When the late Jean Harris was mayor of Eden Prairie from 1995-2001, she planted seeds of diversity and justice. Now, those seeds are flowering.
Two leaders with Eden Prairie roots are among the 2021 Bush Fellows.
Awarded to visionary individuals from Minnesota, the Dakotas, and 23 Native nations who share the same geography, Bush Foundation grants are awarded to people leading transformational change in their communities. Each Bush Fellow receives up to $100,000 over two years to pursue education and professional development that will help them become more equitable and effective leaders. Fellows design their own programs, often funding a mix of education, leadership training, networking, and mentorship.
Sandra Gabriela Filardo — Bridgebuilder
Sandra Filardo got the news that she was a 2021 Bush Fellow by email while she was working from her home in Eden Prairie. “I was overwhelmed, and I started crying. My husband came up from his basement office to see what was going on.”
Originally from Argentina, Filardo began her legal career as an immigration attorney. For 20 years, she has worked in the Hennepin County District Attorney’s office. Since 2018, she has been the office’s Community Engagement Officer, working to identify and to fix unfair practices in the judicial and welfare systems, particularly how these practices ripple through the lives of lower income families and people without housing.
Filardo’s work focuses on inequities in the criminal justice system. “Instead of helping people, the system arrests, punishes, and makes them clean garbage from the side of the road,” she says.
“The system assumes we’re all White and middle class.” Filardo has seen that people experiencing livability challenges like inadequate housing or mental illness may find themselves criminalized by these systemic assumptions.
Filardo wants to use her fellowship for leadership training to solve the “big problems” that the judicial and correctional systems often ignore. She may pursue a graduate degree, or interview peers in countries that do not rely as heavily on incarceration.
She knows that her family and her “sisterhood” of Eden Prairie moms will support her efforts. “In the past fifteen years, we have become a more welcoming city. We do a good job of welcoming incoming refugees and immigrants, assuring that they have access to schools, community centers, and parks. Our children are learning to be anti-racist and empathetic.”
Filardo believes helping renters have more access to activities and services will help them feel more connected to Eden Prairie. “When I pay for sports equipment or activity fees for my children, I always wonder how someone making a third of my income pays for these things.”
“Sandra has been quietly bringing Eden Prairie people together across divides of race and class for over 18 years. Being selected for this leadership opportunity is a testament to her as a beacon of love, intelligence and fairness,” said Lynnea West, a friend and former tech teacher at Eagle Heights School. “The Bush Foundation saw the same light in her that we see every day.”
Michael Jon Westerhaus – Healer and Storyteller
Dr. Mike Westerhaus now lives in Minneapolis, but his family roots run deep in Eden Prairie soil. His grandparents, Jean and the late Tony Westerhaus, were early members of Pax Christi Catholic Community. His dad Tom graduated from Eden Prairie High School. His wife Amy Finnegan grew up in Eden Prairie.
“All the Westerhauses are warm, caring people,” said longtime family friend Barb Olson. “They serve people in challenging life situations, whether in medicine, education, or music. Through their eyes, you see so much, learn so much.”
“Working for the common good was threaded through my upbringing,” recalled Westerhaus. “My grandparents traveled to Guatemala and on other international service trips when they were part of Pax Christi. When I went to Mass there, I remember Father Tim Power and what an amazing storyteller he was. He used his talent to engage people. The rooms at Pax Christi are named for people that inspired me towards service and justice.”
Now a physician, Westerhaus wants to develop his storytelling talent, bringing the arts into situations that could help renew overburdened physicians and broaden their vision so they can practice anti-racism in the communities they serve.
“It’s a humbling honor to be part of this year’s Bush Fellows,” says Westerhaus. He believes social medicine and social justice are about not just treating people at their current point of pain, but about turning your lens “upstream” to find the causes of their illnesses.
“The weight of social forces has a tremendous impact on people’s lives. I’m tired of seeing patients blamed for medical conditions that are actually the result of social forces such as racial capitalism,” says Westerhaus. “Patients are often very honest about the sources of their suffering if we take the time to listen.”
Dr. Westerhaus currently practices as a primary care clinician at HealthPartners’ Center for International Health. He’s also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he directs a program called BRIIDGE which prepares immigrant doctor graduates to become successful medical residents in the U.S.. He spent time during medical school and his residency training working under the umbrella of global health.
Before the pandemic, Mike and Amy traveled annually to Uganda for over a decade, working as volunteers, and then teaching in a social medicine program they founded with fellow medical students and doctors there. Westerhaus counts among his mentors Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health; Dr. Farmer has devoted his life to fighting poverty and injustice in Haiti.
Westerhaus is excited to dig deeper into unconventional kinds of relationships to spark his imagination. For example, he has worked with zAmya Theater Project, a troupe of formerly or currently homeless people, to explore the harm that can happen between health workers and those without housing. “Doing that work together sparks the imagination of the actors and the audience. We go beyond textbooks to think about new strategies in an unconventional way. We use theater to unpack our relationships.”
“The Bush fellowship will give me a chance to pause, to reflect, and to think about ways I can learn and be a better partner for people,” says Westerhaus. To grow as a storyteller, he will deepen his creative writing skills through courses in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota and The Loft Literary Center. He will spend time with writers through participation in writer’s circles, literary conferences, and story slams.
He also hopes to intensify his connection with Resmaa Menakem, local author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, and to pursue professional training in Somatic Experiencing, a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders.
“Through simultaneous immersion in these experiences, I’m trying to generate insights while developing a healthy skepticism of myself. Why am I doing this? Am I centering on justice?” Westerhaus also hopes to create a community center for health workers who have been burned out and overwhelmed during the pandemic so they can find renewed joy in their work.
The Galvanizing Effects of George Floyd’s Murder
Like many in the community, the murder of George Floyd helped clarify motivation and commitment for both Filardo and Westerhaus.
“George Floyd’s murder and a number of other things have shown me that you don’t need to go to Uganda to see injustice and to take action,” says Westerhaus.
“George Floyd Square is blocks from where I live with my family. The events of 2020 have deepened my resolve to be as local as possible. White supremacy is built in, for example, to our relationship with the Dakota people. How do we take better care of each other, all the way down to a block-by-block perspective? People getting to know their neighbors better creates public safety and community health. People living in the same spaces where they work creates opportunities for the community to do amazing things together.”
Coming from Eden Prairie roots, Filardo and Westerhaus are poised to do amazing things to make our communities healthier and more just.
Do you know others with Eden Prairie roots doing amazing things that we should know about? Email email@example.com.