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

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

Growing Up in Rural Conservative Religious Family.

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

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

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

Coming out as gay was not an option.

Rural Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chipotle and ICE

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

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

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

My Coming Out Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living and Advocating on the North Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Master’s Degree in Homelessness. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said What? What do you want?

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

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

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

Taking stock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minneapolis Project. 

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

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Minnesota State Representative Raymond Dehn District 59B. A life story with insights on gentrification, mass incarceration, organizing inside and outside of the electoral arena, using laws to  bring about social change, addiction, the foreclosure crisis in North Minneapolis, and building livable, equitable cities.

Getting in and out of Trouble 

I am at least the fourth generation to live on the North side of Minneapolis. My people were from Germany, and my father’s family settled in the Anoka, Elk River and Monticello areas and many of his family made the northern suburbs home. That is all I know. Dehn’s Farms, Dehn Oil— those are distant relatives. My ancestors were farmers. I honestly don’t know how far back the generations go in Minnesota, or why they came. There is much I do not know about my background. I was estranged from my family for a while and I think that’s why.

My mom was from Minneapolis and my Dad from Anoka. Together they moved to Brooklyn Park and that is where I grew up, on the edge of Crystal – about five miles from where I live now in North Minneapolis. It was a farming community still – the beginnings of a suburb. I could ride my bike five blocks and reach corn fields.

My father worked in a warehouse operating a forklift. He plowed snow for extra money in the winter. My mother worked out of the house occasionally. One job was at a paper company in the warehouse district that made the toilet paper wraps for soldiers in Vietnam. She also did seamstress work. All of us kids had paper routes.

There were five of us in my family until we adopted a six year old girl — a distant cousin. I was twelve at the time – a difficult time for the change in family status. Before that I was the youngest, with two older brothers. All of the sudden we had six of us in a house that was under 640 square feet. Fortunately we had a basement — a room for me to retreat.

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

But it caught up to me eventually. I started using cocaine and I needed more money to support my habit. In 1976 I was arrested and convicted for a burglary, sending my life down a totally different track — a better one I think. Where I was heading, I would not have been on this earth much longer. I had started to associate with people who were carrying guns and I was starting to use drugs intravenously. People who work with addiction tell me I was heading for disaster.

My disaster, fortunately, was getting arrested.

I ended up serving 7 months at the Hennepin County workhouse. I started serving just weekends.  At first I was bringing dope into jail, but ultimately, I got sober while still serving my time. In jail I began to see I was getting chances that others weren’t getting. I decided I should use them.

I was released into a 28-day treatment at HCMC and then to a halfway house. I was fortunate that my father — though he didn’t have a great income as a warehouse worker — was a Teamster. He had health insurance that covered the cost my treatment.

I hate the phrase “getting back on track” — you are always on a track – just maybe not the one you desire. Way 12 halfway house in Wayzata changed my life in many ways. We learned behavior modification which involved looking at your life. When I got clean, abstinence was really the only way. (Today, with the opioid epidemic, people may actually need to use alternative medication to replace the substances they were abusing. A lot of addiction is self medication. We need to fund treatments for addiction and mental health issues and stop incarcerating mental illness.)

I was there with some pretty prominent names, adolescents from families everyone would recognize; people with resources. It made me realize how poor my family was. I hadn’t realized how much my family struggled financially because a lot of my friends were in the same situation. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and working class. At Cooper High school there were 4 or 5 Black people when I attended. There were a few kids from middle income families at Cooper when I was there, but Wayzata was a whole different class.

While in the halfway house I developed strong bonds and relationships. We supported each other in staying clean. When I was done, I moved away from my old neighborhood, away from the people I took drugs with. I separated from my family for a few years too, because my parents and siblings did not really understand the changes I was trying to make. I went to the U of M for two years, until I ran out of money. I moved to Minnetonka and got full time construction work.

At that time, before the Internet, it wasn’t easy for people to collect your data, or do a criminal background check. Back then, when you applied to a job you had an interview soon after, so no one had time to do any research. But I decided I wanted to vote again and I thought (incorrectly) that I would never be able to with a felony, and so I applied for a full pardon from the state of Minnesota. In 1982 it was granted. From that day forward I didn’t have to check the box.

With the pardon, I was able to live as if I had never committed the offense.

Politics through Architecture.

In the mid 80’s I reconnected with my Junior high school sweet heart. We got married and moved to Columbia Heights. I returned back to the University of Minnesota in 1989 to study architecture. In 1992 we adopted my son Matt and a couple years later my marriage ended and I also graduated with a degree in architecture. I was elected national president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, which meant going to DC to advocate for 35,000 architecture students in the U.S. and Canada. It required a lot of travel. I would tag on days to see my son in Minneapolis. When I was ready to look for a job again, there was a recession and computers were just beginning to replace architects. Firms were laying off, not hiring. I eventually got an internship in an architecture firm in Minneapolis.

While continuing to work in the profession I became involved in Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, the architecture professions corollary to Physicians for Social Responsibility. They were engaged in a prison design boycott, which interested me. One of the board members at the time was involved with issues around mass incarceration. As part of my work with them I studied the 13th amendment. It abolished slavery EXCEPT for those who had committed a crime. Which means it didn’t completely abolish it at all. After abolition we perpetuated slavery through the prison system, keeping African Americans in bondage, through prison work crews. I began to think about my own experience with incarceration and the context of the larger criminal justice system.

I was invited to attend a Critical Resistance conference in September 2009. Their goal is a complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. I was in a session with individuals talking about their difficulties in getting jobs with a record. It was really hard for me because I had a criminal record and I was pardoned and I didn’t have those problems. It was an important weekend for me. I met people from Minnesota who were active on the North side. During the key note address, Angela Davis asked all who had been incarcerated to stand. At that point only a few member of my family and close friends knew my story. The people I worked with who were attending the conference didn’t know.
I stood up.
Living on the North Side. community organizing and electoral politics.
My mom grew on 45th and Humboldt, so the North side was part of my childhood. I had spent a lot of time there as an adolescent doing the things I shouldn’t be doing. In 2001 an opportunity to care take a friend’s home while she went into the Peace Corps, brought me and my partner Joan to the North side. We fell in love with the community. I got on the neighborhood board. When the care-taking job was over three years later, we bought the house next door.

We watched the Foreclosure Crisis in North Mpls. develop. Suddenly there were all these new mortgage products that people were using. Suddenly you could buy a house just paying the interest and not paying principal. North Minneapolis was targeted, Brokers sold sub-prime mortgages, even to people that qualified for a prime mortgage because they could make a whole lot more money.

We bought a home in 2004, and in 2005-7 we would get calls nearly every night saying “now is a good time to refinance your home …” We had gotten a fairly decent mortgage, both of us were working, life was fine, so we weren’t interested. (This was before I lost my job in 2008.) Those phone calls were my first hint that the North side was preyed upon.

People were sold mortgages that weren’t good for them and ultimately put more money in other people’s pockets. Three, four, five years down the line, when their mortgage would reset, all of the sudden their mortgage went from $800 to $1700, during a really tough time when people were losing their jobs. I became involved with a group called Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition. We would get lists of people who were behind in their mortgage payments and we would go knock on their doors. We would try not to be intrusive by saying “we knew that they were behind.” We would instead say “We know that there are a lot of people in the community who are having trouble making their mortgages and we are out here letting people know that there are places that you can get assistance.”

People didn’t ask for this. Some say “they made bad decisions,” but if you’re economically struggling and you see an opportunity to make life a little easier, it is a normal reaction of anybody to take it.

Occupy Homes was mostly organizing on the South side, but there were a few people organizing North as well. They did good work. Civil Disobedience is one way to make problems visible.

Architecture offices are privileged places. I often heard comments like — “people who struggle are not working hard enough.” There was one guy— he was Black — who used to talk about people on welfare being lazy. I told him “Do you know that 60% of people on welfare are kids? How can they be lazy?” I began to think about how you reframe things so that people will stop and think before they get back to their daily lives. If challenged enough, world views can change. My own story had within it lessons about racial inequality in the judicial system that I needed to tell it. I’ll never know what it is liked to be Black in jail. – a person of color in our criminal justice system. I had privilege all along, though I may not have been aware it at the time. Yes, I worked hard, but being White gave me a different result.
I moved into electoral work during that time, beginning with the Wellstone campaign, before the plane went down in 2004. Then I worked on Keith Ellison’s congressional campaign in 2006.

During the 2008 recession I was laid off. I spent the first few hours of the day looking for work, but then — what do you do with the rest of the day? After the Critical Resistance conference I began to get involved with Take action Minnesota. I began to immerse myself in the community, working on issues of foreclosure, criminal justices, transportation (when they were looking at bringing light rail to the North side.) This involvement set me on the path toward running for the house seat.

I decided to challenge Linda Higgins for the State Senate position in 2010. That would create an opportunity for me to tell my criminal justice story. I didn’t receive the DFL endorsement but late in 2011, Linda Higgins decided not to run again. Bobby Jo Champion was in the House and he decided to run for the Senate. I ran for his House position.

That year my election was the most racially charged in the state. The seat that I hold had been represented by African Americans for about three decades. The individuals I ran against in the primary were both Black. That fact that I was White running for a seat people considered a Black seat created a lot of controversy, but I had a lot of support in the Black community because I had been out doing the work. I came to the “living room” of Aster Lee and Kirk Washington. They had gathered a group to interrogate me and they didn’t cut me any slack. I think that is important. We shouldn’t cut elected officials or candidates any slack. I have my own point of view and the only way to change it is to have it checked. It is human nature not to want to be challenged, but we are all products of our life experiences and we need other perspectives.
It was a tough race. Due to the foreclosure crisis the population in North Mpls. had dropped. Meanwhile the population in downtown increased. The district was redrawn to adjust to the population changes. It was now nearly all of downtown and near North. Due to the redistricting few people thought I had a chance of winning. I worked really hard. I was called a lot of things. I told myself, “This is what people of color deal with every day. You are a White guy of privilege, and someone is making a few comments about you? You need to get over that.”
Elections are a bit like basket ball games. Depending on where you are when the clock expires, you win or lose. A few days before the DFL endorsing convention I received the endorsement of Congressman Ellison and that changed the trajectory of my campaign. I won the primary by 20 votes.
Police relations and judicial justice on the North side.

I had the opportunity to attend an event on equity at the Kennedy School involving 70 state and local officials, Police Chiefs and County Deputies. I brought up that I lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood, that I had driven up and down Plymouth Avenue sometimes five or six times a day for over a decade and I never gotten pulled over. I’ve had headlights out, tail lights out. Yet everyone I’ve seen getting pulled over was Black, hands and feet spread on the car.
Some of the officers at the conference started ripping into me, saying, “You can’t say that.” I responded, “Look, I didn’t say this happens everywhere in Minneapolis. I said this happens on the street where I live. this is my experience, so you can’t tell me that I can’t say that.”

Relations were already strained between police and community on the North side before Jamar Clark was killed on November 15 2015. I think the communities’ response was appropriate.
I don’t know if in the aftermath a whole lot has changed. The Chief was talking about all the things they were doing at the same time that the inspector who is out in the community telling officers they need to connect with people, ended up on administrative leave. The good news is a couple months later he has now been assigned to a new division to look at community engagement city wide. I think Commander Friestleben, if he’s able to surround himself with the right people, could set the police on a different course of relations with the community. So I am optimistic, cautiously optimistic. As a paramilitary organization things can change quickly because it’s all top down. But there will be resistance from the rank and file. We all know police federation president officer Kroll, there are other individuals like him that exhibit racism. Until they understand who they are as people, it is going to be hard for them to police communities in a way that is understanding of the community they are in.If your day is spent in a car responding to emergencies, arresting people, giving them the one over, you begin to develop a view that that is all there is. Every officer should have implicit bias training and it should start while they are in training. Maybe there are some officers that should just not be on the North side, or south-side, they should be policing the southwest Minneapolis, but then you have what happened to Philando Castile in Falcon Heights…..

Clearly we need to train officers differently. The legislature can do a lot. There are two statutes we could change: 609.066 allows police officers to use deadly force when they believe their lives or someone else lives are threatened. This statute is why virtually no grand jury would ever be able to charge an officer for murder. 626.89 establishes a “reasonable standard” for police which is different from normal people standard. So they can act in very different ways than normal people can and get away with in a given situation.

In addition to changing those two statutes, we can change the pool of officers going into policing. That may even involve reducing the size. Quite frankly I think that done in the right way, if the size of the force gets smaller as a result, that is not a problem if we are policing differently in the community.

And then the community plays a role. When I was growing up and you got out of line, a neighbor would call you out. That doesn’t happen anymore and part to the reason is the number of guns on the street. We have way too many guns in our society and that is clearly driven by gun manufacturers because the only way they make money is when they sell guns and ammo.

A lot of people operate out of fear. Fear is a bad place to be in when making decisions on how to act. Clearly the officer who shot Philando Castile was agitated, fearful. If you watch that tape and I don’t know how you can’t question what happened. We didn’t see what happened prior to the shots but the audio makes it clear that the stop was somewhat questionable. The officer had assumptions going into that stop.

Some say the difference between an officer alive and a officer dead is a quarter of a second — but we need to change that. I look at the situation with Philando Castile and Jamar Clark and I think —- it’s a problem when officers come to a scene and 61 seconds later someone is shot in the head. That is where issues of de-escalation training are critical, and having officers with the right attitudes. In the Jamar Clark case those two officers had past records. It was astonishing to hear the Chief say “look, these are the people I have to hire from – this is the pool.” That is very telling. She was almost saying, “I don’t have a lot of choices of cops to hire, so some of the cops I hire are going to be questionable.”

Like Occupy Homes and the foreclosure crisis, the occupations of I-94 and 35W that happened recently, make it so people can’t keep their blinders on. Whether they agree with the tactics or not, whether they believe police are acting as they should or not, they can no longer ignore what is going on. If you are listening to the radio, watching TV you are now aware of what is happening because people are bringing it to your attention.
Getting the political Inside/ Outside balance right to further justice.

I have my colleagues all the time tell me —Oh those protestors (grumble grumble). I say, look, they play an important role. We don’t move until the community moves. I am in a safe seat, I don’t have to worry about how far on the edges I get, but most politicians, are afraid, they have to make compromises to stay in office.
I decided when I got into office that I would go in everyday and press a button, to vote for what was right and true. I’m not there to assure my reelection. I’m there to work for the people in my district and if they decide I am not, they will vote me out. My colleagues in vulnerable seats point out that I have that luxury. I remind them that I won my primary by 20 votes the first time around. I do know what a close election can be like.

My first two years in the house we had a majority in the House, the Senate, and a democrat in the Governor’s office and we were able to do some amazing stuff. There were some things we should have done, that we didn’t because there was hope that we might be able to stay in the majority with the 2014 election. We did not pass  One Minnesota – drivers license for undocumented immigrants, (so they could drive legally like they could prior to 2000) and voting restoration for people with criminal records. We should be like North Dakota and allow people out in the community with criminal records to vote.

We lost the majority AND we did not pass this essential legislation. It was a wrong calculation. Hindsight is easy. Now we are trying to win back the majority so we can do those things we should have done when we had it.

My life project: architecture and design of livable cities

My dream is to use architecture to design equitable neighborhoods. In 2013 I received a Bush fellowship and one of the things I looked at was Built Environments and how they impact the health of neighborhoods. I traveled to Medellin, Colombia to see what they had been doing. They went into some of the most difficult neighborhoods and built libraries, schools and parks. They built gondolas that would go up and down the mountain – public transportation for the poorest communities living on the sides of mountains. The gondolas gave people more time to work, and more time at home. It was amazing to see the transformation of that city. That is something we have not figured out. We spend billions on social programs that may move the bar a little bit toward equity, but we are reluctant to spend on physical infrastructure.

What you see every day as you walk out your door affects your whole being as a person. If it looks like the world doesn’t give a shit about you, it is hard for you to give a shit about you. I’m hoping to find that interaction between community, policy and design to begin to transform our neighborhoods. That is my life goal at this point —a big audacious hairy thing that I’d like to do at some point.

The natural evolution when you begin to transform communities is that it creates gentrification, where people in existing communities end up leaving and new people come in. My desire is that we develop a way that people that are living there, actually stay and benefit from the rejuvenation or rethinking of their community. One thing to make that happen is you have to change laws. We can’t dictate who lives where. It is both good and bad that we are unable to do that. When I talked to people on the North side about light rail, I say you know if you put in a thousand unit development and everyone who moves into it is White, even if no one else leaves the community you still created a demographic shift in the community that will have consequences. I think we need to discuss how we design housing developments but we also need to discuss community amenities and infrastructure for those who are there so they can stay intact.

The amount of money that has come to the North side in the last couple decades is the amount it takes to sustain the status quo, so that things stay the same. Not enough to be transformative. R. T. Rybak used to talk about the Midtown Exchange on the southside and how they were going to do the same thing on the North side. Well, for the Midtown Exchange, the city brought in $50 million and the amount of investment that followed was huge. They are not going to do that on the North side. So to make that comparison is naive at best.

When you don’t fund programs enough they will not work. That doesn’t mean they could not work. I’ve seen, far too often in my life, even within architecture — sometimes you start initiatives and you don’t see results so you stop them. You do not wait to see whether they would have borne fruit. Other programs and initiatives that have been around for a long long time and are clearly not doing anything anymore, we keep because of the legacies they have.

Segregation, racial inequality, immigration and whiteness.

Cooper High school — where I went —- is now is predominantly people of color — mostly African American. It speaks to how much Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs have changed in the last 40 years. It also shows that we have returned to segregation.

There was a while in Minneapolis when we began to have classrooms that were diverse. Kids of different races sitting side by side, — late 70s and 80s. We began changing back in the 1990s. Although the Minneapolis school district is very integrated I you look at specific schools there are only a few schools that are integrated and diverse.

I think preparing kids to live in diverse society they need to grow up in diverse settings and that includes a classroom where they are sitting next to someone different from them. I’m not talking about test scores, but preparing people to live in our world. The move toward segregation is tough to watch.

Charter schools have exacerbated the situation because they are tending to be focused demographically. It is hard to argue with people who say Black kids learn better in a classroom with other Black kids. I won’t argue with that when we put so much focus on test scores, versus looking at how people are doing five years after high school, it is tough to create the path forward.

In many ways we are at a tipping point. The opportunity is there for us to all work together in different ways. I see what is happening with Black Lives Matter and the group that shut down 35W — this is all of us trying to work around this issue. We are inflicting the comfortable to bring comfort to the inflicted. Social justice isn’t just for people who are inflicted by a structural system that disadvantages them. It affects all of us. The people in Wayzata are paying more taxes to deal with issues of locking people up throughout the state. Could that money be used better? Absolutely! But we have created a system that finds it easier to lock people up than to deal with the problems that cause their incarceration.

I got tons of emails from people about the liquor on Sunday law, 99.9% of them are contacting me for the first time. I thought, if your biggest concern in life is buying alcohol on Sunday – your life is pretty good and I’m probably not the representative that is going to be fighting for this issue. I’m here for the people for whom life has not dealt them a good set of cards. Those are the people I advocate for.

Immigration 

When we were taking all the land from Native Americans, the diversity was European, there were 27 different European languages on the Iron Range and there were conflicts between Eastern and Western European groups. After a generation or two however they were all White. That hasn’t happened for communities of color. I have a friend on the Iron Range who wants to bring Somali community members up to share their immigration stories, which aren’t that dissimilar for the families on the Iron Range

Part of the fear of losing whiteness is what do we have left? In becoming White we lost much our cultures. I can’t tell you my ancestor’s traditions in the ways that communities of color and Native Americans can. Once you lose power and domination what do you have? And we all know it’s really hard to give up power.

Building equity

We have huge disparities in Minnesota. People who cannot afford electricity, yet there are people who have houses with fifty rooms living by the lakes. We tried to address some of these disparities at the legislature in 2013-14 with things like all day kindergarten and increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2%. Still, what we have seen since the 2008 recession is that the recovery is going back to the top 5%. We have to figure out how to rebalance that. I think we can push business to play a more positive role in the working families’ campaigns. They should understand that paid sick time, livable wage and family leave are issues critical to having a positive productive workforce. There is a reason why we have those fortune 500 companies here. Some businesses understand it.

I am optimistic. Although when you make progress the right wing digs in their heels — but we are now having conversations about equity we would not be able to have 10 years ago. I know it won’t be fast enough. There are some mornings I wonder – how long can I handle the speed of this — but working with community keeps me energized.

Minneapolis Project.