Dr. Maurella Cunningham: Like mother, like daughter in making equitable change

Words by Tesla Mitchell, hand drawn digital painting by StuffStudio,

As a kid, Dr. Maurella Cunningham would sit down next to her mother, open her book, and start to read.

But it wasn’t at home that she would do this. It was during school board meetings, Parent Teacher Association meetings, and civil rights committee meetings.

Maurella’s mom has been a life-long activist in social justice – even continuing at 83 years old – and Maurella has followed those footsteps, trailblazing a path for change in her own way.

In the Winona area, and now La Crosse, if there’s a committee involving social justice, Maurella is likely on it or has a tie to it. If there’s an event, she likely knows about it. And if there’s an organization related to it, she likely has a connection to it.

With about 16 hours – not including prep time – of committee meetings a month, Maurella puts passion, time, and most of all mental energy into social justice and equity.

“I want to contribute to making my community a better place so people who have traditionally been marginalized have access to resources, skill development, and making connections, so they can live the lives they want,” she said.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“Until I became confident in who I was, I felt like I was embarrassed to be a person of color,” she said. “But the only reason I felt that way was the messages coming from society.”

Her friends, family and inner circle encouraged her to embrace who she was and be proud.

“I was also embarrassed to feel that way because I knew there wasn’t anything wrong with being a person of color,” she said. 

It wasn’t until she got out of college and took her first teaching job in Arizona, that something changed. A group of kids in need asked her to advocate for them.

“In Arizona there was a group of Black kids, Native kids, Latino kids, as well as White kids, who asked me if I would be the sponsor for their Shades of Color Multicultural Club for kids wanting to create safe spaces and a sense of belonging,” Maurella said.

It sparked the fire inside that had been building since she was a kid sitting in on activism meetings.

“That was the first time I saw myself as someone who others went to for support or for helping create positive environments,” Maurella said. “That was the first time I realized I could be that person.”

With the fire inside gaining the fuel she needed, nothing could put it out.

As a teacher she reviewed curriculum, joined committees that addressed equity in education, and intentionally brought different perspectives into her class to teach through an equity lens.

“In Arizona, the students were 90 percent Mexican American, but there were only 2 pages of Latino American history in the textbooks,” Maurella said. “Knowing that it’s important to see yourself in the historical (and modern) accounts of the place that you live and generations before you have lived, I knew that I had to supplement the material the school used.”

She would even incorporate her students’ experiences by encouraging them to share their truth, like when they were discussing the Bracero program – a government agreement that allowed Mexican citizens to temporarily work in U.S. agriculture – and students shared about their parents and families working in lettuce fields.

Inspiring others to share their lived experiences is a skill that dates all the way back to grade school, her mother, Phyllis Cunningham said.

“One of her teachers told me how Maurella would speak up and would help the kids speak up about what they thought and how they felt,” Phyllis said. “She would ask the kids how they would solve a problem and get them to share what they’re thinking.”

Maurella continued to put equity at the forefront all the way through her 13 years as a high school teacher, as an assistant professor at Minnesota State University Mankato, St. Olaf College, Carleton College and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, as well as the Director of Learning and Teaching within the Winona Area Public Schools.

Maurella’s belief in and passion for equity and social justice continue to impact the work she does. Maurella is now the Superintendent of the Western Regional Adolescent Services in La Crosse County. In her current role, Maurella oversees two facilities under one roof. One is a shelter facility where youth may be placed who are in need of protection, crisis services, or temporary placement. The other is a secure facility which houses youth who have been convicted of crimes or are awaiting court dates.

One of the main reasons she accepted the job was because La Crosse County expressed a desire to improve practices in juvenile justice.

“It is important to me that juvenile justice facilities are kid-centered, trauma-informed, and focused on rehabilitation,” Maurella said. “By providing full-time education, individual/groups/family therapy, and skill-building in a safe and supportive environment, we can better provide what kids need as they work toward successfully reentering the community.”

Cell blocks and cells are not appropriate environments for any child, she said.

“There are so many factors that contribute to why youth end up in these facilities–not just the act or acts they may have committed,” she said. “I look forward to being a part of major transformations in juvenile justice.” 

Outside of her full time job, Maurella organizes and volunteers at events and serves on committees that focus on social justice and equitable practices.

When asked how many committees she’s been on, Maurella could only shrug her shoulders and guess.

“At least 20,” she said with a smile.

Most recently she’s started a chapter of Residents Organizing Against Racism (ROAR) – a grassroots organization combating racism in Minnesota schools and communities by pursuing action and accountability. She started the chapter last year as part of her project for Engage Winona’s Lived Experience Leaders first cohort.

“It’s getting people in the Winona community together to talk about important issues, share  resources, and take action.” Maurella said. “It’s bringing community members together and that helps make Winona a more understanding, inclusive, and welcoming place.”

Not only is it making a difference for the community, it’s making her mom proud.

Phyllis said she feels a deep sense of joy in seeing the impact her daughter is making – especially in her hometown of Winona.

“I’m very proud of her,” Phyllis said.

Her only wish is that Maurella would occasionally slow down, she said with a laugh.

“I have to take a nap after she tells me all the things she’s doing,” Phyllis said. “I keep telling her, you gotta slow down.”

Maurella said when she starts feeling exhausted, down, or spread too thinly, she surrounds herself with family and friends to energize her.

“It’s the people I’m engaging with,” she said. “They fill my cup up.”

It’s the people who work on the same projects as her, as well as those who see the possibilities of the future and take action to make it happen.

“Those who really believe in people,” she said. “People like my mom.”

The road to change is hard, and full of twists and turns. But for Maurella, she’s along for the ride and is proud to walk alongside others who are committed to improving conditions for traditionally marginalized communities and contributing to improved relationships among all community members.

“I try to make sure that social justice is in practice and in full force in whatever arenas I’m working and living in,” she said.

Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.