New director of equity brings passion, experience to conference

January 18, 2023
Sabrina Tapia Contreras

By: Christa Meland

From the time Sabrina Tapia Contreras was a child, she wanted to become an educator. Her mother was an international teacher—and she moved to a different country every few years as her mother took new teaching positions.
When she returned to the U.S. and began studying to become a teacher, she learned that Minnesota has one of the lowest percentages of teachers of color in the country—often just one per school building. As a result, teachers of color often feel isolated. On top of that, many have fewer resources and lower salaries compared to their white counterparts. During the seven years she spent as a first-grade teacher, Tapia Contreras felt compelled to address this inequity and has been working to do just that ever since.
“Because of traveling the world and seeing some of these chronic issues worldwide that stem from colonialism, I started organizing and working with teachers,” said Tapia Contreras, who has a master’s degree in educational leadership and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in systems and educational change.
After working as ethnic minority affairs coordinator for teachers union Education Minnesota and then as excellence in equity coordinator for Osseo Area Schools, Tapia Contreras joined the Minnesota Conference earlier this month as its director of racial justice and equity. This position was approved by members of the 2022 Annual Conference, and conference leaders partnered with the Minnesota Commission on Religion and Race in developing the job description.

“My personal calling is to serve others and to serve a community,” said Tapia Contreras, whose father is a native Hawaiian. “I think a lot about: What does it mean to create a beloved community in which each and every person can feel like they belong?”

Sabrina Tapia Contreras (center) participated in First Lady Jill Biden's school tour in 2020. Biden (second from right) is seated next to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
In her role, Tapia Contreras will build on the work outlined in the Cabinet Statement on Racial Justice and the foundation laid by Rev. Dana Neuhauser, who capably served as part-time racial justice organizer for the past 18 months. In her first six months, she will meet with stakeholders to build relationships, learn who we are, and assess where we are in our journey to become a more just annual conference in order to develop a more formal strategic plan of where we want to go and how we will get there. She will also participate in the “Building Beloved Community” anti-racism training sessions, implement a conference-wide racial equity audit (approved by the 2022 Annual Conference), and provide support for cross-racial/cross-cultural appointments.
Tapia Contreras wants to help the conference bring an equity lens to everything we do. She looks forward to using a “clear solutions framework” and critically examining the events, patterns, systems, and mental models that have contributed to the inequities that currently exist.
“I’m trying to work myself out of my job,” she said. “My greatest success will be when I look around and go: I’m not needed anymore.”
When asked how she will approach those who don’t believe racism exists or don’t believe they have a role in dismantling it, Tapia Contreras said she likes to ask four key questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Who are your people? What are your dreams? Not only is racism counter to Jesus’ teachings, but it’s usually a blockade to achieving people’s personal dreams, she said. Taking a deep dive into those questions can help illuminate that.
When working for the Osseo school district prior to joining the Minnesota Conference, Tapia Contreras and a counterpart partnered with leaders at 17 elementary schools, each of which created a specific plan to improve equity. She examined and helped address questions like: Why are students of color being pushed outside of the classrooms at such a high volume? Why are new-to-country populations not receiving information at the same time as the white population? What are the gaps that exist in fully supporting teachers of color?

Tapia Contreras, who was nominated for Education Minnesota’s Human Rights Award in 2019, also previously co-founded a coalition for teachers of color in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools. Through the coalition, she examined inequities and recruited white allies to join a movement to create changes in teacher contracts, school practices, and district policies. She was honored to participate in First Lady Jill Biden’s school tour in 2020, and she has worked with state legislators on the Increase Teachers of Color Act, which will be considered during the current legislative session.
Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of connectional ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop, is excited for Tapia Contreras to bring her knowledge and passion to the Minnesota Conference.
“Sabrina brings deep experience with building systems and processes from her equity work in education,” she said. “And while she is strategic, she is also highly relational, seeking to listen and meet people where they are at. She has a desire to take her experience and knowledge and help the church live into its baptismal promises of opening the church to all people of all ages, nations and races.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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