Cheryl Youakim is a paraprofessional in St. Louis Park and member of Education Minnesota-Support Personnel Assisting and Reaching Kids (SPARK) local union. She is in her third term, representing Hopkins and House District 46B. Ahead of the legislative session, Youakim talked with the Minnesota Educator about being an ESP member and a legislator.
Minnesota Educator: How long have you worked in education?
Cheryl Youakim: I had started volunteering in schools in 2003 when my kids were little. Then I started working in schools and was a substitute para and early childhood assistant. I decided to run for city council and worked as a legislative assistant, but I was also on the Hopkins Legislative Action Coalition pushing for school funding. In 2014, I decided to run for the House. I won, but it gave me an opportunity to find a job for the other half of the year and I wanted to get back into the classroom.
My first job was as a paraprofessional at Hopkins High School. Then I worked as an early childhood special ed para. Now I work in St. Louis Park Schools with special education students.
Minnesota Educator: How do you use that experience in your legislative work?
Youakim: It’s been absolutely invaluable to me to be in the classroom and have that experience when I craft policy. It gives me a great insight into the opportunities and challenges in our schools as I am crafting legislation and as we discuss other bills. I can tap into the experience of people on the front lines.
Minnesota Educator: As an educator, what does it mean for you to chair the Education Policy Committee?
Youakim: My first four years I served on a variety committees. After nine years on city council, I wanted to stay in that city government realm. My husband has been a teacher, so we talk a lot about education at home and I wanted a learn more about other areas.
After 2018, Speaker Hortman asked me if I wanted to chair the Ed Policy and I said absolutely. I’m also on the Ed Finance Committee.
We only have so many spots on the education committees, but I always tell new legislators that you better be talking about education on all your committees. Education affects everything from transportation to taxes. The more we have the lens of our children on all our committees, the better off we’ll be.
Minnesota Educator: What would you say to educators, especially ESPs, as to why politics is a part of their jobs?
Youakim: Politics is how we make our communities a better place. Whether it be joining a union, supporting a school board candidate who shares your views, or joining your school or city commission, we always need your voice at the table talking about kids.
Minnesota Educator: What can people look for this session?
Youakim: I’ve been talking with people on my committee as we prepare for session. We will be looking at mental health and safety in our schools, looking at the opportunity gap, and looking at our school community as a whole, including training for paras.