Partners in Policymaking graduates ready to use their new skills

page 7 people and places people and places partners in policymaking jumps to page 10, lots of pictures for both […]

Partners group picture

page 7 people and places people and places partners in policymaking

jumps to page 10, lots of pictures for both pages

Headline: Partners in Policymaking graduates ready to use their new skills

The 2020-2021 Minnesota Partners in Policymaking Class of 2020-2021 is a diverse group that will use its newfound knowledge of self-advocacy, disability law and policy to bring about change. Graduates ended their studies knowing they will benefit from what they learned and how their confidence was built through the training program.

Applications for the 2021-2022 program are due Friday, July 9. (See bottom of story.)

Each class is capped at 35 participants. This time around, virtual options were offered for class members. Here are stories of some of the 2020-2021 graduates, who went through their training during the months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This session, many participants came from the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota or DSAMN.

White Bear Lake resident Kellianne Blood said that the most important thing she learned was the importance of speaking for what she wants as a self-advocate.  She appreciated learning about the history of the disability community and considered the whole class to be very informational and helpful. Blood said the presentations were thought-provoking.

“Every single weekend I felt like I was drinking from a firehose,” said Sharon Caswell of Prior Lake, who has a son with Down syndrome. She was drawn in by the topic choices, including effective Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings, connecting with state and federal legislators, and information on housing, employment and post-secondary opportunities. Her goal is to be a stronger advocate for her son.

Caswell was humbled to meet tireless champions for disability rights and realized that she now benefits from their efforts. In the class, she found allies and a wide web of resources. Caswell is looking forward to expanding her network of individuals who care about the lives of people with disabilities.

Brooklyn Park resident Jodi Copa wished to be a better advocate for herself and her children. It was clear to her that communication skills give advocacy its real power as people express concerns and show willingness to partner with others. Several speakers gave specific tips that helped Copa achieve things for her children she never thought possible.

“I would recommend this class to any parent or self-advocate. The material learned and the relationships formed are truly priceless,” said Copa.

Pam Crawford of Corcoran wanted to learn more about community resources for her son, Max. He is 17, a senior in Wayzata High School and lives with Down syndrome. She developed expertise from local and national resources, and was able to meet more self-advocates and other families raising children with disabilities.

She found each session inspiring, was energized, and felt encouraged through the support of her classmates. Most eye-opening was the presentation about the history of how people with disabilities have been treated. Crawford said better laws and more inclusion have made a positive difference, but there are still challenges ahead.

Deqa Farah of Eagan has a son with autism. She described her Partners experience as lifechanging. Farah said all elements of the course were valuable in helping her become a better advocate and planner for her son’s future.

One speaker’s comment said that “we are all one banana peel away from caring about the rights of people with disabilities,” resonated with Farah. She recommends Partners to anyone who values human life, dignity, and pursuit of a just and equitable world for people with disabilities.

Crystal Henderson of Red Wing applied for the class to enhance her opportunities to advocate for her children and to increase awareness of neurofibromatosis, the disabling condition that affects her daughter. The program helped her to connect and network with others, confirming to her that working together brings success. She gained experience in talking with representatives, speaking up for personal rights and the changes needed when injustice is obvious.

Chandler Hill of Farmington learned how to be the best advocate for her son, who has a speech and language disorder. She appreciated the focus on person-centered planning and making decisions for one’s self. Several speakers demonstrated to her the power of communication and understanding how to work with various personality types.

 “When you are asking for resources and telling your story, you not only advocate for yourself but also others who are struggling with similar issues,” said Hill. She plans to utilize national and local resources as she advocates for her son. Hill gained self-confidence by knowing that “a whole tribe of people understand what you are going through and want to help you.”

Cora Holland-Koller of Arden Hills serves on the board of directors for the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota (DSAMN). She described the program as “one-stop shopping” for disability-related resources.

Holland-Koller sought more resources for her five-year-old son with Down syndrome. As a graduate of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, she understands the power of knowing statutes and advocating for individual rights. Partners helped her apply that legal perspective to advocate for her son and others with disabilities.

The training also introduced her to Upstream Arts in Minneapolis, which Holland-Koller plans to use as a resource for her son’s school.

Melissa Karsky of Finlayson took the course to gain more knowledge about services available for her daughter, and to become a better advocate for those with disabilities in her area. She valued learning the history of how people with disabilities were treated, and the importance of including them in community activities. Karsky realized that she and her husband are not alone as they advocate for their daughter.

A bonus to the class on federal legislation was meeting U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Duluth), who has children with disabilities. Karsky said her area would benefit if more self-advocates, and parents raising children with disabilities would apply for the training. “We need to come together as a community to form a partnership in our area.”

Pine Springs resident Karen Keenan and her husband are raising a daughter with Down syndrome. Keenan is the executive director of Valley Friendship Club, which provides safe, accessible social and educational programs for children and young adults with disabilities in Washington County. She took the Partners course to better understand disability services and issues in the state of Minnesota.  Her goal is to continue to advocate for people with disabilities and give her daughter the best future possible. 

Keenan valued the training from elected officials who taught her how to find current bills, prepare conversations with legislators, and effectively provide input for legislation. She appreciated the self-advocates in the class who repeated the priority “Nothing about us, without us.”

Duluth resident Adrienne Payne felt that for years, she was on her own while advocating for her son. He is autistic, non-verbal and struggles to express himself daily. At Partners, she found like-minded people who also wanted to stand up to systems that fail their loved ones.

Emphasis was placed on advocating for a purpose and to get results, and for advocates to be strong, confident and knowledgeable about their cause. “The Honorable Judge Donovan Frank talked about what my heart beats for, justice for people like my son Mazi. It was truly awesome,” said Payne.

Self-advocate Maria Raasch of St. Paul applied to Partners to understand the history of the disability community and how a bill becomes law. She has learned the importance of speaking up for what one believes. She is inspired when looking at disability history, saying that a lot of progress has been made in how people with disabilities are treated. Raasch recommends the class to those who are struggling and want to feel heard.

Burnsville resident Rachael Ryan sought advocacy skills as she is raising a teenage son and daughter who have autism. She herself has disabilities, and believes the class gave all three of them a voice. Ryan valued the class experience of learning from other mothers who are also raising children with disabilities.

Learning about post high school options for her daughter was valuable. “It is so exciting that my daughter now has options after high school graduation,” said Ryan. A documentary video introduced two universities that have created supportive and inclusive programs for students with disabilities.

Covid concerns and the fragile health of her daughter who has Hypogammaglobulinemia, a primary immune deficiency, required absolute protection from the virus. Alicia Schaupp, Lakeville, chose to attend the course virtually, to gain leadership opportunities and increased self-confidence, and make public processes less intimidating.

The Olmstead Plan speakers impressed upon Schaupp that, despite her reluctance to speak publicly, testimony by the everyday citizen was needed. When legislation for individuals with disabilities has an unexpected impact, legislators need to hear that personal experience to make changes.

Schaupp is now involved with the Immune Deficiency Foundation. “The program is empowering and impressive in the connections you can make and the confidence you gain, as you share your story to change policy and law.”

Apple Valley resident Carly Schecter and her husband have two young children with autism. She took the course to provide them every opportunity to live their best lives. She was amazed at the parent advocates as they told of their success stories and struggles. That personal connection helped her feel less alone and gave her hope for her children.  She recommends Partners to “parents who feel lost and overwhelmed. It will help you know where to start and offer the support you might be seeking for your life and your family.”

Kari Stordahl of Fridley applied for the course to learn how to best advocate for her six-year-old  son, who has a stress and deprivation disorder from infancy/early childhood, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and severe anxiety. Two years ago her son was removed from pre-kindergarten. She was told that no school setting could handle him. She had to move him to another school. Stordahl now realizes that Partners’ information on effective communication and negotiation with officials, plus having a support group like the Partners class, would have given her more confidence to handle that situation.

The class showed her the importance of knowing one’s rights and speaking up for inclusion in the schools.

Maple Grove resident Sabeen Zehra has a daughter with Down syndrome.

Zehra is concerned about a world that often does not accept people with disabilities. In Partners, Zehra found fellow participants who also want each child to be valued. The well-organized curriculum, presentations and training exercises were impressive and valuable to Zehra, who found new ways to effectively advocate for her daughter. She also found helpful information on assistive technology, medical outreach for Down syndrome diagnosis, and person-centered planning they will prove useful to her advocacy efforts.

Time is running out for 2021-2022 program

The internationally known Partners in Policymaking is seeking candidates for the 2021-2022 class. Applications are due Friday, July 9.

“This program is based on the belief that systems change is best brought about through the efforts of those most affected by them, and we seek to arm these individuals with the tools needed to be successful in the public policy arena,” said Colleen Wieck, executive director of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and creator of Partners in Policymaking.

Costs for the Partners program are covered by a federal grant. Childcare and respite allowances are given. Overnight accommodations are provided for those who travel from outside the metro area to attend. Mileage is reimbursed and meals are provided. Sessions are held at the Crowne Plaza Aire, at 3 Appletree Square in Bloomington, near Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Limited to 35 Minnesotans, the first weekend session for the 2021 to 2022 program year is September 17-18, 2021. Those selected to participate in the program must attend all sessions and complete homework assignments.

For the application, go to

For further information, or to get an application form, go to or contact Brenton Rice at [email protected], or 651-242-6589.

The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities introduced the Partners in Policymaking program in 1987. Through expansion to other states and countries, the program has provided education and training for more than 27,000 people worldwide.

  • Struggling with Long COVID? Get support. Talk to your healthcare provider.
  • Struggling with Long COVID? Get support. Talk to your healthcare provider.

DON'T LOSE IT! • Keep your Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare active • Fill out and return your renewal forms Watch your mail and go online NOW