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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake street circa 1955-1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class, race and school in the 1960s.

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

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

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

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

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

Model City (“Urban Renewal”).

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

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

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

Work and growing up early.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only she knew and I know.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

I have begun Life Without Karen.

Minneapolis Project. 

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. Growing up in Phillips Neighborhood; Indigenous Writer; Poet for the City.

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

We are from North Dakota – The Three Affiliated Tribes – NuE’ta, Sahnish, Hidatsa, all within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My ma said she had always wanted to get out of Twin Buttes, North Dakota. She was raised in a dirt floor log cabin. When she first saw Star Trek on a friend’s TV it changed her. To my mom, the whole world outside of her Rez was like the cantina in Star Wars and she wanted to see it.

Minneapolis was exactly what mom wanted. Her brothers were playing in bands and the Indigenous movement was going from protest and activism to working from within the system, joining and creating organizations. She helped start the first Indian clinic in St Paul. When we moved to the Phillips neighborhood she did the same kind of helping out but moved on to the Food and Drug Administration.

My dad had worked at the Red School House, but I went to Bancroft elementary where I was one of four Indians — and two of them were my sisters. I had long hair . Everyday I would fight someone who pulled my hair and called me a girl. That went on until 9th grade. My mom let my sisters transfer to the awesome Indian schools — Red School House, Heart of the Earth Survival School and The Center School.

When I asked to go there my mom and dad said No. My grandma said “If you want to hang out with Indians all day you can stay home with gramma and do the dishes. The world is filled with all kinds of people not just Mandans so it’s important for you to be able to talk to all kinds of people”

The places that I’ve been on the short time that I’ve been on this big old turtle have been pretty amazing and I attribute that to my mom and grandma insisting that I go a little further.

But it was Indian youth leadership groups that helped me to build confidence.

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Golden Eagles Baseball Team. Twin Cities Champs circa 1993

I was always a super shy kid around non-Native people and even when I went to Folwell Junior High there were still only a few more Indians. I was in the Soaring/Golden Eagles youth group and and became involved in the Indigenous Peoples Task Force theater troupe. They helped me get out of my shell.

In high school we moved to Corcoran neighborhood and our first house. I got an internship for the Circle newspaper’s Native youth run and produced paper called New Voices The only other Indians in the neighborhood were our relatives the Yellowbird/St. Johns. My mom became a case worker for Ruben Lindh Family Services and my dad went from every once in a while construction jobs to working full-time for a big old construction management company. My parents wanted us to have something a little bit better. The house wasn’t big enough for all of us but it was ours.

What was also really great about moving was that we were going to be living down the block was my very first non-Indian friend. We were inseparable. Shane Caird– my older sisters called him our Albino brother. With Shaneo drawing and my stories, we even produced our very own single issue comic book, “The Adventures of Super Shane and Mighty Vince”

Then coaches at South came to see me play football for Sibley park and recruited me. I was always deceivingly fast and had lots of what they called “upper body violence”. They said “There are all kinds of Indians in a program called All Nations, and you’re going to love it.” So, — though I lived three blocks from Roosevelt High and I knew Shane would be upset (we only cried once about it) — I went to South. Most diverse school in the city. I met my first Somali friend there. His name was Mohammad Mohammad. I wanted to be Vincent Vincent but then he explained to me who Mohammad was. —

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults. Left me there all day.
My mom and dad — activists from the sixties and seventies —had always told me “If the cops get you don’t say nothin.” So I didn’t. “Luckily”, one of the cops who worked at South saw me and me said “What is he doing here?”

While I was there at the JDC I had a moment. I thought “I don’t want this.”

My parents yelled at me that whole Halloween and then I had to go to Minnehaha Academy. I tested so well I got into The Blake School but my mom said it looked like one of those schools from TV where all the mean white people go, so I went to Minnehaha. I lasted seven weeks. I came home and my parents asked me – how was it? I told them about a math problem they gave us, it was kinda like – “If Jesus had five apples…” They want us to figure out how many apples Jesus would have. I answered “Jesus is magic. He could have as many apples as he wanted.” My dad was not about Jesus at all. I went back to South and put my head down and studied.

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

 

14081460_10153623203465518_839800547_n-1 All Nations Awards Graduation Banquet Dinner, South High School, 1998.

Three of those kids and I went to Golden Eagles. For the most part (my pops was gone some times) we had strong male and female role models in our houses. That is the truth. David Paul Saice, Jr., Jesse James Strong, George Chi-Noodin Spears. I’ve known them for forever and a day. My friends who didn’t make it though South? All but one are still just trying to get right and they will, Indians are slow not lazy and stubborn, but when we set minds to something, doesn’t matter how long it takes, we’ll get it done.

Theater also saved me. When I was in Junior High, Sharon Day started a Native youth theater troupe called the Ogitchidaag Gikinomaagaad Players (Warrior Teacher in her people’s language Anishinaabe), but first came a theater boot camp in Phillips. It was taught by Spider Woman Theater, these New York Indian ladies: sweet but tough. You fooled around you were out. They widdled it down till they had the troupe. The Players. We performed plays for AIDS awareness, drugs and alcohol, and big list of other topics and for the play “My Grandmother’s Love” we performed monologue about our gramma Blanche Benson. At that time — ’92-93 — AIDS was an epidemic on reservations. Sharon got the money to train us and travel to reservations. I’ve been to just about every state traveling by van and airplane with them.

I won the Outstanding Youth Award of the year award for my work with the Ogitchidag Gikinoamaagad Players. Right after high school I went to the short program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto, “perfecting my craft”.
But then I came home to Minneapolis and I got myself in trouble again…

 

I ended up burning every bridge. I was 20. You couldn’t tell me nothin. All these awards, writing, acting — I had a pretty big head. I ended up homeless, living on the streets. If you are 20 and homeless, you WILL have a mental breakdown. I ended up at HCMC and from there Catholic Charities.

2000 to 2002 — starting back from zero.
My mom and dad loved me however their addiction to alcohol and drugs created an environment where we could do whatever we wanted. My sisters as well. Our structure was loose and because just trying to keep the lights on was an adventure unto itself, we suffered and sometimes when I’d come home from a weekend trip with the troupe or even tired from a football game at South and our the lights would be off, but only for a couple days here and there. We were all really smart so we could always fall back on ” Well, I’m doing well in school… ”

By 2002 I was climbing out of it. I got my own studio apartment downtown. I felt like “I DID IT!” I went from just owning a backpack to having a place of my own! I started acting again. I went back to the Children’s Theater. They were doing heavier plays in their Black Box series. They’d take kids like me, trained in their programs or other places, work with and eventually work with the meatier stuff. They were going to do One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest. I said great – what will I play? The director said Nurse Ratchett. I was like, alright , cool! He said “I’m kidding. I want you to play the narrator.”

I met my partner Megan Treinen through Cuckoos’ Nest. One of her friends was one of the orderlies in the cast. He asked me to go out to Burnsville to a bowling alley. I had never gone out to Burnsville. They used to have an Indian head for their high school mascot. I never wanted to go out there. But I went.
And right when I walked in. I thought — holy smacks — that lady is pretty. I told her as much that night. I stole her away from this really awesome African guy named Duke, I never met him, but I’m assuming as much because Megan is awesome. I always tell Megan that when I’m really old I’m going to tell our great grandkids that I stole her from a Zulu warrior, that I fought for the right to ask her out by fighting him in a ring of fire — my tribe against his — lions against coyotes and bears.

She was my white passport. She hates when I say that, but it is true. I moved down to Winona to be with her while she finished her degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies I got a job at the Green Mill and later at The Blue Heron coffee shop. Damn is Winona racist! Even their foundation myth. They invented their own Indian maiden myth and put her on a statue in the middle of town.
Across from the court-house where all the judges and police hang out is the Red Men Club. In it are photos of white men — lawyers, cops, judges, dressed up in feathers holding fake spears. And they have that statue of the Indian slumped over — “End of the Trail” — sculpted by a white guy.

Winona State University asked, “how do we get more Indians here?” I said, “First, you shouldn’t have kicked out the Santee Dakota that are from here. Second, maybe you shouldn’t have this effigy to the dying of my race. I’m standing right here, my brown-skinned self! Indians don’t want to look at that.” Their response was to hire another white sculpture to put some positive Indian imagery around the dying Indian. I said “Good luck with that. This is a very racist town and I’m out of here.”

Because Megan was white, I knew we could move to North Dakota and she would flourish. Her parents — some of the most racist suburban white people I have ever met — didn’t want her to go — said there were drugs there like somehow people weren’t doing any drugs anywhere in Savage, MN. We went, this is just something they do, justify they’re racism I mean. When we first started dating, she had her own apartment in Winona but for the summer she was staying at her parents. Out of the blue, she had a 12 o’clock curfew, a 20 year old with her own apartment. They could never come up with real concrete reasons they don’t like me, so eventually I started to help them out with some because that’s what I do, I’m a giver.

Almost immediately Megan became an intern for Senator Kent Conrad, and then worked for the Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. Needles to say, Megan flourished, but that’s what she does, because she’s a beautiful flower.
With her resume built up, we headed back to South Minneapolis. I knew that I would need this white ambassador and I would need to help this white ambassador’s resume, if we were going to be able to build a life for ourselves.
Because, even in South Minneapolis, even with a degree, even the Indian organizations don’t hire us too much. We did have a short stay out at Megan’s mom’s house. I say short because her mom ended up kicking us out on the street, effectively making us homeless, because I got upset when Megan’s dad decided to grab some of our stuff packed up in the garage and use it as things for their dog to play fetch with. I guess when you live with white people in the suburbs, you have to let them use your things for dog toys and if you don’t like it and you raise your voice in defense, well then you’ll just have to find somewhere else to live. So we did.

There are four types of Indians: the urban Indians, suburban Indians, rural Indians and Rez Indians. (Most people don’t realize that rural Indians are not same as Rez Indians.) Now maybe it’s just me but the non-profit Indian organizations in Phillips, really only seem to hire light-skinned Indians who grew up in suburbia or other places where they may be the only Indians in their communities and here’s the thing, I don’t know why. Indian Health Board, Native American Community Development Institute, American Indian Center, Little Earth, Native American Community Clinic — go into any of those places and you will see mostly light-skinned and/or suburban Indians working, it’s like maybe a certain small percentage are people from the neighborhood, and an even smaller percentage of dark skinned Natives, I could speculate on why this is like this, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that they get money to develop our community aka “help the Indians” but even the ones that got a quarter of a million dollars in funding only put up stickers on the lightboxes, and then just on 1 street, the one thing the Native not for profits in my neighborhood have done in unison is Not hire from within the neighborhood for top positions.

Megan was incredibly excited to move to the city. I had an opportunity to finish my degree at Augsburg College but for the most part, I was scared to move home.

Augsburg was a really different experience.

Augsburg is open to all types of Indians but what they really wanted was the “safe” suburban Indians – those who know how to operate in this world. They elected me to the American Indian Student Association. That was a big scary thing. Some of those Indians were really entitled people. So mean and back stabby, on the southside beef is handled up front and direct, on site, that is not how they got down and the subcultures clashed. They kept asking us for drugs. I told them off.

I said to one guy, “We wanted you to help out with the Pow Wow but we have to pull back because you keep being mean to all the Indians.” His mom and dad were like these mega sciency Indians. They got postcards from Obama. His mom came down and got mean and everyone bowed down to her, I guess when you offer to buy the Indin student group hats and jackets, you can make moves like that. That is when I realized I was not cut out for college. I could not kiss anyone’s ass. I lasted two semesters and then the perfect storm hit. My older brother passed away and every semester Augburg went out of it’s way to remind how poor I was. it was tough. But not as tough as learning about how over and over again Indigenous nations were forced to convert to Christianity to survive in one class and immediately after I had to go to my mandatory theology class where the instructor told us all to just “think of this as Sunday school, because it is.”

Transfer students didn’t have to take this mandatory class, but I did even though I transferred in from a technical college they wouldn’t accept my Algebra credits I tried so hard pass (im not good at math and have had to take algebra at every school ive gone to) and that followed with mandatory Sunday school and American Indian Studies professors who weren’t up to facilitating conversations about misuse of Indigenous iconography by people who have vague Indigenous descendancy. I’m not kidding when I say a senior in film studies actually said that because he was 1/3rd Cherokee (he wasn’t, people don’t come in 3rds of anything, that’s absurd) he was entitled to use any and all Native imagery without asking permission, and the professor said nothing, I on the other hand am a pro at dropping knowledge bombs on the 33.33% Pretendians but not having that backup in the department of study that I switched because it would inform my work as poet, was disheartening. And so because if all of that, I dropped out, still owe the gov’t 5000, I’ll probably never get a 4 year degree. That’s a dream now, like buying a projector, or owning an electric car.

I had gone to technical college and to get my associates degree so I had planned to finish my degree in Information business management at Augsburg. Fortunately I decided to take a few non-management classes. Intro to acting. American Indian Studies. Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet I was getting to be friends with, who had given me a copy of her first book of poetry when I was an intern at the Circle in high school.

Cary Waterman was awesome — that 90 days was like my second birth. I had thought my art was acting, performing. The way I learned to write at the Circle was right down the middle and you piss both sides off. Inverted Triangles. I never thought I’d be able to do creative writing. Now I was learning all these forms of poems….

Cary Waterman wanted us pick a poet and get them to mentor you. Other students chose Walt Whitman, Shakespeare. I didn’t realize she meant we were supposed to read the work of one poet. Asked my playwright/poet, friend who gave me her book, if she would be my mentor. I told the other students “We went to a coffee shop and talked for an hour….”
One of the kids who wrote for the student paper said: “that woman was the poet laureate of Augsburg College.”
I was like, “Dope! I’ll tell her.” I felt like I messed up. I only took the class so I could talk to my poet friend and have better conversations.

I started writing poems, mentored by this great Indigenous writer. That changed my life. She waved her hand and the hallway of closed doors in my life just opened up. I followed her, walking through doors. She was constantly telling me “You’ve got something. You’ve got agency in your braids”
A year later I won my first Jerome Foundation Grant. My mentor told me it was BIG. She never won one.

I was ready to go to my first professional Indian writers conference. Returning the Gift: Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. It was held at an old University of Wisconsin Mens dorm — a mansion. Those white fuckers had a mansion. But now it was the Mansion that Indian Writers Built. I walked in and there was Jim Northrup laughing and teasing Joy Harjo. I saw Gary Farmer, Denise Sweet, Wade Fernandez, Susan Power coming down the stairs talking with Heid E. Erdrich….

We were about to drive back to the cities when my mentor said “I think you should try that poetry slam. If you win this you go to the next round and they will pay for it.”

I was like — “pay for it? Pay for Indians?”

She said there is only one other Indian champ. Sherman Alexie.

I thought OK, I’ll go and do my poem and get the hell out of here. I was sitting at this table with this guy Norb Jones. He came only for the poetry slam. He was there to win. On the other side of the table was Charlie Hill – he worked for Richard Pryor! He was one of the judges. There were Indians from Canada, Hawaii, Mexico, the Sami even– they were all there to compete. Some of them were reading from their published books.

I got up and put my two worlds — writing and acting — together. The first bout I got all tens. I was like, that was great – can we go home now?

My mentor said “No. Tomorrow is the championship and you are in it.”

It was me and Norb Jones. I got all tens and won the championship. Now it was Sherman Alexie and me, the two champions. That was it. I was a writer. After that I started winning every Minnesota poetry grant you could win.

I went with my mentor to Michigan, and to the Turtle Mountain Writers Retreat and Workshop to work. Dr. Gordon Henry was there at both but while in Michigan he asked me “Do you have 90 poems?”

I thought he was asking me — how much do you write — are you working hard enough?

My mentor said — “Ninety poems is a book. He’s asking if you have enough for a book. He runs a Press, dumdum”

The rest of the time there is a blur. I only remember that he paid for dinner.

My mentor told me to take my time getting the work together. She said “It took me five years – you are in this one year and some change — take your time. It was like she put a force field around us.

Then someone showed my Youtube videos to Sherman Alexie… and because he’s got super powers and he was in town at the Fitz AND my friend was a DJ for the event I got to go. We got box seats. I’m thinking — I’m going to say right to his face that he should stop writing so positively about fry bread and Pepsi. He’s giving us all diabetes.

During the sound check Sherman looked up at me from the stage. “There is an Indian in Lincoln’s seat. Watch out they are going to shoot you.”
After his performance he hung out with a group of Indian kids from one of Indian Schools for about an hour. I thought –he is a really good dude.
Then he looked up at me and motioned with his lips, “Hey – come on down here.”
I had one of those movie moments — Sherman Alexie just called me down… So I did.
He said “I’m Sherman Alexie.” I was like — I know who you are.
He said “How’s it going? Your name is Vince.” I thought “My name IS Vince.”
“People have been sending me your videos.”

I thought, I am about to get in trouble.

“Do you write them down?”
“Yeah.”
“Do you want to show me them?”
I said “Well, they are being looked over by Dr. Henry at University of Michigan Press, I don’t think I can….”
He said “I know Gordy, its OK. Send them to me.”
He asked “Do you have any of my books for me to sign?”
I said “I don’t have any of your books. I read em and I give em to my Aunts and my mom to read. So he said “Do you have anything for me to sign?”

I pulled off one of my red Pumas and he signed it “Less fry bread, more running. ”
That’s when I realized he read my tweets and eventually I would send him my poems, because he asked to see them, he being Sherman Alexie.

When he was back in town — at Macalester, the only college in town that can a afford him – that and the U when he takes a pay cut. I emailed him: “What do you think of my poems?”
I thought he was going to break it down – tell me what to work on — tell me to read more of this or that poet. His email was: “You know your pretty good right?”
That was it! I thought to myself — “fuck that guy.” I thought I was going to catch some knowledge….We went a year. I finally sent him another email.

Sometimes its problematic to be Sherman Alexie. Sometimes Sherman Alexie makes decisions that Sherman Alexie shouldn’t make and he catches some national shade for those decisions. I sent him an email and told him he can’t talk for all Indians…

His email, back said” I’ve been writing this email to you for five days. I write and I delete it, write and delete it. I have been having this conversation with Indians on and off the reservation for 25 years. Instead, for you– I am going to give you a to do list.”
All the things I wanted to hear were there. But then there were other things like: “Eat More Salads” and “Run more.”

I was 450 pounds two years ago. I weighed myself a month ago — 265 pounds. Sherman Alexie didn’t do it. I was already on my way — but you know it’s getting bad if Sherman Alexie is telling you to run and eat more salads.

**********

I took on my niece and two nephews a few months ago, from North Dakota. As we were driving out of Bismarck together, I got text from Sherman. It said “Write me a story about an Indian Kid.” That was it. I thought – doesn’t he know I just write poetry? I don’t write short stories.

I started writing, — my first five pages — not ready to read, but on my way.

It’s all moving pretty fast. I scares me a little bit. I was an actor when I was a kid. I even went out to LA and auditioned during pilot season. I was Indian Famous — which is like being a Z level celebrity. It was awful. I had to learn that lesson hard. I have learned that there are so many tertiary people who want to have a piece of you and they want to be your friend. I had to push those people away. They started un-friending me on facebook. I learned to create a bubble around myself. All you can do is what you can do.

That’s me. That’s where I’m at. I made some bigger mistakes recently but I’ll learn. Then I drove over here to tell you about it.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr.   Performing his work.

Minneapolis Project. 

Drew Edwards, 30. Pushing and Turning the Stone in North Minneapolis

20160604_122317 2 (1)I come from a talented, capable and impactful family. They inspire me and keep me honest. I believe in them. I think the most of my younger siblings. My mom and my grandma set the tone for excellence. My mom is not a bigger teller — she showed me her love with everything she has done. My dad is my best friend these days . I can tell him anything. Anything. That is why I move the way I move. To make my family proud. Worthy of their investment.

My Grandmother and my great Aunt Loraine came up here in the early 70s from Louisiana. One was a Nurse, the other worked in a linen manufacturing company. They came for the work. My grandma remarried here, extending our family to include a side with St. Paul roots. My Aunt also got married here, giving me a gallow of cousins.

My mom was born in Hammond, Louisiana 90 miles from New Orleans — a town so small that my family has their own street. My great uncles have barber shops and other businesses, on property the family h owned since my great grandpa moved there and worked that land.  Mom left Louisiana for Minneapolis when she was 9-10 years old.

My Dad’s family are originally from Mississippi by way of Chicago. My Dad came up here while still in the military. He was a Marine. He was also a minister and had connections here through the church.

My mother, brother, and sister brought me into the world. Mom went into labor in the house. She called grandma, who navigated her through it on the phone. My sister and brother — two and three years old — helped out.

I lived in the house in Cedar Riverside until I was 9-10 years old.  It was a pocketed part of the neighborhood. You have to come in through 28th street. No businesses, just a park, a hospital and a river. We would go down to the river all the time. I knew all my neighbors. I would go next door until my mom came home. It was traditionally White and Black. Native Americans shared the enjoining neighborhoods — Cedar and Franklin, and I was aware of their presence.

Minneapolis has that distinction of being six blocks from any park — one of the things I love about it. When I moved to 34th and Bloomington I was a block from Powderhorn Park. The neighborhood was more competitive. It was on a major street. Near Lake and Chicago. We didn’t know our neighbors. There was a gang. It was not like the tight-knit community I was raised in when I was little.

My parents got divorced when I was four. My dad had a new family by the time I was six. I didn’t even know that was problematic until I was of a teen age and I realized — boys DO need their father.

I started school at Trinity Lutheran. From there I went to Hall, then Four Winds and then Wilder( Benjamin Banneker). I kept getting kicked out. Expelled. Why? I think its layered.

1. I had personal stuff I needed to address. God has blessed me with discernment; knowing right from wrong. I would say what I thought, regardless of whether a person was my  elder. I got adults upset with me.

2. I was the victim of un-engaging curriculum styles. Even as a young kid I always felt like “This is not for me — it is not entertaining, fulfilling, or rewarding.” I think that led to my outbursts. Acting out.

3. I was in Special Ed from 3rd to 11th grade. My mother didn’t know how to help me. She had no idea how to advocate for my needs. She did what she thought was necessary. Signed on the dotted line.

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

Moving to so many schools, I didn’t make friends. My cousins were my friends. And kids at Church. When I was eleven, my mom changed churches. Three years later the pastor decided to move the church to California and Mom decided to follow him.  I was given a choice: stay with my dad or go with her. I chose to go with her to Salinas, California.  It changed my life.

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up. Hispanics brothers and sisters. It was serious. I didn’t think it was something I wanted to partake in, so when my mom gave me the option of leaving I said yes.

Mom didn’t know any of this.  She worked fifty hours a week. Still does. She gave me everything I needed.  She did what she was required to do. I needed a community to raise me, as any kid does. But some in my community were not the American Dream.

In Salinas I didn’t have any cousins or friends except for the other people from the church who migrated too– about 20 people.  My friend Ashley, a white girl from the Church became a close friend. To this day I miss her because we had this experience that others don’t understand.

In Salinas I was more outgoing.  I went to North Salinas High — the not-so-well High school  in town. I had failed two of my classes as a freshman at Roosevelt in Minneapolis, so I wasn’t  allowed to go out for football.  It crushed me. It was one of the only things I had.

In Salinas I got to play football.

My first day of school in Salinas I saw this guy getting his breakfast by himself. He was alone at lunch time as well. I walked up to him and said “You are not from here either.”

He said,”Naw I’m from Tulsa, Bro”

From that day we’ve been best friends. Tulsa Tony.  We had the whole California experience together and then he came up here to live in the Midwest for a couple of years.

I made some other friends on the football team.  I played with some future NFL players. My school was predominantly Hispanic — it was a different feel. Their were gangs but they were different. But I didn’t have to worry too much about it.

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were NO jobs for me. For teenagers in Minneapolis at least there were some job programs.

I was in  California for two years. I came back half way through my junior year. I finished high school at Central in St. Paul.  Made some really good friends there.
At Central I learned  something about myself. Proof that I could do well. I was working and taking after-school classes and still managed to graduate on time.  I had friends who were in Gen. Ed. the whole time, who came from nuclear families, who did not finish. I was on the wrestling team and  I had good support system there.

In the end, I didn’t get what I wanted at Central, but I got what I needed.

But, I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. Nobody ever approached me about taking it.  No one talked to my mom about it.

After high school I went to MCTC, studying Business. I have alway  had an entrepreneurial  sense.  MCTC had all these buffer courses. I went for a year and a half, paying to be ready for college. Still, MCTC was cool because it was different from high school.  I had choices, freedom,  opinions. And I had a different sense of its importance because I was crossing to be there and paying for it. I took out a student loan. I met some really good friends. I got more of the experience of pushing through when things are difficult.

It was also  a maturing period because I had a stint of homelessness. The work I was able to get was doing security at the metro dome.  I was also hustling, selling weed. I faced unemployment, learned how to find the ‘no- excuse button.’ Learning how to support myself.  My mom and grandma had set the foundation— showing me how to work and support yourself. Now I had to do it. I graduated after four years with a two year degree. I got my first apartment when I was 20 — me and my homeboy.

After MCTC I worked. I retention specialist for Comcast basically door to door bill collection. I learned about why and how people move, selling techniques. I learned that if you help enough people help themselves, you will get what you need in the end. I did that for about three years, without a lot of financial success but with a lot of mental success.  I have been savvy. When I get started with my own business, it is going to take off.

In my early 20s I seriously considered moving out of the United States — Brazil, Toronto. Or moving to Tulsa, Boca Raton, Florida, California…just moving. I didn’t feel like Minnesota had anything to offer me.  But, I thought, first I should finish school.

I talked to people at Metro State, learned about their Urban Education program. I asked “What is your success rate? How many people of color actually pass through your program?”

They said “Well, we are working on getting our numbers up.”

I said, “Exactly!” [with sarcasm].

I was really suspect.  But I had learned from business that you have to put value in yourself for others to invest in you.  So I tried. I got the encouragement and support from professors. Ever since then I have been very successful in school — mostly A’s — a few Bs.

My philosophy for education is the same as for policing. It is not good enough to say there are some good cops if the overall system is racist. Likewise,— so what if there were a few good teachers, if the overall system is not good. Lets work for overall excellence — all the teachers in the community, going to bat for kids.

When kids try to out-slick me, I tell them I was the slickest. I hear kids in 8th grade talking about joining gangs. I say, “What the hell are you talking about. You are playing a dangerous game. You need to find a different kind of support. Take Mr. Drew’s advice and find a sports team or other venue for support. I know about that life and it is not for you. You think you have time but in 8th grade decisions are being made and compounded.”

Ive been a teaching sub. It is frustrating to me when people don’t care if I have the knowledge to teach something. They will say, “Would you like to do art today? Here is some material.” I say, “I don’t feel comfortable teaching something I just looked at ten minutes ago.” That is not excellence. The students deserve more.
I was involved in activism from a young age — May Day parades, church involvement, volunteering, coaching football at Powderhorn. That gave me a community advocate platform where I could speak. From doing business, my speaking voice has become more toned.

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

I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t understand it. It changed me. A grown man can kill a kid and get away with it?! Then people came out with that whole “hoody” shit. Even people in my family were saying — “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t wear a hoody.” I’m thinking to myself — “Oh hell. So now we can’t wear hoodies, walk at night, eat skittles, drink ice tea, travel alone… enter gated communities….”

It was a call to action. I’ve got to do something. So when Black Lives Matter first took 35W I said “Wow. They took the Highway?!  Hmmm… “ Then when came to shutting down Hiawatha I was like —”IT’S TIME!!.”We shut it down.

Today (July 25th) I took a plea bargain on my Mall of America charge.  If I get another trespassing charge it will become a misdemeanor.

I don’t claim a Black Lives Matter Banner.  At the end of the day, the banner’s going to fade away . The movement continues. The struggle is real.  A lot of different banners are going to be waved in the process. I’m with the movement. With the stone being pushed and turned.  At the Mall of America, the Black State Fair. Nonviolent rallies, Education. Conversations with people at work and in my community. Working broadly allows me to have many circles of friends — people who would not naturally speak to each other.  I try to unify people, to bring them together.

A lot of people don’t know how to be politically savvy in letting people know the truth. You have to be person who can shine light without people feeling burnt. I am trying to master that.

There are two faces to my life right now. One face I stay strong and show my best side. The other face –I just want what I want minus the sacrifice and the hard work.
I moved to North Minneapolis recently. I love it. One of the best decisions I made in my life. My dad was always a north-sider, so I was never a person who said — “I’m not going to North…”  but once I started working on the North side I thought, “These are my people!”  They are more loyal, more responsive to community concerns than other people.  Concerned about what is going on with their kids. They want to get it right.

If you don’t got over to North Minneapolis you really don’t know what we are dealing with — be it food deserts or economic mobility,  or this whole bad narrative about people getting shot. Every time people get shot in Northeast, or a Northern suburbs it is reported as North Minneapolis. It could be in Crystal, Robbinsdale but they say its North Minneapolis.

Part of the problem is that people want a token. They say “Go to Him.” There are  people who get a little recognition, who claim to still be part of the neighborhood. They get a nice little severance package, get used to an 80K diet and now they live in Robbinsdale. They still go to Zion or Shiloh, and their mom is still in North… but they still haven’t pushed a stone. It’s true nationwide. When was the last time Jesse Jackson actually did something impactful?

I have become involved with many groups:  Brotherhood Empowerment, Black Coal, Mad Dads, Black Lives Matter, and Social Justice Education Movement. I really believe it is about bringing the groups together.  That is my goal. The by-any-means-necessary folks, people of faith, teachers, business people. I work with them all.

I go to many meetings.  I want to be at the table as much as I can.

Minneapolis Project. 

Teaching the Universe: Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA

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How often do you see the diagram of a Jim Crow segregated dining room arrangement, in a book about Space and Math? How often do you read a book that discusses Civil Rights  and Halley’s Comet; the history of Black Colleges and the history of Human Computing; the evolution of aircraft and the evolution of government hiring policies?  How often do educators have one tool that teaches Science, Math, Social Studies and English — with a Black and female lens?

How often are Black women at the center of curricula?

Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA by Sue Bradford Edwards and Duchess Harris tells the story of the Black Women Mathematicians hired during World War II to compute the mathematical calculations NASA needed before the age of mechanical computers.  For decades they were literally left out of the picture NASA History. (The image of Annie Easley — picture above — who worked, along with  five White women, as a human computer, was actually cut out of a group photo used for a display at NASA.)

 Hidden Human Computers, provides a peak at the science of air and space craft, and can be used to encourage further STEM research. It is also untold history and can be used by social studies teachers to show that history is about everything, including many stories yet uncovered, inspiring students to go looking for more such treasures. It is the real story of  real people, and could be a launch pad for an oral history project.  It will build enthusiasm for math, especially among Black and female students. When children see themselves in school curricula, they thrive.

This is the second book Macalester Professor, Duchess Harris  has co authored for youth, that makes me both cheer and scream. (The first was an introduction to the origins of the Black Lives Matter Movement, written expressly for middle school students.) 

I cheer “hooray!” for a book that refuses a box — that is — like life — complex and not compartmental.

I also scream “Why isn’t there more of this?” There is too much empty space on the shelf where this volume belongs,  standing with other works that allow children to dream big, without sugar-coating real race, gender and economic barriers to success.

More please.

 

 

Anna K. Binkovitz. Poetry and the Politics of Consent.

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Anna Binkowitz age 23.

Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I grew up outside of Granville, OH, a town of 5,000 on the edge of Appalachia.  We had deer in the yard, farms close by. I walked barefoot. Still, do even in Minneapolis. It’s what I’m used to doing.

We were a liberal family in a conservative region. The first national political event I remember is the 2000 elections, when they decided to stop recounting the votes in Florida. I was six. I went up to my room crying “I don’t want a bad president.”

Ohio is a little bit of everything— Midwest, East, North, South. Growing up there and coming to school in Minnesota convinced me that the United States is a regional polyglot. It is not just weather. People in Boston survive  winter differently than Minnesotans do.

I came to Minnesota to go to college at Macalester.When I first came I was startled in the grocery store when people turned around to say hello. Driving is so polite here it’s almost rude. I’m picking up the accent — my o’s are getting longer. I caught myself saying Oofdah.

My Macalester advisor was Marlon James. He is the sassiest. He taught me about putting narrative arcs in poetry. With him I felt like a writer with my editor, rather than a student with my teacher. He is not only an award winning author. He is a great educator. He is why I want, someday, to come back to Macalester and teach creative writing.

I loved Macalester, but I almost left it. I was raped by a fellow student. I went through the school process. They put restrictions on him and said if he violated the sanctions his status as a student would be “severely jeopardized.” But he violated the restrictions and I had to keep pushing to get the school to enforce them. For a year he stalked me. The case was referred to the Macalester College Harassment Committee (MCHC). Despite my having a witness, nothing was done.

I wrote an open letter to my rapist in the college paper, saying that I was always going to know that I could be proud of my time in college, while he would always have to think of me and what he did to me.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you. (There are places I wont go back to — I went to the Gay 90s once and some guy tried to assault me and I won’t go back there.) But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I will not let him — let me — not love this place.

I wrote a poem,  Asking For It, (watch) that went, well, if not viral, then bacterial. It has had over 800,000 views. I think it can be hard to talk about sexual violence using humor. I was able to do it. People are interested in quick socially conscious pieces  they can use to answer that dumb or ignorant comment. With the popularity, came the negative comments. After a couple days I stopped reading them. I thought about something Barney Frank once said to a woman who was arguing with him and not listening. “Mam talking to you is like talking to a brick wall”

I think Break the Silence Day , Take Back the Night, Slut Walks are very important — it is essential to have people say they believe you – they know what you are going through.

Take Back the Night is hard for men and non gender conforming people who have also been the victims of sexual assault. I saw something on the internet about that I thought was perfect. The sentence “Men are victims of Sexual Assault” must be said. When you add the “too” — is when it becomes a distraction from the experiences of women.

After my poem went viral I got an invitation to speak at Muhlenberg College and got to pick my price.  I did 30 minutes of poems and a workshop on consent. I argued that asking for consent is sexy. All the participants were women – no cis dudes there – I was not surprised, but I was sad. I think it is good to show how to have healthy relationships after something like rape happens.

I did a Yes Yes Yes workshop at Intermedia Arts for Planned Parent Council, with the poets Keno Evol, and Guante. We had poetry, some  story telling, some music. Someone said “We can’t have a discussion about consent without Anna Binkowitz.” That made me feel really good. I am proud to be known that way.

When it comes to youth education on these issues, I think Abstinence-Only education has to go. We need to talk about consent. We should have people who have been abused in college speak to youth, say “this is what it happened to me” as plainly as possible.

****

I graduated in 2014 and went across the river to Minneapolis. I live in an apartment near the river that is central and safe, but noisy.   My next door neighbors act like you would think recent college graduates would act. Partying on Saturday night when I’m ready to go to bed.

It was easy to find friends in college. Since I graduated it has been harder. I worked so many short part time jobs. As a sub in the schools I do not have work friends. I hang out with poets and some friends from college. As  the web editor for Button Poetry I have become friends with writers in the community. It is interesting working for your friends. It changes the work relationship AND the friendship. We are all artists so we get that deadlines can be tough.

Button Poetry produces high quality spoken word videos, often filmed live at Poetry slam contests. They also run a monthly live poetry slam in St Paul and publish chapbooks of poetry.

They have let me take the reigns of the blog. I had the idea a year ago to use a blog to get more web content for our site and expand the publishing we do. I am in complete control. I decide who I want to interview. Each week we have a button play list of the best videos. On Thursday we publish an essay, a book review, or an interview by, for, and/or about poets, or we do a writing prompt. It rotates every week. Then we do a round up—- six interesting poems.
Keno Evol wrote an essay We need You to Show Up to the Riot Well Rested. He asked me what I thought. It was daunting and flattering to edit his work.

As far as my own work, I write poetry and compete in poetry slams. The idea behind the slam was to get away from poets reading to poets. Everyone can write, read and win. The audience decides — using whatever criteria they want — who wins.
How do you become a successful slam poet? There are coaches. One of the things I’ve learned is to use “down tones,” — important advice for women who often sound less authoritative because they end sentences with an upward questioning note.
At these poetry slams there is a problem with sexual assaults. People who commit assaults are kicked out, but there is nothing else done. Those who commit the assaults can go off and join other art groups and do it again.

I see a difference between someone who is a rapist and someone who once raped. I was raped twice, once by a man  who was sorry and didn’t want to ever do it again and wanted to know what he could do to change. The other guy who raped me and stalked me for a year — he, I consider a rapist.

What I love about poetry is gives you a license to write about things that are otherwise too close to write about.

I write just as much for myself as for anyone else. The more I can talk about my sexual assault experiences the more they do not take over my life. It is not about erasing something — it is about integrating it into your life. It is also – nothing for us without us. I want to be a safe place for people, but I can’t do that about sexual assault if I don’t talk about my experience as a survivor.

*******

Part of my Hebrew name means cactus flower. I struggle over the Palestine issue. I agree with an economic boycott of Israel but not an academic boycott. We should not boycott ideas. I get the most flack from other Jews who are Zionist and think I don’t support Israel enough. There are others who think we should demolish Israel. I don’t agree with them either. It exists, it is not just going to— poof, disappear.

Israel is recognized as a state so it has more responsibility to follow international law. They are a government and they should act like one. No country should be founded out of fear, and that is how Israel was founded. I also think Britain needs to stand up to the plate, since they are the ones who made contradictory promises to the Jews and the Palestinians and then sat back to watch the mess…. Although after Brexit — maybe not.

It’s been hard of me to find the right Synagogue in the Twin Cities.  I went to Mount Zion for a while but they had an organ — they sounded so Churchy. Shir Tikfa was too conservative. I grew up with Debbie Freidman tunes. I need them. The singing is everything.

*******

I don’t plan on staying in Minneapolis. I’m looking to move on for grad school. Maybe Pittsburg, Madison, Ann Arbor, Houston or NYC. I will miss the Mississippi River when I go.  It is my best friend. I read Mark Twain, and the history books…. and then there it was! I love that I live in the state with the Headwaters. Before I move I want to go up there and step across the Mississippi River. I was excited when I moved from St Paul to Minneapolis and two blocks from the River. Water is very important to me. When I die I want to have my ashes scattered in water because then part of me will end up everywhere.

Minneapolis Project. 

 

 

 

Gilberto Vázquez Valle. Mexican Folk Musicologist Finds Poetic Justice in Minneapolis.

 

Gilberto at KFAI - 1

All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards working people of my country, who paid for my education. But I have learned … the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States. One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

Coming to Minneapolis

I was born in Yurécuaro, in the State of Michoacán, Mexico. When I was 14, my family moved to Guadalajara. I went to college there, at the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas of the Universidad de Guadalajara, which had a relationship with the University of Minnesota. Students and scholars would come up to Minneapolis to do research and to study. I came in the 80s for some research projects and then to go to graduate school. So I was unusual – I wasn’t part of a migrant stream like so many of my relatives. I had nothing of the experience that my uncles or father had.

My father spent chunks of time here in the U.S., starting when I was about four, until I was thirteen. At that time it was easy to come if you were sponsored by relatives, as he was. In Mexico he was a tailor all of his life. In the U.S. he did agricultural work in California until he found more lucrative work in the steel industry in Chicago.

Today — even though I like that city and have relatives there — “Chicago” is a sad word for me. In my childhood it meant my father was going to leave us again.

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

I was very critical of the United States government. I felt hypocritical coming and staying in the U.S. to work at the University of Minnesota —a little like José Martí: inside the entrails of the beast. All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards the working people of my country who paid for my education. But I also learned — both through my own family history and through simple observation — that the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States.

I made myself available to talk to groups about the role of the U.S. in Central America. We would have events at the University — educational forums on what was happening. I wanted to give U.S. students some historical background and a radically different perspective, to get them to question what they heard in the media.

One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota

In the early 90s I met the late Guillermo Rojas, faculty in Chicano Studies, and he asked me if I wanted to be a faculty/technical adviser for La Raza Student Cultural Center. It was going to be something temporary, just to clean up the place (there were accusations of financial mismanagement) and to reorganize it. The activist mission of La Raza’s creators in the 1970s, had disappeared and it was run by a cohort of students from wealthy families —-mostly from Central America —people with whom I would never have had contact in other circumstances. They couldn’t care less about activism and social responsibility. For them, La Raza was a social club.

Also fighting to regain control of La Raza , were a number of mostly Chicano students from throughout the United States —mainly women — determined, courageous, hard­-working, and politically aware. Most of them were of Mexican descendant, frequently first generation Americans and the first ones in their families to get to college. They regained control of La Raza.. and it became a place for community, activism, consciousness and a vibrant cultural center.

When the Zapatista uprising happened in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994 (the same day that NAFTA was implemented), we began having educational and political events every week focusing on the uprising and indigenous issues in Mexico and Latin America, the poverty, the discrimination, the cultural genocide still happening. Zapatista Sub­-Comandante Marcos sent communiques through the internet, and we were getting them a day after they were published in Mexico City — which was amazing at the time. La Raza became a sort of unofficial Zapatista resource center in town.

One of the sad parts of that uprising is that many of the issues that the Zapatistas were talking about, Ricardo Flores Magón was talking about in 1908 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. But on the positive side, there was a new respect and interest in the struggles of the Latin American indigenous peoples and a new understanding of the social and political movements in Mexico and the whole of Latin America. For the first time the word neo-­liberalism was used to understand what was happening on a global level. That was meaningful and refreshing. The Zapatistas had a global view, connecting their uprising to the struggles of workers in Bangladesh, Chicago and elsewhere.

The beauty, poetry and eloquence of the language of the Zapatista communiques also inspired and moved everyone, including myself. I remember reading the communique “¿De qué nos van a perdonar?”, in a coffee shop in Dinkytown and openly crying. Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many formerly apolitical young people in La Raza beginning to show an interest in the social and political movements in Latin America — and making connections with patterns of oppression and resistance in the U.S. That was the richest moment of my experience in La Raza —seeing that awakening, not just in others, but in myself.

My activism was focused on the U of M. I was trying to stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile. At that time, my immigration status was as an international student. I knew my legal status was vulnerable. So I was trying to frame all the events I was involved in as academic. I was invited to speak at some rallies in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis, and I had to decline.

When the energy around the Zapatista movement diminished, I still continued being involved in La Raza, providing continuity in the organization as students came and went. There were many more first generation Mexican American students, in the late 1990s and their stories of immigrant struggle and resistance inspired me. Even though they spoke English among themselves, they enjoyed speaking Spanish to me. I have a fascination with Spanish language proverbs and know thousands of them. Those young students would come to the office and ask me “so, what’s the proverb of the day?” They enjoyed the wisdom, earthiness, sparkling quality and sense of humor present in the proverbs.

In spite of the age difference, with those young students I had a feeling of prodigal sons reunited.

Youthful obsessions: comic book super heroes and Latin American folk music.

When I was little in Yurécuaro, my hometown, I was so much into comic books that my father went around to all the barber shops and asked them not to let me in because they had comic books there and he thought I was reading way too many of them.

There used to be a system where you could buy comics for a peso or sit on a bench and read them for ten cents. I was so obsessed with the characters and the stories being told, that I got to the point of stealing money from my mother in order to rent them. One day she found me at the rental bench and asked me to come with her immediately. When she saw me pay for 13 comics, she immediately knew who had stolen her money. Back at home, I got such a monumental spanking that, many years after, it still mortified her to the point of tears.

The comic books I read avidly were made in Mexico— “Chanoc”, “La Familia Burrón”, “Kaliman”, “El Payo”, “El Diamante Negro”, “Memín Pinguín”, “Fantomas”, “Tawa”, etc. —even, to my father’s mortification, “Lágrimas, Risas y Amor”. There were also many American comic books, translated, of course, which never got my interest. It wasn’t only that I was indifferent to them: I openly disliked them. Perhaps it was the language: They were probably translated in Spain and the dialogs always felt contrived, silly. So, I was totally oblivious to “Superman”, “Batman”, “Los Cuatro Fantásticos”, etc. There was, however, one of those American characters and comic books for which I’ve always had a soft spot: “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman).

When I was fourteen I gained a new obsession. We had just moved to Guadalajara, which, at that time, was a town of about 2 million people. Almost immediately I discovered the radio stations, one run by the Department of Fine Arts, the other by the Universidad de Guadalajara, that played some folk music. I’m immensely grateful to both of those stations. They enriched my life beyond measure. The music I heard there for the first time, sounded strange yet familiar. In a primal, visceral way, I knew that it was my own. It was like hearing an ancient tune apparently long forgotten but in actuality always present within me.

By the time I was 18 there were already a few places where Latin American folk music was played live. Some were small venues related to the local Department of Fine Arts the others were “Peñas” (coffee houses) that appeared in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities throughout Mexico. Most of the performing groups were local and non-professional. Through college, I met two brothers and their uncle who, together with two other friends, formed one of those groups: “Los Cachicamos”. They took me with them everywhere they played: Schools, Peñas, labor union halls, music festivals, small villages’ festivities, public plazas. They were really good and played not only folk music from the Andes but also from Argentina and Mexico, which, amazingly, few of the Mexican folk groups at the time played. They even traveled to South America to get music and instruments, and they lent me recordings that were impossible to get in Guadalajara.

From their trip, they brought back several “Charangos,” a string instrument with five double strings (similar to a mandolin) that is fundamental in the Andean music tradition. The back of its box is made from the shell of a small furry armadillo that lives in that region.

My friends got their Charangos directly from a legendary Bolivian charango maker, Sabino Orozco. This man introduced my friends to his son who was chosen to continue the Charango making tradition. His name I can not forget: Clark Kent Orozco.

Bringing Latin American Folk Music to Minneapolis through KFAI radio.

In Minneapolis my Latin American friends were often surprised that I knew old folk songs from their countries. They would give me names of genres, groups and performers they thought would interest me. They would also give me tapes. My collection grew.

KFAI, the local community radio station, was one of the first stations I heard in the U.S.  I also listened to obsessively to the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The whole concept of a public community radio station struck me as both beautiful and powerful.

One Saturday morning, a couple of weeks or so after I had arrived to the U.S, while listening to KFAI, I  heard “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican celebratory song used in Birthdays and Saint Days. I was moved to the point of tears. I had discovered Willy Dominguez’ show, “Sábados Alegres” —one of the longest running shows at KFAI, that plays Tex-­Mex music. Soon afterwards I discovered the Latin American music program run by Rafael Varela, from Uruguay, as well as shows centered on American folk music (which was one of my “discoveries” upon coming to this country).

After a few years volunteering and subbing at the Station, I applied for and got my own radio program, “Encuentro” —now airing Thursday nights 8­-10 pm. The show aired first on July 29, 2007; so I have been doing my program for nine years! I explore the cultural history and traditions of our continent, and to tell that story, folk music is fundamental.

I put in six hours every week just preparing the show. Sometimes more. My program is never improvised; it always has a defined order and structure, a theme or themes to explore for the day. I believe that to improvise implies that I don’t take it seriously and that would be a disservice to my community, to the station, to the listeners, to myself. I usually explore a composer, a genre of music, a country in particular, or certain themes or historical events that can be talked about or explained through music, like “The Music of Liberation Theology” and “The Music from the Life and Times of Frida Kahlo”.

I think I would never be able to find space on a commercial Latino radio station for my program. Those stations are all about business, commercial interests and commercial music. My program, proudly, doesn’t fit that model at all. At first I was disappointed that the people calling in to my program were mostly White, or not from the Latino communities. I would have been happier hearing from Latin American communities from South Minneapolis, and youth like those I worked with in La Raza. It was with them that I witnessed first-­hand, the power and inextinguishable relevance of language, history, culture and traditions.

Changes in Latino Minneapolis in the 1990s

Before the mid 1990s, if I wanted to buy a hint of home I had to go to West St. Paul and the options were very limited. It was rare to hear somebody speaking Spanish in the bus or in the street .

Lake Street had historically, been a sort of entry zone for immigrants in town. In the 1990s it was the front line, the border where demographic changes were most visible and tangible. Small Latino restaurants, stores and bakery shops started opening up there, seemingly out of nowhere. Latino communities revitalized that area, not only Lake Street but that whole part of South Minneapolis.

Visiting some of those Mexican and Latino stores on Lake Street was a lesson for me in the perseverance of memory and traditions. I found the same brand of laundry detergent (“Roma”) and bar soap (“Zote”) that Mexican working class families have used for generations; I found healing herbs and teas that, in Mexico are available only in a special store or market. I saw “leche de burra” soap — a product I heard about from countryside people from my parents’ generation, but never actually saw until the late 1990s, along Lake Street in Minneapolis!

And the food!

Food is a living manifestation of memory and tradition. It is also a noble, fundamental thread that, along with language and music, provides some the most immediate and visceral links between immigrants and their country of birth, their family history, their ancestral memories. Food is also a savior. Selling cooked food is frequently how a struggling family can get back on its feet; a means available to immigrant families to aspire to a measure of economic independence and one of the precious few venues available to them for upward mobility.

The traditional Mexican “refresco” (bottled soft drink) “Jarritos” —especially the tamarind flavor is easier to find in Minneapolis (you can even find it in Cub foods!) than in Mexico, where, in conventional stores, the only “refrescos” you can get are Coke, Pepsi and such. I see a measure of poetic justice in this.

Living in Seward/Surviving Assaults/ Growing  impoverishment in Minneapolis 

I don’t know how to drive. I walk, I bike and I use the bus. These observations, below, are the perspective of one who has been riding the bus and walking in the city for more than 20 years now.

When I first moved out of the dorm, I lived in Marcy Holmes near the University Campus — a fairly transient neighborhood. Then I moved to Seward, also near to Campus, where I have been ever since. I really like living in Seward, even though I have had some bad experiences. I was assaulted twice. Because of those incidents I have become much more watchful and alert of my surroundings.

I do not think these assaults necessarily reflect Seward. It is just part of living in an urban place, within the inner city, especially when you walk alone at night. Both times, those who assaulted me were Native American youth. That is only incidental— a reflection of other underlying factors, among them the growing impoverishment in Minneapolis and the ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S.

When I first came to Minneapolis I wrote home saying that everyone here seemed to be well­-off. But I have seen a noticeable and continuing growth in poverty since then — more homeless people, for instance.

I see it on the bus and in the streets: Everything from more clothes and shoes that are not appropriate for the weather or that don’t fit, to obvious signs of poor health, especially in people’s teeth. This might be considered only anecdotal evidence but the fact is that data and statistics confirm it.

I have noticed an increase in the body language of sadness. In the early 1990s I used to travel by bus to go to Madison, Wisconsin. For me it was fun and convenient, but I saw that those who traveled by bus seemed to always be sad and down on their luck. Now I see the same sadness every day in the city buses and in the streets.

I also see more conflict, more tension. Twenty years ago or so, it was the sort of conflict that normally happens within a crowded urban space. Now I see more signs of confrontation —in racial, social and economic terms.

Of course, there has always been some grumbling about immigrants. But the resentment now seems to be greater, more openly belligerent and confrontational. Two examples that have happened recently:
— In downtown Minneapolis there were two East African youth waiting for the bus. An African-American guy stopped by, just to cuss at them, to say he hated Somalis. When he left the girl said to me, “They are always hating us.” I told her “He is probably struggling —maybe he doesn’t have a job.” She said “You know, I didn’t see it that way…. but… this happens to us all the time.”
— A Native American man, complained loudly to the whole bus about how the immigrants have come and taken all the jobs, the resources.

I think that when I was assaulted those two times, I was a victim of this growing poverty, exacerbated by a massive housing crisis and a recession, and that ever-growing social and economic disparity. Before at least there was a feeling of hope in a not too distant future. Now even that is gone. And people are taking it out on each other.

Disparity and Hope. 

But there’s something else: mounting disparity,  long-­lasting hopelessness, and the closing of venues to upward mobility are by themselves a form of inflicted violence and, as such, it have been detonators for community activism.

In the 1990s there was little evident signs of activism among new Latino immigrants. People went to work, and, on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps to Mercado Central to eat some tacos, menudo or tamales with champurrado. People just stayed in their corner, making as little waves as possible. That has changed significantly in response to the desperate immigration situation, the constant political backlash, lack of upward mobility, and limited, low-paying and frequently exploitive job market for people in our communities. Recent restrictions on driver’s licenses (since 2001), have brought into the streets many immigrants who, because of fear, would never have been active in the political process. People now have the boldness to be directly involved in different stages of political activism, even if it implies taking significant risks, including being deported.

In that sense, I’m hopeful. I see different community organizing efforts going on locally at different levels: grass-roots, faith-based, workers’ centers, etc., and the growing consciousness that comes with these efforts. I particularly admire the work done by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) a local workers’ center that is doing amazing organizing with retail cleaning workers.

Something else: These movements also plant a seed for future generations. A tradition of consciousness and community organizing doesn’t happen overnight, it is nurtured and that is what all of these community organizing movements are doing.

One thing immigrants from Mexico  know quite well is that they are very valuable to both the U.S. economy and the Mexican economy. The U.S. economy desperately needs the cheap, vulnerable labor and their remittances are absolutely essential for Mexico. There is power in that.

We saw an assertion of that power on May 1st 2006 when millions of Latino workers and their families throughout the United States rose up and marched through the streets —40,000 here in the Twin Cities — who marched to the State Capitol wearing t-shirts that proclaimed:  “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

May First, the International Workers Day is, of course, rooted in the rich, proud, obscured and ignored, U.S. labor history. It was celebrated in nearly every country in the world except the United States where it originated — until 2006, when the most marginalized exploited immigrants of this nation, rescued it, dignified it, and brought it back to its place of origin. Poetic Justice.

A final thing: I had my own stereotypes when I first came to the U.S. — about the “average” White U.S. person. I did not know there were people here concerned and aware about the policies (both foreign and domestic) of the U.S. government, that there were so many people committed to change things, doing so out of solidarity.

And that’s the key word: Solidarity —not empty, self-gratifying charity, not condescending attitudes, but understanding and solidarity. I meet people all the time, many times young, who are active and committed, to achieve and build a more just economic and political system; people who talk the talk and walk the walk, as the saying goes; not out of empty romanticized notions, but out of solidarity. I think that Minneapolis is special in this way. It has a rich local history of solidarity movements and I constantly see that tradition not only being kept alive but also moved forward.

Minneapolis Project. 

 

Racism and the Labor Movement. From $15Now to Philando Castile. Which Side Are We On? An historical view.

IMG_1656 4 On July 19, 2016, educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention marched through downtown Minneapolis shouting “Black Lives matter”, “Justice for Philando,” and “We want justice, we want peace, in our schools and in the streets.” Leaders of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations sat in the street in their union colors as an act of civil disobedience aimed at local banks that fund prisons over schools, and local police that brutalize and even kill communities of color with impunity.

The Police Federations of St Paul and Minneapolis were quick to chastise the teachers for showing a lack of solidarity with their union brothers and sisters in blue.

This schism in the labor movement is nothing new. From its early years the labor movement moved along two opposing paths, capitulating to racist divide and conquer tactics of the bosses, or organizing against them.
One of the first victories of the nascent labor movement was a major capitulation. As the primary proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,  labor committed it’s original sin —  criminalizing  brethren paid the least, using racism as a tool.  It is a sin echoed over the decades, crystalized in the cry THEY  take OUR jobs. 

It is a sin we continue to commit  when we allow immigrant workers  to be criminalized, dehumanized, denied citizenship and basic human rights. Today  there are union leaders in SEIU and UFCW, among others — who are championing immigrants and undocumented workers. In nearly every local ,when it comes to immigration, there is an opportunity for workers to decide which side they are on.

_________

In that same era that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Ku Klux Klan had its first major success when it divided and conquered tenant farmers, sharecroppers and cotton textile workers who had organized unions made up of Black and White workers in the South. Some White people, like the Georgian Tom Watson, actually went from leadership in  biracial labor movements to leadership in the Klan— so great was the victory for southern factory bosses and the old plantation elite.

In the early 1900s the still new American Federation of Labor set about organizing “skilled” white, male, workers into separate trades.  The Industrial Workers of the World on the other hand, flourished by doing the opposite — uplifting those on the bottom of the pay scale and organizing women and non-whites –which at the time included workers now considered white. (The race idea, made up by elites, proved so flexible, so divorced from science, that it could turn a person white over night, or vice versa.)

IWW members were no less prone to bigotry than their AFL siblings, but they had that motto, an injury to one is injury to all.  In the 21st century that sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul Wellstone We all do better when we all do better.  

In the first half of the 20th century, some workers of color formed their own unions– Black sleeping car porters, left out of the white train conductors brotherhood, and Latina Pecan Shellers in Texas and New Mexico. Likewise today some workers of color, are organizing outside of the AFL-CIO. Some, like CTUL in Minneapolis, have since been embraced by the union federations they out-organized.

In the 1930s The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) left out farm workers and domestic workers at a time when opportunities for African Americans and Latino workers were limited to jobs as maids, janitors, garbage pick-up and farm work. Unfortunately some leaders of the AFL helped to make sure those workers remained unorganized, and helped keep the unionized plant door closed to people of color.

In the 1960s — the Teamsters — that beloved union that made Minneapolis a union town in the 30s — showed up in the fields in Northern California where Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were struggling to bring farmworkers into the AFL-CIO fold. Instead of picket signs and solidarity banners the Teamsters brought billy clubs, to beat up the striking workers.

Likewise, today some union members are protecting their fellow members when they commit race crimes. The Police unions are the worst, the most egregious, but they are also the canary in the coal mine — forcing us to look at how unions can operate as white clubs, keeping people of color out.  This labor activist Cathy Jones’ recent experience is indicative of an attitude we must fight:

On the day that Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, people gathered at the Minnesota Governor’s mansion in St. Paul. One of those who spent that first night in front of the Mansion was Cathy, a postal worker  who recently helped organize People of Color Union Members, (POCUM) through the Minneapolis AFL-CIO. Cathy  called in sick and and filed her day off as an emergency. When she came back to work management had approved her absence. The next day her Union steward told her she might be in trouble with management since she was on the news.

“He did not realize management had already approved my absence”Cathy told me. “The union was trying to get me in trouble because they don’t like Black Lives Matter and my work with the movement. In this instance, thank goodness the union doesn’t have the authority to discipline. Only management can do that. I’m glad my employer had my back.”

Cathy’s experience is shameful and indicative. We need a principles to guide us as union members that don’t allow a union brother to do that to a union sister; that don’t allow a union to cover up the high crimes and daily harassments of people of color, be they union members, or the public we serve as workers.

And we need to look at our solidarity. Are we out there for those who are most oppressed, singing their song? The fast food workers — predominantly workers of color, are demanding $15 minimum wage. It is time for the rest of the labor movement to follow their lead. In Minneapolis right now that means pressuring City council DFLers who have or seek union backing, to allow the voters to vote on a $15 minimum wage for the city, or pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance for the city. No council person who rejects the petitions of thousands,  (and the sweat equity of  dozens of labor activists to collect them) should receive a union federation endorsement.

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To paraphrase the old  miners union anthem: Which side Are We On? 

 

Jim Northrup, Rest Easy.

IMG_5513-1My partner Dave and I visited Pat and Jim Northrup at their home on the Fon du Lac Reservation, on July 28, 2012. I had told Jim we were coming by bicycle at the end of an epic adventure, but our hosts in Duluth had offered their car so we could make it an afternoon excursion, and we accepted the generous offer. As we drove up in civilian clothes, cleaned and rested, I felt as if we had violated the invitation.

When we arrived Jim was making a birch basket and Pat was watching the Olympics. Jim occasionally interrupted the conversation to explain what he was doing.

“We only make baskets in the summer.”

“ The oil in the bark makes it curl.”

“Pat does the sewing, I carve and make the holes.”

“Making baskets you can’t be angry or in a hurry.”

“We found that’s true for bike touring as well,” Dave said.

I thanked Jim again for speaking to my classes at St Cloud State eight years earlier. I had assigned Rez Road Follies. The students, most of whom came from small towns in Northern Minnesota, were thrilled to meet an author from their neck of the woods. I was jealous and grateful of his ability to connect with the students. Yet Jim was a neighbor they did not know. Most grew up in proximity to reservations but many  had never had a conversation with an indigenous neighbor.  I reminded Jim that out of four classes and 129 students, I had only two students from the Rez… and they were white.

Jim shook his head. “White ownership goes back to the Dawes Act of 1887 that turned communal reservation land into 80-acre allotments. What was not claimed by Indians was open to anyone. Now those 80 acre allotments, passed down to multiple children, are so fractionalized they are not worth much. Allotment was an extreme form of divide and conquer.

Today our tribe owns 25%-33% of Fond Du Lac, up from 20% a few decades ago. We are using Casino money to buy back land little by little. What we own is divide into three parts, one where the business is done, another where our ceremonies are held, and a third, which we are restoring, where we have the best birch and maple trees, wild rice, hunting and fishing. Our food sources.”

Pat, who is Dakota, added, “On my reservation we are supposed to own 10 miles on either side of Minnesota River. They created that war in 1862 so they could have that land. Look at how valuable it is today; rich topsoil and access to the river all the way to the Cities.”

Jim’s book, Rez Salute had yet to come out. We bought a copy of Anishinaabe Syndicated and had Jim sign in it. On page 42 he quipped  ‘Why do we call it a Rez instead of a reservation? Cause the white man owns most of it.”

***

Jim’s written works are acerbic, witty confrontations with the trauma of colonialism that never ends and the trauma of war that keeps on giving.

“I write in the morning and a couple days past deadline.” Jim mused.  “I write about what pisses me off. Now I’m pissed about the news coverage of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Reporters said it was the worst incident of gun violence in American history since Fort Hood. What about Sand Creek? 160 people shot down with cannons and guns; unarmed people. I guess it doesn’t count because they were Cheyenne.”

A Vietnam vet,  veterans’ issues were central in Jim’s writing. In my classes he quickly bonded with young Iraq war veterans. They wouldn’t let him go, following him to the cafeteria afterward for more. Both Jim and Pat were fierce advocates of veterans rights. I wanted them to help me figure out a question that had dogged me for 12,000 miles. The veterans memorials we encountered riding through 31 states, seemed to perpetuate war, glorifying the soldier experience and the ultimate sacrifice. I asked Jim how he would design a memorial that honored veterans and ended war.

“The Vietnam memorial has 55,000 names. I would depict 55,000 families crying.”

Pat added, “If people knew we couldn’t own things they wouldn’t fight over them. We don’t take anything with us when we go.”