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.