Ellena Schoop: From Black Panthers to playwright and changemaker

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Deadly law enforcement raids on her home. Taken into police custody as a child. Forced to live on the run with her family. That was the childhood Region 7 Director Ellena Schoop and her five siblings knew as they grew up with their Black Panther parents in Washington, DC.  

Schoop and 5 sibilings

Schoop spoke about growing up in a Black Panther family on Feb. 10 as part of the Black History Month films, speakers and discussion series organized by MAPE members. Schoop only recently began talking about her unique childhood. The Black Panther Party was a political organization founded in 1966 to challenge police brutality against African-Americans. The Party also developed a free breakfast program for children, health care clinics and other community programs. 

There were several violent raids on their home, a Black Panther headquarters her family shared with three other families in Washington. One of the raids occurred on the fourth of July in the 1970s when Schoop said she and other children and their parents were outside singing songs. The police said they were being too loud. Officers later said, as reported

16 month old

in The Washington Post, that a 16-month-old child had thrown a brick at officers and that is why they raided the house. “The police controlled the narrative,” Schoop said. 

During another police raid, someone had pushed her down onto the floor “to protect me from the bullets flying around,” Schoop said. Her protector was shot repeatedly and before he died he told Schoop to remain still and silent so she wouldn’t be injured. “I didn’t know where my siblings or my parents were. Someone pulled me out from under the body that had protected me, and I was taken down to the police station. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong to have to go to the police station,” Schoop said.   

She said that when she returned home, “I had to step over a lot of bodies – some were injured, and others were dead. The police wouldn’t call for ambulances.”

Black Panther Headquarters

Schoop said it was the release of the blockbuster film “Black Panther” that made it easier for her to speak about her childhood. “It’s no surprise that the last part of the movie is about building up community. To me, that was the spirit of the real Black Panthers. We wanted to support our own community and feed our little children,” Schoop added. “There were so many people to feed, and I was working so hard on the breakfast program, that I was too busy to eat so I would often go to school hungry.”

Schoop said she was tired of hiding behind the stigma of shame. “Then I decided to say out loud what drives me: getting up in the morning to make breakfast for a line of people around the block. Gathering trash bags full of clothes to donate to women wanting to work. Picking up heroin needles in the neighborhood as the drug epidemic ravaged the community. You have to carry the strength and the community focus forward – it’s about justice and what changes we can make,” Schoop said. 

For years it was easier for Schoop to tell her story through dance and writing. She has been a playwright for 15

Hip Hop meets black panther

years and said, “The theater was a safe place for me to tell my story as it related to the Black Panthers. I started thinking, speaking and writing about it when I came to Minneapolis as a single mom. I developed a piece that put the Black Panthers and hip hop together – it was very powerful.’

She also began going to writing workshops and taking courses at the University of Minnesota and Open Book. Schoop founded the Givens Collaborative Black Writers  Retreat program because “there was no place for Black writers to write and connect with people.” She worked with many leading figures in the Black Arts Movement including Amiri Baraka, Andrea Jenkins and Sonia Sanchez.  

Schoop’s father was in the Air Force and moved the family across the globe from Canada to Europe. “We didn’t have money for dance classes, so my dad took me to African dance classes at a community center. As an adult, when I lived in Atlanta, I formed an African dance group. We didn’t require auditions like ballet and other dance groups did; if you have the desire to dance, we could teach you the technique,” Schoop said. 

Givens Collaboration

Schoop, a senior enterprise data architect with MNIT, was recently nominated for MNIT’s Employee of the Year Award. “I’ve always been interested in math and science but we didn’t have STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] when I was in school. They used to call me ‘the tiny toy breaker’ because I liked to take things apart to see how they worked and then put them back together,” Schoop said. 

“Being a single mom, I had to learn electronics on my own. I had to figure it out when my stereo speakers weren’t working or my car broke down and, to my surprise, I could fix it,” Schoop added. 

Schoop wanted to make it easier for others to learn and has been a volunteer MNIT judge of technology projects at local high schools. “When I went to Technovation MN, which inspires girls to build and leverage technology to make an impact on their communities, I saw there were very few girls of color in this group and I wanted to get more involved,” she said. 

Schoop currently serves on the board of directors for Code Savvy, a nonprofit organization that encourages children to “make coding your superpower,” by helping kids and educators become more “code-savvy” through educational programs and services. 

Schoop is co-founder of Women IT Changemakers, a statewide Employee Resource Group. “Having hallway conversations with women, and the struggles they were having with their male colleagues, MnDOT women engineers and male engineers. I decided it was time to stop talking and start doing,” Schoop said.    

The goal of the group is to build an influential and sustainable network of women leaders to increase the number of women in technology and leadership positions. 

Schoop was also involved in the formation of another Employee Resource Group, the Equity and Justice Black

Schoop Headshot

Caucus. “When I heard Governor Walz talking about building equity, I looked at my fellow Black employees. My dad always told me, ‘If there is a hole, fill it. If we’re missing something, build a bridge.’ The more we create space for others to hear the stories, to be honest about how people feel, that’s the beauty of what we’re doing in the Equity and Justice Black Caucus,“ she said.  

“I don’t always have all of the answers, but I bring people together and find the strategy and move forward. I am at the State and I want all of us to have equality,” she said.

“Ellena is a rock star! She is the epitome of a strong Black woman and the definition of a State employee: someone who gives herself to others. She’s one of my mentors and I’ve learned so much from her,” Equity and Justice Black Caucus Chair and Local 1002 President Maurice Wilson said.  

Schoop grew up talking about politics in her family so it is not surprising that she is a political delegate for her home Senate District 43. “Many Black people don’t know how to attend caucus meetings because we were not taught this in schools, and we didn’t have social media then. Today, more people are starting to have these conversations around the dinner table,” Schoop said. “There is a real revolution happening with millennials. Even my son is asking questions, and his friends are asking questions.    

“One of the things that is changing is you’re getting more Blacks and other people of color influencing legislative policy changes. You can march in the streets but that only gets you so far. I see more people now trying to change policy, which can have lasting impact.”