“The city is ripe for taking over.” Marjaan Sirdar

 

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I interviewed Marjaan on June 11, 2016, during the two weeks between the death of Muhammad Ali and what would have been the 45th birthday of the late Tupac Shakur. He was thinking about them both as we talked and then edited this piece.

I was born in Chicago in 1979. We were essentially homeless – although I didn’t realize it until I worked with homeless youth in Minneapolis thirty years later. My father, an immigrant from Pakistan, was struggling to find work. My mom was busting her butt working at a Department Store, but it wasn’t enough. Mom, my older brother and I lived with my grandma for a while. I was one years old when we first went to stay with my grandfather in Minnesota.

My grandfather ended up in Minnesota because he was sent to Federal prison in Sandstone. He was a minister in the Nation of Islam. He opened up the first Mosque in Kansas City in the late 60s. According to him his conviction was a FBI set up. I’m not sure the real story. His wife moved to Minnesota to be near him when he was incarcerated and when he got out they settled in Bloomington.

We moved nearly ten times before I was five. My mom and dad were trying to work it out but mom was determined not to have us grow up in Chicago. She grew up in the Nation of Islam in a Black middle class bubble on the south side . She watched as Chicago grew more violent from the 60s to the 70s and didn’t want her children to end up dead or in jail. My father left permanently, a month before I turned four, back home to Pakistan. We finally settled in Plymouth, MN when it was time for me to go to kindergarten.

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. At Kennedy High School I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

The thing that saved me when I was a kid was hip hop, not the 1990s commercial stuff but the late 1980s artists. They–and my mom — instilled in me a sense of self-pride.

I went to Inver Grove Heights for college for a couple semesters. Didn’t get much work done. I lived with other college kids and we hung out and partied. I hardly worked, just sold drugs mostly. I began going out with a girl I’d know since junior high and eventually I moved in with her back to Bloomington.

I started working at a warehouse in Edina. I was making good money. I knew people with college degrees working at Perkins.  I decided college made no sense. 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. For the nine years that I worked at the warehouse I listened everyday, Monday through Friday, while at work. And I argued politics with my coworkers, customers and my boss. It politicized me.  I learned how to debate and hold my ground, arguing with people listening to conservative talk radio. We discussed the news of the day from 9/11, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to when Barak Obama ran for president.

In 2007, I bought my own house in the Bryant neighborhood, a historically African American community in South Minneapolis, where Prince lived and went to school as a kid. I was 28 years old,eager to get out of the suburbs and be in a Black neighborhood. To get away from conservatives. To meet liberals. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I got a six-week job working in Keith Ellison’s 2008 relection campaign. I canvassed and door knocked. It was exciting. I loved the people working on his campaign. Multicultural, multiracial, Muslims, Christians, Jews, old and young, Ellison was bringing them together. At that time I was drinking Obama’s Koolaid. I related to his life story. My father was an immigrant like his.

It was a bittersweet time in my life. In 2008 my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He had his leg amputated at Mayo clinic the day before Obama’s first inauguration and just days before I turned 30. I stopped looking for work because my brother was getting sicker and sicker. He died April 18, 2009. I grieved for a while, not working.

When I started to look for work in non-profits I discovered most of them required a college degree. I applied for a job at a welfare-to-work agency in St. Paul. I killed the interview and they hired me. 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. I had told them about the DWI and drug offense, neither of which wer felonies. The courts had my criminal record mixed up with my brother who had just passed.

They wouldn’t even check to see if I was telling the truth. I was the only Black man working there. I knew if I was a White woman — like most of them — they would have listened to me and checked my story. I would’ve been innocent until proven guilty. Their attitude was: “I knew you were too good to be true.” That was my introduction to social services.

I enrolled at MCTC the following year. I was 31 years old. It was the greatest thing I ever did. The professors were great and so were the students. Soon after I got a job working with homeless youth. My education into the world of liberal social services continued. My coworkers and bosses were all White folks, most of whom grew up in small towns, went to college and wanted to do good. Their first experience with people of color was in this position of power. They embraced the social service charity model and ignored systemic racism. They’d say “we can’t change the world.” Almost all of our clients were Black.

I ended up arguing with them like I did the warehouse workers. I learned that I preferred the conservatives. Racism among liberals comes out in bizarre ways. Micro-aggressions. They would never admit their racism. At least the conservatives were honest.

It is a crime that in this rich liberal city, people who look like me are struggling, youth are homeless. The youth I worked with were some of the most talented and brilliant people. Some were high school educated, some were not. The majority were Black, almost all people of color. The same system that controlled their ancestors under slavery and Jim Crow was still keeping them down. Poverty and homelessness are completely intertwined with the history of racism.

The system is fucked up. It keeps people in poverty, gives them just enough to make deals to find a place to stay. Two hundred dollars in food stamps is not enough for anyone to survive; $200 dollars in cash assistance – those are death wages. There was a white homeless population who traveled across the country, from the west coast, who chose a hobo punk rock lifestyle, but the folks of color were not choosing it. They became homeless because a they were in section 8 housing and they turned 18 and were kicked out of their family homes because the system did not allow that many adults to live in one apartment. They might have trouble getting on the lease because of a criminal record.

They didn’t want hand outs. They wanted work. Some were unable to due to mental illness. Some ended up homeless because their families couldn’t deal with their mental illness but others acquired mental disorders as a result of the trauma associated with homelessness. None of them asked to be there.
These youth experienced so much trauma: one night in the shelter, the next on the streets getting raped or selling their bodies for a place to stay, then back in a shelter, acting like nothing happened. Young men as well as women, selling their bodies for a place to stay. A couple bags of groceries was useful to them because they could barter food for a place to stay. They get thrown in jail for the crime of being homeless. The city of Minneapolis was always trying to get rid of them so they could bring white suburban dollars and attract well-off buyers of new condos downtown.

In addition to racism these experiences helped me to reflect on my own complex class background. I grew up in low-income housing with other poor Black, Native, Asian and White people but surrounded by a middle class White community with all its resources. I had access to the education, and was within walking distance of everything we needed, even if we couldn’t afford it all. My father came from one of the poorest countries in the world but his family was rich. They lived in gated communities with servants. My mother grew up in the Nation of Islam, socially well-respected people. She went to a private Nation of Islam school named after her grandmother. She lived in a Black middle class bubble. She was a good kid who never drank or smoked. Her kids on the other hand, grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs and were exposed to drugs and gangs at the age of 11-12, stuffed she was shielded from growing up.

My mother had middle class values she passed on to us. She would say “Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we have to act like it. We hold our head high with dignity. We come from great people.” Those values helped me out in life, but I recognize them now as classist in nature. Today I am very much middle class but I identify as working class. That is where my allegiance lies.

My neighborhood is historically black. I am surrounded by small African American churches. But if you go a few blocks west you are in Kingfield — all White, supposedly progressive – but not many people look like me. Go ten blocks south and you have those big mansions on the parkway. I hate it. I really hate Minneapolis.

But I am attached. I don’t know anything other than the Twin Cities. I feel an obligation to change it. At the same time its a big burden to put on anybody. Especially people of color. We didn’t create the problem. How many of my White peers wake up feeling an obligation to change their city? Those who do are friends of mine. I have managed to create community with them.

I hate and am attached to America in the same way. I hate this country because this country has always hated us. I idolized Muhammad Ali as a kid for standing up to White American racism. His values are alive inside me today . My story is very American.

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.

There was always an anti-imperialist sentiment in my household. My mother’s second husband was Ethiopian. Her best friend was Palestinian. At ten years old we were in solidarity with Palestine. In 6th grade current events class I was the only one who knew who Yasser Arafat was. We have always been internationalists.

So I organize. Listening to Democracy Now in my 20s, I romanticized organizing. When I moved into Bryant Neighborhood I assumed my house would be worth less over the years. I never thought White people would be moving to the neighborhood. I never saw White people there until the bike paths came. Black and Brown people have been riding bikes for decades, but when White people start doing it, because gas prices are rising, because they want to lower their carbon foot print, we get bike paths in the street, Park-and-Rides in the suburbs and bike lanes cutting across Black and Brown communities.

Now the White people are moving in, running, biking, walking dogs, pushing strollers. Now we have the coop, the yoga studio, a Spanish immersion day-care where the Urban League office was for 40 years. I want Black people to have organic food, yoga, and Spanish immersion, but they can’t afford it. Its pricing people of color out of their neighborhood.

You ask, am I a gentrifier? Growing up in the suburbs I craved a Black community to be a part of. I wanted this to be my community. I didn’t join one of the churches that surround me because I’m not a Christian. (I was taught that Christianity was the White man’s religion. I believed that until I took Keith Mayes Black history course and learned about the Revolutionary role of the Black church in Black liberation movements.) Now I am slowly building relationships, to organize with those Black churches right outside my door. So yes ,in many ways I am a gentrifier. But I like to think I did not come to the neighborhood and ask it to change for me.

I challenge White people who say to me they have a right to live wherever they want to live. Because Black and Brown people don’t have the right, the access, to live wherever they want to live. I like to push back on people. They don’t realize when they come into a community they come with a lot of social capital. They might not intend to change the community but they do. When White people show up in waves, those communities change to accommodate their families.

I joined the Bryant Neighborhood organization when I heard about the coop coming in. Now three years later I am the chair the Bryant Neighborhood Organization. We have a big pot of money, $500,000 . It has been used for home loans, home improvement loans. It has not been used to protect people from foreclosure. We want to recruit Black and Brown people to buy homes by creating a first-time home buyer loan. If they live there for ten years the loan is forgiven. We want people to stay in the neighborhood. We don’t want people flipping homes. We have an emergency fund for people with very low-interest, but unfortunately most of the people who use it are white. So getting the word out is important. Our neighborhood organization has operated like a social club for many years. We are finally hiring staff. Radical organizers. We are creating a land-use committee to make decisions about new development. We have talent in the community that we can use to build the development the people want and need.

There is a difference between white organizers and organizers of color. Whites organize to organize. We organize around issues that directly impact our lives. Sick Pay. $15 minimum wage, restore the vote, drivers licenses for the undocumented. But it is harder to get Black and Brown people to mobilize. We are struggling with survival. We don’t have time. And now I do. I feel powerful as an adult. I’m learning how to step up and use my power.

In my 20s I wanted to be Che Guevara or Malcolm X. Eventually I got this idea of teaching. I’m not going to be the next Che Guevara but I could teach the next generation of freedom fighters. I’d rather be working with youth than going to meetings with adults.

I want to indoctrinate kids to teach them to believe in themselves. I know indoctrination is a controversial word but you need to realize the kids are already indoctrinated with White supremacy. We need to challenge that dominate message. The Black Panthers, when they had their free breakfast program, they were indoctrinating kids, teaching them Black love, pride and Black History. They had them singing songs the kids didn’t understand but eventually they would.

I want to be the teacher who teaches kids how to destroy education. The government created education to grow an obedient citizenry with a false nationalist identity. A false sense of unity when in reality you have all these marginalized groups. There is nothing more critical than to teach kids to question nationalism, to question patriotism, to question the education system.
So that is why I am in school. To get a master’s degree in education. We’ll see how much I like teaching. I may hate it.

If you are committed to changing the system you will probably have to hate some of it. But then, just like the city you hate and the neighborhood you love… there will be the kids….

Yes. Direct service is my passion — working with kids. Teaching high school history. Teaching kids about the history of resistance. But I will have to challenge the administration, organize faculty, like I have done with every other job.
Because there is so much wealth here and so many poor people, we are in some ways ground zero in this new movement. The new Montgomery. And that is why I need to be organizing here. It is where the struggle is.

Here is a predication. There is going to be a power shift in this next few local elections. The young activists in Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Immigrant rights are going to be moving into positions of political power. The city is ripe for taking over.

All these things I was ashamed of growing up: being poor, Black, Muslim, son of an immigrant, I have learned to find power in those things. I think that is the definition of being an adult. Owning your past and using it to be who you want to be.

Minneapolis Project. 

 

Isaac Reed. In Divided Minneapolis, Seeking Space to be Unique and find Unity.

Isaac Reed Age 17

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I interviewed Isaac at 9am on Sunday morning, June 12, 2016. As he got ready to leave, we hugged. When the door closed I checked my phone. Someone on Facebook had posted: “ If you know a young GLBTQ person of Color, please give them a hug and tell them how important they are.” I thought, “Cool! I just did that!” Then I read on, hearing for the first time about Orlando.

Who Am I? I am unique. I am not a normal story. I have two moms and a sister. I’m gay. I’m adopted from India and I grew up in a white wealthy neighborhood. I could care less about sports. In the last year I lost one of my moms and two grandparents. I wake up at 5am. I go to bed at 8:30pm I am not a typical teenager .

I was born in Calcutta, India and adopted into a two-mom family in Minneapolis. I came home when I was 6 months old. I’ve been told it was sweltering when we got to Minneapolis, but I was fine with it since it was like that where I came from. My mom Jan was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months before I was adopted, so I never knew her without her cancer. There was a point where she was in remission, but that was only for a short time. She passed away last May. It’s been a rough year.

I was two years old on 9/11.  When President Obama was elected I was in fifth grade. I was so excited. It was historic.  In retrospect his election was a mixed bag. We still have a long way to go.They didn’t show the inauguration at Armatage elementary school. They showed it at Kenny and a bunch of other schools. My mom was upset they decided not to show it at my school.

I was  14 when we got marriage equality in Minnesota. My moms always told me they were married in their hearts and that was what mattered. It was interesting to see different people in our community making the decision to get married or not. It is so important to have a choice. Still, for full equality, we have a long way to go.

My mom Cindy, got together with someone shortly after my mom Jan died and I really like her. Her name is Kristin. It is hard for people to understand that even though Kristin is in our family, we still love and miss Jan everyday. She was a wonderful mother, and I feel incredibly blessed to have gotten 16 years with her.

I have a sister, age 15. She was also adopted from the same orphanage in Calcutta- IMH, International Mission of Hope. She was born with bleeding in the brain which led to cerebral palsy so she uses a wheel chair to get around. When I describe her to someone I try not to say “she’s the one in the wheel chair.” That like saying, “he’s the fat kid.” But its hard. That is the description that people first see. My sister and I are incredibly close. I love her so so much. She is my best friend, and I couldn’t be in this world without her. She is a guiding force in my life.

I recently went back to India with an organization that specializes in trips for people who have been adopted.  I was going to go with my mom, Jan, before she died. I went with my aunt, Beth, Jan’s sister, instead.

I have a twin, born and brought into the orphanage the same day. We don’t know if we are biological twins. He lives in Boston. He grew up with a strong Indian influence. He lives with his mom and his sister. I grew up watching American cartoons and using a dishwasher while he grew up reading Bollywood comics and eating Indian food. When I told him I was going to India he was indifferent – like, “Well good for you’.

My knowledge of India before I went was all things I made up in my head, like dirt roads. To see the truth of it was incredible. One of the things I enjoyed most 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. Usually when I meet someone from India they have an accent and family ties in India. We look alike but we don’t have anything else in common.

I went to Calcutta, where my orphanage (INH) was. I met a man who was adopted through INH, who moved back to Calcutta as an adult and started an adoption alternative, Foster Care India.

Turns out INH was corrupt. They burned  their papers including birth certificates.  There are no documents left about my birth. It is a huge mystery.  The only thing good about INH was the superb care we got.  They focused on premature babies. If a girl got pregnant and she wasn’t married, they induced labor at 6 months so no one would know she was pregnant. When I was born I weighed one pound, five ounces.

In Minneapolis I don’t know adoptees from India but I do know many adopted kids. We have a social network of adoptees with two-mom families.

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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 schools : Anthony, Minneapolis Academy, Folwell, and back to Anthony, 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. We don’t worry about locking our doors. I take it for granted that I can walk outside at ten at night and not worry about anything. (Although people don’t walk in my neighborhood unless they are walking their dog.)

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. When I say “I’m going to Hawaii for Spring break” my friends say “ I’m going to take care of my little brothers.” I can choose not to tell them things like that, but they can tell where I come from. I show up in my own car… If I make a friend, its hard to get them to come over to my house. It’s an hour bus ride for them.

Even after three years it’s still hard.

I have not joined the GLBT group at South. There are only five people in it. I don’t want to be confined to those five people. At Southwest they have a large group. More than 20, I think. People are dating each other. I would like to date someone of the same sex. That is not happening at South. Right now I don’t really have friends at Southwest or Washburn either. So I spend a lot of time alone.

I’m not in any clubs at South. I may join the South dance team next year. For eight years I was involved in Young Dance, a city youth dance company. On Saturdays we’d be downtown. Other days we rehearsed at Barton school. I did it until my sister got involved and it became her thing and not mine anymore.

This summer I am taking a course at the Loft with a StarTrib journalist. I am excited. I enjoy all kinds of music except country. I love the Hamilton Soundtrack. I love Broadway soundtracks. The Indigo Girls speak my truth. I danced with them on stage when I was 10 years old.

I am focused on my future. I have two different plans. One is to be an Occupational Therapist working with people with permanent special needs like my sister. The other is to be a Foreign Service Officer and work in a place like Baghdad. I like that whole embassy experience. I’d like to say there’s a reason behind that Foreign Service Officer thing that is meaningful and moving but the truth is I watched the TV show Homeland and thought it’d be really fun.

Someday I’d also like to go back to India and do something like Foster Care India.

For college I want to stay around here — family distance. Maybe Mankato, Winona State, UW Schools, Hope College in Michigan — it has a good Occupational therapy program and I know someone from the India trip who went there.

I go to Church on Diamond Lake – UCC. My mom Jan is buried  in a columbarium there. Its a place where her ashes are – and a plaque. It’s a mixed bag going there now. Lots of support – but its a constant reminder.. .

I think my sleep habits are a reaction to grief. I don’t want to join a grief group at South. I feel like we would just all sit around and cry. I don’t want to be stuck in that place. And I might not have anything else in common with the others…..

One time that I felt a sense of community at South 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 where we met up with other schools. It got on the national news and helped change the story. I felt like, wow, we really can make a change. It was powerful. You know, if one person walks out, they get suspended, but they can’t suspend 500 students. We all were there for one purpose,for something we really believed in. I felt like we were unified ….

Hmmm. I think I just talked myself into going to a grief group.

Minneapolis Project. 

Effie Lee, Age 79. Mississippi Girl Recruited by Tuskegee to Work Minneapolis Food Service Industry

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I was born in De Kalb, Mississippi, the sixth of nine children. My dad was a school teacher, 8-12 grades.  I was fortunate  I was not in his classes. He 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 my dad 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.

My mom was a homemaker. She came from Louisiana. There’s a lot I don’t know about her childhood. When her parents separated she was sent to live with her aunt in Meridian, Mississippi.  I only met two of her six brothers and sisters.

My dad’s mom had a farm — about 80 acres  We grew some cotton to sell –we’d take it to the gin in a big bin — and we grew everything we ate on that farm. Most of the black people did not have their own land.  We shared food with neighbors who had a lot of kids.   People in the south were good about helping each other out.

When you are reared up on a farm there are a lot of things that people from the city have never heard about. We never bought anything except flour, salt and sugar.  For shortening or lard, we’d kill a hog. When we killed a hog we would bed it down in a two foot bed of salt, and then put another layer of salt on top of it. Curing it. I have no idea how they cure a hog today.

My niece and I visited my grandma’s farm a couple summers ago. It was amazing — all grown over with pine trees. The pond  was still there. They used to lease ponds in the south, for people to fish. I was the only kid that would go with my grandma. I would play in the water while she fished. My grandma loved to fish. She cleaned them, fried them up.

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Effie’s Grandma.

I went to an all Black college in Jackson, Mississippi — Alcorn University.  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 Oscar Howard was in Minneapolis and he offered me a job.

Oscar Howard had a catering company that provided what they called in-plant feeding.  He would run the cafeteria at Honeywell and other companies.  I worked for him at the Cafeteria of Coast-to-Coast.

He knew a couple that lived in Minneapolis who were from Jackson, Mississippi, and he set it up so I would be able to live with them.  She worked for Honeywell and he worked for the VA. They didn’t have any children. They called me their daughter. They lived on 42nd and 5th Ave S. This part of South Minneapolis was already integrated in the 1950s with a few Black families.  Oscar Howard lived on 5th avenue and 41st and his company was on 38th.   I went to the St. Peters AME Church  on 41st Street until I met Julius.   St. Peters is still there. When I get so I can’t drive over to North Minneapolis maybe I’ll go back there.

I was brought up in the Methodist Church in Mississippi.  After I met Julius we went together to the Zion Baptist Church on Olsen Memorial Highway.  It was strange for me. I told my mom about the services there, how the preacher was running from  one end of the church to the other, screaming and hollering.  In the Methodist church the preacher gave a speech and the people sat and listened.

The Zion Baptist Church became our community. We went there together until there was a split. I followed the side that formed Fellowship Baptist — and Julius stayed with Zion. Both Churches still exist on the North side.   We continued to go to different churches until our grandchild started going to church with me. He told his grandpa he was going with grandma. That’s when we decided we needed to all be together.  Now Julius can’t go to church. He listens to Zion on the radio on Sunday morning. Fellowship are the ones who come and give him communion.

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I kind of fell in love with the food service business. Especially the baking part — cakes and cookies, though I didn’t like making pie crusts. The work in the cafeterias was hard. Hours were early. I got up at 3:30 to get to work, to make sure people had their coffee when they arrived at 5.  When it snowed I’d have to leave even earlier. At least there is no traffic at that time in the morning.

My last job was Lunds and Byerly’s. I made 41 salads. We’d prepare them in the afternoon so they’d be ready to platter up the next morning. Most people liked the turkey salad with the almonds in it and the wild rice salads. I stopped working when I was 78. Nobody wanted me to retire, but it was time. The retirement benefits is good. It was a union job. United Food and Commercial Workers.

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Note: The first time we talked, I asked Effie if she told people she was from Minnesota or Mississippi.   She hesitated, then said “Well, I guess I say Minnesota — been here all my adult life — but not like my children, who were born here.” I asked if she’d ever thought of moving back to Mississippi and she said No. Instead she tried to recruit sisters to come up and live in Minneapolis, telling them “there’s no place like it.” 

The second time we talked, after hearing her descriptions of her grandma’s farm in Mississippi, I asked if she was a country girl of a city girl. This time she did not hesitate:

No, No, No, not a city girl. Country girl, definitely.  And a southerner. When we have visitors from the south at the church, I’m so eager to meet them. One man came to visit from De Kalb. My dad was his  teacher! He said ‘He was a mean old teacher too.’ On KMOJ radio the other day, someone came into the station who was visiting from Philadelphia, Mississippi. I wanted to drive over to the station and meet the guy, to see if we knew anyone in common, but he was probably too young.  Maybe I knew his parents.

I miss foods from Mississippi. In the garden we had string beans, butterbeans (lima beans) collard greens, turnip greens. When you plant turnip greens you have the root. We fried the greens and root in salt pork with some corn bread.  Now, that is really good.

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Effie and Julius Lee. 50th Wedding Anniversary photo

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Crossing Minneapolis’ Internal Borders; Using Art to Build Equality, Diversity. Tammy Ortegon, 46.

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I remember hearing that we were a City of Lakes. I never saw the lakes until I was 16-17 years old and getting around on my own. When you live in Northeast or North Minneapolis and you don’t drive, you have to go pretty far to get to a lake.
My Dad’s grandparents came from Poland and settled in the Polish/ Ukranian section of Nordeast — Mayslacks Bar, church ladies selling pierogies on the corner, beautiful ethnic churches — yep, a neighborhood of bars and churches.

My grandmother on my mom’s side always said she was Eastern European – Hungarian, Bohemian, Czech. When they came to Minneapolis they lived in the Bohemian flats over in southeast. My Aunt told me later that we were actually Roma (Gypsy.) They tried to hide it back then because of discrimination. Still today, there is not much understanding of that culture.

When I was a kid, Northeast was Minneapolis to me. My parents didn’t drive. Many people I knew didn’t have cars. It was a big deal to go anywhere outside of the neighborhood. We walked to Applebaums and Sentyrz for groceries. Sentyrz is still there.

The butcher and the cobbler that were there when my parents were young, were mostly gone by my time. I didn’t know anything about the history of the factory era of Noreast when I was growing up. They had all closed down, the work outsourced. We were surrounded by empty factories. Kids would play in them. They took the jobs, left the people and the buildings. It created a general sadness. On top of that were the stereotypes developing, that unemployed people were lazy.

My parents and grandparents didn’t graduate high school. They had street smarts, very intelligent people, but without the schooling.

Northeast was diverse in terms of Europeans but it was all white. I was exposed to other cultures in school because of bussing. I am very thankful for that. They bussed poor kids of color over to poor white areas. I don’t think there was that much bussing in south Minneapolis. My mom complained in kindergarten when they wanted to bus me to North, when I had a school across the street. She said ‘I don’t have a car. How will I ever get over to the school to visit the teacher?’

She had a point. Kids who got bussed – it made it really hard for their parents to get to school. Then they said – ‘those parents don’t care about their kids.’ Still, I support bussing. If we lived in a perfect world I would be all for neighborhood schools, but as long as we have these inequalities we need bussing.

My grade school was the first Open school and Spanish immersion. It was great for me. It was a destination for children who had just arrived from war in Laos, and Vietnam. I knew nothing about where they had come from. (Today its Somali refugees. People don’t understand the trauma refugees are going through.)

Northeast Junior High did not have the same kind of stability as my grade school. The teachers were tired. Edison high school was more of the same. There were lots of gangs, drugs, and racial animosity, toward Southeast Asian refugees and Blacks.

As a teenager I hated Northeast Minneapolis. It seemed redneck. Old. Not progressive. 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” taught me about Apartheid in South Africa. I listened to Prince and drew his portrait all the time. Especially his eyes. Today you can find Prince eyes in many of my paintings of people.

I didn’t get involved in social movements until later. I didn’t know I had the power. Black Lives Matter and Idle No More – the way the kids today are walking out of schools …we would never have thought of that. There was no social media. To find out about the world in the 1980s you had to go to a radical bookstore. I finally did that. I walked into Amazon Bookstore when it was in Loring Park. A Feminist bookstore! What’s a feminist? I didn’t know, but I did feel at home there.

My parents didn’t understand any of this. They never voted. I don’t think they even knew where or how to. If they had voted they would have been social democrats — but they just didn’t know. I moved out of my parents house at 17 because I was rebelling. I was new wave. My mother and grandmother were artists, but they never knew they could actually call themselves that.

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.

I thought I was in love; got pregnant. The father left. My parents said I wasn’t going to make it so I had to show them I could. I got three jobs. I realized the apartment I was living in wasn’t safe for a baby so I moved up to 14th and Nicollet. With a baby, my goals and dreams were put on hold, but having a baby gave me new dreams. I wanted to finish high school, get my cosmetology license. Support my child. I got on AFDC.

Welfare is not free.

Most people who talk about food stamps being a handout, would never be willing to wait in those lines and take that kind of abuse. I know there are people who work in welfare offices who mean well. They get tired and they don’t have the resources they need to help people, and after a while you’re just a number to them. It was even worse when my grandmother was on AFDC in the 1950s. The social service officers would come to her house and look in her drawers to make sure her clothes were folded right..

I learned about that later. At 18 I didn’t really know anything about welfare. Somebody told me to go down to social services. I was treated like a criminal, but I also saw how women of color were treated even worse. Dehumanizing.

We got $437 a month for a mother with a baby. It’s the same amount today! Not enough to live on then… My rent was $375. Mothers get on welfare because it pays for health care. I could make more working, but I needed healthcare for the birth and afterward. I really believe if we all had universal health care, affordable housing and day care, no one would want welfare.

You have to break the rules to survive. Its part of the system. They are always checking on you to make sure you are not working because they know you can’t make it on what they give you. So they would call me and say . “You have $20 in your bank account. How did you get that? Your mother loaned it to you? We need a document signed by your mother and a notary saying that she loaned you that money. If she gave it to you, we are going to have to take it our of your check next month.”

I’ve always been a very honest person. I had to learn to lie. They call people on welfare con-artists. Actually we were just good business people. You learn that if you sell $20 worth of food stamps for $10, go to the food shelf to get food, then you can go to the corner store to get diapers. I was an artist, so my “con” was to find a shelf in the dumpster, paint it up and sell it. That kind of stuff. I’m still doing that.

You can’t be lazy and be on welfare, but you can get depressed. You can get disillusioned. You can get so sad, you just can’t get up anymore.

All these people were marching for us to keep our babies, but they when we have the babies they treated us like we were the scum of the earth. I remember taking out my food stamps at the grocery store and a woman behind me saying. ‘My taxes are paying for that.” I didn’t understand what she meant. I never had enough money to think about taxes. Now I know it’s the corporations and the military that steal our tax money with their giant subsidies. Food stamps cost taxpayers about $3 a year. And its food! Something good.

I moved into an apartment building with other single mothers – subsidized housing. The rent was $150 instead of $300. All the other women were in the same situation. We supported each other, but we also got depressed, because we didn’t see anybody getting out of this hole we were in.

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 jumped into a car on Nicollet Avenue. It gave us all a bitter taste in our mouths.

We were preyed on by abusive men. Poor men pimped, and offered us drugs. Rich men came in their fancy cars. Vultures. The police knew the pimps by name. They left them and the customers alone and went for the women. The women would go to prison, lose their kids. The pimps were protected. At night, from my kitchen window I would see people who were homeless, getting harassed by the police.

When I met my husband Eduardo, and I had to get out of subsidized housing. They didn’t want you to have a partner. We found a house to rent on 48th and Nicollet. A really fancy neighborhood. I had another baby. My older son went to Ramsey for kindergarten. I started doing hair at Great Clips.

Once my kids started going to school in southwest, I was shocked at the resources the schools had, compared to the Northeast. The hardest thing was that the other parents were completely unaware. They complained about not having enough. I learned that when you are experiencing privilege you can’t see it. And no matter how much you have, you always see those who have more. If you don’t drive you want a car. if you get a car you want a better one…

We eventually bought a house on 38th and Stevens. I was cutting hair at an independent shop then, working with an African American woman who was very talented and popular with customers. We were both looking for a way to open our own shops. She kept calling places and they would say, “It was just rented.” She began to wonder and asked me to call. I called and they said the place was available.

Color Wheel Gallery 

I opened up a shop called the ColorWheel on 46th and Grand where I cut hair and sell my art. It is an unusual combination, but most art studios sell something else to survive. Hair is a trade. In February nobody is buying art but they do want their hair cut. I use my art to open people’s eyes. I don’t feel bad for anything I went through, it gives me material.

I love public art and the impact it has. It is a labor of love. One summer I did two murals with kids in Corcoran Neighborhood and Kingfield. In both places the kids were kids. Wonderful. But the difference between the neighborhoods stayed with me. In Kingfield, the parents would drop the kids off, supply them with snacks, make sure they had sunscreen, bring me coffee. They were pampered and so was I. It was easier.

In Corcoran the kids were brilliant, but sometimes they wouldn’t show up. I’d call and the phone would be disconnected. I’d visit their apartment and situations would not be safe. When the kids did come they’d be hungry and I have to find them food. The parents didn’t have the time or resources to monitor us, or help the project. A young girl who was 16, who was selling her body on the street, came over and painted with us one day

I worked with the Corcoran kids ahead of time to decide what they wanted to paint. They chose all the public entities in their lives: parks, the neighborhood association, the light rail, Anishinabe Academy, and kids jumping rope and playing basketball.
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These two murals are two miles from each other. Different worlds.

I’m always thinking about how to support local independent businesses like mine and how to fight gentrification. I’ve watched my old neighborhood of Northeast and my new neighborhood on 38th street south, go through swift changes recently.

I never imagined 38th street would get so fancy. I’m not against cleaning things up, flowers, public art, but why can’t we bring it up for everyone, instead of pricing people out of their neighborhoods. Now I hear people say “ Finally I can feel safe on 38th street.” Well, they never went there before. They say “It used to be a bad neighborhood.”  It was never a bad neighborhood. They say, “We are taking the city back.” From whom? That’s like Trump saying we are going to take our country back.

In Northeast they have all these new microbreweries and pedal pubs. Suburban kids come in for the evening, get drunk and throw up on my Aunt’s lawn. And then she gets complaints from the new condo across the street about her grass being too long!

Lake Street is a good example of how a neighborhood can revitalize without gentrifying. After 9/11 I teamed up with photographer Dawn Vogel, for an art show we called Building Bridges. We did it at the Midtown YWCA on Lake street just after it opened. People were saying we were all coming together, but I didn’t see that. I saw the racism, xenophobia growing. Our goal was to fight that. We focused on Lake Street and on Minnesota’s four largest immigrant communities at the time: Somali, Hmong, Mexican and Russian. I created a painting of Lake Street for the exhibit — a vision of the Minneapolis I wanted, showing how newcomers were revitalizing the area, replacing porn shops and massage parlors with stores catering to immigrant communities.

Part of what I paint exists, part of it is where I want us to go. I usually paint in the winter. My Minneapolis paintings are warm and green. They do not have any snow.

Minneapolis Project. 

Bianca Zick, Southwest Minneapolis. Finding Her People by Showing Up For Racial Justice. SURJ!

 

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Grandpa was not able to keep a steady job. We believe he suffered from depression. The family lived on what grandma made on working-class female jobs in rural Wisconsin. School was easy for their son and he goofed off. His vision of his future was working-class until a high school teacher told him he was real smart and should pursue college. He listened. Being a White working class man in the mid 20th century, there were opportunities to move up. He went to College at Stevens Point and put himself through Law school working three jobs.

I knew Dad as a workaholic with little time for us. Making a good living was his focus, but he did not spend the money. We lived in this working/low middle class world with middle-class security and the knowledge that we were heading to college.

My parents divorced in 1973 when I was eight, the year my mother found her strong feminist voice. she made it clear there was no question me and my two sisters would have careers doing whatever we wanted.

I went off to college in Madison, Wisconsin, absolutely committed to NOT becoming a lawyer. But then I got a job working as an advocate through the Dane County Big Brothers Big Sisters program. I noticed the limits of what I could do to help women impoverished by divorce and uncollected child support. I decided to go to law school to learn how to help them. My first summer of Law school I worked at the Legal Aid Society, helping people obtain disability benefits., I also participated in a law clinic for prisoners.

It felt like important work. What I didn’t realize at the time is that when i graduated I would interview and compete for a handful of coveted Legal Aid jobs. Private firms made me offers even before I graduated. I went for the financial security of the downtown Minneapolis law firm offer.

We moved to Minneapolis in 1990, bought a house on 52nd and Logan. It was a White middle class neighborhood when we moved in. Now it’s an upper middle and upper class White neighborhood. Housing prices have quadrupled. New neighbors are young people, beginning adult life much wealthier than those who moved in 25 years ago. It’s the new Edina.

I would like to downsize and move to a diverse neighborhood. I don’t know how to do that without being a gentrifier.

In the early years, my husband and I traded off having the “big job,” providing the family with financial stability. We built a retirement fund, a college fund for our two children, security, health insurance. Trapped in the capitalist game. In those years I would tell myself, at least there are gender issues I am advancing here at the law firm. The world we were in gave us financial security, but I felt socially alienated in that world. I knew these were not my people.

When Ferguson happened the Black Lives Matter Movement called to me. It wasn’t so much that my consciousness was raised but more that now I knew I needed to act.

I grew up with a feminist mom. My two sisters are both lesbians. I was aware that the world was not fair. I was born with birth defects and had a series of surgeries in Milwaukee that exposed me to racial diversity and racial disparities I would never have known about from my experience in Waukesha.

A turning point in my education about white supremacy came when one of my law professors did a survey. There were probably 50 White students and five Black male students in the class. He asked everyone to stand and then went through a series of questions having to do with criminal injustice. ‘Stay standing if you have you ever been stopped by the police for x.’ At the end the only people standing were the five Black students. One had just been pulled over on his way to class.

So I was not unaware when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson Missouri, but afterward 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 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) Now I had a place and way to act.

It was hard at first to figure out how to be involved as a White person. I began going to the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis (Unitarian) because they were doing the work. I also went to a Minneapolis meeting of Showing Up For Racial Justice. An amazing group of local leaders had created SURJ as a place for White allies to join together and support racial justice work.

As a White person, I am still trying to figure out my role in supporting Black Lives Matter and other groups led by People of Color. I want to support and raise up the work that is being done. It is about being respectful and being centered in our interconnectedness. Sometimes I am cautious. At the same time, I know we (White people) need to be willing to make mistakes. I am so sick of us being afraid for ourselves, negating the violence and racism People of Color face every day. I am practicing shutting off my White “I need to know all the details” mind. I want to just show up in full spirit and follow the leadership of Black Lives Matter.

I used to always go to social justice events by myself. I noticed other White women doing the same thing. Now through church and SURJ I have others to go with, or I know I will meet someone I know. I have found my people.

When my daughter Zoe was in high school. She was my political buddy. She is a racial justice activist and my mentor in this work. When I see the young people leading Black Lives Matter and the young activists in the field, I am filled with hope.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Minneapolis Project Explained (Updated)

 

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Minneapolis Interview Project

Motivation:

My motivations are complex. These factors are all part of the reason I am doing this:

  • I lived in thirteen different places in four states by the time I was twelve.
  • As a child the story of my Dad’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany came with a lesson: nationalism is bigotry. Love humanity and principles, not places.
  • After my trip around the perimeter of the United States on a bicycle in 2011-12 (story told in my forth-coming book Turtle Road) I concluded that attachment to place (even places we hate) might be innate for humans.

All of these factors made me want to interrogate the place I have called home since I arrived here, on my own, at the age of seventeen.

  • My motivation in May of 2016 when I began,— was to crawl out of my introverted shell and get out there and talk to people. It was in part a response to the passing of Kirk Washington Jr. in April of 2016, a former student, who I had plans to meet for coffee the week he died. There are so many questions I wanted to ask him. Kirk embodied the philosophy of building social justice through personal connections. His interactions were always on the profound level.  May 28 is my birthday. The project was a resolution to stop  missing chances to connect.

Parameters:

  • 100 interviews, beginning on May 28, 2016. (# could change.)
  • Interviewees have lived and/or worked in Minneapolis.
  • By interviewing people of different ages, races, genders, economic classes, migration experiences, who live in different parts of this city, I hope to see as much of the elephant that is Minneapolis as possible. There is, however, no science to who I interview. People who are willing and who I know or know of, is not a scientific sample. that is not a goal.
  • As of October 2017 I interviewed ten people who  decided not to allow me to publish their stories. My head is full of their stories as well.

Things  I am interested as I approach the project:

  • How do places define us?
  • How we build communities that celebrate place and culture without building walls/ gates?
  • How we create borders for corporations and developers and tear down walls and regulations for working people. On the national level we combat a free trade economy. On a local level, gentrification is basically the same process.
  • How do we combat bigotry couched in nationalism or local pride?
  • Can we love local places and enjoy their evolution as newcomers arrive?
  • What does a focus on place tell us about how to advance social justice?

Letting people tell the stories they need to tell is more important than my larger interests. I do little intervening during the interview, as most people have no problem talking about their lives once they get going. Still there is clearly some of me in the totality of these interviews.

Methods

  • I use a tape recorder and a computer.
  • I  create an essay based  on the interviewees own words, rearranged to tell full stories, with occasional words changes for clarification. It is not a transcript. 
  • Interviewees may edit the final version before publication.
  • I am sensitive to telling  the story of the interviewee. If the stories of others are told I will most likely curtail them so the focus is on the interviewee.
  • I do not check stories for verification except for known facts like dates, places, and names.For example, the night of the week Martin Luther King was killed, or when an organization started.
  • Each essay is accompanied by at least one photograph.

Final Project
The final finished project is yet undetermined, but will include compiled interviews and an analytical essay. If  you are a publisher and this sounds interesting to you, or if you have any questions about the interviews or suggestions about someone to interview, you can email me at  awmpedalstory@gmail.com

Anne Winkler-Morey

Mustafa Diriye. Colleges, Coffee Shops and a Mosque.

 

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I interviewed Mustafa on June 3, 2016, the same day the news broke that the three young Minneapolis men, Somali Americans, were found guilty by an all White Minneapolis jury, of conspiring to join ISIS. The men were entrapped by a FBI informant and never acted on their plans.

I was in a refugee camp in Utanga in the Mombasa region of Kenya from 1991 to  1995. My sister was in San Jose, California and sponsored us, so that is where we went first. My brother had a teaching degree. He came to Minnesota to see if he could get a job. The rest of us followed him. When he visited Minneapolis he was looking for three things: a Mosque, education opportunities, and coffee shops. He found them in the Twin Cities.

My first impression of Minneapolis? Cold! I had a t-shirt. Thats it. I almost lost my hearing going outside with only a t-shirt. It was November 1996.

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 it like the suburbs moved to the city. Fancy condos and white people.

I worked for American Express Corporation for 14 years in downtown Minneapolis. It was such a strange atmosphere at  lunch time. The downtown  workers were more than 90 percent white. It was very different from other U.S. cities I have visited: Chicago, Philadelphia Nashville. Even San Jose had more Asians and Latinos working downtown. It is strange because the neighborhoods surrounding downtown are mostly people of color, but they don’t have the jobs. It’s like downtown Minneapolis is a private district, and the owners only hire white.

In 2011 I lost my job. I was newly unemployed just as the Occupy movement began. One of my friends was a union activist and he invited me to come down. It was really inspiring. I spent everyday there from early morning to night, but I would not sleep there.  I thought about Tiananmen Square. I was afraid of the police, the FBI especially being Muslim.  

I still communicate with some of the people I met during Occupy. The movement didnt die. People just got involved in other things. I have met some of the same people in Black Lives Matter, Minnesotans Against Islamophobia, and at the 4th precinct Occupation last fall.

Today I work with an education reform organization that focuses on getting parents involved, empowering them to help their kids get the best education. My colleagues are Puerto Rican, Black, and Hmong and we get along really well. The biggest obstacles to Somali parent involvement in the schools are a) working different shifts and several jobs; b) an attitude that if my kid is doing OK I dont care what is happening to anyone else; c) a severe breakdown in trust. The parents dont trust me, or their kids  teachers, or other parents. Part of that is the tribalism we did not leave at home. However the mistrust has grown, due to the  role of the FBI recruiting informants. No one trusts anyone.  Not even our religious leaders — the only ones who can really help us deal with the trauma and the internal divisions. The FBI is sowing distrust in the community.Now, when there is suffering within our families people do no reach out for help. They just endure or get divorced. We have more and more single mothers.

Those young men accused and found guilty of being ISIS sympathizers are in their early 20s. They have experienced a lot of discrimination. The FBI informant was just 19 years old when he was paid $119,000 to set them up, get them high on marijuana, and egg them on.  Now they face life sentences. When Donald Trump talks about beating people up, when he says he could kill someone and not get arrested, well, he is right! It is the double standard that infuriates me. 

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 more than 100 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. We have our own malls and whole neighborhoods dominated by Somalis. We are getting into politics.  

How do we create healthy communities? We need homes people can afford. We need police to come from the communities they serve. We now have three Somali police who came from the neighborhood and crime has gone down to a trickle. I think instead of a two-year certificate, police should go to college four years. One of those years should be spent engaging in community service, not as cops but as social service agents.

I think Bernie Sanders is putting forth the kind of agenda that Minneapolis needs. He has nearly unanimous Muslim support. African American Muslims, Asian Muslims, African Muslims Arab Muslims. We all support the White Jewish guy who is saying something different.  The other candidates are offering more of the same oppression for us. Islamophobia. If the pattern continues we will be like the Jews in Germany in 1940 .

Islamophobia is a daily trauma in my community. It is so normal that many stories are not even told anymore. We have the triple whammy. We are Black. We are Immigrant. We are Muslim. The women get picked on more. People drive by and yell go back to where you came from.Just today I heard from a mother whose daughter is a crossing guard. A kid yelled She is ISIS, run! and all the kids ran away from her. The mom put the story on Facebook and her page was full of threats. These are everyday experiences for us.

Talking like this makes me hopeful. It is this kind of exchange of experiences that we need. But I am always hopeful. If people survived Hitler, humanity will survive.

Minneapolis Project. 

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Julius Lee. Came from Alabama to Escape Jim Crow.

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Julius and Effie Lee have been my neighbors for 23 years. We live in South Minneapolis on a block of stucco houses built in 1932. Going into their home felt familiar — the same little cubbies built into the walls, the same arches between living room and dining room, the same crack in the living room wall. Their cubbies were filled with books. Volumes of stories. A collection of Negro Poetry. Black History. I watched their grandchild take his first steps. Julius loved to walk the baby up and down the block, showing him off. He’s 16 now. They have a large photo of him in their dining room, sporting a mohawk.

He got a bad grade in math and his parents made him shave the mohawk.

Julius says I’ll be 85 if I live to July.  Effie is a few years younger. Effie worked up until recently. She had a stroke in February. Julius is blind now, but he still walks up and down the block most days and I feel lucky when I happen to see him. On Sunday June 5, 2016 he was out in his yard dressed in a suit. Members of Zion Baptist church had just left after conducting a private service and communion for him. I asked him about an interview.  

The next day when we met, he was wearing a sweatshirt with the names of his grandchildren on it, and a Mason’s crown. He gave me the 2016 Spring Bulletin of the Mason’s to educate me. The Black Masons are a Fraternal organization with roots going back to the 18th century. Today chapters engage in school supply drives and Black History programs. The Minnesota chapter just initiated a “Take the Kids Fishing” program and a “Healthy Lives” event that included private HIV/STP screening.

I was born in 1931 in Demopolis, Alabama, the oldest of nine children.

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. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have anything to show for it. They encouraged us to get out of the place, get moving. Most of my siblings went out east. A brother went to Chicago.

I was drafted into the military out of high school. Served in the Korean War. I fought for my country and put my life on the line. Afterward I said I’m going to get my freedom one way or another. It wasn’t right being treated like that – being an American citizen — I couldn’t live with those (Jim Crow) conditions.

I went to Tuskegee. Afterward I was offered jobs in Miami, Washington D.C, Detroit and Chicago. I didn’t want nothing to do with those places. I didn’t want Chicago. Shoot-me-up, drug-me-up, too much violence, too much poverty, too much suffering. People stacked on top of each other. Not for me.

I wanted go farther North. They said ‘How far North?’ I said ‘As far as I could go.’ They said ‘How about Minnesota?’ I said ‘I’ll take a shot at that’. They said, ‘Well you know, not many Blacks live up there’. I said ‘I’m not looking for Blacks, I’m looking for equal opportunity.’ I wanted my children to live in a better environment. I wanted the best education they could get.

There was a man who graduated Tuskegee before me and had set up his own catering company in Minnesota. He was looking for Tuskegee graduates to work for him.

When I came to Minneapolis I lived in the YMC downtown. The old building, you know? They had place for single men to live. Kept it nice and clean. Economical. It was like a dormitory, had a nice restaurant and coffee shop. That is where I stayed until I became engaged and married.

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 . My boss stopped to throw me up a lunch. I saw her in the car and I almost jumped off the building. My boss said, ‘Man, don’t jump off that roof! Man, you might hurt yourself! You’ll get to meet the young lady.’

Julius laughed. In that laugh you could hear the young Julius, seeing the lady of his dreams.

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Minneapolis Project. 

 

“Don’t Suppress My Voice.” Local/ Global Citizen, Adriana Cerrillo

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I conducted this interview with Adriana Cerrillo on May 31st, one week after the Minnesota Legislature finished their 2016 session. The lawmakers had failed, once again, to pass a bill allowing driver licenses for undocumented immigrants — an issue that Adriana has been organizing and lobbying for since 2015. This, and so many other things, were on her mind, as we sat down to talk. She asked for strong coffee with cream and sugar and I obliged. Aided by caffeine, her normally agile brain and tongue raced. I tried to keep up. 

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When I introduce myself at political meetings I say: I was born and raised in Mexico, lived in Florida 20 years. I have been in Minneapolis three years. I am in love with this city, but I would be a trouble maker for social justice anywhere. I don’t believe in borders, I don’t believe in countries, I don’t believe in flags that separate us as humans.

I came to Minneapolis to visit for the first time on April 18, 2013. It was snowing. My first snow! It was beautiful. We went to visit my partner’s family in Shakopee. We visited the German American Catholic church his family had been attending for decades.

I was amazed. Out of the church came all these Brown people!  The demographic shift from White to Brown felt like a  sign that it was the right time to move to Minnesota.

In Minneapolis, I took a walk in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was a women with a tan hijab and long skirt. She smiled at me. She was so beautiful. Her face stayed with me all these years. She seemed so comfortable in her surroundings. In comparison to Palmetto, Florida, Minneapolis seemed like a welcoming place for a woman of Color.

We moved here a couple months later, into the Loring Park neighborhood. The park, with its fountain, pond, and walkways was so beautiful. I also loved my view of downtown – a mini city. I loved that the area was economically and racially diverse. You see Mercedes’ and penthouses alongside low-income apartments. A good number of people are homeless. The Basilica in downtown Minneapolis is within hearing distance of my home. When I hear their bells playing, I think of my grandmother’s town in San Luis Potosi where my mother grew up.

I live blocks from Nicollet Avenue in downtown and I walk it all the time. I noticed there is a Black side and a White side of the street. I walk with my brothers and sisters on the Black side. I am not comfortable in neighborhoods that are predominantly White because I have been discriminated and hurt by many.  

We need more affordable housing in Minneapolis so we can preserve and grow racially diverse neighborhoods.

I first became involved in police accountability after talking to Latinos at the Church in Carver and hearing their stories about a racist cop who targeted Brown people. I helped organize a group to testify at a city council meeting and met with the Chief of Police of Chaska. We filled all the seats with Brown people facing the White city council. We got the cop suspended and after a long investigation, he was terminated! It was this experience that led me to join the Minneapolis Police Oversight Commission.

Getting Brown and Black people to work together is central to me. I began doing that kind of work in Florida, and won an award for it from the NAACP there. I joined the NAACP in Minneapolis a few months ago. I am pushing MIRAC,— (Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee) — and the NAACP to  jointly lobby at the Capital to agitate for voter’s rights for former felons and drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.  We need to have laws that give people of color a better chance to get out of the shadows.

How did I become a trouble maker? I think it comes from being an undocumented student in Texas in the 1980s, before DACA, before DAPA, before there was a movement of youth  declaring themselves “Undocumented and Unafraid.” * I was fifteen when we moved to Brownsville,Texas, from Reynosa, a border town in Tamaulipas. It was my mothers choice. I did not want to leave. I felt very alone in my struggle. I was determined to make sure my daughters — and all youth of color — would not have to deal with the indignities I experienced.

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.”

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 moved from Texas to Palmetto, Florida, where my best friend lived and had my second daughter Stephanie four years later. My daughters have been my biggest motivation to fight and work for social justice.

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In Florida, I helped to start a non-profit UnidosNow and I joined other trouble makers”organizing in a coalition for immigrant rights. Florida has very few non-profits, so resources were slim. Churches were essential sources of space and funds. It is so different here in Minneapolis — the land of 10,000 nonprofits. In Florida it was easier to get people to work together as they were not all competing for the same pot of money.

I’m not religious in the formal sense, but a big believer in recognizing the people and events in your life that can enlighten you. I look for signs that I’m moving in the right direction. In Florida there was a moment when a vision came to me that changed the way I organize.

We were in an evangelical church talking to the congregation — a Now 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!” It was a pivotal moment in my life. Now I do this every time I do a presentation in which there are youth present. I tell the Moms and Dads, if you don’t tell your children they are going to succeed and lead, no one will, because the system is set against them.

Youth are my personal check against ego, reminding me this is not about me. I am working with Latino kids with LYDC at the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. I’m teaching them “American Basic Civics, ” a program I helped create in Florida. I am introducing youth to the political process and teaching them to assert their voices. If we are going to be fighting for social justice we have to have a clear vision of our future. This is about our kids; the future leaders of our communities and the world.

Adriana confronts “Minnesota Nice” with uncompromising directness. She has learned that her appearance — a petite, beautiful, brown woman who speaks perfect English with a lilting accent— leads people to believe they have nothing to fear from her presence. Legislators who oppose the bills she supports, police who engage in racist behavior and activists who want to take the less confrontational road, know she is capable of a piercing critique. She is a woman of uncommon courage, willing to speak truth to power. She is also one of the most optimistic people I know.

I can feel something big and good coming.  A time for healing.  A time for true reconciliation!!!

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*DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is Obama’s executive decree giving young adults brought to this country without documents by their parents, two-year, renewable green cards. DACA can be rescinded by the next president. DAPA is a similar temporary program for the undocumented parents of  resident children.

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Poem that so inspired Adriana, she had the last lines tattoed.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

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