Mauri Melander Friestleben

'Love Them First' Features St. Thomas Three-time Alumna Mauri Melander Friestleben

Last month, “Love Them First: Lessons from Lucy Laney” premiered at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. The documentary film was the festival's star, selling out all of its multiple screenings and winning accolades from audiences as well as a juried award for best Minnesota-made documentary.

What’s so special about this movie? The people featured – students, staff and families of Lucy Craft Laney Community School, led by principal Mauri Melander Friestleben ’97, ’00 MA, ’05 EdS.

Over the course of the 2017-18 school year, KARE 11 reporter Lindsey Seavert and photojournalist Ben Garvin captured the experiences of students and staff at the north Minneapolis elementary school, where a majority of the students live at or below the poverty line, for a series of TV news stories. Those pieces were turned into “Love Them First,” which tells the story of Friestleben fighting to get Lucy Laney off “the list” of the state’s underperforming schools. It’s a story about proving people wrong, rewriting the narrative and keeping hope alive.

“Some of them have very valid reasons to be hopeless,” Friestleben said about her students in the film’s trailer. “But I choose hope. I choose to believe. I choose to, and even if I’m proven wrong, I will go down believing.”

On Thursday, May 23, a special screening of the film will be held at 5:30 p.m. in Thornton Auditorium in Terrence Murphy Hall on the Minneapolis campus followed by a Q&A session with Friestleben at 7 p.m. Go here for additional information and to RSVP.

We recently talked with Friestleben about her experience watching the film for the first time and why she thinks it’s important for educators to view it. Here are highlights from our conversation.

What’s it like for you that “Love Them First” is going to be shown at St. Thomas, your alma mater?

It’s so funny – I still struggle a little bit with the attention the movie is generating. There’s the thinking of, is it really worth the hype? People are going to come and after they see it are they going to say, ‘That’s what everybody’s talking about?’

Then there is also the side where I feel really proud. I feel proud of the work we’re doing here, I feel proud to be a part of the group of people here, and I feel proud of the children and their beauty that shines so brightly in the film. I have a lot of pride. Obviously it makes me think back on those years when I sat in an auditorium or classroom and I listened to someone else with a level of expertise speak. It feels bizarre that’s now me, but I also feel honored.

Why is it important for educators to see this movie?

A couple reasons. I think, in general, regardless of whether you operate in the world of education or not, I really do hope that people see that you can deeply and truly apply yourself to anything you do. That we may very well live and operate in a society and a culture where status quo appears to always be what we’re going to have. Whether you’re going into any industry or you’re operating in any profession, you get to the point where you feel like maybe you just need to fit in this box. I’m not going to be able to be a round circle in this world; I’m going to have to turn into a square box with edges and corners. I hope people can see you don’t have to do that. It’s hard, but you don’t have to let go of your passions, your visions and all of those inspirational quotes you post on Facebook that say, “Stand up even when you’re standing alone.” You really can do it. There are other people doing it too, you’re not alone. Sometimes people who feel like they’re swimming upstream feel like they’re alone all the time. Who else is out there? Is anyone else really trying to buck the system here? I hope people see that there are others.

I also hope people see the way we’ve created our educational system in our country has shaped children to do that before they are even old enough to engage in a profession. It is the prime definition of pounding square pegs into round holes. It is an inhumane experience for a majority of our children, because a prototype has been designed and defined for what a child in America should be. And most of our children do not fit that. We have children all over this country who look around their classrooms and don’t feel they are who and what they are supposed to be. The psychological damage that does early on in life is something we are allowing to happen. I hope that as people view the film, they are moved to move the system into a different space and place.

What was it like for you to watch the filmmakers capture those moments in your school that were really hard for students and staff?

There were days where I thought, “I don’t know how this is going to look. I don’t know how people are going to receive this.” I’m highly sensitive to matters of race and culture and perceptions. I’m not interested in generating pity. I think there were times when I thought, “I have no idea how this is going to come across.” My faith is really strong, and so I continued to say, “This is in your hands, whatever you want to be will be and there’s nothing we’re doing here we should be ashamed of.” This is the work. People can take it or leave it.

What was it like for you to see the film for the first time?

The directors had asked me a couple of times if I would like to screen it and I said no, because I didn’t want to “Monday morning quarterback.” It was their film at that point. I saw it at the premiere with everyone else and then I saw it one more time when my church showed it. I thought a couple times: “Oh, I remember that!” It was last year and especially in a school setting, all your years blur together. There were a couple times where I thought, “I’m never going to wear my hair like that again.” There were some moments where I thought I could have explained what I was saying in a different way. I hope people understand what it is they’re looking at.

Mostly, though, I thought the directors did a beautiful job. There are aspects that aren’t illustrated – that’s fine, you can’t do everything. … This is really about mindset, approach, culture, atmosphere, environment, leadership and that educational component of what type of educational atmospheres we’re creating for our children. I thought there’s a lot that’s not in there, but ultimately Lindsey and Ben did an amazing job of taking our story and our lives and packing them up in a really pure and beautiful way.

“Love Them First” has been a popular submission to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. All the screenings have sold out. Have you been hearing from a lot of people?

The festival directors said in 38 years they’ve never ever had a film that has generated this much interest where they’ve continued to add screening after screening, and it continues to sell out. But right now, it’s still an extremely limited release. It was at the film festival for only two weeks, then there is a one-week extension happening later this month and all those have been sold out, too. Over the summer, the directors will have a chance to figure out what other festivals they’ll want to enter it in. It won’t be available for public viewing until later on in the fall. It makes me a little nervous; if it’s generating this much attention now, what could it be like later on? In the meantime, I’m staying grounded. I’m saying no to most requests and letting people know this [Lucy Laney] is my first priority. Trying to stay focused on the work is the most important thing.