School Staff Member in the Great American Thinkoff

Angela Stehr was one of four finalists to answer the question “Is it Better to Win or Play by the Rules?” in the Great American Thinkoff, held annually in New York Mills, MN. Stehr is a Program Specialist for the Minnesota Institute of Astrophysics and is a self-described “Thinkoff Groupie.” She’s been attending the Thinkoff every year since 2008 and keeps a standing room reservation at the Whistle Stop B&B, the only hotel in the small community. 

Every New Year’s Day, when the big debate question is announced, Stehr and her Thinkoff buddies call one another to discuss the topic. Participants have until April 1st to craft an essay that will be good enough to be selected as one of four finalists from among hundreds from around the world. “I sorta got the hero's welcome,” she said when describing the reaction to the news that she was going to get to participate in the debate.

The 2021 pool of essays was particularly large because there were two years' worth of essays, as the Thinkoff had been canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. For the record, Stehr argued against playing by the rules. “I was more focused on civil rights, focused on people without access. The idea that you should get into good trouble. That was part of my essay. I’m not a troublemaker, but my heroes are. My heroes are the freedom riders, people like John Lewis who had to break the rules to make change.”

Stehr faced off in the debate against another University of Minnesota alumnus and a lawyer with a great deal of public speaking experience. Her opponent won and advanced to the next round where he was defeated by the eventual winner, Dan Tscida of Minneapolis. Stehr said that it was a trial by fire because while she has had some public speaking experience in the past--mostly as a union representative during strikes--she did not have experience speaking on camera.

“Of the four of us, three of us were somehow citing civil rights. I took very much a civil rights argument in the debate.” Another finalist cited Rosa Parks and how she broke the rules and still won and the winner quoted MLK about the arc of the moral universe. “One observation was that no one mentioned George Floyd. I submitted my essay in March of 2020. Two months prior.” It was just a coincidence that the topic and the essays all seemed to tie into the seismic events of last summer.

Stehr got interested in the Thinkoff while working at the University’s Humphrey Carlson Research Center. “We did a research conference with extension, making communities work. It focused on three case studies. One of them was New York Mills: putting your community on the map with the arts.” John Davis, who founded the NYM cultural center, which sponsors the Thinkoff, came to give a talk. “I asked ‘where the hell is New York Mills because we’re going in June’.” Apart from missing one year for her father’s 80th birthday, she has been attending ever since.