Maia Pearson, a life-long south Madison resident, activist, and mother of three children currently enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District, believes that her grassroots experiences and expertise make her a strong school board candidate.
“I think what it really comes down to is that I’ve literally lived the life of many of our students here in Madison. I’ve lived the life of a parent of children in our schools here in Madison,” Pearson says. “I am the daughter of a woman who went through Madison schools. There is that generational wealth of knowledge in navigating this school district.
“But not just that, but navigating the school district as a person of color. It’s different. So when we’re talking about the diversity of our schools and we’re talking about how our student body is becoming more diverse, for that alone, I bring a wealth of knowledge to the board,” she adds.
Pearson – a Madison native who has three children, Amelia, 10, Maxwell, 9, and Mahalia, 9, all at Lincoln Elementary School in the heart of Madison’s south side – is running for MMSD’s School Board Seat 6. Incumbent Kate Toews announced she would not be running for re-election for her seat, so Pearson will vie with fellow newcomers Christina Gomez Schmidt and Karen Ball in the Feb. 18 primary for the right to advance to the April election.
“I do really truly care about kids and I want to see change in the district. This whole process of me being a parent and trying to navigate the school system, in general, and making sure my kids have what they need … that is where the impetus really started to get involved in this race,” Pearson says.
Pearson, a UW PEOPLE program alumni who earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently a revenue agent for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Prior to that, she worked at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County where she served in a variety of roles in helping children reach their full potential. She is also owner of Sweet Sorrel, which provides culturally relevant greeting cards and art.
Initially, Pearson submitted her letter of intent for Mary Burke’s seat back in August of 2019. Current board member Savion Castro ended up winning that seat.
“I just felt like running for school board was what I needed to do in that moment. I just felt like I had to do it,” Pearson tells Madison365 in an interview at Cargo Coffee on Madison’s south side. “It’s mostly because I’ve found that if you really want to invoke change, you have to be at the table where the policies are being made. There’s a balance in being an advocate in the grassroots but also being at the actual table making policies and giving input for policies to be made.”
Pearson is a third-generation Madisonian, born and raised on Madison’s South Side. She’s on the South Madison Planning Committee and is the co-founder of South Madison Unite where she and other South Madison neighbors organized to save their grocery store on South Park Street.
She attended Madison public schools, including Franklin and Randall Elementary Schools, Wright Middle School and Madison West High School. As a young person, she was the winner of the Joe Thomas Community Service Award and the Milt McPike Student-Athlete Award.
Her grandmother is Sadie Pearson, a longtime community activist and beloved village mother who migrated from Florida to escape the evil of Jim Crow to provide opportunities for her children here in Madison.
“I was raised by my mom, but I was also raised by my grandmother in these south Madison communities. Being from a family of activists has been interesting,” Pearson says. “My grandma was very grassroots. She hit the pavement but she also learned that she had to build relationships with policymakers, as well.
“I remember as a little girl meeting [now U.S. Sen.] Tammy Baldwin and all of these amazing people and I didn’t even know back then as a girl who they were or what they did,” she adds, smiling. “Now, as a woman, I’m like ‘Wow, my grandma exposed me to a lot of people!’ But it was all in the spirit of ‘I want my children and I want my community to be better.’ I think it’s a known fact that when you uplift marginalized communities, it basically raises all boats for everybody.”
In late December, Pearson officially announced her candidacy for the Madison Metropolitan School Board in the heart of the south side at El Pastor Mexican Restaurant where she was flanked by Wisconsin State Rep. Shelia Stubbs, who is endorsing her.
“I fully support Maia. She has been a very active member of the community. Growing up in Madison I have witnessed first hand Maia’s commitment to improving the lives of others as well as the community,” Stubbs tells Madison365. “I, personally, have witnessed Maia helping me on my campaign from knocking on doors to collecting signatures to showing up at my events.
“I’ve watched Maia works so hard on behalf of people and I believe she is the best candidate for school board and I’m willing to help her in all capacities. She has been doing this work for years,” Stubbs adds. “She is a young, emerging leader and she is committed to helping everyday people. She’s a young mom herself with kids in the school district so she’s really connected to that experience. I’m honored to be supporting Maia. I hope others will join me in supporting her.”
Pearson has also garnered the endorsements of former MMSD school board members Milele Chikasa Anana, Ray Allen, Juan Jose Lopez, Bill Clingan, and Johnny Winston Jr. and current school board members Ali Muldrow and Ananda Mirilli. She also has the endorsements of Madison District 14 Alder Sheri Carter and Madison Common Council President Shiva Bidar.
Pearson says the main things she has been focusing on as she campaigns are student excellence, teacher success, and school and community collaborations.
“Student excellence and teacher success are really driven by making sure that children feel safe and making sure that teachers feel safe,” Pearson says. “We always have the talk about safety as just police in schools or law enforcement, but we rarely talk about the other side of what safety looks like – the relationships with other people, with your teachers, and with your school staff.
“For example, a black child may not feel safe in school not because of law enforcement or whatever, but because of the relationships they’ve had are not authentic – the cultural competency is not there where the kid feels understood,” she adds. “I don’t think we talk about that enough. So, how do we explore that?”
Teachers are a very important part in the equation for student excellence, Pearson says.
“We have to make sure that our teachers feel like they are supported and make sure that teachers have an environment where they can teach in,” Pearson says. “Class size is important. Some of my kids were in a classroom once where there were 28 students. How do you effectively teach 28 students with one teacher?”
Pearson says that she believes having the proper support staff and support services is imperative.
“I remember in high school, my advisor was part-time at [Madison] West and then was parttime at another high school. She wasn’t always at West. So I had to find time to catch her,” Pearson says. “And she was amazing, by the way.”
Same goes with social workers, she says.
“I know that because my son is on an IEP (Individualized Education Program), I know that the support staff is splitting their time between different schools and so you don’t have a staff like that at every school all the time,” Pearson says. “If we really want to set up teachers for success, we want to make sure that we have all of the staff that is necessary for that. A teacher can’t play every single role. It takes away from the teaching.”
The third thing that Pearson stresses are community collaborations. Pearson believes that she can leverage her community organizing and activism.
“I think the school does that well now, but I think it could be stronger,” she says. “I think that a lot of times that we ask the community to show up at the school and build relationships with us but we are not as proactive in going into the community itself and being a part of the community.”
These are topics that Pearson hears about as she has conversations out in the community.
“I talk to a lot of parents in the district and a lot of them have similar stories as mine and views of what is going on,” she says. “I have friends who are teachers who have expressed that she has to be so many things – she has to make sure that they eat and fuel for the day but then you have to wear so many other hats – you have to be the social worker, the psychologist, so many different things they have to do inside the classroom before they can begin to even teach.
“Teachers love teaching. I don’t think it’s an easy job; it’s a very difficult job where you are often underpaid and understaffed,” Pearson adds. “But teachers are so very important. They are the main people that our children learn from.”
The top two vote-getters in the upcoming February primary for Seat 6 will advance to the April general election. These last two weeks will be crunch time for Pearson, a newcomer to this world who has quickly gotten used to the grueling campaigning aspect of running for the school board.
“Right now, for me, it’s about efficiently making time for everything. My kids’ activities, parenting, my work, my second job, and then doing all of the campaigning stuff,” she says.
It sounds exhausting.
“It is. But I am excited about it. I’m actually really enjoying this process,” Pearson says.
Pearson has always been a big community person, so that aspect – being out in the community and talking to people about their hopes for their children – is something that comes easy for her during her campaigning.
“I’m constantly in the community and I’m constantly advocating for different communities – especially south Madison, but also everyone in our community. I’m not just in the schools doing what I need to do for my children, but also looking out for Madison at large,” Pearson says. “I think that is a unique piece that I bring to the table that will be very beneficial to the board. They have more of it now, but in the past, the board hasn’t had as much.
“We have to remember that school is not everything to a child. It’s part of an equation. So you definitely want to have somebody who can understand where they are and where they coming from and meet them where they are,” she adds. “I think that’s something that differentiates me from other candidates.”