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.
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.
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.