Mel Reeves. Fighting the Power.

mespeaking2

I was adopted informally when I was one years old. I don’t know the whole story about my birth mother and I don’t want to speculate. I know she had 13 children.  I was the 13th. Something happened to her after the 8th kid. She could no longer handle all those children.

One day when my older sisters were supposed to take care of me, an older woman noticed the infant sitting in the dirt by himself in our Miami yard.  She  fussed about how no one was taking care of the baby, took me to her house where she lived with her daughter and called my birth mother to come pick me up.

My birth mother never came. Those women became my mother and grandmother. Eventually they adopted one of my sisters daughters as well. They would always harp on us about how good we had it. It made sense to them, considering the deprived situation they came from. From my adoptive mother’s  perspective we had a roof over our heads and we never missed meals, how could we complain?

But from the perspective of us kids it was hell, inside and outside the house. They meant well, but they were overly strict, border-line abusive. They didn’t have any kid skills. We had so many chores, it was almost like my mother and grandmother were projecting something from slavery days. They were hardcore — old school. “Children seen not heard,”  though my grandmother had a soft interior.

I was physically small when I was a kid. And poor. I never had clothes that fit.  I wore a lot of high-water pants. Small, poorly dressed and low income. It made me the victim of bullies.  It was tough on my psyche. In junior high I got jobs and had my own money to buy clothes. I bought flashy stuff and then didn’t have enough for essentials. It wasn’t until high school that I figured out how to buy the clothes I needed.

Once when my mother and I went to a PTA meeting, some kid hit me in the back. I didn’t retaliate. I remember my mother being really upset I didn’t I defend myself. I didn’t feel like anyone had my back, including her, so how could I defend myself? My ego was as low as a kid’s ego could be.  That changed when I did start to defend myself in junior high school. Kids knew if they put their hands on me they were going to pay a price.

I think I learned to read before school because I was terrified not to learn. Once my mother put some of my stuff in a sheet, wrapped it on to a pole, and told me to leave, because I did not learn. But, my biggest beef with my mother was giving teachers free reign to corporally punish me. One time my fifth grade teacher called my house and said I threatened her.   That was a lie. My mom woke me up and I got a whupping.

I was the original book worm. I hid myself in books — read everything. One of my favorite series in third grade was the Boxcar Children. I also enjoyed a U.S. history series, full of stories about the West and the Civil War. They were propaganda of course, but they could not have been too bad, because I grew up with a positive view of Native American folks.  In Jr. High I became a WWII buff. I had all the dates and times down.

I used to go over to the neighbors and use their encyclopedias.  Eugene and Else Justice.  They lived across the street and had a bunch of kids — six girls and a boy. They were all older than me. I looked up to the boy. He was a deacon in church. I liked him. He liked me too. He was a father figure to me. He had his own construction company. I looked forward to his visits. He had a big old smile. He was no nonsense. A man’s man. He sensed that I was a lonely kid and he spent  time with me.

Then there were the Fennels. Their older son, Dwight J. Fennell, got a Ph.D. and eventually became a president of Texas College,  an HBCU.  I remember when he came back from college I thought, “That college thing is the way to go. He was a cool cat — a cool guy.

Anything that happened on the block I looked forward to.  We had a neighbor who had an uncle. We all called him “Uncle Van.” He lived in Chicago and Tennessee. All the kids liked him. He was gregarious — the life of the party. He would bring gifts for the kids. We all looked forward to him coming.

We knew all the neighbors for two blocks around. You could borrow a cup of sugar – an egg, whatever. That did happen. My mom had too much pride to sign up for welfare. She was a presser in a factory.  The work was seasonal.  A  neighbor who was getting welfare, would get commodities and share them. I like the canned meat. It would come in big role. I hated the instant potatoes though.

My mother would always act like we were better off. She was good at painting alternate realities and getting you to live in it.

Miami, Florida in the 1960s and 70s.

When I was little, Miami beaches were segregated. The public beach that was available to us was Virginia Key Beach. I remember seeing miles and miles of Black people. I experienced white people in stores. I didn’t think much of them one way or another. My classmates were justifiably wary of white people.  Their parents had experienced racism.

At ten I read Tear Down the Walls: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement. It told about racism in the South, informing me about a movement going on around me that I didn’t know about other wise. I filed it away. Civil Rights activists in Miami were wedded to the “big man” style of organizing. They got things done, but they didn’t build a movement.

My mother had a little degree of self-hate. She compared Black people negatively to White people.  After Martin Luther King was killed, I heard her yell out to neighbors— “They killed y’alls leader.” I held that against her for a long time.

There was class division in our community. Some of the teachers resented me because I was poor but smart like the middle class kids. They would bend over backwards to be unfair.  Once I got into a fight after school. My classmate who didn’t like me told on me and I got paddle boarded. Another time, my friend drew a rabbit. I laughed at the drawing. I got the paddle. Those memories sting.

My elementary school was segregated. We had hand-me down books. There was one teacher who was my saving grace. Ms Miller. Fourth grade. She took a real interest in me. She liked me and I liked her. It was the only time I made A’s in elementary school.

In junior high they bussed in some White folks. There weren’t enough White kids for the experiment to work. We didn’t mix with them. It didn’t work out well.

We had one White teacher in Junior High. Miss Morin. A flower child — fresh out of college.   She came to school dressed in mini skirts. We were 13-14. We thought we were going to take advantage of her. But she was tough, and a really good teacher — stern about us learning. I think she helped me start writing. She worked really hard with people on their reading skills. She stood out as a great teacher.

For high school I got bussed. Our neighborhoods was split four ways. I got to leave behind some kids I needed to get away from. The school I went to was 70% Jewish, 20% Black. There were 3,500 kids in that high school. It was a new building, air conditioned, with technology, a TV production studio, radio station, and a nice theater and gym. I became manager of the basketball team. I joined the theater club. The environment helped me. I blossomed, made straight As in 10th and 11th grade. There were some good teachers. One taught us Black history and culture. She was serious about us.

My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Hart. He taught African American history. He turned out to be a conservative, voted for Nixon. — He said “Nixon knows the Black middle class wants a piece of the pie and he’s cutting us in.”

I hit a bump in 12th grade. School bored me. I couldn’t concentrate. I still had a thirst for knowledge so I went to the library instead of school. We had no attendance requirements. I was smart enough that I could just come in and take the test and pass the class.

One of my buddies started to smoke weed. I did too. Smoking, drinking. It eventually caught up with me. I lost the basketball manager position. The administration still liked me so they let me slide.

On day I was confronted by  the assistant principal. He said “The teachers are letting you get away with murder. You have outsmarted them. You gotta go to class though, or they will figure out a way to outsmart you.”

Sure enough, come graduation time, I hadn’t finished the PE credit, and, though they let me walk, they would not give me my diploma. They wanted me to come back in the fall and finish well.

I gave high school the finger. I didn’t go back. I didn’t go to senior prom either because I didn’t have a girl. I was a nerd. I had just started to date.

I floundered for another year. Stayed with my mom, and worked just enough to put money in my pocket for weed. It was 1975. Affirmative Action time. At the end of my junior year I had eight college scholarship offers. I could have had my pick of colleges. I blew them all. After all I had been thought I just want motivated.

Church 

My saving grace was starting to do a few odd jobs at the Baptist Church. I wound up joining the church. Pretty soon I was taking Christianity seriously. Before long I felt called to the ministry. The minister said “OK. We are going to give you an opportunity to prove your skills.”

I borrowed something from the Declaration of Independence. The point was that Jesus can set you free. They liked it. They licensed me to preach. The preachers son got his license at the same time and we had a ball hanging out together.

Middle class Black churches required ministers to get a Divinity degree. So, I signed up for Bible College — Miami Christian College. I got good at basketball and made the college team. I had a really good English composition teacher who helped me with  writing.

While the teachers were good, some of the white students were ignorant. A few were even surprised that Blacks were Christians! Some were absolute racists.  It shocked the hell out of me. I thought that Christians would put that racism thing down.  It was bad enough, that I decided to leave.

I went to Miami Dade Community College. That was great! I got interested in theater. The students were mostly women, so I had a ball. They were from all over Miami. Salt of the earth people. I had a great sociology professor. We had to write a paper on the death penalty. At that time I had a conservative Bible view of the death penalty. An eye for an eye.  He took my paper and said:

“You can’t be Black and be for the death penalty! I am not going to give you a grade. Read this book: The Poor get Prison and the Rich Get Off and rewrite your paper.” I read the book. It changed my perspective.

At the Community College I got a part in a play by Ed Bullins, called A Son, Come Home. My theater teacher told me I was an actor so I started to apply to four-year Christian colleges that had theater programs. Northwestern College accepted me, so off I went, on a greyhound, to Orange City, Iowa.

College in Iowa

Talk about culture shock. I got off the bus next to a corn field. I was like — where am I? All this green and corn. It was beautiful. I took to it right away. In Miami we grew fruits in the back yard. I loved the green.

There were not many black folks at Northwestern, but those of us who were there bonded. One of my classmates conspired to make me the leader of the makeshift Black Student Union. They said “this guy can lead.” I was a pretty good hell raiser. We dealt with the same old crap. Questions like “How did you get here.”  I got pretty good at debating with those racists. I was the first student to speak during chapel service.I had started running cross country at Northwestern.

I realize just now, that the theater professor who pushed my application, was probably thinking he was bringing in a Black man who could sing and dance. I could not sing or dance. I ended up doing theater tech. The tech instructor was a goofy guy, but he was serious about us.  I’m grateful for that experience. Learning to make a theater set gives you the confidence you can to do anything.

Minneapolis in the 1980s. 

In the summer of 1980 I followed a classmate from the Twin Cities suburbs, to Minneapolis to work with a summer youth program.   I liked South Minneapolis.  The church I was working for was gracious enough to pay my tuition at Bethel Seminary.

Their youth program was pretty good — but my heart was not into Bethel’s Eurocentric schooling. I’m still trying to figure out how you can be conservative and Christian.  To me its an oxymoron.

I did make friends at Bethel with one of the best people I’ve ever met. She was from DePere, Wisconsin. She would drive me to school.  We’d go running together. She made being in that school easier, but…. I couldn’t stay.

It was a turning point for my activism. I joined Clergy and Laity Concerned and became their racial justice coordinator. We worked on jobs, housing, supported MN Students Against Apartheid. That is when I met Janice Payne Dorliae. She was a former Panther — a real revolutionary. I also befriended Chris Nisan who was a long time activist.  Janice would question us. She would tell us what to do. She would have us read and study. She would tell me about her past. She would engage us in political discussions, assign us books and ask  what we thought. I’m trying to do that now with younger folks. Study groups. I got that from Janice.

On the first day of the year, 1987, Janice died tragically. Her death was a huge blow for me.

Fighting  local brushfires of injustice. 

In 1989 there was the Embassy Suites case.  Cris Nisan did fabulous work on that case. It was so egregious. Black college students had rented a room. Someone called the police complaining about noise. The police came, with guns drawn and beat up some of the students. Chris convinced them to hold a press conference. He had the presence of mind to move quickly. The cops wound up not being charged.

I started writing for the Spokesmen Recorder. I was editor of and on during the 1990s. Cris Nisan and I started playing the role of social justice firemen. People would call about whatever was going on and we’d show up. We would go into the schools with parents. We even took on landlords. People knew who we were. We would show up and threaten to raise hell, get people to do the right thing. We would go to people’s jobs and support them as they raised hell with their employers. We were a little crazy, a little wild. We wouldn’t take crap from anybody.

When we worked for Northwest Airlines  we let the union  know they weren’t representing all their people. Some of those union folks hated my guts, others loved me to death. The old hard core guys loved me, those who had been with the union for decades, back when people were militant in their advocacy of labor.

I went to see what the housing court was like.  There was this woman with a baby, 19 years old who was being evicted in the middle of winter.  I  threatened to write a story.  They let her stay in her apartment.

Another case I remember well. It was in the paper. This lady was driving and had a diabetic stroke. She couldn’t talk, like people who have seizures. It made her drive erratically. She pulled over and the police drove up and began screaming at her, but she couldn’t hear, couldn’t talk. The cops dragged her through the front window, wrecking her back. The doctors she saw at HCMC doctors punked out and wouldn’t give her documentation. She went to Fairview for a second opinion. They came to the conclusion that she had had a diabetic episode. She won a suit. A lot of money. Moved to Dallas.

Long after, she came to visit me. She looked really good — I almost didn’t recognize her. She wanted to give me a part of her settlement. I told her “I can’t take your money — that’s  not what I did it for”. She said “What if I gave you just something.” She couldn’t believe I wouldn’t take her money. She took me out to lunch. She was able to retire, get out of here and buy a house.

We helped a lot of people who I don’t remember. At my 60th birthday party a man offered to pick up some more beer. I handed him some cash, but he refused it saying, “I know you don’t remember, but you did me a solid a long time ago.  Your money is no good to me. I’ll get the beer.”

The murder of Tycel Nelson by police on December 1st, 1990, in North Minneapolis was a pivotal moment. I’ll never forget the organizing around that.
The LA times reported that “racial calm in Minneapolis could be shattered by shooting.” There was a meeting at the Urban League. The city was afraid of the  community response and tried to get more conservative folks to get out in front of it. They were trying to keep a lid on things instead of trying to get justice for Tycel’s family.  We did some good organizing around that.

A few years later the cop who killed Tycel, Dan May, was given an award. Salt in the wound.

A lot of these cops who kill people go about their lives like they didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve never understood that. They swallow the hype that they are the arm of the state.

Look, I won’t argue with a criminal with a gun. There was a guy in Miami who used to stick people up. You just gave him your money. He had the gun. It’s the same with cops.  You don’t have rights when the police pull you over. You want to survive the encounter. They have the gun. You know the cops recruit psychopaths. They recruit racists.

 Miami, 2002-09

I went back to Miami in 2002, because my mom had cancer. I had been offered a  job with the Miami Times,  an African American Weekly.  That didn’t work out.

I got on the Miami Dade County NAACP board, and helped them take on labor complaints. It was worthwhile work.  I was able to work in coalition with the ACLU on police accountability issues.   We forced them to create a civilian review board. The ACLU was doing good work around the Patriot Act then.  I wish they would get more visible with Take a Knee today.

Struggling with the rest of the NAACP board, I got in touch with the middle class bias in Black leadership in Miami that oppressed me as a kid. I was investigating a case where a  security guard jumped  kids at Miami’s Edison High. I had met the kids who were in the school yard and interviewed them. They told the same story, over and over. The cops maced the kids. Adults were being dishonest. The media chose to believe the cops.

When I reported what happened to the NAACP board, most members chose to believe the media reports.  One of the members who disrespected me was a middle class woman who had been my teacher, who had made my life miserable as a kid. Now here she was calling me a lier! It pissed me off something severe. I said “Shame on all of you.”  I haven’t talked to them since.

I also took up the issue of Black Beach Week. Every Memorial Day since the 1990s  Black young people have been coming down to South Beach for a weekend of partying. People from as far north as New York, Virginia, come to it.  It draws tens of thousand of young people. The police arrest hundreds of kids every year and they rough some of them up.  (The event made news when someone got killed a couple years ago.)

As a board member of the NAACP, I and member of the ACLU sat down with the mayor, police reps and city officials and said, “You know these kids are coming. Treat them fairly.” We had some success. The number of petty arrests that were just racism, went down.  Those kids weren’t any worse then any other kids coming down to party in South Florida. But the city of Miami Beach didn’t want them.

I didn’t get a lot of traction with the Middle Class Blacks in the church and NAACP.  They had a conservative attitude: “If they misbehave …”.  But we were able to get the Police Chief, Mayor’s Office and Visitor’s Bureau to take some action. They were worried about their reputation.

When it comes to fighting racism in the education system, conservative Black folks often say “it’s the parents.” One incident in Miami illustrated to  me the fallacy of that thinking.  There was this failing school in a Black, working class part of  Brownsville, a  suburb of Miami. A new principal came and was doing a great job. He greeted every kid, got parents involved. The PTA was moving forward.  Soon as they began to succeed they replaced the principal. For me it was an aha moment. They don’t really want the parents involved!

I helped the parents organize, but they just refused to bring the principal back.  They even demoted him. They wanted to teach them a lesson.  A very important lesson.

I did some good work organizing the  Miami anti-war coalition to oppose the war in Iraq.  It was a good coalition — multi generational and multicultural. We did some education around the war and produced a really good pamphlet.

In 2006-7 I started doing some writing for Black Agenda Report and continued to do so when I moved back to the Twin Cities in 2009.

While I was in Miami we had Hurricane Rita. People don’t remember, because it after that came Katrina, but Rita was very destructive in South Florida. A lot of lot of blue tarps in Miami them. The roof came off our house.  I lost all my  papers.

Organizing in Minneapolis 2009-Present. 

Back in Minneapolis I worked on Natalie Johnson Lee’s City Council campaign.  It was during that campaign that her opponent Don Samuels said they should “Burn North High down.” She lost.

After that I thought I was going to do more with church.  I went to a religious retreat center for six months. That was invigorating.  I came back and got involved in fighting police brutality and the 1% instead.

The Occupy Movement was a good push back against the bailout of wall street. It   popularized the fact that we live in a class society. Occupy Homes in Minneapolis was powerful because we were literally saving people’s home.  We went into neighborhoods and helped a particular person who was losing their home. People supported their neighbors  We had barbecues in people’s back yards. We  took on the banks — especially TCF; went to shareholders meetings. The organizing was instructional. It showed how us this is how you organize — go door to door and talk to people.

The campaign to save North High school was also instructive. We engaged the  activist alumni, and just stayed with it, forcing the school board’s hand. We had a meeting at Zion Baptist church– 150 folks.  We created the blueprints for a  community school. They implemented it a little bit — we got the green house and the radio station, kept the classrooms small, but we didn’t quite get the “community school” we envisioned. Still, we won because we got them to keep the school open .

I helped organize the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar after he was killed by Minneapolis police. We organized a broad community meeting.  After the 4th Precinct Occupation was shut down, we were able to keep the struggle going.

King Demitrius Pendeleton and I helped organize a protest/vigil  after Justine Damand was killed by Minneapolis police. We’ve been saying for a long time, it’s not just Black folks…

After borrowing Marcus Harcus’s idea, I worked with some folks to start Malcom X commemorations in Minneapolis in 2014, the 50th anniversary of his death.  I would like to do it on grander scale some day. It is in line with my politics  to understand who he was.  Before he died he had become a real revolutionary. Internationalist, anti-capitalist, the guy who wouldn’t vote Democrat or Republican…

Reconciling and Revolutionary thoughts at 60. 

People refuse to do the the research on the cops.They have an ugly history starting with the slave patrols. They have been killing Black people since slavery. Thousands of people. But not just Black people. Cops dropped bombs on workers fighting for a few more nickels or the right to organize in the Colorado mines at the beginning of the last century. The cops have continually intervened on behalf of bosses and against workers.

I have never understood people, who call themselves human beings, who have the audacity to malign someone while they are bleeding. That is one of the meanest things you can do.

There is a section of the working class that will always ally with the cops, but there are others in the political middle— you gotta win them over — No one has ever made a revolution by themselves. Just you and a handful of folks — won’t do it. You have to win people over to your side.

Protesting is not enough.  If people don’t have any politics, they end up with Democratic party politics — a dead end.

You have to model what you want to see. I try to be open. I have a lot of ideas.

How do I do this work? I live a simplified lifestyle. I keep my expenses low.  When I was organizing  around the murder of Terrence Franklin by MPD,  a guy gave me a ride home. It was like he was looking under my skirt, so to speak — seeing the way I lived. He said “You don’t have a car?!  You share a place ?!

I don’t have savings. Only enough for my kids to bury me.

I peruse the ministry on and off. I started this work because of my understanding of the Bible. The call to do justice. Every time I go back I say, “I can’t do this.” In my reading of the Bible. I see a strain of love and justice running through it. There is craziness in that book as well, but I found in the prophets, a call to do justice and the idea that it’s a sin to create an unequal society.  There are rules about interest and redistribution when things get out of balance. Those are  socialist ideas.

I have always been sensitive to the underdog. Rather then wanting to leave the hood,  I wanted to go back to it. I know from when I was a kid, what it’s like to be friendless. It’s very personal. I feel peoples’ pain. Police violence stuff is especially painful. When the state kills its own….

What I’ve been doing lately is writing, working on my website: Fight the Power Journal.  I’m also trying to build a local movement around Take a Knee.

Next event is November 19 at the U.S. Bank Stadium. With any luck, we will build a movement.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Cathy Jones. Post office, Park Board, Fourth Precinct. Demanding equity in the Minneapolis Commons.

img_1477

One thing about me is I don’t carry a grudge. I can hardly remember what I ate for dinner yesterday! I know I need to let things go. Otherwise I’d die of the stress. I am glad that as a letter carrier I work outside. It helps me get things out of my head. I need to be in nature – spend time around water a few times a week. It replenishes my soul. I’m a spiritual person. I don’t belong to a church. I have my own altar at home. Everyday I wake up and say, “Thank you God for another day! Let’s hit it!”

I was born in St Paul and lived there for a brief minute, until my biological parents put me up for adoption. From 6 months to 18, I lived in a foster home in the Linden Hills neighborhood with people I consider  my parents. They had  four biological children  and fostered many kids for short periods. Me and my younger brother Timmy — also a foster child  — lived with them for our entire childhoods. My mother also did daycare. There always many kids in our home.

My father is a Swede. My mother was Irish and Timmy — who passed away recently — was Native, so we always said we were the most international family in a predominantly white neighborhood. We traveled North every year to the farm where my dad grew up in Fosston, Minnesota. We camped and took a trips out West.  I was in a Swedish dancing group at the Swedish Institute in the summers. I wore a Swedish folk costume and performed at Minnehaha Park and the State Fair. Typical middle class white living.

But my older sister Karol and my parents let me and Timmy know about our cultures. They took Timmy to pow wows. I was wearing Phillis Wheatley T-shirts at the age of nine. Karol is a lesbian. She was an anti-war and women’s rights activist and had a big influence on me.

In 1969 my mother walked me to the corner before kindergarten and said (using the terminology of the time) “You are a Negro. Hold your head high and remember not to let anyone tell you they are better than you.” Who would know I would remember those words and gather strength from them my entire life? I am thankful my parents took me in. I had an amazing childhood.

I went to Lake Harriet for kindergarten and a private Catholic school — St Thomas the Apostle on West 44th, for first through seventh grade. I went to Southwest High. I wasn’t in school much during my 10th grade year. I was more interested in what was happening in the world. Connecting with other kids from other schools. Doing things I probably shouldn’t be doing. Exploring. But I still managed to graduate early.

When I was 19 I had the opportunity to meet my biological parents. I did some investigative work. They were no longer together but my biological father just happened to be over there the day I went to find my mother. My biological mother thought I was adopted and she would never be able to find me. I think my foster mom knew if she didn’t adopt me I would have an easier time connecting with them. She was keen that way.

I wouldn’t say I am really close now to my biological family, but we are in contact. My biological brothers look like my sons. I look like my  mom’s sister.

After growing up in Linden Hills, I lived in North Minneapolis and I became acutely aware of the inequities in city resources and policing. The only police I ever saw growing up in Linden Hills was the crossing guard officer. I was a crossing guard. My first husband was from North Minneapolis.. When we were dating in high school he would drive me home and we were constantly stopped and questioned at Glenwood and Lyndale, just as we were leaving the North side. They would say “Where do you think you’re going” — as if there was a gate! The way police drive up and down Broadway Avenue — that would never happen on France Avenue. It is not like drugs and guns are not in Linden Hills — it’s just that people there have money.

Becoming a Postal Worker and Union organizer.

After high school I did a lot of retail work.  One of those places was union, but I wasn’t aware of the union then — even though my father was a Teamster.  At 40 I began looking for something that would pay a decent wage and provide a retirement pension.  There was an ad in the paper for postal workers. It said: women of color strongly encouraged to apply. I figured I had a good chance. I also liked that you got hired based on a test score. I would pass the test and everything would be great.

It was a year and a half before I got hired. (People are getting hired quicker now because the baby boomers are retiring, but not then.)

Being a letter carrier completely changed my life. It put me in a whole  new income bracket and it turned me into a labor activist. My shop steward saw I was speaking out at work, and tapped  me to go to union meetings. I started going after three months and have not stopped. I have been a steward, and a trustee. I am currently on my second term as a delegate to the Minneapolis Labor Federation. I continue to work in the rank in file. trying to get people inspired to join the union movement.

I started delivering the mail in North Minneapolis. It is really is a diamond in the rough over there. The mail is light so its easier on the back.  (More affluent neighborhoods have more mail.)  And the sunrises are gorgeous on the North side. I would have stayed but I had to bid out. Seniority. I have delivered to every area in North Minneapolis and now I deliver in Uptown.

Letter carriers are the eyes and ears of the community.

Organizing for a more equitable Postal Workers Union at the National Level.

In 2014 our convention was in Philadelphia. David Noble — a known figure — ran for president. I was on his slate, running for executive vice president. We were trying to get a group of women into positions of leadership in the union. Usually the union appointed people and nobody challenged them. At the convention I was working the back of the room because I needed signatures to be on the ballot.  It was pretty easy. People wanted a change. We were coming off a bad contract. We were a clean slate.  Still, they were in shock that this was happening. For decades there were no elections — just appointments.

When my friend came up to nominate me, someone actually pushed her away from the nominating table! Then the most beautiful thing happened. Women of color from Florida started nominating people. They were not with us but everyone thought they were. They had their own slate, but similar goals — to diversify and clean up the union.

Our NALC printing company ran the election. Ballots were left alone over night!   David Noble was arrested for trying to stay with the ballots. All the candidates should be with the ballots until they were counted. How else do we know they counted all the ballots?

This election cost our union 1/2 million dollars.  I hadn’t spent a dime,  —- just advertised on facebook —- and I got 19,000 votes — a third of a vote. I am wondering how many votes I really got.  I regret that I did not go out to the ballot counting.

After I ran in 2014, I was told by one of the powers-that-be in my branch that I wasn’t qualified to run for national office and I was a disgrace to my union, and that he would personally make sure that I would never be given a position of power in the union.  I’m sure there was pressure on my local from the national saying “she gets nothing now.” They have retaliated against all of us on the slate.

At a Women in NAACP (WIN) luncheon to support a Nellie Stone Johnson statue and college scholarship, an organizer of the scholarship (for any family member of a union member of color) was so delighted with my work she asked me to be part of the executive committee. She said “Get your union to write a letter and you’re in.” But the President of my union refused to write me a letter! For a white guy — a union brother — to stop a woman of color — a union sister — from being on a board created by a women of color — That does not happen! That hurt.

In 2012 we were fighting to keep 6 day delivery, so workers rallied.  That is off the table now because we got that Amazon delivery contract, increasing our work to 7 days a week. Right now we don’t have a fight. It can make people complacent . We are fighting complacency. Our NALC truth page has 13,000 likes — a place for getting people more aware of the union and what is going on. We talk hours, pay, treatment by management — any issue you can think of. National doesn’t like it because they have always had a monopoly on communication, but with Facebook —- its a brand new day.

The workers’ movement is changing. I had tried unsuccessfully to get a resolution on Black Lives Matter passed locally. They wanted me to take out the words “Jamar Clark” out of the resolution. I wouldn’t. This year, the national passed a resolution supporting a Black Lives Matter movement! I don’t know the exact race demographics of letter carriers, but 60% of those who came to the national convention this year were people of color.

Fourth Precinct and Governor’s Mansion Occupations

I got involved in the NAACP a round about way. I became a fellow with the Nexus BCLI, a leadership institute. Nekima Levy Pounds was a mentor for the program. We got to know each other. She got me involved in the campaign to rescind the Lurking and Spitting ordinances and then drew me in when she decided to run for NAACP president in 2015. We have been through a lot in a the last year.

When I think about the fourth precinct occupation, I smell my winter coat- –  that smoky smell. My whole family spent time out there at all hours of the night.  I never spent the night there but I was there late and early. I got up many times and went out there. It was a really emotional time. The day the supremacists attacked the camp I had just left. I came back.

The occupation rearranged our life — the things we did to make sure the family was safe. My son would follow me to make sure I got home safely.  There was a lot of toying around with our different phones. I’m sure my phone was tapped. Many people’s phones were tapped. But it was a positive experience.  The good we did, providing a meal for a homeless person, the clothes we distributed. People came together from a place of hurt and stood for justice. It was an indescribable feeling. I think about it a lot; how exhausted people can be. Many  put in way more time than me —out there for days and nights. I was able to come and go. Go to work, come back. There were times I didn’t go to work, and I had to deal with that.I tried to be a support. If I saw a situation I would grab someone’s arm and walk them away and talk to them. Being there, letting the community talk; listening.

I am proud of the activists in our Twin City area. We have a lot of people who are really committed. One thing that I’ve learned is that everybody does not have to be on the same page. We are still all fighting for the same goal. I was part of a “break off” that has not ended — a group of people getting comfortable being at each other’s houses having meetings, forming friendships. It was an amazing time.

___

I remember getting the message about Philando. Nekima and I went out there.  We left Larpentaur Ave and went over to the hospital because the family had requested that someone from the NAACP family come over. I went with Nekima and a couple other people. They weren’t giving the family any information. We actually found out more than the family knew and they were sitting out there for a couple hours! They had moved his body to the medical examiners. Nekima called and got a lawyer for the family.

We when left I got the message on my phone. I said to Nekima, “They are headed to the mansion.” I had 15% on my phone left and I thought, “I better call in sick because I don’t know what is going to happen now.”  Black Lives Matter was already at the mansion when we got there. It was absolutely amazing. They had music going. They had already decorated the Mansion gate with police tape. It was raining a little. Someone had built a fire.

I sat and talked to a guy who was out there because his son went to the school where Philando was the lunch supervisor. He said his son would often get bullied, so every day Philando would walk him through the lunch line. I heard so many stories like that. Philando saying a kind word, giving a kid an extra serving of food — the things that you want a lunch supervisor to do for your kids.

We chanted all night. In the morning — maybe 6AM — the police came and snuffed out our fire. They said, “We are getting ready to open up the street.”
There were about fifteen of us there by that time. Nekima said “ We should all sit in the middle of the street and lock arms.” We did. We were chanting until the police chief came over. He was very nice that morning. He said they were going to respect our rights. They would block off the street at each end of the block.

To see that crowd grow —- from 15 of us to over 4,000 that afternoon —- it was beyond emotion. It was so crowded! All our phones were dead. Nobody had any communication. I saw a friend and felt suddenly so exhausted. I said “Can I use your phone to call my husband?” That is when I started crying. I said “ I am so tired and hungry!” There was plenty of food there —donations coming in — but I couldn’t eat. There was a woman cop who saw me and said, “You better sit down — you look like you are going to pass out.” She kept checking on me — brought me a water and a banana. I probably did look like hell.

When I left my husband the day before, I had told him I would be back in a couple hours. I didn’t come home until 4:30 the next day!  He picked me up, fed me something, and then I went to sleep from 5pm to 8AM. I went to work the next day. I only missed one day .

After that first night I wasn’t out there as much as I was at the fourth precinct. I was really guarded about my self-care. It can be vicious out there. We can be hard on each other — because we are in so much pain and we take it out on each other. I couldn’t go through that. It is very hurtful. I just get a certain way when we attack each other.

So I didn’t go out for a few days, but when I did — I was apparently on the police radar because as soon as I got to the Governor’s Mansion my phone was drained — you see all these pink and green lines and then the phone is dead.  As soon as I got home I was able to recharge it —- its just a way to block your phone when you are organizing or communicating.I was prepared. My husband and I  went back to the safety plan we had with the Jamar Clark 4th precinct occupation — he knew to drop me off and pick me up in the same place.

I don’t go to Black Lives Matter planning meetings. I am not a leader of the movement. I get out and protest. Go to all their events. It is a younger people’s movement. If there is anyway I can help them I’m there. The reality is we are not going to get anywhere until we dismantle the system. It’s the same with the unions. It not going to change until we change policies and procedures.

I have five kids — three sons and two daughters. They are all graduated, in college, or working, so I am blessed that way. My husband Brett works different hours from me. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be able to do this work. He works 5 to 1:30. He cooks dinner, so when I get home I can eat, have some conversations with him and then get out into the community if I need to. It is a unique relationship. He supports me 100% at home, making my activism possible.

Fighting for Racial justice in the Parks.

The park board was my first job as a kid. I worked at Armatage Park as a SETA employee. It was a great opportunity.  When I lived over in North I learned how the inequitable distribution of our natural resources worked to create blight. They buried beautiful Basset Creek, covered it up and built the Projects over it!   It was by design.  Today it continues. Parks in Somali neighborhoods are not kept up to par.

We are working for racial justice on the park board, through our labor committee of NAACP. We have documented both discrimination in hiring and disparities in care of the parks across the city. we have heard about Black men going into apply for a job and coming out thinking they did not do so well, even though they are qualified. We are documenting how they have criminalized Black employees. People are not promoted. They work seasons and are never hired as full-time employees. The mid level managers are the ones who do the front line discriminating — not hiring, firing and not promoting. Now we are also working with MTN to show how both the parks and the local public station — both Minneapolis municipal entities — are mistreating or not hiring black employees.

I have been driving around and taking pictures of the inequities in park care.  I brought those photos to the last meeting on September 7th. We had a room full of protesters that night.  NAACP members and affiliates were targeted and arrested. They are trying anything they can to silence our voice instead of engaging us.

We have beautiful parks in Minneapolis. I use them all the time. Walking Lake Harriet. Going to the Rose Garden. We are so close to being great. Now we need to make our public heritage equitable.

 People of Color Union Members (POCUM) 

Kerry Jo Felder was a sight for sore eyes when she  came to the MRLF. The labor federation  is supposed to help all unions and build solidarity, — like getting all the unions to help with the nurses strike. They are not our boss. They help unions out. Previously there were no people of color there. Then they hired KerryJo Felder and Alfreda Parwon, an amazing, organizer of East African union members.

KerryJo saw the need for people of color to have a safe space to organize and be. POCUM is that a safe space for union people of color. No Roberts Rules of Order. We act on things people are doing in the community. They call us a contingent. We don’t really have any money. MLRF pays for our food at meetings. That is it. We are then free to support who we want: $15NOW, the Janitors campaign, the Fourth precinct occupation.

POCUM convinced the National AFL-CIO to make Minneapolis one of the cities to hold a Racial Issues Summit last February. The two hundred people there heard testimonies from across the union movement about people feeling left out, about issues of power.   I was one of about five people who testified at length. Some nurses testified about how they were treated by white nurses – how they wanted to be floaters and go from floor to floor because as soon as they’re assigned to a floor, they’re treated badly by their fellow nurses.

It still continues. It is almost as if the laborers are just not comfortable with the idea of giving a person of color a promotion. For example since the commission – Corey Webster, a Black unionist who grew up in this area as well — was put in the position of president of City Employees union, a historic position. He has been there two months and there had been no mention of it. (Now they are saying he will be in the next issue of the Minneapolis Labor Review.) It’s like — here is the job but we don’t want anyone to know you have it.

If we continue to ignore internal racism we won’t have a labor movement.

There was no epiphany after that February Summit. In fact we have heard nothing from the national. I think they called the meeting because  the “right to work” Supreme Court case was up and they needed backing. They go to the people when in need and then any other time they just ignore them.

(BTW: On “right to work” — I think the labor movement has it all wrong. You shouldn’t be afraid to organize! I don’t think people should have to be in a union. We should not be afraid to organize. Letter Carriers do it all the time!)

There are some unions that get it. AFSCME is out there really strong. The new president of the Nurses really gets it. But for the most part many of these powerful unions don’t like to be called out. My own union has work to do.
To everything there is a bad side. I believe in unions. I am a firmly committed to fixing what is wrong. I see the potential. My union is worth 30 million dollars. We are not a bank. We should be using that money to grow the union, organize. Most of our members don’t know about things like national Labor Notes Conference and the organizing resources they have available. But it is changing. Our unions will look very different in ten years. Anytime you have a change in the guard there is going to be a struggle.

It is exciting to see the movements coming together. That is what is going to save our country.

 

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. 

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

13705106_10155109304165550_792652190_n

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.