Oakdale resident receives Bush Fellowship

submitted photo Oakdale resident and 2019 Bush Foundation Fellow Maisha Giles.

Immense potential is ubiquitous, found in every category of community or person. 

Recognizing the promising futures in all kinds of peoples and places, on the other hand, is far less common. 

Oakdale resident Maisha Giles wants Minnesota’s public sector to invest more in more kinds of people, like those of color, and particularly, black women. 

The 37-year-old applied for a fellowship from the Bush Foundation, a St. Paul organization that identifies and invests in people with potential and smart ideas. In March, out of more than 600 applicants, she was named a 2019 fellow — she’ll be given a flexible grant of up to $100,000 to be used over 12 to 24 months.

In August, she begins a doctoral program, traveling around the country and world to research every strategy for cultivating black women leaders. 


Retention intervention 

Giles works as the behavioral health director for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. It’s a state office like any other; largely white with people of color sometimes coming in, but hardly staying long.  

“The state of Minnesota has really tried to put some intentional resources into recruiting leadership that is reflective of the populations that have the most disparities,” said Giles. However, the St. Paul native added, when it comes to new Native American or black hires, the state “has put less energy in retention.”

She said state offices are still, generally, “a pretty white-dominant place,” and that can be “isolating in a way” for non-white workers. 

Amplifying and improving recruiting efforts is still necessary. Giles is sometimes the only black person around. 

“I cannot speak for the entire African American community,” said Giles. “Nor do they want me too.”

There is a lot of recruitment of people of color, said Giles, and the state sometimes recognizes that people who are affected by government policies should be at the table.

“We need to change the culture to make it inclusive as well,” she said.


Becoming the system to fix it

One of eight children, Giles grew up in the St. Paul neighborhoods of Midway and Frogtown. Her siblings, uncles, her entire family, were always involved in the community. 

Her father, a community organizer and urban farmer, said Giles, always told her, “You don’t make it unless your community makes it.”

She graduated from Central High School and then Metro State University, first with a bachelor’s in community development and psychology and then a master’s in community psychology. She followed those studies with two graduate certificates from St. Mary’s University in marriage and family therapy, and addiction study. 

Out of school, before working for the state, Giles worked as a mental health practitioner helping black men just out of prison reenter society with jobs, housing, and mental health and substance abuse resources. 

The work had Giles dealing with state service providers on behalf of people who were recently incarcerated, or marginalized individuals and families in need. Not just black and natives, said Giles, but any and all poor, disadvantaged families.  

She said she found the bulk of her work was helping people deal with confusing, sometimes destructive state systems. Another realization was that Giles had trouble of her own navigating the systems.

“I was saying, ‘Wow, I consider myself fairly educated, but I can’t figure this out either,’” she said. 

Instead of concentrating on mental health or substance abuse treatment, Giles was coaching people on how to manage their relationship with their probation officer, how to navigate the affordable housing system, how to get access to food or child services, or how to communicate with school leadership.

“There were some of these systems that some of these individuals were caught into,” Giles said. “Some of them didn’t make it.”

So, Giles became part of the system, joining the Minnesota Department of Human Services nearly two years go. She will dedicate the next years of her life working to fill out state systems and services with different kinds of people so everyone feels comfortable reaching out to their government, police or child’s school. 



The plan

As a Bush Fellow, Giles, who moved to Oakdale about a year ago, is going to find other black women and people of color who successfully work in the public sector on any level, anywhere in the world. She will then interview each and accumulate information on what makes a state office comfortable for more people. 

One example of the ideas Giles hopes to find and cultivate, she said, is rethinking the way state grants are handed out. 

“A lot of disparities exist because resources are inequitably distributed,” she said. 

This often happens because the grant process is very “prescriptive” — the most polished, pricy applications win the day. 

People and their ailing communities don’t have the resources or know-how to deliver a gorgeous grant proposal. A way toward a more open grant process is to allow different kinds of applications, said Giles, such as oral presentations, which would allow more people to comfortably get their points across. 

In her studies and travels, Giles plans on putting together either a dissertation or book, a general guideline for state offices looking to hire and keep diverse employees. She also plans on building a network of black women state workers from those she interviews along the way. 

“I’m just super thrilled, excited and honored,” she said.


–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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