At age 28, Misha Stallworth plans to channel her energy and fresh ideas to turn around Detroit Public Schools
Misha LJ Stallworth will be the first to admit she looks young.
The 28-year-old acknowledges her appearance elicited some interesting comments when she ran for Detroit’s Board of Education.
“One person even said to me, ‘You have to graduate from school before you run for the board.’ I was like, ‘Well, I’ve graduated from school three times at this point. I might even go for a fourth,’ ” she says, laughing at the memory. “They weren’t saying it critically. It was teasing. But I know how I look.”
Sitting on a stool at The Bottom Line, her favorite Detroit coffee house, the newly elected school board member is relaxed in Nike sneakers and jeans. Her gold nose ring matches her dangling gold earrings and necklace bearing the West African symbol “Gye Nyame,” signifying God’s omnipotence. Unless she rolls up her gray sweater sleeves, you can’t spot any of her six tattoos.
While running against the 62 candidates vying for seven seats, she experimented with “aging herself.”
“I tried to look a little older with makeup and clothes,” she says. “But the further along I got into it, the more I realized that being more grounded in myself made me a better candidate, made me more comfortable, made it easier for me to talk about my ideas. The further along, the more I let that (image) stuff go.”
Ultimately, she found residents were excited about her age and plans to turn around Detroit’s debt-ridden school system.
“A lot of people were saying to me, ‘Yeah, we need new ideas, innovation and energy,’ ” she says.
Whether it was her age or her knock-on-doors campaign strategy, it worked. Stallworth earned 3.65 percent of votes and a four-year term that started Sunday. The youngest member elected in the board’s history, the victory came with the opportunity to show others they’re never too young to lead.
“I’m really hoping that just by virtue of me being at the table, more of my peers will become interested, engaged and will see it as a tangible and relatable thing,” she says, “and not so far removed from their lives.”
Fair treatment for all
Growing up in Southfield, Stallworth often brought home stray animals. When she got older, she started bringing home stray people.
“There were a couple occasions I came home from work, and there was a teenager in the house,” says her father Thomas Stallworth III, who served two terms as a state representative. “She would pull me to the side and say he was homeless or was kicked out of his home and had nowhere to go, and she offered him an opportunity to come over, get something to eat and shower.”
Taking care of people is just what she does.
“I really do care about people being treated fairly and getting the things that they need,” Stallworth says.
This month, she starts a new job as the Hannan Memorial Foundation arts and cultures director, developing arts programming for seniors. The last four years, she worked for the Detroit Area Agency on Aging, coordinating volunteers and overseeing the Meals on Wheels program. In 2010, she served as a City Year corps member in Los Angeles.
For Stallworth, the transition between the young and old makes sense.
“They’re both populations that often have people making decisions on their behalf, they’re both populations with services that are underfunded, they’re both populations that are underemployed or are being pushed out of the workforce,” she says.
Detroit native Juliette Murdock worked with Stallworth at the DAAA and witnessed her rapport with seniors. She recalls one day when they delivered meals.
“It was just wonderful to watch her with elderly people,” Murdock says. “They were so happy to see her, and sometimes she was the only person they saw that day.”
Murdock, 36, previously worked for Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, and then-Sen. Mark Schauer, D., Battle Creek — two politicians she highly regards — but says Stallworth “surpasses” them.
“She’s brilliant, she’s passionate, she really cares about issues and she cares about people,” she says. “… There needs to be more (politicians) like that.”
The bug to run
When Stallworth was 7, she wanted to be a veterinarian artist on a farm.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to have a barn with all these animals, and I’ll have an art studio up top,’ ” she says. “I used to draw pictures of it.”
After that phase, she settled on living in Detroit.
“I just love the city,” she says. “There’s just something about it.”
Attending Cranbrook and Lahser High School, Stallworth received a hybrid private-public education in the suburbs. She then attended the University of Chicago for undergrad and spent over a year in LA. Those experiences confirmed she wanted to be here.
“The more deeply embedded in public service I became, the more it felt like a disservice to be doing that work anywhere other than my home, the place that built me and put me together, so those gifts should be shared here,” she says.
In May, her father, a former Detroit school board member, put the bug in her ear to run for school board. The next month, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation to pay off $467 million in DPS debt and allocate $150 million for a new school district. The board will oversee academics and select a superintendent, while a Financial Review Commission manages finances.
“I see her as a person who can effectively build bridges and create the kind of focus and support the school district will need to be successful. … That, combined with her commitment to children, helping them overcome the obstacles they face, I thought she was uniquely qualified for this role,” Thomas Stallworth says.
He told her to sleep on it.
“When he asked me, I had this thought about the articles and statistics we read about how women are more cautious to take on more roles and how men — whether they think they’re qualified or not — are more likely to be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ ” she says. “As soon as I had that thought, I was like, ‘Nope, I don’t need to sleep on it. Let’s go.’ ”
More than legacy candidate
Misha’s grandmother, Alma Stallworth, spent 22 years as a state representative. Her father and uncle, Keith Stallworth, also served in the Legislature. But Thomas Stallworth emphasizes his daughter is not just a “legacy candidate.”
“Misha did the work to prepare herself for this position,” he says, adding that given her age and proximity to being a public school student, “she will bring insight that older board members may not have.”
Alma Stallworth, 84, acknowledges the family name may have helped when voters reached the ballot box, but a name is “not enough” to get elected.
“You have to be able to communicate, express your concerns and what you’re committed to do once you’re elected,” she says.
Alma remembers bringing Misha to national state legislator conferences as a toddler. While she “wouldn’t have any idea” what was happening, the exposure to communication and politics was important, she says.
While campaigning, Misha earned endorsements from several groups, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, Detroit Regional Chamber, Detroit Police Lieutenants & Sergeants Association and Mayor Mike Duggan.
“Even though a lot of people voted for her and endorsed her, she still will have the challenge of being a young person coming in and trying to provide leadership,” Alma Stallworth says. “But I think she will be able to do that because of her personality and understanding.”
Misha credits her grandmother, who shares the same Nov. 14 birthday, with inspiring her to serve others.
“She ran for office because she didn’t want liquor stores in her community,” she says. “She never was thinking about her career. ... She really was participating in the democratic process because she cared about her community and wanted to represent those people. I find that incredibly grounding.”
The love for education
Stallworth is at that age when friends are starting to have babies, and many living in Detroit are facing a serious issue.
“They really love it here, and the conversations we keep coming back to are not knowing where to send their kids to school, and not wanting to leave the city,” says Stallworth, who anticipates the same dilemma when she has kids.
Her other friends are parents and live in the suburbs. “But I know they would move into the city if they could,” she says.
Translation: They’d move if Detroit schools were good. Hence, why she ran for school board.
“If you see a problem, and you think you have the capacity and the skills to do something about it, then at that point, it’s almost a moral obligation to do it,” she says.
One of her goals is to improve resources for gifted and talented students through sports, extracurriculars and after-school programs. She notes there’s a “disconnect” for Detroiters who attend elite schools and then return to the community.
“I’ve had this conversation with a few of my friends from the city who have gone to the Cornells and the Harvards and then come back and just had a difficult time reconnecting,” she says.
More than anything, she hopes to spread her love for education.
“I love school, and I love to read,” she says, particularly young adult novels, though there’s a hip-hop feminism pedagogy stashed in her tote.
“And I want other people to love it, too.”