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MSSA Exec. Dir. Christina Zeise talks about the issue that should “take your breath away”

Christina Zeise
Christina Zeise

Christina Zeise has only been on the Board of the Minnesota Children’s Alliance (the Alliance) for a few months, but she already knows where to focus her energy. “It’s the intersection between social work and public policy that excites me the most about working with the Alliance,” she said. That is a busy intersection, made up of her work as Executive Director of the Minnesota Social Service Association (MSSA), an undergraduate and graduate degree in Social Work and Public Policy, plus being a working mother of two young children.

“From my experience with MSSA and being able to work with child protection workers, financial workers, human services professionals, and the Alliance bringing a diverse perspective from prosecutors, law enforcement, medical providers, and other multidisciplinary team members, I hope we can keep bringing everyone together to advocate on issues,” said Zeise.

The diversity of the Alliance matters. As Zeise points out, “At MSSA we have really been looking at disparities related to race. When you look at Minnesota as a whole – and as CBS just covered in a recent story – Minnesota is second worst in the nation for racial disparities.” Wisconsin ranked last, and neighboring Illinois, Iowa, and the Dakotas also rank poorly. These disparities come up in home ownership, income, and educational achievement.

“You can see this inequality in our Health and Human Services programs,” said Zeise. “What really caught my attention two years ago was our out-of-home placement rate.” Child psychologists agree removing a child from a home and family is the worst outcome for children and should be used as a measure of last resort. The psychological damage of removing a child from a home is long-lasting. Zeise continues, “The rate we placed African American children out-of-home were significantly higher than overall numbers. Native American children were placed at an even higher jaw-dropping rate. That should take your breath away.”

Zeise started working with her team on ways to move forward. Earlier this year Alliance Executive Director Marcia Milliken met Zeise through Milliken’s work on the MSSA Legislative Committee. “If we can find ways for MSSA and the Alliance to come out on the other side and be respectful and have the same goals and make progress, that’s a win-win for Minnesota, our organizations, and for others looking to take big stances here and nationally,” she says. “Together we’ve both been interested in this and we’re both having hard conversations about how to move this issue forward. There’s some overlap in our efforts, and that’s a good thing,” says Zeise.

The hard conversations Zeise mentions intersect at another location in her personal life with her two children. The mother of a first and third grader, she says those hard conversations trickle down to them, too. “When my kids come home from school I ask them to tell me about what they learned that day. When they’re talking about Columbus Day, for instance, they tell me what they learned. It’s up to me to give them the other historical context. We have to talk about respecting and appreciating their community.” She adds, “It makes them stronger people. They’re going to be better people and keep this movement going as they get older.”

“It makes them stronger people. They’re going to be better people and keep this movement going as they get older.”

As Zeise further settles into her role with the Alliance she is leaning on her experiences working with nonprofits in the past. “There are issues common among every board involving engagement and understanding,” she said. “If I can bring something to bridge the mission, board, and staff, I will.”

Zeise also believes everyone can become more involved in child and family advocacy issues. “A lot of people think they need to meet with their Senator and Representative every day, have a plan, and hold community meetings. That’s part of it,” she said, adding, “But people have kids and day jobs. That’s not realistic. What is being realistic is taking the time to educate yourself and have conversations with your neighbors, at your church, and with your family. If you’re having conversations, that’s a simple way of being an advocate. It can be that simple.”