Shannon Nordby: At Home on Leech Lake and Roosevelt High School.

10168093_10152378534258033_6780100279175478209_nMy mom was born on Leech lake. She spoke only Ojibwe until she was five. She was put in foster care, and grew up in various places between the Reservation and Minneapolis. I was born in Minneapolis and I have lived on the south side my whole life.

I grew up a block from Barton, where I went to school, where my kids go to school, where, as a parent, I am still very involved.

As a kid I loved exploring outside. I was into rocks at a very young age. One of my favorite things to do when I was really little, before I could go anywhere on my own, was to look at the stucco of the houses on my block. We lived near Lake Harriet. There was so much nature there. There was a great big hill near my house and all us kids used to play there together without adult supervision. We felt very safe.

My dad used to take me rock hunting at a gravel pit near Osseo, when that area was still country. (It’s a first ring suburb now). I loved the baked smell of the biosphere. You don’t get that in the city. We searched for agates. My dad said I had eagle eyes for agates. That always made me feel good. He is the one who got me interested in science.

Dad is a house painter, in his 70s now and still working. He says “motion is lotion.” He knows if he stops he won’t start again. He grew up on 36th and Garfield. His mother was a union activist in the servers union at a fancy hotel down town and his father worked in an adding machine company. Dad went to Central high school. He was in the Painter’s union when he was younger.

My mom was a media specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools until she got hit by a car. I got the call on the first day of school during my second year of teaching. She quit after that.

I grew up with one brother — five years younger than me. About four years ago I found out I have another brother. My mothers first child. He was adopted when my mom was in her early 20s. I have never met him. I want to, but we need to buy haircuts, food, a car. I don’t have any money for the trip right now.

K-12 Schooling, and Finding my People in Uptown.

I went to Barton school from kindergarten to 3rd grade. I was lucky to have Mrs. Finch as a teacher. She was African American. She was very kind. To have an African American teacher was life changing. I had had all white ladies up until that time —- I grew up in privilege — not a lot of diversity — she was really supportive. She knew what life is really like. A lot of people loved Mrs Finch.

Then I went to North Wind Warriors —- a district-wide program for Indian kids in 4 and 5th grade held inside the Seward and then Lyndale schools. I had Mrs. Roberson. She was not a good teacher. One time she was reading a story I got in trouble for closing my eyes and imagining instead of looking at the pictures. They picked us up on little buses. I felt no stigma about those buses. They were cool. I knew we had a special class — we did not mix with the school.

I went back to Barton 6-8 grade. After being crushed by Mrs. Roberson for being creative, I was now instructed to be think on my own. Barton was now an “Open” school, but they had yet to figure out how to guide student’s in the open program. I had a hard time. The principal thought I was selling drugs. I didn’t even know what drugs were.

I went to Regina Catholic school in St.Joan of Arc for one year, and then to Southwest. I didn’t take high school seriously. I could have done better if someone was looking out for me.
I started to get in trouble in Uptown — hanging out with skin heads and punks. Anti Racist Action (ARA) — that was my group. We hung out— we did political stuff too — went to rallies. My boyfriend did more than I did, but that was still my crowd. Among those friends at Southwest I was the only one to graduate from high school.
My identity was formed by anti-racist, punk Uptown. I was not punk myself and I wasn’t a skin head, but that was where I wanted to be — where I found interesting people and I could be myself. I did not fit in Southwest. I fit in with the misfits in Uptown. We all still know each other. Some of their kids have gone to Roosevelt. They are still my connections.

But once I got to college I did not go back. That is when Uptown changed — there was a new library, the greenway, gentrification.

I went to St. Thomas University because I was accepted there. That was another place where there weren’t people of color. I don’t claim to be a Tommy. I had a job, went to college parties, but mostly it was a waste.

I knew I wanted to study science. I thought about pre-med, but I did not like how drugs were being developed. My Plant Biology professor, Chester Wilson accepted me for who I was. We did interesting experiments in his class. I got a Life Science degree and a teaching license in Life Science education. I can teach biology, 9th grade physical science and middle school science.

Idle No More, Native Lives Matter, Leech Lake Council.

I have four children. Avery (14) and Aneila (12) and Biiwan (6) and Tyr (2). When I had three kids and a car and I was able to get involved in a lot of things: Idle No More, my teachers union and the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council.

Idle No More was formed in Canada — four women saying we are not going to sit back any more. The movement moved to the U.S. A big part of it was round dancing. If you had a rally you had a round dance, if you shut down traffic you had a round dance. Round dances make community. Everyone holds hands and is looking at each other, having fun and making friends.

No one recruited me to INM. I went on my own, made my own flyers. It broke down because of personalities. People wanting to take ownership over what was going on. The same thing happened to Native Lives Matter.

The person I had best time organizing with was JR Bobick. He is open to other people’s  opinions and brings people into the work. You go hang out with him and he is so positive. We organized together with Idle No More when there was an oil spill in MN. We went to the company headquarters downtown and round danced there on the mall, sang some great songs. We also connected with Save the Kids, organized by Anthony Nocella — until he moved away.

After that we formed our own local chapter of  Native Lives Matter, to mourn and organize against police brutality and missing/ murdered Native woman. I got out of it when I was pregnant with my fourth child. I also wanted to get away from all the drama — especially around people’s native identity, criticizing people for not being Native enough.

A big issue that has arisen recently is how heroin is killing our people. My students tell me how they are involved in Natives Against Heroin. I would love to be involved with them. Maybe when my youngest baby is in day care…..

I became the secretary of the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council nine months ago. We have monthly meetings to open communication links between Leech Lake and the tribal members in the Twin Cites. I write the minutes — keep us going. There is a dichotomy between Indigenous people having an oral tradition versus me writing everything down. What I am doing is making sure people who are not there know what is going on. Increasing communication. We talk about heroin —how it is affecting kids, the education our kids need, supporting our elders. All of the work is really political. It is hard to keep out the jealously and ego stuff in order to get stuff done.

1795684_10152325148533033_1006892398_n

About six years ago  I started a Facebook group for all staff of Minneapolis Public Schools — a place to organize. The union president saw that and asked me to run for secretary of MFT executive board in 2012. I won. I really enjoyed my two-year term — getting involved in how our union works.

Our new union president Michelle Weiss is working on “leveling out our union — so there is less hierarchy. I just said yes to being the assistant steward in my building and running for the MFT executive board. It is an important time to be doing union work. Minnesota is in danger of becoming a Right to Work state. That would be devastating for our union. Fewer members, less clout. People who are not in the union can’t vote on the contract. That is just the beginning of how it would affect us.

Teaching.

I teach urban farming right now at Roosevelt High School. I’m teaching the kids the basics of sustainability. I tell them this is the most important class they will ever take; learning to grow their own food. They hate it when I tell them that.

The food surprises them. They say “I didn’t know cherry tomatoes were so small…” There is no standardized test that goes with my course. That gives me freedom to design my own curriculum. We can go outside. I love the plants. I am learning and teaching indigenous farming. I am signing up for great conferences.

I need to get a car first though..

Its fun, because the kids tell me the school is like a prison — they hate the seating chart, the time limitations. They don’t want to be there…

Does anyone like high school? I just want to be a positive force in their lives, empowering them in anyway I can.

These days, instead of being so involved in social movements outside of work, I am taking it into school. I am planning a Native club. We will have eight meetings a year. I got someone to donate Tanka Bars and Leech Lake is donating wild rice.
I never thought I would love teaching as much as I do this year. In addition to Urban Farming I teach a class with RISE, for 12th grade kids who are in danger of not graduating. I love that as well. I can use positivity to help kids get through, so they can move on to the dreams they have, for after school.

I had a kid yesterday who got his diploma. He came down to see me. We were both so happy.

My principal is great. He supports my course and is excited that I am teaching it. He wants the students to have a voice. He understands we need to deal with white supremacy. After Philando Castile was murdered, he brought it up in a school meeting. He said “I know this makes you uncomfortable..”

I told him “For some of us, bringing it up makes us more comfortable.”

As a white man he has no idea what we go through as people of color and Indigenous people, but he opened the door. He wants to hear how it affects the school. This is different from other places I have taught where the principal did not want to hear it.

But I’m grateful for all my experiences, even those dysfunctional times at other schools. I learned from them. All the work I’ve done inside and outside of work, Leech Lake, Native Lives Matter, I can now use in my classrooms at Roosevelt.

The job I have now is not for first year teachers.

I’m living a good Ojibwa life. I want the best for everyone else. I hope my ego will not be called into question in breaking movements down. We Ojibwe have our Seven Teachings. One of them is humility. I strive for that.

These days when I’m done with work, I stay home with the kids and husband and the house and the dog and the cooking and the dishes and the laundry. The thing I need now is time —to do all this work, and watch the plants grow.

10419492_10152956510363033_4649401988758594891_n

Valérie Déus: Missing New York, Building an Artist’s Life in South Minneapolis

 

22472358_10101651866698055_1218709275_n

How did I get to Minneapolis? My husband.

I was born in the County of Kings, Brooklyn, Flatbush, New York City.
My world was big but felt small. Everyone I had contact with was Haitian. Until third grade I thought all Black people were from Haiti.

Young Haitians I meet now tell me  “you sound like my grandma.” I don’t know the young slang because my neighborhood was made up of people who left Haiti in the 1970s — a middle class diaspora. There was one older woman of Irish descent who lived in my building. She had polio braces. She told me, “there used to be lots of us here, now there’s just me.”  I used to run up and ask her questions.

I started writing when I was 5 years old. I still have my kindergarten diary. So much of it is funeral plans. I was obsessed with preparing for my own funeral — the sweater I would need — the scarf. I also made a list of things I would need in the event of a hurricane. None of the Noreasters that hit New York when I was little were bad, but I knew about hurricanes in Haiti. I packed a bag with a flashlight, underwear, shirts. My mom found it and asked, Where are you going?

I first visited Haiti when I was three. My mom tells me at the airport the ticket person called my name, testing to see if I was who she said I was, making sure I wasn’t being kidnapped.

When I was six I went again. It was intense. Hot. Big, scary looking trees with shadows that looked like creatures that might eat me.  There was a hurricane when I was there — water everywhere, houses shaking.  There were these giant holes in the streets where all the sewage and water would run. Even at six I wondered, why don’t they fix this? Won’t people fall in? We went to a movie on that trip. I was upset they didn’t sell popcorn. People chewed gum. I don’t remember the movie much. Something with French aristocrats — lots of velvet.

At that young age I was already going to movies with my uncle. One of the earliest I remember is King Kong with Jessica Lange.

My parents let me watch TV sometimes so I could, “learn about my country,”  something they couldn’t teach me, but they worried about me watching too much.  They wanted me to read books.  When I was left alone in the summer they would disconnect the TV wires. I would spend the day trying to figure out how to rewire them. My mother would check the TV to see if it was hot.

I watched everything: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, fantasy, horror and countless Woody Allen movies —Anne Hall, Sleeper, movies without Black people.  They were always on TV for some reason.IMG_2965 2

Reading Highlights Magazine, the Goofus and Gallent comic was a favorite. 

I had to wait a long time before I had a friend. My sister is 10 years younger. Once she came along it was awesome. Together we were unstoppable.  She didn’t tattle. She knew how to keep a secret. (My mother said the same about her siblings. Sisters and brothers kept each other company.) I brought her with me to all of my high school events and beach parties. She kept me out of trouble. I could always say I had to bring my little sister home. A good excuse.IMG_2968 2

 

School 

From kindergarten to 3rd grade I went to Holy Innocents,a Catholic school in the neighborhood.  The church was across the street from the school. One of priests had a pet snake. We would go visit the snake. He passed a long time ago. He was awesome. It was a good school. I used to want to get married in that church. But then when I got married I decided not to do church at all.

From 3rd to 7th grade I went to a French school in Manhattan with UN kids. There was a big class difference there. I met students from Haiti and the African continent. I am still friends with many of them.

IMG_2967

 

My family moved to Queens and I went to high school on Long Island. That was terrible. I just waited for college so I could get back to the city. Watching the Scaramucci scandal play out this summer triggered me, bringing up memories of horrible sexual harassment and bullying in high school. I had buried those memories.  I forgot, but my body remembered. I told my husband about it. Now he knows why I flinch when when he comes up to me without announcing himself — a defense mechanism from high school.

I was desperate to get back to the City. I went to PACE University in downtown Manhattan. It was everything I was waiting for.  I was smart enough to make friends with the international students. Now I have people to stay with all over the world. My mom was really against me moving into the dorms, but I needed that. I was worried I would not be able to live alone.

My mother worked for this child psychologist so I thought that’s what I’d do. I registered for a psych class where we were required to watch the film Altered States, about a guy losing it after time in an isolation tank.  It was disturbing. And reading Carl Jung was so boring. I quit psychology.  Today I often take the role of counselor for my students and friends. Without Jung.

Becoming a Writer and Teacher

I liked hearing and telling stories. I became an English major.

While in college I interned at Soho Press and met Edwidge Danticat.  Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, had just come out. She called the office one day and I answered. We’ve kept in touch ever since. She recommended I go to Long Island University, the Brooklyn campus, for graduate school. I took her advice as gospel, never thought to apply any where else.

I loved being in school. I didn’t want to be a teacher. My only teaching experience at that time was CCD communion class — sixth graders on a Saturday morning, there because their parents made them, a curriculum I couldn’t change, no room for questioning the content. It was terrible.

Teaching as a graduate student was totally different. Everyone was grown and wanted to be there.  They did the reading and they wrote papers I wanted to read. I discovered I enjoyed teaching.  Student were reactive. There work was clear.

Teaching in Minneapolis is different. There is something self-effacing about the culture. Students feel like what they have to say is not important. Once they are pushed to talk it’s great. In New York they needed no pushing. I would tell people to write a paper about why they missed class. Even those papers were interesting.

I’d rather not teach on-line. It feels make believe. You’ve gotta be in the room and feel that heat when you say something wrong — sit in that embarrassment. Those moments push you into places you didn’t even think of going.

Escaping New York after 9/11. 

I have trauma from 9/11. I was dating someone who died that day — not at the Twin Towers.

All the phone lines were down.

That morning I picked up my sister at school and we went to the hotel where my mom worked. Micheal Jackson’s limo was in front of the hotel. His fans were gathered twenty feet in front me. I didn’t see him, but I saw his hands.  I looked down the street and saw dust rising. It was the most surreal American moment.

That night my boyfriend’s father told me his son — who had sickle cell anemia — had died.

I had just started grad school. I didn’t go to class for two weeks. Everyone was miserable — out in the streets — people crying.  I was working in D.U.M.B.O. The World Trade Center was right out the window — a smoky pit.

I thought — I can’t live in this cemetery.  I decided to take a trip to Poland to see a friend. The day I bought the plane ticket, flight 587 to the Dominican Republic crashed.

It was good to be in Poland, where I didn’t understand anybody. Just what I needed. I thought I might move there. I did research about the Poles who came with Napoleon  to fight against the Haitian Revolution in 1802, got to the island, decided they liked it and stayed. I was looking for a Polish/Haitian connection to justify my moving plans.

I had a neo-Nazi experience in Poland. I saw these skin heads moving in formation, went into a store and asked the saleswoman if she thought I should stay there. She said yes. I believed her and stayed over an hour, bought some amber jewelry,  until they left.

It made me realize anything could happen anywhere.

I met my husband-to-be in New York. He couldn’t get a job he wanted so he came back to Minneapolis, where he grew up. I thought, well I guess I like him enough to follow. I figured if I don’t like it I can always come back — that is what my parents always told me. I landed in Minneapolis on July 5, 2005 and went immediately to Dunn Brothers to look for a job. I always thought of living here as temporary.

A lot of my moving to Minneapolis was about escaping 9/11.  I needed to get out of that space. New York City sometimes feels like a small town. Sometimes that is stifling. I thought I could come here and start over where no one knows me. Nobody still knows me. Even my husband doesn’t know me, ha.

 

Minnesota Nice 

Nice can be nice.
I’m not against nice.
Maybe I am.

I want people to tell me what is happening. At work there is always someone trying to make everyone feel OK. A lot of time is taken up, but nothing is produced. I think, Its not OK. Let’s deal with what is.

I never had a problem meeting people before I moved here. In New York I was always meeting new people. People are much more open to that newness. Here people like the old reliable. If I stuck with old-reliable in New York I’d never talk to anybody. As an adult I was one of the few native New Yorkers I knew!

I don’t know how to approach people here. I don’t understand the body language. I never thought it would wear me down. I spend a lot of time at home. I feel like I have only a limited amount of patience and I want to spend it on things that are clear.

I never get to have a full map of a person here, because nobody tells you anything about themselves.

Sometimes I think about moving home to New York. It was busy and awesome. Then I realize I’m thinking about how New York was, when I was in my 20s. It’s frustrating when I go back. I’m 43 now.

An Artist’s Life in Minneapolis 

There are many things that keep me here, opportunities I would not have in New York. In NYC I had no time for anything except teaching and commuting.

I have a radio show, Project 35, on KRSM  98.9 FM.  It airs at 9am on Thursday and 10am on Saturdays. Part of the Southside media project.  I like that nobody listens to it. I’m weird, I know. I can say anything. I think of it as an eclectic magazine for your ears.

I curate Cinema Lounge — screening short films at Bryant Lake Bowl that are locally made, third Wednesdays of the month. (Send me your short films!)

I produce an Art Zine: We Here.

IMG_2964 2

Valérie’s first issue of We Here — just out — is filled with exquisite work by South Minneapolis artists. The free Zine is a hard love gift to the city. Look for it in your closest Little Free Library 

My goal is to publish one a year— essays, poems, rants, Instagram posts, photography, things people write on Facebook that should be in books. Somebody did a project where they mapped them all out the Little Free Libraries. I’m using that map to distribute them.

Radio, print, film, my own work. I have chosen an artist’s life. Minneapolis allows me to do it.

We live in the Central neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  Its been good. My mother came here and she liked it. She knew I was OK.

I have a tendency to want to flee things, but I will probably stay here. Starting over at this point would be too hard. I can’t imagine doing it again. I wish more of my people were here. I wish we had soft-serve ice cream trucks here. I can’t believe how sad it makes me. Those unsanitary New York ice cream trucks are something I miss.

Henry Jimenez: Proud Son Of Two Who Were Undocumented Immigrants.

 

IMG_2854My Dad is from Mexico, my mother from El Salvador. Sometimes when people think about crossing the border they don’t realize that some people cross multiple borders to get here. My mom left El Salvador during the civil war in the 1980s. She was imprisoned for several weeks in Mexico and in the U.S. when she was sixteen — for wanting a better life. She still cries when she tells me about her journey. If you met my mom — she is the sweetest woman ever. To think of her in prison — especially at that age — makes me emotional too.

When family members — relatives from El Salvador and Mexico — crossed the border, they would stay with us. We were the first stop. My dad would help them find work. They were all looking for a better life.

I completely understand the need for borders, but I don’t understand the idea of calling a human being illegal. I used to watch the news with my dad in Spanish — listening to how politicians were treating the Latino and immigrants communities. I would think—“ I don’t get it — why would they want to treat hard working people like my dad so badly?”

My ideology began at the young age of five or six, watching my dad come home late, greasy, smelly and tired and sometimes not even making it to the dinner table, passing out on the couch from working multiple jobs. He was bailing alfalfa. He learned how to fix the farm machinery and eventually he realized that truck drivers made more money, so he became a truck driver. On the weekends he fixed cars in the neighborhood and did lawn work. He was always working. My mom cleaned houses, took care of kids. Now my mom works in a hotel in Las Vegas cleaning rooms. We never starved. We had a place and food. I am always thankful to them for that. But even as a kid I would think, how is it that they work so hard and we have so little?

 

Childhood and youth in California and Nevada.

I was born in Torrence, California. I grew up around Asian and Black culture. In California my classmates were immigrants, Samoan, Vietnamese. I knew I was Latino, but there was not that racial divide that you can see elsewhere.

I was very young when I got this idea that if I wanted to help my family, I needed to get involved with the decision-making entities. In third grade I ran for class president. I organized the Latino kids. I thought we needed to play more with the African American kids. I figured out who their leader was and said to him: “I think we should have class games. One day we play basketball with you and then the next day you play soccer with us.” We did it!

Sixth and seventh grade were difficult. I went from my elementary school where I thought I was a pretty smart kid, to a magnet school where I couldn’t even do the homework. I started thinking maybe I’m not as smart as me and my parents thought I was.

Before eighth grade my parents decided to buy a home in Nevada where it was affordable. In my new school in Las Vegas I was again at the top of my class. I felt like I knew everything and wasn’t challenged. When I reflect back, it makes me realize the inequalities between school districts.

I went to the the oldest high school in Las Vegas and took advantage of everything it had to offer, running for student council, and reinvigorating the school’s Latino club. I rallied people around the DREAM ACT and immigration reform. My goal was to create a network of Latino youth in Las Vegas that could mobilize but I knew to get people interested we needed to do social things as well. I asked my group what they wanted and they said “ When they have prom or home coming dances they never do Latino music or dances. Why can’t we have a Latino dance?
I had to convince the administrators. They didn’t think there was a need for a Latino Dance. I told them we never get to dance the Salsa or Merengue at school dances, and the school is 50% Latino. I got four teachers who were willing to chaperone. They said I would have to pay for security. I said, “Why can’t the school pay for it upfront and we will pay you back afterward with the money we get?” They said no at first, until an adviser intervened.

So now I had to raise money. I printed 100 tickets. I worried that if we only attracted the Latinos at our school we were not going to make enough. So I went to five other Las Vegas high school Latino clubs and asked them to sell 10 tickets each. That was my first experience talking to people I didn’t know. I said “I’m sure you want a Latino dance too. You should organize one, but in the meantime why don’t you come to ours. If you sell ten tickets I will give you one free ticket.”

The night of the dance, me and the twelve other members of our club got to the school early to decorate the room. At six o’clock it was time for the dance to begin. No one was there. Then at 6:15 I started to see cars. By 6:30 we had a line! We started the music.

The first kids from another high school showed up and said “Sorry we are late. We sold the ten tickets but we still have another 20 people coming. Is that OK?”
I said “Sure!” Pretty soon we had so many people the school officials told me we couldn’t let anyone else in. We made two thousand dollars that night.

Becoming a first generation college student. 
In my junior year I applied to go to the Latino Youth Leadership Conference at the University of Nevada. We stayed in the dorms. It was life changing. Suddenly I did not feel alone. There were fifty high school students from Las Vegas and Reno, who felt like I did, who wanted to work for a change. The conference was facilitated by college students — the first Latino college students I had ever known.

Before that, I knew I needed to go to college but I didn’t know how to get there or even what college was. The conference connected me to people like myself. We divided into groups we called familias. The conference developed a leadership sense in me. I learned confidence in my  skills.

When I started my senior year, it was these new college friends that let me know what I needed to do to get into college — like take my SATs.
When there was an announcement that there was going to be a recruiter from the University of Nevada coming to our school, I told my teacher I wanted to go down to meet them. He thought I was trying to get out of class.I had to convince him I was really going to go down there.

When I got there, nobody else was there — just me and the recruiter from the University of Nevada. I thought “This is weird.” Our conversation went like this:

Me: I want to go to college.
Recruiter: Do you have your transcripts, test scores?
Me: No.
Recruiter. “I can’t help you if you don’t have those things.” He stopped talking to me and started reading his newspaper.

He was going to be there two more days. The next day I went to the librarian and asked her how I could get my transcript. She sent me to the office and I got what I needed. I went to the recruiter. Still no-one else there. I showed him my stuff.

Recruiter: “OK, but before we start, Do you have your $50?”
Me: “For what?”
— “It cost’s $50 to apply.”
— “Shit! I didn’t know applying for college costs money!” I was making money — working at a swap meet, hustling CDs, finding ways to sell things (no drugs). Fifty dollars was nearly all I had. I gave him my cash.

— “You need a check”.
— “I don’t have a checking account.”
— “Doesn’t your Mom or Dad have an account?”

I would never ask my parents for money. I told him, “My Dad’s a truck driver. He is out of town for a week. Is there any other way?”
— “You could get a money order, but that’s going to cost you money”.
— “Where do I get that?”

He told me a few places. I came back the next day with the money order. He looked at my SAT scores. “These scores are not good enough to get into college”.
I told him I wanted to apply anyway.

Weeks later I got a letter from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. They were going to let me in. They averaged the two SAT numbers, and while my reading and writing score were low, my math score was high. I’d have to take remedial courses in writing and reading that would not count as college credit.

At that point I was determined to go. I had to figure out how to register for classes. Luckily I got help from the college students from the Latin Youth Conference. They were now juniors and seniors. One of them saw me at the library trying to figure out how to register for classes. He sat there with me for two hours and helped me through the process until I was done.
The first week of school he saw me again and asked “Do you have a job?” He got me a job where he was working, as a bilingual tutor.

The first semester was super hard. I had never written more than a page for any assignment, or read more than a book a month! But I made it through my first semester.

I became determined to help other Latinos and people of color go through the process of applying and starting college. I knew about student council from high school. I thought I would connect with the Latino rep on the University council. But there was no Latino rep! In fact,there were no people of color in student government. Everyone who had run in the past had lost.

I decided to run. Everyone told me “Wait until next year. No-one wins as a freshman.” I thought “There are no Latinos, and no freshman. I’m going to do it!”

I learned the process of campaigning. I went to all the ethnic council groups. I went to the Black Student Union and told them, “Here is where we’re at — no students of color on the council. I’m running . Next year it can be me and one of you guys.” I think people believed me because, I ended up winning by nine votes.

I had to learn Robert’s Rules of order. It was so frustrating. Every proposal I made I couldn’t even get someone to second the motion. I finally got on the Ways and Means Committee. Student government controlled $1.5 million. One of the things they did was approve funding for student groups. There were 100 organizations. All of them got approved for funding except one: A Latino based organization. They said they were too radical.

I said: “Are you kidding me? These folk are my friends. They are helping people like me figure out how to succeed in college. You are giving all these other political groups money and not this one?”

I was the only one  who voted to fund the Latino group. We needed a unanimous vote. We were there for four hours before one of them said, “Lets postpone the vote.”

That was all I needed. In a few days I was able to organize all the ethnic groups to come to the next meeting. I met one of the Latino professors. Even the media showed up. We won. It was my first victory. People began to see what one senator could do.

Shortly after that there was a random opening in the Student Senate. We packed the room and got one of us to join me. Now we had someone to second my motions.

Next election I recruited eleven people to run and nine of them won. Now out of 27 senators we had a third. The year after that, we were in the majority. In my junior year people said I had to run for student body president. I did.

I lost by 20 votes. We doubled the number of people who voted. I ran again the next year, and lost again by even fewer votes. The number of people voting doubled again. The people voting against me were fraternity folks. The people who voted for me were first time college students, people of color. My campaign galvanized interest on both sides.

The affect of our work was long lasting. The following three student body presidents after that were Latino.

I  majored in Women’s Studies and Political Science. Women’s Studies gave me the language to articulate how I felt about machismo and gender roles. It provided me with critical thinking skills, a way of presenting myself as a person of color — all that came from Women’s Studies.

The “Real World.”

When I graduated I worked in a law firm. I didn’t like it. At the law firm, I was making money, paying my college debt, helping my mom, but I never felt good about what we did. It was a personal injury law firm I didn’t like how clients made less than lawyers on lawsuits. I knew they weren’t doing much. I was the one putting together the paperwork. It got to the point where I would tell clients “You know you can do it yourself.” I typed an instruction sheet and gave it to them and said “You don’t need our firm.”

A few weeks later they would call back and say. “Hey I want you to represent me. I called other firms and they promised me the world and I soon realized that they were lying to me and you were honest with me, so I want you.”
So everyone I talked to signed up with us, often weeks later. So obviously the attorneys loved me. They said “You are our best recruiter.” They didn’t know what I was saying in Spanish to the clients.

I finally realized the only way for me to get out of it, was to leave.

I had not traveled abroad during college because I was to involved in the Student Senate politics. I felt like I had to be there. Now I don’t think like that. I am better at self care, but then I had this weird self-imposed duty to my Latino community that did not allow me to take one semester away.

After the law firm in 2007, I traveled to South Americawith my girlfriend at the time. We went to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. When I got back the law firm said I could come back. I said no, but I couldn’t find other work and my savings were down to nothing.

I went back to live with my parents.

I was depressed. It was 2008 – Las Vegas. Worse time and place for a job seeker.

Getting to Minneapolis 

I went on-line and I saw this job in Minnesota — YouthLink — serving homeless young adults. I had met at a woman at a training who lived in Minnesota. While I was considering the Minneapolis job, she called and asked me how the job search was going and if I had thought about looking in Minnesota. She said if you find a job here, you are welcome to come stay with us while you apply. I figured that phone call at that moment was a sign.

I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.

I just came. I didn’t even apply. I thought, if I show up with my resume, they will know I’m serious. I went to the YouthLink office with my resume in my hand. No one answered the door. I didn’t realize I was at the back of the building. I was about to leave when someone came. They let me in, but no one talked to me. I saw someone at the copy station and went up to her, showed her my resume. I said something like — “I came here because otherwise you wouldn’t think I’m serious.”

She started writing on my resume and then said, “I’ll keep this here and we will give you a call.” A couple months later YouthLink called me to see if I was still interested in the job.
YouthLink changed my life. I always knew I grew up poor, but I was never homeless. It was an eye-opening experience to work with homeless youth. It transformed how I thought about politics, how I worked with people. I learned  not assume things about sexual orientation, mental health.

I started to do work around getting homeless people to vote and get involved in political decision-making. Later I got a job with Project for Pride in Living, managing their after-school program. While working I found a graduate program that was Friday-Saturday, in Duluth. The MAPL program.

I went with my girlfriend- (now my wife) to El Salvador. I needed to see the country where my mom came from. It made me very sad — to see how poor it was, to see the conditions in which she had lived.

I applied for a job with the Central Neighborhood Association. Twelve people interviewed me, around a table. It was the first interview where I felt like I could be myself. I told them my story. They gave me the opportunity at CANDO. It was a mess. I was able to turn it around. We went from eight events a year, to 20 in six months. We got funding reallocated. Community members showed up. Our budget went from $100,000 a year to $300,000 year.

Minnesota  Council of Latino Affairs

I read the StarTribune and the Las Vegas Review Journal every night– have for years. One night I was reading about the the Latino Council of Minnesota, thinking that would be a dream job for someday in the future. I looked it up — and they had a posting. I thought: this is too soon!

The next morning I had two people text me about it, telling me  to apply. I put it off, thinking I wasn’t ready. My wife said “You just got CANDO in shape, where you can have a weekend off. We are about to have a baby…” That made sense, but we decided I should apply to go through the process.
The application process was long. Four cycles, meeting with legislatures. I was intimidated, until I remembered I had interned with Harry Reid. I could do this. I know how the legislative process works. Again I was just myself.

I started work at the Minnesota Council of Latino Affairs on December 2015. The Ethnic Councils are part of the executive branch. I inform the Governor’s office and state legislature on matters pertaining to the Latino community.

I have good relations with people from both parties, but sometimes their voting decisions are dictated by their party affiliation. We work to find out what issues are important to the Latino community and bring them to the legislature.

We estimate there 35-55,000 undocumented Latinos in the state. To us that is an important population to represent. We continue to work to obtain drivers’ licenses for all.  It is an uphill battle, fought for eight sessions now. We try to make the argument that it is a safety issue for all Minnesotans, to make sure everyone driving has taken a drivers test and has insurance. People had access to licenses for many years — until Governor Pawlenty made a rule change. Rule changes can be overturned by the current governor.

We argue this is not  just a Latino issue but a Minnesota issue.

We were about 6% of the total Minnesota population. Latinos are voting more and more.  Still, only half of those that can vote turn out. That bothers me. I always tell people to think about those who can’t vote and vote for them.
My daughter is 17th months old. As a new parent I have a sense of urgency. I don’t vote for myself. I vote for my daughter and I vote thinking about my parents.

When I turned 18 I was the first one to be able to vote in my family. I took my siblings, my mom, my grandma, to the voting booth. They were proud of me. This year there were seven of us voting. My grandmother, my mom, my siblings. Now I ask my siblings to take their kids.

I always ask folks, “How many of your parents are hard working?” Everyone raises their hand. Then I say “How many of you wish they had a better life?” Again all hands. “So why won’t you do the most simple thing, to start off with —vote for your parents.”

That gets people. I think voting needs to become a tradition for Latino folks. I tell people, even if they can’t  vote, they should take their children to voting locations and tell them: “This is where you are going to vote someday and when you vote, think about your mom. Think about your dad. Cause I can’t vote for you mijo, but one day, mijo, you will vote for me.”

 

 

Elizabeth Faue: Feminist Labor Historian Sought the Exotic in Her Youth; Returned to Working Class North Minneapolis Roots.

19251021_1821631977881188_1884800297_n

19th Century Minnesota Roots

I come from a mixed marriage: Norwegian Lutherans and German Lutherans.  

My mom’s family (her mother’s side) came from Norway in the 1840, joining a chain migration from Dane County, Wisconsin, to Dodge County, Minnesota, to Woonsocket, South Dakota, and ending up in the Twin Cities. These migrants were the younger siblings who did not inherit the farm, who came in search of land, to re-create what their parents had in Norway. The land they settled on in South Dakota (like that in Wisconsin and Minnesota) had originally belonged to the Native Americans.  

In Woonsocket, these families grew diverse crops — flax for weaving, wheat, and corn. They had a few sheep and goats, a cow or two. A little for the market, but mostly for themselves—a subsistence-plus existence. Their kids went to school.

Woonsocket today is a bar, a place you can get your car fixed, a library, some houses, and cemeteries. It was a rail hub for a while (1880s) when the railroad went through, but people began to leave after a period of decreasing rainfall by 1890s. What had been crop land slowly became grazing land.  My grandmother (Myrtle) hated the place, and she left South Dakota when she could—after going to Normal School in Madison, SD.  

The other side of my mother’s family came in about 1895, first settling in Crawford County, Wisconsin, near the Saint Croix. But my great-grandfather (Bersven) was a cabinet maker, so they moved to the Twin Cities where he could practice his trade. There they experienced a great tragedy: his wife —my great grandmother Malena — was killed in a fire. As a result Berven split the family up. His son Mel, who became my grandfather, ended up back in Wisconsin and later in South Dakota working as a harvest hand. I believe he was a Wobbly, (member of the  IWW — Industrial Workers of the World).

Grandpa was an ambulance driver during World War One. After the war, he came to the Twin Cities, re-united with my grandmother (They met, I believe, in South Dakota), and they married promptly. My mother Yvonne was born about a year later.

On my father’s side were the “territorial pioneers” of Minnesota, something I did not know growing up. The Hohensteins came in the 1850s, and Henry Faue came in about the same time. Henry Faue was a “Freiegemeinde” or Freethinker, a religious liberal. These people founded their own congregation in Medina, Minnesota, in rural Hennepin County. They built their own cemetery, which is still there. Henry Faue enlisted in the Union Army late in the Civil War (1864) as a private.  

His son, my great grandfather Louis, inherited land in rural Hennepin and Wright counties, but he was a “wastrel” (so says the family story) and so he lost it all. His children at best felt conflicted about him; some hated him. My grandfather Louis, the second oldest son, was thrown out of the house when he was quite young and went to live with an uncle.  Louis became a carpenter and mechanic—a fixer of creamery machinery. His carpenter skills were legendary.  He built a dining room table with 800 separate pieces of wood, fit together into a mosaic design.  Louis became the manager of a cooperative creamery in St. Michael — until he was fired during the agricultural depression in the 1920s. After that, he worked as a traveling machine fixer for creameries and dairies.

19578193_1821634041214315_932619333_n

Double wedding of my grandfather Louis and his brother Bill, who married sisters (Lillie my grandmother and Lizzie, my great aunt), in Hanover, Minnesota  1880s, I think.
Parents Growing Up in North Minneapolis

The family moved into a small house in North Minneapolis on Bryant Avenue. That is where my father Vince was born and where his older siblings (five of the six) went to North High School.  His sister Vernetta, also born in Minneapolis, went to Patrick Henry after the family moved farther north.  My Dad didn’t go to high school.

My mother Yvonne was born just blocks away from my Dad, in a tiny house not too far from Victory Memorial Drive and close to Camden. Her father worked as a Minneapolis public school janitor.  When he got his veterans’ bonus, they bought a bigger house — on 43rd and Sheridan, two blocks away from Victory Lutheran Church, where my mother, and all of us, were baptized.

Victory Lutheran was a Norwegian congregation. My grandfather was one of the charter members, and my mother was one of the first children to be baptized in the unfinished church (the baptismal font was in the basement). It was sold some time back. It think it’s a Baptist Church today.

My parents met when my mom was 14 and my dad was 18. He decided she was the world. Shortly after they met, he went into the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).  Then he was drafted in 1940. After basic training, and before he was shipped off to Europe, he got permission to take three days off to go home and get married.

19551009_1821633564547696_711013096_n

After my Dad returned to Fort Knox, he was sent to Northern Ireland and then to North Africa. He became part of a reconnaissance unit in North Africa — a half-track gunner in the First Armored Division led by General Patton. He hated Patton. After that campaign, I believe he did not want to kill any more. He volunteered as a stretcher-bearer at Casino but went instead to Anzio.  He served as a medic in Italy until the army go to the River Po. After 30 months of combat duty, the Army stationed him back home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at an army hospital, where his job was making prosthesis for injured soldiers. My mother went to live with him there. After the war, the army offered him a permanent place. He said “hell no” and came back to the Twin Cities.

When my parents came back to Minneapolis, they started having kids right away. First, Jeff, and then five years later, my oldest sister.  Eventually there were six of us. I was the fourth.

Dad had PTSD after the war, although they didn’t call it that then. In other ways, the war affected him.  He wouldn’t go camping because it reminded him of the army. He always supported his government, but he never liked war. We never had a gun in the house. No toy guns either, until my brother Greg came along. My older brother, who grew up when no guns were allowed in the house, became a firm pacifist. Greg, on the other hand, had a romance with the military, joined the Navy, and served in the first Gulf War. While he was serving in that conflict, Dad started having his post-war nightmares again.    

Two Generations of Janitor-Engineers in Minneapolis Public Schools

My mother’s father helped Dad get a job working for the Minneapolis school system as a janitor engineer. It’s a job most people don’t understand. The custodians stoked and maintained the furnaces and (later) cooling system. Part of the job is quite technical — the kind of expertise you now have to go to college to obtain. Grandpa was there to give Dad advice as he rose through the civil service ranks.  (Both of them being veterans, being quiet men, they always got along.  And, to think of it, they both had shortened education; my grandpa only finished the eighth grade.) The technical parts of the job of Stationary Engineer are coupled with everything from cleaning the floors and windows to —well— everyone’s been in an elementary school. The janitor is the one who talks to the kids who don’t have anybody to talk to.

When he started, Dad got moved around to a lot of schools. To get the right number of points to advance to a good position, he got assigned a junior high — the hardest job.  He worked as third man, second man, and did night shifts. When he got the seniority, he settled at Cleveland Elementary in North Minneapolis. (The school closed, and the building is a Post Office now. A block away, in Cleveland Park, is Lucy Laney Elementary).

Dad loved being a school engineer at Cleveland Elementary. Not the cleaning — he told me how much he hated some of those tasks. What he loved was being his own boss.  He got along with his second man, Stan, and they both made good overtime.

My maternal Grandfather — who was a member of a farmer-labor club in the 1930s — was a founder of the union —Local 63 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.  The union’s slogan was “Janitors Carry School Houses on Their Backs.” My father became a member. The two were never leaders, but they were joiners. They participated in a janitors’ strike in 1951 that I have written about.  Dad used to say, “What Labor Has Fought to Win, Labor Must Fight to Keep,” echoing the sentiments  of his beloved Minnesota Farmer Labor Governor, Floyd B. Olson. 

The job quality of janitor/engineer has been eroding in recent years. There has been a continual pressure to privatize, create a two-tiered system with benefits and pay, and force speed-ups in the work. I cannot think that it would have allowed us the life we had.

Me, Growing up on the North Side

 

19551294_1821632404547812_889069130_n

I grew up near Brooklyn Center and went to Patrick Henry High School.  It was a quiet, post-war neighborhood, built on the site of a former truck farm.  With six children, we were a bit cramped in our small cape cod house.  My younger sisters Anna and Debbie and I shared a room throughout almost all of our childhood. They have been an important part of my life and not just because we shared close quarters.

My family was not deeply religious, but we were churchgoers.  Almost all of us sang in the junior choir as children.  I worked Sundays watching toddlers at Victory Lutheran after I was confirmed.  I didn’t like the services, but I liked the music and could hear it in the nursery.

My parents were quite conventional believers. All of my sisters still attend a similar church. As for me, I lost my faith after being confirmed. This was after I thought about being a minister. For a while I was a raving atheist. By the time I was 19 or 20, I decided that the only reasonable approach was to be an agnostic, to know what I did not know. It was also in some ways more compassionate and respectful to not insist on having a monopoly on the truth. In the vein of my favorite ancestor — the Freethinking Henry Faue — I’m a Unitarian now.

Our household was pretty normal for our neighborhood, though more bookish. We had books all over the house. My mother was an avid reader. My dad read the newspaper, from page one to the end, every day.  The oldest brother’s college books, classic children’s fables, two encyclopedias, and cereal boxes and games—These were my library, along with the Bookmobile. My parents had all the Reader’s Digest condensed books. I read that version of Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie. I was dazzled. I was fascinated with Russia and other places and times exotic to me. I studied the Byzantine Empire,  listened to the music of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.  

I decided by the time I was 11 that I was not going to have my parent’s life. With my two oldest siblings gone, my brother Greg bullied me from time to time—mostly verbal teasing, and that made me want to run away. My parents were busy grieving my older sister, who disappeared for a few years.  They didn’t pay any attention to us, giving my brother the opportunity to boss his younger sisters around. We later resolved all this; but as a teenager, I felt besieged. My way of escaping was to delve into far off exotic lands. I read all the time.

It was sometimes difficult for me to get my needs met in the family. At ten I told my mom I needed glasses. My mom said, “We don’t have money for your foolishness.” So I went without glasses a few more years. I would find ways to work around it: go up to the black board after class to write things down …I got through faking it until 10th grade.  Then my German teacher asked me to read something on the black board. I said,“ I can’t see the board.”

It was clear that she was mad. Her anger was important to me. She was mad at a system in which a student would not have glasses. It was empowering. I loved that teacher — Liz Borders. Everyone did. She wore turtlenecks and short plaid skirts and looked like a tall Liza Minnelli. She would take small groups of us on hikes along the Mississippi and planned field trips to the German restaurant. She took me and a group of other German students to Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see an exhibit on Albrecht Duerer. That was not my first but one of the most important museum visits.  And because of it, we all wanted to be her.  

After school that day, I went home and said “I have to have glasses. I can’t see the board.”

Mom said “Money is really tight right now. If you can wait until March, we will get you glasses.”

I think now, if I had told my mother earlier, I would not have spent so many years squinting at the board; but I knew that we did not have lots of money.  Still, when I finally got glasses, it was transformative.  I had really long thick hair at the time. I got my glasses and got my hair cut in a shag. I was a new person.

Two years later, when I was a senior and angry at not being able to go on a trip abroad, Liz Borders asked me to stay after class one day.  She said, “If there is anything I can do, you should tell me.”  I felt as if I could not tell her.  It seemed an extraordinary thing I wanted—I felt unjustified in wanting to go, but her words mattered.  Someone cared enough to listen me.

I had a few other great teachers.  Francine Moskowitz —my English teacher in 7th and 9th grade. She kept in touch with me. We went to a coffee shop (Florence and Millie’s) near Henry to talk. She took me to dinner on occasion and to a play. She read my poetry and talked about ideas.  She took me to the University to see it before I began college. And she was, in many ways, my big sister and mentor. Another teacher in high school, Doreen Savage, who read everything I wrote—poetry and prose—through high school and college, watched over me.  She also paid most of my way on that school trip to England.  

If any teacher did that today, wouldn’t they end up in court?

In high school I was in college placement classes with the bankers’ and professionals’ kids. My father had a ninth grade education. My mother had a high school education but knew nothing about college. They were smart, and she was well-read; but they were not people who knew the world I was entering. They weren’t simple people, but they weren’t people who had a whole lot of knowledge about how you navigate the world outside north Minneapolis. By the time I was 10 my mom had me making calls to billing companies and Sears and Roebuck. She was that uncomfortable with the world. To have been her must have been difficult. To be her daughter was to know that you had to help out.  

My parents did not let their children down when it came to food, clothing, housing or basic education.  Still, when I was emotionally troubled or faced worldly obstacles, my parents had no idea what to do. So those teachers—and my big brother Jeff—they brought me through.

I was aware of the class differences and racial differences in our high school. I don’t remember any African American students in my college prep courses (They constituted 3 or 4% of the entire class), and I know they were treated differently. The top 3% of our class was all White. I shared a lunch table with a group of Black girls my age  in junior high school. They were so much better read on politics.

My cohort was — and still is — self-segregated by race. Today, whenever there are reunions, the Black students are the ones no one can find.  I never go to the  reunions-but I always check the list. I really want to re-connect with my old friend Jennifer Jenkins–but she’s always on the missing list.

 

During high school, I was able to take advantage of a program called the Twin City Institute for Talented Youth.  Every summer they had a program at Macalester College. You would take a specialty topic in the morning and spend the afternoon at the library, or a play, or attend a workshop. It was great! It got me out to the house, which was really important. I took Russian language with Larry Buckland and Gene Adamchik.  We also learned Russian folk dance.

I don’t know why I ever dropped doing that dancing. I really loved it.

There is a popular quote from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King: “Learning is the one thing that you can never lose.”  It is a quote that hints at the joy we get from learning new things. That was the three summers at Macalester for me. Creative writing and Russian and extracurricular events. The time spent learning opened me up to new ideas and possibilities.  I met Catholics who hated the Catholic Church. I met young Marxists. I met deeply conservative people. The program brought public and private school kids together so I met kids form Northrup and Blake, all of whom were college bound. In my high school less than a quarter of the students went to college.

College. Seeking the Exotic, Coming Back to my Roots

When I went to the University of Minnesota. I thought, since I had this Russian thing going— and since it was the 70s and we were talking Détente with Russia, that I would major in Russian and journalism. But during orientation someone said. “You like writing, I’ll put you down as an English major.”  I wound up majoring in English, although I took Russian and Modern Greek.  

During college, at Doreen Savage’s urging, I read Report To Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. Inspired, I signed up to go to Greece with the SPAN program (Student Program for Amity among Nations). I spent two summers there (including one at the Balkan Institute), and the year studying everything Greek.

I still think of myself now — at 60 — as a shy person, but it was much worse in those days. Greece was an important part of the process of learning how to talk again.   I had an awakening there—I discovered who I was and a little bit of what I wanted.  I also found people to talk to.  My friends Jill and Patrice and a kind Swedish student who called me a butterfly, emerging from her cocoon.  It was that and more.  

Greece is a different kind of beauty than we have in Minnesota — It was warm and beautiful, and the food was amazing, and you could eat vegetables and bread and be happy.

The biggest mistake I made was continuing to live at home when I returned. Because I had taken those steps out on my own, and then I walked back into a family crisis that lasted few years. My parents leaned on me to get them through. It was not a good time for me. So when I started graduate school I was depressed and confused.  And learning woke me up again.

Feminism and Graduate School

I had my first feminist awaking at 15, when we were all talking about the Equal Rights Amendment.  But then I forgot I was a feminist — until I took a class from Tony McNaron on Virginia Woolf. It was eye-popping. I wrote my honors thesis on Emily Dickinson and her way of seeing the world.  It was the beginning of women’s studies for me.

I wanted to keep my job at the library, so I graduated with more than a year of extra college credit!  During my last semester, I signed up for a 17th century literature class. The professor — whose name I have blissfully forgotten — was rocking himself in front of the class. I was literally getting sick watching him. I talked to my coworker about how I needed to get out of this class.  She said, “There ’s this person who teaches women history. She is supposedly pretty good…”

I went to Sara Evans’ class on the second day and went down to the front to get the syllabus.  She handed me it to me and smiled!  I have to tell you, I had never seen a professor smile. I was somewhere new.

Sara gave a lecture that day on Native American women. It was the best thing I had ever heard. I had taken many history courses, and I had never heard anything about Native American women.  Come to mention it, other then Catherine the Great, there weren’t any women at all discussed in those courses. Evans started talking about the “Manly-Hearted Woman” in Native American societies, and … Whoah!  

I transferred into the class. When Evans talked about the Lowell Mill girls, it was the first time I had heard anyone talk about workers. All the classes I had taken were about monarchs and writers and revolutionaries — not ordinary people. By the end of the semester, I had decided I was going to study women’s history—and labor and social history. It was clear to me that the way to change women’s position in society was to study their history. We didn’t know enough about women.

In graduate school I had some great mentors. Sara Evans invested in me.  She read everything I wrote up through my first book. Mary Jo Maynes taught European social history—She has a capacious mind. Rus Menard was funny, skeptical, and systematic. He knew where the pieces fit together.  There were others. I was interested in studying where class intersected with gender. The first step of that had to be looking at the labor movement.

Rewriting Minneapolis Labor History

My first book’s subject was an accident. I wanted to study textile workers in the South in the 19th century, but my committee persuaded me to write a dissertation on the 20th century labor movement and to focus on something local.

Great Depression in the 1930s was a period of labor activism and organization. Minneapolis had this major truckers’ strike in 1934, key to Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota becoming much more liberal and unionized. In that moment of organization, I knew I’d find women organizing.  Oral sources were scant. There were some taped interviews about the truckers’ strike or Hubert Humphrey the Minnesota Historical Society did in 1970s. They were not interested in women involvement or gender questions.

Women in the Twin Cities in the 1930s worked in industries where they were not prominent or where unionization was low. The huge Munsingwear plant up on the near North side employed hundreds of women workers. It wasn’t unionized until the late 1930s, and the unionization campaign did not involve much organizing.  The Company negotiated with the CIO without much worker input.

About 5000 Twin Cities women worked in various aspects of the garment trade. Relative to other cities that was not a big number.  I found some sources on those women in the national ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) papers. The Minneapolis labor papers then, only provided bits and pieces.  I was frustrated.  I just didn’t have enough for a book, and I didn’t have a governing thesis.

Then two things happened.

  1. I was reading the labor papers and taking notes on the cartoons for my own amusement. One day I’m at the Minnesota Historical Society recovering from a headache from reading microfilm, thinking about Joan Scott’s contention that sometimes in women’s history silence speaks louder than words.  That is when it struck me. There was no female representation in the cartoons. Social construction and solidarity in the labor movement were all based on male models. They were also racially constructed.  I wrote a chapter on these cartoons. It has had the most lasting influence on the field and was the basis of many job talks.19578349_1821640474547005_1661172932_n
  1. I was reading two books at the same time: American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis by Charles Rumford Walker, first published in 1937 and Mary Heaton Vorse’ s Labor’s New Millions, two entirely different visions of the labor movement. Walker was a proto-Leninist guy who believed a small group of guys would lead the class to victory, and Vorse believed in the people and wanted the workers to get justice. Her vision is of the revolution at Pengally Hall in Flint, where women and children were making meals and walking the picket line with men. Hers is rooted in community, and Walker’s in an elite group (a vanguard) of workers. Both were operative in the 1930s, but only community-based unionism brought the women in.

In Minneapolis in the 1930s women were involved in the movement-building stage; but they were eased out when things became bureaucratized. One of the mechanism by which this happened was the social and psychological casting of labor solidarity as masculine. Born in manhood.  This is why women can both be central and yet invisible and excluded at times in labor.

All of it came together in my book — Community of Suffering and Struggle:  Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, published in 1991.

Because I haven’t lived here since the book came out, I don’t know what affect it has had locally. I am friends with people at the Historical Society. Labor historian Peter Rachleff — now at the East Side Freedom Library — liked the book and taught it. I see it referred to on web pages about local strikes, women, and the labor movement.  

I’ve given talks at the Minnesota Historical Society, but I have never been invited to commemorations of the Teamster’s strike. The truckers’ strike in the book is to show how the Teamsters local was instrumental in helping to organize the rest of the city and played a prominent role in the struggles discussed in the book. So it is there, but it is not central.  The cartoons came from a Teamster paper. Sometimes the labor agenda and feminist agenda conflict. A book that points out the discrepancies may not be welcome at a celebratory event.

Half of my second book was set in Minneapolis. It is a biography of a labor journalist Eva McDonald Valesh, who was here in the 1880s and 1890s. I talk about labor and working class culture in Minneapolis, which was quite vibrant. Mainstream Minneapolis newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s were sold to working class, and they covered labor issues.  I got terrific stuff on the strike of women garment workers and the Minneapolis’ Scandinavian Uprising (Streetcar strike of 1889) and a good deal about what workers of the time did and thought.  My most recent book, Rethinking the American Labor Movement, also talks a bit about Minnesota workers.

Teaching Labor and Women’s History in Detroit

I have been teaching labor history and the history of feminism at Wayne State University in Detroit for 27 years now. Wayne State is an institution with about 30,000 students: 55% White, 25% Black, with a growing number of Latino students, and immigrants from all parts of the world.  Most of the students grew up in Detroit or the surrounding suburbs and most are  first generation college students.

Politics on campus are center to left, but we also have some White students who come from the suburbs who don’t share those feelings.  We have dorms, but many students live at home or independently off campus. Many are returning adult learners. A significant number are not Christian, but Muslim or of other religions.

The Flint Water Crisis in Context

The crisis of 2008 was acute in Michigan. Pervasive gerrymandering is what allowed Governor Snyder—and the Republican-dominated legislature—to win in 2010. As in many states, the Democratic votes are underrepresented and have less power than they should.  Snyder’s background experience was as the head of Gateway, overseeing the lay-off of 30,00 workers. He has overseen the privatization of the state. Public lands and resources have been taken over in cities. Bridge and roads left in disrepair. Snyder cut corporate taxes, and his appointed Emergency Financial Managers sold many public assets. They even tried to sell off the treasures at the Detroit Institute of Art—unsuccessfully due to a political bargain. But Snyder appointed financial managers in Detroit and Flint and other cities, and they were able to make decisions without community oversight. The decisions behind the poisoning of Flint water were not entirely about budgets and certainly disregarded the long-term effects on the community.

Comparing Labor Movements in Michigan and Minnesota

The labor movement in Michigan was different than Minnesota. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was and is nearly everything. Minnesota has a mixed economy while Michigan — everything is made or broken by the fate of the auto industry. When the auto industry falters, it is very difficult to organize labor.  And the economy seems to cascade downward as it did in the 2008 crisis. Today, the auto industry is doing well, and even the cities are doing better, but we still face real challenges.

Finding Home in Two Midwestern States

When I first moved to Michigan, I traveled a lot. I did not much like the state. I learned over time to appreciate it and its beauty, but it was not until the last year or two that I have begun to call Michigan home. I found a vacation haven in Traverse City 200 miles north of where I live. It dawned on me recently that it was what Emily Dickinson called “the slant of light” there that made it feel like going home. It is the same latitude as Minneapolis — 45th Parallel.  

For now Michigan is my home. I have thought about moving back to Minneapolis with my partner in retirement. I would love to be in a city with public transportation and green spaces and many people that I love.

It is good to know that you can make home in more than one place.

Family history is what taught me how rooted I was — figuring out I had a grandpa who was part of the farmer-labor movement and a Wobbly, and another ancestor who was a Freethinker. For years, I pursued the exotic as a way of finding myself when I was young—learning about the peoples and cultures of other lands; but for the past two decades I have steeped myself in the history of chosen ancestors closer to my own roots, finding home in those stories as well.  

 

Venezuela. Trump’s Wall. U.S. and Latin America beyond the click bait.

 

(This essay was originally published in the Women Against Military Madness Newsletter April, 2017. Several lines have been changed. )

UDW.Cuffe_.photo-1-1-678x381

Photo of mural of Berta Cáceres’ by Sandra Cuffe

Dateline:April 25, 2017:

Venezuela is in revolt.

Trump promises a border wall payment from Mexico in September.  

Central American and Asian migration to the U.S. grows while migration from across the southern border diminishes. For the first time the majority of undocumented  immigrants in the U.S. are from places other than Mexico. 

Beyond Venezuela’s demonstrations, beyond immigration trends, beyond Donald Trump’s overt anti-Mexican racism, his war on immigrants, and his puzzling anti-NAFTA rhetoric are issues in U.S. Latin America relations not covered in the headlines.

New products dominate the market and new players hold the reins. Still, the centuries-old practice of impoverishing masses to enrich a tiny elite, while depleting resources for future generations, continues. For peace and justice activists in the United States, these changes and continues alter our strategies, while sustaining our goal of building solidarity across borders, putting the needs of Latin American grassroots activists committed to a sustainable and equitable future, at the forefront.

Palm oil and a new era of mining

When trans fats went out in 2002, processed food companies turned to palm oil. Overnight former jungles in Brazil were clear-cut and transformed into palm plantations. In the “banana republics” of Guatemala and Honduras, palm oil began to replace the yellow fruit. The pesticide practices of the palm oil industry are so destructive to water tables that activists in Guatemala are charging the industry with ecocide. Likewise, new mining enterprises are extracting formerly unextractable subsoil resources using techniques that are more environmentally destructive than anything we have seen before. They are also more mechanized, creating fewer jobs for shorter periods than historic mines. Aided by these new technologies, markets for gold and silver are on the rise again, fueled by new investors from Europe and Asia. China’s growing consumption of steel is industrializing jungles and traditional subsistence farming regions. Iron ore production has skyrocketed. In addition, there is a new productcoltan—essential to cell phone production. It is especially lethal, poisoning both the water tables and workers. Brazil and the Congo are primary regions for coltan extraction.

New Players

For a century the United States dominated the export economies of Latin America. It was the majority buyer and seller to the region, taking the place of Britain and Spain as the dominant power in the region. The U.S. would intervene militarily when political and economic pressures were not enough to protect its interests. At first these interventions were overtgunboats on the shore, military interventions in a dozen nations and long-term occupations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Later the intervention would be covert (hidden from the U.S. public) the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954, Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1962, the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the decade of wars in Central America in the 1980s. Destabilization of regimes threatening U.S. economic interests continued into the 21st centurymost notably Venezuela. Barack Obama continued the imperial relationship, funding its interests with drug war money, and supporting a coup in Honduras to unseat a president who curtailed mining interests.

In the 21st century however, the United Stated is no longer the economic king in the region. China, Canada, Japan, and the EU are investing heavily in the region. China’s interests are growing especially fast, and they have become the dominant power in some nations, such as Nicaragua. Regional powers like Brazil and Argentina have gained the economic stature to be able to aid or exploit smaller neighbors. In addition, the fact that there are national industries within Latin American countries does not mean local people have any more control of profits than external parties. The Honduran palm oil company Grupo Dinan, for example, has resorted to assassinations of activist leaders fighting for worker and water rights.

Finally, there are non-state investors in Latin America whose interests are not as direct as a fruit or mining company. TIAA-CREF, a retirement investment company, is heavily invested in the palm oil industry. It uses the hard-earned savings of U.S. workers to steal land, suppress Latin American workers’ rights and facilitate environmental crimes.

Such diversity in investment and trade should be good for local sovereignty, providing a measure of leverage, but for Latin America to use its leverage, it needs a level of regional cooperation, and national administrations committed to regulating export industries to maximize the profits that remain in the country, and social policies that distribute those goods for public welfare. Without those things, market competition can actually lead to more oppression for workers. Those of us who lived through the Cold War know well how struggles amongst the big global powers get played out in the regions they are exploiting.

Problems and possibilities with Regional Integration and Distributive Administrations

In the 1990s and 2000s there was a so called “pink tide” in which more left-leaning regimes, committed to regional cooperation to loosen the hold of the United States and distributive social policies, took over in a majority of Latin American nations. Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela in the ’90s provided both the leadership and the revenue to make regional economic cooperation possible. Unfortunately, while leading regional trade groups and providing oil grants and barter deals to its neighbors, Venezuela did not diversify its own economy. The inevitable fall in world oil prices put an end to those deals and sent Venezuelan economy into a tailspin.

Today we see a rise of right-wing regimes in the southern cone—a desperate response to the failures of the “pink tide” to deliver on or sustain their distributive promises. One of the most egregious examples of how fractured regional cooperation is today: the new Argentine president has initiated an anti-immigrant crusade à la Trump, criminalizing Bolivian migrants who provide cheap agricultural labor in Argentina.

The roots and strength of local Latin American grassroots organizations.

Still, what inhibits wholesale exploitation of workers and land, is local nongovernmental community- based organizing. Bolstered by the recent rise in global environmental and indigenous movements, activists confront plantations and mines at every turn. We hear about the tragic crimes such as the murder of the indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras,
but we may not realize that day in and day out grassroots activists make life difficult for corporate exploiters.

This 2012 quote from AZO Mining, the “leading online publication for the mining community,” illustrates how concerned the mining interests are about this activism:

Guatemala’s mining conflict is a major roadblock for mining operations in the country. Recently, many communities in Guatemala protested against mining companies as they fear that indiscriminate mining in certain areas will lead to damage of land and water pollution, thus affecting their livelihoods. These communities accused the government of permitting exploration in indigenous territories without consulting local communities and failing to fulfill its international obligations.” tinyurl.com/n4dxgad

What should we in the United States do?

The global economy is changing, altering struggles for economic sustainability and sovereignty in Latin America. As we fight walls, bans, raids, detentions, deportations, and disappearances on our side of the border, we also need to support the right of Latin America to stay home, and build sustainable economies and small “d” democracies. We need to stand with the Latin American people as they uphold indigenous sovereignty and the protection of resources for future generations.

Anne Winkler Morey has a Ph.D. in Latin American history and U.S. foreign relations from the University of Minnesota. She served as an Executive Director of the Central America Resource Center in the 1980s. She currently teaches at Metro State University.

“Time to Team Up.” (Demonstration Diary, February 27, 2017).

 

FullSizeRender 3 2“After walking on to the freeway for Philando Castile last August, I told myself I would stay of the streets… but here I go!”

Comment heard February 27, 2017 as the organizers led those gathered at Peavy Plaza on to 12th Ave in Downtown Minneapolis, to march through Downtown for Fight for $15 — United Against Trump.

********************************************************

“You have to understand — this march is intersectional,”  said the organizer on the truck , before inviting Black trans activist Andrea Jenkins – candidate for city council in the (my) 8th ward — up on the truck to speak.  Jenkins named seven trans women killed since January 1 2017 and talked about how trans people need health care, livable wages and dignity — like everyone else.

Our issues are intricately connected.

Then the sister of Chad Robertson, the 25 year old Minneapolis man shot by amtrak police while in Chicago, gave us a searing rendition of what happened to her brother. She concluded, “This is my first time speaking. It will not be my last.”

The organizer then led us in a chant of MY FIGHT IS YOUR FIGHT.

What seemed to the Star Tribune reporter  as an “array of causes” were — the demonstration leader explained — all the same cause.  As we marched into rush hour traffic sidelining suburban commuter buses, we chanted the names of people killed by cops, pledged our solidarity with water protectors, immigrants and refugees, poor and working people.   The crowd was mostly young. People of Color were well represented. I did see a white man I have not seen for three decades — back when he was a meat packer organizing  with  P9 in Austin Minnesota. There were Latino families — multiple generations, African American and African immigrant youth, Native activists.

An indigenous women held a sign  that read, NO BANS ON STOLEN LANDS.

We marched to the Chamber of Commerce office and stood in the street listening to speakers explain the how MN legislators were trying to passing pre- emption   a dirty legislative trick to would allow State representatives to nullify local labor ordinances like the Paid Sick leave , passed after a concerted mass campaign  — this past May.  Preemption would also make it impossible for the city to pass a $15 minimum wage.

As we  marched on, the music coming from the turck made this  woman of a certain age feel a lot of ways.

Hopeful.We gonna be alright

Enlightened. “Look, Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope. Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote.

Inspired. “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans, And if it’s time to team up, shit, let’s begin.”

Twisted.  This White child of the sixties and seventies who grew up in the South and the North  is insanely uncomfortable marching on a downtown street to the N word sung full blast to an irresistible beat.

United. “Fuck Donald Trump!”

We paused at Panera Bread and heard testimony from a former employee who never made more than $20 in a day–explaining why the fight for 15 must not punish tipped employees.

By the time the march stopped at Wells Fargo — banker for the Dakota Access Pipeline —  I had to go. I had walked downtown from South Mpls and I was cold and exhausted. My I-phone health status said 6.5 miles. It didn’t mention the boots , the heavy back pack, the advancing age.  So I missed the stop at the county jail,  but I was still there in spirit.

Your fight is my fight.

*****************

As we marched  President Trump announced his budget would include a $56 billion increase in defense spending. Some Reps in Congress complained it wasn’t enough. Please correct my math if necessary. I believe   thats $1million for every homeless veteran in the United States?!  What else could we do with 56 Billion?

The weapons we need to stop this insanity:  a multitude of tactics from a a multitude of communities, joining feet and heads and hearts.  Thank goodness most of these people ($15Now, NOC,  CTUL,  CAIR, Native Lives Matter, Navigate MN  Young Muslim Collective,   Black Lives Matter) have been organizing for years. Thank goodness they are working together.

 

Time to Team up. Shit, let’s begin.

 

Bowling Green and Massacres.

Unknown

John Wayne — the acting name of Marion Morrison. Name and character designed to emulate ‘Mad Anthony Wayne — commander of a massacre outside of Bowling Green, Ohio,  1794. 

An excerpt draft from my forthcoming book Turtle Road about a 12,000 mile bike trip.  Talks of Bowling Green (Ohio ) and a history of massacres — among other things…

******************************************
CHAPTER 5

… We had begun to feel every new town, field and wood belonged to us; our memories our deed of ownership. Now we owned the dewy morning on the Michigan/Ohio border. Despite my internationalist heart, I found myself humming, Oh beautiful for spacious skies. For amber waves of grain. “Amber, yes,” I thought, as we passed endless fields of wheat and hay. “And gold, orange, rust, even purple.”

The rural peace ended at the Ohio border as we hit the edge of the Toledo metropolitan region. We almost ate breakfast at a cafe in Sylvania, but the giant poster — a grinning cartoon Indian repelled us.  It was still a beautiful morning, not yet hot, so we sat under a tree and ate granola bars, clucking to each other, “how can Ohio be so racist?”

At a busy Sylvania intersection, a hardy woman in a bike jersey pulled up beside us. Before the light turned green, she had offered to be our escort, around the outskirts of Toledo.

Though I struggled to keep up, riding with Cheryl was a great relief. We just followed. No arguments. No getting lost. No decisions. She was fast, efficient, eager to show off her bicycle skills, which she came by the hard way. “At age 41, I had back surgery. Biking was my therapy.  When I started I could only make it around the block. Now, 14 years later, I do sixty mile rides around Toledo.” She had set herself a biking goal to last a lifetime, making herself a quilt with fifty panels. “Each time I have a vacation, I bike another state and fill in another panel — 27 so far.”

Cheryl wanted us to appreciate her homeland. She pointed to a field. “Underneath every thing you see, is the wealth that make this region unique. Black dirt. Back in the 1880s, European settlers drained the wetlands of this black swamp, creating some of the richest soil in the world.”

Cheryl left us at the Mall in Waterville. As we got ready to say our good byes she noted, “This may look like any other mall, but it’s historic — named after the Battle of Fallen Timbers that happened here in 1794.”
I was exhausted from keeping up with Cheryl. We found plush seats in the Barnes and Nobles and looked up “Fallen Timbers.”

The United States army, led by a “Mad” General Anthony Wayne, defeated a regional alliance of Indian nations. One of the indigenous leaders in the battle was Tecumseh, who continued building his pan-Indian force until he died fighting on the British side in the war of 1812. The year before the Confederation had proposed a generous compromise to the land-hungry United States:  keep the money you are using to bribe us and kills us and give it your poor settlers. Just leave us a piece of OUR land to live in peace.

But the United States was making a bigger calculation. After their triumph in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, U.S. authorities force-marched Ohio tribes to Oklahoma, opening a settlement path from Ohio to Wisconsin for Europeans immigrants.

I wondered as we passed a rack of Cleveland Indian T-shirts on our way out of the mall, if there was a connection between this removal and fact that Ohioan’s embraced this racist cartoon caricature. Today there is no large organized population of Native Americans in the state to fight back. Perhaps another factor is the way the history of U.S./ Indian relations are told here. The U.S. General Mad Anthony Wayne is celebrated in Toledo with a bridge, statue, and even an annual “family-friendly” bike ride. Leaving the mall, we crossed the Maumee River where Mad Anthony Wayne burned Shawnee and Miami villages.

We didn’t get far before we were desperate to get out of the sun. The road following the river was pretty, but lacking in public spaces. The Riverby Hills Golf Club had a Public Welcome sign. In the icy dark of the clubhouse, drinking over-priced tomato juice, we watched men in white shorts flirt with the woman bartender.

I thought about how this trip brought us into contact with people outside our circles. The day before we shared a park shelter with Cecil, a small white man who worked construction for 40 years. He was sixty, living on disability, already old. He told us about his divorce; after 32 years still a fresh wound. “We had ten kids” he said. He lowered his head. “One was murdered last year.” Cecil was fascinated by us. “This is a first for me, meeting people like you.”  It was a first for us, sharing intimacies with Cecil.

And now another first. I had never been inside a golf clubhouse, though in high school in Wisconsin, I lived down the hill from the Blackhawk Golf Course. Chief Black Hawk’s war in 1832, like Ohio’s Battle of Fallen Timbers, involved a massacre committed by U.S. forces. Both misnamed “battles,” were crimes of racial violence and land theft that opened the way for statehood and white settlement. Ohio, 1803. Wisconsin, 1836.

A man with hair like John Kerry’s interrupted my thoughts, loudly ordering another round. We left the blessed cool, hoping to be far gone before the men got back in their cars.

A flat tire slowed our get-away. Changing it the shade of the chalet, we were glad to see some leave before us, not wanting to meet them on these narrow hilly roads to Haskins.
Ten more miles and the landscape pancaked.
I first discovered this fertile Ohio plain in the fall of 1975 when I rented a bicycle to escape freshman loneliness at Oberlin College. A few pedals and the bike rode itself, away from the college I would soon leave for good. On this particular Friday guys in pick-ups gathered at the Sonoco in Haskins, eating pizza, buying 12-packs. I watched one young man place a can between his legs under the steering wheel, eleven more on the passenger seat. We joined them on the pizza. I regretted it as the last bite went down. I was painfully constipated. We had been on the road for over two weeks and my body was letting me know it did not work well on gas station food.

When we arrived in Bowling Green I insisted on splurging at an upscale vegetarian place where waiters describe each ingredient and water glasses were constantly refilled. It was dark by the time we left the restaurant. With the image of man, car and beer still lodged in my head, I ruled out biking to the campground five miles down the road. Bowling Green State University was hosting a marching band contest at their football stadium and hotels had jacked up their prices for the occasion. Dave was ready to pay $130 for a foul-smelling Best Western. I was not. We headed through town to the soundtrack of drums, horns, and cheering crowds, searching for a place to put up our tent.
Dave was looking for a place to hide. I thought we should stake a claim, act as though we belonged. I spied a 32-foot RV parked in a campus lot. “Let’s do an Arlo Guthrie.”
“What?”
“In Alice’s Restaurant, he saw a pile of trash and decided to add his garbage to the heap. We’ll put up our tent here and call it a campground. Settler’s rights.”
Of course Arlo got arrested for littering, but like him, I wasn’t thinking this through and Dave didn’t remember the movie.  So we set up next to the RV, in the spotlight of a parking lamppost. By 2am I had to pee. Imagining getting arrested for indecent exposure, I grabbed a plastic bag and squatted by the door. The squatting encouraged the vegetarian spinach and eggplant dish to dislodge the pizza.
I crawled into the spotlight to look for a place to empty the bag. Back in the tent, fully awake and more unclean than ever, I resented the man sleeping sweetly beside me, for being anatomically equipped, for being right about finding a dark place, for being right about taking the hotel, for being able to sleep without a shower, for focusing on the best outcome while I imagined every possible wrong turn.
At 4:53am we broke camp. As I strapped the tent to my bicycle, a campus cop rode up.
“Are you the ones who were in the tent last night?”
Underneath me was a square imprint of smashed grass. I nodded.
He looked at me: disheveled, pungent, old enough to be his mother. “How far you come on those bicycles?”
I looked at my odometer. “762 miles.”
“That’s something…. You need anything?”
“Huh… a bathroom?”
He raised his eyebrow and arm in a gesture I translated as, “That’s obvious.” He paused a moment longer, making a decision.  “Follow me.”
He rode slowly. We followed, snaking through campus to the stadium where thousands cheered their young musicians the night before. He got out of his squad car beckoning to us, then hesitated.  “Are you two married?”
We nodded.  He unlocked a stadium door, led us into the women’s locker room. “Roll your bikes in here so no one will mess with them. When you leave make sure the door is closed. It’ll lock after you.”

As a middle-aged white woman of short stature, I was used to being considered unthreatening. With Dave, the added aura of heterosexual respectability surrounded me. Now, wandering across lines of legality, we leaned unthinkingly on various forms of privilege, never knowing the extent to which our demographics protected us. But we were becoming aware that without showers and laundromats we could lose unwarranted assumptions of innocence. Officer Friendly trusted us enough to leave us with keys to the store. His gift of showers erased our growing scent of indigence.

Bowling Green co-ed athletes had posted collages with inspiring quotes and pictures of people they admired on the hallway wall. The bicycle lady in her fifties, cleaned, dressed and feeling new, posed in front of the wall of fame.

 

Lunching at the New China Town in Huron, I read the headline: The Tribe is not doing well. On an inner page a smaller article caught my eye. New program for Sandusky homeowners: mow foreclosed lots and the land is yours.

Homestead Act 1862 — sow to own stolen land.

Homestead Act 2011 — mow to own the dispossessed.

Jerry Rau: Minneapolis Boy, U.S. Marine, Twin Cities’ Troubadour.

 

IMG_1693

… I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over… 

I was born in the General Hospital in Minneapolis — where MCTC is now, ushered into the world during a period of great disharmony. The next seven years were war years — the whole world at war. It made a big impression on me. The intensity. Children can feel that kind of thing pretty strongly. By the time I could read it was 1943. I remember seeing the picture of Iwo Jima in the paper and bringing it upstairs to show my mom. I said – “Isn’t this something!”

I was a serious child. I lived in North Minneapolis with my mother. It was just the two of us. My mother had had 13 siblings. There is a picture of her family. One sister is holding a guitar. My Grandma could play the guitar a little bit. I think guitars were pretty common in the homes of Swedish immigrants.

When I was six we were riding the Minneapolis street car past a pawn shop and I saw a banjo in the window. I told my mom, ”I want that!” I had just seen a movie with Bing Crosby playing the banjo. I liked the sound of it. A few weeks later a man — a coworker of my mom’s — came to the door with a case in his hands, — a full size guitar with the word “Swede” stenciled on top of the case.

I had small hands! I couldn’t handle it . A Banjo I might have been able to handle. Maybe if I’d gotten a banjo I would have become Earl Scruggs. But the guitar was worthless to me. I could make a sound — that was it. Mom didn’t have money for music lessons.

I ended up trading the guitar for a trumpet, and then the trumpet for a 22 rifle.
My mother and I went to war movies. Mom loved John Wayne. The Sands of Iwo Jima was indelibly X’d in my mind. I joined the army reserve when I was 18. We had meetings once a month and a summer camp — Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. At 20 I decided to join the Marine Corps. Why? I was having trouble with my girlfriends. And I went to see a movie.The hero was in the Marine Corp and I liked the way he looked— wanted to be like him.

I went to the government building on Washington and 3rd Ave; walked around it three times. The third time I said to myself “You don’t have a hair on your butt if you don’t go in there”. I took a sharp left and went in. The Officer asked me when I wanted to begin. I said “Right away.”

My mom hardly ever listened to me when I was young. She was always off somewhere else in her mind. I had a droning voice, so I’m sure I put her to sleep. I would sit at the kitchen table and talk and she would be busy cooking or cleaning and she never heard what I was saying.
I told her I was joining the Marines. She said “Un- huh.” The next day when I came home from work mom said, “There was a man from the Marine corp here today. He said you joined the Marine corp?!” She was shocked.

A week later I walked out the door, headed to the recruiters office. There was a group of young guys down there. Because I had been in the army reserve, they put me in charge of the group,
gave me all their records. We got on a plane and flew to San Diego.
The Army reserve had been a pretty low key thing. The Marines was something else. Twenty minutes after I got off that plane I knew I had made a tremendous mistake. The guy who greeted us was Marine from his hair to his toes and down to his bones. He had a voice that scared the hell out of me. They put us in the back to a pickup truck, seated so we bounced from one side to the other. When we got out of the truck there were two Marine commanders yelling at us. They were from the south. We got screamed at more because we couldn’t understand their accent or what they wanted us to do.

That night we had to stand by our bunks until every man had memorized the Eleven General Orders. If one guy got it wrong we had to start again. We were up until the early morning. Two hours later the bugle blew and we had to get up and the insanity began again.

It was always that way in the Marine corps. If one guy got it wrong we all had to pay. It was indescribable. Just shear terror for young kids.

I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in southern California. During leave, I took a bus from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. We stopped in Omaha Nebraska for a break. When I came back to the bus depot, I heard a girl saying she was going to Minneapolis. I asked her if I could sit with her. We got married several months later.

For a woman to have a husband in the Marine corp — its about the worst thing that can happen.
We had two months together before I got sent overseas to Okinawa for 14 months. When I got back and I don’t know who she is — she didn’t know who I was….

After that we lived together at Quantico in Northern Virginia. I was there to train officers to how to use machine guns. We were close enough to Washington D.C. that we got to go see Kennedy speak at the Iwo Jima memorial and lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on Veterans Day 1963.I will never forget it — all those men in black suits with grey hair and the young President with his tomato red hair. Two weeks later, we were in the middle of a graduation at the instructor school. They told us to go home. They said we were in a state of national emergency. Stay by your phone. You may be called up at anytime.

We didn’t know the president had been killed until we got home. We were just leveled. We went up to Washington a few weeks later to see his grave. My wife gave birth to a son during this time. He died 24 hours after he was born. To this day it still kills me to say it. I still cry. His name was John. We named him after the president and buried him in Arlington cemetery not far from where Kennedy was buried.

At Quantico, while I was teaching officers to use machine guns, I was aware there was a war going on. There had not been many ground troops at that point, but I could sense that something big was going to happen. From Quantico I was sent to Hawaii — where my wife was from. She had family not far from where I was stationed. She was happier there.

One night in 1964, we went to see a movie with our whole battalion. Before the show began the officer came out and said to us, “I can’t tell you where we are going — but pack your bags. All I can tell you is— when they ask you what you did during the war you won’t have to tell them you shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
It was gut wrenching. I went home and told my wife I was leaving the next morning. She was pregnant with my daughter.

Vietnam

It is hard to explain war to anybody. Friends of mine were killed. Good friends of mine. It doesn’t go away. Every night in Vietnam was a horror show.

I was there for seven months… until the incident when I cracked up.

We were in the middle of laying in ambush in a heavy rainforest. It was thick – you could barely get through it. We were on a ridge line – we had set up ambush control — something we had to do from time to time. We were all scared as hell. There was movement. All of the sudden I heard a grenade blow up. I turned around. Everyone was saying ”Get off this hill.” I tumbled down. Everything restricted me. I couldn’t make my way through vines. I was like a wild animal. I beat my way through. People were falling down behind me into the bottom of the ravine.There were hogs in the ravine.

In an area smaller than half a closet, seven of us piled up. I had a rifle in my chin and someone on top of me. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything. We lay there in a pile until day-break, trying to stifle our breathing. About half way through I heard screaming and yelling. I assumed most of our group were dead.

In the morning we unwound ourselves.

I felt like I had been a coward. That is the way you think. I didn’t know what I would say to my commander. The other guys had already told the officer what had happened. No-one said a word to me. It weighed on me. I felt like I couldn’t be a Marine anymore.

We carried M14 rifles. Every squad had a grenade launcher. As a squad leader I was supposed to have a rifle. I gave it to the guy who carried the grenade launcher — switched with him. I didn’t feel like I could carry a rifle any more. I didn’t feel Iike I was a squad leader any more. I wasn’t in command anymore and I didn’t act like I was in command anymore.

It was a shattering experience. The Marine way of thinking was gone.

That night someone came and told me “At dawn you go down and see the first sergeant.” So, when the other guys were still asleep I went to the first sergeant. He said “ Check your gear. You are going back to Hawaii. Your wife is in the hospital and we are giving you emergency leave.” I couldn’t believe it. My wife had a break down the same time I did.

I wish you could understand. We were defending an airstrip. There were planes taking off all day long. My first sergeant gave me a new set of dungarees and told me to go down to the airstrip and find a plane going to Hawaii. Can you imagine this? I was walking on the airstrip as the planes were taking off, yelling, “Where are you going?”

I got on a plane going to the Philippines with five Coronals in dress uniforms – all spit and shine. They wouldn’t even say hello to me.

That night I ended up in a barrack in the Philippines with some Navy guys. They were heading out on a liberty night. I wanted to go to the club and get drunk but all I had was my Vietnam rags. One of the guys gave me a pair of pants to wear — size 28. I was a size 32 when I went to Vietnam — but they fit. He gave me a white t shirt. I went up to the club and had a couple beers. I ordered some food but I couldn’t eat. I went back to the barracks.

The next morning I found a plane home to my wife. I couldn’t believe I was in Hawaii. No one was being shot at. Everyone was walking around like nothing was going on. Business people. Tourists…

They gave me a position with the arm forces police and told me they would not send me back to Vietnam — but a few months later I got orders to back. I could not figure out how to tell my wife. We had a new baby. They gave me a month to get things worked out with my family.

When I showed up 30 days later, the guy looked at me. He’d experienced combat and he could just tell. He said “How long you been in the Marine Corps?” I said “Nine years.” He said “You’ve been to Vietnam already haven’t you? I think you should try to get a hardship discharge.”

I had never heard of a hardship discharge.

He said “You have to go to the doctors, have them examine you psychologically, visit a priest…”

So I did. Went through all the hoops. Then we waited, my wife and I. We were like zombies — just waiting.

The Rising Sun 

I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over.

One day while waiting to hear about my discharge petition, I was watching television — this is in Hawaii —this woman comes on and she says My name is Laura Webber. I am going to teach guitar on this channel and I invite your to join me. If you send me $5 I’ll send you a workbook. Every Wednesday we will have a lesson.
I got the workbook and watched every Wednesday, come hell or high-water. She’d say This is the E string….  

Then — Laura Webber came to Hawaii!! She invited her audience in the area to come down to the University of Hawaii with our workbooks and she would give us a couple live lessons.  I went down. There were fifteen of us — guys — with our guitars and our workbooks. We sat on the grass and had a lesson. We opened up the workbook and played and sang together.

Laura Webber saw I had a classical guitar and she told me to get some Bob Diamond albums. I went down to the record store, but I could not find Bob Diamond. Finally the record store clerk said “Maybe she meant Bob Dylan?” So I got some Bob Dylan albums.

I finally got the call about the discharge. The guy said , “You got your bags packed? Well unpack them. You got a hardship discharge.” That’s how I left the Marines. We moved back to Minneapolis. I got a job driving taxi, which I hated. The dispatcher was corrupt and I didn’t make any money doing it.
I decided to see if I could make some cash playing guitar.
My wife thought I was crazy.

I saw an ad in the paper that said musician wanted It was at a place.It was in White Bear Lake . Dave’s Courtyard. There was a women with a piano. I played there behind the piano, where I couldn’t be seen. I played there for eight weeks.

Veteran Against War.

The anti war movement was growing in Minneapolis when we returned. Once, my wife and I were going to a movie at the campus theater. The cops were in riot gear and there were 400-500 people there throwing marshmallows at the cops. It was amazing. We walked through the crowd to see the movie. It felt weird. It introduced me to what was happening. Later on I got involved in the Vets Against the War. We were following a group in Chicago. We had a protest at the airport where the reserve. We had a hunger strike.

In the eighties I was involved in another hunger strike — against the war in El Salvador. We fasted for twelve days at the Cathedral.. Roy Bourgeois was the Priest who fasted with us.

I was a leader. He was a leader. Roy and I had some friction.

The Cathedral was freezing. At one point the Bishop came in. I knew him. I was brought up Catholic. Went to Catholic school and I was still going to mass. I had served mass with the Bishop at St Stephens. I said to him “Could you turn the heat up in here?”
I told that to Roy and he said “You said that to the Bishop?

[Jerry suddenly began to cry.]

It was a crazy time. I had an affair with one of the fasters. Her boyfriend came at us with a gun.

Here we were acting like saints, but we were anything but saints.
Becoming a Troubadour. 
After the gig in White Bear Lake, my confidence as a musician grew. I got other gigs. In 1973 I saw Bob Bovie playing on the corner of 7th an Nicollet. He was a cowboy singer. I followed him, getting a corner (where you could encounter people from two directions.) It was noisy as hell but I had a loud voice then — as a Marine you learn how to project — I could be heard down the block.

The cops did not bother me much. Once in a while I’d see musicians packing up, saying, “They are kicking everyone off the Mall.”  I’d take off, wait a little bit and then come back. The cops were done with their sweep.  I could get the best spot then.

Once I was playing where the City Center is now. I had my case out facing the building. A group of teenage kids came around — four or five of them. One said “Let me see your guitar.”
I said “No I’m trying to make a living.”

They came real close, encircling me, talking about how to take my money. I was intimidated by them but something inside me said, the best way to deal with this is to sing and give it your all. I started to play Mr. Bo Jangles, with all my heart and soul. A few people came and stood behind the kids. Then more people came. Pretty soon I had 20 people standing there. People started clapping and throwing money into my case. When one kid started to try to grab the money, someone in the crowd said

“Get away from that case — that guys is a singer, man. A singer! Leave him alone.”

 

I began writing my own songs in about 1968, but it was several years before I felt like it was legitimate to play them. I would test them out on the Mall. It was hard. Most people like to hear the classics they know.

I started playing in the Dinkydale hallway on the East bank of the University of Minnesota — did that for decades. One day in 1975 ,this guy came into the mall. He looked strange. Dressed in white. White jacket, white pants, and a black beard. His face looked kind of like an owl. He stood there listening to me, peering at me like a bird.
After a couple songs he said to me “You know I have a show…”
I thought “Sure – you have a show” I nodded. I was humoring him. “What kind of show is that?“
He said I put up some bleachers. People play. I do some story telling. Would you like to come?
I said “Sure.” I thought “Yeah sure you do.“ but he gave me a date and directions.
I thought, “What do I have to lose.”

I showed up at the address at the appointed time. There were indeed some bleachers and about 40 people there listening. I saw my friends Bill Hinckley and Judy Larson.
I thought “Holy shit, this must be real.”
Afterward the man in white said he had a morning show if I wanted to come. He kept inviting me to play on his morning gig. Public Radio. Garrison Keillor.
I’ve played in clubs in 25 states. In the late 70s I got a tour in Southern California. Some people in Los Angeles had a radio show. They got a copy of my tape, liked my music and set up gigs for me from San Diego to Los Angeles.
I almost missed my radio appearance with them. I was driving up from San Diego. I was excited. I stopped at a gas station and locked my keys in the car. I told the gas station attendant I was supposed to be on the show in 45 minutes. I ask if I could borrow a a mop and a beer can opener. I shoved it through a tiny slit open in the window. After 20 minutes, of praying and finagling, I got it open.

I got to the radio station just as the show was starting.

I did the Nursing home circuit across the country — got that because a man who was 90 years old — a pastor — liked my music. Sometimes my audience was so far gone they ‘d be sitting there saying “Take me away.. take me away” It’s pretty hard to play when someone is doing that.

Now I’m getting to be that age.
I have had a love affair with the guitar. My songs go in many directions. I like all forms of music. Some sound like country, some sound Cajun. I borrow from everyone. Simplicity has always been my game. I heard once that “Any damn fool can be complex — its hard to be simple” — I think maybe it was Woody Guthrie who said that.
I stopped playing for five years. 2010. I didn’t even play on the street. It was a terrible period. I was getting too anxious about having an audience and where I was playing.
I just started again. Bought a new guitar. A “Collings,” made in Austin, Texas,.  Why did I start again? I’m not sure. I guess I just decided I’m not too old. Willie Nelson is still playing and he is a little older than me…. It’s never too late. I should probably start listening to City’s 97 and work my way into the 21st century. I like some of the new stuff, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Memorization is harder now.
I would not trade my life for anyone. I am blessed a thousand times. It’s humbling.. Someone told me I should write a book. I said “It would take a life time to write it.

NAFTA, The Wall, Eleven Million People, and Donald Trump’s Lies.

img_0737

The wall on the border between Hidalgo Texas in the United States and Reynosa Tamaulipas, in Mexico.

On the campaign trail billionaire businessman Trump promised to:

Nullify NAFTA and other “free” trade agreements.
Deport eleven million people.
Build a wall between the United States and Mexico.

The problem he faces now: how he will backtrack on those promises, while convincing the white working class, and the economically insecure middle class, to continue to focus their hatred toward immigrants and foreign governments— not billionaires?

He must backtrack. He, and those he represents, make their riches obliterating borders in pursuit of the cheapest workforce and controlling the flow of migrant labor streams.

In other words, Trump and his ilk need free trade; they need those 11 million people without documents to stay and they need a way for more immigrants to continue to cross the Mexican border.

Trump is performing the old, old, juggling act of employers, and slaveholders: exploit labor as much as you can without fomenting rebellion. The workers, who greatly outnumber them, must be divided in order to be conquered.

With immigration and trade today, the divide and conquer balancing act is especially tricky. Fomenting hatred against “the other” keeps workers — in your plant and across borders — from uniting, but if the hate campaigns are too successful, one loses precious sources of super exploitable labor.

What Donald Trump has done to demonize people based on their immigrant status, country or origin, ethnic background and/or culture is criminal. Knowingly inspiring hate crimes should be a super-hate crime, with a super sentence. Now, who knows what he will do to fix the problem he made for himself. He’s an erratic guy. It is hard to say just how he will maneuver this. He certainly has a track record of 180 degree turns. Certainly he has a track record inspiring violence.

It’s up to us to stay true to our principals — like fair trade, the right of all people to make a home anywhere, and the right of all workers to livable wages, housing, health care and education, cultural and religious freedom; the dignity of every human being. Stuff like that.
As for the wall? It already exists. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is militarized and deadly. We need to end the war on our southern border.

Would another Bracero Program Protect the Interests of Mexican and U.S. Workers?

26porter-1477430330831-master768Photo by Frank Q. Brown/Los Angeles Times, appeared in the New York Times October 25, 2016, Business Day section.

In If Immigration Can’t Be Stopped, Maybe It Can Be Managed the New York Times  touted a “new” temporary worker scheme created by the Center for Global Development, matching Mexican workers with U.S. employers.

The CGD patterned their plan on the 1942 Bracero Program. They argue it will address labor needs and end undocumented migration. It is shocking to see this shameful old chapter in U.S. labor history resurrected as shiny immigration reform.

The Bracero Program began as a temporary provision, sold to a xenophobic population as a necessary measure to address a war-time labor shortage. However it outlasted the war by two decades, and actually expanded during peace time, cresting in the mid 1950s and enduring until 1964.

The United States/Mexico low-wage temporary labor system did not begin with the Bracero Program.  It developed sixty year earlier, with completion of the Pacific Railway and passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese workers recruited to build the railroad became the first “illegals” when their usefulness to railroad tycoons was over.

The new rails made it possible to connect southwestern products to global markets and new irrigation techniques spurred the desire  for a new army of temporary workers  to plant and harvest.  Newly discovered copper, silver and oil mines also needed workers to unearth its treasures. Peasants in Mexico, displaced by these same railroads, mining companies and factory farmers operating on both sides of the border, became that labor army, displaced and forced into a migrant stream that continues to this day.

U.S. employers became dependent on this bilateral labor system for workers they could recruit when needed, super-exploit and remove when no longer required. The system has depended on and helped ensure the continued impoverishment of Mexico and the seasonal resurrection of anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican racism in the U.S.

Far from removing the most exploitative aspects of this bilateral labor system, the Bracero Program of 1942 codified and justified it.  Braceros were denied the right to build families and communities in the United States. They were tied to employers like slaves, unable to take their labor elsewhere. They were treated like cattle, subject to naked inspections and sprayed with poisons at the border.

The Bracero program withheld a percentage of the worker’s wages until they returned to Mexico. Most workers never received those wages. Despite the success of recent law suits some workers and their heirs have yet to recover those stolen earnings. It is the definition of hubris, that the Center for Global Development’s “new” proposal includes the same wage-withholding provision.

The new proposal, (like its predecessors) promises to be kinder and gentler. For example, it will not tether workers to employers.  It is best not to ask how this would actually work, because such a question thrusts us into the minutiae of a proposal that is rotten in its premise.

We need to answer the new Bracero Program proposal with a transnational labor plan that seeks to END that super-exploitative labor system begun 130 years ago – not shore it up!  Workers on both sides of the border need living wages,  benefits and protections, environmental regulations.  We need to enforce the inalienable right of all workers to stay home OR roam.  We need regulations that force large employers on both sides of border to investment in local, sustainable economies.

Instead of resurrecting a 1942 system of labor dehumanization, lets dump free  trade and fast-track a transnational bill of workers rights.

In designing such a bill we can look to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 13 states: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. and Article 23 declares:  Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

 

Bruce Drewlow. From Northern Minnesota to North Minneapolis, the Education of an Educator.

img_1536In the Twin Cities I met my partner Carl in 1985. He worked in the florist industry. Our circle of friends were dying right and left. AIDs was still not understood — still called the gay cancer. At gay gatherings today there are very few men my age. My age group died out during the aids crisis.

Growing Up in Rural Conservative Religious Family.

I am a farm boy from outside of Barnesville in Northwestern Minnesota. We had dairy cows, hogs, sheep, chickens. I have four older siblings. When I was five my father gave me a sheep, “for my college education.” I was to keep the proceeds from its off-spring for my tuition. What does a five year old name their sheep? Mary, or course. Mary had little lambs — triplets every year — which is unusual. We kept the females, sold the males and sold the wool. All the proceeds went into my college fund. So I knew at the age of five I was going to college. They didn’t have money to send me, but they showed me a way.

We didn’t raise sugar beets, but our neighbors did, and so there were migrant workers in our community who came up every summer. I saw how they were treated. They were housed in 8 by 10 rooms with no running water or electricity; buildings meant for animals! I remember driving by and hollering out “Hola!” I wanted a connection, but that was the only word in Spanish I knew. I saw whole families working the field. I think that’s where my passion for social justice began.

I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, one of the most conservative branches of the church. Our town church was founded by my parents and twelve other families. Prior to that they went to a Missouri Synod church my grandparents founded. So yes, added pressure. We were in church early every Sunday, in the same pew.

Coming out as gay was not an option.

Rural Activism

I went off to college on my sheep money, to Moorhead State. In college I met these gentlemen from Ethiopia who were looking for someone that had sheep, — they liked the meat. I brought them home to meet my mother. We slaughtered the sheep and they told my mother — who had never traveled more than 90 miles from where she grew up — about their lives. “Their skin is kind of dark!” she said. But she was fascinated to learn about them. After that I made it a practice to bring different friends home to expand her horizons.

While I was in college an electric company began building a power line from coal fields in North Dakota to the Twin Cities. Farmers I knew in Northwestern Minnesota objected to the line crossing their land. I joined the campaign to halt the line, working with the young Carleton College professor Paul Wellstone.

I majored in education. After taking a Black Studies class I decided to minor in African American studies. That instructor had such a huge impact on my thinking. He brought us to Minneapolis and we went to call-and-response churches. It changed me. I don’t remember his name. I have been trying to figure out who he was to tell him. He was arrested half way through the quarter, incarcerated and forced to resign at the end of the term.

I got my first teaching job at an elementary school in Marshall, Minnesota, while working on my Master’s degree in Education at Morris. A parent of one of my students suggested she and I and another friend create a non-profit together to facilitate grassroots leadership and address the economic crisis in rural Minnesota. Family farms were going out of business, schools were consolidating and rural towns were dying in the 1980s.

We called ourselves Community Quest. We didn’t pay ourselves anything. We all had full time jobs. Our logo was the geese flying. You know the head goose only flies for a while before taking it’s place at the back of the V and then the next one moves forward? That was our model for transformational leadership.

We found money to bring welfare mothers in Marshall to the state legislature to testify about issues affecting them.

We fought the public utilities commission to keep those costs down for rural people.

We did farm mediation training to help farmers collaborate to save their farms and fight the banks. That was the time of the Artichoke Scam. Farmers had been talked into growing jerusalem artichokes when there was no market for it. The sellers made a killing on the fraud. Artichokes are like weeds. Once you plant them they take over your land. Farmers planted hundreds and hundred of acres of these artichokes and then the market crashed.

Alaska

We went to a national conference on grassroots leadership in Washington D.C. There I met a gentleman from Alaska. We exchanged contact information. A few months later I got this call “Would you like to do teacher training in Alaska?” I said I’d like to think about it. He said “You have until Friday to decide. I’ll book your flight.” So that is how I came to do math training workshops for elementary teachers, across the state of Alaska.

The first day of the workshop I hid in the bathroom during a break and listened to what people were saying. I heard

“The presenter is really good but he is not using enough artifacts that our students will be able to relate to.”
So at lunch time I went out and bought local things. I came back and said “ You know I realize this morning thaI was not using enough local examples. It is important to make connections to students’ cultures so they can relate to your stories.” I was learning from my mistakes about the importance of culturally relevant teaching.

After that I taught second grade in Marshall, Minnesota. I had eight special ed students with emotional behavior disorders. For some reason the EBT kids had an affinity for me — they saw me as a calming personality. I liked them too, but they drained me. One morning toward the end of the year the secretary paged me. “Bruce you have a long distance phone call.”

I thought it was a family emergency so I left my class to take the call. It was the University of Morris.They said “We have a one-year position. We contacted professors at the U and your name came up on eight of the nine lists as someone we should ask, so we’d like you to come for an interview.“

College Teaching, School Administration, and a stint with the Demons.

I had never thought about teaching at the college level, but I was exhausted. It had been a rough year. I took the one-year position at Morris. I liked it. It was more flexible, less draining. You are impacting education in a different way. I helped form a student leadership group, continuing my activism outside the classroom.

At the end of the year I saw an ad for a position at Augsburg in Minneapolis. They were starting a master’s program in Educational Leadership. I had the background in both. I was offered the job.

At Augsburg I was asked to join the advisory board of the Hans Christian Andersen School — the training sight for designing multi-cultural, gender-fair, disability-aware curriculum. I was on their board for ten years. I also became a Humphrey fellow at the U.

I enjoyed my time at Augsburg, but private colleges don’t pay well. My students were graduating and making more than I was. I got a job in Maplewood as a teacher but before the school year began they had a resignation in the district.

They made me coordinator of “Diversity” and the K-12 gifted program. Later they piled on other roles: ELL, homeless/highly mobile and special needs.

I trained teachers in cultural competence and recruited teachers of color. I learned about the wall created by budget cuts and tenure that makes it difficult to keep new teachers of color — The last hired are the first laid off. So I was recruiting teachers of color and trying to create a support network — and then they were laid off.

I think there is a way to deal with that by giving teacher specific roles that make them immune to the budget-cutting. I see this problem diminishing in urban schools as White teachers retire. Young white teachers who are not prepared to teach in an urban setting are leaving the district, creating openings for teachers of color.

Another barrier is the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examination. Many students are afraid to take it. Others struggle to pass it. We have a new test that began this September that I’m hoping will be better than the old Minnesota test which was clearly biased against students of color. The math section is supposed to be easier….

Since I was the diversity coordinator, a high school student came to me when he wanted to start a GSA — Gay/Straight Alliance. We worked on a proposal that would not get shot down. His Principal would want to know objectives, outcomes, target audience, budget. We put it all together. I said, “Now go meet with the Principal.” He said “I thought YOU were going to meet with him” I said “No, this will be much more powerful coming from you.“ The Principal was positive but had more questions. We made sure he had answers.

After facilitating GSAs in the high schools, I worked with this student to create a training program for teachers district-wide on how to create safe zones for GLBT students. This student knew some graduates who were gay. We invited them to come back and tell of their experiences being gay in the Maplewood school district. Their stories brought the teachers to tears and made them realize something needed to be done.

The Maplewood school superintendent asked me to apply for a principal position they had open. I wasn’t excited about the idea. I spent the whole day meeting with each teacher. I told them I feel like our parents asked us to go to the prom. Let’s spend the day finding out if we want to dance together.” I worked as a principal for six years. My sixth year I had a kindergarten student who kicked his pregnant teacher and the baby died. It hit me hard. I felt responsible because I put him in her classroom.

For a short while I went to work for the Demons — Pearson Testing corporation. I wanted to know the back story of how the tests were developed and scored. I found math questions where a correct answer — chosen by 10% of students — was scored as wrong. They moved me to reading and writing. Under Common Core, students have to read three articles and write a persuasive essay. They had one about Zebra mussels. I said “I predict that half the students will be writing about the muscles on Zebras.” As it turned out, 60% of the answers were about muscles on Zebras.

Chipotle and ICE

After that I thought about opening a Bed and Breakfast but I needed income right away. Someone told me Chipotle was hiring. I became a Chipotle manager without a day of kitchen or chef experience.

All of my employees were undocumented. All of them. Chipotle gave us a black light to check to to see if employee’s papers were doctored. That was when I became aware of the need for drivers licenses for undocumented people. My employees would get pulled over on their way to work. I stayed there for 18 months and then saw the handwriting on the wall. ICE was attacking different states where Chipotle had employees. I resigned a week before 1500 Chipotle employees in Minnesota were fired — including all the employees in my store.

I had developed friendships with workers and other managers — many of whom were undocumented too. They were kept on until they could train in the new employees and then they were summarily fired. I wrote letter of support for my new friends fighting for green cards and citizenship. A few were gay men. After Marriage Equality, they contacted me to be best man and write letters to help them get their papers.

My Coming Out Process

My friend Joe says “Bruce is gay but it doesn’t define him.”

Growing up in a conservative church in a rural town in the 1960s and early 70s, I did not have the opportunity to come out as gay. We had bible passages to memorize. It wasn’t something you could even think about, if that makes sense. I was very active in extra curricular activities — music, plays. I had a close knit group of about ten friends who were focused on academics. We studied together. That was my social life.

Then I went off to college and discovered — Oh! There are other people like me! There were no gay student organizations, but I was involved in a traveling musical group — we went different places. I still more experimenting than actually coming out.

As a teacher in Marshall, Minnesota in the 1980s it was not an option to be out at work, but there I met other gay people and was able to come out within the Marshall gay community. We would visit Sioux Falls, which had some gay bars.

In the Twin Cities I met my partner Carl in 1985. He worked in the florist industry. Our circle of friends were dying right and left. AIDs was still not understood — still called the gay cancer. At gay gatherings today there are very few men my age. My age group died out during the aids crisis.

Augsburg was not a workplace where I could be out either. The Lavender Magazine was banned from campus. Early 1990s. When I went out to any of the clubs I worried about somebody at Augsburg seeing me. I could lose my job. So my personal and work lives were separate. I had never socialized with my work mates, for my personal safety.

When I got job at the Maplewood school district my partner was diagnosed with cancer. The staff was very supportive. When he passed away I came in to say that I would be taking off for a few days because Carl died. I was allowed family leave time which was not in the contract at all. All of the secretaries and staff came to the funeral and administrators came to the visitation. That felt really different.

I have not come out to any of my family. My partner, when he was alive, came to family events. They saw him as my roommate. Even when we lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment, it still didn’t dawn on them. My sister now knows. She found out when she came to Carl’s funeral and the priest talked about what a wonderful partner he had been. I have not talked to family because I am not sure how they would react. I am at the age where It doesn’t matter if they are accepting or not. I host the family holidays for those who live down here. I was very close to my mom, even though I was never out to her. We talked on the phone every Saturday at 8pm from the time I went off to college until she died last year.

I have a family that I was born into and a family that I have chosen. I tell my students who are dealing with difficult families and pasts that don’t represent who they are today. “Sometimes you have to just put that stuff in a suitcase and leave it at a bus stop. You don’t need it.”

I did not leave the Lutheran Church. I am a member of Central Lutheran in downtown. It was not an open congregation for a long time. When ELCA had their convention here and decided to allow gay ministry, tornado lighting struck the cross of our church. Those who were anti -gay said, “See! God does not approve!” Central Lutheran held a vote at one time about being an open congregation. It lost by two votes. A lot of gay members left. I did not. The religious piece is grounding to me. When I don’t attend Church I feel a void. Luckily Central Lutheran has evolved. It is an open congregation now. The president of the church council is a friend of mine who is openly gay.

Living and Advocating on the North Side

For years I lived downtown. I was involved in neighborhood politics. Joan Grow was the parliamentarian in my neighborhood group. I decided I wanted to live in a real neighborhood where I could work on social justice issues I was passionate about on a grassroots level. I decided to move to Near North twelve years ago.
I have been adopted as “Dad” by two African American men who live on the North side. Neither have parents alive.

My youngest has never know his father. His mother and sister have died.  One day I went to pick him up at his manufacturing job in Crystal. While waiting for him I was stopped because I fit the description of someone they were looking for in the nearby apartment building. Five minutes later when my son got in the car, we are pulled over because he “fit the description….”.

My oldest son was picked up while walking to a doctors’ appointment at North Point clinic. He was detained for six hours. Only later was he told he “fit the description” of a robbery suspect. He is 5 foot 8 and has short cropped hair. The person they were looking for was six foot two with dreads.

My son DT lost a job when they found out he had a minor drug offense some time along the way.

Inspired by my sons’ experiences, my passion the last few years has been working on the Justice for All campaign with Take Action Minnesota on Ban the Box — eliminating the question on application forms “ Have you ever been convicted of a felon. ” and Restore the Vote — extending voter’s rights to former felons.

We won on Ban the Box, two legislative sessions ago. Our strategy was to get 120 people with records to apply for jobs at Target just before the Thanksgiving rush. They all had to check the box and none got interviews. One woman had a record that had been expunged. She got an interview but when they did a deep background check, they denied her the job.

The head of Target was head of the Chamber of Commerce at that time. Once we put pressure on them, they were the ones who got it through the legislature. They are also taking the issue nationwide. We met with Target’s legal team, lobbied them to hire younger people to work at their warehouses.

My oldest son and I went to the Governor’s Mansion after Philando Castile was killed and we were there when the governor came out. I know governor Dayton a little bit, so I pulled him aside after he spoke and said “I want you to meet my son and have a conversation about his experiences.”

I have white friends that I worked with on the Hans Christian Anderson Multicultural Learning program who have said, “We are against the Black Lives Matter shutting down the freeway, the airport or the Mall.”

I said to them “Let’s step back a minute. So, someone was inconvenienced and had to sit in traffic for an hour or two. How many Black lives have been inconvenienced for more than an hour?”

They said “We never thought about it from that perspective” I was like, “You folks have been involved in this work for 30 years and you hadn’t thought about it from that point of view?!

They said “I guess we need to keep in touch with you because you help us reframe things.”

That is what it’s all about. Seeing things from other people’s point of view.”

A Master’s Degree in Homelessness. 

Five years ago I began teaching at Metro State University in the Urban Education Program. One day on my way to class I got a call from a young man I’d met in North Minneapolis, wanting to know if anyone was living in my basement.

“My girlfriend doesn’t want to go to the shelter because she wanted the whole family to stay together. Can we stay spend a night or two — maybe a week at your place?”

I told him I was on my way to class. I’d talk to him after I found a parking place. In the parking lot I took out my notes for the day to see what I would be talking about. “Keeping homeless families connected to the school system.”

[Bruce points up, indicating he got the celestial message.] I called him back and said “Sure.”

So mom and dad and six kids turned up at my doorstep. My basement has a bathroom but otherwise it isn’t finished. I found blankets and rugs for them to sleep on. We shared kitchen facilities. One day turned into a week, two weeks, three weeks, turned into a month and a month turned into three and a half months.

The mother was a cook in the St. Paul schools so the kids were able to get meals. She didn’t want to let the school system know she was homeless so at first they would all leave the house at 6:45 AM to catch the 19 downtown, to the light rail, and then separate buses to their schools. Finally I convinced her to let them know they were homeless/highly mobile. Then I had school vans began showing up at all hours of the morning and evening to take the kids to school.
With my experience coordinating the Homeless Program, I thought I knew about homelessness, but during those 15 weeks I earned a Masters degree. How do you contact housing or employers if you don’t have a cell phone that works, or one with limited minutes? You might have money to pay rent but not enough to pay first months and last months and a security deposit.

The second night they were with me I asked the kids, “What did you learn in school today?” They had the typical kid response: Nothing. I told them at Coach B’s house “nothing” is not an acceptable answer. So then every night they would line up and tell me what they learned that day. One day I was getting supper together and they all came and stood there behind me.

I said What? What do you want?

They said “You forgot to ask us what we learned!”

I asked them about their homework. They said “We don’t have homework— we’re homeless.” I shook my head “At my house you are not homeless. If you don’t have homework you can read a book.” I pointed them to my huge library of children’s literature.

They finally found a place. I was relieved. It became exhausting for me, trying to be supportive but keeping my own space too. I was paying to heat an unheated basement and providing laundry. When you are homeless you don’t have many clothes. They did laundry all the time. Six kids and two adults….

Taking stock.

I have lived a life. I have so many stories to tell my Metro State students. I always ask them, “Which hat do you want me to wear when I address your question — the teacher hat, the principal hat, the professor, hat? Then I tell them, “My goal is not to answer your questions but to raise more questions.”

I am blessed to be still in contact with my Augsburg students and Metro graduates. They call for teaching advice. It feels good to be connected even twenty years later. I am passionate about teaching but I am at the point where I can retire. People have asked if I would run for school board and I said ‘No!” but will be involved in education in someway. My Somali students want me to donate my books to start a library in Mogadishu. I have about 2,000 volumes. That would be a large library in Somalia. I’ll continue working on voter restoration. It impacts my community on the North side.

When my partner died of cancer, it was before we had Marriage Equality. He put his hospital bills on a credit card. When he died I realized it was good we were not married. When the creditors came calling they couldn’t hit me up. My sons have health care issues. When I retire and lose my health care package, I will too. Universal health care is another issue I’ll work on.

I have been having a party once a year where I invite people from all the different parts of my life. Due to popular demand it’s become a twice-a-year event. So many different circles coming together.

No matter what circle I’m in, I perceive my role as empowering others to become advocates for themselves. The question is what tools do they need and can I provide those tools.

My advice? Carry an activist back pack or a tool box with you at all times.

Minneapolis Project. Transformational moments when life takes a turn.

monarchbutterfly-caterpillar-001

At 18  moved into  apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in and got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds.. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she …

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up…

It was a weekend. Someone knocked on the door. We didn’t  know we had the right not to answer. … There weren’t close relationships within the apartment complex for people to tell us: “If ICE comes don’t open your doors.” My dad opened the door…

The fourth precinct occupation rearranged our life — the things we did to make sure the family was safe. My son would follow me to make sure I got home safely. There was a lot of toying around with our different phones. I’m sure my phone was tapped. Many people’s phones were tapped. But it was a positive experience. People came together from a place of hurt and stood for justice. It was an indescribable feeling. I think about it a lot; how exhausted people can be. Many put in way more time than me —out there for days and nights. I was able to come and go. Go to work, come back. There were times I didn’t go to work….

 

We were in an evangelical church talking to the congregation — a Know Your Rights forum put together by UnidosNow. We were following an agenda. An idea came to me out of the blue. I saw a group of young kids and I said ‘Pastor, can we bring the children forward? Can we pray for them? Because from this congregation we are going to have the next President, Senator, Congressman, Doctor, Lawyer.

People began shouting “Amen’! and “Praise the Lord!” …

I wrote a poem, Asking For It,  that went not exactly viral, but bacterial. It has had over 800,000 views. I think it can be hard to talk about sexual violence using humor…

I wanted to be a nutritionist. I applied to work in dietary at the hospital. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.

As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room. I didn’t know a darn thing! …

The city has changed since I first came. I used to walked along 2nd Avenue — that area where the Guthrie Theater is now. It was mostly youth of color who hung out and lived there. Now it is ….

I was at a big Movement for New Society meeting and someone said “Alright— the lesbians have to caucus.” Every single woman but me got up and left! I was like “Oh my gosh! All my friends are lesbians!” It was suddenly a possibility. A really …

I went to an all Black college in Mississippi — Alcorn College. It was affordable for poor people. I was studying Home Economics. Oscar Howard, in Minneapolis, was working for Tuskegee, recruiting people for their food service program. He convinced me to transfer. At Tuskegee you could go to school one semester and work the next — paid Internships. I did one internship in a hospital in a small town near Miami, Florida and one in Minneapolis. I preferred Florida but …

When I came back from Chiapas in 1998 and I worked on Lake Street , the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people …

Our migration to Minneapolis started with my Uncle Dale. My family has always been musical. My uncle was in all kinds of Country Western and Country Western Blues bands. Sometime in the ’70s he got a gig in Minneapolis at an old bar right on Nicollet Ave. He came back and said, “Its AMAZING there! There’s the American Indian Movement, incredible bands… I’m moving, I’m getting out of the prairie for awhile…”
One by one…

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were no…

At age 18 I had my first daughter Jasmine. That is when my life took a 360 degree shift. I became a single mother . I knew that the border life was not what I wanted for my baby. I…

In 2012 I was watching the news. I heard a conversation about a young Black kid,Trayvon Martin who was killed that by that guy — George Zimmerman.  I …

One summer night when we were sitting outside and our kids were playing, one woman said, “I wish we could just order some pizzas.” We knew we couldn’t afford that. As we started talking about getting together some grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids, another woman said, “Watch my kids for a little bit” She came back a half hour later with money for pizza. She had …

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof …

 

I worked alone at the bar, but I was supposed to have a lunch break and a free meal as part of my contract. The manager said “You can eat at the bar between customers.” I said “No. I need a break. You give me my free sit-down meal or I will have pickets out on the sidewalk.”

I had never been to a union meeting. The only thing …

Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet …8

I had an “inner city” internship in college in 1970. We went to a big meeting in North Minneapolis. It could have been organized by The Way — …

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults…

My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. …

 

As a teenager I hated Northeast Minneapolis. It seemed redneck. Old. I got a job in downtown Minneapolis working at the yogurt bar at Daytons in 1985. It felt like an opening to the rest of the world. Music also taught me about the wider world. My Dad was a record collector. He listened to everything. I learned about Central America and Afghanistan listening to Washington Bullets by The Clash. Sun City …,

One of the things I enjoyed most about the trip to India was being with other kids who looked liked me and had my American experiences. They knew what a double cheeseburger was. We could talk about Dunkin Doughnuts….

I went to Calcutta, where my orphanage (INH) was….

After Ferguson, three things happened.

1) I began viewing everything through a racial lens. It was like pulling a middle block on a Jenga tower. All the other blocks began falling at once.

2) For a few weeks in Ferguson the media shined a light on White Supremacy so that other White people I interacted with could see. I had ammunition when I talked to them. Not everyone understood, but at least we shared a set of facts.

3) …

Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many…

I was invited to attend a Critical Resistance conference in September 2009. Their goal is a complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. I was in a session with individuals talking about their difficulties in getting jobs with a record. It was really hard for me because I had a criminal record and I was pardoned and I didn’t have those problems. It was an important weekend for me. I met people from Minnesota who were active on the North side. During the key note address, Angela Davis asked all who had been incarcerated to stand. At that point only a few member of my family and close friends knew..,

Me and a couple others organized Second Chance Day on the Hill. No budget. We just said hey, lets do this. We brought 900 ex-offenders to the rotunda. Most of them had never been in the capital. Some of those guys thought you had to …

Ferguson happened around that time. My eyes were glued to the TV for days. I thought about this young individual who made a mistake – made a poor decision – but did not deserve the action that unfolded. Looking up on the screen, I realized that person could have of been me. I know when I was young I made stupid mistakes… For the first time in my life, I found out what some of the American population thought about me as an African American. While I had always heard those negative viewpoints, I never thought ….

When I first started teaching classes I would have 30-40 kids. In one class there was only one non-white student — a Somali kid. I was new to teaching. I remember the students smirking and snickering to each other as I tried to teach racial formation theory. First I got really angry. I lectured to them, asserting my authority. I know that’s a privilege. My female colleagues tell me it is always a struggle for them to maintain authority, especially when teaching controversial stuff.

I didn’t realize my students ….

A few months in, there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I..,

Here in the U.S., I hear a lot of people say that we need a revolution. I always tell them that I have been through a revolution—the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

I was involved in the student protests when I started college. There was a lot of unity as the revolutionary struggle developed: All the organizations–religious, communist, socialist and lots of others—united to make the revolution happen. It was through the revolutionary struggle that I learned about how the U.S. was involved in installing the Shah. I grew up in the relatively comfortable middle class; I was shocked to learn that many people in my country didn’t have water or electricity.

After the Revolution everyone promised to stay united, ….

 

After that bad relationship I really didn’t know who I was. I had no idea of my value as a person. Being a nanny was rehabilitating to my soul and self. Those little girls — they gave me a reason to get up. I learned to love them more than myself. It was out in Burnsville – far enough so my friends didn’t come out and visit. I had  ..,

I was dressing up to go to work, learning new skills and getting good feedback. It felt good. Until one day, they told me I was fired for “lying on the job application about my criminal record.”

But I didn’t lie….

 

 

One time that I felt a sense of community at South High School is when I participated in a Black Lives Matter walkout. We walked in the middle of the street from South to Martin Luther King Park …

Alice Anderson. From 40 acres in Northern MN, to “Beautiful Activist” of South Minneapolis.

img_1230-1

 

 

Migration story of a Black family to Northern Minnesota in the 1920s.   

My parents grew up in Kentucky. My father and my mother were married in 1916 and my father went off to war — the first World War. They divorced because my mother thought my father was a playboy — I’ll just say it.

My mother’s sister and her husband had come up from Kentucky  to mine coal in Iowa. When that job ended they came up to Minneapolis to work on the railroad.   They had one child. Their marriage wasn’t going well.  My mother came up to Minneapolis to take her niece back to Kentucky until they settled their differences.  When they divorced my mother and cousin came back up to Minneapolis and stayed with my aunt.

My mother joined the AME Church  that is now over on Snelling Ave. The minister had a nephew, Mr. Withers, living with him. My mother and the nephew married.  Mr. Withers was a delivery man — delivering coal and ice in a horse and buggy. He kept his horse at a transportation station — a forerunner to Greyhound, that ran a bus up to Canada. Mr. Withers like to hunt and fish so he took several bus rides up north.  The bus owner convinced him to open up a bus-stop near Virginia, Minnesota  in a place that used to be called Albina. It’s called Gheen now.

He bought 40 acres. It had a white frame house on it.  They opened the bus-stop at an intersection of Gheen and Highway 53.  In the road about a mile was the railroad tracks. Diamond Match Company had an outlet there and the executives from the Duluth area would go back and forth so it was a good corner to have a bus stop. In addition to the bus stop, Mr. Withers opened the Butterfly Inn. There you could buy a half fried chicken, some potatoes, a vegetable in season, and a scoop of ice cream for desert.  It became a place for the community. The young people couldn’t wait to come over to get their ice cream cone there. It  was the only store around. Mother and Mr. Withers ran it for 4-5 years until Mr. Withers got ill and died. Peritonitis. So my mother was alone, running the place. She wrote to her ex mother-in-law  back in Kentucky that her husband died and she wasn’t sure what she would do.  My grandma said to her son, “Go up and check on Jenny.”

My parents remarried in 1929. I was a loved child — born in 1932.  It was the depression. The store fell on hard times. They sold the business and my father worked on road construction, developing Highway 53.   But my father had been a haberdashery in Illinois. He liked being independent. So he became a farmer on the forty acres.  We grew everything: corn, peas, green beans, wax beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, lettuce, radishes — a truck garden. There was no refrigeration then. People who went to their lake cottages would buy their food from us for their dinner. They’d say “I’d like some green beans.” We didn’t weigh it — just gave them a handful. My mother raised and sold chickens. We would kill them right there when they came and they would take them home and fry them.

That is the way  I grew up as a child. I hated digging for potatoes. It was always after September.  Your hands would get so cold digging them out.  A lot of times we just bartered the potatoes, a couple bushels  for my school shoes or some fabric to make a dress — my  school clothes.  We butchered with the neighbors. They would come and help you and take some of it. We had a man who would come and de-horn the animals and castrate them. We would pay him in chickens. That’s how people survived.

It was a multiracial community — you name it, we had some. We were the only Black family, but there were Jews, Greeks, Italians, lots of Scandinavians –Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian – and everything else in-between.  Everybody got along, everybody had their own culture and you learned to share all that culture. I really feel good about that.

We had two Greek families.  The men worked on the railroad. In one family the children had long thick black hair.  Their mother used to braid it — two long braids and everyone would say — “how do your children have such long black hair?” People didn’t know about different cultures. She’d say “All I do is yank it and it gets that way.”  They used to make goulash on a fire outside — people didn’t have ovens.  She’d put it on the fire on before church.  Often, after church on Sunday, we’d go to her house for goulash. They’d come to our house from something else. Nobody was invited — we just kind of went.

I went to high school six miles north in Orr.  There were 17 kids in our class. I was a good student. Not valedictorian, but close. We still own that land. It still enjoy going up there and seeing my old friends.

My junior year I came down to Minneapolis and went to Central high school (now Green elementary).  I lived with my aunt and helped her take care of her ailing husband while she worked.  I returned home for my senior year and graduated up there.

On her own in Minneapolis, 1949.   

After I graduated I came to Mpls. I rented a room. I never heard of anybody living in an apartment then. We had kitchen privileges for an hour a day.   I think I got a rash from eating so much tuna fish.  An hour is not long enough to make anything.  I worked at two family department stores, Jackson Graves and Roy Bjorkman’s.  They sold furs and high-end clothes. They displayed their furs on rocks “– the natural habitat for fur.”  I wasn’t old enough to sell. You had to be a mature woman. I was a “runner.” I would take their money back to the cashier, bring them change and gift wrap.

I got to know the families who owned those stores. It was better money than food service or working for newspapers  — the other available jobs. I could get a big discount on clothes –25% — and dibs on damaged goods. I was wearing Hanes hosiery before anybody else knew about them. Even Daytons did not sell Hanes hosiery then — I’m talking 1949-50.

From there I went to Northwestern hospital. (Abbot and Northwestern eventually merged). I was really interested in food. I wanted to be a nutritionist, but you couldn’t get in the University to study nutrition at that time. I wanted to work in dietary. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.

As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room.  I didn’t know a darn thing!  They trained me –showed me how to open sterile packages and everything. One day Doctor Plato went to the director of nursing and said “I have a potential nursing student.” So they called me down to see if I wanted to go to the school of nursing.

I still wasn’t interested!  But I thought — my folks don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. At least I’ll learn something. I should take advantage of this opportunity. So I went into the school of Nursing at Northwestern Hospital. It was a three-year program. By the time my first year was up,  the three hospital schools merged and they had enough students so that we went to Macalester for our basic classes. So we were Mac students. We did our chemistry and math foundations there.

A boy from my hometown, who went to high school with me in Orr, was at Macalester.  He was two years older than me. He was involved with foreign exchange students and the Young Republican Club on campus.  He got me involved in everything. I said “We are not Republicans!” he said “Never mind. It’s a learning experience.”

I got chastised on campus because Eisenhower was running for President and I was going everywhere with the Young Republicans. I even got to go on a whistle stop where Eisenhower was, at that time.  One boy came up and said to me: “Don’t you know Eisenhower wants segregated troops?”  I didn’t know how to answer him because I didn’t know!   My Orr friend said, “Don’t worry about what anyone says to you. If you have any problems just come to me.”

He and his friend were student body president and vice president. They sheltered me. I had a wonderful time and I learned so much about how to be involved in things, how conventions and political delegates worked.

Joan Mondale  — she was Joan Adams then — was a student at Macalester. She dated my Republican friend. She went up to Orr and slept there. When Mondale was vice president, my friend was going to put up a plaque “Joan Mondale slept here.”

(The Mondales used to live on 48th and Park Avenue. Walter Mondale used to be President of the Field School PTA. When he became State Attorney General they moved over to Lake of the Isles.)

I graduated from the school of Nursing. When people ask me if I was a nurse I tell them,  “Yes. I was a damn good nurse.” I quit while I was still up — 20 years ago. Even to this day when I walk through the halls of the hospital I get cordially asked “Why don’t you come back?”  When I was sick, and people came to visit me they said “I feel like I’m in the hospital with a celebrity.”  I feel honored.

I worked at Abbott Northwest, in the school system, at Park Nicollet, doing cholesterol screenings for corporations and factories. I’ve also done private duty nursing. I had one client who lived to be 102.

My husband was in the military — the Korean War. I was dating someone else before a whole group of them went off to war. A  friend of mine wrote to all the guys and let them know what us girls were doing. When he returned I wasn’t dating anyone. We started dating. We were married a year later.

When we first got married, after the Korean War, there was a housing shortage in Mpls.  There was a lady who lived at 40th and 3rd Ave with an apartment on top. We lived in that apartment. It had outdoor stairs. Icy in winter.  Terrible with the baby…. and hotter then heck in the summer. We decided we had to move. We moved 4329 4th Avenue — another apartment but with inside stairs.

When we saved enough to buy a house we went to look at one on 46th and Clinton. The realtor told us “Oh, I’m sorry that house was just sold.” We knew it was because we were black. We got a different realtor and a house on the 4500 block of Clinton, contract for deed — couldn’t touch it until you paid it off. We lived there for 17 years, before we bought the house on Oakland and 45th. We bought that house while the owners — a friend of ours — was still in it, directly from him. We had ten years to do financing with him before dealing with a bank.   It was a five bedroom house. We had my mother live with us, and our five children.  It was good for us.

Having a small business. 

In 1961 a huge tree in the vacant corner lot on 46th and 4th fell down. Kids in the neighborhood were upset because they liked to play in it.   Mobil gas purchased the land the neighborhood had a big protest.  They were upset about a service station going in there. They hardly knew us.  My husband saw the sign saying they wanted an operator of the station and he applied. Mobil had an office at Midway.  He took training there on how to be a Mobil dealer.

I had three small children.  I told my husband,  “What are you going to do with a service station?” “You are not going last a day — you don’t know where your dip stick is” and that was the honest-to god-truth. He didn’t know how to change his own oil!

The deal was, you operated the station for the company for six months. If you couldn’t make it, they took it back.  I knew how to do books. I loved math. So I did his books.

We stuck it out — 46 years!  It was hard. If someone came and said they needed a starter, we would order it and then they wouldn’t come back and we would have to absorb the cost. I told Kirk to get some money up-front, but he never would. Now they want $90 to put you on a scope. We never charged to put you on a scope.

Then we had that underground storage tank leak. Mobil went around and pulled all their tanks. We took a vacation. Because we didn’t stay around and watch while they pulled the tanks, the Petrol Fund wouldn’t reimburse us. County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin came to our rescue a little bit, but he never could help us get the money. We spent all our savings on attorneys.

Some neighbors said they could smell oil in their basement. Mobil had to finish the clean up, but we were never able to recover from the cost of that.Then we were told we had to remodel the store at our cost — “do it or you’re out of business.” We upgraded and it put us out of business.

During those 46 years we were honored many times — by Mobil, the neighborhood organization, the Minneapolis City Council — for being good stewards for the neighborhood. You could leave your purse with us and pick it up later. People left packages with us.

Activism

It was through the gas station and the schools that I got involved in neighborhood organizing. All my children went to Field except my youngest, Keith. I was on the Field PTA.

Integration/Equity in the Schools 

I was involved with the pairing/integration  of Bryant, Ramsey and Anthony Junior Highs.  I got pinned against the wall and threatened for being involved in that. It was pretty tense. Richard Green — who lived on Portland Avenue — was the superintendent at that time. He was smart.  He knew if you paired  just two schools, parents would be  calling you day and night. Do three or four schools at once, no-one would be able to get on the line. Do it  all at once and you are done.

When they had the riot at Washburn in 1971, it was really something.  Raleigh Delapp was the principal then.  There were very few Black children at Washburn. Those who were there excelled.There were White children who were not excelling who were the trouble makers of the school.  They had inferiority complexes and it came out racial. Their attitude toward the black kids was  “You think you are so smart….”My kids took Latin at Washburn. One daughter  had one lower grade and they said she didn’t qualify.  I said “You are excluding people who were not good in one subject, but might excel in another.”

They created a task force after the riot. Superintendent Richard Green was in charge of it. Grace Harkeness – who lived over by Lynhurst — and I and some other ladies were part of this task force.  Grace and I conducted a mandatory workshop for the teachers at Washburn. It was downtown at the North Star hotel.  We explained how they were profiling kids and not understanding what they needed, how they were catering to the kids on the other side of the Creek — the elite who wanted ski clubs and such.  We showed them that they were partial in sports, practicing favoritism.

We got some good reactions, some bad. Mr. Beck, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Potter who was math department, all welcomed us.  They needed our outside intervention. They couldn’t change the system from the inside.  The social workers were also glad we intervened.

I got WISE  — Women in Service for Education  — into the high schools. We got 60 women to read the required books on tape and we put a lab together where kids who were slower readers could listen to the books.

Neighborhood Activism  

Some people got into neighborhood activism, to solve their own personal problems. Let me give you an example. There was a man who did some work on his house and ended up with a pile of bricks outside his house he wanted hauled away.  He organized a neighborhood clean up and made sure it started at his house. He was done once the work was finished at his house.

I started those neighborhood clean ups. We hauled out tons of stuff.  We’d have hamburgers at our house for all the volunteers after we were done. When I was president of the neighborhood group there wasn’t a business in the area I didn’t know. Everyone from 42nd to 48th.

We had two neighbors who turned 100 –about 25 years ago. We made their birthdays the theme of the annual parade, with a horse and buggy and birthday cake float.

Southside Clinic

I volunteered at the Southside Clinic as an unpaid nurse.  We served people on a sliding scale. We depended on in-kind service, — like gifts from the hospitals of extra bandages, syringes, or office chairs.  We got a lot of stuff like that. At one point they were going to pull those gifts because they thought we weren’t doing enough. I went to petition the hospital administration and pulled strings. I said “if we have to go out of business, you people are going to have more on your emergency doorsteps.”

We did fundraising for the clinic: garage sales, bake sales, barbecues on the lawn. Paid the electric bill. Then we started getting donations. When I was “Nurse of the Year” at Abbott,  they honored me by  giving a donation to the clinic. I was asked to join the board of the Southside Clinic 30 years ago. One day it was snowing. The doorway was clogged with snow. I went out there with a shovel.” The doctor saw me out there and said “if I ever see you shoveling snow again you are off the board! I became  president of the board. I spent the most time trying to convince people who had never been on boards to join.  I had never served on a board. None in my family had ever served on a board. I never heard of a board meeting in Gheen Minnesota. I didn’t know how to do it.  I learned a lot. It was a labor of love.

Running for City Council. 

“I ran for city council against Brian Herron. There were several Black candidates running for the position. We were all friends. Someone at the DFL said — “Why are Black people running against each other?”  I told him that was racist. There are many wards where White people run against each other!

When Elizabeth Glidden became the councilwoman, she was told to go find me and learn about the neighborhood. She had started to have town meetings which I thought was smart. I told her she should have meetings somewhere above 42nd as well as below. It’s really two wards.

People look at the little picture. They don’t look at the big picture.  They want government out of their business until they have a flood or something, then it’s “Where is the government? We want our aid!” I  always try to look at the big picture so that, hopefully, I don’t close my mind in.

Racism

There was a riot on Portland and 43rd when Black families started moving in. They egged their cars. We never had anything like that happen to us in the neighborhood.

For my volunteer work I was honored by the University Women as a “Beautiful Activist.” My picture hung down in the window of Daytons. Some guy saw my picture and name and wrote the Star Tribune saying they were upset with my husband for marrying a Black women. People expected Alice Anderson to be White. At the hospital, patients would ask: “How did you get a name like Anderson?” I’d say “Best way I could figure out was to marry one.”  This is the kind of subtle racism I experienced all the time.

Once  I was clipped in the intersection right in front of our house. My husband [who is Black] came out. The police were really nasty to both of us.  I had just gotten my license renewed and I had the paper they give you before they send you the new license.  He gave me a ticket  for “driving without license.”  I went down and got it cleared, and told the Police Chief what happened to me. I said “This kind of  behavior is what is precipitating these police/community issues. Three weeks later I was going across Lake Street and Chicago, I had another fender bender. The police started to shame me: ” Its bad enough you had to hit someone — but you removed their fender! ” I said “You gave me a hard time a few weeks ago. I am going to run you in.”

The police were inciting trouble.

I went to a meeting over here when we first opened our business. We had a break in. We knew who broke in. We tried to tell the police who it was. They told my husband to “keep his mouth shut and mind his own business.”  Ten years later the police  came to the neighborhood group to get us to help with some local crime.   I said “You are ten years too late. Some of these crimes could have been stopped long ago if you had listened to us.”

Becoming an elder. 

When my mom got old, she was still living in Gheen.  I brought her down here.  Her friends cried when she left. She lived with me for ten years — died when she was 92 years old.

When my husband was sick, I sold the house and bought a condo downtown. It got too expensive. When he died, I went up North to my land to see I could find a place up there to live. I got an apartment and lived there for a year.  My daughter Kathy said, “You know mother, if you get sick up there, I don’t know what we will do.” I didn’t want to have them quit their jobs to take care of me. So I moved to be close to them. I have a daughter in Salem, North Carolina and two sons in Charlotte. I was going to live in Charlotte, but it was too busy for me, too mentally challenging, so I went up to Roanoke, Virginia. I heard on the radio that they were renovating an old hotel, not condos, but apartments. That sounded good to me. A historic hotel with brand new renovations. I’ve been there four years.

For Kirk’s funeral, Fred Steele did the music.  He asked me what he should  play.  I said “You pick. Kirk was not that religious.” He decided to sing “Charity.”  Fred said “I remember when I was just starting out and I didn’t have any money. Kirk would say,  ‘You can’t get back and forth from  North Minneapolis without a working car.’  He would fix my car for free, saying,  ‘When you get some money, bring me some.’  I never forgot that.”

My Church is gone — St. Thomas Episcopal on 44th and 4th Ave — sold to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Two summers ago, I went to see Joe Minjares. I made my arrangements with him.  When I die —  if my kids are willing and can afford to come back here — I’m having my service in the Parkway Theater. I  don’t know any place I feel closer to than there. When the service is over, I don’t want anybody crying. They  will walk over to  Pepitos  restaurant and have a joyful repast.

 

 

Sandy Velaz: Undocumented Immigrants Are My People.

 

IMG_1273

Growing up I had these images in my mind of helicopters at night. I thought it was a movie I had seen. No one told me the story of how I got here and somehow I knew I shouldn’t ask.  I didn’t find out until I was 18 and had to go back to Mexico to live with my grandmother. With her I discovered things about myself I didn’t know growing up.

I was born in Mexico City. My dad migrated to California soon after and for two years he saved up money for the Coyote so we could reunite with him. My grandma and grandpa were the ones who crossed the border with me and my four-year-old sister. We got on a raft at night and went across the river. Once we were over on the U.S. side there was a car waiting for us. They grabbed my sister and I and threw us into the trunk of a car!

Luckily I don’t remember this.

When we got to Los Angeles there was a huge party — celebrating being together again. All my uncles were there. We got some new clothes because we were in a America now! There are these pictures of me and my grandparents. I was teeny tiny, and so happy. I didn’t know how dangerous it was, how scared my grandma was for us.

I lived in Los Angeles until second grade. I look back at my L.A. school pictures and everybody looked like me. That was some of the best years for me because my parents were together. There was domestic abuse and we lived in poverty –my sister remembers that. I remember it was really fun.

I lived in Huntington Park. I have images, memories of drive-bys—the car coming through, guns, having to run inside and get down. We were there in 1992 when Rodney King happened. I was five. We couldn’t go outside. We didn’t have electricity. But we were all together. We had candle light. For a kid — it was fun! I didn’t know people were dying— the racial conflict that was going on. I’m sure the adults were scared too, but for me — it was a good time. My parents came home with a piano and food for us. So for me — I got a piano and it was awesome! Now I think — that was really bad.

In first grade I had a white male teacher who spoke Spanish to us, but we were supposed to write in English. I was confused about language and expressing myself. My parents didn’t speak English but they did their best to expose us to it.

In 1994 my parents weren’t doing too well. There were problems with money. My dad had a friend who had moved to Minnesota who told him, “There’s lots of jobs here.” Everything about that move happened really fast. I felt so confused and scared. In LA I had a pet turtle, my sister had chicks. We were living the kid dream. We had to give all that up.

I told my classmates “ I am moving to a place that is like Alaska — really cold.”

My mom, sister and I went first. We came on a plane — the first and last time I was on a plane until I was 18. We got to Minnesota at the beginning of winter. The first place we went to was the Kmart on Nicollet and Lake street to get coats. In L.A. buying and getting things was different. More bartering. I don’t ever remember going to a department store until Minnesota. I was scared. I looked up and the room was spinning with Christmas decor. I got lost.

We moved to the area around 33rd St. and 1st Ave.  A duplex. There were many people living with us. Family friends. For the next ten years of my life I slept on the floor and shared a room.

My dad took longer to meet up with us. My mom had to find a job. My dad’s brother came up. We pulled our money together and got an apartment on Nicollet Avenue and 33rd. Mom, us kids, her brother-in-law, and his wife and kids in one apartment. Mom worked night shifts, so for a while it was just me and my sister, alone at night.

My parents being apart, made my mom realize she did not want to be in the relationship. There was a lot of fighting over the phone.When dad came about a year later, we were together for two months before the apartment building got raided by ICE.

It was a weekend. Someone knocked on the door. We did not know we had the right not to answer. Now people are more aware of what to do if the police come to your door due to Know Your Rights campaigns — but not then. There weren’t close relationships within the apartment complex for people to tell us: “If ICE comes don’t open your doors.”  My dad opened the door. Four men came in. They didn’t take my mom, or us, but they took my dad. I think that’s lucky. Sometimes — then and now — kids go to school and come home and both their parents are gone.

Once again my sister and I were separated from my Dad. While he was back in Mexico, my mom found a new partner. It was a nasty divorce. I didn’t understand it. For many years I wondered, did I do something wrong? For me Minneapolis represented everything going wrong in our family. From my kid perspective, everything was good and we were all together before we came here. If we had only stayed in LA my parents would still be together. But Minnesota was also prosperity for us. It wasn’t easy, but the struggles that came our way all made us better people.

When I started second grade me and my sister were placed at Bethune Elementary on the North side even though we lived on the South side. I liked the school bus, seeing the whole city. The school was a culture shock. My little classmates in L.A. were all Latino. Bethune was African-American. They thought I was weird, but we soon got along fine. Before the end of the year my sister and I were transferred to Holland Elementary in Northeast.

Before I knew Brown, I knew Black. At Bethune and Holland I had all this exposure to African-American artists and writers, slavery in America. It wasn’t just in February that we learned about it. All year long we had plays about civil rights. In choir we sang freedom rider songs. We sang the African-American anthem. I loved it.

Holland Elementary was a small community school. It was the same elementary that Prince went to and we had the same music teacher he had. She was a great teacher. They all were. Compassionate. They weren’t afraid of administrators. They just taught us, took care of us. The ESL teacher was a Latina with two educational assistants who were Latino men. It was a great place to be. The teachers exposed us to material that was relatable. I remember watching a movie about a kid who grew up in the Projects and he finds a cat. His mom gives him money to buy food and he buys cat food too — on credit. I could relate to that.

When my dad returned from Mexico, mom already had an apartment and a new partner. It was nasty between them. My mom, was one of those adults that didn’t really want to be a parent, they just happened to be a parent. So my dad got full custody of me and my sister. That was interesting growing up in a female body without a mom. My dad said. “Its OK. I’m going to do this.” We lived in a house on 35th and Nicollet – Central neighborhood — with my dad and a friend and his wife and kids. It was fun. We played backyard baseball, went to the Hosmer library, chased after the ice cream truck.

My Dad worked two shifts so we didn’t see him much. When we came home from school, no one was home to give us a snack. Dad would leave us an envelope with money in it and we would go down to the corner store. After a year someone from the neighborhood complained. They were going to call the cops on us because they noticed we walked to the corner store everyday alone. That had to stop. As a kid that didn’t make sense. I thought, “we are just getting food.” So then my dad had to find someone to take care of us. Single parent struggle.

Holland Elementary was filled with working class families, single parent families, kids in poverty. We were normal. You couldn’t pick on anyone because they only had a mom or a dad. Everyone was from different backgrounds. I had Native American, White, African-American friends. I had an Afro-Latino friend. I would say to him “You’re Black! — but you speak Spanish!” It was trippy. He was from Panama.

I feel lucky that I went to Holland. I have heard horror stories of kids being put into ESL even though they spoke English, being put back a grade. None of that happened to us.

I moved to a duplex in the Powderhorn Park area. That was the period when people were talking about Murderapolis, you know. I saw gun violence three times.

  • We were pulling up into the driveway – near Wilder Elementary and there was a girl peeking out at the corner store, then shooting a gun and running.
  • Another time I was at the playground and someone pulled out a gun and everyone just scattered. All kids.
  • The third time I was in my dad’s car on the corner of Lake and Chicago and it was a green light but nobody was moving. Two cars were in the middle the intersection shooting it out. I said “ This is like a hollywood movie!” I guess you become desensitized. To me it seemed normal. It reminded me of LA. No big deal. We still enjoyed the park.

Later more family came up. Dad bought a house with his cousin in North Minneapolis and then I took the bus from North to South to attend Folwell Middle School. Before making that transition my teacher told me, “Your English is at the highest level. It’s up to you if you want to do ESL in 7th grade.” I decided to do it so I could be with my Latino friends. I didn’t realize there were so many Latino kids at Folwell.

Staying in ESL meant  I didn’t get to have music or other enriching classes. When I tried to get out of it they put in a remedial reading class. It was a little degrading. In the long run though, my reading level in 8th grade was above average and I thought maybe I needed that little extra boost. I didn’t want to be sad that I never got to learn an instrument.

At Folwell I began to pay more attention to race. In elementary school, watching Roots and learning about the underground railroad and singing freedom songs, Black was all I knew and it was amazing. In middle school I realized there was Brown and there was Different. There was racial tension between the Asian and Latino students. If someone had a beef with a Hmong student, we were all together, against them. I tried to be neutral and have all kinds of friends and activities.

I had an English teacher who had a white savior complex. In her journey to teach us about social justice topics and Native American culture, she was coming at it from an angle of “I’m sorry.” I saw through it and I didn’t like it. It was interesting to start noticing those things in 8th grade.

In Highschool I decided I liked the open program at Roosevelt so I applied. Otherwise I would have gone to Henry or Edison. But I got in. So I was taking a long bus ride again. I always liked the school bus.

In my dad’s cousin house in North Minneapolis, in the Camden neighborhood, close to Folwell Park.  We lived in the basement. That part of North was pretty safe then. There was a Kowalski’s and a Target in the area and a charter school across the street. Eventually the stores went away. Today it’s a very dangerous intersection.

My dad’s cousin had a lot of kids. He felt that pressure to provide and do better. He had been in trouble in Mexico. His nickname in my grandma’s pueblo was the Diablo — the Devil. My dad decided to give him a chance, but he eventually got involved in selling drugs.

My dad would tell us “We are not involved. Stay away from that.” But we would see it. We would see guns and my uncle doing drugs. Overnight they would suddenly have material things. It was interesting, but eventually the police were on them. One night, a swat team came in. I saw my little cousin standing behind the door and there was a cop with a gun to her back saying “Put your hands up.” Because it wasn’t an official rental, the basement was considered part of the drug house. Everyone in the house was searched. We sat in the living room all night long while they went through everything. By then I had a step mom and she had just given birth to my brother. She had a baby shower and got a lot of cash. They took the cash and she never got it back. There was no way we were going to go and claim that cash.

That was the second time my dad got taken away. I was in 9th grade. They confused him with a fugitive and for three months he was in a detention center until they figured it out who he was.

It took him sixth months to come back.

All my life my dad has been my super hero. He is taken away, and somehow he comes back! He just shows up. Recently, more and more he has been willing to tell me about crossing. He told me about seeing some young kids with an elderly grandma. The grandma couldn’t do that walk, across the desert, with a crying baby. “I wanted to help her but we had to keep moving.”

Those experiences that people hold onto about crossing the border — I think about the mental health aspect — everything they carry.

During the raid all of the adults got taken away somewhere, except my 21-year-old mentally ill cousin who had been under guardianship. She wasn’t fit to take care of us. It was her and ten minors in the house. We were lucky to be able to stay home. For a week none of us went to school. We were all fending for ourselves. I wanted to stay home and take care of my newborn little brother. No one wanted to come near the house because they were freaked out about the raid.
Our teachers didn’t know. No one knew.

Eventually my step mom, my step brother and I moved back to the South side with our Aunt and Uncles. We had four families in a three bedroom apartment. It was fun — all my cousins and Powderhorn Park to play in. When we made breakfast it was breakfast buffet— so much food and community; everyone watching out for each other. We lived there for a couple of years before my Dad came back and we moved back to North Minneapolis to a big house, with the entire extended family.

My senior year I had to face the fact that I was undocumented. I really wanted to go to school. A teacher of mine, Jehanne Beaton was a good mentor for me — she was my social studies teacher in middle school. When I went to Roosevelt she did too, so she was my social studies teacher all through high school. We had a close relationship. She wanted to help me figure out how to get to college. I was doing “Admission Possible.” I got accepted into St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, the U, … all these awesome schools, but I knew I couldn’t afford any of them, especially with out-state tuition. There were some legislative campaigns for Dreamers at the time – but nothing had passed.  Jehanne found me a free legal clinic. Since my parents got divorced, my mom had married a white guy— A U.S. citizen. She had become a resident. I hadn’t been in touch with my mom for about a decade. Now I realized that through her I could have been a citizen!

I understand now as a woman, that my mom’s relationship with my dad was abusive and she did not want to reach out, so I don’t have any resentment about that. People gotta do what they gotta do.

I talked to an attorney and they said, there is nothing I could do, but another attorney said “There must be a way.”

My sister — a teen mom— was also working on it. My dad did not want to help if it meant reaching out to our mother. But my sister did it. She contacted mom, who was living in Anoka. She was willing. She would pay for the attorney to get status. We started the paper work, but the process wold take time, and I was about to turn 18 and start to incur fines for my undocumented status. So I had to leave.

In August 2005 I returned to Mexico. My dad paid the plane fare. It was scary because I knew I might not come back. But I was 18 and ready for adventure. Besides, by then I resented the system, inequalities, the lack of opportunities for me. I told everyone indignantly, “I’m leaving this place! I am going to TRAVEL.”

Even though I had grown up in bad neighborhoods my parents had done a good job of sheltering me — keeping me at least feeling safe. Mexico was such a culture shock. The homelessness, the kids without shoes, people with disabilities on the street. The most exposure to that kind of poverty was in Chicago one time when I was sixteen and seeing people cleaning windshields for money.

Mexico City was shocking. The air was different. It smelled like sewage. There wasn’t much green. One thing I struggled with the whole time I was there was people’s ability to become numb to other people’s suffering. There would be little indigenous children with no shoes on, trying to sell you things on the train. I thought “Why does nobody care?”

I spent 2 years and 8 months in Mexico City with my grandma. My first year I was pretty depressed. I didn’t leave my neighborhood much. But I was getting to know my family and what had happened to me when I was two. I knew it was a gift for me, to be able to spend that time with my grandmother, to hear about how I crossed, about my parents and their relationship and the hardships they went through.

The second year I started to travel more. I went to my grandma’s pueblo and saw mangos growing on trees and beautiful green mountains. I went down the Yucatan peninsula and Cancun. All these beautiful magical places. Chiapas, Chetumal, Playa del Carmen.  I thought, “I will never be able to come back. I need to see it all.”

I started working at an outsource call center. We were lien collectors and our calls were to the United States. Because I spoke English I got the job. It was fun because my co-corkers were all these college-aged English-speaking Mexicans. It didn’t even feel like a job. We would joke all the time.

I found a couple of jobs teaching English. The first was a grueling. It was run by Protestant Christians. We had to start the day reading the bible. They threw me in a classroom after a week and I was supposed to give the students a test – kids and adults. I was supposed to assess them. I was 19 and had never accessed anyone. I quit and got a job as a tutor with a small company. I was a popular. I would have these conversation clubs where I would give them a theme and they would have to converse. I enjoyed teaching. I had a student who wanted me to help him translate a YouTube video about levitating. He said “I know levitating is weird. But don’t argue with me, just translate. I want to levitate.”

When I got my letter about my immigration appointment, I got my grandma on the smallest plane and we went to Ciudad Juarez.. The whole process was scary. They did a medical examination and questioned me. I was ready to cry,  holding on to all my tears the whole day.

We were there for about a week. I didn’t want my grandma to stand in line with me but the letter said Tuesday 8Am and 100 other people had the same time. So we got there and there was already a super long line. Eventually we entered the building and I turned in my paper work. I went to have my medical exam. I heard all these rumors like that if you have piercings or tattoos they do a mental health evaluation. They asked me if I was pregnant. Luckily I went by and didn’t need any extra examination. But then I went back to the main building and just sat there. It was like a bank with rows and rows of chairs. I sat there  waiting for my name to be called watching people shouting “Yes, Yes!”, and others walking away crying.

When my name was called I went to the teller window.  I had to turn in my passport. The interview was about five minutes. Just a guy shuffling through my papers. It was intense. The guy’s first and last name were Latino. He looked like me, but he spoke only in English. I was there by myself. He looked at my paperwork and asked me. “Where is your mom?” I said “She couldn’t come. She’s sick.” He said “Look out there. All these people are sick. Go sit down.”

I thought “Shit — I messed up.”

For an hour I sat there. I made eye contact with other people in the room. I knew they were feeling the same way I was. Gut churning.

Eventually they called my name. He gave me my visa and said “You gotta go get it stamped at the border.” That was it. Two years and 8 months and now it was done.

The whole time I was in Mexico I was homesick. Some people might say — “Well, you were home.” But I wasn’t. I really missed Minnesota. Even though I had made the best of it in Mexico, I was so ready to be home.

When I came back. I had two new siblings. My sister had another baby. Life had happened. Yet some things were the same. Many members of my family (even to this day) were still undocumented. I got to go and they didn’t, and when I came back I had a status and they didn’t. It was difficult.

But I was happy to be home. I got a job as legal assistant, and in 2012 I enrolled at MCTC. I wanted to go to college with people who look like me. I could have gone to those other schools but I didn’t want to be the token. One thing about Minnesota is it’s so White and it’s easy to be the only one. I decided to do the Urban teacher program at MCTC. Every choice I’ve made since, I have been intentional about doing it here in the city, working with people who look like me. Whenever I have volunteered or interned it has been with communities of color.

I think all these experiences have made me stronger but I still don’t know what to do with those years in Mexico. Every thing I saw and everything I learned. I haven’t found a good outlet for all that frustration — all the inequality.

I still consider myself a part of the undocumented community and anytime I have a chance to be that voice — to say — “hey this is my experience,” I take it. I don’t do it to teach others. I do it so that they are aware that we exist still. When I do things like healthcare, I think about undocumented folks — what are the opportunity gaps. Because it still affects my community.

Now I am a citizen. In 2016 the question is “who am I going to vote for?” The ability to vote is super heavy and important, but when I think of my choices and my intersectionality — a person of color, an immigrant, a woman, an undocumented person — voting is picking my poison.

I have learned so much from people in Minneapolis:

  • My wild music teacher who had us singing freedom songs.
  • Jehanne Beaton, who was with me in the school system who came from the perspective of — the system wasn’t built for you —so how are you going to beat it?
  • My sister, who is really strong doing everything she could to help me get to where I wanted to be.

I feel a strong sense of having to give back — to do what those people did for me.
My dad still lives in North Minneapolis so that neighborhood is still on my mind. Now I live in St. Paul. I am discovering this whole other side. My professors have done a good job of teaching me about African-American Rondo, the immigrant East Side, the Latino West Side and its history of dislocation.

I recently graduated from Metro State University with a BA and people keep asking me “What are you going to do?” Right now I answer “I’m doing it!” I work for Planned Parenthood, teaching sex education to Latino youth. I do two projects — an internship rooted in social justice work, and STD and sex education for students who want it.  I partner with kids from El Colegio.

I am conflicted sometimes about how to tell people where I work. The organization comes with a heavy history of contributing to oppressing the reproductive health of Women of Color, but I think that by doing the work I do I am turning that around. Latinos are going to have a healthy community. Young people are going to know their choices. I hope the students who work with me feel like — if she can do it, I can too.

***

Recently with all the police violence  I am reminded of all the great things I learned in school about the African-American resistance and liberation movements, but I understand that people are still not free.  The murder of Philando Castile affected me the most.  At this moment  people of color are seeking platforms to be heard– not remaining silent about the injustices we face. With Black liberation there will be Latino liberation, Asian liberation, GLBT liberation and so on.

This weekend — September 18-20 —  I attended the We Wont Wait Summit in Washington D.C. bringing together more than a thousand activist women of Color.   We talked about economic justice, defining family, immigration reform, reproductive rights, gun violence, state violence and building solidarity across these issues, and how to fix them for ourselves.  When I returned to Minneapolis I attended the Navigate gala with Rosa Clemente addressing anti-Black sentiment in the Latinx community. She said we need to recognize our race because the state has already racialized us. It was powerful for me because I am a person that has always wanted to keep race at the forefront, but other people in my community have wanted to get away from it. Rosa Clemente gave me inspiration and a blessing to continue to speak up.

 

School Days. Minneapolis Project interviewees in conversation.

img_1656-2Excerpts from the first 22 interviews of the Minneapolis Project, contemplating  school experiences. The interviewees are ages 17- 85.  Click on the first words in each paragraph to see who said what and read the whole interview.

Kindergarten

In 1969 my mother walked me to the corner before kindergarten and said (using the terminology of the time) “You are a Negro. Hold your head high and remember not to let anyone tell you they are better than you.” Who would know I would remember those words and gather strength from them my entire life?”

In kindergarten my teacher told me I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag because she knew we were from the Nation of Islam. It kind of alienated me because I sat there while the other kids stood up, but it set me apart in a good way too.

Elementary  and middle school

In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience. I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage. Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom. I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

High school

West high school — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners. Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox. We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

My education was much better in Mexico. I didn’t speak English. I remember so clearly my first day of Home Ec. The teacher was giving out a quiz. When I asked a girl who spoke Spanish to help me, the teacher yelled at me. To the whole class she said, ‘I don’t know why people like her come to this country.’ When the girl told me what she said, I felt a pain I never felt before. I began to cry like a little girl, but I also asserted my dignity. I told that teacher: “You think I made the decision to come here? I actually don’t want be here.”

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….My parents were sharecroppers…. I was drafted into the military out of high school.

I was born in Decalb, Mississippi, the sixth of nine children. My dad was a school teacher, 8-12 grades. I was fortunate that I was not in his classes. My dad had a reputation for being mean. He wasn’t mean, just strict. He wanted the students to learn, not play. It was kind of hard on my social life when I was a teenager, having him as a teacher. I remember once when there was a church revival. The whole community came out. When they started passing the platter me and my friends left together. When my dad came out of the church tent, my friends said ‘I don’t want the teacher catching me around his daughter’ and they left me.

I live in Southwest Minneapolis and go to South High School which isn’t in my school zone. I disagreed with my parents decision to send me to South and I still do. My parents thought I would have better Special Ed. supports. I have ADHD, depression, anxiety. Teachers always say I m great, I’m smart but I don’t finish assignments. In Middle School I had a tough time and hopped school. .. All of them were White schools except for Folwell. So it was pretty amazing at South to see people who looked like me. We have a Native American program that is incredible. Beautiful. I have friends in it. I grew up in a very different neighborhood than where South is. My neighborhood is 95% Caucasian. 95% two parents, two kids, a dog and a cat. I feel really safe. So it is interesting to go to South. I see people on the streets. There is a bus line that people actually use. Going to South has made me realize that people don’t all live in the fantasy world I live in. I think it has made me a better person. Being at South has broadened my perspective but it has also isolated me socio-economically. It’s hard to switch over

I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially. We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything. But I liked it because I was with other kids of color. I went to Kennedy High School. I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

I started drinking and taking drugs around the time my sister entered the household — 12 or 13. I still did OK in school so I got away with it for a while, and I was a wrestler. That allowed me to pass. Even though I was using drugs and smoking a pack of cigarettes, I was still a good athlete. But it caught up to me eventually. I started using cocaine…

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved. I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios.

I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school. The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers. I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.

 

Post secondary

Coming out of high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. I took advanced classes, but no AP classes. They had prep tutorials for those courses, but you had to pay. I had nine other siblings and limited means. That wasn’t going to happen. My foster parents were not supportive of me going to college. Neither of them had ever gone. They wanted me to get a job. ‘Degrees are for snobby people.’ they said. ‘Work hard and you will move up.’

Hundreds of students were killed that day. After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no student movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you…. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I had just started studying for my engineering degree in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. During the Revolution, they closed all the schools. Shortly after the revolution, my University closed again for “cultural revolution.” They didn’t like that our classes were taught in English—the “language of Satan.” After a lot of “cleanup,” my university finally reopened and I went back. Because of all this, my five year program took 8 years.

The Somalis who came to Minnesota spent years in refugee camps. Many never had a chance to finish high school. We suffer from the trauma of war. I was nine years old when a gun was put to my head. My brother was killed in Mogadishu 1990. I saw as many as 200 dead people lying in a field. These experiences stay with you. When we came everyone had four goals: get an education, own our own businesses, practice our faith, and go back home. Now 30 years later very few plan on going back home. There is little for us back home. We are staying here, and putting down roots. We are getting college degrees —60% of Somali women and 30% of Somali men in Minnesota have college degrees.

Working downtown I was meeting people who called themselves artists. They were adults and my parents weren’t happy I was hanging out with them, so I moved out ,got an apartment near Loring Park. Laurel Apartments. They were scummy. They still are. But it was $200 a month and I was on my own.At Edison they had a trades-in-the-schools program. I signed up for cosmetology. It was the only thing I liked about school. I was able to continue that program at Minneapolis Community College.

After my stint in the army I got a degree from the U of M and then landed a job as a bilingual case worker in Stearns County, while completing a Masters at St. Cloud State. Through a confluence of circumstances I became homeless after my job ended. It sucked. I had been working with homeless clients for 8 years, so I understood the system very well. Now I saw it from the other side.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

Cathy Jones. Post office, Park Board, Fourth Precinct. Demanding equity in the Minneapolis Commons.

img_1477

One thing about me is I don’t carry a grudge. I can hardly remember what I ate for dinner yesterday! I know I need to let things go. Otherwise I’d die of the stress. I am glad that as a letter carrier I work outside. It helps me get things out of my head. I need to be in nature – spend time around water a few times a week. It replenishes my soul. I’m a spiritual person. I don’t belong to a church. I have my own altar at home. Everyday I wake up and say, “Thank you God for another day! Let’s hit it!”

I was born in St Paul and lived there for a brief minute, until my biological parents put me up for adoption. From 6 months to 18, I lived in a foster home in the Linden Hills neighborhood with people I consider  my parents. They had  four biological children  and fostered many kids for short periods. Me and my younger brother Timmy — also a foster child  — lived with them for our entire childhoods. My mother also did daycare. There always many kids in our home.

My father is a Swede. My mother was Irish and Timmy — who passed away recently — was Native, so we always said we were the most international family in a predominantly white neighborhood. We traveled North every year to the farm where my dad grew up in Fosston, Minnesota. We camped and took a trips out West.  I was in a Swedish dancing group at the Swedish Institute in the summers. I wore a Swedish folk costume and performed at Minnehaha Park and the State Fair. Typical middle class white living.

But my older sister Karol and my parents let me and Timmy know about our cultures. They took Timmy to pow wows. I was wearing Phillis Wheatley T-shirts at the age of nine. Karol is a lesbian. She was an anti-war and women’s rights activist and had a big influence on me.

In 1969 my mother walked me to the corner before kindergarten and said (using the terminology of the time) “You are a Negro. Hold your head high and remember not to let anyone tell you they are better than you.” Who would know I would remember those words and gather strength from them my entire life? I am thankful my parents took me in. I had an amazing childhood.

I went to Lake Harriet for kindergarten and a private Catholic school — St Thomas the Apostle on West 44th, for first through seventh grade. I went to Southwest High. I wasn’t in school much during my 10th grade year. I was more interested in what was happening in the world. Connecting with other kids from other schools. Doing things I probably shouldn’t be doing. Exploring. But I still managed to graduate early.

When I was 19 I had the opportunity to meet my biological parents. I did some investigative work. They were no longer together but my biological father just happened to be over there the day I went to find my mother. My biological mother thought I was adopted and she would never be able to find me. I think my foster mom knew if she didn’t adopt me I would have an easier time connecting with them. She was keen that way.

I wouldn’t say I am really close now to my biological family, but we are in contact. My biological brothers look like my sons. I look like my  mom’s sister.

After growing up in Linden Hills, I lived in North Minneapolis and I became acutely aware of the inequities in city resources and policing. The only police I ever saw growing up in Linden Hills was the crossing guard officer. I was a crossing guard. My first husband was from North Minneapolis.. When we were dating in high school he would drive me home and we were constantly stopped and questioned at Glenwood and Lyndale, just as we were leaving the North side. They would say “Where do you think you’re going” — as if there was a gate! The way police drive up and down Broadway Avenue — that would never happen on France Avenue. It is not like drugs and guns are not in Linden Hills — it’s just that people there have money.

Becoming a Postal Worker and Union organizer.

After high school I did a lot of retail work.  One of those places was union, but I wasn’t aware of the union then — even though my father was a Teamster.  At 40 I began looking for something that would pay a decent wage and provide a retirement pension.  There was an ad in the paper for postal workers. It said: women of color strongly encouraged to apply. I figured I had a good chance. I also liked that you got hired based on a test score. I would pass the test and everything would be great.

It was a year and a half before I got hired. (People are getting hired quicker now because the baby boomers are retiring, but not then.)

Being a letter carrier completely changed my life. It put me in a whole  new income bracket and it turned me into a labor activist. My shop steward saw I was speaking out at work, and tapped  me to go to union meetings. I started going after three months and have not stopped. I have been a steward, and a trustee. I am currently on my second term as a delegate to the Minneapolis Labor Federation. I continue to work in the rank in file. trying to get people inspired to join the union movement.

I started delivering the mail in North Minneapolis. It is really is a diamond in the rough over there. The mail is light so its easier on the back.  (More affluent neighborhoods have more mail.)  And the sunrises are gorgeous on the North side. I would have stayed but I had to bid out. Seniority. I have delivered to every area in North Minneapolis and now I deliver in Uptown.

Letter carriers are the eyes and ears of the community.

Organizing for a more equitable Postal Workers Union at the National Level.

In 2014 our convention was in Philadelphia. David Noble — a known figure — ran for president. I was on his slate, running for executive vice president. We were trying to get a group of women into positions of leadership in the union. Usually the union appointed people and nobody challenged them. At the convention I was working the back of the room because I needed signatures to be on the ballot.  It was pretty easy. People wanted a change. We were coming off a bad contract. We were a clean slate.  Still, they were in shock that this was happening. For decades there were no elections — just appointments.

When my friend came up to nominate me, someone actually pushed her away from the nominating table! Then the most beautiful thing happened. Women of color from Florida started nominating people. They were not with us but everyone thought they were. They had their own slate, but similar goals — to diversify and clean up the union.

Our NALC printing company ran the election. Ballots were left alone over night!   David Noble was arrested for trying to stay with the ballots. All the candidates should be with the ballots until they were counted. How else do we know they counted all the ballots?

This election cost our union 1/2 million dollars.  I hadn’t spent a dime,  —- just advertised on facebook —- and I got 19,000 votes — a third of a vote. I am wondering how many votes I really got.  I regret that I did not go out to the ballot counting.

After I ran in 2014, I was told by one of the powers-that-be in my branch that I wasn’t qualified to run for national office and I was a disgrace to my union, and that he would personally make sure that I would never be given a position of power in the union.  I’m sure there was pressure on my local from the national saying “she gets nothing now.” They have retaliated against all of us on the slate.

At a Women in NAACP (WIN) luncheon to support a Nellie Stone Johnson statue and college scholarship, an organizer of the scholarship (for any family member of a union member of color) was so delighted with my work she asked me to be part of the executive committee. She said “Get your union to write a letter and you’re in.” But the President of my union refused to write me a letter! For a white guy — a union brother — to stop a woman of color — a union sister — from being on a board created by a women of color — That does not happen! That hurt.

In 2012 we were fighting to keep 6 day delivery, so workers rallied.  That is off the table now because we got that Amazon delivery contract, increasing our work to 7 days a week. Right now we don’t have a fight. It can make people complacent . We are fighting complacency. Our NALC truth page has 13,000 likes — a place for getting people more aware of the union and what is going on. We talk hours, pay, treatment by management — any issue you can think of. National doesn’t like it because they have always had a monopoly on communication, but with Facebook —- its a brand new day.

The workers’ movement is changing. I had tried unsuccessfully to get a resolution on Black Lives Matter passed locally. They wanted me to take out the words “Jamar Clark” out of the resolution. I wouldn’t. This year, the national passed a resolution supporting a Black Lives Matter movement! I don’t know the exact race demographics of letter carriers, but 60% of those who came to the national convention this year were people of color.

Fourth Precinct and Governor’s Mansion Occupations

I got involved in the NAACP a round about way. I became a fellow with the Nexus BCLI, a leadership institute. Nekima Levy Pounds was a mentor for the program. We got to know each other. She got me involved in the campaign to rescind the Lurking and Spitting ordinances and then drew me in when she decided to run for NAACP president in 2015. We have been through a lot in a the last year.

When I think about the fourth precinct occupation, I smell my winter coat- –  that smoky smell. My whole family spent time out there at all hours of the night.  I never spent the night there but I was there late and early. I got up many times and went out there. It was a really emotional time. The day the supremacists attacked the camp I had just left. I came back.

The occupation rearranged our life — the things we did to make sure the family was safe. My son would follow me to make sure I got home safely.  There was a lot of toying around with our different phones. I’m sure my phone was tapped. Many people’s phones were tapped. But it was a positive experience.  The good we did, providing a meal for a homeless person, the clothes we distributed. People came together from a place of hurt and stood for justice. It was an indescribable feeling. I think about it a lot; how exhausted people can be. Many  put in way more time than me —out there for days and nights. I was able to come and go. Go to work, come back. There were times I didn’t go to work, and I had to deal with that.I tried to be a support. If I saw a situation I would grab someone’s arm and walk them away and talk to them. Being there, letting the community talk; listening.

I am proud of the activists in our Twin City area. We have a lot of people who are really committed. One thing that I’ve learned is that everybody does not have to be on the same page. We are still all fighting for the same goal. I was part of a “break off” that has not ended — a group of people getting comfortable being at each other’s houses having meetings, forming friendships. It was an amazing time.

___

I remember getting the message about Philando. Nekima and I went out there.  We left Larpentaur Ave and went over to the hospital because the family had requested that someone from the NAACP family come over. I went with Nekima and a couple other people. They weren’t giving the family any information. We actually found out more than the family knew and they were sitting out there for a couple hours! They had moved his body to the medical examiners. Nekima called and got a lawyer for the family.

We when left I got the message on my phone. I said to Nekima, “They are headed to the mansion.” I had 15% on my phone left and I thought, “I better call in sick because I don’t know what is going to happen now.”  Black Lives Matter was already at the mansion when we got there. It was absolutely amazing. They had music going. They had already decorated the Mansion gate with police tape. It was raining a little. Someone had built a fire.

I sat and talked to a guy who was out there because his son went to the school where Philando was the lunch supervisor. He said his son would often get bullied, so every day Philando would walk him through the lunch line. I heard so many stories like that. Philando saying a kind word, giving a kid an extra serving of food — the things that you want a lunch supervisor to do for your kids.

We chanted all night. In the morning — maybe 6AM — the police came and snuffed out our fire. They said, “We are getting ready to open up the street.”
There were about fifteen of us there by that time. Nekima said “ We should all sit in the middle of the street and lock arms.” We did. We were chanting until the police chief came over. He was very nice that morning. He said they were going to respect our rights. They would block off the street at each end of the block.

To see that crowd grow —- from 15 of us to over 4,000 that afternoon —- it was beyond emotion. It was so crowded! All our phones were dead. Nobody had any communication. I saw a friend and felt suddenly so exhausted. I said “Can I use your phone to call my husband?” That is when I started crying. I said “ I am so tired and hungry!” There was plenty of food there —donations coming in — but I couldn’t eat. There was a woman cop who saw me and said, “You better sit down — you look like you are going to pass out.” She kept checking on me — brought me a water and a banana. I probably did look like hell.

When I left my husband the day before, I had told him I would be back in a couple hours. I didn’t come home until 4:30 the next day!  He picked me up, fed me something, and then I went to sleep from 5pm to 8AM. I went to work the next day. I only missed one day .

After that first night I wasn’t out there as much as I was at the fourth precinct. I was really guarded about my self-care. It can be vicious out there. We can be hard on each other — because we are in so much pain and we take it out on each other. I couldn’t go through that. It is very hurtful. I just get a certain way when we attack each other.

So I didn’t go out for a few days, but when I did — I was apparently on the police radar because as soon as I got to the Governor’s Mansion my phone was drained — you see all these pink and green lines and then the phone is dead.  As soon as I got home I was able to recharge it —- its just a way to block your phone when you are organizing or communicating.I was prepared. My husband and I  went back to the safety plan we had with the Jamar Clark 4th precinct occupation — he knew to drop me off and pick me up in the same place.

I don’t go to Black Lives Matter planning meetings. I am not a leader of the movement. I get out and protest. Go to all their events. It is a younger people’s movement. If there is anyway I can help them I’m there. The reality is we are not going to get anywhere until we dismantle the system. It’s the same with the unions. It not going to change until we change policies and procedures.

I have five kids — three sons and two daughters. They are all graduated, in college, or working, so I am blessed that way. My husband Brett works different hours from me. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be able to do this work. He works 5 to 1:30. He cooks dinner, so when I get home I can eat, have some conversations with him and then get out into the community if I need to. It is a unique relationship. He supports me 100% at home, making my activism possible.

Fighting for Racial justice in the Parks.

The park board was my first job as a kid. I worked at Armatage Park as a SETA employee. It was a great opportunity.  When I lived over in North I learned how the inequitable distribution of our natural resources worked to create blight. They buried beautiful Basset Creek, covered it up and built the Projects over it!   It was by design.  Today it continues. Parks in Somali neighborhoods are not kept up to par.

We are working for racial justice on the park board, through our labor committee of NAACP. We have documented both discrimination in hiring and disparities in care of the parks across the city. we have heard about Black men going into apply for a job and coming out thinking they did not do so well, even though they are qualified. We are documenting how they have criminalized Black employees. People are not promoted. They work seasons and are never hired as full-time employees. The mid level managers are the ones who do the front line discriminating — not hiring, firing and not promoting. Now we are also working with MTN to show how both the parks and the local public station — both Minneapolis municipal entities — are mistreating or not hiring black employees.

I have been driving around and taking pictures of the inequities in park care.  I brought those photos to the last meeting on September 7th. We had a room full of protesters that night.  NAACP members and affiliates were targeted and arrested. They are trying anything they can to silence our voice instead of engaging us.

We have beautiful parks in Minneapolis. I use them all the time. Walking Lake Harriet. Going to the Rose Garden. We are so close to being great. Now we need to make our public heritage equitable.

 People of Color Union Members (POCUM) 

Kerry Jo Felder was a sight for sore eyes when she  came to the MRLF. The labor federation  is supposed to help all unions and build solidarity, — like getting all the unions to help with the nurses strike. They are not our boss. They help unions out. Previously there were no people of color there. Then they hired KerryJo Felder and Alfreda Parwon, an amazing, organizer of East African union members.

KerryJo saw the need for people of color to have a safe space to organize and be. POCUM is that a safe space for union people of color. No Roberts Rules of Order. We act on things people are doing in the community. They call us a contingent. We don’t really have any money. MLRF pays for our food at meetings. That is it. We are then free to support who we want: $15NOW, the Janitors campaign, the Fourth precinct occupation.

POCUM convinced the National AFL-CIO to make Minneapolis one of the cities to hold a Racial Issues Summit last February. The two hundred people there heard testimonies from across the union movement about people feeling left out, about issues of power.   I was one of about five people who testified at length. Some nurses testified about how they were treated by white nurses – how they wanted to be floaters and go from floor to floor because as soon as they’re assigned to a floor, they’re treated badly by their fellow nurses.

It still continues. It is almost as if the laborers are just not comfortable with the idea of giving a person of color a promotion. For example since the commission – Corey Webster, a Black unionist who grew up in this area as well — was put in the position of president of City Employees union, a historic position. He has been there two months and there had been no mention of it. (Now they are saying he will be in the next issue of the Minneapolis Labor Review.) It’s like — here is the job but we don’t want anyone to know you have it.

If we continue to ignore internal racism we won’t have a labor movement.

There was no epiphany after that February Summit. In fact we have heard nothing from the national. I think they called the meeting because  the “right to work” Supreme Court case was up and they needed backing. They go to the people when in need and then any other time they just ignore them.

(BTW: On “right to work” — I think the labor movement has it all wrong. You shouldn’t be afraid to organize! I don’t think people should have to be in a union. We should not be afraid to organize. Letter Carriers do it all the time!)

There are some unions that get it. AFSCME is out there really strong. The new president of the Nurses really gets it. But for the most part many of these powerful unions don’t like to be called out. My own union has work to do.
To everything there is a bad side. I believe in unions. I am a firmly committed to fixing what is wrong. I see the potential. My union is worth 30 million dollars. We are not a bank. We should be using that money to grow the union, organize. Most of our members don’t know about things like national Labor Notes Conference and the organizing resources they have available. But it is changing. Our unions will look very different in ten years. Anytime you have a change in the guard there is going to be a struggle.

It is exciting to see the movements coming together. That is what is going to save our country.

 

 

 

Teresa Ortiz. Mapping Injustice from Tlatelolco to Lake Street; Mapping a Mother’s Heart.

 

 

… We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”…

 

Mexico City Student Movement, 1968.

We are entering the first world! Things are so cool now, because we are going to have the Olympics. That was the government facade when I entered college at the National University in Mexico City (UNAM) in 1968. But in reality, things were pretty bad. The one party system — the PRI — had been in power for fifty years.

There was very little dissent in Mexico in the 1950s, but by the time I went to college, teachers, railroad workers, farm workers and oil workers had begun to engage in strikes. It was really an exciting time. There had been a couple student marches downtown and the police beat people up. There was a lot of discontent.

The Mexican Student Movement had started when I enrolled as a freshman in June 1968. I came from a middle class background, but it did not take me long to become aware and active. In July the Student Movement erupted. On September 19th the army took over the University to quell the protests. The Olympics were set to start in mid-October and the government wanted the student movement subdued before the whole world came to Mexico City. The army held the University until September 30.

On October 1st, student leaders held a meeting and decided to call a mass demonstration for the next day — the famous rally in Tlatelolco — held at the Plaza of Three Cultures. I went. It was huge. It was not just students. There were whole families there. Kids. The army started shooting from the balconies of buildings. I and my friend ended up in a basement apartment until 9pm. It was really scary. I got a taxi and went home. My friend stayed there because his sister lived in one of the apartments.

When I got home and watched the news it was full of lies! They said students were fighting one another. At 2AM I got a call from my best friend’s mother asking if I knew where he was. Finally she found out he was in jail. He was there for about a week. He told me later that he was running, trying to get into a church. He fell on top of a young girl. They arrested him. They filled trucks with people and took them to jail. The leadership of the movement were incarcerated.

Hundreds of students were killed that day.

After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

In 1969 the University was reopened. I went back. I had an internship in a high school that had been taken over by the students. The University wanted to reincorporate them into the system so they sent students to be teachers. It was wild and crazy. I taught ethics and aesthetics (I was a philosophy major) and English. I was also a tour guide at the University. Tourists would come and I would explain the meaning of the murals at the University.

I was “paid” for that work with an opportunity to come to the University of Minnesota — part of a group of Mexican students who came up in the Summer of 1969.

Border Crossing 1969 – 1999

I met Luther ‘Tomas’ Johnson in Minnesota and we ended up getting married. He came back with me to Mexico while I applied for a U.S. visa. It took 18 months. We came back in the 1973 — Watergate scandal time. It was difficult to find a job here. We painted houses, my husband and I, for a long time, and then started a little business selling artisan products from Mexico and Central America. We would spend the winter in Mexico.

We got a farm in Southwest Minnesota, six miles from the South Dakota border, lived in a cabin without indoor plumbing. I got my degree from South Dakota State University, teaching Spanish and English. I had never lived in a rural area. It was always windy, no shade — but the prairie was so beautiful. It was new to me.

My son Gabe was born there. It was a difficult birth. He was premature. Then we had Aaron and Carmen.

We moved to St. Paul after I got my degree. We wanted the kids to go to Spanish immersion school there. I started teaching Spanish at Anoka senior high school and Tesseract, but then we found out about a position at the Center for Global Education at Augsburg. My husband and I got the job. We lived in Guatemala for about five years, 1990-95 conducting political travel seminars and semester programs for Augsburg students, teaching about the civil war, U.S. complicity and grassroots resistance movements. It was an amazing job. You get to know a country really well when you work with political and community organizations, and teach their realities to visitors. The kids went to school in Guatemala.

In 1995 we decided we wanted to go to Chiapas, Mexico, to be a part of what was happening there — the Zapatista movement standing up against NAFTA. The Center of Global Ed would not move us there, so we quit our jobs and moved to San Cristobal. I became involved in a women’s literacy project and got a grant to write a book about the Zapatistas woman organizers. We started an organization — Cloudforest Initiatives — which would support development projects — artisans and fair trade coffee. We also did delegations, political tours. The kids finished middle school there and started high school.

I conducted interviews for the book in 1997. I had a year to complete them. I wanted to know how people organized. My mentor, Mercedes Olivera, was an anthropologist from Mexico, in charge of the women’s literacy project. We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”

She facilitated one of the first interviews I did in a community called Emiliano Zapata, (named after the Mexican Revolutionary) in the jungle very close to Guatemala. I met a woman who set the stage for what the book was about. She told me that for years they were farmworkers and had horrible lives. Then in the 1960s the government began “giving” indigenous people plots of land in the rainforest. The government thought this was a great way to dispose of the problem of landless peasants. She and her family literally walked across the Chiapas Highlands to the jungle and were one of the first families to obtain this land — to colonize the rain forest. Her husband was an agrarian leader negotiating with government offices to get land for a community of families — using the communal ejido system. They started organizing cooperatives, lending institutions.
All the books I read about this said it was like a garden of Eden. They were organized way before the Zapatistas. That became the point of my first chapter.

When we were living in San Cristobal we started hearing about paramilitaries made up of community members supported by the military attacking their neighbors who had joined or sympathized with the Zapatistas. I was able to interview people from northern Chiapas who had been evicted from their villages, who were now in the capital of Chiapas. These paramilitaries were stealing coffee from cooperatives. People forced from their homes were fleeing to the mountains. On December 22, 1997 there was a massacre of men, women and children by paramilitaries. I interviewed someone from that region and a Catechist who went to rescue survivors. Those were my last interviews — documenting that horrible event.

It took me several years to finish writing the book.

We were invited by a community — Magdalenas — not far from San Cristobal, in the highlands to facilitate the creation of an iron works cooperative. This artisanal iron work was common in San Cristobal, but it had always been made by urban non-indigenous people. Indians were not allowed to do it. Now they do it all the time.

The Magdalenas community was mixed politically. We met with the entire Zapatista half of the community. We presented our proposal and then they said, “Now you have to go out.” They voted “Si” and invited us back in. We trained four guys, they trained other people. Pretty soon we began to get funding for a clinic and a place for them to do their artisan work. And coffee cooperatives, sold in the U.S. as fair trade.

Our time in Chiapas was really good for all of us, but it was also very hard. Tomas and I separated. The boys came to Minnesota with their father to finish school. Later on I came with Carmen. All of them finished high school here. Carmen finished as quickly as she could and went to college in L.A. and then went back to Mexico.

Calle Lago

When I came back I started to work with the Resource Center of the Americas doing a project called Centro de Derecho Laborales — Center for Workers Rights with Jorge Flores. I was there for about five years, until the Resource Center closed. It was an exciting job — an exciting time. Minneapolis was a totally different place.

I remember in 1969 thinking I was the only person here with dark hair and eyes. I had very few Latino friends. In the 1980s I was in a group. Gilberto Vasquez Valle and Rafael Varela were in that group. Just a few of us. I met a few people while supporting the hunger strikers at the St. Paul Cathedral after the Jesuits were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Roy Bourgeois, Rene Hurtado, Jorge Flores and Jorge Montesinos. Those are the people I knew. A handful of people.

When I came back and I worked on Lake Street in 1998, the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people could not afford to go back. In Mexico meanwhile — in 1994, immediately after NAFTA — people started losing their jobs. The government started disinvesting in agriculture, cutting social services, not spending money on infrastructure, so of course, people started leaving.

At the Resource Center, Derechos Laborales I had plenty of work. We had many volunteers, students mostly. We had an open door. We trained volunteers to do intake. Anyone could come who had a work issue. If they came with other needs we helped them find support elsewhere. I was shocked at the stories I heard from our clients. Stories of racism, wage theft.

Looking back I think, the way CTUL is doing the work is brilliant, because we didn’t organize workers. We were helping them one by one. Very time consuming. We would call the employer and say “Juan Perez hasn’t been paid for two months.” Next step was to go to court. Small claims court. It was easy to get in. We would win. Many times the employer would just pay.

I remember one case — this woman came to the office. She was working at a laundromat, with those big irons. She burned her arm. Her employer said just put this cream on. It got infected. So first I took her to the clinic. Then we filled out forms for workers compensation and sent it to the employer…. The employer wanted to avoid workers comp and just settle. We told her that is not how the law works. People think they can get away with murder!

We got a grant to teach a course that simultaneously taught English and worker’s rights. We also started working with a group of women trying to start their own cleaning company. Later on we became involved in immigration reform issues.

Even after the Resource Center stopped getting funding we continued to get financial support from various foundations. The day I found that the Resource Center had closed we had just hired a new organizer, new teachers. I had to call them back and say, we are not going to do it.

That was a tough time. All of the sudden I had no job.

I taught for a while at a middle school, but by that time I was too far away from that. I didn’t like it. I started working part time at CLUES. It eventually became a full time job. I love it. I have been doing it for six years. I began working with CLUES in St Paul, but soon moved to their Minneapolis site which is much bigger.

This whole area from Hiawatha to Uptown is Latino. It is also becoming Somali which is exciting. I am getting more Somali students, learning English. Things are changing constantly.

The spirit of survival and resilience among my students is amazing. There are those success stories that keep me going. I have a class “English for Employment” — helping people create goals and then achieve them, go to college, whatever steps they need to take. Education issues are complex. I have students who were displaced by war in Central America who never went to school until now. They come here and they are trying to learn English and they don’t know how to read or write in Spanish. Or Somali students who spent years in refugee camps. Some times the success story is learning how to read and write, as an adult, in a second language.

I am so happy about the $15 an hour campaign. That would make a huge difference for the people I work with.

Palabristas

I started writing poetry in Guatemala.* I wrote in English – as a way to getting away from the war. In Chiapas I began writing in Spanish. When I was at the Resource Center, Emmanuel Ortiz invited me to perform with the Palabristas. That is how we started. We are still around. Some have left. Some are famous now. We have invited young people. I also helped found the Calibanes — Latin Americans in the Cities writing in Spanish. I was invited to do a program at Intermedia Arts, working with young people.

I used to write fiction. In recent years — more poetry. This years have been taking a class with David Mura at the Loft, writing short stories, and I’m working on a memoir of the 1960s in Mexico. I am really committed to my writing now.

Gabriel

I have three kids. When it was just the two boys I thought: “can two people be so different – night and day!” Then I had Carmen — three opposite paths! But they are also very similar. Gabriel and Aaron political activists for social justice; Carmen and Aaron, talented artists; all three of them have wonderful hearts.

Gabe was, is, my first born. It was a difficult birth. He almost didn’t make it. He was in intensive care for three months and then he came home and started growing! He was developmentally delayed. We wanted to bring him up like the other kids — mostly because he was like “I am just here, like you.” Growing up on a farm, in the Twin Cities, in Guatemala and Chiapas — my three kids have that eclectic upbringing in common. It taught them each to be their own person.

Gabriel always had it tough. He never complained about it. Sometimes he was bullied. It didn’t stop him from working and learning. School was hard for him. Especially in San Cristobal he went to study at a rural school, but it closed. He ended up volunteering at the Women’s organization where I worked.

In Minneapolis he went to Century College, working and going to school. He got run over by a car and ended up in the hospital a few days. He got a job at a hotel and became involved in the union. He never stopped.

He went to live with his brother in Illinois, because he was having trouble here.That is when he started complaining about headaches. It was a couple years after the car accident. He went to a clinic. They sent him to the hospital for an MRI and found a tumor. His brother brought him to the University of Minnesota hospital and he was operated on immediately. He had to have two operations because when you operate on the brain you have to be very careful. You can’t do everything at once.

He was not doing too well for a while. Chemo. Radiation. For about a year. But then he started doing recovering! He tried to get a job, but he had a hard time keeping it. Worked at Goodwill. Lost that job. Then he started getting sick again. We went to Naperville for special radiation treatment that made him a really crazy. But he never complained. He was just up all night long, listening to music.

I get a little annoyed when people complain. I think, “Well yeah — you should have seen my son — he didn’t complain!”

He always wanted to go to Cuba, so two years ago he went. The three kids and I spent the Christmas in Yucatan, and afterward Aaron and Gabe went to Cuba from Cancun. That was his special trip.

1498901_693233357825_991514658_o

Carmen, Teresa and Gabe

When he came back he got worse and worse. He started losing a lot of weight, being tired, disoriented sometimes. He died January 17, 2015.

He had so many friends. He knew EVERYBODY. When he was three years old we would go to a restaurant and he would disappear. We would find him talking to the staff in the kitchen. Or we would go to a concert and he would be up there dancing with the performers. He was like that. He had friends in Guatemala, Chiapas, here, everywhere in the world. He would tell me about his friend in Chicago and how he was going to go see her. I thought he was making it up but he wasn’t. Everyone was his best friend. “My very best friend” he would say. I would say “How many best friends can you have?”

He was deeply committed to a better world. He couldn’t understand why anyone would not spend all of his time as an activist, because it was so important. Of course he grew up with this — but it was him. Gabriel would be at five different events in a day. He didn’t drive but he would get there. He was human. He would drive me crazy sometimes. He was a really special person.
I feel so lucky to have had him as my son. I miss him like crazy. Everything reminds me of him. I learned so much from him about enjoying every moment of my life.
Sometime’s I think, “Why did it happen?” I wish he was still here. He’s not.

I feel so very honored that I was with him when he died. I was holding his hand, talking with him. I looked up and it was like he was sleeping peacefully. I see young men getting killed and I think how lucky I am that he died the way he did. Because it could have been him. He was everywhere. He was proud to be a person a color. He was in solidarity with so many social justice issues.

I do get annoyed with people don’t support Black Lives Matter. These are our children who are being killed!

I am so blessed to have two other wonderful children. Carmen and Aaron are so committed to what their art, to helping people, to making this a nicer world.

I am so proud of my children. All three of them.

_____________________________________

13043378_1034469969972844_6508722271919115649_n

Lucila Dominguez of CTUL, Teresa and Aaron.

Altar de Muertos by Teresa Ortiz

Corazón de los Cielos, Corazón de la Tierra
Corazón de las Aguas, Corazón de los Vientos
Bendícenos

Orange… pink… yellow… rojo… yosh!
Shinning circles of color cover the heaven, competing with the sun
November is the windiest month in the Guatemalan mountains and the round barriletes
Take off with extraordinary force,
Peleándose unos con otros por llegar más rápido,
To reach the souls up above,
To remind the spirits to come down to party with us
Children run up and down the hill, holding tight to the kite strings,
Looking up the sky, bumping into each other,
Tripping with rocks and bushes in their race,
Trying not to fall on the gravestones,
Not to step on the food lay out on grassy plains, on tombs
While their parents are eating, and drinking,
And having a merry good time and sharing it all with the souls
Of those already gone
Come our loved ones, come to celebrate!
With music and canciones,
With posh
Baskets and baskets of bread have been baked for you today
Candles are lit to bring warmth to your dead spirits
Copal smoke reaches the heavens, calling you to come down to play with us
El cementerio in San Antonio Aguascalientes is having una gran fiesta
Crowded with the living and the spirits of the dead
Every cementerio in Guatemala is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!
Thousands and thousands of people were assassinated in Guatemala
Four hundred villages disappeared from the Heart of the Earth
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
Recuérdalos
So we may never, ever forget
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, México,
Across the border to the north (or west)
There are weekly funeral processions in front of my door
They walk slowly, solemnly, dressed in black behind their dead
Hay tantos muertos en Chiapas todo el tiempo,
Y en Oaxaca, en Veracruz, en Guerrero, en México,
En Juárez, en la frontera, en el desierto de Arizona…
En las calles de las ciudades de los Estados Unidos…
Hay tantos muertos every day
So many muertos de la pobreza,
So many muertos de la violencia
But come November, people celebrate,
The market is busy with shoppers
Buying candles, incense, flor de muerto
Tamales de chipilin, gourds elotes, calabazas
La plaza está llena de fiesta, mil colores decorada, con los altares de los niños
People spending three days and three nights con sus muertos en el panteón municipal
Every cementerio in Mexico is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!

In Acteal, a village in Chiapas,
Where forty five people were massacred while praying, while fasting for peace
The Dia de Muertos celebration takes place outdoors, on a mountaintop
Overlooking the shrine where the martyrs lay
The procession has arrived with the sacred carved tortuga for the altar
And the coro is singing “Bienvenidos, Bienvenidos”
Sounding even sweeter when they sing it in Tzotzil
We all pray to the heavens with our feet during the mass
To remember, to never ever forget
Tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha…
A home altar for our parents and grandparents
Para los tíos, para el primo, y para mi hermano
Don’t forget the cigars and chocolates for Papi Mingo
Don’t forget the fancy earrings for mama
Bring the pictures de los abuelitos
No te olvides de poner una veladora con la Virgen
Did you buy the flowers y el pan de muertos?
A la tía le gustan las uvas, don’t forget
Y las calaveritas de azúcar with their names
On the table over here, we lay the offerings
For the ones who passed away
We start with yosh in the middle
Azul cielo, verde campo
With a candle, with a cross, with a tree of open branches
We go round and round and round
Like the circle of life, like the circle of death
Yellow corn to the east, and black corn to the west
White corn to the north, and red corn to the south
We fill the circle with beans and squashes and orchids and cocoa seeds
With salt and oil and refrescos and posh
With golden flowers, zempuazuchil, all around
And then we pray:
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
For we have rejected the killings
For we have rejected the violence
We honor our dead
Corazón de la Vida, Corazón de las Almas
Acompáñanos
Come to us and celebrate
Que es Día de Muertos
Everywhere!

Kendrick Wronski: Woman Behind the Painted Signs.

 

Have you read that Frog and Toad story where they plant the seeds in the garden? Toad goes out to the garden and keeps shouting, “Seeds! Start Growing!” There is a  natural part of me that wants to shout like Toad, but at 64,  that tendency is starting to melt. My hammer is giving way to a hand full of finely-tuned, effective tools.

unnamed-6I grew up in Red Wing — a big German Catholic family, one generation off the farm. My grandparents on one side were farmers in Southern Minnesota — the Wabasha/ Kellogg area. The other side were railroad workers in Winona. Their parents immigrated from Germany, Bohemia, Poland, and Sweden. My mom was born in Red Wing and is living there still. Her parents met at a dance in Red Wing.

Grandpa worked as a machinist. He also chopped wood, rolled cigars and was a beat police officer. He died when my mom was in college and her brothers were in the service. Mom came home to help grandma raise Mom’s sister who was 8.Grandma cooked at the Catholic school I went to. I have been writing  about these ancestors.

My upbringing was very conventional. Two younger sisters, five brothers, a very loud dad and a very quiet Mom. I went to a Catholic School.   In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

My first experience in Minneapolis was when I was a sophomore at Mankato State College, studying to be a teacher and I got an internship in the ”inner city.” I worked at a school on the North side — Hall Elementary. There were eight of us living together in a house owned by the college—over in Selby Dale neighborhood in St. Paul. Everyday we’d travel to north Minneapolis. We had advisers, we had adults living with us but there was no discussion that I remember, to help us process what we were experiencing. I felt alone, pretending I understood what I was seeing.

After I graduated I started teaching in Staples, Minnesota. While there I heard about a Humanistic Psychology convention in the Twin Cities. I signed up. At the convention the woman sitting next to me — Sheri — said “I’m going to walk over to North Country Coop for lunch, want to come?” I didn’t know what a coop was. I said sure. She picked out some foods I had never seen in my life. I found something. We ate. Sheri was in a group called Movement For a New Society.

After two years in Staples I gave my notice. They said, “You will never find another teaching job.” The economy was bad for teachers then but I knew I had to move in the direction of more life. I went home to Red Wing and sent out hundreds of applications for teaching jobs in the Twin Cities area. After the school year began, I heard about a job in early child education in Anoka. They needed someone immediately.

I reconnected with Sheri in Minneapolis. She had just bought a coop house and had space for roommates. I moved in and got involved in Movement For a New Society. I remember MNS as pretty self righteous and judgmental but I was young and into those qualities. It was also deeply socially responsible. But I don’t remember racism ever being discussed. It was a white group.  Nothing on ablism, gender or race; no consciousness of being on Native land. Still, it was at least an opportunity to sink my teeth into some of the disparity.

Class and sexuality — MNS helped expanded my consciousness in those areas.

I didn’t know I had a “class background” when I join MNS. I learned it the hard way while living in my third MNS coop house. I proposed “income sharing.” It seemed fair.  Everyone should give according to their income and only me and one other person were working full time. It took me a long time to realize the others didn’t have to work. They had  trust funds and parental backup, were going on vacations and earning money when they felt like it. The two working class people were funding the whole coop!

That was the end of our “income sharing” scheme.

I was at a big MNS meeting and someone said “Alright— the lesbians have to caucus.” Every single woman but me got up and left! I was like “Oh my gosh! All my friends are lesbians!” It was suddenly a possibility. A really good possibility. There was no looking back. But before, it never dawned on me! I just thought “this is what you do — have boyfriends.”

My mother, now 93, has two lesbian daughters. My younger sister Nia knew she was gay in grade school, when I didn’t even know what gay was. But I was the one who came out first to mom. My timing could have been better. I believe I came out to her right after my Dad died in 1979. Because I felt I had to. My sister watched the way mom —an observant Catholic all her life — reacted, and decided “I am never coming out to my family.” It took about six or seven years before she finally did.

I give my mom a lot of credit. She went from “I cannot live with this information you have given me” to having a home interview with the Star Tribune where she expressed her support for Marriage Equality a few years ago. My sister’s partner is one of Michelle Bachman’s sisters so the newspaper really wanted to talk to them. Nia said, “Why don’t you talk to my mom?”

When I started talking Black Lives Matter, the next one in the family to cross that threshold, to begin to understand the need for racial equality — other than my sister Nia who rides to work with Black Lives Matter signs on her bike — was my mom. Another sibling said to me ”Hasn’t she earned some peace — stop pushing her.” I replied, “Yes! Yes she has. But I’m not going to treat her like she’s dead.” I agreed to be more moderate, but mom brought it up to me! She ordered A Good Time for the Truth from the bookstore. When there was a Westminster Town Hall forum on racism and White privilege,  mom was the one who sent out the link    to everyone in the family. When you are 93 you certainly don’t have to change. You can just hold court, listen to your children laugh and that’s enough, but mom has never stopped moving forward.

Many of my friends and family have moved away from me because of the anti- racism work. It is not that they don’t support it — it’s that they don’t understand making it a priority. A bigger priority is having a garden or biking across country. There is a sense of giving lip-service and then flipping a switch to go off and have a great life.

On the other side of that are the people who DO get it — I primarily stay connected with them on the internet, since my health does not allow for much community activity now.

unnamed

Facebook is a way I can “go to work” every day, making connections to advance  racial justice. I find someone to help with a task, bring two people together. I am a natural renegade. I saw after the last 94 action that we need White men to monitor White men who come to demonstrations, throw things at the cops and then leave the Black community to take the fall for it. I found some younger, more agile white men to do that, organizing from my computer seat. (The response I got from some people in SURJ was that I had to be careful, there were “deep discussions going on about tactics,” — something about anarchy I didn’t understand. I admitted I was not up on anarchy but I felt this was still something good to have in place. It was a gap I could fill. There is too much “no, wait” energy sometimes, and for my health, I need to go for the “YES!”

unnamed-1

 

I am the parent of a young adult working with Black Lives Matter, who was centrally engaged in the 4th precinct occupation.  My siblings and their kids saw my child — their cousin —  standing next to someone shot by white supremacists, on the news.  I thought that would move them to might take action. I don’t understand their silence.

I shared parenting with Meg.  We were partners for 20 years.  We are still co-parents together, and very close friends. Our first relationship lasted a year, when we were in our 20’s in 1979. When we broke up I went to Vermont with another lover who had decided to go to Bath, Maine and take a house building class at Shelter Institute. She said “You could come too.” Within a week I gave notice — just as they were offering me tenure. We learned how to build houses. Electric, plumbing, roofing, pipes. After six weeks I felt confident that I could build a house for myself. As it turned out we found an old house in Vermont that worked for us. We fixed it up.

But Meg and I were not done. She transferred out to Boston in 1989 to work for the Unitarian Universalists. We ended up together again, living on Plum Island in a tiny cottage by the ocean for a year. Meg commuted to Boston. I began painting.

I can’t believe I didn’t get involved in racial justice issues when we lived in Boston and DC. It saddens me that I was not more awake then. Sure I was busy. Parenting. Painting. Making some money. Enjoying life. But I find myself wishing that I had been connected to more of what was happening in our country.

I started doing my art seriously when Meg and I got back together.  I have never been a part of the “art world.” I have never written a grant. But I painted every single day. First one self portrait after another. Oil paint. After a year my money was gone. Meg and I moved to DC, where we lived for a decade. I began getting scrappy jobs to support my art habit. Got myself into and out of trouble with credit cards. Meg tried to help. She made enough money. I worked crappy minimum wage jobs until I created a solo housecleaning business. I was able to work close to home with a flexible schedule, an aerobic workout, plenty of reflective time and a living wage. I did that until I my body could not do it anymore. For the last ten years I have had chronic fatigue syndrome and have been living on disability income.

Back in Minneapolis, I joined an Anti Racism Study Dialog Circle ASDIC in 2011-12. Ten week sessions, four hours a week. It was very academic. I began doing some art as a way of interpreting the lessons for myself. Quotes. Ideas I could put in my hands. The first group I was in was at a Baptist Church in town. They accepted me as a lesbian feminist non-religious artist. Every week I brought in an artistic rendition of what we were learning. A sort of floor puzzle of living within the “White Racial Frame” took form. I took ASDIC again a second time and my art was not so well received, but since then I have found a way to use this concept hatched during these workshops.


When I was doing that “inner city” internship in college we went to a big meeting in North Minneapolis. It could have been organized by The Way — I’m not sure. I was at the back of a large packed room with my other interns. There was a Black woman on the stage telling a truth I had never heard before. It knocked me down. She was talking about the realities of racism and the whiteness that perpetuates it…

That memory comes back often now, because, working with SURJ I want to do my damndest to be there for other people in that beginning place, who are just beginning to face and feel the racist culture we are a part of —  who need company to figure out what their responsive action will look like.

SURJ just had a general meeting of 400 people and I helped create a room where people could come who were in that place — people who have turned away from white supremacist training and are looking for the next step. Fifty people crossed that threshold. Due to physical limitations, it has been a decade since I have been in a room like that with so many people, expending that much energy. I think I was able to do it because it was so undeniably needed. I cant show up on the street much or organize many details most days, but I can still do this. I may be sniffing out a trail for myself. Finding work I can still do, to help. As an old special ed teacher, I can see when something isn’t working and can think of various ways to move ahead. This work “puts me in the harness” as a Quakers say — for meeting people in a different way and trusting that each of us can help change and move and build.

Since I have chronic fatigue syndrome. I know that at some point living in a rest home is a strong possibility. My cognitive abilities are not working the way they used to work. The only way I can write most days now is in phrases, I can’t make much of a narrative. For my birthday I had 18 people come and listen to 13 new poems reaching for my own cultural heritage. These friends knew I wouldn’t last much more than an hour. That was in March. Now, almost every single day a poem/reflection arrives under my fingertips.

 

unnamed-3

Kathleen Farber, AFSCME activist. Since her Sister’s passing, a realization that it is the daily minutiae that make a life.

11089004_10203931409916167_2913097513720495804_o-1

 

Mom grew up in Minneapolis. She went to Edison but graduated from Holy Angels. She always said her Dad was a businessman, but from what I could understand he was a real estate flipper. They’d live in a house, sell it, buy another, live in it and then sell it. Both my mom and dad were only children. Mom was an orphan at 20, during the depression so she always worked — factories, piece work. One day when we were at a movie theatre downtown — I think it was the State Theater — she pointed to the proscenium curtains and said “I made those.”

Mom had tuberculosis when I was three and she had to go to the sanitarium for nine months. My dad had gotten laid off. We got some kind of relief, but it wasn’t enough. My Dad had to ask my older sister, her husband and child to come live with us and pay the mortgage.

I missed my mom a lot. I was sent to a babysitter down the street. Rosy. She was a character. She didn’t put on a dress. She wore a full slip with a chain of safety- pins hanging from it, nylons that she rolled down to her knees, quilted loafer-type slippers and curlers in her hair. She’d go down to the store like that — not Lake Street, but the corner store.

Rosy’s husband frequented the Yukon Bar on Lake Street. When she thought he’d been down there too long we’d go drag him home. He drank beer at home all the time. They were German and she had a tiny one ounce beer stein she’d fill up for me. A shot of beer. My parents knew about it and thought it was OK. I do love beer now. The taste. It doesn’t even have to have alcohol in it.

Rosy would make me barley soup which I loved. She was very very clean. She used to make her own lye soap in the bathtub. She taught me how to play cards. She always smoked. She made me a birthday cake. She’d take me with her to Woolworths. Once every three months she’d buy a new oil cloth for the kitchen table. She’d let me pick out the pattern. She’d buy me a plastic horse — the realistic kind, with saddles.

karen twelve rita kathy janet

 

During this time my dad — partly because we didn’t have any money, and partly because he was looking for work — decided to lose weight. 70 pounds. From 220 to 150. He shaved off his hair and got bifocals. People didn’t recognize him. Even relatives.

Dad always did entry level jobs. He worked in the foundry, as a bartender, at General Mills. He eventually got a job at Minneapolis Moline – a farm implements manufacturer. Moline was one of the first companies to file for bankruptcy and screw all the workers out of their pensions. Supposedly they passed laws in Minnesota to prevent that from happening – but it still happens. My dad worked there for 15 years.

My parents were older than most of my friends parents. My dad was 45 when I was born, in 1955. They were the “children are seen and not heard” generation. Decorum was important in my family.

Dad was always active in his union. So was mom. She worked as a nurses’s aid at City General – which turned into HCMC. She helped organize AFSCME 977 which is the nurses aids union, so they were both very strong union activists.

My Dad was also active in DFL politics. He used to write resolutions and present them at his caucus meetings. He would have all his resolutions in folders on the table and I was told, DON”T TOUCH YOUR FATHER”S PAPERS. When I was six, this man came to the door with a handful of papers. They were shiny and had that ink smell. I wanted to touch them but I knew I shouldn’t. Campaign literature. I think they had Mondale on them. My mother thought Mondale was really handsome. My father didn’t like her going on about Mondale.

Dad and I went door knocking with the campaign literature. He’d have me run up and stick them in the door. If someone came out I would call him up and he would talk to them. I was supposed to just be quiet.My dad was what they call “emotionally unavailable.” Door knocking, was one way to have a relationship with him.

Today I am the consummate door knocker and phone banker. I drive people crazy because I am always pushing something. For a long time I rode the bus with the county budget in my pocket and if anyone complained about welfare recipients I would show them what a tiny amount is spent on cash assistance. I’ve been doing phone banks for AFSCME recently, long-form conversations about what concerns people and motivates them to vote. It is inspired by the Marriage Equality phone banking campaign. We are encouraged to get into deep conversations with people. I love it.

Lake street circa 1955-1970

I grew up at 3051 Pillsbury, right off of Lake Street.

We didn’t have a car, growing up. My parents took the bus to work. We took the 21 on Lake Street, or the 18, going downtown on Nicollet. But we did much of our shopping by foot.

On Blaisdell and Lake there was a Department Store — Gimbels. That’s where my mother bought my first Barbie Doll. 1961. I remember it was in the window. We were looking at it. They were new then. My mom asked, “Would you like to have a doll like that?” I had just had baby dolls. She wasn’t sure it was Ok to give me a doll like that.

Near the Department store was a Kresge’s which was like a Woolworths but it had fabric — a sewing department. Kresge’s went out in the mid 60s and the Glamour Beauty school went in,. I had my hair colored there a few times when I was in my teens. When they had Dollar Days on the sidewalk the Beauty Shop would put out little plastic bottles shaped like elephants filled with shampoo. I thought those were so cool.

Then there was Liebs — a woman’s clothing store. Not Daytons Oval room, but not Sears either. A step up. The stuff they had in there they didn’t have other places. When we were working, my sisters Janet, Karen, and I would sometimes go down there and buy something special.

My mom bought my children’s clothes at Woolworths. I got an Easter dress there with lavender flowers. They had a dressing room that was more like a phone booth. They had party supplies and I’d look at the patterned bridge score cards and wonder what they were for. Fancy napkins and invitations. Stuff laying flat on counters. Shirts wrapped in cardboard. The place was dim — not like stores today. Old, beat up, slivery wood floors. When you went in there it was quiet, stuffy and dry.

There was a men’s clothing store on Nicollet and Lake. The only time we went there was for fathers day or my dad’s birthday. They had boxer shorts — three to a pack — on the table and I got to pick out the designs. A Scientology Room sat on the Southeast corner of Nicollet and Lake. We were Catholic and my mom said “Don’t go in there,” so we didn’t. We went to Incarnation Church on 38th and Pleasant. It’s now a Latino congregation.

A block down on 29th there was a Night Club called Mr Lucky’s. The Underbeats used to play there. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to go there because Dad saw teenagers smoking outside of it. My mother smoked, but my Dad didn’t.

Mom called hanging out in stores or window shopping “bumming around.” It’s something we did together.When I got a little older I’d bum around with my sister Karen. We’d would go in the hardware store and look at all the air mattresses they had for swimming at the lake hanging down from the ceiling — colorful, with whales and seahorses on them. In the late 60s they outlawed them at the Lake, so they stopped having them.

We used to go to Lake Calhoun- the 32nd street beach. My sister Karen wore a nose plug. I didn’t and I got an ear and throat infection. The doctor told me to stop swimming in the Lake “it was a cesspool.” We didn’t ride our bikes because we were worried about them getting stolen. We we’re very conscious of that — always brought our toys in doors. Always worried about things getting stolen. I think it was warranted but not to the point that my parents were fanatics about it.

One time when I was in 6th grade there were two wrestlers down at Calhoun. Handsome Harley Race and Pretty Boy Henning (?)— everyone thought they were something. One of them said something to my sister, but she didn’t pay them any attention. They were older. One had a scar on his back that looked like a knife wound.

Class, race and school in the 1960s.

Where I lived the school districts overlapped. There were lots of kids then and the schools were overfilled. In elementary I had a choice of Lyndale or Whittier l. I went to Lyndale because my parent didn’t want me crossing Lake Street by myself. In junior high I didn’t have a choice. I was supposed to go to Jefferson which fed into West. It took me away from my elementary school friends. I asked them if I could go to Bryant and they said no. Jefferson was very different. The kids were well to do, from the Uptown and Lakes neighborhoods. They bussed kids in from Bryn Maur. It was a whole different culture. The kids didn’t wear make-up or nylons like I did.

Jefferson fed into West High School, but they wanted me to go to Central, Byrant’s feeder school. I had new friends by this time. I felt like I was always being uprooted. Central was rough and I knew that being a new kid it would be difficult for me.I put my foot down then and said — you are not going to take me away from my friends again. My parents were indifferent. I had to advocate for myself as a 14 year old.

It wasn’t hard to get into West. It was hard to get out of Central because I was White. A lot of White kids were leaving, which is why they wanted me there.

My sisters graduated from Central. I know their school rouser by heart. But I went to West.

West — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners.Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox.We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby. Occasionally I went to the houses of other kids,— mansions on Lake of the Isles. Even the more modest were four square houses with places to hang out. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I would have liked it to be with kids from my neighborhood. But there weren’t any kids anymore in my neighborhood.

Model City (“Urban Renewal”).

When my family first moved to Lake and Pillsbury the people who lived there owned their houses. There was a lady down the street with an immaculate lawn and flowers, and a Sicilian couple next door who owned a gas station. Their house was extravagant, with a mural of Venice.There was a lady on the block whose grass was lime green, and she had flowers. I went in her back yard once and I was stunned at how beautiful it was. A big shade tree, lawn furniture It was like a foreign country to me. Our yard was terrible.

In the mid 1960s all the homeowners on our block left. We were the only family left who wasn’t renting. It was hard to make friends, because people came and went. There were riots and some looting in the 1960s and the stores started to close. The city responded with an urban planning project. In North Minneapolis they called it Pilot City. In the fifth precinct they called it Model City.

Model City wanted to buy our house. They made my parents a deal: they could buy a house with the same number of bedrooms anywhere within Minneapolis and the city would pay the difference. My mom wanted to move to North Mpls. My dad wanted to live in South. We ended up on Holmes Ave in a big beautiful house my parents could never have afforded, near the lakes and closer to some of my friends at school. They tore down our old house and built Findley Place — subsidized town houses.

Work and growing up early.

On the corner of Findlay Place and Lake and a restaurant called La Pizzeria which was quite large. It had a Gondola room. My sisters and I worked there. The guy who owned it was Catholic and he had all these underage kids working there who were going to De La Salle — the Catholic high school. Even younger kids — who had school tuition and they’d send them down there to work to help with tuition. 13 -14 year olds.

I started at 13 when my older sister Karen was waitressing there and I came in and helped her bus tables. Then I answered the phones on the weekends, wrote up the orders. Later I worked as a waitress.

I worked through junior high and high school — at 510 Groveland delivering things to rich people, at the La Pizzeria, Kentucky Fried Chicken, — two or three jobs because I was too young for full hours in any one place. I always had my own money. I went to rock concerts, saw the Beatles, the Doors,…

My parents didn’t push college. They didn’t talk about getting married, having kids, just work, supporting yourself. Mom would say — “you can be what ever you want — the Governor” — but they didn’t plan things. Their big thing was GET A JOB.

I graduated when I was 17. I had this idea that college was more expensive than it was and I didn’t know people who were going. I had taken tests at school that said I could be a psychologist or judge. I thought those jobs sounded stressful. Mom wanted me to get a trade. She watched this matinée movie on TV when she worked nights. They had some sponsors —Plywood Minnesota and Minnesota School of Business….

The Minnesota School of Business was actually more expensive than the U. It was a secretarial school, basically. It still exists. It was $2000 for a two-year program. I was selling Avon and making pretty good money. I also worked at Powers Department store — my first full-time job. I saved enough for the tuition. I took speed writing, and I learned the difference between a statement and a bill of lading …

I was in there a year when my mom had a massive heart attack. She was bedridden. I quit to take care of her.

My Dad had lost his job at Moline by then and was working at North Central Airlines as a maintenance person. He would not help care for mom. I was working at Century Camera on the weekends. I stopped working first and then quit school. There was animosity building up between my Dad an I. He was having an affair. Mom told me she was going to confront him about it on the day she had a heart attack. While she was sick, he stayed out all night. I decided that once my mother was better I would move out. I didn’t think to ask my sisters to help me. Twenty years later when my parents moved in with me, I wrote up a contract, enlisting my sisters’ help.

I was still 18 when I moved out. I got an apartment on 24th and Harriet. I didn’t have a job but I had 1,500 in the bank. I went back to Century Camera but my boss was sexually harassing me. I bit him in the arm and then quit. Tore his shirt. He was married . I thought — you go home and explain that to your wife.

I took the summer off — went out at night with my best friend. In August I began working at the President bar. I made $600 a month. A lot. I was paying $125 for rent. The bus was fifty cents. That puts it in perspective. It was a union bar. I had insurance and weekends off. I worked there 1 and 1/2 years, until a bartender told me I could make even more at the Hyatt, a quiet piano bar. I was lonesome . at the Hyatt. The people in the President were my people — South and Central high school grads. They thought like me.

But I was making $800 a month at the Hyatt. — A union place too.

The theme of the bar was the hubcap pub. They had hood things that went over the seats like old Model T Fords. A car theme. Then they decided they wanted to change to a beach theme. They wanted us to wear these white shorts and pale blue polyester tops. At that time I was a size five, 115 pounds. The smallest top they could get was a size 8 . Because I was so short, the blouse came down to below the shorts and looked like it was all I was wearing. I told him that I wouldn’t wear it.

Around this time there had been some sexual harassment suits in the news. Bosses weren’t sure anymore what they could get away with. There was a suit having to do with uniforms at Henrices. Because of that, my manager capitulated. Later he showed me this bunny suit, all black satin. He joked, “How about you wear this?” Well, I knew if I wore that I could make it a lot of money. I said “Great!” He couldn’t believe it because I had used the sex discrimination card to get out of the other uniform. I even said I would pay for it myself. He said No.

I worked alone at the bar, but I was supposed to have a lunch break and a free meal as part of my contract. The manager said “You can eat at the bar between customers.” I said “No. I need a break. You give me my free sit-down meal or I will have pickets out on the sidewalk.”

I had never been to a union meeting. The only thing I had done with the union was participate in the waiter and waitresses race at their yearly picnic, –balancing champagne glasses on trays. But I knew my rights because of my parents, I knew I could push this guy. I got my break! The manager waited on people while I ate. Afterward the cooks were like — “What is she going to do next?”

Karen

My sister Karen was 81/2 years older than me, but we became best friends when I was still a kid and she was a young woman. My other sisters got married and had families. We both remained single. Half of my adult life I lived with Karen. We had been living together for 20 years when she died last September.

She got her first apartment in 1968. I was still in junior high. I spent a lot of time there. It was on the corner of Lake and Hennepin above shops, in the old brick building where Calhoun Square is now. The steps were made of stone or marble, worn from people walking on them. She lived on third floor. We dragged a christmas tree up those stone steps. Three flights. After Karen passed away I thought about going to see if the old stairway is still there.

When she moved into that apartment, the place was a wreck.We painted the cabinets bright yellow and orange — the psychedelic colors going on then. We decided to use high gloss paint. The apartment had one window that was glued shut. It was summer. Hot. We both got high on paint fumes. I had gotten paint on my shirt, two circles around the part of me that sticks out the farthest. When she took me to the bus stop on Lagoon and 29th we were laughing so hard about my T- shirt, we could hardly stand up. Some guys in a car saw us and gave us a hard time.

We worked so hard on that apartment. She had blue and white wall paper in the bathroom. The rent was $75 a month. She paid two months rent to get a guy to install the paper. Karen was working at La Pizzeria and she spent every penny she made. There was a green corduroy couch she wanted and never got and she talked about it the rest of her life. Not getting that couch.

It was so hot in there. she took the doors out to try to cool it off. She replaced them with gold-colored beads and a golden shag rug. She had a bookshelf of bricks and board. Bohemian. She bought an air conditioner , but it would only run if she didn’t have the lights, TV, stereo, or clock on. If she forgot and turned on the light the fuse would go. There was no caretaker there. She had to deal with the fuse box.

I had a key to Karen’s apartment and I would go there before and after school, even when she wasn’t there, and listen to the stereo. We bought the stereo for $120, but then we couldn’t carry it home. The guy said “I can put it in the car for you.” We told him we took the bus. We couldn’t carry it on the bus. The guy gave us a ride home. We listen to that stereo all the time. Melanie Safka singing I don’t eat Animals and They don’t eat me. Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, Ike and Tina Turner, Funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter, Delaney Bonnie and Friends, Only you know and I know.

Only she knew and I know.

When Karen died I kept thinking two things. The cliché – “you don’t know what its got till its gone” and “Life Interrupted.” You are just going along, and then it’s all over. After her death I keep coming across all this minutiae — a receipt for the last movie we went to. Grocery lists. There is a Burger King close to our house. When I pass it I remember all the times Karen would say, “I’m hungry and I don’t have any money.” I would answer, “Well if you want to go to Burger King, I’ll pay for it….”

Yesterday I talked to an AFSCME member who was going to staff our booth at the fair. It got me thinking about the first time I staffed the booth, maybe 16 years ago, before the “new” labor pavilion was built. I took Karen along. We had this survey on clip boards we wanted people to fill out. I think it was about health care. It was me and another lady, Barb Streit, handing out the surveys and talking to people — which I love to do. Karen wasn’t real big on persuading strangers to do things, so she prepared the clipboards for us and arranged the postcards and pens. She was always officious. She had a certain unique style.

Minutiae. The little things that add up to a life.

 

When Karen was dying, I moved her bed close to the kitchen. She was dosing in and out. I went to load the dishwasher. I told her “I’m just going into the kitchen. I’m still here.” She said “Yes Kathy, I know, you are always here.”

She died on Saturday morning at 4am, September 19, 2015. Three days earlier we watched Jeopardy together and she was still answering questions.

When she found out she was going to die she said, “There are so many more books I wanted to read.” That is what she was thinking about. When she was in high school she read this book, Life Without George , published in 1960, about a woman who restarts her life after her husband dies. The memory of that book came back to me recently

I have begun Life Without Karen.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. Growing up in Phillips Neighborhood; Indigenous Writer; Poet for the City.

IMG_1375

Our migration to Minneapolis started with my Uncle Dale. My family has always been musical. My uncle was in all kinds of Country Western and Country Western Blues bands. Sometime in the ’70s he got a gig in Minneapolis at an old bar right on Nicollet Ave. He came back and said, “Its AMAZING there! There’s the American Indian Movement, incredible bands… I’m moving, I’m getting out of the prairie for awhile…”
One by one, the rest of my family followed.

We are from North Dakota – The Three Affiliated Tribes – NuE’ta, Sahnish, Hidatsa, all within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My ma said she had always wanted to get out of Twin Buttes, North Dakota. She was raised in a dirt floor log cabin. When she first saw Star Trek on a friend’s TV it changed her. To my mom, the whole world outside of her Rez was like the cantina in Star Wars and she wanted to see it.

Minneapolis was exactly what mom wanted. Her brothers were playing in bands and the Indigenous movement was going from protest and activism to working from within the system, joining and creating organizations. She helped start the first Indian clinic in St Paul. When we moved to the Phillips neighborhood she did the same kind of helping out but moved on to the Food and Drug Administration.

My dad had worked at the Red School House, but I went to Bancroft elementary where I was one of four Indians — and two of them were my sisters. I had long hair . Everyday I would fight someone who pulled my hair and called me a girl. That went on until 9th grade. My mom let my sisters transfer to the awesome Indian schools — Red School House, Heart of the Earth Survival School and The Center School.

When I asked to go there my mom and dad said No. My grandma said “If you want to hang out with Indians all day you can stay home with gramma and do the dishes. The world is filled with all kinds of people not just Mandans so it’s important for you to be able to talk to all kinds of people”

The places that I’ve been on the short time that I’ve been on this big old turtle have been pretty amazing and I attribute that to my mom and grandma insisting that I go a little further.

But it was Indian youth leadership groups that helped me to build confidence.

JPEG image-4C81845D7E27-1

Golden Eagles Baseball Team. Twin Cities Champs circa 1993

I was always a super shy kid around non-Native people and even when I went to Folwell Junior High there were still only a few more Indians. I was in the Soaring/Golden Eagles youth group and and became involved in the Indigenous Peoples Task Force theater troupe. They helped me get out of my shell.

In high school we moved to Corcoran neighborhood and our first house. I got an internship for the Circle newspaper’s Native youth run and produced paper called New Voices The only other Indians in the neighborhood were our relatives the Yellowbird/St. Johns. My mom became a case worker for Ruben Lindh Family Services and my dad went from every once in a while construction jobs to working full-time for a big old construction management company. My parents wanted us to have something a little bit better. The house wasn’t big enough for all of us but it was ours.

What was also really great about moving was that we were going to be living down the block was my very first non-Indian friend. We were inseparable. Shane Caird– my older sisters called him our Albino brother. With Shaneo drawing and my stories, we even produced our very own single issue comic book, “The Adventures of Super Shane and Mighty Vince”

Then coaches at South came to see me play football for Sibley park and recruited me. I was always deceivingly fast and had lots of what they called “upper body violence”. They said “There are all kinds of Indians in a program called All Nations, and you’re going to love it.” So, — though I lived three blocks from Roosevelt High and I knew Shane would be upset (we only cried once about it) — I went to South. Most diverse school in the city. I met my first Somali friend there. His name was Mohammad Mohammad. I wanted to be Vincent Vincent but then he explained to me who Mohammad was. —

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults. Left me there all day.
My mom and dad — activists from the sixties and seventies —had always told me “If the cops get you don’t say nothin.” So I didn’t. “Luckily”, one of the cops who worked at South saw me and me said “What is he doing here?”

While I was there at the JDC I had a moment. I thought “I don’t want this.”

My parents yelled at me that whole Halloween and then I had to go to Minnehaha Academy. I tested so well I got into The Blake School but my mom said it looked like one of those schools from TV where all the mean white people go, so I went to Minnehaha. I lasted seven weeks. I came home and my parents asked me – how was it? I told them about a math problem they gave us, it was kinda like – “If Jesus had five apples…” They want us to figure out how many apples Jesus would have. I answered “Jesus is magic. He could have as many apples as he wanted.” My dad was not about Jesus at all. I went back to South and put my head down and studied.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

 

14081460_10153623203465518_839800547_n-1 All Nations Awards Graduation Banquet Dinner, South High School, 1998.

Three of those kids and I went to Golden Eagles. For the most part (my pops was gone some times) we had strong male and female role models in our houses. That is the truth. David Paul Saice, Jr., Jesse James Strong, George Chi-Noodin Spears. I’ve known them for forever and a day. My friends who didn’t make it though South? All but one are still just trying to get right and they will, Indians are slow not lazy and stubborn, but when we set minds to something, doesn’t matter how long it takes, we’ll get it done.

Theater also saved me. When I was in Junior High, Sharon Day started a Native youth theater troupe called the Ogitchidaag Gikinomaagaad Players (Warrior Teacher in her people’s language Anishinaabe), but first came a theater boot camp in Phillips. It was taught by Spider Woman Theater, these New York Indian ladies: sweet but tough. You fooled around you were out. They widdled it down till they had the troupe. The Players. We performed plays for AIDS awareness, drugs and alcohol, and big list of other topics and for the play “My Grandmother’s Love” we performed monologue about our gramma Blanche Benson. At that time — ’92-93 — AIDS was an epidemic on reservations. Sharon got the money to train us and travel to reservations. I’ve been to just about every state traveling by van and airplane with them.

I won the Outstanding Youth Award of the year award for my work with the Ogitchidag Gikinoamaagad Players. Right after high school I went to the short program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto, “perfecting my craft”.
But then I came home to Minneapolis and I got myself in trouble again…

 

I ended up burning every bridge. I was 20. You couldn’t tell me nothin. All these awards, writing, acting — I had a pretty big head. I ended up homeless, living on the streets. If you are 20 and homeless, you WILL have a mental breakdown. I ended up at HCMC and from there Catholic Charities.

2000 to 2002 — starting back from zero.
My mom and dad loved me however their addiction to alcohol and drugs created an environment where we could do whatever we wanted. My sisters as well. Our structure was loose and because just trying to keep the lights on was an adventure unto itself, we suffered and sometimes when I’d come home from a weekend trip with the troupe or even tired from a football game at South and our the lights would be off, but only for a couple days here and there. We were all really smart so we could always fall back on ” Well, I’m doing well in school… ”

By 2002 I was climbing out of it. I got my own studio apartment downtown. I felt like “I DID IT!” I went from just owning a backpack to having a place of my own! I started acting again. I went back to the Children’s Theater. They were doing heavier plays in their Black Box series. They’d take kids like me, trained in their programs or other places, work with and eventually work with the meatier stuff. They were going to do One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest. I said great – what will I play? The director said Nurse Ratchett. I was like, alright , cool! He said “I’m kidding. I want you to play the narrator.”

I met my partner Megan Treinen through Cuckoos’ Nest. One of her friends was one of the orderlies in the cast. He asked me to go out to Burnsville to a bowling alley. I had never gone out to Burnsville. They used to have an Indian head for their high school mascot. I never wanted to go out there. But I went.
And right when I walked in. I thought — holy smacks — that lady is pretty. I told her as much that night. I stole her away from this really awesome African guy named Duke, I never met him, but I’m assuming as much because Megan is awesome. I always tell Megan that when I’m really old I’m going to tell our great grandkids that I stole her from a Zulu warrior, that I fought for the right to ask her out by fighting him in a ring of fire — my tribe against his — lions against coyotes and bears.

She was my white passport. She hates when I say that, but it is true. I moved down to Winona to be with her while she finished her degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies I got a job at the Green Mill and later at The Blue Heron coffee shop. Damn is Winona racist! Even their foundation myth. They invented their own Indian maiden myth and put her on a statue in the middle of town.
Across from the court-house where all the judges and police hang out is the Red Men Club. In it are photos of white men — lawyers, cops, judges, dressed up in feathers holding fake spears. And they have that statue of the Indian slumped over — “End of the Trail” — sculpted by a white guy.

Winona State University asked, “how do we get more Indians here?” I said, “First, you shouldn’t have kicked out the Santee Dakota that are from here. Second, maybe you shouldn’t have this effigy to the dying of my race. I’m standing right here, my brown-skinned self! Indians don’t want to look at that.” Their response was to hire another white sculpture to put some positive Indian imagery around the dying Indian. I said “Good luck with that. This is a very racist town and I’m out of here.”

Because Megan was white, I knew we could move to North Dakota and she would flourish. Her parents — some of the most racist suburban white people I have ever met — didn’t want her to go — said there were drugs there like somehow people weren’t doing any drugs anywhere in Savage, MN. We went, this is just something they do, justify they’re racism I mean. When we first started dating, she had her own apartment in Winona but for the summer she was staying at her parents. Out of the blue, she had a 12 o’clock curfew, a 20 year old with her own apartment. They could never come up with real concrete reasons they don’t like me, so eventually I started to help them out with some because that’s what I do, I’m a giver.

Almost immediately Megan became an intern for Senator Kent Conrad, and then worked for the Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. Needles to say, Megan flourished, but that’s what she does, because she’s a beautiful flower.
With her resume built up, we headed back to South Minneapolis. I knew that I would need this white ambassador and I would need to help this white ambassador’s resume, if we were going to be able to build a life for ourselves.
Because, even in South Minneapolis, even with a degree, even the Indian organizations don’t hire us too much. We did have a short stay out at Megan’s mom’s house. I say short because her mom ended up kicking us out on the street, effectively making us homeless, because I got upset when Megan’s dad decided to grab some of our stuff packed up in the garage and use it as things for their dog to play fetch with. I guess when you live with white people in the suburbs, you have to let them use your things for dog toys and if you don’t like it and you raise your voice in defense, well then you’ll just have to find somewhere else to live. So we did.

There are four types of Indians: the urban Indians, suburban Indians, rural Indians and Rez Indians. (Most people don’t realize that rural Indians are not same as Rez Indians.) Now maybe it’s just me but the non-profit Indian organizations in Phillips, really only seem to hire light-skinned Indians who grew up in suburbia or other places where they may be the only Indians in their communities and here’s the thing, I don’t know why. Indian Health Board, Native American Community Development Institute, American Indian Center, Little Earth, Native American Community Clinic — go into any of those places and you will see mostly light-skinned and/or suburban Indians working, it’s like maybe a certain small percentage are people from the neighborhood, and an even smaller percentage of dark skinned Natives, I could speculate on why this is like this, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that they get money to develop our community aka “help the Indians” but even the ones that got a quarter of a million dollars in funding only put up stickers on the lightboxes, and then just on 1 street, the one thing the Native not for profits in my neighborhood have done in unison is Not hire from within the neighborhood for top positions.

Megan was incredibly excited to move to the city. I had an opportunity to finish my degree at Augsburg College but for the most part, I was scared to move home.

Augsburg was a really different experience.

Augsburg is open to all types of Indians but what they really wanted was the “safe” suburban Indians – those who know how to operate in this world. They elected me to the American Indian Student Association. That was a big scary thing. Some of those Indians were really entitled people. So mean and back stabby, on the southside beef is handled up front and direct, on site, that is not how they got down and the subcultures clashed. They kept asking us for drugs. I told them off.

I said to one guy, “We wanted you to help out with the Pow Wow but we have to pull back because you keep being mean to all the Indians.” His mom and dad were like these mega sciency Indians. They got postcards from Obama. His mom came down and got mean and everyone bowed down to her, I guess when you offer to buy the Indin student group hats and jackets, you can make moves like that. That is when I realized I was not cut out for college. I could not kiss anyone’s ass. I lasted two semesters and then the perfect storm hit. My older brother passed away and every semester Augburg went out of it’s way to remind how poor I was. it was tough. But not as tough as learning about how over and over again Indigenous nations were forced to convert to Christianity to survive in one class and immediately after I had to go to my mandatory theology class where the instructor told us all to just “think of this as Sunday school, because it is.”

Transfer students didn’t have to take this mandatory class, but I did even though I transferred in from a technical college they wouldn’t accept my Algebra credits I tried so hard pass (im not good at math and have had to take algebra at every school ive gone to) and that followed with mandatory Sunday school and American Indian Studies professors who weren’t up to facilitating conversations about misuse of Indigenous iconography by people who have vague Indigenous descendancy. I’m not kidding when I say a senior in film studies actually said that because he was 1/3rd Cherokee (he wasn’t, people don’t come in 3rds of anything, that’s absurd) he was entitled to use any and all Native imagery without asking permission, and the professor said nothing, I on the other hand am a pro at dropping knowledge bombs on the 33.33% Pretendians but not having that backup in the department of study that I switched because it would inform my work as poet, was disheartening. And so because if all of that, I dropped out, still owe the gov’t 5000, I’ll probably never get a 4 year degree. That’s a dream now, like buying a projector, or owning an electric car.

I had gone to technical college and to get my associates degree so I had planned to finish my degree in Information business management at Augsburg. Fortunately I decided to take a few non-management classes. Intro to acting. American Indian Studies. Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet I was getting to be friends with, who had given me a copy of her first book of poetry when I was an intern at the Circle in high school.

Cary Waterman was awesome — that 90 days was like my second birth. I had thought my art was acting, performing. The way I learned to write at the Circle was right down the middle and you piss both sides off. Inverted Triangles. I never thought I’d be able to do creative writing. Now I was learning all these forms of poems….

Cary Waterman wanted us pick a poet and get them to mentor you. Other students chose Walt Whitman, Shakespeare. I didn’t realize she meant we were supposed to read the work of one poet. Asked my playwright/poet, friend who gave me her book, if she would be my mentor. I told the other students “We went to a coffee shop and talked for an hour….”
One of the kids who wrote for the student paper said: “that woman was the poet laureate of Augsburg College.”
I was like, “Dope! I’ll tell her.” I felt like I messed up. I only took the class so I could talk to my poet friend and have better conversations.

I started writing poems, mentored by this great Indigenous writer. That changed my life. She waved her hand and the hallway of closed doors in my life just opened up. I followed her, walking through doors. She was constantly telling me “You’ve got something. You’ve got agency in your braids”
A year later I won my first Jerome Foundation Grant. My mentor told me it was BIG. She never won one.

I was ready to go to my first professional Indian writers conference. Returning the Gift: Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. It was held at an old University of Wisconsin Mens dorm — a mansion. Those white fuckers had a mansion. But now it was the Mansion that Indian Writers Built. I walked in and there was Jim Northrup laughing and teasing Joy Harjo. I saw Gary Farmer, Denise Sweet, Wade Fernandez, Susan Power coming down the stairs talking with Heid E. Erdrich….

We were about to drive back to the cities when my mentor said “I think you should try that poetry slam. If you win this you go to the next round and they will pay for it.”

I was like — “pay for it? Pay for Indians?”

She said there is only one other Indian champ. Sherman Alexie.

I thought OK, I’ll go and do my poem and get the hell out of here. I was sitting at this table with this guy Norb Jones. He came only for the poetry slam. He was there to win. On the other side of the table was Charlie Hill – he worked for Richard Pryor! He was one of the judges. There were Indians from Canada, Hawaii, Mexico, the Sami even– they were all there to compete. Some of them were reading from their published books.

I got up and put my two worlds — writing and acting — together. The first bout I got all tens. I was like, that was great – can we go home now?

My mentor said “No. Tomorrow is the championship and you are in it.”

It was me and Norb Jones. I got all tens and won the championship. Now it was Sherman Alexie and me, the two champions. That was it. I was a writer. After that I started winning every Minnesota poetry grant you could win.

I went with my mentor to Michigan, and to the Turtle Mountain Writers Retreat and Workshop to work. Dr. Gordon Henry was there at both but while in Michigan he asked me “Do you have 90 poems?”

I thought he was asking me — how much do you write — are you working hard enough?

My mentor said — “Ninety poems is a book. He’s asking if you have enough for a book. He runs a Press, dumdum”

The rest of the time there is a blur. I only remember that he paid for dinner.

My mentor told me to take my time getting the work together. She said “It took me five years – you are in this one year and some change — take your time. It was like she put a force field around us.

Then someone showed my Youtube videos to Sherman Alexie… and because he’s got super powers and he was in town at the Fitz AND my friend was a DJ for the event I got to go. We got box seats. I’m thinking — I’m going to say right to his face that he should stop writing so positively about fry bread and Pepsi. He’s giving us all diabetes.

During the sound check Sherman looked up at me from the stage. “There is an Indian in Lincoln’s seat. Watch out they are going to shoot you.”
After his performance he hung out with a group of Indian kids from one of Indian Schools for about an hour. I thought –he is a really good dude.
Then he looked up at me and motioned with his lips, “Hey – come on down here.”
I had one of those movie moments — Sherman Alexie just called me down… So I did.
He said “I’m Sherman Alexie.” I was like — I know who you are.
He said “How’s it going? Your name is Vince.” I thought “My name IS Vince.”
“People have been sending me your videos.”

I thought, I am about to get in trouble.

“Do you write them down?”
“Yeah.”
“Do you want to show me them?”
I said “Well, they are being looked over by Dr. Henry at University of Michigan Press, I don’t think I can….”
He said “I know Gordy, its OK. Send them to me.”
He asked “Do you have any of my books for me to sign?”
I said “I don’t have any of your books. I read em and I give em to my Aunts and my mom to read. So he said “Do you have anything for me to sign?”

I pulled off one of my red Pumas and he signed it “Less fry bread, more running. ”
That’s when I realized he read my tweets and eventually I would send him my poems, because he asked to see them, he being Sherman Alexie.

When he was back in town — at Macalester, the only college in town that can a afford him – that and the U when he takes a pay cut. I emailed him: “What do you think of my poems?”
I thought he was going to break it down – tell me what to work on — tell me to read more of this or that poet. His email was: “You know your pretty good right?”
That was it! I thought to myself — “fuck that guy.” I thought I was going to catch some knowledge….We went a year. I finally sent him another email.

Sometimes its problematic to be Sherman Alexie. Sometimes Sherman Alexie makes decisions that Sherman Alexie shouldn’t make and he catches some national shade for those decisions. I sent him an email and told him he can’t talk for all Indians…

His email, back said” I’ve been writing this email to you for five days. I write and I delete it, write and delete it. I have been having this conversation with Indians on and off the reservation for 25 years. Instead, for you– I am going to give you a to do list.”
All the things I wanted to hear were there. But then there were other things like: “Eat More Salads” and “Run more.”

I was 450 pounds two years ago. I weighed myself a month ago — 265 pounds. Sherman Alexie didn’t do it. I was already on my way — but you know it’s getting bad if Sherman Alexie is telling you to run and eat more salads.

**********

I took on my niece and two nephews a few months ago, from North Dakota. As we were driving out of Bismarck together, I got text from Sherman. It said “Write me a story about an Indian Kid.” That was it. I thought – doesn’t he know I just write poetry? I don’t write short stories.

I started writing, — my first five pages — not ready to read, but on my way.

It’s all moving pretty fast. I scares me a little bit. I was an actor when I was a kid. I even went out to LA and auditioned during pilot season. I was Indian Famous — which is like being a Z level celebrity. It was awful. I had to learn that lesson hard. I have learned that there are so many tertiary people who want to have a piece of you and they want to be your friend. I had to push those people away. They started un-friending me on facebook. I learned to create a bubble around myself. All you can do is what you can do.

That’s me. That’s where I’m at. I made some bigger mistakes recently but I’ll learn. Then I drove over here to tell you about it.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr.   Performing his work.

Drew Edwards, 30. Pushing and Turning the Stone in North Minneapolis

20160604_122317 2 (1)I come from a talented, capable and impactful family. They inspire me and keep me honest. I believe in them. I think the most of my younger siblings. My mom and my grandma set the tone for excellence. My mom is not a bigger teller — she showed me her love with everything she has done. My dad is my best friend these days . I can tell him anything. Anything. That is why I move the way I move. To make my family proud. Worthy of their investment.

My Grandmother and my great Aunt Loraine came up here in the early 70s from Louisiana. One was a Nurse, the other worked in a linen manufacturing company. They came for the work. My grandma remarried here, extending our family to include a side with St. Paul roots. My Aunt also got married here, giving me a gallow of cousins.

My mom was born in Hammond, Louisiana 90 miles from New Orleans — a town so small that my family has their own street. My great uncles have barber shops and other businesses, on property the family h owned since my great grandpa moved there and worked that land.  Mom left Louisiana for Minneapolis when she was 9-10 years old.

My Dad’s family are originally from Mississippi by way of Chicago. My Dad came up here while still in the military. He was a Marine. He was also a minister and had connections here through the church.

My mother, brother, and sister brought me into the world. Mom went into labor in the house. She called grandma, who navigated her through it on the phone. My sister and brother — two and three years old — helped out.

I lived in the house in Cedar Riverside until I was 9-10 years old.  It was a pocketed part of the neighborhood. You have to come in through 28th street. No businesses, just a park, a hospital and a river. We would go down to the river all the time. I knew all my neighbors. I would go next door until my mom came home. It was traditionally White and Black. Native Americans shared the enjoining neighborhoods — Cedar and Franklin, and I was aware of their presence.

Minneapolis has that distinction of being six blocks from any park — one of the things I love about it. When I moved to 34th and Bloomington I was a block from Powderhorn Park. The neighborhood was more competitive. It was on a major street. Near Lake and Chicago. We didn’t know our neighbors. There was a gang. It was not like the tight-knit community I was raised in when I was little.

My parents got divorced when I was four. My dad had a new family by the time I was six. I didn’t even know that was problematic until I was of a teen age and I realized — boys DO need their father.

I started school at Trinity Lutheran. From there I went to Hall, then Four Winds and then Wilder( Benjamin Banneker). I kept getting kicked out. Expelled. Why? I think its layered.

1. I had personal stuff I needed to address. God has blessed me with discernment; knowing right from wrong. I would say what I thought, regardless of whether a person was my  elder. I got adults upset with me.

2. I was the victim of un-engaging curriculum styles. Even as a young kid I always felt like “This is not for me — it is not entertaining, fulfilling, or rewarding.” I think that led to my outbursts. Acting out.

3. I was in Special Ed from 3rd to 11th grade. My mother didn’t know how to help me. She had no idea how to advocate for my needs. She did what she thought was necessary. Signed on the dotted line.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience.  I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage.  Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom.  I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

Moving to so many schools, I didn’t make friends. My cousins were my friends. And kids at Church. When I was eleven, my mom changed churches. Three years later the pastor decided to move the church to California and Mom decided to follow him.  I was given a choice: stay with my dad or go with her. I chose to go with her to Salinas, California.  It changed my life.

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up. Hispanics brothers and sisters. It was serious. I didn’t think it was something I wanted to partake in, so when my mom gave me the option of leaving I said yes.

Mom didn’t know any of this.  She worked fifty hours a week. Still does. She gave me everything I needed.  She did what she was required to do. I needed a community to raise me, as any kid does. But some in my community were not the American Dream.

In Salinas I didn’t have any cousins or friends except for the other people from the church who migrated too– about 20 people.  My friend Ashley, a white girl from the Church became a close friend. To this day I miss her because we had this experience that others don’t understand.

In Salinas I was more outgoing.  I went to North Salinas High — the not-so-well High school  in town. I had failed two of my classes as a freshman at Roosevelt in Minneapolis, so I wasn’t  allowed to go out for football.  It crushed me. It was one of the only things I had.

In Salinas I got to play football.

My first day of school in Salinas I saw this guy getting his breakfast by himself. He was alone at lunch time as well. I walked up to him and said “You are not from here either.”

He said,”Naw I’m from Tulsa, Bro”

From that day we’ve been best friends. Tulsa Tony.  We had the whole California experience together and then he came up here to live in the Midwest for a couple of years.

I made some other friends on the football team.  I played with some future NFL players. My school was predominantly Hispanic — it was a different feel. Their were gangs but they were different. But I didn’t have to worry too much about it.

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were NO jobs for me. For teenagers in Minneapolis at least there were some job programs.

I was in  California for two years. I came back half way through my junior year. I finished high school at Central in St. Paul.  Made some really good friends there.
At Central I learned  something about myself. Proof that I could do well. I was working and taking after-school classes and still managed to graduate on time.  I had friends who were in Gen. Ed. the whole time, who came from nuclear families, who did not finish. I was on the wrestling team and  I had good support system there.

In the end, I didn’t get what I wanted at Central, but I got what I needed.

But, I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. Nobody ever approached me about taking it.  No one talked to my mom about it.

After high school I went to MCTC, studying Business. I have alway  had an entrepreneurial  sense.  MCTC had all these buffer courses. I went for a year and a half, paying to be ready for college. Still, MCTC was cool because it was different from high school.  I had choices, freedom,  opinions. And I had a different sense of its importance because I was crossing to be there and paying for it. I took out a student loan. I met some really good friends. I got more of the experience of pushing through when things are difficult.

It was also  a maturing period because I had a stint of homelessness. The work I was able to get was doing security at the metro dome.  I was also hustling, selling weed. I faced unemployment, learned how to find the ‘no- excuse button.’ Learning how to support myself.  My mom and grandma had set the foundation— showing me how to work and support yourself. Now I had to do it. I graduated after four years with a two year degree. I got my first apartment when I was 20 — me and my homeboy.

After MCTC I worked. I retention specialist for Comcast basically door to door bill collection. I learned about why and how people move, selling techniques. I learned that if you help enough people help themselves, you will get what you need in the end. I did that for about three years, without a lot of financial success but with a lot of mental success.  I have been savvy. When I get started with my own business, it is going to take off.

In my early 20s I seriously considered moving out of the United States — Brazil, Toronto. Or moving to Tulsa, Boca Raton, Florida, California…just moving. I didn’t feel like Minnesota had anything to offer me.  But, I thought, first I should finish school.

I talked to people at Metro State, learned about their Urban Education program. I asked “What is your success rate? How many people of color actually pass through your program?”

They said “Well, we are working on getting our numbers up.”

I said, “Exactly!” [with sarcasm].

I was really suspect.  But I had learned from business that you have to put value in yourself for others to invest in you.  So I tried. I got the encouragement and support from professors. Ever since then I have been very successful in school — mostly A’s — a few Bs.

My philosophy for education is the same as for policing. It is not good enough to say there are some good cops if the overall system is racist. Likewise,— so what if there were a few good teachers, if the overall system is not good. Lets work for overall excellence — all the teachers in the community, going to bat for kids.

When kids try to out-slick me, I tell them I was the slickest. I hear kids in 8th grade talking about joining gangs. I say, “What the hell are you talking about. You are playing a dangerous game. You need to find a different kind of support. Take Mr. Drew’s advice and find a sports team or other venue for support. I know about that life and it is not for you. You think you have time but in 8th grade decisions are being made and compounded.”

Ive been a teaching sub. It is frustrating to me when people don’t care if I have the knowledge to teach something. They will say, “Would you like to do art today? Here is some material.” I say, “I don’t feel comfortable teaching something I just looked at ten minutes ago.” That is not excellence. The students deserve more.
I was involved in activism from a young age — May Day parades, church involvement, volunteering, coaching football at Powderhorn. That gave me a community advocate platform where I could speak. From doing business, my speaking voice has become more toned.

In 2012 I was watching the news. I heard a conversation about a young Black kid,Trayvon Martin who was killed that by that guy — George Zimmerman.

I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t understand it. It changed me. A grown man can kill a kid and get away with it?! Then people came out with that whole “hoody” shit. Even people in my family were saying — “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t wear a hoody.” I’m thinking to myself — “Oh hell. So now we can’t wear hoodies, walk at night, eat skittles, drink ice tea, travel alone… enter gated communities….”

It was a call to action. I’ve got to do something. So when Black Lives Matter first took 35W I said “Wow. They took the Highway?!  Hmmm… “ Then when came to shutting down Hiawatha I was like —”IT’S TIME!!.”We shut it down.

Today (July 25th) I took a plea bargain on my Mall of America charge.  If I get another trespassing charge it will become a misdemeanor.

I don’t claim a Black Lives Matter Banner.  At the end of the day, the banner’s going to fade away . The movement continues. The struggle is real.  A lot of different banners are going to be waved in the process. I’m with the movement. With the stone being pushed and turned.  At the Mall of America, the Black State Fair. Nonviolent rallies, Education. Conversations with people at work and in my community. Working broadly allows me to have many circles of friends — people who would not naturally speak to each other.  I try to unify people, to bring them together.

A lot of people don’t know how to be politically savvy in letting people know the truth. You have to be person who can shine light without people feeling burnt. I am trying to master that.

There are two faces to my life right now. One face I stay strong and show my best side. The other face –I just want what I want minus the sacrifice and the hard work.
I moved to North Minneapolis recently. I love it. One of the best decisions I made in my life. My dad was always a north-sider, so I was never a person who said — “I’m not going to North…”  but once I started working on the North side I thought, “These are my people!”  They are more loyal, more responsive to community concerns than other people.  Concerned about what is going on with their kids. They want to get it right.

If you don’t got over to North Minneapolis you really don’t know what we are dealing with — be it food deserts or economic mobility,  or this whole bad narrative about people getting shot. Every time people get shot in Northeast, or a Northern suburbs it is reported as North Minneapolis. It could be in Crystal, Robbinsdale but they say its North Minneapolis.

Part of the problem is that people want a token. They say “Go to Him.” There are  people who get a little recognition, who claim to still be part of the neighborhood. They get a nice little severance package, get used to an 80K diet and now they live in Robbinsdale. They still go to Zion or Shiloh, and their mom is still in North… but they still haven’t pushed a stone. It’s true nationwide. When was the last time Jesse Jackson actually did something impactful?

I have become involved with many groups:  Brotherhood Empowerment, Black Coal, Mad Dads, Black Lives Matter, and Social Justice Education Movement. I really believe it is about bringing the groups together.  That is my goal. The by-any-means-necessary folks, people of faith, teachers, business people. I work with them all.

I go to many meetings.  I want to be at the table as much as I can.

Teaching the Universe: Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA

Unknown-2

How often do you see the diagram of a Jim Crow segregated dining room arrangement, in a book about Space and Math? How often do you read a book that discusses Civil Rights  and Halley’s Comet; the history of Black Colleges and the history of Human Computing; the evolution of aircraft and the evolution of government hiring policies?  How often do educators have one tool that teaches Science, Math, Social Studies and English — with a Black and female lens?

How often are Black women at the center of curricula?

Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA by Sue Bradford Edwards and Duchess Harris tells the story of the Black Women Mathematicians hired during World War II to compute the mathematical calculations NASA needed before the age of mechanical computers.  For decades they were literally left out of the picture NASA History. (The image of Annie Easley — picture above — who worked, along with  five White women, as a human computer, was actually cut out of a group photo used for a display at NASA.)

 Hidden Human Computers, provides a peak at the science of air and space craft, and can be used to encourage further STEM research. It is also untold history and can be used by social studies teachers to show that history is about everything, including many stories yet uncovered, inspiring students to go looking for more such treasures. It is the real story of  real people, and could be a launch pad for an oral history project.  It will build enthusiasm for math, especially among Black and female students. When children see themselves in school curricula, they thrive.

This is the second book Macalester Professor, Duchess Harris  has co authored for youth, that makes me both cheer and scream. (The first was an introduction to the origins of the Black Lives Matter Movement, written expressly for middle school students.) 

I cheer “hooray!” for a book that refuses a box — that is — like life — complex and not compartmental.

I also scream “Why isn’t there more of this?” There is too much empty space on the shelf where this volume belongs,  standing with other works that allow children to dream big, without sugar-coating real race, gender and economic barriers to success.

More please.

 

 

Anna K. Binkovitz. Poetry and the Politics of Consent.

10438523_10152493028414042_7396359724435045691_n

Anna Binkowitz age 23.

Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I grew up outside of Granville, OH, a town of 5,000 on the edge of Appalachia.  We had deer in the yard, farms close by. I walked barefoot. Still, do even in Minneapolis. It’s what I’m used to doing.

We were a liberal family in a conservative region. The first national political event I remember is the 2000 elections, when they decided to stop recounting the votes in Florida. I was six. I went up to my room crying “I don’t want a bad president.”

Ohio is a little bit of everything— Midwest, East, North, South. Growing up there and coming to school in Minnesota convinced me that the United States is a regional polyglot. It is not just weather. People in Boston survive  winter differently than Minnesotans do.

I came to Minnesota to go to college at Macalester.When I first came I was startled in the grocery store when people turned around to say hello. Driving is so polite here it’s almost rude. I’m picking up the accent — my o’s are getting longer. I caught myself saying Oofdah.

My Macalester advisor was Marlon James. He is the sassiest. He taught me about putting narrative arcs in poetry. With him I felt like a writer with my editor, rather than a student with my teacher. He is not only an award winning author. He is a great educator. He is why I want, someday, to come back to Macalester and teach creative writing.

I loved Macalester, but I almost left it. I was raped by a fellow student. I went through the school process. They put restrictions on him and said if he violated the sanctions his status as a student would be “severely jeopardized.” But he violated the restrictions and I had to keep pushing to get the school to enforce them. For a year he stalked me. The case was referred to the Macalester College Harassment Committee (MCHC). Despite my having a witness, nothing was done.

I wrote an open letter to my rapist in the college paper, saying that I was always going to know that I could be proud of my time in college, while he would always have to think of me and what he did to me.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you. (There are places I wont go back to — I went to the Gay 90s once and some guy tried to assault me and I won’t go back there.) But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I will not let him — let me — not love this place.

I wrote a poem,  Asking For It, (watch) that went, well, if not viral, then bacterial. It has had over 800,000 views. I think it can be hard to talk about sexual violence using humor. I was able to do it. People are interested in quick socially conscious pieces  they can use to answer that dumb or ignorant comment. With the popularity, came the negative comments. After a couple days I stopped reading them. I thought about something Barney Frank once said to a woman who was arguing with him and not listening. “Mam talking to you is like talking to a brick wall”

I think Break the Silence Day , Take Back the Night, Slut Walks are very important — it is essential to have people say they believe you – they know what you are going through.

Take Back the Night is hard for men and non gender conforming people who have also been the victims of sexual assault. I saw something on the internet about that I thought was perfect. The sentence “Men are victims of Sexual Assault” must be said. When you add the “too” — is when it becomes a distraction from the experiences of women.

After my poem went viral I got an invitation to speak at Muhlenberg College and got to pick my price.  I did 30 minutes of poems and a workshop on consent. I argued that asking for consent is sexy. All the participants were women – no cis dudes there – I was not surprised, but I was sad. I think it is good to show how to have healthy relationships after something like rape happens.

I did a Yes Yes Yes workshop at Intermedia Arts for Planned Parent Council, with the poets Keno Evol, and Guante. We had poetry, some  story telling, some music. Someone said “We can’t have a discussion about consent without Anna Binkowitz.” That made me feel really good. I am proud to be known that way.

When it comes to youth education on these issues, I think Abstinence-Only education has to go. We need to talk about consent. We should have people who have been abused in college speak to youth, say “this is what it happened to me” as plainly as possible.

****

I graduated in 2014 and went across the river to Minneapolis. I live in an apartment near the river that is central and safe, but noisy.   My next door neighbors act like you would think recent college graduates would act. Partying on Saturday night when I’m ready to go to bed.

It was easy to find friends in college. Since I graduated it has been harder. I worked so many short part time jobs. As a sub in the schools I do not have work friends. I hang out with poets and some friends from college. As  the web editor for Button Poetry I have become friends with writers in the community. It is interesting working for your friends. It changes the work relationship AND the friendship. We are all artists so we get that deadlines can be tough.

Button Poetry produces high quality spoken word videos, often filmed live at Poetry slam contests. They also run a monthly live poetry slam in St Paul and publish chapbooks of poetry.

They have let me take the reigns of the blog. I had the idea a year ago to use a blog to get more web content for our site and expand the publishing we do. I am in complete control. I decide who I want to interview. Each week we have a button play list of the best videos. On Thursday we publish an essay, a book review, or an interview by, for, and/or about poets, or we do a writing prompt. It rotates every week. Then we do a round up—- six interesting poems.
Keno Evol wrote an essay We need You to Show Up to the Riot Well Rested. He asked me what I thought. It was daunting and flattering to edit his work.

As far as my own work, I write poetry and compete in poetry slams. The idea behind the slam was to get away from poets reading to poets. Everyone can write, read and win. The audience decides — using whatever criteria they want — who wins.
How do you become a successful slam poet? There are coaches. One of the things I’ve learned is to use “down tones,” — important advice for women who often sound less authoritative because they end sentences with an upward questioning note.
At these poetry slams there is a problem with sexual assaults. People who commit assaults are kicked out, but there is nothing else done. Those who commit the assaults can go off and join other art groups and do it again.

I see a difference between someone who is a rapist and someone who once raped. I was raped twice, once by a man  who was sorry and didn’t want to ever do it again and wanted to know what he could do to change. The other guy who raped me and stalked me for a year — he, I consider a rapist.

What I love about poetry is gives you a license to write about things that are otherwise too close to write about.

I write just as much for myself as for anyone else. The more I can talk about my sexual assault experiences the more they do not take over my life. It is not about erasing something — it is about integrating it into your life. It is also – nothing for us without us. I want to be a safe place for people, but I can’t do that about sexual assault if I don’t talk about my experience as a survivor.

*******

Part of my Hebrew name means cactus flower. I struggle over the Palestine issue. I agree with an economic boycott of Israel but not an academic boycott. We should not boycott ideas. I get the most flack from other Jews who are Zionist and think I don’t support Israel enough. There are others who think we should demolish Israel. I don’t agree with them either. It exists, it is not just going to— poof, disappear.

Israel is recognized as a state so it has more responsibility to follow international law. They are a government and they should act like one. No country should be founded out of fear, and that is how Israel was founded. I also think Britain needs to stand up to the plate, since they are the ones who made contradictory promises to the Jews and the Palestinians and then sat back to watch the mess…. Although after Brexit — maybe not.

It’s been hard of me to find the right Synagogue in the Twin Cities.  I went to Mount Zion for a while but they had an organ — they sounded so Churchy. Shir Tikfa was too conservative. I grew up with Debbie Freidman tunes. I need them. The singing is everything.

*******

I don’t plan on staying in Minneapolis. I’m looking to move on for grad school. Maybe Pittsburg, Madison, Ann Arbor, Houston or NYC. I will miss the Mississippi River when I go.  It is my best friend. I read Mark Twain, and the history books…. and then there it was! I love that I live in the state with the Headwaters. Before I move I want to go up there and step across the Mississippi River. I was excited when I moved from St Paul to Minneapolis and two blocks from the River. Water is very important to me. When I die I want to have my ashes scattered in water because then part of me will end up everywhere.

 

 

 

Gilberto Vázquez Valle. Mexican Folk Musicologist Finds Poetic Justice in Minneapolis.

 

Gilberto at KFAI - 1

All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards working people of my country, who paid for my education. But I have learned … the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States. One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

Coming to Minneapolis

I was born in Yurécuaro, in the State of Michoacán, Mexico. When I was 14, my family moved to Guadalajara. I went to college there, at the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas of the Universidad de Guadalajara, which had a relationship with the University of Minnesota. Students and scholars would come up to Minneapolis to do research and to study. I came in the 80s for some research projects and then to go to graduate school. So I was unusual – I wasn’t part of a migrant stream like so many of my relatives. I had nothing of the experience that my uncles or father had.

My father spent chunks of time here in the U.S., starting when I was about four, until I was thirteen. At that time it was easy to come if you were sponsored by relatives, as he was. In Mexico he was a tailor all of his life. In the U.S. he did agricultural work in California until he found more lucrative work in the steel industry in Chicago.

Today — even though I like that city and have relatives there — “Chicago” is a sad word for me. In my childhood it meant my father was going to leave us again.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

I was very critical of the United States government. I felt hypocritical coming and staying in the U.S. to work at the University of Minnesota —a little like José Martí: inside the entrails of the beast. All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards the working people of my country who paid for my education. But I also learned — both through my own family history and through simple observation — that the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States.

I made myself available to talk to groups about the role of the U.S. in Central America. We would have events at the University — educational forums on what was happening. I wanted to give U.S. students some historical background and a radically different perspective, to get them to question what they heard in the media.

One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota

In the early 90s I met the late Guillermo Rojas, faculty in Chicano Studies, and he asked me if I wanted to be a faculty/technical adviser for La Raza Student Cultural Center. It was going to be something temporary, just to clean up the place (there were accusations of financial mismanagement) and to reorganize it. The activist mission of La Raza’s creators in the 1970s, had disappeared and it was run by a cohort of students from wealthy families —-mostly from Central America —people with whom I would never have had contact in other circumstances. They couldn’t care less about activism and social responsibility. For them, La Raza was a social club.

Also fighting to regain control of La Raza , were a number of mostly Chicano students from throughout the United States —mainly women — determined, courageous, hard­-working, and politically aware. Most of them were of Mexican descendant, frequently first generation Americans and the first ones in their families to get to college. They regained control of La Raza.. and it became a place for community, activism, consciousness and a vibrant cultural center.

When the Zapatista uprising happened in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994 (the same day that NAFTA was implemented), we began having educational and political events every week focusing on the uprising and indigenous issues in Mexico and Latin America, the poverty, the discrimination, the cultural genocide still happening. Zapatista Sub­-Comandante Marcos sent communiques through the internet, and we were getting them a day after they were published in Mexico City — which was amazing at the time. La Raza became a sort of unofficial Zapatista resource center in town.

One of the sad parts of that uprising is that many of the issues that the Zapatistas were talking about, Ricardo Flores Magón was talking about in 1908 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. But on the positive side, there was a new respect and interest in the struggles of the Latin American indigenous peoples and a new understanding of the social and political movements in Mexico and the whole of Latin America. For the first time the word neo-­liberalism was used to understand what was happening on a global level. That was meaningful and refreshing. The Zapatistas had a global view, connecting their uprising to the struggles of workers in Bangladesh, Chicago and elsewhere.

The beauty, poetry and eloquence of the language of the Zapatista communiques also inspired and moved everyone, including myself. I remember reading the communique “¿De qué nos van a perdonar?”, in a coffee shop in Dinkytown and openly crying. Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many formerly apolitical young people in La Raza beginning to show an interest in the social and political movements in Latin America — and making connections with patterns of oppression and resistance in the U.S. That was the richest moment of my experience in La Raza —seeing that awakening, not just in others, but in myself.

My activism was focused on the U of M. I was trying to stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile. At that time, my immigration status was as an international student. I knew my legal status was vulnerable. So I was trying to frame all the events I was involved in as academic. I was invited to speak at some rallies in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis, and I had to decline.

When the energy around the Zapatista movement diminished, I still continued being involved in La Raza, providing continuity in the organization as students came and went. There were many more first generation Mexican American students, in the late 1990s and their stories of immigrant struggle and resistance inspired me. Even though they spoke English among themselves, they enjoyed speaking Spanish to me. I have a fascination with Spanish language proverbs and know thousands of them. Those young students would come to the office and ask me “so, what’s the proverb of the day?” They enjoyed the wisdom, earthiness, sparkling quality and sense of humor present in the proverbs.

In spite of the age difference, with those young students I had a feeling of prodigal sons reunited.

Youthful obsessions: comic book super heroes and Latin American folk music.

When I was little in Yurécuaro, my hometown, I was so much into comic books that my father went around to all the barber shops and asked them not to let me in because they had comic books there and he thought I was reading way too many of them.

There used to be a system where you could buy comics for a peso or sit on a bench and read them for ten cents. I was so obsessed with the characters and the stories being told, that I got to the point of stealing money from my mother in order to rent them. One day she found me at the rental bench and asked me to come with her immediately. When she saw me pay for 13 comics, she immediately knew who had stolen her money. Back at home, I got such a monumental spanking that, many years after, it still mortified her to the point of tears.

The comic books I read avidly were made in Mexico— “Chanoc”, “La Familia Burrón”, “Kaliman”, “El Payo”, “El Diamante Negro”, “Memín Pinguín”, “Fantomas”, “Tawa”, etc. —even, to my father’s mortification, “Lágrimas, Risas y Amor”. There were also many American comic books, translated, of course, which never got my interest. It wasn’t only that I was indifferent to them: I openly disliked them. Perhaps it was the language: They were probably translated in Spain and the dialogs always felt contrived, silly. So, I was totally oblivious to “Superman”, “Batman”, “Los Cuatro Fantásticos”, etc. There was, however, one of those American characters and comic books for which I’ve always had a soft spot: “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman).

When I was fourteen I gained a new obsession. We had just moved to Guadalajara, which, at that time, was a town of about 2 million people. Almost immediately I discovered the radio stations, one run by the Department of Fine Arts, the other by the Universidad de Guadalajara, that played some folk music. I’m immensely grateful to both of those stations. They enriched my life beyond measure. The music I heard there for the first time, sounded strange yet familiar. In a primal, visceral way, I knew that it was my own. It was like hearing an ancient tune apparently long forgotten but in actuality always present within me.

By the time I was 18 there were already a few places where Latin American folk music was played live. Some were small venues related to the local Department of Fine Arts the others were “Peñas” (coffee houses) that appeared in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities throughout Mexico. Most of the performing groups were local and non-professional. Through college, I met two brothers and their uncle who, together with two other friends, formed one of those groups: “Los Cachicamos”. They took me with them everywhere they played: Schools, Peñas, labor union halls, music festivals, small villages’ festivities, public plazas. They were really good and played not only folk music from the Andes but also from Argentina and Mexico, which, amazingly, few of the Mexican folk groups at the time played. They even traveled to South America to get music and instruments, and they lent me recordings that were impossible to get in Guadalajara.

From their trip, they brought back several “Charangos,” a string instrument with five double strings (similar to a mandolin) that is fundamental in the Andean music tradition. The back of its box is made from the shell of a small furry armadillo that lives in that region.

My friends got their Charangos directly from a legendary Bolivian charango maker, Sabino Orozco. This man introduced my friends to his son who was chosen to continue the Charango making tradition. His name I can not forget: Clark Kent Orozco.

Bringing Latin American Folk Music to Minneapolis through KFAI radio.

In Minneapolis my Latin American friends were often surprised that I knew old folk songs from their countries. They would give me names of genres, groups and performers they thought would interest me. They would also give me tapes. My collection grew.

KFAI, the local community radio station, was one of the first stations I heard in the U.S.  I also listened to obsessively to the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The whole concept of a public community radio station struck me as both beautiful and powerful.

One Saturday morning, a couple of weeks or so after I had arrived to the U.S, while listening to KFAI, I  heard “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican celebratory song used in Birthdays and Saint Days. I was moved to the point of tears. I had discovered Willy Dominguez’ show, “Sábados Alegres” —one of the longest running shows at KFAI, that plays Tex-­Mex music. Soon afterwards I discovered the Latin American music program run by Rafael Varela, from Uruguay, as well as shows centered on American folk music (which was one of my “discoveries” upon coming to this country).

After a few years volunteering and subbing at the Station, I applied for and got my own radio program, “Encuentro” —now airing Thursday nights 8­-10 pm. The show aired first on July 29, 2007; so I have been doing my program for nine years! I explore the cultural history and traditions of our continent, and to tell that story, folk music is fundamental.

I put in six hours every week just preparing the show. Sometimes more. My program is never improvised; it always has a defined order and structure, a theme or themes to explore for the day. I believe that to improvise implies that I don’t take it seriously and that would be a disservice to my community, to the station, to the listeners, to myself. I usually explore a composer, a genre of music, a country in particular, or certain themes or historical events that can be talked about or explained through music, like “The Music of Liberation Theology” and “The Music from the Life and Times of Frida Kahlo”.

I think I would never be able to find space on a commercial Latino radio station for my program. Those stations are all about business, commercial interests and commercial music. My program, proudly, doesn’t fit that model at all. At first I was disappointed that the people calling in to my program were mostly White, or not from the Latino communities. I would have been happier hearing from Latin American communities from South Minneapolis, and youth like those I worked with in La Raza. It was with them that I witnessed first-­hand, the power and inextinguishable relevance of language, history, culture and traditions.

Changes in Latino Minneapolis in the 1990s

Before the mid 1990s, if I wanted to buy a hint of home I had to go to West St. Paul and the options were very limited. It was rare to hear somebody speaking Spanish in the bus or in the street .

Lake Street had historically, been a sort of entry zone for immigrants in town. In the 1990s it was the front line, the border where demographic changes were most visible and tangible. Small Latino restaurants, stores and bakery shops started opening up there, seemingly out of nowhere. Latino communities revitalized that area, not only Lake Street but that whole part of South Minneapolis.

Visiting some of those Mexican and Latino stores on Lake Street was a lesson for me in the perseverance of memory and traditions. I found the same brand of laundry detergent (“Roma”) and bar soap (“Zote”) that Mexican working class families have used for generations; I found healing herbs and teas that, in Mexico are available only in a special store or market. I saw “leche de burra” soap — a product I heard about from countryside people from my parents’ generation, but never actually saw until the late 1990s, along Lake Street in Minneapolis!

And the food!

Food is a living manifestation of memory and tradition. It is also a noble, fundamental thread that, along with language and music, provides some the most immediate and visceral links between immigrants and their country of birth, their family history, their ancestral memories. Food is also a savior. Selling cooked food is frequently how a struggling family can get back on its feet; a means available to immigrant families to aspire to a measure of economic independence and one of the precious few venues available to them for upward mobility.

The traditional Mexican “refresco” (bottled soft drink) “Jarritos” —especially the tamarind flavor is easier to find in Minneapolis (you can even find it in Cub foods!) than in Mexico, where, in conventional stores, the only “refrescos” you can get are Coke, Pepsi and such. I see a measure of poetic justice in this.

Living in Seward/Surviving Assaults/ Growing  impoverishment in Minneapolis 

I don’t know how to drive. I walk, I bike and I use the bus. These observations, below, are the perspective of one who has been riding the bus and walking in the city for more than 20 years now.

When I first moved out of the dorm, I lived in Marcy Holmes near the University Campus — a fairly transient neighborhood. Then I moved to Seward, also near to Campus, where I have been ever since. I really like living in Seward, even though I have had some bad experiences. I was assaulted twice. Because of those incidents I have become much more watchful and alert of my surroundings.

I do not think these assaults necessarily reflect Seward. It is just part of living in an urban place, within the inner city, especially when you walk alone at night. Both times, those who assaulted me were Native American youth. That is only incidental— a reflection of other underlying factors, among them the growing impoverishment in Minneapolis and the ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S.

When I first came to Minneapolis I wrote home saying that everyone here seemed to be well­-off. But I have seen a noticeable and continuing growth in poverty since then — more homeless people, for instance.

I see it on the bus and in the streets: Everything from more clothes and shoes that are not appropriate for the weather or that don’t fit, to obvious signs of poor health, especially in people’s teeth. This might be considered only anecdotal evidence but the fact is that data and statistics confirm it.

I have noticed an increase in the body language of sadness. In the early 1990s I used to travel by bus to go to Madison, Wisconsin. For me it was fun and convenient, but I saw that those who traveled by bus seemed to always be sad and down on their luck. Now I see the same sadness every day in the city buses and in the streets.

I also see more conflict, more tension. Twenty years ago or so, it was the sort of conflict that normally happens within a crowded urban space. Now I see more signs of confrontation —in racial, social and economic terms.

Of course, there has always been some grumbling about immigrants. But the resentment now seems to be greater, more openly belligerent and confrontational. Two examples that have happened recently:
— In downtown Minneapolis there were two East African youth waiting for the bus. An African-American guy stopped by, just to cuss at them, to say he hated Somalis. When he left the girl said to me, “They are always hating us.” I told her “He is probably struggling —maybe he doesn’t have a job.” She said “You know, I didn’t see it that way…. but… this happens to us all the time.”
— A Native American man, complained loudly to the whole bus about how the immigrants have come and taken all the jobs, the resources.

I think that when I was assaulted those two times, I was a victim of this growing poverty, exacerbated by a massive housing crisis and a recession, and that ever-growing social and economic disparity. Before at least there was a feeling of hope in a not too distant future. Now even that is gone. And people are taking it out on each other.

Disparity and Hope. 

But there’s something else: mounting disparity,  long-­lasting hopelessness, and the closing of venues to upward mobility are by themselves a form of inflicted violence and, as such, it have been detonators for community activism.

In the 1990s there was little evident signs of activism among new Latino immigrants. People went to work, and, on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps to Mercado Central to eat some tacos, menudo or tamales with champurrado. People just stayed in their corner, making as little waves as possible. That has changed significantly in response to the desperate immigration situation, the constant political backlash, lack of upward mobility, and limited, low-paying and frequently exploitive job market for people in our communities. Recent restrictions on driver’s licenses (since 2001), have brought into the streets many immigrants who, because of fear, would never have been active in the political process. People now have the boldness to be directly involved in different stages of political activism, even if it implies taking significant risks, including being deported.

In that sense, I’m hopeful. I see different community organizing efforts going on locally at different levels: grass-roots, faith-based, workers’ centers, etc., and the growing consciousness that comes with these efforts. I particularly admire the work done by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) a local workers’ center that is doing amazing organizing with retail cleaning workers.

Something else: These movements also plant a seed for future generations. A tradition of consciousness and community organizing doesn’t happen overnight, it is nurtured and that is what all of these community organizing movements are doing.

One thing immigrants from Mexico  know quite well is that they are very valuable to both the U.S. economy and the Mexican economy. The U.S. economy desperately needs the cheap, vulnerable labor and their remittances are absolutely essential for Mexico. There is power in that.

We saw an assertion of that power on May 1st 2006 when millions of Latino workers and their families throughout the United States rose up and marched through the streets —40,000 here in the Twin Cities — who marched to the State Capitol wearing t-shirts that proclaimed:  “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

May First, the International Workers Day is, of course, rooted in the rich, proud, obscured and ignored, U.S. labor history. It was celebrated in nearly every country in the world except the United States where it originated — until 2006, when the most marginalized exploited immigrants of this nation, rescued it, dignified it, and brought it back to its place of origin. Poetic Justice.

A final thing: I had my own stereotypes when I first came to the U.S. — about the “average” White U.S. person. I did not know there were people here concerned and aware about the policies (both foreign and domestic) of the U.S. government, that there were so many people committed to change things, doing so out of solidarity.

And that’s the key word: Solidarity —not empty, self-gratifying charity, not condescending attitudes, but understanding and solidarity. I meet people all the time, many times young, who are active and committed, to achieve and build a more just economic and political system; people who talk the talk and walk the walk, as the saying goes; not out of empty romanticized notions, but out of solidarity. I think that Minneapolis is special in this way. It has a rich local history of solidarity movements and I constantly see that tradition not only being kept alive but also moved forward.

 

Racism and the Labor Movement. From $15Now to Philando Castile. Which Side Are We On? An historical view.

IMG_1656 4 On July 19, 2016, educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention marched through downtown Minneapolis shouting “Black Lives matter”, “Justice for Philando,” and “We want justice, we want peace, in our schools and in the streets.” Leaders of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations sat in the street in their union colors as an act of civil disobedience aimed at local banks that fund prisons over schools, and local police that brutalize and even kill communities of color with impunity.

The Police Federations of St Paul and Minneapolis were quick to chastise the teachers for showing a lack of solidarity with their union brothers and sisters in blue.

This schism in the labor movement is nothing new. From its early years the labor movement moved along two opposing paths, capitulating to racist divide and conquer tactics of the bosses, or organizing against them.
One of the first victories of the nascent labor movement was a major capitulation. As the primary proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,  labor committed it’s original sin —  criminalizing  brethren paid the least, using racism as a tool.  It is a sin echoed over the decades, crystalized in the cry THEY  take OUR jobs. 

It is a sin we continue to commit  when we allow immigrant workers  to be criminalized, dehumanized, denied citizenship and basic human rights. Today  there are union leaders in SEIU and UFCW, among others — who are championing immigrants and undocumented workers. In nearly every local ,when it comes to immigration, there is an opportunity for workers to decide which side they are on.

_________

In that same era that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Ku Klux Klan had its first major success when it divided and conquered tenant farmers, sharecroppers and cotton textile workers who had organized unions made up of Black and White workers in the South. Some White people, like the Georgian Tom Watson, actually went from leadership in  biracial labor movements to leadership in the Klan— so great was the victory for southern factory bosses and the old plantation elite.

In the early 1900s the still new American Federation of Labor set about organizing “skilled” white, male, workers into separate trades.  The Industrial Workers of the World on the other hand, flourished by doing the opposite — uplifting those on the bottom of the pay scale and organizing women and non-whites –which at the time included workers now considered white. (The race idea, made up by elites, proved so flexible, so divorced from science, that it could turn a person white over night, or vice versa.)

IWW members were no less prone to bigotry than their AFL siblings, but they had that motto, an injury to one is injury to all.  In the 21st century that sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul Wellstone We all do better when we all do better.  

In the first half of the 20th century, some workers of color formed their own unions– Black sleeping car porters, left out of the white train conductors brotherhood, and Latina Pecan Shellers in Texas and New Mexico. Likewise today some workers of color, are organizing outside of the AFL-CIO. Some, like CTUL in Minneapolis, have since been embraced by the union federations they out-organized.

In the 1930s The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) left out farm workers and domestic workers at a time when opportunities for African Americans and Latino workers were limited to jobs as maids, janitors, garbage pick-up and farm work. Unfortunately some leaders of the AFL helped to make sure those workers remained unorganized, and helped keep the unionized plant door closed to people of color.

In the 1960s — the Teamsters — that beloved union that made Minneapolis a union town in the 30s — showed up in the fields in Northern California where Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were struggling to bring farmworkers into the AFL-CIO fold. Instead of picket signs and solidarity banners the Teamsters brought billy clubs, to beat up the striking workers.

Likewise, today some union members are protecting their fellow members when they commit race crimes. The Police unions are the worst, the most egregious, but they are also the canary in the coal mine — forcing us to look at how unions can operate as white clubs, keeping people of color out.  This labor activist Cathy Jones’ recent experience is indicative of an attitude we must fight:

On the day that Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, people gathered at the Minnesota Governor’s mansion in St. Paul. One of those who spent that first night in front of the Mansion was Cathy, a postal worker  who recently helped organize People of Color Union Members, (POCUM) through the Minneapolis AFL-CIO. Cathy  called in sick and and filed her day off as an emergency. When she came back to work management had approved her absence. The next day her Union steward told her she might be in trouble with management since she was on the news.

“He did not realize management had already approved my absence”Cathy told me. “The union was trying to get me in trouble because they don’t like Black Lives Matter and my work with the movement. In this instance, thank goodness the union doesn’t have the authority to discipline. Only management can do that. I’m glad my employer had my back.”

Cathy’s experience is shameful and indicative. We need a principles to guide us as union members that don’t allow a union brother to do that to a union sister; that don’t allow a union to cover up the high crimes and daily harassments of people of color, be they union members, or the public we serve as workers.

And we need to look at our solidarity. Are we out there for those who are most oppressed, singing their song? The fast food workers — predominantly workers of color, are demanding $15 minimum wage. It is time for the rest of the labor movement to follow their lead. In Minneapolis right now that means pressuring City council DFLers who have or seek union backing, to allow the voters to vote on a $15 minimum wage for the city, or pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance for the city. No council person who rejects the petitions of thousands,  (and the sweat equity of  dozens of labor activists to collect them) should receive a union federation endorsement.

FullSizeRender 7

 

To paraphrase the old  miners union anthem: Which side Are We On? 

 

Jim Northrup, Rest Easy.

IMG_5513-1My partner Dave and I visited Pat and Jim Northrup at their home on the Fon du Lac Reservation, on July 28, 2012. I had told Jim we were coming by bicycle at the end of an epic adventure, but our hosts in Duluth had offered their car so we could make it an afternoon excursion, and we accepted the generous offer. As we drove up in civilian clothes, cleaned and rested, I felt as if we had violated the invitation.

When we arrived Jim was making a birch basket and Pat was watching the Olympics. Jim occasionally interrupted the conversation to explain what he was doing.

“We only make baskets in the summer.”

“ The oil in the bark makes it curl.”

“Pat does the sewing, I carve and make the holes.”

“Making baskets you can’t be angry or in a hurry.”

“We found that’s true for bike touring as well,” Dave said.

I thanked Jim again for speaking to my classes at St Cloud State eight years earlier. I had assigned Rez Road Follies. The students, most of whom came from small towns in Northern Minnesota, were thrilled to meet an author from their neck of the woods. I was jealous and grateful of his ability to connect with the students. Yet Jim was a neighbor they did not know. Most grew up in proximity to reservations but many  had never had a conversation with an indigenous neighbor.  I reminded Jim that out of four classes and 129 students, I had only two students from the Rez… and they were white.

Jim shook his head. “White ownership goes back to the Dawes Act of 1887 that turned communal reservation land into 80-acre allotments. What was not claimed by Indians was open to anyone. Now those 80 acre allotments, passed down to multiple children, are so fractionalized they are not worth much. Allotment was an extreme form of divide and conquer.

Today our tribe owns 25%-33% of Fond Du Lac, up from 20% a few decades ago. We are using Casino money to buy back land little by little. What we own is divide into three parts, one where the business is done, another where our ceremonies are held, and a third, which we are restoring, where we have the best birch and maple trees, wild rice, hunting and fishing. Our food sources.”

Pat, who is Dakota, added, “On my reservation we are supposed to own 10 miles on either side of Minnesota River. They created that war in 1862 so they could have that land. Look at how valuable it is today; rich topsoil and access to the river all the way to the Cities.”

Jim’s book, Rez Salute had yet to come out. We bought a copy of Anishinaabe Syndicated and had Jim sign in it. On page 42 he quipped  ‘Why do we call it a Rez instead of a reservation? Cause the white man owns most of it.”

***

Jim’s written works are acerbic, witty confrontations with the trauma of colonialism that never ends and the trauma of war that keeps on giving.

“I write in the morning and a couple days past deadline.” Jim mused.  “I write about what pisses me off. Now I’m pissed about the news coverage of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Reporters said it was the worst incident of gun violence in American history since Fort Hood. What about Sand Creek? 160 people shot down with cannons and guns; unarmed people. I guess it doesn’t count because they were Cheyenne.”

A Vietnam vet,  veterans’ issues were central in Jim’s writing. In my classes he quickly bonded with young Iraq war veterans. They wouldn’t let him go, following him to the cafeteria afterward for more. Both Jim and Pat were fierce advocates of veterans rights. I wanted them to help me figure out a question that had dogged me for 12,000 miles. The veterans memorials we encountered riding through 31 states, seemed to perpetuate war, glorifying the soldier experience and the ultimate sacrifice. I asked Jim how he would design a memorial that honored veterans and ended war.

“The Vietnam memorial has 55,000 names. I would depict 55,000 families crying.”

Pat added, “If people knew we couldn’t own things they wouldn’t fight over them. We don’t take anything with us when we go.”

 

Raymond Dehn: Critical Resistance, Architecture, and State Electoral Politics.

13705106_10155109304165550_792652190_n

Minnesota State Representative Raymond Dehn District 59B. A life story with insights on gentrification, mass incarceration, organizing inside and outside of the electoral arena, using laws to  bring about social change, addiction, the foreclosure crisis in North Minneapolis, and building livable, equitable cities.

Getting in and out of Trouble 

I am at least the fourth generation to live on the North side of Minneapolis. My people were from Germany, and my father’s family settled in the Anoka, Elk River and Monticello areas and many of his family made the northern suburbs home. That is all I know. Dehn’s Farms, Dehn Oil— those are distant relatives. My ancestors were farmers. I honestly don’t know how far back the generations go in Minnesota, or why they came. There is much I do not know about my background. I was estranged from my family for a while and I think that’s why.

My mom was from Minneapolis and my Dad from Anoka. Together they moved to Brooklyn Park and that is where I grew up, on the edge of Crystal – about five miles from where I live now in North Minneapolis. It was a farming community still – the beginnings of a suburb. I could ride my bike five blocks and reach corn fields.

My father worked in a warehouse operating a forklift. He plowed snow for extra money in the winter. My mother worked out of the house occasionally. One job was at a paper company in the warehouse district that made the toilet paper wraps for soldiers in Vietnam. She also did seamstress work. All of us kids had paper routes.

There were five of us in my family until we adopted a six year old girl — a distant cousin. I was twelve at the time – a difficult time for the change in family status. Before that I was the youngest, with two older brothers. All of the sudden we had six of us in a house that was under 640 square feet. Fortunately we had a basement — a room for me to retreat.

I started drinking and taking drugs around the time my sister entered the household — 12 or 13. I still did OK in school so I got away with it for a while, and I was a wrestler. That allowed me to pass. Even though I was using drugs and smoking a pack of cigarettes, I was still a good athlete.

But it caught up to me eventually. I started using cocaine and I needed more money to support my habit. In 1976 I was arrested and convicted for a burglary, sending my life down a totally different track — a better one I think. Where I was heading, I would not have been on this earth much longer. I had started to associate with people who were carrying guns and I was starting to use drugs intravenously. People who work with addiction tell me I was heading for disaster.

My disaster, fortunately, was getting arrested.

I ended up serving 7 months at the Hennepin County workhouse. I started serving just weekends.  At first I was bringing dope into jail, but ultimately, I got sober while still serving my time. In jail I began to see I was getting chances that others weren’t getting. I decided I should use them.

I was released into a 28-day treatment at HCMC and then to a halfway house. I was fortunate that my father — though he didn’t have a great income as a warehouse worker — was a Teamster. He had health insurance that covered the cost my treatment.

I hate the phrase “getting back on track” — you are always on a track – just maybe not the one you desire. Way 12 halfway house in Wayzata changed my life in many ways. We learned behavior modification which involved looking at your life. When I got clean, abstinence was really the only way. (Today, with the opioid epidemic, people may actually need to use alternative medication to replace the substances they were abusing. A lot of addiction is self medication. We need to fund treatments for addiction and mental health issues and stop incarcerating mental illness.)

I was there with some pretty prominent names, adolescents from families everyone would recognize; people with resources. It made me realize how poor my family was. I hadn’t realized how much my family struggled financially because a lot of my friends were in the same situation. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and working class. At Cooper High school there were 4 or 5 Black people when I attended. There were a few kids from middle income families at Cooper when I was there, but Wayzata was a whole different class.

While in the halfway house I developed strong bonds and relationships. We supported each other in staying clean. When I was done, I moved away from my old neighborhood, away from the people I took drugs with. I separated from my family for a few years too, because my parents and siblings did not really understand the changes I was trying to make. I went to the U of M for two years, until I ran out of money. I moved to Minnetonka and got full time construction work.

At that time, before the Internet, it wasn’t easy for people to collect your data, or do a criminal background check. Back then, when you applied to a job you had an interview soon after, so no one had time to do any research. But I decided I wanted to vote again and I thought (incorrectly) that I would never be able to with a felony, and so I applied for a full pardon from the state of Minnesota. In 1982 it was granted. From that day forward I didn’t have to check the box.

With the pardon, I was able to live as if I had never committed the offense.

Politics through Architecture.

In the mid 80’s I reconnected with my Junior high school sweet heart. We got married and moved to Columbia Heights. I returned back to the University of Minnesota in 1989 to study architecture. In 1992 we adopted my son Matt and a couple years later my marriage ended and I also graduated with a degree in architecture. I was elected national president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, which meant going to DC to advocate for 35,000 architecture students in the U.S. and Canada. It required a lot of travel. I would tag on days to see my son in Minneapolis. When I was ready to look for a job again, there was a recession and computers were just beginning to replace architects. Firms were laying off, not hiring. I eventually got an internship in an architecture firm in Minneapolis.

While continuing to work in the profession I became involved in Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, the architecture professions corollary to Physicians for Social Responsibility. They were engaged in a prison design boycott, which interested me. One of the board members at the time was involved with issues around mass incarceration. As part of my work with them I studied the 13th amendment. It abolished slavery EXCEPT for those who had committed a crime. Which means it didn’t completely abolish it at all. After abolition we perpetuated slavery through the prison system, keeping African Americans in bondage, through prison work crews. I began to think about my own experience with incarceration and the context of the larger criminal justice system.

I was invited to attend a Critical Resistance conference in September 2009. Their goal is a complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. I was in a session with individuals talking about their difficulties in getting jobs with a record. It was really hard for me because I had a criminal record and I was pardoned and I didn’t have those problems. It was an important weekend for me. I met people from Minnesota who were active on the North side. During the key note address, Angela Davis asked all who had been incarcerated to stand. At that point only a few member of my family and close friends knew my story. The people I worked with who were attending the conference didn’t know.
I stood up.
Living on the North Side. community organizing and electoral politics.
My mom grew on 45th and Humboldt, so the North side was part of my childhood. I had spent a lot of time there as an adolescent doing the things I shouldn’t be doing. In 2001 an opportunity to care take a friend’s home while she went into the Peace Corps, brought me and my partner Joan to the North side. We fell in love with the community. I got on the neighborhood board. When the care-taking job was over three years later, we bought the house next door.

We watched the Foreclosure Crisis in North Mpls. develop. Suddenly there were all these new mortgage products that people were using. Suddenly you could buy a house just paying the interest and not paying principal. North Minneapolis was targeted, Brokers sold sub-prime mortgages, even to people that qualified for a prime mortgage because they could make a whole lot more money.

We bought a home in 2004, and in 2005-7 we would get calls nearly every night saying “now is a good time to refinance your home …” We had gotten a fairly decent mortgage, both of us were working, life was fine, so we weren’t interested. (This was before I lost my job in 2008.) Those phone calls were my first hint that the North side was preyed upon.

People were sold mortgages that weren’t good for them and ultimately put more money in other people’s pockets. Three, four, five years down the line, when their mortgage would reset, all of the sudden their mortgage went from $800 to $1700, during a really tough time when people were losing their jobs. I became involved with a group called Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition. We would get lists of people who were behind in their mortgage payments and we would go knock on their doors. We would try not to be intrusive by saying “we knew that they were behind.” We would instead say “We know that there are a lot of people in the community who are having trouble making their mortgages and we are out here letting people know that there are places that you can get assistance.”

People didn’t ask for this. Some say “they made bad decisions,” but if you’re economically struggling and you see an opportunity to make life a little easier, it is a normal reaction of anybody to take it.

Occupy Homes was mostly organizing on the South side, but there were a few people organizing North as well. They did good work. Civil Disobedience is one way to make problems visible.

Architecture offices are privileged places. I often heard comments like — “people who struggle are not working hard enough.” There was one guy— he was Black — who used to talk about people on welfare being lazy. I told him “Do you know that 60% of people on welfare are kids? How can they be lazy?” I began to think about how you reframe things so that people will stop and think before they get back to their daily lives. If challenged enough, world views can change. My own story had within it lessons about racial inequality in the judicial system that I needed to tell it. I’ll never know what it is liked to be Black in jail. – a person of color in our criminal justice system. I had privilege all along, though I may not have been aware it at the time. Yes, I worked hard, but being White gave me a different result.
I moved into electoral work during that time, beginning with the Wellstone campaign, before the plane went down in 2004. Then I worked on Keith Ellison’s congressional campaign in 2006.

During the 2008 recession I was laid off. I spent the first few hours of the day looking for work, but then — what do you do with the rest of the day? After the Critical Resistance conference I began to get involved with Take action Minnesota. I began to immerse myself in the community, working on issues of foreclosure, criminal justices, transportation (when they were looking at bringing light rail to the North side.) This involvement set me on the path toward running for the house seat.

I decided to challenge Linda Higgins for the State Senate position in 2010. That would create an opportunity for me to tell my criminal justice story. I didn’t receive the DFL endorsement but late in 2011, Linda Higgins decided not to run again. Bobby Jo Champion was in the House and he decided to run for the Senate. I ran for his House position.

That year my election was the most racially charged in the state. The seat that I hold had been represented by African Americans for about three decades. The individuals I ran against in the primary were both Black. That fact that I was White running for a seat people considered a Black seat created a lot of controversy, but I had a lot of support in the Black community because I had been out doing the work. I came to the “living room” of Aster Lee and Kirk Washington. They had gathered a group to interrogate me and they didn’t cut me any slack. I think that is important. We shouldn’t cut elected officials or candidates any slack. I have my own point of view and the only way to change it is to have it checked. It is human nature not to want to be challenged, but we are all products of our life experiences and we need other perspectives.
It was a tough race. Due to the foreclosure crisis the population in North Mpls. had dropped. Meanwhile the population in downtown increased. The district was redrawn to adjust to the population changes. It was now nearly all of downtown and near North. Due to the redistricting few people thought I had a chance of winning. I worked really hard. I was called a lot of things. I told myself, “This is what people of color deal with every day. You are a White guy of privilege, and someone is making a few comments about you? You need to get over that.”
Elections are a bit like basket ball games. Depending on where you are when the clock expires, you win or lose. A few days before the DFL endorsing convention I received the endorsement of Congressman Ellison and that changed the trajectory of my campaign. I won the primary by 20 votes.
Police relations and judicial justice on the North side.

I had the opportunity to attend an event on equity at the Kennedy School involving 70 state and local officials, Police Chiefs and County Deputies. I brought up that I lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood, that I had driven up and down Plymouth Avenue sometimes five or six times a day for over a decade and I never gotten pulled over. I’ve had headlights out, tail lights out. Yet everyone I’ve seen getting pulled over was Black, hands and feet spread on the car.
Some of the officers at the conference started ripping into me, saying, “You can’t say that.” I responded, “Look, I didn’t say this happens everywhere in Minneapolis. I said this happens on the street where I live. this is my experience, so you can’t tell me that I can’t say that.”

Relations were already strained between police and community on the North side before Jamar Clark was killed on November 15 2015. I think the communities’ response was appropriate.
I don’t know if in the aftermath a whole lot has changed. The Chief was talking about all the things they were doing at the same time that the inspector who is out in the community telling officers they need to connect with people, ended up on administrative leave. The good news is a couple months later he has now been assigned to a new division to look at community engagement city wide. I think Commander Friestleben, if he’s able to surround himself with the right people, could set the police on a different course of relations with the community. So I am optimistic, cautiously optimistic. As a paramilitary organization things can change quickly because it’s all top down. But there will be resistance from the rank and file. We all know police federation president officer Kroll, there are other individuals like him that exhibit racism. Until they understand who they are as people, it is going to be hard for them to police communities in a way that is understanding of the community they are in.If your day is spent in a car responding to emergencies, arresting people, giving them the one over, you begin to develop a view that that is all there is. Every officer should have implicit bias training and it should start while they are in training. Maybe there are some officers that should just not be on the North side, or south-side, they should be policing the southwest Minneapolis, but then you have what happened to Philando Castile in Falcon Heights…..

Clearly we need to train officers differently. The legislature can do a lot. There are two statutes we could change: 609.066 allows police officers to use deadly force when they believe their lives or someone else lives are threatened. This statute is why virtually no grand jury would ever be able to charge an officer for murder. 626.89 establishes a “reasonable standard” for police which is different from normal people standard. So they can act in very different ways than normal people can and get away with in a given situation.

In addition to changing those two statutes, we can change the pool of officers going into policing. That may even involve reducing the size. Quite frankly I think that done in the right way, if the size of the force gets smaller as a result, that is not a problem if we are policing differently in the community.

And then the community plays a role. When I was growing up and you got out of line, a neighbor would call you out. That doesn’t happen anymore and part to the reason is the number of guns on the street. We have way too many guns in our society and that is clearly driven by gun manufacturers because the only way they make money is when they sell guns and ammo.

A lot of people operate out of fear. Fear is a bad place to be in when making decisions on how to act. Clearly the officer who shot Philando Castile was agitated, fearful. If you watch that tape and I don’t know how you can’t question what happened. We didn’t see what happened prior to the shots but the audio makes it clear that the stop was somewhat questionable. The officer had assumptions going into that stop.

Some say the difference between an officer alive and a officer dead is a quarter of a second — but we need to change that. I look at the situation with Philando Castile and Jamar Clark and I think —- it’s a problem when officers come to a scene and 61 seconds later someone is shot in the head. That is where issues of de-escalation training are critical, and having officers with the right attitudes. In the Jamar Clark case those two officers had past records. It was astonishing to hear the Chief say “look, these are the people I have to hire from – this is the pool.” That is very telling. She was almost saying, “I don’t have a lot of choices of cops to hire, so some of the cops I hire are going to be questionable.”

Like Occupy Homes and the foreclosure crisis, the occupations of I-94 and 35W that happened recently, make it so people can’t keep their blinders on. Whether they agree with the tactics or not, whether they believe police are acting as they should or not, they can no longer ignore what is going on. If you are listening to the radio, watching TV you are now aware of what is happening because people are bringing it to your attention.
Getting the political Inside/ Outside balance right to further justice.

I have my colleagues all the time tell me —Oh those protestors (grumble grumble). I say, look, they play an important role. We don’t move until the community moves. I am in a safe seat, I don’t have to worry about how far on the edges I get, but most politicians, are afraid, they have to make compromises to stay in office.
I decided when I got into office that I would go in everyday and press a button, to vote for what was right and true. I’m not there to assure my reelection. I’m there to work for the people in my district and if they decide I am not, they will vote me out. My colleagues in vulnerable seats point out that I have that luxury. I remind them that I won my primary by 20 votes the first time around. I do know what a close election can be like.

My first two years in the house we had a majority in the House, the Senate, and a democrat in the Governor’s office and we were able to do some amazing stuff. There were some things we should have done, that we didn’t because there was hope that we might be able to stay in the majority with the 2014 election. We did not pass  One Minnesota – drivers license for undocumented immigrants, (so they could drive legally like they could prior to 2000) and voting restoration for people with criminal records. We should be like North Dakota and allow people out in the community with criminal records to vote.

We lost the majority AND we did not pass this essential legislation. It was a wrong calculation. Hindsight is easy. Now we are trying to win back the majority so we can do those things we should have done when we had it.

My life project: architecture and design of livable cities

My dream is to use architecture to design equitable neighborhoods. In 2013 I received a Bush fellowship and one of the things I looked at was Built Environments and how they impact the health of neighborhoods. I traveled to Medellin, Colombia to see what they had been doing. They went into some of the most difficult neighborhoods and built libraries, schools and parks. They built gondolas that would go up and down the mountain – public transportation for the poorest communities living on the sides of mountains. The gondolas gave people more time to work, and more time at home. It was amazing to see the transformation of that city. That is something we have not figured out. We spend billions on social programs that may move the bar a little bit toward equity, but we are reluctant to spend on physical infrastructure.

What you see every day as you walk out your door affects your whole being as a person. If it looks like the world doesn’t give a shit about you, it is hard for you to give a shit about you. I’m hoping to find that interaction between community, policy and design to begin to transform our neighborhoods. That is my life goal at this point —a big audacious hairy thing that I’d like to do at some point.

The natural evolution when you begin to transform communities is that it creates gentrification, where people in existing communities end up leaving and new people come in. My desire is that we develop a way that people that are living there, actually stay and benefit from the rejuvenation or rethinking of their community. One thing to make that happen is you have to change laws. We can’t dictate who lives where. It is both good and bad that we are unable to do that. When I talked to people on the North side about light rail, I say you know if you put in a thousand unit development and everyone who moves into it is White, even if no one else leaves the community you still created a demographic shift in the community that will have consequences. I think we need to discuss how we design housing developments but we also need to discuss community amenities and infrastructure for those who are there so they can stay intact.

The amount of money that has come to the North side in the last couple decades is the amount it takes to sustain the status quo, so that things stay the same. Not enough to be transformative. R. T. Rybak used to talk about the Midtown Exchange on the southside and how they were going to do the same thing on the North side. Well, for the Midtown Exchange, the city brought in $50 million and the amount of investment that followed was huge. They are not going to do that on the North side. So to make that comparison is naive at best.

When you don’t fund programs enough they will not work. That doesn’t mean they could not work. I’ve seen, far too often in my life, even within architecture — sometimes you start initiatives and you don’t see results so you stop them. You do not wait to see whether they would have borne fruit. Other programs and initiatives that have been around for a long long time and are clearly not doing anything anymore, we keep because of the legacies they have.

Segregation, racial inequality, immigration and whiteness.

Cooper High school — where I went —- is now is predominantly people of color — mostly African American. It speaks to how much Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs have changed in the last 40 years. It also shows that we have returned to segregation.

There was a while in Minneapolis when we began to have classrooms that were diverse. Kids of different races sitting side by side, — late 70s and 80s. We began changing back in the 1990s. Although the Minneapolis school district is very integrated I you look at specific schools there are only a few schools that are integrated and diverse.

I think preparing kids to live in diverse society they need to grow up in diverse settings and that includes a classroom where they are sitting next to someone different from them. I’m not talking about test scores, but preparing people to live in our world. The move toward segregation is tough to watch.

Charter schools have exacerbated the situation because they are tending to be focused demographically. It is hard to argue with people who say Black kids learn better in a classroom with other Black kids. I won’t argue with that when we put so much focus on test scores, versus looking at how people are doing five years after high school, it is tough to create the path forward.

In many ways we are at a tipping point. The opportunity is there for us to all work together in different ways. I see what is happening with Black Lives Matter and the group that shut down 35W — this is all of us trying to work around this issue. We are inflicting the comfortable to bring comfort to the inflicted. Social justice isn’t just for people who are inflicted by a structural system that disadvantages them. It affects all of us. The people in Wayzata are paying more taxes to deal with issues of locking people up throughout the state. Could that money be used better? Absolutely! But we have created a system that finds it easier to lock people up than to deal with the problems that cause their incarceration.

I got tons of emails from people about the liquor on Sunday law, 99.9% of them are contacting me for the first time. I thought, if your biggest concern in life is buying alcohol on Sunday – your life is pretty good and I’m probably not the representative that is going to be fighting for this issue. I’m here for the people for whom life has not dealt them a good set of cards. Those are the people I advocate for.

Immigration 

When we were taking all the land from Native Americans, the diversity was European, there were 27 different European languages on the Iron Range and there were conflicts between Eastern and Western European groups. After a generation or two however they were all White. That hasn’t happened for communities of color. I have a friend on the Iron Range who wants to bring Somali community members up to share their immigration stories, which aren’t that dissimilar for the families on the Iron Range

Part of the fear of losing whiteness is what do we have left? In becoming White we lost much our cultures. I can’t tell you my ancestor’s traditions in the ways that communities of color and Native Americans can. Once you lose power and domination what do you have? And we all know it’s really hard to give up power.

Building equity

We have huge disparities in Minnesota. People who cannot afford electricity, yet there are people who have houses with fifty rooms living by the lakes. We tried to address some of these disparities at the legislature in 2013-14 with things like all day kindergarten and increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2%. Still, what we have seen since the 2008 recession is that the recovery is going back to the top 5%. We have to figure out how to rebalance that. I think we can push business to play a more positive role in the working families’ campaigns. They should understand that paid sick time, livable wage and family leave are issues critical to having a positive productive workforce. There is a reason why we have those fortune 500 companies here. Some businesses understand it.

I am optimistic. Although when you make progress the right wing digs in their heels — but we are now having conversations about equity we would not be able to have 10 years ago. I know it won’t be fast enough. There are some mornings I wonder – how long can I handle the speed of this — but working with community keeps me energized

Jimmy Patiño Jr. Adopting an Insider/Outsider strategy to build Chicano/Latino Studies.

13649624_10208069829196087_1150434576_n

I was born in Houston. Certain branches of the family have been in that part of Texas for several generations, and before that they lived in the Texas/Mexico border region. My grandparents grew up during segregation so they wanted their children to know English.  I did not grow up speaking Spanish.

Houston is half Latino and a third African American, with a pretty sizable Asian population too.  I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school.  The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers.  I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.

I was a graduate student in San Diego for five years before I came to Minnesota in 2010. For professors your job market is nationwide and you just land somewhere. I landed at St. Cloud State University. I was hired in the Ethnic Studies department.   There was one Native American woman, an Asian American woman and two African American men. I was the Mexican American faculty.

IMG_1120

 

Minnesota was colder than I ever could have imagined.  I was afraid to drive in Minnesota snow, but my son was six and daughter three when we arrived and they liked snow. We played in it — made snowmen, went sliding.  I tried to look at it through their eyes.

In the city of St. Cloud one main engagement was with my son’s school. There was a Spanish immersion program — which was one of the reasons why we thought we could live there — but he was the only Latino in the school. Their focus was on teaching White kids Spanish, not engaging Latino kids.

There is a Latino population in the surrounding area.  I was told that the best place to get Mexican food was at a restaurant in Melrose, a small town about 30 minutes northwest.  We went to check it out. There was tiendita next to the  restaurant. The food was pretty good.  It was such a weird sight — flat, uninhabited land all around, and a dancehall in the back with Mexican people arriving for a baile.  I wondered, “Where am I?  How did I get to this place and why did these people come here in the middle of nowhere?”

My son got picked on at school because he had long hair and spoke more Spanish than the other kids.  We ended up pulling him out of the immersion program and putting him in a neighborhood school.

Had I heard of the White Cloud reputation? A little.  I was involved in MEChA at the University of Houston when I was an undergraduate.  I had met St. Cloud members at national conferences.  MEChA at St. Cloud were a big part of the activism that created the position in which I was hired.  They recruited me.  They hinted to me about White Cloud — the hostile context in which they worked.

When I first started teaching classes I would have 30-40 kids.  In one class there was only one non-white student — a Somali kid.  I was new to teaching.  I remember the students smirking and snickering to each other as I tried to teach racial formation theory. First I got really angry.  I lectured to them, asserting my authority. I know that’s a privilege. My female colleagues tell me it is always a struggle for them to maintain authority, especially when teaching controversial stuff.

I didn’t realize my students came from tiny towns around St. Cloud and northern Minnesota and had very little experience with non-whites. Many of their initial reactions to learning about race, particularly from a person of color, was their assumption that we were attempting to shame them or guilt-trip them.  We were coming from different worlds. I had them write response pieces and they would say “There was one Black guy in my high school — one Mexican guy.”

One thing I learned from that situation is to teach White students that they are part of the race process. I had them read How the Irish Became White. That drew some of them in.

I had a number of issues at St. Cloud State.  I was finishing my thesis when I began there. We had an agreement that when my dissertation was finished my pay would go up immediately, but I had to struggle for several months to get them to fulfill that promise.  We had a union and a Faculty of Color group who were helpful, but it was very stressful.  In the end I was awarded my pay.   Soon after I was offered the position at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

 I was already planning to move to the Twin cities and commute because of the issue with my son’s school, so when they hired me at the U  I was excited. I was eager to be back in a diverse urban space with a sizable Latino population and a real Chicano Studies department.  Louis Mendoza, the U of M Chicano Studies chair quipped, “I’m sure Minneapolis seems like a cultural mecca to you compared to St. Cloud.”  That was absolutely true.

The U has a great reputation. Smart colleagues.  We had an outreach coordinator Lisa Sass Zaragoza and she connected me right away with community. That grounded me with the Latino communities off campus and other social and political groups I was interested in: El Colegio, a Latino oriented charter school, CTUL and SEIU, who were doing labor union work with Latino immigrants.

My first full year it was the 40th anniversary of the department so we had events all year bringing students and community together. In advance of the 2012 election there was a Latino political action committee and I took my students to their events connecting them with local elected officials.

My first two years, me and Louis Mendoza were the only two full time faculty.  When Louis decided to leave, we assumed we would begin a hiring process right away.  They  put us on hold all summer before saying No, they would not replace him!

Before he left Louis had put community people on notice that they might be needed.  Now I found myself in the center of a struggle to save the department.  We had to reengage the community.   I was still acclimating, establishing a social life, finishing my book.

We called a community meeting at El Colegio in the fall. I was amazed when about 100 people came — graduates, undergraduates, alumni (some of the founding members of the department), labor educators, coming out of the woodwork to help us. I learned that this has happened periodically throughout the 40 years of the department. We made a collective decision about what to do.  We would demand the position be restored and other positions created. We addressed the structural problems that lead to us having to have such a campaign.

Soon after, a fraternity group on campus had a party called the Galactic Fiesta and Goldie Gopher, the University mascot, turned up wearing a poncho and sombrero — illustrating that it was an administration-endorsed event.  Many faculty members including myself wrote letters to the administration pointing out that they were stereotyping Mexicans as a homogenous group. This homogenization, I argued, was part of the long history of systemic violence and ongoing issues of marginalization, that were exactly why we needed Chicano Studies.  We had a postcard campaign with a picture of Goldie on one side and a photo of Chicano Studies books addressed to the Dean and the President — letting them know the community was watching and demonstrating to the public the dire need for Chicano Studies.

We followed the students lead on much of the campus campaign.  They pressed the new Dean on his plans to hire more people at a meeting with him that attracted dozens of students and community members. He said he was not opposed to considering new hires, but emphasized that there was a process in place that had to be followed.  He mispronounced the word: “Chiceeeno” at the meeting, which a lot of the community remembered as an indication of again the dire need for Chicano Studies and the misunderstanding and dismissal of the Latino community by administrators and other people in power.

There was a group on campus called Whose Diversity. They had a whole list of demands, including hiring faculty of color and investing in Ethnic Studies. They invited me to speak and facilitate dialogue among students in a couple of events. It was really good for me to have those experiences across campus. I was in a silo at the U because my classes were majority students of color.  It brought me in touch with what it was like, for example, to be a non-white medical student on this campus and how, in mainstream departments, it was hostile to talk about race or gender or homophobia.

Whose Diversity carried out a series of actions, trying to creating a dialogue with administration. When the administration refused, the students began interrupting the Dean and President at events. On a Friday in February 2015, they staged a sit in at the Presidents office.

After the President decided to arrest them all, I told a reporter that when the department was founded in the early 1970s, students sat-in to demand Black and Chicano Studies. At that time, administrators dialoged with those folks and the result was the creation of the department.  This time they just arrested them all, a fact that spoke volumes about their unwillingness to engage the students.

On Monday after the sit-in, the Dean of College of Liberal Arts called an emergency meeting of all the Chairs of departments, (the first time that had ever happened in several decades at least.) He announced the University had somehow found some money over the weekend and they were going to hire four people in Ethnic Studies, one of which would be in Chicano/Latino Studies. He stated that the sudden emergency change in faculty had nothing to do with the sit in.  Nothing at all.

This spring we hired two people.  When they join us in the fall we will have three full-time tenure-track faculty — more than double what it was.

Louis had told me to be ready for an insider/outsider experience when you are a professor working in the institution. The community can say different things and pressure in different ways. I watched the insider/ outsider campaign pay off.

We know we still need to be vigilant.  To have a fully functioning department we  need at least five full time faculty. It is normalized that our department is supposed to be small, justified by enrollment. It is a business model, “you don’t bring in enough customers you don’t get the investment.” I describe it as abusive — not giving us the resources and human power we need to attract students and then blaming us for not attracting students.

Departments like ours that emerged out of social movements, have a stated objective of tying themselves to marginalized communities and making knowledge useful to those communities so they can solve their own problems.  Most of the University is structured around the idea that intellectual inquiry is this disconnected thing that comes from objective research.   Ethnic Studies is often characterized by the powers that be as political and therefore not intellectual which is an under-riding reason why I think it is not invested in. It is frustrating trying to convince administrators that we are valuable. We know we are valuable, but they will never be convinced, so our struggle will be cyclical.  What seems most important me after recognizing this cyclical problem is that we have a community inside and outside of the university prepared to mobilize and demand that the university serve marginalized communities through investing in Chicano and Latino Studies and other departments that centralize the experiences of aggrieved groups.

*********

I am finding roots in Minneapolis.  My kids are doing well at the Spanish immersion program at Emerson school, which is I think 80% Latino. The school is the oldest Spanish immersion program in the state and has roots from the 70s.

As a parent that is a basis for being grounded; knowing the kids are OK.

I live in Corcoran off of 35th Street. It passes the good-taco-near-by test, being close to Lake Street in South Minneapolis and a Latino community. I have a network of friends — other parents of color and social justice folks. I work with a group called Tamales y Bicicletas which is an environmental justice community organization led by longtime community activist José Luis Villaseñor.   He has a speaker on his bike. We show up to provide music and a loudspeaker for organizers speaking at the marches. We brought it to 4th precinct occupation rallies to provide the speaker for the organizers. 

TyB  is challenging the idea that environmental movements are separate from communities of color.  It emerged around the bike culture here. Minneaplis is a bike city but in many ways that culture is exclusive. The Greenway goes through Phillips but does not necessarily attract youth of color to participate because it is seen as very expensive. Bike shops and equipment are pricey. TyB has a shop on Lake Street where we teach kids to fix bikes.  We go on rides together. We sponsor environmental bike tours in the city, especially South Minneapolis. We go on-location to learn about polluters and the people doing something about it. We also have an urban garden for families and sponsor community harvest meals and give away produce.

I have also made friends through Left Wing Twin Cities, a local chapter of a national soccer movement. We usually play in Powderhorn. We approach soccer as a way of creating community. We have people of all abilities playing together in a way that is not competitive. The point is not to win, but to help each other build our skills and to move away from being hyper masculine and hyper competitive. We encourage gender non-conforming folks to join us. Children play with adults. I take my kids.  For my daughter it has been really good. We have a game for women and gender non-conforming folk only and the cis-gendered men and boys cook and cheer.

Professors’ Keith Mayes, Yuichiro Onishi and Erika Lee and I are working on Curricula on Ethnic Studies and history for high school students. We are also training social studies teachers to teach 3 classes:  African-American History, Chicano/Latino History, and Asian-American History. It will be required for all freshman students at Roosevelt High school.  Some other schools are doing it as an elective.

I am finishing up my book this summer — a study of the Committee of Chicano Rights in San Diego from the 60s- 80s.

I go up for tenure next year. I feel good about that.

And the winter doesn’t shock me anymore.

Yes, I think I’ll stick around.

 

Labor activist in Minneapolis recalls her 40 years of struggle.

FullSizeRender (1)I interviewed this Minneapolis union activist on July 2.  When I sent her the  draft of this essay she held on to it for two weeks. She finally decided to allow me to publish it, but did not want her name or photo attached, for fear of reprisal.

My parents met at Wayne State University in Michigan and moved to Minneapolis so my dad could go to grad school. They bought a house on 55th and Fremont. It cost $15,000. Four bedrooms. Two car garage. It was a working class White neighborhood. Still is I think. 

We lived with my mom after my parents divorced. I was about 10. Mom got a job as a Machine and Tool designer. The “Grandma” next door took care of us during the day. That was when you walked to elementary school and came home for lunch.  One day she made us sardines on crackers. We didn’t like food with spines, so we threw them against the wall. We went off to school and “Grandma” had to clean them up. I still feel guilty about it. 

All the neighbor kids ran around together. We performed plays for our mothers. Mom was the best costume designer. She made halloween costumes for the whole neighborhood. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, The Quaker Oats man,  Big Ben clock, Mr. Peanut. We made periscopes out of milk cartons, mirror and the bottom and top, and use them in the garage to spy on people.

We spent summers in Detroit with my Aunt and Uncle. Mom would take us up there on the train. We’d pack bacon and peanut butter sandwiches and Tang. The last week we’d spend at Dad’s parents. Dad was second-generation Lebanese, fully assimilated, but at his parents house we ate kibbe, cooked or raw stuffed grape leaves, tabouli.  Dad did go to Lebanon in 1970 with grandpa. He died very young, in 1976. He would have been a sheik if they were back in Lebanon.

I went to Anthony Junior High. In 9th grade I skipped school to attend an anti war rally. We took the bus downtown. We chanted “Hell no we won’t go!” We were excited to be saying a swear word.

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved.  I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios. 

I had my first boyfriend in high school. He was abusive. He’d hit me, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again.  Then he would hit me again.  When he came at me with a gun I tried to hide under a bed to get away from him.  I think that is why I hate guns to this day. The last straw for me, however, was when he came at me downtown when I was coming back from the library to pick up some music. I had my flute with me. He took it and threw it on the ground. All the pieces on the street.

That is how much my flute meant to me.

I never allowed a man to hurt me again, but when I hear about women who stay with abusers, I understand it.

At 18 I got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds. I lived in the apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she would make us work the meals for free. She was a strict boss. We had to clock in to get paid. Sometimes I would forget to clock in and I would have to go up to Mama D’s son and get my time card adjusted. He threatened that the next time we forgot to punch in we wouldn’t get paid. It happened to me and he refused to pay me. I called the department of labor and they said “You must be paid for every hour you work.” That was the end of them giving us a hard time about our time cards.

That was the first time I stood up for myself at work. 

Soon after, I got a job at the Radisson downtown. It was a union shop, but I still didn’t get it. All I knew about unions is they deducted dues. I didn’t pay any attention. One day when I was in line to get a paycheck I was handed a ballot. It said, 5 cents, 5 cents, 5 cents, Yes or No. I asked the waiter in front of me how I should vote. He said ‘Do you want to go out on strike? If not you better vote yes.’ So I did.

I left that job to follow a boy out to Vancouver. When I got there he treated me badly so I left. I called a friend in Minneapolis — a gay man I worked with at the Radisson. He joined me and we hitched our way down the coast to San Fransisco, bought a week of rooms at the Y for $12. We ran out of money, went to the mission for a meal, standing in line with the homeless folks.

After my trip out west I got a job at Radisson South. HR signed me up with the union. That was wrong. It should be union person who signs you up and explains the benefits.

I worked in the Tiffany Room with women that were in their 40s and 50s. We had these uniforms — a polyester cranberry skirt with a velcro waistband. In the back of the dining room  we had silverware, coffee pots, and our ashtrays. We all smoked while we worked. We’d take a puff and then go back and serve the food. My first day I was walking back to get a coffee pot with one of the bus boys and my skirt got caught on the handle of the silverware drawer and it came right off. I learned to pin it after that.

A few months in there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I didn’t want to be fined so I went. So did 3 or 4 other people. They showed us the film, With Babies and Banners, about the 1936 Ford Sit-Down Strike. I was so moved by it. At the end of the meeting they appointed me and my two coworkers to be stewards at the Radisson.

That is how I became a union activist.

We went out on strike in 1980, demanding major medical insurance. We were out for three weeks. The union ran a full page ad about a woman of color, a single mother who worked full time in a hotel downtown, but was paid so little she qualified for food stamps. The ad was very effective.

When the business agent called me to say we were on strike I was working.  The manager had left early, leaving us the keys so we could lock up. He often did this. We took all the water pitchers and silverware and locked them in cupboards. I took the keys with me.  When I was on Highway 62 driving home, I threw them out the window of my car — a big ring of keys. When we returned to work, the doors of the cupboards had been taken off.

I was the picket captain on the graveyard shift. The trucks that brought food to the hotel would come at night. The hotel was next to an Embers and the hotel would shuttle scabs in through the restaurant parking lot so they didn’t have to cross our picket line. A teamster trucker would come with produce every night. He would stop the truck and a scab would drive it into the parking lot. Then he would take me out for breakfast at the Embers and we’d talk union.

Our hotel was the first to go out. Every day another hotel would join us. My friend was working the Radisson downtown as a waiter. He and a few friends used some creative tactics. At the Sheraton Ritz they poured dish soup in the fountains and stuffed the toilets with toilet paper so they overflowed.

There was an arcade between the Radisson and Daytons and the hotel got an injunction so that we couldn’t run a picket line on the arcade. Scabs used the arcade to get to the Personnel office without going through our picket line. My friends went one night and glued the doors to the personnel offices — 20 tubes of crazy glue. So then the scabs had to cross our picket line. They didn’t get the door open for three days. 

When we went back the scabs left quickly because none of us would talk to them. They would get their dishes on a plate that was so hot they’d burn their fingers. One guy stuck it out. He was Lebanese. I finally started talking to him, got him to join the union.

We had this young whippersnapper of a manager. He really rode us. Wrote people up all the time. One night we were really busy.  He was at the front desk, standing up at the podium and he turned around and said “I am fucked.” We wrote him up. We posted it on the union bulletin board behind glass so he couldn’t take it down. He quit writing us up.

In the ’80s a number refugees from South East Asia worked at the hotel. They put them in the back of the house— the dish room, housekeeping. We heard the  employers would get subsidies from the government for hiring refugees. Around that time a group of us from various hotels — union activists — organized ourselves into a rank and file group we called Workers for a Strong Union — WSU. We would we write educational flyers to distribute to the workers in the hotels. For each flyer we would chose a section of the contract or a labor law. They were  know-your-rights flyers. We translated them into Vietnamese, Spanish, and Hmong.
To get them to the housekeepers we had  people in room service slide the flyers under the door of the maid’s closets. 

One of the bus people in the dining room was from South East Asia.  Other workers made fun of his name —  called him “cow.” I asked him about his name. He told me it was Mai Khao, so that’s what I called him. One of the waitresses said “why are you calling him your cow?” He invited his coworkers to come to his place for dinner, to feed us the food of his homeland — made a huge feast– seafood dishes, beer. I was the only one who showed up. It was terrible. I sat there and ate as much I could.

We had a friend who worked for a graphic arts company on Stinson Boulevard. The graphic arts workers — GCIU — went out on strike. We went to the picket line. The company got an injunction stipulating that only a certain number of people could stand on the driveway, so we would line up on the curb. When the scabs came we threw rocks at their cars. When the the light turned red we would run into the street and gather all the rocks.

Around that time Minneapolis taxi drivers union had a strike. All the companies. Yellow, Blue and White. They lost that strike. Shortly after that Mpls cab drivers became  non-union.

I knew someone who was at a Paint manufacturing company. The workers were trying to organize a union– the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union — OCAWU. He was making good money, but the conditions were hazardous.  No matter what he did he reeked of chemicals. He would breath them out! He was fired for union activity. The Union took his case and he prevailed. The NLRB put him back to work.

When I got a divorced I needed higher pay work. My mom saw a notice in the paper about women working in the trades. I decided to go into Heating and Air conditioning. For two years I waitressed at night and went to school in Eden Prairie during the day to get my trades license. My mom took care of my kids.

By the end of the first year I had these new skills. I put a new compressor in my neighbors refrigerator, a new motor in my brother’s dryer, a new compressor in my own air conditioner. It felt good.

I got a job at the U and was a pre-apprentice in the pipe fitters union. The U was considered easier than working for a contractor. All the guys were near retirement and their bodies were shot. There was only one other woman in the fitters union and she also worked at the U. The only younger man there was Native American.

I worked in the refrigeration shop. All men. Every day Jim, the guy I was paired with, would say to me “You shouldn’t be here. You should be home with your children.” Finally one day I said to him. “Shut up. I have to make a mortgage payment just like you do” and he never said it again.

We drove the truck around campus, Jim in the drivers seat. We would do the chillers in the basement of Coffman Union down where the floor was dirt and the centipedes hung out. One day instead of stopping at Coffman, Jim kept riding. He  wouldn’t tell me where we were going. He took us to a diner and we had breakfast. I was a nervous wreck because I knew we could get fired in a heart beat, but we never got caught. He paid for my breakfast and told me to save the money for my kids.

On my child’s first day of kindergarten I told the shift leader I wanted to come late so I could put my kid on the bus. He said “You are not going to start that — kids and busses, coming in late and all that shit are you?” But he said OK and he punched me in so I wouldn’t lose time. It was nice I guess, but  every Friday I would have to punch the guys’ time cards so they could leave early to go up to their cabins. They’d leave at noon. They told me I had to do it because I was the junior person. I was always scared of losing my job because of it, but we never got caught.

I was assigned to work in a shallow tunnel with “Doug”. The other guys all warned me about Doug. They said ‘Remember four things 1. Don’t talk to him. 2 Do what he says. 3. Stand back from him when he is working. 4. Make sure he takes his medication.

Doug didn’t shower. He was very fragrant. A trucker would come and pick us up and take us from one area of the tunnel to another. The drivers would complain about how he smelled….

They had removed asbestos from the tunnel the summer before. It had dirt floors. It was hot down there so Doug ran a fan, kicking up dust. I had friend in Canada working in Health and Safety. He said the standards in the United States for asbestos safety were really low, that I shouldn’t be bringing that dust home on my clothes. So I went to administration and told them I wanted full asbestos gear. They told me I didn’t need it. I told them I wanted it. They gave it to me.
Doug was mad. He said he “kicked asbestos off the boiler and sat down for lunch and nothing happened to him.”

I left work for a week to go to my brother’s wedding. When I came back I wasn’t assigned to the tunnel anymore. Doug had complained about me. They put me back in refrigeration. Later this guy who was a welder was assigned to go down with Doug. Doug went nuts and tried to strangle him. I was glad I wasn’t working with Doug anymore.

I got laid off in November. They had a big union meeting. I introduced myself to the guy next to me. He wouldn’t shake my hand. I tried to tell him where I worked.  He interrupted. “I know everything about you. You better watch your step. When you start union school you will see its one night a week. You need to be quiet about that when you are with the fitters’ wives because they think its three nights a week. You tell and you will be lucky if you get out with your life.”

When the hall called me about positions a few months later, it was all the worst jobs — like drilling holes in concrete for a parking ramp. Finally I said ‘will you guys let me collect unemployment?’ and they said yes.

I soon got a job as a labor union business agent. Been doing that ever since. I negotiate and administrate collective bargaining agreements. Many of my bargaining units are public schools. Recently one district tried to outsource bus drivers. All the workers showed up at the school board meeting and talked about how most of them went to area schools. They knew the kids, the families, they watched the kids grow up. We won. That one. 

When I was working for OPEIU Local 12, the clerical workers who worked in union local offices went out on strike. A male business agent negotiated their contract. It was insufficient. Most of us who worked for the union, staffed the picket lines and did work at home. We would not cross their picket line. The international union was furious. Turned out it was illegal to have your employer also be your union…

Union reps are not always on the right side. I have seen labor officers cross picket lines. Postal workers union officers crossed the line once. We picketed his union meeting. They called the cops.

Some unions today are willing to move beyond their industry and strict labor issues. Take stands on the environment, Black Lives Matter. They organize the organized. They are working to expand beyond the old white boys network. Some unions have learned to reach out to immigrant populations.

A few years ago I went to Riverside Clinic for a mammogram and one of the people that I represented at Local 12 checked me in. He told me about the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and encouraged me to join. I did so reluctantly. At first I didn’t go every week, but it grew on me.  The members are my friends. Union activists. We sing for everybody. We do picket lines and union meetings, picnics and union parties. We bring the lighter side to events. I want us to get more young people, to recruit more People of Color in our choir.

These days I get my energy from the Twin Cities Labor Chorus. I want to spread that energy.

____________________________________

*I looked up Ronald Judy. He is a professor of Critical and Cultural Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburg.  I asked for an interview.As luck would have it, he was coming to Minneapolis to see family.  We talked on July 18th.  The result of our conversation will be published here soon.

Roya Damsaz: From Iranian Revolution to Cooperative Politics on Mpls.’ Northside.

IMG_1101

Roya Damsaz 

Somebody asked me, did you move to Minneapolis for money or love?

I moved here for love.

I was born in Tehran, the youngest of five children. All of my siblings came to the U.S. for professional graduate school careers. I had just started studying for my engineering degree in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. During the Revolution, they closed all the schools. Shortly after the revolution, my University closed again for “cultural revolution.”  They didn’t like that our classes were taught in English—the “language of Satan.” After a lot of “cleanup,” my university finally reopened and I went back. Because of all this, my five year program took 8 years.

I married in Iran and had two children there. My oldest sister,  a US citizen, had applied for a green card for us. Even though my husband and I were both engineers, we were having a hard time making a living and did not foresee a good future for our kids. We moved to San Diego in 1995.

I got a job as an engineer, designing air conditioning systems for industrial buildings. It was an American company, but their plant was across the border in Tijuana, Mexico — a product of NAFTA. At the time I did not have a clue about free trade and the exploitative border factories that were the result.

The Mexican culture in San Diego and Tijuana was similar to my culture — very warm and family-oriented. I was not facing any discrimination. I think that was also because of my education and status as a professional. I knew Iranians without degrees who struggled to find jobs and to fit in; some of them eventually went back to Iran because they could not survive in the U.S.  My eight year old son had a tough time though. He didn’t know a word of English.  It was hard to leave him in school. He will still say that it was really tough. I would tutor him every day after work starting with baby books. My ex could not help because he was taking english classes too.

I was getting promotions. We were frugal. In three years we bought a new house. Moving up. Our citizenship ceremony was a few days after September 11. We were afraid the ceremony might be postponed or cancelled, but it wasn’t.

After 9/11, the border crossing slowed to a crawl. After going through a deep background check, I enrolled in a program that allowed me to get across faster, but I could see the way the Mexican people who went back and forth were treated terribly—body searches, looking for weapons. This seemed especially ridiculous; there were way more weapons on the U.S. side than on the Mexican side!

I lived and worked in San Diego for 16 years. By 2007, I was divorced.

Mike and I met through an online dating site. In 2010 we both had mid life crises. We left our jobs in San Diego and moved to Everett, Washington, where we bought a coffee shop/used book store. It was funny because we had no experience with coffee. Mike didn’t drink coffee and I thought instant coffee was just great. We had to learn from the previous owner how to make a mocha, latte, etc.

The area (about twenty miles north of Seattle) was loaded with artists. We had many events such as open mic nights, knitting groups, Native American flute players, and environmental activists. The first meeting for Occupy Everett was in our coffee shop. The Occupy site was not far from us and we supported them in many ways including free coffee, sandwiches, soup and, perhaps most importantly, access to the store’s bathroom.

The community was mostly white people with blue collar jobs. Many of them worked for Boeing. ‘Money out of politics’ was a big issue for them and so were environmental concerns such as global climate change. There were train tracks right across the street from our coffee shop, and we watched the coal trains passing through downtown Everett, leaving a grey cloud of coal dust.

We managed to increase the store’s customer base, but we were not good business people. We knew that many of our customers were in bad financial condition, so we were reluctant to raise our prices. The store was so popular that when we decided to sell, a group of our regular customers got together and decided to buy it and run it as a community business

After we sold the store, we thought, “Where do we go from here?” My mom in Iran had just died. For several years before her death, all of us children took turns going back to visit her. It was hard, because I could not be with her when she died. Mike’s ninety year old mother lived in Minnesota and I didn’t want him to have the same regrets, so we decided to move to Minneapolis.

At first I was really impressed with Minnesota. It had a different kind of cultural diversity. People working in the stores who were from Somalia were wearing their traditional clothing! I said, “Wow! I never saw that in San Diego!” There were also lots of Latinos and Black people, unlike in Everett. I was impressed.

Gradually I began to see it differently: I was treated very nicely, but there was this wall. Nobody would get close to anybody. The conversations were formal. Nobody wanted to know who you were and nobody wanted you to know who they were. I just couldn’t make friends. I would come home and whine to Mike: “Is there something wrong with me?” We started getting involved with a group of environmental activists. They were really nice people, but it was a milder version of the same thing. It was odd: Everybody told everybody they did a great job. People were reluctant to give honest feedback. To me that was not how people would learn, right? It pissed me off. I gradually began to learn what “Minnesota Nice” was, but I couldn’t accept it.

I worked in North Minneapolis and somehow we went to one of NOC’s events. I don’t remember how we found out about it. Nekima Levy-Pounds gave a talk that was eye-opening. I had no idea that racial inequality was still going on in the U.S.

I came from a country in which there is no race. Religion is the big divider. On your birth certificate it lists your religion: I am Muslim because my father was. (In my heart I am a Buddhist although I don’t practice that religion either), but if anyone would ask me I would say I’m Muslim. I never thought of race. Last year we had an opportunity to buy a house. At the time I wasn’t much familiar with the concept of segregation and even if I was, we just wanted to live in the real world with the people we cared for, so we moved to North Minneapolis.

We kept coming back to NOC events, and then NAACP and anything else that we could find which was related to social justice in North Minneapolis. I remember we went to the event at Sabathani Community Center where the police chief was supposed to give a talk, but did not show up because she was concerned for her safety. I looked around the room at the other people who were there, and couldn’t believe that the chief of police would be “scared” of these people. I listened to the testimony of people talking about police brutality. It was shocking. Jason Sole, Rose Brewer, Nekima spoke. My eyes were opening. We went to rallies for Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and unfortunately many more. Going back to work after these meetings I began to see that there were these two parallel worlds. You can live in one and never hear, never see, what is going on in the other. It was just shocking.

I did not feel the Minnesota Nice at NOC or North Minneapolis, which was great. People were more straightforward and courageous. But the African-American culture was also foreign to me. I was not a part of it — it was totally different. It took me a while to understand how little I know and how much there is to learn.

It was confusing for me. I was not sure who I was. Am I white? According to the U.S. census I am. I went to SURJ meetings. They say, “We are white people showing up for racial justice.” I wasn’t sure I belonged. Do white people think I am white? I don’t know. Is it skin color? If it is not skin color, is it European descent? Iran is not in Europe. I am still not sure where I fit in.

The area where we live in North Minneapolis is diverse. There are lots of empty houses, though, because of foreclosures. It is a quiet pocket not far from busy streets: Penn, Dowling, Lowry. I feel that I am becoming connected to the neighborhood and we are starting to make friends here. I am starting to feel like this community is close to my heart. I want to be a part of it.

I have started to understand the way things work in North Minneapolis. People come in and do things to the neighborhood, not with the neighborhood.

I recently got involved in a group called Carbon Zero Homes. The founder wants to bring a Carbon Zero house to North Minneapolis. He really does care. He thought talking to Mayor Betsy Hodge’s husband who is African American would be a way to reach the Black community. I told him ‘No No, No, you have to talk to people who live here.” 

I work at an air-conditioning manufacturing company that is across the street from Northern Metals. I went to a forum on environmental pollution in North Minneapolis. Keith Ellison was there, along with folks from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, NOC. MPIRG and the City of Minneapolis.  As I was listening I realized how much I have changed. They were talking about doing more research collecting, more data. It got me so angry. I got up and said:

“Why do we need more data? The data is in. North Minneapolis has the most cases of asthma, the highest lead levels in the state. We need to act! It’s like you have a house and there is a leak here and leak there and you have $1,000 and  instead of fixing the leaks you hire an inspector. It makes no sense. There are programs that work to reduce asthma. Why aren’t we implementing them? Hire and train people from the community and give them the jobs implementing these programs. Research has shown a connection between companies like Northern Metals and asthma levels. They are using water tanks to clean the air. That just removes it from the air and puts it in the soil and the water. Air, water and soil are all connected!”

They responded that Northern Metals is just one of several sources, including vehicle traffic, other businesses, and the garbage burner that are responsible for air pollution in the area. I said, ‘Then you need to have even stricter standards for each of these sources, to lower the overall levels impacting this community.”

I was really mad. I walked out. I would never have done that before. Now I know why people in this neighborhood get so frustrated.

Here in the U.S., I hear a lot of people say that we need a revolution. I always tell them that I have been through a revolution—the Iranian Revolution in 1979. I was involved in the student protests when I started college. There was a lot of unity as the revolutionary struggle developed: All the organizations–religious, communist, socialist and lots of others—united to make the revolution happen. It was through the revolutionary struggle that I learned about how the U.S. was involved in installing the Shah. I grew up in the relatively comfortable middle class; I was shocked to learn that many people in my country didn’t have water or electricity. Then the revolution happened. Everyone promised to stay united, but it turned out to be just like Orwell’s “Animal Farm”–some people became more equal than others. At first the people leading us after the revolution were intellectuals–people who had motivated me and other university students. The first thing they did was look for agents of the Shah’s government and put them in jail. Little by little they began to also arrest the communists, the socialists, and other “non-religious” revolutionaries. It was not long before the Mullahs took over, and the whole government changed into a religious government. Nobody trusted anybody. Yet, rich people who were against the revolution managed to hold on to economic power. It was like when Obama got into office and appointed Bush people.

I began to feel like this was human nature: In the end people take care of themselves. It was really sad to see. So, I have no faith in revolution. But I am excited about grassroots movements. I went to a meeting recently that inspired me.

I am on the Board of the Wirth Co-op that will be opening soon in North Minneapolis. I was there on behalf of Wirth. We want it to be different from other food co-ops—more like a year-round farmer’s market. To share ideas, the city had invited all of these people to come and talk about their cooperative efforts. A Somali man talked about how they have created a global community cooperative. They helped their community members who didn’t speak english, didn’t know the laws or were unable to access resources. The ones who could provided the service for others. Sharing is caring, right? If you need something, someone will help you. They have 1,200 members already. At the same meeting, someone from CTUL talked about their union organizing work. Another person talked about Northside urban gardening. I was so excited.

This kind of cooperative economics is what we need. Being involved in the community—SURJ, MN350, NOC, Wirth Co-op, etc.—I am beginning to feel like I could stay here in North Minneapolis. I am growing some roots.

****************

I interviewed Roya on July 3. We’ve been in regular contact since. On July 9 she texted me: OMG WHAT A DAY!  

She had just returned from Day of Atonement * march against police violence, to protest the brutal police murder of St Paul elementary school nutrition services supervisor, Philando Castilo.

We walked nearly four hours!  

Roya and a thousand others had walked the streets of downtown Minneapolis and interrupted a Cathedral block party.  At the same time protestors in St. Paul marched on to Interstate Highway 94, occupying it for five hours and the 24 hour occupation of the block in front of the Governor’s mansion continued.

So empowering and yet sad people have to fight for human rights Roya wrote.

* Link has updates on ongoing protests. See sidebar for upcoming events.  See also Black Lives Matter Minneapolis.