Raymond Dehn: Critical Resistance, Architecture, and State Electoral Politics.

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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.

Minneapolis Project. 

Jimmy Patiño Jr. Adopting an Insider/Outsider strategy to build Chicano/Latino Studies.

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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.

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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.

Minneapolis Project. 

Labor activist in Minneapolis recalls her 40 years of struggle.

FullSizeRender (1)I interviewed this Minneapolis union activist on July 2, 2016.  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.

Minneapolis Project. 

 

Roya Damsaz: From Iranian Revolution to Cooperative Politics on Mpls.’ Northside.

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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!

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. 

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Kiya Shafer. Growing Up in Foster care, Ferguson, Shape her Career Plans.

 

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I can’t imagine growing up NOT in foster care. I feel like I have many families. I am able to find comfort wherever I am. I think that is a gift. I lived in three foster families. Two of the families were related. My families were white. Try as they might, they were unable to teach me things they did not know — like how to do my hair.
Until I was 14 I lived in the cities. I went to Jackson elementary, preparatory magnet school in St Paul. The students were primary Hmong, African American and White. I was always active in sports, dance classes, and especially community theater. I did Odyssey of the Mind at the Walker, and Black Nativity. I loved it.
At fourteen I moved to Inver Grove Heights to live with my final foster family. The teachers there struggled with my name — Shakiya. So I became Kiya. Prior to that no one ever called me Kiya.
In the Cities people had always told me what a great actress I was. In the suburbs I felt like I didn’t have a chance. There you paid to be a part of theater. It was elitist. Being one of the only kids of color I was type cast — given the sassy Black girl role. It made me uncomfortable. I am sassy, but not in that way. By senior year I decided to stop auditioning. I did make-up instead. If you don’t compete you can’t lose.
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.’
I got my first restaurant job at 16. As soon as I turned 18 I came back to St Paul. I decided to go beauty school. Aveda Institute off Central Avenue. They had one section for ‘highly textured hair’ and they would send all the African American women and others perceived to have highly textured hair to one section of the building so that all the students could have experience with our hair. As a result, even though I have a beauty degree I still don’t know how to take care of my own hair. It is embarrassing.
When you graduate from beauty school you don’t know anything — how to hold a pair of shears — that’s about it. I got a job at Body Works in Woodbury. It was more of a massage parlor. I was the only one doing hair. I lucked out in that people were happy with what I did. But business slowed. I was getting about one client a day. So I quit and went to work at Trade Secret at the Mall of America. I thought it would be great!
People don’t come to the Mall for a hair cut. If they get one they won’t be back. Especially those people who come from out of town. You never build up a clientele. They showed me a chair, a row of coloring products, and said “Good Luck!” I had some blunders there. One person who had black hair and wanted blond. I told her it was going to turn orange, but she made me do it, told me to keep that peroxide in. The customer is always right you know. It was blond, all right, but it was also a little burned. I hope she’s OK.
I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough. I wasn’t making money. So I went back to waiting tables.
At 22 I had a crisis. I had just gotten out of a really bad relationship. We were living together and I decided to let him keep the apartment. I didn’t know where to go. No job, no home. I went on Craig’s List to look for apartments, jobs and came across an ad for a nanny for two little girls. I thought ‘I have nine siblings— I know how to babysit.’
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 a lot of time to think. I was working for a single mother who worked two jobs. I took the kids to pre K screenings, dental appointments, soccer games. I became like a soccer mom.
The woman I worked for was inspiring. She worked in construction and wanted to become a foreman. She was all about encouraging me to be strong as a women because people always told her she couldn’t. After a year and a half, even though she still really needed me, she said ‘What are you doing here?’
I said ‘I’m taking care of you and your family.’
“No, I mean, what have you always wanted to be? Think of something that has affected your whole life, the one thing that you can’t imagine your life being without.’
Well the answer to that was simple. Foster care. While it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, if it weren’t for foster care my life would have been very different… I still didn’t know what that meant in terms of a career. I enrolled at St. Paul College and let myself explore. I thought for a while I would be a nurse. Until I got into some of my courses and I realized I’d have to clean up poop and deal with needles.
I took a family policy class. I really liked the content. It focused on issues facing single mothers. I wanted to do something to change the cycle of teen pregnancy and the system that does not support single mothers. I thought ‘this is a no brainer — I need to be a social worker.’ After that classes became easier.
I transferred to Metro State. 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 they were talking about me.
I went through a series of emotions. Feeling helpless, then angry, then feeling like I have to do something. I realized the same things were happening in the Twin Cities — like that individual who got rounded up in the skyway for sitting. I could no longer ignore it. I could no longer avoid it.
I decided to take as much course work; to get as close to policy as I could. I am now a graduate student in social work at the U of M. I want to work with/for children but I also want to change racist policies. I could go either way.
How will I be working for family rights?
I’ll be working for paid maternity leave, family leave. Right now I work full time and go to school full time and so does my partner. We never see each other. What if we threw children into that mix? Good Luck!
How will I work for racial equity?
First of all, I won’t have to go anywhere to do it. Minneapolis has the second greatest racial disparities in jobs and education in the nation. What to do? Honestly I’m not sure. I need to be more comfortable saying I just don’t know. There are so many interwoven issues. I don’t think there is a quick solution, but I think we need to do something! I don’t want people to feel like they got the job to fulfill a quota, but businesses must open up. On some level I’d also just be thankful to have a job.
It is difficult to be the only one. I know! As a worker who is the only person of color you feel like an outsider in the place where you have to go to make money. How is that fulfilling in anyway? How can you develop your full capacity in that situation? At the U of M, the students are mostly middle and upper class,and there are few students of color. I feel like a visitor in the place where I go to school.
I will be working at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education this summer, writing a report on all the programs put in place for low income students and documenting their outcomes. Most of these programs work — they are just not reaching very many students. I don’t know why we don’t implement them school-wide instead of having them as after-school programs for a few kids…
I was a vista volunteer at Pillsbury Elementary in Northeast, tutoring third grade Somali students who were English Language Learners. It was summer school so these kids were from different schools. My teacher was having a personal crisis so she left me alone. We had a rigid set of exercises geared toward the tests I was supposed to implement, but I was largely unsupervised. After week three, I decided to do my own thing. Every day at circle time I would have them draw a picture, label it in their language and then in English. They made a book out of all of the pictures and took them home at the end. The students loved it. I would do that again in a heart beat, but I’m not sure I could exist in the realm of public school. I am not a rigid format person.
Do I think of myself living in Minneapolis for the rest of my life? Like I said, I can find home anywhere, but I have always felt as though I belonged somewhere else. The way I approach life and social interactions. I am direct. I don’t have time for passive/ aggressive behavior. So when I think about living somewhere it is the people that make me want to go. And I hate winter.
But then I have a group of close friends I couldn’t imagine leaving. I am thankful for the amenities we have here — theaters, lakes, green spaces. We are starting to get more traffic, but nothing like the West or East coast. I was in LA two weeks ago. We planned to go to a park but never made it. Too much traffic. Here you could take your bike and be there in half an hour. I like being able to afford a house, a backyard. Here I can have experiences and be able to afford them.
There is a rivalry between Minneapolis and St Paul. I always argued that St Paul is better. But about three years ago we had some friends come visit and they said ‘maybe we should check out St Paul’ and I said ‘Oh No, You don’t need to check out St. Paul. We have it all here at home.’
That was the moment I declared Minneapolis home.

I interviewed Kiya on July 3. She gave me the green light to publish on July 10. In between those two days the world witnessed the brutal killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. A lone gunman killed five policemen in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest. People all over the world took to the streets to protest police violence in the United States. The world followed what was happening in the Twin Cities.

Kiya participated in the Governor’s Mansion occupation in St Paul and wrote this on facebook:

There are no words that truly capture the emotions that have been stirring inside me in regards to these recent shootings of legally armed /cooperative African American men.
I feel sad, confused, angry, scared and afraid.
I feel sad because there’s a family who woke up this morning and will have to live forever without their father, husband, brother, uncle, cousin, friend… etc and it didn’t have to be that way; someone else got to determine when that life was going to end and one of the determining factors was likely the color of the man’s skin.
I’m confused about why this is still a problem and why some people refuse to believe the problem exists at all.
I’m angry because I don’t have a solution much different than the ones my community has already suggested and still have not gotten.
I feel scared because I don’t know how to stop these shootings. I feel scared because I will be out there marching and doing whatever I can to solve the issue…. but I fear it’s not enough…. I am not enough.
Lastly, I’m scared to admit that I’m afraid it could be me next and someone’s first reaction will be to ask: what did she do to deserve it?
#blacklivesmatter

Minneapolis Project. 

Guy Terrill Gambil, Age 56. Lurking With Intent to Seek Justice.

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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.

I have always been critical of homeless surveys. Most of the people who do the Minnesota surveys live in Edina ,St Louis Park and Uptown. There are exceptions, but the majority… they go out one day a year and try to survey homeless people. If you are an undocumented resident and not an English speaker and someone approaches you with a clipboard and wants to ask you questions what do you think the response is going to be ? Or if you’re a homeless veteran with PTSD and you have a drug problem, are you going to sit there and take the survey? There’s no incentive. When I was homeless I was never contacted by anyone. My point is that the people who do the surveying don’t understand the problem from the experiential side. They don’t know where to look for people and when they do find them they don’t know how to talk to them, so I always thought their results were off.

When I moved back to Minneapolis in the mid 1990s, I joined others in putting together an informal group we called the Decriminalization of Homelessness Taskforce. From 1999-2007 we targeted six ordinances and a state statute — all tools used by law enforcement in Minneapolis to criminalize homelessness: public dancing, lurking, loitering, pan handling, disorderly conduct and the state vagrancy law.

In the late 1990s Minneapolis city council was concerned about people squatting in abandoned buildings. They were afraid someone would die and they’d liable. Decriminalization of homelessness was not their agenda. To get their attention we recruited third year law students to research the ordinances and build fail-safe cases against them.

First we redid the pan-handling statute so it was no longer illegal to put out a hat or stand on the side of the road with a sign.—Only aggressively approaching people to solicit was illegal.

Second, we got rid of the public dancing ordinance, passed in 1968 to break up hippy gatherings on the West Bank.

Our third campaign was to eliminate the state vagrancy law. We worked with Keith Ellison — then a state rep, and Jane Ranum, then a state senator. I did the research and discovered the law was used as a catch-all category for anyone the cops put away without charge – like a guy sleeping on a bench. Entries for vagrancy were written up at the end of the year or whenever it was time to do the accounting for the FBI ’s Uniform Crime Report. We got that repealed in 2004 I believe.

Then we went after the Lurking Ordinance. It took until last year to get rid of it. There was an article in the City Pages about our campaign. They interviewed me, the Chief of Police, and City councilwoman Barb Johnson who was quoted as saying: ‘I wouldn’t want to throw out a useful tool’.  The Lurking Law read: ‘A person can not lie, hide, or stand in wait with the intent to commit a crime.’ …. I was like – ‘You can tell by looking at a person that they are about to commit a crime? Gee you guys are good…’

Through this work I had become an expert researcher on criminal justice issues. I became a lobbyist for the Council on Crime and Justice. We did a five year study on Racial disparities. Drive alongs with cops, how people fared when they were on probation and parol. Disparities in sentencing, arrests for different crimes.

Through the Council I advocated for homeless veterans. Because I was bilingual I would be contacted when Latinos needed assistance with housing issues. I started getting these calls from people who were losing there homes to sub prime lending. A couple of us sat down with 20-25 people in the same boat. We found out there were these bilingual realtors that were screwing them with interest rates way over 20% and big down payments. Then, because of the way the mortgage was written, after the first year the rates would go up and the families would lose their homes.
We worked with the Resource Center of the Americas on Lake Street, doing forums on how to protect against unscrupulous mortgage companies and to push for a systemic solution. We invited City Council people and tried to pass an ordinance against predatory lending. I was working with Acorn who had successfully passed such legislation in other cities. Natalie Johnson Lee (Democrat endorsed by the Green Party — City councilwoman from North Minneapolis) was an advocate. But Wells Fargo stepped in and said if you back this we are going to back your opponent. That collapsed the campaign. I talked to Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Rybak, others on the City council, my boss at the council on Crime and Justice — none of them wanted to take it on.

And then the bubble burst.

I learned from these experiences that whatever the social justice agenda, they are contained by funders. These financial strings keep organizations from being aggressive and flexible enough to go after systemic problems as they emerge.
Follow the money. People say that like it is trite. But it is direct. The legislators put their donations online so you can look. If a Homeless organization is getting money from a bank it won’t deal with sub prime lending.

People would say to me, ‘Guy think about all the people who have shelter because the Bank is paying for it’ and I would say ‘so fucking what, do you guys not know how to organize?’ The advocacy organizations are about alleviating the pressure just enough so that people don’t rebel. At some point you have to ask yourself is that being affective? My answer is No.

It is the same with veterans issues, and any other social agenda. Look at North Minneapolis – The Empowerment Zone. What was that, 23.7 million dollars? What really happened there? A few people made money, moved out to the suburbs…

Every year HUD moves it goal post around. One year it’s supportive housing, or fixing rental properties. They allocate money to the states and the Coalition for the Homeless gets an allocation and then the fight becomes – what are we going to do with that money? Things like predatory lending, criminal justice, or racial disparities, are ignored.

Homeless advocates making 60,000 a year, are not shifting the ball. Homelessness remains. In 10 years they reduced the number by 700. You could have bought everyone a house on the lake for the amount they are spending to do almost nothing. We have been fixing homelessness since 1968 with the creation of modern HUD under LBJ. At some point we need to ask what are we doing wrong?’
Every year they do Homeless Day on the Hill. It’s always the same. No one who will say anything controversial. It’s all about backing the legislative agenda for the year.

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 have a pass to go into it. They couldn’t believe the building was open to them. It was amazing. And then they institutionalized the fucking thing. The next year they organized a Second Chance Coalition. They hired people for $100,000 a year to promote a legislative agenda. They wrecked it.

I know how it happens. I did it. I was one of those people. They don’t have evil intent. But the money handcuffs them.

If you start something, they will not fire you. They partner with you and then they take your agenda over. Until you complain.

In the Council for Crime and Justice*  we had a legislative meeting every year with the Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyers association, Minnesota Bar Association , County Attorneys – 8 or 9 mostly wealthy white guys sitting in a back room talking about the next legislation session, talking about racial disparities. I made myself persona non grata when I said — ‘We are going to have an event on racial disparities at Metro State with an all-White panel of men who have been running the state,  who are largely responsible for the policies we are trying to fix — and we are gong to ask the community to come in and listen?’

So then they brought in Justice Alan Page, former Minnesota Viking. Now, 50 years ago he lived with injustice, but now he lives in a couple million dollar house in Edina – a little bit removed from the racial disparities people are facing.

Since then they have changed it up, brought in people who’ve lived it, which is really good. But it was a struggle.

You can’t organize a grassroots movement run by people who live in the suburbs. They know how to write reports. What they don’t know how to generate excitement. They don’t talk to people.

There is part of me that will alway consider Minneapolis home. I miss the woods, the lakes, my friends. but I will never go back there. Too much history. Today I live in Albuquerque with my wife and kids. I host a blog on veterans issues, homelessness, mass Institutionalization, and First Nations  and make websites for grassroots groups. I go to the annual George Soros’ Open Society Conference. I was a Soros Fellow from 2010-12. This year I am doing a presentation with a young indigenous woman, an Iraq veteran looking at structural racism, incarceration and Pacific Islanders.
Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] was a Soros Fellow. She gave a presentation that stuck with me. ‘One strategy for us’, she said ‘is to just clog the system. Everyone who comes into district court charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent crime should plead innocent. Clog the courts so the system can’t function anymore…’

I thought — we could do the same thing with homelessness. Refuse that tainted shelter money. Suddenly there would be 5,000 homeless people on the streets. Clog the system. Force a change.

*The Council For Crime and Justice shut down suddenly in May, after 60 years of operation.

Minneapolis Project.