance, it will be an adventure to navigate and figure out the appropriate solutions.
I want to emphasize that I do not expect everyone to follow this practice, but I believe there is value in people choosing to do so openly. Disabled individuals are often expected to remain invisible within society. Institutionalization has historically removed disabled people from mainstream society with the intention of keeping us out of sight. If I cannot be a visibly disabled person and still hold a position as a school board director, then I am being excluded. It does not serve me any good to conceal my disability and the way it shapes my thought processes.
My hope is that by being a visibly disabled person behind the podium, children who receive special education services will have an example of what kind of life they can aspire to. Additionally, I hope that caregivers and educators of students receiving special education services will be able to gain insights into the future that they need to prepare their children for by observing a visibly disabled person in a position of leadership.