Robbinsdale Area Schools

Reflecting on education, Women’s History Month with former Rdale media specialist turned elected official

Reflecting on education, Women’s History Month with former Rdale media specialist turned elected official

March is Women’s History Month, and Mary Kunesh has a simple but inspiring message for women and girls: “When people say ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or ‘no, you shouldn’t do that,’ don’t give up on yourself. Follow your passions.”

She knows a little something about the matter. Kunesh is the assistant majority leader of the Minnesota Senate and chairperson of its Education Finance Committee. Such a leadership perch isn’t typical for someone who first ascended to elected office just six years ago, or for someone who retired from education just two years ago.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Kunesh said. “But right now, this is where I belong.”

That isn’t to say she didn’t feel like she was making a difference as a media specialist, first at Noble Elementary School (2002-2015), then at Robbinsdale Middle School (2015-2021). But her role as chair of the Education Finance Committee impacts every public school in the state – and that’s a whole lot bigger than she imagined it would be.

“I loved introducing literacy and literature to students, and I loved choosing books for the library. I loved taking what students were reading and digesting, and integrating it with technology,” she said, reminiscing. “I loved teaching and miss it quite a bit.

“But retiring was the right choice, and now I’m in a position to make a different kind of impact,” she said. “Who ever would have thought I’d have this awesome and daunting responsibility?”

Robbinsdale Middle School Principal Shirrie Jackson said Kunesh was a joy to work with.

“She brought a lot of energy to the media center and to staff,” Jackson said. “She was also a really important voice for diversity, equity and inclusion – especially an Indigenous voice.”

Kunesh, who identifies as Lakota, is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and Jackson said she was particularly mindful of the school and district’s Native American students, and often helped provide resources to help amplify an Indigenous perspective in learning both at RMS and across the district.

“She’s a fabulous relationship-builder,” Jackson said. “She really had a way of connecting with students and making an impact in a positive way.”

In addition to her leadership role on the Education Finance Committee, Kunesh is on the Education Policy Committee. She said she’s happy her decade’s long experience as an educator is being used in a meaningful way.

“It’s all about giving back,” Kunesh said, referring back to her Women’s History Month advice. “My mother’s family – we’re Lakota. We say we’re here, not only to make things better for our children now, but for the next seven generations.”

Being a full-time elected official is still new to Kunesh. While she was an active member of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers as a union representative during her time in Rdale, Kunesh said she never envisioned herself going into state politics.

“It wasn’t until my children were out of the house and in college that I really started getting involved in campaigns through their community organizing,” she said. “My involvement began as door-knocking or bringing food to campaign volunteers, and grew from there.”

But soon enough, her experience as an educator, a union representative and her displeasure in how the legislature was funding education in the state came together for a campaign platform she felt she could run on.

“Everything converged. My interest and knowledge of politics, the educational issues I was passionate about, and the encouragement I had from people who told me to run,” she said. 

In 2016, she was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in District 41B, which serves New Brighton. In 2020 she was elected to the Minnesota Senate, and it was at that point she realized she’d have to retire from being a media specialist to do it right.

It’s been almost two years since Kunesh stepped away from her role as media specialist in Rdale – a job she had for almost 20 years. But she said her former students and her former colleagues in Rdale are always on her mind when making legislative decisions.

“I want everyone to know: you’re not forgotten,” she said. “It was an honor to work and learn and laugh and cry together, and all of the people I taught and worked with are who drive me today to make sure education in this state has what it needs to thrive.”