Nancy Edmonds Hanson
“As a little girl, I didn’t see people who looked like me in leadership positions,” Heather Keeler muses. “I am running as the person who I am – an individual who happens to be female, indigenous, and LGBTQ – a community activist who advocates for people like me every single day.
“If the one thing I can do is open others’ eyes to opportunity, I am in a good place.”
Heather finds herself today vying for the Minnesota Legislature – something she never dreamed of while growing up on her tribal homeland in South Dakota. An enrolled member of the the Yankton Sioux tribe with lineage to the Eastern Shoshone, she calls Lake Andes home but grew up in Fort Pierre, where her mother worked for the state.
She was drawn to Fargo-Moorhead seven years ago. Already an activist and an advocate, Heather too dived into her studies there, completing a bachelor’s degree in project management before going on to earn a master’s in educational leadership last December. Her practicum focused on educational equity talking circles. “I gained a lot more insight into what many families are feeling – new Americans, those with students who have IEPs (independent education plans), indigenous and people of color, basically people hoping for more from the school district.” She has worked with the Moorhead school district as a volunteer, offering input on barriers those families may see as plans evolve for the coming school year.
By day, Heather works at North Dakota State University, where she is the assistant director for multicultural recruitment. Her personal activism reaches even farther, including service on the school system’s human rights advisory committee and Moorhead’s Human Rights Commission (of which she is vice chair). “I wear so many hats,” she says, “but the bottom line is that I am a voice for inclusion and inclusive decision-making.”
She got a taste of that one year ago, when she led the successful effort to establish Indigenous Peoples Day. After City Council approval, the first event was held on what had been Columbus Day last October – a chance to introduce school children and the public to the role that native people have played in the region’s past and should play in its future.
“That was what launched me to realize my voice really could be heard,” she reflects. “There aren’t a lot of minority men, let alone female minorities, making policy in this region. That sends a subliminal message to people like me, that we somehow don’t belong here.
“When the city adopted Indigenous People’s Day, I realized my voice does matter in this community. It was such a positive moment for me. I’ve just continued that work.”
After completing her master’s degree, she originally formed the idea of running for the school board. “But then Ben Lien retired. It took 20 women encouraging me to run for me to decide what I would do – at 3:30 on the day of the caucus.
“I want to be part of breaking the glass ceiling,” she says. “I want the next generation not to feel so out of place sitting at the tables of power.”
Campaigning has turned out quite different from what she imagined. Working with what she calls “an amazing campaign team,” she has turned to social media, direct mail and phone calls instead of the ambitious door-knocking she had planned. That’s been spurred by recommendations to avoid face to face contact during this time of pandemic … but another surprise would have kept her off the sidewalks anyway. On July 2, she went to the doctor for arthroscopy of her bad knee – and ended up with surgery for a double microfracture. “I can’t walk or drive for four to eight week,” she reports. “It’s a lesson in rolling with the punches. I’ve had to learn to trust my team and the community to get me through.”
Heather has two sons, 4-year-old Elliott and 14-year-old DJ; her partner Lee Griffin’s 15-year-old also spends part of his time with them. She already has lined up support to help with the family if her future includes long months in St. Paul.
“I feel 2020, for me, has really been a personal growth opportunity,” she observes. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn to be resilient through so many changes. I’m even more invested in Moorhead after taking the time to listen and hear the pain, the struggles and the suggestions of the whole community.”
More information on Heather, her issues, endorsements and priorities can be found on her website, heather4house.com.