Home February-March 2023 Olsen recognized with union’s highest honor as leadership, career continues

Olsen recognized with union’s highest honor as leadership, career continues

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Ellen Olsen, a sign language interpreter in Saint Paul, was named the 2022 Education Minnesota Peterson-Schaubach Outstanding Leadership Award winner. Olsen is the first education support professional to win the union’s highest honor.

As a member and leader within the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, Ellen Olsen (right) was on the front lines of the union’s historic strike in March 2020.

Named after the two women who led the merger of the Minnesota Education Association and Minnesota Federation of Teachers, the Peterson-Schaubach Outstanding Leadership Award is given annually to an Education Minnesota leader (local or state) who has made outstanding contributions to Education Minnesota or its locals through demonstration of Education Minnesota’s Statements of Principle. Nominations are made by Education Minnesota Governing Board members.

“There are so many places in our union that have Ellen’s fingerprints on them,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “She’s the compass that we need, and the person who is always reminding us to be better.”

Olsen has held numerous leadership positions in her local union, the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, including the director of non-licensed personnel. She has also been a member of the Education Minnesota Governing Board and served multiple terms on the National Education Association Board as an ESP Director.

“I often think of this award as going to someone at the end of their career, but I wanted to make sure Ellen is recognized now for the dedication and work she has put into this union and will continue to put into this union for a long time,” said Heather Bakke, a special education teacher in St. Peter who has sat on the governing board and NEA Board with Olsen and nominated her for the award.

“When I say I’m from Minnesota, people on the NEA Board say, ‘Oh you must know Ellen Olsen, she is just the best.’ And that’s without fail,” said Judy Rohde, a retired teacher who is active in the Retired union and NEA Board. “This is just the presence that Ellen has made.”

Olsen finds every opportunity for leadership she can, especially when she knows it is a place to advocate for ESPs who often aren’t in leadership positions. She has spent countless hours researching places and ways to learn and grow herself as an educator, union advocate and leader.

“It’s been a blessing to me to be able to do this work at the national and state and local level to help elevate education support professionals,” Olsen said.

In her work, Olsen has been an example of what being a strong ESP advocate looks like.

“Ellen has showed up and showed us what it’s like to be a leader,” said Michelle Dennard, an ESP in Osseo who has served with Olsen on the governing board and is now on the NEA Board.

Olsen has not only prioritized advocacy for ESPs, but also is a champion for racial and social justice.

“She is the epitome of that change that we want to see,” said Brenda Johnson, an ESP in Minneapolis who has served on the NEA Board with Olsen. “That new strength and leadership where we can talk about the hard questions and ask the hard questions, but then strategically plan to say, how are we going to be a better together?”

“I am always thinking about where I can have influence,” said Olsen. “What are my spheres of influence and what can we do together?”

The NEA Board has passed the safety, racial and social justice equity policy recently to make sure that racial and social justice remains a high priority of the union. Olsen was a major leader in the work and discussion at the board level and worked to make sure that resolution passed at the Representative Assembly.

Ellen Olsen’s leadership has led her to positions within her local, state and national unions. Speaking at the 2019 NEA Representative Assembly, Ellen was elected to the NEA Board, guiding policy for the nation’s largest union and bringing that work back to Minnesota and St. Paul.

“I was so impressed with how she was constantly thinking about the people who weren’t in the room,” said Bakke.

“This has been something that’s been in the making for four or five years,” said Rohde. “And Ellen was on the ground floor of getting this going. This was one of those places that one person can make a big difference and Ellen has made that big difference with this policy.”

Olsen is excited to continue her advocacy in her work in her school, working on equity issues with students. She remains committed to finding leadership roles where her influence and voice can be powerful and uplift those who aren’t in the rooms.

“Her voice is loud,” said Dennard. “And it’s the type of voice you want in the space to make sure that every person recognizes people of color.”

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