Elissa Raffa: Leadership and Writing

Elissa Raffa standing outside in a blue shirt with a blue plaid scarf over her neck

Elissa Raffa (MFA ‘97, creative writing) is someone who takes opportunities—and flies with them. She is dedicated to writing, teaching, and to education for everyone--and now is a winner of CLA's 2023 Alumni of Notable Achievement Award.

What do you do professionally?

I’m the Executive Director of Minnesota Online High School (MNOHS) a teacher-powered, equity-focused, and student-centered public charter school. I also do consulting work for the European Commission, reviewing funding proposals and project reports in the fields of science education and educational inclusion.

How are you involved in the community?

In recent years, my strongest community connections are related to my work. I serve on the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools (MACS) Government Affairs Committee and am active in other groups that advocate for equitable educational practices, policies, and funding. I live an international life, splitting most years between Greece and the U.S. In Greece, my time is further split between Athens and a small mountain village and my contributions to the community tend to be things that can be done from a distance (voter registration drives) and things that happen in the moment (fire watch on hot windy nights).

How did your time in CLA inspire you to pursue your path?

CLA has been a strong current throughout my adult life. At 17, I moved from New York to Minnesota, found a job, volunteered at community theaters near the West Bank campus of the University, and committed to activism for social justice. I resisted “going to college,” but within weeks registered for CLA courses through continuing ed. Eventually I enrolled in CLA as a chemistry student and later transferred to the College of Education. While teaching science at an urban alternative high school, I returned to continuing ed for CLA courses in fiction writing and playwriting. In 1992, a diverse group of adults and youth gathered at my kitchen table to create District 202, a center for LGBTQ youth that operated in Minneapolis until 2009. This experience of creating something entirely new motivated me to seek admission to CLA’s MFA program in Creative and Professional Writing. I had enough grants to support a leave of absence from teaching, summer travel, and abundant writing time—and this time I earned the degree! In 1997, to make the grant money stretch further, I accepted a job teaching online 11 hours per week. Online learning took off, I persisted as a writer, four colleagues and I began to work on planning a new online charter school, and again I persisted as a writer. In September 2005, both MNOHS and my novel, Freeing Vera, were launched. Soon enough the work of creating a model online community school became my joy and my primary professional commitment. Elliot Eisner has written that the arts teach us to act and to judge in the absence of rule. My time in the MFA program helped me to hone this ability, which serves me every day as a founder and leader of a new kind of school.

What is your favorite memory from your time as a student?

As an adult learner in the MFA program, I found friends, gifted professors, and exciting creative challenges. One of my favorite aspects of the program was the requirement that we complete two courses in an art form other than writing. I chose introductory studio arts courses, in which I experienced a joyful, inclusive learning environment for all skill levels.

What advice would you give to current CLA students?

Say yes to the good things that come along. Embrace creative challenges, expect surprises, and keep exercising that judgment in the absence of rule.

How do you spend your free time? What "fills your cup"?

Doing things that ground me physically—swimming, walking, dancing, cooking. Reading novels. Conversing about political science and science policy. Travel, theater and urban expeditions. Time with friends and family, in person and online. Drawing and collage. Watching movies. I have been teaching myself video and soundtrack editing, to preserve the photographic history of my village in Greece and the surrounding area.

What was your reaction to receiving this award?

I am deeply grateful to the people who worked on the nomination because they are the same people who make my work life so happy every day.

What's next? What are your personal/professional goals for the next five years?

At MNOHS, I’m excited about our evolution toward competency- and community-based learning. In the next year, I’m looking forward to transitioning MNOHS to new leadership, and making time to write. There’s a new book waiting for me around the corner, and more in-person community engagement.

This story was edited by an undergraduate student.

Edited by Jennifer Nguyen

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