Mel Reeves. Fighting the Power.

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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. 

Louis Alemayehu: The Making of A Multicultural Spiritual Elder.

 

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 If I had to label myself I’d say I’m a spiritual anarchist.

My mother was raised Catholic, my father, southern Black Baptist. Their families both moved  into a Jewish orthodox neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago called Englewood  in the late 1920s –my mother from Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula and my father from Marianna, Arkansas.  As adults they helped found an African American congregation of the Missouri synod Lutheran Church.  

The Lutheran Pastor, Moses S. Dickinson, was an early mentor for me. During my lifetime I have been mentored  by African American and Native American  spiritual leaders as well as a feminist Christian ethicist.  

I had an understanding early that if you looked deeply at all the religions paying attention to those threads that connect them  — all those variations of the golden rule — you will find truth.

Ancestors 

I came from people who embraced strains of Christianity and their African-ness, expressing these values in the way they cared about everyone’s children, the way different church denominations celebrated together, the way people shared resources.  They survived through the Great Depression by sharing, not hoarding.

My father’s family  were farmers, housekeepers and preachers.  My Aunt Julia  told me stories about my paternal grandparents, that they were angry people, filled with rage at the conditions they endured.  By the time I met them they were gentle elders.

People on my father’s side told me family stories because they sensed I needed them and wanted them. But I didn’t learn about my mother’s family  until about ten years ago,  Her ancestors left Kentucky on the Underground Railroad in the early 19th century. When I heard that, a light went on in my head, like, that’s why I’m wired the way I am!

They helped found a Black Canadian community called Dawn ,  in the 1830s (now called Dresden).  The leader of Dawn was Josiah Henson, who wrote an autobiography that was material for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Toms Cabin.

My maternal grandmother started an arts and women’s social leadership organization, Little Women.  She was a precinct captain and a FDR New Deal Democrat who helped people apply for and get resources from the government.  She was light-skinned, and when not with her children, people thought she was white, but she had a strong sense of racial pride.  She wasn’t programmed with a colorist view or talented 10th classism.  She had no desire to approximate White ways.  She passed down to me an aversion to Black middle class assimilation.  The only reason to disappear into that world would be to bring back information for the community.

My maternal grandfather, born in Ottawa, Canada, told us that our ancestors were also Native American.  As a unionized Railroad worker he passed through Minnesota. Sometimes they did union votes in the Twin Cities. Other ancestors lived here in early 20th century.  Some went all the way to the west coast.  They intermarried with all kinds of people.

Childhood on the south side of Chicago. 

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Their families moved to Chicago at the very beginning of the depression – 1926-27.  My parents met in Chicago and became best friends in 3rd grade.  After they married in 1941, they moved to a strong African American community on 92nd St —  the far south side of Chicago. That is where I was born, December, 1945.

South Chicago had a strong southern atmosphere in those days.  Our Black Lutheran  Minister Dickinson came from out of Alabama.  My first accent was southern. He used African American spirituals outside of the Lutheran hymnal: Let Us Break Bread Together and Were You There..

I had a tendency to wander, so the whole neighborhood had to watch out for me. My mother called me her Wandering Jew.  Once she tried to put a leash on me. My Dad said no to that.  We lived close to urban fields.  Watching spiders spinning webs in high grass, following the movements of birds and insects; I would be totally transfixed.  I think that is why my current practice of meditation feels so natural.  I’d get so caught up in the sound and sights of the natural world. There was no boundary between me and it. That is when I first learned to hear voices.

The Illinois Central railroad ran right beyond the house.  On the other side was a forest and a pond.  I was told never to go there.  My mother created a petition demanding a fence between us and the railroad tracks.  She was my first model of activism.

At three, my grand-uncle predicted I’d be a preacher or a doctor.  I believed him until I understood what they were, and began deliberately moving away from both occupations, but I ended up running back into them both.  The ceremonies of Dakota spiritual elder Amos Owen were key to stepping into my role as a spiritual elder committed to healing and community building.

Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota

Pastor Dickinson thought I’d be a minister.  By that time I had developed a disdain for Chicago’s Democratic machine politics.  I understood how unfair and manipulative the system was — hand picking gatekeepers.  That Chicago experience still informs my political lens.

I wanted to get away from Chicago, but Moorhead was still a rude culture shock. The challenge of being in an environment like that began this whole process of figuring out who I was culturally, spiritually.

It was 1964.  Freedom Summer.  I felt guilty about remaining up north while my peers in the south were deeply engaged in the movement.  But being far north didn’t isolate me.  The civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements all eventually came up to Concordia.

I had a mentor at Concordia named Eleanor Haney.  She was born in Delaware, got her doctorate in NYC, studying under Reinhold Niebuhr.  This small white woman with a southern accent and a concern about social issues picked up and reflected back at me things the elders in Chicago had taught me.  She really mentored me.  She saw things in me that I’m just now understanding.   She initiated social dynamics into this conservative Lutheran campus.

I worked with her and other students on a Spiritual Life Lecture Series . We brought some incredible people on campus. Bernice Reagon, one of the freedom singers, came for a whole week. I was her campus guide. She was a couple years older that me, born in Georgia, singing our traditional songs to inspire people to pull up the courage to do what they feared doing on threat of death. Elly Haney was into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC . Bernice was with Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee SNCC. At one point she opened up her purse and showed me her gun. She said “If anybody come up in my place I’ve got something for them.”

Elly Haney and I started an exchange program with Virginia Union U — a predominantly African American college in Richmond.  I spent time there and met student activists.  Those students started coming up to Concordia.  There was a small influx of African American students, enrolling at Concordia.  Together with our counterparts at Moorhead State and North Dakota State, we formed a Black Student Union.

The Moorhead State students brought in Odetta.  Think about that — I met Odetta in Northern Minnesota!  From her, I found out how she and Bernice Reagon had crossed paths in Georgia.

We brought up Andy Young and Vincent Harding.  Harding wrote most of King’s speech at Riverside Church against the Vietnam War.  He was my first draft counselor.  He told me why I should resist as an African American Man.

Daniel Berrigan had to get special permission to travel.  He was my second draft counselor.  With his help I applied for CO status.  I had one draft board hearing in Fargo. Pastor Dickenson came all the way from Chicago to testify on my behalf. They said they believed my claim but were denying it based upon the timing of my application — so close to being called up.  As it turned out I got a medical deferment.  The atmosphere I was dealing with was so stressful I developed ulcers.

Am I a pacifist?

In the 60s and 70s there were wars of liberation in Africa and Latin America.  I think there were some successes — the Cuban Revolution — the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  It seems to me that revolution is actually spiritual.  It involves a dramatic change in consciousness, rooted in something I call indigenous wisdom, which my mentors in the Dakota and Ojibwa nations taught me.  I think about what Audre Lorde said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  When you think about revolution, those who benefit are usually the arms makers who will sell arms to both sides.

 

Connecting the dots with Indigenous Dakota and Ojibwe People  

You know those connect-the-dot pictures?  I loved them as a child.  I am still trying to connect the dots.  I know we are all connected.  If  you ignore the interconnection of all life,  you set the stage for catastrophe.  

At Concordia, I was adopted by the family of one of my classmates from Detroit Lakes.  I spent a lot of time there.  White Earth was very close to Detroit Lakes. The mother in that family came from a Dakota family that left Fort Totten reservation during the Great Depression.  She was told growing up not to tell people she was Dakota. But once they brought me into their family she finally told her children. That mother and I had an intuitive connection.  It was really clear when we were thinking about each other.  We would call each other.  She was a mother to me. That kind of unconditional love.

I landed in Minneapolis the same year that AIM began, down the street here on Franklin Ave.  Those leaders inspired me and became teachers and allies.  I remember when they occupied Alcatraz.  It made me sit right up.  I could feel it in my spine — like “Yeah!”  In those years I  would take Northwest Airlines to Chicago to visit and inevitably — “randomly”– I would get pulled over going through security.  One time I found myself standing in line next to Vernon Bellecourt who also “just happened to be” getting searched.

In 1980 I worked with a national organization called the Youth Project.  We were supposed to find cutting edge organizing in urban and rural America.  The staff was a real mix of folks.  The organization was based in Washington DC with money coming from larger foundations who didn’t have the capacity to reach communities like us younger people could.  I was in the midwest office staffed by Jon Pratt — now the director of the MN Council Non Profits.  Jon and I visited projects around the region.  I covered the eastern section and he covered the Western section of the midwest.  I believe I was the first to secure outside funding for Winona La Duke’s  White Earth Land Recovery Project, through the Youth Project.   I began to meet others from White Earth, and from all over the region. I made the connections between their communities and their projects.

That is something I have been doing since childhood — seeing how things were connected. It is part of my make-up. My mother told me that one day, at the age of 9 or 10, I announced to her that everything was related to everything else.

Minneapolis and Mexico in the 1970s. 

When I started at Concordia they had put me in bone-head English.  After two months they moved me into a regular English class.  I began to write poetry and was published in the campus journal Afterthought.  I was in school an extra year because of the ulcers.  It took me a while to adjust to academic life, but I left after five years with a degree in Education and English Literature, and moved to Minneapolis.

I got a teaching job in Burnsville — a stressful place to be.  I hated it.  Eventually I moved into the city and got a teaching position at Ramsey Jr High school (now Justice Page School).  A Filipino woman teaching there had to return home to get her documents in order.  I took her position for a semester.  Some of the staff were resentful of me taking her position.  When she got back I moved to Jefferson high school on 26th and Hennepin.

On the West Bank, 7th and Cedar, I shared an apartment with Tom Gjelten — now a reporter for NPR.  Then he was a writer with the MN Daily.  His girl friend— Mary Jo Thompson — an Arts Educator — lived with us sometimes. Through Tom, I met students at the U.  That was a period of robust student activism.  There was a big demo in 1972 after Nixon lied about Cambodia, and the Morrill Hall Occupation to demand Black Studies.

Tom and Mary Jo had been to this school in Cuernavaca, Mexico and they convinced me to go. Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) started by Ivan Illich.  Now its a language school.  I studied Spanish there in a small cohort with Catholic priests.  Illich talked about the connection between energy, cities and the impact of fossil fuels on the poorest people who live where those resources are mined.  His most popular book was Deschooling Society.  He viewed education as indoctrination, arguing that schools should be helping young people flower.  He said education should be teaching students how to problem-solve and help their  communities be healthy.  Today that is much of what my work is, both here and in West Africa.

In Mexico I had the chance to step out of the U.S. People weren’t sure who I was.  It was up to me to say who I was.  I said “I’m Black.  I’m African American.  I did not want deference because of my light skin.

It was insightful to be outside of U.S., unburdened from white supremacy.  But I also realized how deeply connected I was to people in the U.S. — that I missed them.

Minneapolis Ethiopian Connection 

Minneapolis in the 1970s was as white as Moorhead, but I showed up in time to see the influx of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America.  My first wife, Aster,  was an immigrant from Ethiopia.  One of her sisters had married an American and moved to Minneapolis.

My Ethiopian friend Elsa – who was my age– introduced my to Aster.  We were like brother and sister.  Her husband was Jamaican and the two of them were my teachers on African history and culture, introducing me to Pan-Africanism. They considered me part of the family.  Aster’s family consider me family too.  There is this Africana thing about extending family.  (Other Africans that immigrated here since have begun to see me as family — because I helped them in various ways.)

I tried to avoid Aster.  She was nine years younger than me and 17 when we met. One of her cousins had a shop on Hennepin and Lake called The Ethiopian Exquisite.  I was living on the corner of Hennepin and Lake above Synder Drugs. After school I would go to his store.  Elsa and Aster cooked for me.  Once I ate the food I was intoxicated.

Meeting Aster was magical, mystical, erotically charged.  She was a great story-teller. She connected me to a whole other world that I came from, but because of colonialism and the slave trade, I got separated from mother Africa, lost my language.

I went back to grad school in English Ed, which I hated.  The department had no substance, but I had a couple of teachers in the African American Studies department who affected me deeply. Victoria Coifman, and a visiting Nigerian writer.  I studied African American oral and written literature with Vicki.  She had studied with Jan Vansina, a prof at Univeristy of Wisconsin, Madison — the guy who helped Alex Haley figure out where his ancestors came from using key words.

I was blessed to be a student of Vicki’s for two years, before I quit grad school. The insights she gave me about oral literature were a revelation to me.  African cultures are both literate and oral.  Understanding the process of oral literature caused me to rethink how the Western world negates oral history.  It gave me a clarity that I didn’t have before, to discard the dynamic of feeling less than to White assumptions, about how human beings should be.

I don’t know if I can put into language the things that were coming through from Vicky to me.  It was spiritual; understanding a connection to Africa that I did not have before.

Another strain of my understanding was coming through Jewish American academics.  I don’t think they understand the connection between Africa and Israel.  They understand Jewishness through an Ashkenazi lens.  When the Romans charged into Palestine many of us fled south into North Africa, West Africa, and South Africa.  At the present time, because of DNA technology, they now know that African Jews aren’t making shit up.  I don’t want to over state the case but… I was conceived in an orthodox Jewish community, with a synagogue on the corner.  When my parents got married their Orthodox neighbors were pouring down the steps blessing this young couple who were getting married.

Last time I was in Africa, Armenians and Ethiopians were having lunch, comparing histories and realizing the connection between them.  In Ethiopia all of the Orthodox Churches have a replica of the Ark.  One church claims they have the one brought by Sheba from Israel.  Nobody can see it but this one guy.  We are told if anyone else sees it they will drop dead.

When I was living on the West Bank I came across this book called Neo-African Literature, written by a German scholar.  I read it from cover to cover.  I really soaked up that book. The point the author made was that the European mind wanted to separate  things and look at things in isolation. The African mind wanted to look at the connection between things.

African American Arts movement in Chicago.

When I would go home to Chicago to visit in the late 1960,s I witnessed the — beginning of Black Arts Movement.  I used to visit Ellis’s Bookstore, around 63rd and Stoney Island, on the south side of Chicago.  It was near a popular movie and stage theater called the Tivoli — a cultural hub for African American Chicago.  Restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, funeral homes, dentists.  The bookstore was a product of the civil rights movement.  I started to buy Black poetry there.  There was a Black Poets collective Organization of Black American Culture  (pronounced Obasi – Yoruba word for chieftain). They were mimeographing their own poetry, stapling it together and reading it in restaurants, bars and barbershops.  Poetry coming from and going to the people.

Haki Madhubuti was a leader of that movement. He started Third World Press. We were listening to our own speech — finding it filled with poetry.  Poetry was not only what they taught us in school which a lot of us were bored with.  We didn’t want work in the straight jacket of western forms.  One of our mentors, Gwendolyn Brooks, could step into the European sonnet form and rip it up and down the page.  When she was invited to sit with OBAC poets, something bloomed.  They changed each other.

I returned to Chicago in 1974, after breaking up with Aster.  I was really disoriented but I was able to step into the Black Arts Movement, and meet people who were Chicagoans, but also other people from the African diaspora coming in and out of the city.   I was exposed to the Association for Advancement of  Creative Musicians — a Black Musician’s collective.  I would hear them on Monday nights at a place called Transitions East.  I think it was started by  a man who just passed away — Phil Cohran.  Later he was given a name by some Chinese Muslims –Kelan.  Baba Phil — when he played with his group — it was hypnotic.  He taught me how art, music and science were connected.  Another man mentored me during that time.  I called him Baba Ben Israel. He was a leader of the Hebrew Israelites. He read the Torah with a Pan-Africanist perspective. He was my spiritual mentor for several years until I moved back here.

I ended up in a writers group organized by Gwendolyn Brooks that was started in the 1940s. When Langston Hughes came to town he would stay with Gwendolyn’s family and meet up with them.  One of my high school buddies wormed his way into it — had a girlfriend who was the daughter of group member.  I was pretty insecure about my writing.  They opened the door and were very affirming. I got to know Gwendolyn and her husband Henry — very kind and generous.

All I gathered in that experience in the Black arts movement I brought back to Minneapolis.

African American Cultural Arts Center of Minneapolis

As the Education Director of the African American Cultural Arts Center I met many local African American artists —  Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken, Soyini Guyton.  Strangely enough it also  brought me into closer contact with the American Indian community.  We were getting exhibits from the Smithsonian.  One of those exhibits focused on the intersection between African American and American Indian peoples.  The connection goes way back in Minnesota.  There was an African, George Bonga, brought to midwest by Frenchmen.  He and his brother married Ojibwe women.  George represented the Ojibwe to the U.S. government.  Because of  that exhibit, I invited a Native American school — maybe the Heart of the Earth Survival School — to come over.  Clyde Bellecourt came over with the students. That was maybe 1979.

Circles. Poor People’s Campaign, Meeting elder, Meridel LeSueur, Becoming an elder. 

The first time I saw Meridel LeSueur was the summer of 1968.  It was my last year of college.  I got a job in DC working for the Luthern Church.  They hired me go around in  African American community and gather information about what their communities needed.  At that time the Poor People’s March on Washington that King was organizing before he was assassinated, was happening.  People were camped out on Washington Mall. Andy Young spoke.  Then this old white women with grey hair and no teeth got up and spoke in this powerful way.  What I remembered is that she looked impoverished.

Years later at the African American Cultural Arts center, we extended an invitation for Gwendolyn Brooks to come speak.  After she spoke, this woman came up to me. She was reasonably dressed and had teeth, but I recognized her as the woman at the Poor People’s March.  Like a sheepish little girl, she asked if I would introduce her to Gwendolyn Brooks.  Which I did, not understanding the significance of what I was doing.  Gwendolyn and Meridel knew of each other but they had not yet met.

Meridel LeSueur ended up being a powerful mentor to me.  I began to understand why she was so supportive of me.  There are ways in which — philosophically — I was more in tune with her than Gwendolyn, even though I learn so much from Gwendolyn and that African Literary tradition.

Meridel was more of a model of artist/ parent/ activist.  Now I see her as a model of what it means to be an elder.  She was connected to a lot of different communities.  That is the way I am embodying the role of elder.  I am there for diverse cultural communities in a spiritual way.  I can’t run from it.  I can’t deny it. Now I need to model it for other people coming along.  If we are going have a new sustainable culture that somehow reflects us all and holds us all, we need multicultural leaders to do the nurturing and to bridge past, present and future.

We have come to the end of an epoch of patriarchy, the model that we have been given, where one nation seizes power and dominates.  That model is no longer functional.  Even in Europe that model is coming apart before our eyes.

In the Black Arts Movement in Chicago, we believed Black kingdoms would rise again and rule like we did long ago.  That is not going to happen, because that is not what time it is.  Today it is not a matter of one of culture taking control and dominating, but of how we weave the best of the various cultures together into another way of being, connected to the earth and her vital systems.

I need to figure out how to support the role I’m in.  There is no job description for the multicultural spiritual elder.  There is no one organization or entity that supports that.  I need a mix of people to, in some ongoing way, support that work, enough for me to fund food, clothing, shelter and maybe even my trips internationally that is a part of this work.

With the Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy,  slfnd.org, I am working on developing those values and skills in young people. When my students come back from Sierra Leone they understand we need to create a sustainable food system  multiculturally.

We don’t need guns. We don’t need to control anybody.  We need to figure out how to support everyone being their most powerful, dedicated to having a healthy thriving natural environment. Earth is our shared home.

Louis will be performing December 9 at the East Side Freedom Library with his group Ancestor Energy.  The concert title is: Judah, Buddha and Jazz

Minneapolis Project. 

Minneapolis Project. Transformational moments when life takes a turn.

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At 18  moved into  apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in and got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds.. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she …

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…

It was a weekend. Someone knocked on the door. We didn’t  know we had the right not to answer. … There weren’t close relationships within the apartment complex for people to tell us: “If ICE comes don’t open your doors.” My dad opened the door…

The fourth precinct 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. 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….

 

We were in an evangelical church talking to the congregation — a Know Your Rights forum put together by UnidosNow. We were following an agenda. An idea came to me out of the blue. I saw a group of young kids and I said ‘Pastor, can we bring the children forward? Can we pray for them? Because from this congregation we are going to have the next President, Senator, Congressman, Doctor, Lawyer.

People began shouting “Amen’! and “Praise the Lord!” …

I wrote a poem, Asking For It,  that went not exactly viral, but bacterial. It has had over 800,000 views. I think it can be hard to talk about sexual violence using humor…

I wanted to be a nutritionist. I applied to work in dietary at the hospital. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.

As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room. I didn’t know a darn thing! …

The city has changed since I first came. I used to walked along 2nd Avenue — that area where the Guthrie Theater is now. It was mostly youth of color who hung out and lived there. Now it is ….

I was at a big Movement for New Society meeting and someone said “Alright— the lesbians have to caucus.” Every single woman but me got up and left! I was like “Oh my gosh! All my friends are lesbians!” It was suddenly a possibility. A really …

I went to an all Black college in Mississippi — Alcorn College. It was affordable for poor people. I was studying Home Economics. Oscar Howard, in Minneapolis, was working for Tuskegee, recruiting people for their food service program. He convinced me to transfer. At Tuskegee you could go to school one semester and work the next — paid Internships. I did one internship in a hospital in a small town near Miami, Florida and one in Minneapolis. I preferred Florida but …

When I came back from Chiapas in 1998 and I worked on Lake Street , the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people …

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

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…

At age 18 I had my first daughter Jasmine. That is when my life took a 360 degree shift. I became a single mother . I knew that the border life was not what I wanted for my baby. I…

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 …

One summer night when we were sitting outside and our kids were playing, one woman said, “I wish we could just order some pizzas.” We knew we couldn’t afford that. As we started talking about getting together some grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids, another woman said, “Watch my kids for a little bit” She came back a half hour later with money for pizza. She had …

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof …

 

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

I had never been to a union meeting. The only thing …

Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet …8

I had an “inner city” internship in college in 1970. We went to a big meeting in North Minneapolis. It could have been organized by The Way — …

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults…

My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. …

 

As a teenager I hated Northeast Minneapolis. It seemed redneck. Old. I got a job in downtown Minneapolis working at the yogurt bar at Daytons in 1985. It felt like an opening to the rest of the world. Music also taught me about the wider world. My Dad was a record collector. He listened to everything. I learned about Central America and Afghanistan listening to Washington Bullets by The Clash. Sun City …,

One of the things I enjoyed most about the trip to India was being with other kids who looked liked me and had my American experiences. They knew what a double cheeseburger was. We could talk about Dunkin Doughnuts….

I went to Calcutta, where my orphanage (INH) was….

After Ferguson, three things happened.

1) I began viewing everything through a racial lens. It was like pulling a middle block on a Jenga tower. All the other blocks began falling at once.

2) For a few weeks in Ferguson the media shined a light on White Supremacy so that other White people I interacted with could see. I had ammunition when I talked to them. Not everyone understood, but at least we shared a set of facts.

3) …

Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many…

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..,

Me and a couple others organized Second Chance Day on the Hill. No budget. We just said hey, lets do this. We brought 900 ex-offenders to the rotunda. Most of them had never been in the capital. Some of those guys thought you had to …

Ferguson happened around that time. My eyes were glued to the TV for days. I thought about this young individual who made a mistake – made a poor decision – but did not deserve the action that unfolded. Looking up on the screen, I realized that person could have of been me. I know when I was young I made stupid mistakes… For the first time in my life, I found out what some of the American population thought about me as an African American. While I had always heard those negative viewpoints, I never thought ….

When I first started teaching classes I would have 30-40 kids. In one class there was only one non-white student — a Somali kid. I was new to teaching. I remember the students smirking and snickering to each other as I tried to teach racial formation theory. First I got really angry. I lectured to them, asserting my authority. I know that’s a privilege. My female colleagues tell me it is always a struggle for them to maintain authority, especially when teaching controversial stuff.

I didn’t realize my students ….

A few months in, there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I..,

Here in the U.S., I hear a lot of people say that we need a revolution. I always tell them that I have been through a revolution—the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

I was involved in the student protests when I started college. There was a lot of unity as the revolutionary struggle developed: All the organizations–religious, communist, socialist and lots of others—united to make the revolution happen. It was through the revolutionary struggle that I learned about how the U.S. was involved in installing the Shah. I grew up in the relatively comfortable middle class; I was shocked to learn that many people in my country didn’t have water or electricity.

After the Revolution everyone promised to stay united, ….

 

After that bad relationship I really didn’t know who I was. I had no idea of my value as a person. Being a nanny was rehabilitating to my soul and self. Those little girls — they gave me a reason to get up. I learned to love them more than myself. It was out in Burnsville – far enough so my friends didn’t come out and visit. I had  ..,

I was dressing up to go to work, learning new skills and getting good feedback. It felt good. Until one day, they told me I was fired for “lying on the job application about my criminal record.”

But I didn’t lie….

 

 

One time that I felt a sense of community at South High School is when I participated in a Black Lives Matter walkout. We walked in the middle of the street from South to Martin Luther King Park …

Alice Anderson. From 40 acres in Northern MN, to “Beautiful Activist” of South Minneapolis.

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Migration story of a Black family to Northern Minnesota in the 1920s.   

My parents grew up in Kentucky. My father and my mother were married in 1916 and my father went off to war — the first World War. They divorced because my mother thought my father was a playboy — I’ll just say it.

My mother’s sister and her husband had come up from Kentucky  to mine coal in Iowa. When that job ended they came up to Minneapolis to work on the railroad.   They had one child. Their marriage wasn’t going well.  My mother came up to Minneapolis to take her niece back to Kentucky until they settled their differences.  When they divorced my mother and cousin came back up to Minneapolis and stayed with my aunt.

My mother joined the AME Church  that is now over on Snelling Ave. The minister had a nephew, Mr. Withers, living with him. My mother and the nephew married.  Mr. Withers was a delivery man — delivering coal and ice in a horse and buggy. He kept his horse at a transportation station — a forerunner to Greyhound, that ran a bus up to Canada. Mr. Withers like to hunt and fish so he took several bus rides up north.  The bus owner convinced him to open up a bus-stop near Virginia, Minnesota  in a place that used to be called Albina. It’s called Gheen now.

He bought 40 acres. It had a white frame house on it.  They opened the bus-stop at an intersection of Gheen and Highway 53.  In the road about a mile was the railroad tracks. Diamond Match Company had an outlet there and the executives from the Duluth area would go back and forth so it was a good corner to have a bus stop. In addition to the bus stop, Mr. Withers opened the Butterfly Inn. There you could buy a half fried chicken, some potatoes, a vegetable in season, and a scoop of ice cream for desert.  It became a place for the community. The young people couldn’t wait to come over to get their ice cream cone there. It  was the only store around. Mother and Mr. Withers ran it for 4-5 years until Mr. Withers got ill and died. Peritonitis. So my mother was alone, running the place. She wrote to her ex mother-in-law  back in Kentucky that her husband died and she wasn’t sure what she would do.  My grandma said to her son, “Go up and check on Jenny.”

My parents remarried in 1929. I was a loved child — born in 1932.  It was the depression. The store fell on hard times. They sold the business and my father worked on road construction, developing Highway 53.   But my father had been a haberdashery in Illinois. He liked being independent. So he became a farmer on the forty acres.  We grew everything: corn, peas, green beans, wax beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, lettuce, radishes — a truck garden. There was no refrigeration then. People who went to their lake cottages would buy their food from us for their dinner. They’d say “I’d like some green beans.” We didn’t weigh it — just gave them a handful. My mother raised and sold chickens. We would kill them right there when they came and they would take them home and fry them.

That is the way  I grew up as a child. I hated digging for potatoes. It was always after September.  Your hands would get so cold digging them out.  A lot of times we just bartered the potatoes, a couple bushels  for my school shoes or some fabric to make a dress — my  school clothes.  We butchered with the neighbors. They would come and help you and take some of it. We had a man who would come and de-horn the animals and castrate them. We would pay him in chickens. That’s how people survived.

It was a multiracial community — you name it, we had some. We were the only Black family, but there were Jews, Greeks, Italians, lots of Scandinavians –Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian – and everything else in-between.  Everybody got along, everybody had their own culture and you learned to share all that culture. I really feel good about that.

We had two Greek families.  The men worked on the railroad. In one family the children had long thick black hair.  Their mother used to braid it — two long braids and everyone would say — “how do your children have such long black hair?” People didn’t know about different cultures. She’d say “All I do is yank it and it gets that way.”  They used to make goulash on a fire outside — people didn’t have ovens.  She’d put it on the fire on before church.  Often, after church on Sunday, we’d go to her house for goulash. They’d come to our house from something else. Nobody was invited — we just kind of went.

I went to high school six miles north in Orr.  There were 17 kids in our class. I was a good student. Not valedictorian, but close. We still own that land. It still enjoy going up there and seeing my old friends.

My junior year I came down to Minneapolis and went to Central high school (now Green elementary).  I lived with my aunt and helped her take care of her ailing husband while she worked.  I returned home for my senior year and graduated up there.

On her own in Minneapolis, 1949.   

After I graduated I came to Mpls. I rented a room. I never heard of anybody living in an apartment then. We had kitchen privileges for an hour a day.   I think I got a rash from eating so much tuna fish.  An hour is not long enough to make anything.  I worked at two family department stores, Jackson Graves and Roy Bjorkman’s.  They sold furs and high-end clothes. They displayed their furs on rocks “– the natural habitat for fur.”  I wasn’t old enough to sell. You had to be a mature woman. I was a “runner.” I would take their money back to the cashier, bring them change and gift wrap.

I got to know the families who owned those stores. It was better money than food service or working for newspapers  — the other available jobs. I could get a big discount on clothes –25% — and dibs on damaged goods. I was wearing Hanes hosiery before anybody else knew about them. Even Daytons did not sell Hanes hosiery then — I’m talking 1949-50.

From there I went to Northwestern hospital. (Abbot and Northwestern eventually merged). I was really interested in food. I wanted to be a nutritionist, but you couldn’t get in the University to study nutrition at that time. I wanted to work in dietary. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.

As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room.  I didn’t know a darn thing!  They trained me –showed me how to open sterile packages and everything. One day Doctor Plato went to the director of nursing and said “I have a potential nursing student.” So they called me down to see if I wanted to go to the school of nursing.

I still wasn’t interested!  But I thought — my folks don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. At least I’ll learn something. I should take advantage of this opportunity. So I went into the school of Nursing at Northwestern Hospital. It was a three-year program. By the time my first year was up,  the three hospital schools merged and they had enough students so that we went to Macalester for our basic classes. So we were Mac students. We did our chemistry and math foundations there.

A boy from my hometown, who went to high school with me in Orr, was at Macalester.  He was two years older than me. He was involved with foreign exchange students and the Young Republican Club on campus.  He got me involved in everything. I said “We are not Republicans!” he said “Never mind. It’s a learning experience.”

I got chastised on campus because Eisenhower was running for President and I was going everywhere with the Young Republicans. I even got to go on a whistle stop where Eisenhower was, at that time.  One boy came up and said to me: “Don’t you know Eisenhower wants segregated troops?”  I didn’t know how to answer him because I didn’t know!   My Orr friend said, “Don’t worry about what anyone says to you. If you have any problems just come to me.”

He and his friend were student body president and vice president. They sheltered me. I had a wonderful time and I learned so much about how to be involved in things, how conventions and political delegates worked.

Joan Mondale  — she was Joan Adams then — was a student at Macalester. She dated my Republican friend. She went up to Orr and slept there. When Mondale was vice president, my friend was going to put up a plaque “Joan Mondale slept here.”

(The Mondales used to live on 48th and Park Avenue. Walter Mondale used to be President of the Field School PTA. When he became State Attorney General they moved over to Lake of the Isles.)

I graduated from the school of Nursing. When people ask me if I was a nurse I tell them,  “Yes. I was a damn good nurse.” I quit while I was still up — 20 years ago. Even to this day when I walk through the halls of the hospital I get cordially asked “Why don’t you come back?”  When I was sick, and people came to visit me they said “I feel like I’m in the hospital with a celebrity.”  I feel honored.

I worked at Abbott Northwest, in the school system, at Park Nicollet, doing cholesterol screenings for corporations and factories. I’ve also done private duty nursing. I had one client who lived to be 102.

My husband was in the military — the Korean War. I was dating someone else before a whole group of them went off to war. A  friend of mine wrote to all the guys and let them know what us girls were doing. When he returned I wasn’t dating anyone. We started dating. We were married a year later.

When we first got married, after the Korean War, there was a housing shortage in Mpls.  There was a lady who lived at 40th and 3rd Ave with an apartment on top. We lived in that apartment. It had outdoor stairs. Icy in winter.  Terrible with the baby…. and hotter then heck in the summer. We decided we had to move. We moved 4329 4th Avenue — another apartment but with inside stairs.

When we saved enough to buy a house we went to look at one on 46th and Clinton. The realtor told us “Oh, I’m sorry that house was just sold.” We knew it was because we were black. We got a different realtor and a house on the 4500 block of Clinton, contract for deed — couldn’t touch it until you paid it off. We lived there for 17 years, before we bought the house on Oakland and 45th. We bought that house while the owners — a friend of ours — was still in it, directly from him. We had ten years to do financing with him before dealing with a bank.   It was a five bedroom house. We had my mother live with us, and our five children.  It was good for us.

Having a small business. 

In 1961 a huge tree in the vacant corner lot on 46th and 4th fell down. Kids in the neighborhood were upset because they liked to play in it.   Mobil gas purchased the land the neighborhood had a big protest.  They were upset about a service station going in there. They hardly knew us.  My husband saw the sign saying they wanted an operator of the station and he applied. Mobil had an office at Midway.  He took training there on how to be a Mobil dealer.

I had three small children.  I told my husband,  “What are you going to do with a service station?” “You are not going last a day — you don’t know where your dip stick is” and that was the honest-to god-truth. He didn’t know how to change his own oil!

The deal was, you operated the station for the company for six months. If you couldn’t make it, they took it back.  I knew how to do books. I loved math. So I did his books.

We stuck it out — 46 years!  It was hard. If someone came and said they needed a starter, we would order it and then they wouldn’t come back and we would have to absorb the cost. I told Kirk to get some money up-front, but he never would. Now they want $90 to put you on a scope. We never charged to put you on a scope.

Then we had that underground storage tank leak. Mobil went around and pulled all their tanks. We took a vacation. Because we didn’t stay around and watch while they pulled the tanks, the Petrol Fund wouldn’t reimburse us. County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin came to our rescue a little bit, but he never could help us get the money. We spent all our savings on attorneys.

Some neighbors said they could smell oil in their basement. Mobil had to finish the clean up, but we were never able to recover from the cost of that.Then we were told we had to remodel the store at our cost — “do it or you’re out of business.” We upgraded and it put us out of business.

During those 46 years we were honored many times — by Mobil, the neighborhood organization, the Minneapolis City Council — for being good stewards for the neighborhood. You could leave your purse with us and pick it up later. People left packages with us.

Activism

It was through the gas station and the schools that I got involved in neighborhood organizing. All my children went to Field except my youngest, Keith. I was on the Field PTA.

Integration/Equity in the Schools 

I was involved with the pairing/integration  of Bryant, Ramsey and Anthony Junior Highs.  I got pinned against the wall and threatened for being involved in that. It was pretty tense. Richard Green — who lived on Portland Avenue — was the superintendent at that time. He was smart.  He knew if you paired  just two schools, parents would be  calling you day and night. Do three or four schools at once, no-one would be able to get on the line. Do it  all at once and you are done.

When they had the riot at Washburn in 1971, it was really something.  Raleigh Delapp was the principal then.  There were very few Black children at Washburn. Those who were there excelled.There were White children who were not excelling who were the trouble makers of the school.  They had inferiority complexes and it came out racial. Their attitude toward the black kids was  “You think you are so smart….”My kids took Latin at Washburn. One daughter  had one lower grade and they said she didn’t qualify.  I said “You are excluding people who were not good in one subject, but might excel in another.”

They created a task force after the riot. Superintendent Richard Green was in charge of it. Grace Harkeness – who lived over by Lynhurst — and I and some other ladies were part of this task force.  Grace and I conducted a mandatory workshop for the teachers at Washburn. It was downtown at the North Star hotel.  We explained how they were profiling kids and not understanding what they needed, how they were catering to the kids on the other side of the Creek — the elite who wanted ski clubs and such.  We showed them that they were partial in sports, practicing favoritism.

We got some good reactions, some bad. Mr. Beck, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Potter who was math department, all welcomed us.  They needed our outside intervention. They couldn’t change the system from the inside.  The social workers were also glad we intervened.

I got WISE  — Women in Service for Education  — into the high schools. We got 60 women to read the required books on tape and we put a lab together where kids who were slower readers could listen to the books.

Neighborhood Activism  

Some people got into neighborhood activism, to solve their own personal problems. Let me give you an example. There was a man who did some work on his house and ended up with a pile of bricks outside his house he wanted hauled away.  He organized a neighborhood clean up and made sure it started at his house. He was done once the work was finished at his house.

I started those neighborhood clean ups. We hauled out tons of stuff.  We’d have hamburgers at our house for all the volunteers after we were done. When I was president of the neighborhood group there wasn’t a business in the area I didn’t know. Everyone from 42nd to 48th.

We had two neighbors who turned 100 –about 25 years ago. We made their birthdays the theme of the annual parade, with a horse and buggy and birthday cake float.

Southside Clinic

I volunteered at the Southside Clinic as an unpaid nurse.  We served people on a sliding scale. We depended on in-kind service, — like gifts from the hospitals of extra bandages, syringes, or office chairs.  We got a lot of stuff like that. At one point they were going to pull those gifts because they thought we weren’t doing enough. I went to petition the hospital administration and pulled strings. I said “if we have to go out of business, you people are going to have more on your emergency doorsteps.”

We did fundraising for the clinic: garage sales, bake sales, barbecues on the lawn. Paid the electric bill. Then we started getting donations. When I was “Nurse of the Year” at Abbott,  they honored me by  giving a donation to the clinic. I was asked to join the board of the Southside Clinic 30 years ago. One day it was snowing. The doorway was clogged with snow. I went out there with a shovel.” The doctor saw me out there and said “if I ever see you shoveling snow again you are off the board! I became  president of the board. I spent the most time trying to convince people who had never been on boards to join.  I had never served on a board. None in my family had ever served on a board. I never heard of a board meeting in Gheen Minnesota. I didn’t know how to do it.  I learned a lot. It was a labor of love.

Running for City Council. 

“I ran for city council against Brian Herron. There were several Black candidates running for the position. We were all friends. Someone at the DFL said — “Why are Black people running against each other?”  I told him that was racist. There are many wards where White people run against each other!

When Elizabeth Glidden became the councilwoman, she was told to go find me and learn about the neighborhood. She had started to have town meetings which I thought was smart. I told her she should have meetings somewhere above 42nd as well as below. It’s really two wards.

People look at the little picture. They don’t look at the big picture.  They want government out of their business until they have a flood or something, then it’s “Where is the government? We want our aid!” I  always try to look at the big picture so that, hopefully, I don’t close my mind in.

Racism

There was a riot on Portland and 43rd when Black families started moving in. They egged their cars. We never had anything like that happen to us in the neighborhood.

For my volunteer work I was honored by the University Women as a “Beautiful Activist.” My picture hung down in the window of Daytons. Some guy saw my picture and name and wrote the Star Tribune saying they were upset with my husband for marrying a Black women. People expected Alice Anderson to be White. At the hospital, patients would ask: “How did you get a name like Anderson?” I’d say “Best way I could figure out was to marry one.”  This is the kind of subtle racism I experienced all the time.

Once  I was clipped in the intersection right in front of our house. My husband [who is Black] came out. The police were really nasty to both of us.  I had just gotten my license renewed and I had the paper they give you before they send you the new license.  He gave me a ticket  for “driving without license.”  I went down and got it cleared, and told the Police Chief what happened to me. I said “This kind of  behavior is what is precipitating these police/community issues. Three weeks later I was going across Lake Street and Chicago, I had another fender bender. The police started to shame me: ” Its bad enough you had to hit someone — but you removed their fender! ” I said “You gave me a hard time a few weeks ago. I am going to run you in.”

The police were inciting trouble.

I went to a meeting over here when we first opened our business. We had a break in. We knew who broke in. We tried to tell the police who it was. They told my husband to “keep his mouth shut and mind his own business.”  Ten years later the police  came to the neighborhood group to get us to help with some local crime.   I said “You are ten years too late. Some of these crimes could have been stopped long ago if you had listened to us.”

Becoming an elder. 

When my mom got old, she was still living in Gheen.  I brought her down here.  Her friends cried when she left. She lived with me for ten years — died when she was 92 years old.

When my husband was sick, I sold the house and bought a condo downtown. It got too expensive. When he died, I went up North to my land to see I could find a place up there to live. I got an apartment and lived there for a year.  My daughter Kathy said, “You know mother, if you get sick up there, I don’t know what we will do.” I didn’t want to have them quit their jobs to take care of me. So I moved to be close to them. I have a daughter in Salem, North Carolina and two sons in Charlotte. I was going to live in Charlotte, but it was too busy for me, too mentally challenging, so I went up to Roanoke, Virginia. I heard on the radio that they were renovating an old hotel, not condos, but apartments. That sounded good to me. A historic hotel with brand new renovations. I’ve been there four years.

For Kirk’s funeral, Fred Steele did the music.  He asked me what he should  play.  I said “You pick. Kirk was not that religious.” He decided to sing “Charity.”  Fred said “I remember when I was just starting out and I didn’t have any money. Kirk would say,  ‘You can’t get back and forth from  North Minneapolis without a working car.’  He would fix my car for free, saying,  ‘When you get some money, bring me some.’  I never forgot that.”

My Church is gone — St. Thomas Episcopal on 44th and 4th Ave — sold to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Two summers ago, I went to see Joe Minjares. I made my arrangements with him.  When I die —  if my kids are willing and can afford to come back here — I’m having my service in the Parkway Theater. I  don’t know any place I feel closer to than there. When the service is over, I don’t want anybody crying. They  will walk over to  Pepitos  restaurant and have a joyful repast.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

 

 

Teresa Ortiz. Mapping Injustice from Tlatelolco to Lake Street; Mapping a Mother’s Heart.

 

 

… We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”…

 

Mexico City Student Movement, 1968.

We are entering the first world! Things are so cool now, because we are going to have the Olympics. That was the government facade when I entered college at the National University in Mexico City (UNAM) in 1968. But in reality, things were pretty bad. The one party system — the PRI — had been in power for fifty years.

There was very little dissent in Mexico in the 1950s, but by the time I went to college, teachers, railroad workers, farm workers and oil workers had begun to engage in strikes. It was really an exciting time. There had been a couple student marches downtown and the police beat people up. There was a lot of discontent.

The Mexican Student Movement had started when I enrolled as a freshman in June 1968. I came from a middle class background, but it did not take me long to become aware and active. In July the Student Movement erupted. On September 19th the army took over the University to quell the protests. The Olympics were set to start in mid-October and the government wanted the student movement subdued before the whole world came to Mexico City. The army held the University until September 30.

On October 1st, student leaders held a meeting and decided to call a mass demonstration for the next day — the famous rally in Tlatelolco — held at the Plaza of Three Cultures. I went. It was huge. It was not just students. There were whole families there. Kids. The army started shooting from the balconies of buildings. I and my friend ended up in a basement apartment until 9pm. It was really scary. I got a taxi and went home. My friend stayed there because his sister lived in one of the apartments.

When I got home and watched the news it was full of lies! They said students were fighting one another. At 2AM I got a call from my best friend’s mother asking if I knew where he was. Finally she found out he was in jail. He was there for about a week. He told me later that he was running, trying to get into a church. He fell on top of a young girl. They arrested him. They filled trucks with people and took them to jail. The leadership of the movement were incarcerated.

Hundreds of students were killed that day.

After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

In 1969 the University was reopened. I went back. I had an internship in a high school that had been taken over by the students. The University wanted to reincorporate them into the system so they sent students to be teachers. It was wild and crazy. I taught ethics and aesthetics (I was a philosophy major) and English. I was also a tour guide at the University. Tourists would come and I would explain the meaning of the murals at the University.

I was “paid” for that work with an opportunity to come to the University of Minnesota — part of a group of Mexican students who came up in the Summer of 1969.

Border Crossing 1969 – 1999

I met Luther ‘Tomas’ Johnson in Minnesota and we ended up getting married. He came back with me to Mexico while I applied for a U.S. visa. It took 18 months. We came back in the 1973 — Watergate scandal time. It was difficult to find a job here. We painted houses, my husband and I, for a long time, and then started a little business selling artisan products from Mexico and Central America. We would spend the winter in Mexico.

We got a farm in Southwest Minnesota, six miles from the South Dakota border, lived in a cabin without indoor plumbing. I got my degree from South Dakota State University, teaching Spanish and English. I had never lived in a rural area. It was always windy, no shade — but the prairie was so beautiful. It was new to me.

My son Gabe was born there. It was a difficult birth. He was premature. Then we had Aaron and Carmen.

We moved to St. Paul after I got my degree. We wanted the kids to go to Spanish immersion school there. I started teaching Spanish at Anoka senior high school and Tesseract, but then we found out about a position at the Center for Global Education at Augsburg. My husband and I got the job. We lived in Guatemala for about five years, 1990-95 conducting political travel seminars and semester programs for Augsburg students, teaching about the civil war, U.S. complicity and grassroots resistance movements. It was an amazing job. You get to know a country really well when you work with political and community organizations, and teach their realities to visitors. The kids went to school in Guatemala.

In 1995 we decided we wanted to go to Chiapas, Mexico, to be a part of what was happening there — the Zapatista movement standing up against NAFTA. The Center of Global Ed would not move us there, so we quit our jobs and moved to San Cristobal. I became involved in a women’s literacy project and got a grant to write a book about the Zapatistas woman organizers. We started an organization — Cloudforest Initiatives — which would support development projects — artisans and fair trade coffee. We also did delegations, political tours. The kids finished middle school there and started high school.

I conducted interviews for the book in 1997. I had a year to complete them. I wanted to know how people organized. My mentor, Mercedes Olivera, was an anthropologist from Mexico, in charge of the women’s literacy project. We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”

She facilitated one of the first interviews I did in a community called Emiliano Zapata, (named after the Mexican Revolutionary) in the jungle very close to Guatemala. I met a woman who set the stage for what the book was about. She told me that for years they were farmworkers and had horrible lives. Then in the 1960s the government began “giving” indigenous people plots of land in the rainforest. The government thought this was a great way to dispose of the problem of landless peasants. She and her family literally walked across the Chiapas Highlands to the jungle and were one of the first families to obtain this land — to colonize the rain forest. Her husband was an agrarian leader negotiating with government offices to get land for a community of families — using the communal ejido system. They started organizing cooperatives, lending institutions.
All the books I read about this said it was like a garden of Eden. They were organized way before the Zapatistas. That became the point of my first chapter.

When we were living in San Cristobal we started hearing about paramilitaries made up of community members supported by the military attacking their neighbors who had joined or sympathized with the Zapatistas. I was able to interview people from northern Chiapas who had been evicted from their villages, who were now in the capital of Chiapas. These paramilitaries were stealing coffee from cooperatives. People forced from their homes were fleeing to the mountains. On December 22, 1997 there was a massacre of men, women and children by paramilitaries. I interviewed someone from that region and a Catechist who went to rescue survivors. Those were my last interviews — documenting that horrible event.

It took me several years to finish writing the book.

We were invited by a community — Magdalenas — not far from San Cristobal, in the highlands to facilitate the creation of an iron works cooperative. This artisanal iron work was common in San Cristobal, but it had always been made by urban non-indigenous people. Indians were not allowed to do it. Now they do it all the time.

The Magdalenas community was mixed politically. We met with the entire Zapatista half of the community. We presented our proposal and then they said, “Now you have to go out.” They voted “Si” and invited us back in. We trained four guys, they trained other people. Pretty soon we began to get funding for a clinic and a place for them to do their artisan work. And coffee cooperatives, sold in the U.S. as fair trade.

Our time in Chiapas was really good for all of us, but it was also very hard. Tomas and I separated. The boys came to Minnesota with their father to finish school. Later on I came with Carmen. All of them finished high school here. Carmen finished as quickly as she could and went to college in L.A. and then went back to Mexico.

Calle Lago

When I came back I started to work with the Resource Center of the Americas doing a project called Centro de Derecho Laborales — Center for Workers Rights with Jorge Flores. I was there for about five years, until the Resource Center closed. It was an exciting job — an exciting time. Minneapolis was a totally different place.

I remember in 1969 thinking I was the only person here with dark hair and eyes. I had very few Latino friends. In the 1980s I was in a group. Gilberto Vasquez Valle and Rafael Varela were in that group. Just a few of us. I met a few people while supporting the hunger strikers at the St. Paul Cathedral after the Jesuits were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Roy Bourgeois, Rene Hurtado, Jorge Flores and Jorge Montesinos. Those are the people I knew. A handful of people.

When I came back and I worked on Lake Street in 1998, the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people could not afford to go back. In Mexico meanwhile — in 1994, immediately after NAFTA — people started losing their jobs. The government started disinvesting in agriculture, cutting social services, not spending money on infrastructure, so of course, people started leaving.

At the Resource Center, Derechos Laborales I had plenty of work. We had many volunteers, students mostly. We had an open door. We trained volunteers to do intake. Anyone could come who had a work issue. If they came with other needs we helped them find support elsewhere. I was shocked at the stories I heard from our clients. Stories of racism, wage theft.

Looking back I think, the way CTUL is doing the work is brilliant, because we didn’t organize workers. We were helping them one by one. Very time consuming. We would call the employer and say “Juan Perez hasn’t been paid for two months.” Next step was to go to court. Small claims court. It was easy to get in. We would win. Many times the employer would just pay.

I remember one case — this woman came to the office. She was working at a laundromat, with those big irons. She burned her arm. Her employer said just put this cream on. It got infected. So first I took her to the clinic. Then we filled out forms for workers compensation and sent it to the employer…. The employer wanted to avoid workers comp and just settle. We told her that is not how the law works. People think they can get away with murder!

We got a grant to teach a course that simultaneously taught English and worker’s rights. We also started working with a group of women trying to start their own cleaning company. Later on we became involved in immigration reform issues.

Even after the Resource Center stopped getting funding we continued to get financial support from various foundations. The day I found that the Resource Center had closed we had just hired a new organizer, new teachers. I had to call them back and say, we are not going to do it.

That was a tough time. All of the sudden I had no job.

I taught for a while at a middle school, but by that time I was too far away from that. I didn’t like it. I started working part time at CLUES. It eventually became a full time job. I love it. I have been doing it for six years. I began working with CLUES in St Paul, but soon moved to their Minneapolis site which is much bigger.

This whole area from Hiawatha to Uptown is Latino. It is also becoming Somali which is exciting. I am getting more Somali students, learning English. Things are changing constantly.

The spirit of survival and resilience among my students is amazing. There are those success stories that keep me going. I have a class “English for Employment” — helping people create goals and then achieve them, go to college, whatever steps they need to take. Education issues are complex. I have students who were displaced by war in Central America who never went to school until now. They come here and they are trying to learn English and they don’t know how to read or write in Spanish. Or Somali students who spent years in refugee camps. Some times the success story is learning how to read and write, as an adult, in a second language.

I am so happy about the $15 an hour campaign. That would make a huge difference for the people I work with.

Palabristas

I started writing poetry in Guatemala.* I wrote in English – as a way to getting away from the war. In Chiapas I began writing in Spanish. When I was at the Resource Center, Emmanuel Ortiz invited me to perform with the Palabristas. That is how we started. We are still around. Some have left. Some are famous now. We have invited young people. I also helped found the Calibanes — Latin Americans in the Cities writing in Spanish. I was invited to do a program at Intermedia Arts, working with young people.

I used to write fiction. In recent years — more poetry. This years have been taking a class with David Mura at the Loft, writing short stories, and I’m working on a memoir of the 1960s in Mexico. I am really committed to my writing now.

Gabriel

I have three kids. When it was just the two boys I thought: “can two people be so different – night and day!” Then I had Carmen — three opposite paths! But they are also very similar. Gabriel and Aaron political activists for social justice; Carmen and Aaron, talented artists; all three of them have wonderful hearts.

Gabe was, is, my first born. It was a difficult birth. He almost didn’t make it. He was in intensive care for three months and then he came home and started growing! He was developmentally delayed. We wanted to bring him up like the other kids — mostly because he was like “I am just here, like you.” Growing up on a farm, in the Twin Cities, in Guatemala and Chiapas — my three kids have that eclectic upbringing in common. It taught them each to be their own person.

Gabriel always had it tough. He never complained about it. Sometimes he was bullied. It didn’t stop him from working and learning. School was hard for him. Especially in San Cristobal he went to study at a rural school, but it closed. He ended up volunteering at the Women’s organization where I worked.

In Minneapolis he went to Century College, working and going to school. He got run over by a car and ended up in the hospital a few days. He got a job at a hotel and became involved in the union. He never stopped.

He went to live with his brother in Illinois, because he was having trouble here.That is when he started complaining about headaches. It was a couple years after the car accident. He went to a clinic. They sent him to the hospital for an MRI and found a tumor. His brother brought him to the University of Minnesota hospital and he was operated on immediately. He had to have two operations because when you operate on the brain you have to be very careful. You can’t do everything at once.

He was not doing too well for a while. Chemo. Radiation. For about a year. But then he started doing recovering! He tried to get a job, but he had a hard time keeping it. Worked at Goodwill. Lost that job. Then he started getting sick again. We went to Naperville for special radiation treatment that made him a really crazy. But he never complained. He was just up all night long, listening to music.

I get a little annoyed when people complain. I think, “Well yeah — you should have seen my son — he didn’t complain!”

He always wanted to go to Cuba, so two years ago he went. The three kids and I spent the Christmas in Yucatan, and afterward Aaron and Gabe went to Cuba from Cancun. That was his special trip.

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Carmen, Teresa and Gabe

When he came back he got worse and worse. He started losing a lot of weight, being tired, disoriented sometimes. He died January 17, 2015.

He had so many friends. He knew EVERYBODY. When he was three years old we would go to a restaurant and he would disappear. We would find him talking to the staff in the kitchen. Or we would go to a concert and he would be up there dancing with the performers. He was like that. He had friends in Guatemala, Chiapas, here, everywhere in the world. He would tell me about his friend in Chicago and how he was going to go see her. I thought he was making it up but he wasn’t. Everyone was his best friend. “My very best friend” he would say. I would say “How many best friends can you have?”

He was deeply committed to a better world. He couldn’t understand why anyone would not spend all of his time as an activist, because it was so important. Of course he grew up with this — but it was him. Gabriel would be at five different events in a day. He didn’t drive but he would get there. He was human. He would drive me crazy sometimes. He was a really special person.
I feel so lucky to have had him as my son. I miss him like crazy. Everything reminds me of him. I learned so much from him about enjoying every moment of my life.
Sometime’s I think, “Why did it happen?” I wish he was still here. He’s not.

I feel so very honored that I was with him when he died. I was holding his hand, talking with him. I looked up and it was like he was sleeping peacefully. I see young men getting killed and I think how lucky I am that he died the way he did. Because it could have been him. He was everywhere. He was proud to be a person a color. He was in solidarity with so many social justice issues.

I do get annoyed with people don’t support Black Lives Matter. These are our children who are being killed!

I am so blessed to have two other wonderful children. Carmen and Aaron are so committed to what their art, to helping people, to making this a nicer world.

I am so proud of my children. All three of them.

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Lucila Dominguez of CTUL, Teresa and Aaron.

Altar de Muertos by Teresa Ortiz

Corazón de los Cielos, Corazón de la Tierra
Corazón de las Aguas, Corazón de los Vientos
Bendícenos

Orange… pink… yellow… rojo… yosh!
Shinning circles of color cover the heaven, competing with the sun
November is the windiest month in the Guatemalan mountains and the round barriletes
Take off with extraordinary force,
Peleándose unos con otros por llegar más rápido,
To reach the souls up above,
To remind the spirits to come down to party with us
Children run up and down the hill, holding tight to the kite strings,
Looking up the sky, bumping into each other,
Tripping with rocks and bushes in their race,
Trying not to fall on the gravestones,
Not to step on the food lay out on grassy plains, on tombs
While their parents are eating, and drinking,
And having a merry good time and sharing it all with the souls
Of those already gone
Come our loved ones, come to celebrate!
With music and canciones,
With posh
Baskets and baskets of bread have been baked for you today
Candles are lit to bring warmth to your dead spirits
Copal smoke reaches the heavens, calling you to come down to play with us
El cementerio in San Antonio Aguascalientes is having una gran fiesta
Crowded with the living and the spirits of the dead
Every cementerio in Guatemala is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!
Thousands and thousands of people were assassinated in Guatemala
Four hundred villages disappeared from the Heart of the Earth
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
Recuérdalos
So we may never, ever forget
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, México,
Across the border to the north (or west)
There are weekly funeral processions in front of my door
They walk slowly, solemnly, dressed in black behind their dead
Hay tantos muertos en Chiapas todo el tiempo,
Y en Oaxaca, en Veracruz, en Guerrero, en México,
En Juárez, en la frontera, en el desierto de Arizona…
En las calles de las ciudades de los Estados Unidos…
Hay tantos muertos every day
So many muertos de la pobreza,
So many muertos de la violencia
But come November, people celebrate,
The market is busy with shoppers
Buying candles, incense, flor de muerto
Tamales de chipilin, gourds elotes, calabazas
La plaza está llena de fiesta, mil colores decorada, con los altares de los niños
People spending three days and three nights con sus muertos en el panteón municipal
Every cementerio in Mexico is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!

In Acteal, a village in Chiapas,
Where forty five people were massacred while praying, while fasting for peace
The Dia de Muertos celebration takes place outdoors, on a mountaintop
Overlooking the shrine where the martyrs lay
The procession has arrived with the sacred carved tortuga for the altar
And the coro is singing “Bienvenidos, Bienvenidos”
Sounding even sweeter when they sing it in Tzotzil
We all pray to the heavens with our feet during the mass
To remember, to never ever forget
Tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha…
A home altar for our parents and grandparents
Para los tíos, para el primo, y para mi hermano
Don’t forget the cigars and chocolates for Papi Mingo
Don’t forget the fancy earrings for mama
Bring the pictures de los abuelitos
No te olvides de poner una veladora con la Virgen
Did you buy the flowers y el pan de muertos?
A la tía le gustan las uvas, don’t forget
Y las calaveritas de azúcar with their names
On the table over here, we lay the offerings
For the ones who passed away
We start with yosh in the middle
Azul cielo, verde campo
With a candle, with a cross, with a tree of open branches
We go round and round and round
Like the circle of life, like the circle of death
Yellow corn to the east, and black corn to the west
White corn to the north, and red corn to the south
We fill the circle with beans and squashes and orchids and cocoa seeds
With salt and oil and refrescos and posh
With golden flowers, zempuazuchil, all around
And then we pray:
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
For we have rejected the killings
For we have rejected the violence
We honor our dead
Corazón de la Vida, Corazón de las Almas
Acompáñanos
Come to us and celebrate
Que es Día de Muertos
Everywhere!

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Kendrick Wronski: Woman Behind the Painted Signs.

 

Have you read that Frog and Toad story where they plant the seeds in the garden? Toad goes out to the garden and keeps shouting, “Seeds! Start Growing!” There is a  natural part of me that wants to shout like Toad, but at 64,  that tendency is starting to melt. My hammer is giving way to a hand full of finely-tuned, effective tools.

unnamed-6I grew up in Red Wing — a big German Catholic family, one generation off the farm. My grandparents on one side were farmers in Southern Minnesota — the Wabasha/ Kellogg area. The other side were railroad workers in Winona. Their parents immigrated from Germany, Bohemia, Poland, and Sweden. My mom was born in Red Wing and is living there still. Her parents met at a dance in Red Wing.

Grandpa worked as a machinist. He also chopped wood, rolled cigars and was a beat police officer. He died when my mom was in college and her brothers were in the service. Mom came home to help grandma raise Mom’s sister who was 8.Grandma cooked at the Catholic school I went to. I have been writing  about these ancestors.

My upbringing was very conventional. Two younger sisters, five brothers, a very loud dad and a very quiet Mom. I went to a Catholic School.   In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

My first experience in Minneapolis was when I was a sophomore at Mankato State College, studying to be a teacher and I got an internship in the ”inner city.” I worked at a school on the North side — Hall Elementary. There were eight of us living together in a house owned by the college—over in Selby Dale neighborhood in St. Paul. Everyday we’d travel to north Minneapolis. We had advisers, we had adults living with us but there was no discussion that I remember, to help us process what we were experiencing. I felt alone, pretending I understood what I was seeing.

After I graduated I started teaching in Staples, Minnesota. While there I heard about a Humanistic Psychology convention in the Twin Cities. I signed up. At the convention the woman sitting next to me — Sheri — said “I’m going to walk over to North Country Coop for lunch, want to come?” I didn’t know what a coop was. I said sure. She picked out some foods I had never seen in my life. I found something. We ate. Sheri was in a group called Movement For a New Society.

After two years in Staples I gave my notice. They said, “You will never find another teaching job.” The economy was bad for teachers then but I knew I had to move in the direction of more life. I went home to Red Wing and sent out hundreds of applications for teaching jobs in the Twin Cities area. After the school year began, I heard about a job in early child education in Anoka. They needed someone immediately.

I reconnected with Sheri in Minneapolis. She had just bought a coop house and had space for roommates. I moved in and got involved in Movement For a New Society. I remember MNS as pretty self righteous and judgmental but I was young and into those qualities. It was also deeply socially responsible. But I don’t remember racism ever being discussed. It was a white group.  Nothing on ablism, gender or race; no consciousness of being on Native land. Still, it was at least an opportunity to sink my teeth into some of the disparity.

Class and sexuality — MNS helped expanded my consciousness in those areas.

I didn’t know I had a “class background” when I join MNS. I learned it the hard way while living in my third MNS coop house. I proposed “income sharing.” It seemed fair.  Everyone should give according to their income and only me and one other person were working full time. It took me a long time to realize the others didn’t have to work. They had  trust funds and parental backup, were going on vacations and earning money when they felt like it. The two working class people were funding the whole coop!

That was the end of our “income sharing” scheme.

I was at a big MNS meeting and someone said “Alright— the lesbians have to caucus.” Every single woman but me got up and left! I was like “Oh my gosh! All my friends are lesbians!” It was suddenly a possibility. A really good possibility. There was no looking back. But before, it never dawned on me! I just thought “this is what you do — have boyfriends.”

My mother, now 93, has two lesbian daughters. My younger sister Nia knew she was gay in grade school, when I didn’t even know what gay was. But I was the one who came out first to mom. My timing could have been better. I believe I came out to her right after my Dad died in 1979. Because I felt I had to. My sister watched the way mom —an observant Catholic all her life — reacted, and decided “I am never coming out to my family.” It took about six or seven years before she finally did.

I give my mom a lot of credit. She went from “I cannot live with this information you have given me” to having a home interview with the Star Tribune where she expressed her support for Marriage Equality a few years ago. My sister’s partner is one of Michelle Bachman’s sisters so the newspaper really wanted to talk to them. Nia said, “Why don’t you talk to my mom?”

When I started talking Black Lives Matter, the next one in the family to cross that threshold, to begin to understand the need for racial equality — other than my sister Nia who rides to work with Black Lives Matter signs on her bike — was my mom. Another sibling said to me ”Hasn’t she earned some peace — stop pushing her.” I replied, “Yes! Yes she has. But I’m not going to treat her like she’s dead.” I agreed to be more moderate, but mom brought it up to me! She ordered A Good Time for the Truth from the bookstore. When there was a Westminster Town Hall forum on racism and White privilege,  mom was the one who sent out the link    to everyone in the family. When you are 93 you certainly don’t have to change. You can just hold court, listen to your children laugh and that’s enough, but mom has never stopped moving forward.

Many of my friends and family have moved away from me because of the anti- racism work. It is not that they don’t support it — it’s that they don’t understand making it a priority. A bigger priority is having a garden or biking across country. There is a sense of giving lip-service and then flipping a switch to go off and have a great life.

On the other side of that are the people who DO get it — I primarily stay connected with them on the internet, since my health does not allow for much community activity now.

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Facebook is a way I can “go to work” every day, making connections to advance  racial justice. I find someone to help with a task, bring two people together. I am a natural renegade. I saw after the last 94 action that we need White men to monitor White men who come to demonstrations, throw things at the cops and then leave the Black community to take the fall for it. I found some younger, more agile white men to do that, organizing from my computer seat. (The response I got from some people in SURJ was that I had to be careful, there were “deep discussions going on about tactics,” — something about anarchy I didn’t understand. I admitted I was not up on anarchy but I felt this was still something good to have in place. It was a gap I could fill. There is too much “no, wait” energy sometimes, and for my health, I need to go for the “YES!”

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I am the parent of a young adult working with Black Lives Matter, who was centrally engaged in the 4th precinct occupation.  My siblings and their kids saw my child — their cousin —  standing next to someone shot by white supremacists, on the news.  I thought that would move them to might take action. I don’t understand their silence.

I shared parenting with Meg.  We were partners for 20 years.  We are still co-parents together, and very close friends. Our first relationship lasted a year, when we were in our 20’s in 1979. When we broke up I went to Vermont with another lover who had decided to go to Bath, Maine and take a house building class at Shelter Institute. She said “You could come too.” Within a week I gave notice — just as they were offering me tenure. We learned how to build houses. Electric, plumbing, roofing, pipes. After six weeks I felt confident that I could build a house for myself. As it turned out we found an old house in Vermont that worked for us. We fixed it up.

But Meg and I were not done. She transferred out to Boston in 1989 to work for the Unitarian Universalists. We ended up together again, living on Plum Island in a tiny cottage by the ocean for a year. Meg commuted to Boston. I began painting.

I can’t believe I didn’t get involved in racial justice issues when we lived in Boston and DC. It saddens me that I was not more awake then. Sure I was busy. Parenting. Painting. Making some money. Enjoying life. But I find myself wishing that I had been connected to more of what was happening in our country.

I started doing my art seriously when Meg and I got back together.  I have never been a part of the “art world.” I have never written a grant. But I painted every single day. First one self portrait after another. Oil paint. After a year my money was gone. Meg and I moved to DC, where we lived for a decade. I began getting scrappy jobs to support my art habit. Got myself into and out of trouble with credit cards. Meg tried to help. She made enough money. I worked crappy minimum wage jobs until I created a solo housecleaning business. I was able to work close to home with a flexible schedule, an aerobic workout, plenty of reflective time and a living wage. I did that until I my body could not do it anymore. For the last ten years I have had chronic fatigue syndrome and have been living on disability income.

Back in Minneapolis, I joined an Anti Racism Study Dialog Circle ASDIC in 2011-12. Ten week sessions, four hours a week. It was very academic. I began doing some art as a way of interpreting the lessons for myself. Quotes. Ideas I could put in my hands. The first group I was in was at a Baptist Church in town. They accepted me as a lesbian feminist non-religious artist. Every week I brought in an artistic rendition of what we were learning. A sort of floor puzzle of living within the “White Racial Frame” took form. I took ASDIC again a second time and my art was not so well received, but since then I have found a way to use this concept hatched during these workshops.


When I was doing that “inner city” internship in college we went to a big meeting in North Minneapolis. It could have been organized by The Way — I’m not sure. I was at the back of a large packed room with my other interns. There was a Black woman on the stage telling a truth I had never heard before. It knocked me down. She was talking about the realities of racism and the whiteness that perpetuates it…

That memory comes back often now, because, working with SURJ I want to do my damndest to be there for other people in that beginning place, who are just beginning to face and feel the racist culture we are a part of —  who need company to figure out what their responsive action will look like.

SURJ just had a general meeting of 400 people and I helped create a room where people could come who were in that place — people who have turned away from white supremacist training and are looking for the next step. Fifty people crossed that threshold. Due to physical limitations, it has been a decade since I have been in a room like that with so many people, expending that much energy. I think I was able to do it because it was so undeniably needed. I cant show up on the street much or organize many details most days, but I can still do this. I may be sniffing out a trail for myself. Finding work I can still do, to help. As an old special ed teacher, I can see when something isn’t working and can think of various ways to move ahead. This work “puts me in the harness” as a Quakers say — for meeting people in a different way and trusting that each of us can help change and move and build.

Since I have chronic fatigue syndrome. I know that at some point living in a rest home is a strong possibility. My cognitive abilities are not working the way they used to work. The only way I can write most days now is in phrases, I can’t make much of a narrative. For my birthday I had 18 people come and listen to 13 new poems reaching for my own cultural heritage. These friends knew I wouldn’t last much more than an hour. That was in March. Now, almost every single day a poem/reflection arrives under my fingertips.

 

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Minneapolis Project. 

Guy Terrill Gambil, Age 56. Lurking With Intent to Seek Justice.

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After my stint in the army I got a degree from the U of M and then landed a job as a bilingual case worker in Stearns County, while completing a Masters at St. Cloud State. Through a confluence of circumstances I became homeless after my job ended. It sucked. I had been working with homeless clients for 8 years, so I understood the system very well. Now I saw it from the other side.

I have always been critical of homeless surveys. Most of the people who do the Minnesota surveys live in Edina ,St Louis Park and Uptown. There are exceptions, but the majority… they go out one day a year and try to survey homeless people. If you are an undocumented resident and not an English speaker and someone approaches you with a clipboard and wants to ask you questions what do you think the response is going to be ? Or if you’re a homeless veteran with PTSD and you have a drug problem, are you going to sit there and take the survey? There’s no incentive. When I was homeless I was never contacted by anyone. My point is that the people who do the surveying don’t understand the problem from the experiential side. They don’t know where to look for people and when they do find them they don’t know how to talk to them, so I always thought their results were off.

When I moved back to Minneapolis in the mid 1990s, I joined others in putting together an informal group we called the Decriminalization of Homelessness Taskforce. From 1999-2007 we targeted six ordinances and a state statute — all tools used by law enforcement in Minneapolis to criminalize homelessness: public dancing, lurking, loitering, pan handling, disorderly conduct and the state vagrancy law.

In the late 1990s Minneapolis city council was concerned about people squatting in abandoned buildings. They were afraid someone would die and they’d liable. Decriminalization of homelessness was not their agenda. To get their attention we recruited third year law students to research the ordinances and build fail-safe cases against them.

First we redid the pan-handling statute so it was no longer illegal to put out a hat or stand on the side of the road with a sign.—Only aggressively approaching people to solicit was illegal.

Second, we got rid of the public dancing ordinance, passed in 1968 to break up hippy gatherings on the West Bank.

Our third campaign was to eliminate the state vagrancy law. We worked with Keith Ellison — then a state rep, and Jane Ranum, then a state senator. I did the research and discovered the law was used as a catch-all category for anyone the cops put away without charge – like a guy sleeping on a bench. Entries for vagrancy were written up at the end of the year or whenever it was time to do the accounting for the FBI ’s Uniform Crime Report. We got that repealed in 2004 I believe.

Then we went after the Lurking Ordinance. It took until last year to get rid of it. There was an article in the City Pages about our campaign. They interviewed me, the Chief of Police, and City councilwoman Barb Johnson who was quoted as saying: ‘I wouldn’t want to throw out a useful tool’.  The Lurking Law read: ‘A person can not lie, hide, or stand in wait with the intent to commit a crime.’ …. I was like – ‘You can tell by looking at a person that they are about to commit a crime? Gee you guys are good…’

Through this work I had become an expert researcher on criminal justice issues. I became a lobbyist for the Council on Crime and Justice. We did a five year study on Racial disparities. Drive alongs with cops, how people fared when they were on probation and parol. Disparities in sentencing, arrests for different crimes.

Through the Council I advocated for homeless veterans. Because I was bilingual I would be contacted when Latinos needed assistance with housing issues. I started getting these calls from people who were losing there homes to sub prime lending. A couple of us sat down with 20-25 people in the same boat. We found out there were these bilingual realtors that were screwing them with interest rates way over 20% and big down payments. Then, because of the way the mortgage was written, after the first year the rates would go up and the families would lose their homes.
We worked with the Resource Center of the Americas on Lake Street, doing forums on how to protect against unscrupulous mortgage companies and to push for a systemic solution. We invited City Council people and tried to pass an ordinance against predatory lending. I was working with Acorn who had successfully passed such legislation in other cities. Natalie Johnson Lee (Democrat endorsed by the Green Party — City councilwoman from North Minneapolis) was an advocate. But Wells Fargo stepped in and said if you back this we are going to back your opponent. That collapsed the campaign. I talked to Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Rybak, others on the City council, my boss at the council on Crime and Justice — none of them wanted to take it on.

And then the bubble burst.

I learned from these experiences that whatever the social justice agenda, they are contained by funders. These financial strings keep organizations from being aggressive and flexible enough to go after systemic problems as they emerge.
Follow the money. People say that like it is trite. But it is direct. The legislators put their donations online so you can look. If a Homeless organization is getting money from a bank it won’t deal with sub prime lending.

People would say to me, ‘Guy think about all the people who have shelter because the Bank is paying for it’ and I would say ‘so fucking what, do you guys not know how to organize?’ The advocacy organizations are about alleviating the pressure just enough so that people don’t rebel. At some point you have to ask yourself is that being affective? My answer is No.

It is the same with veterans issues, and any other social agenda. Look at North Minneapolis – The Empowerment Zone. What was that, 23.7 million dollars? What really happened there? A few people made money, moved out to the suburbs…

Every year HUD moves it goal post around. One year it’s supportive housing, or fixing rental properties. They allocate money to the states and the Coalition for the Homeless gets an allocation and then the fight becomes – what are we going to do with that money? Things like predatory lending, criminal justice, or racial disparities, are ignored.

Homeless advocates making 60,000 a year, are not shifting the ball. Homelessness remains. In 10 years they reduced the number by 700. You could have bought everyone a house on the lake for the amount they are spending to do almost nothing. We have been fixing homelessness since 1968 with the creation of modern HUD under LBJ. At some point we need to ask what are we doing wrong?’
Every year they do Homeless Day on the Hill. It’s always the same. No one who will say anything controversial. It’s all about backing the legislative agenda for the year.

Me and a couple others organized Second Chance Day on the Hill. No budget. We just said hey, lets do this. We brought 900 ex-offenders to the rotunda. Most of them had never been in the capital. Some of those guys thought you had to have a pass to go into it. They couldn’t believe the building was open to them. It was amazing. And then they institutionalized the fucking thing. The next year they organized a Second Chance Coalition. They hired people for $100,000 a year to promote a legislative agenda. They wrecked it.

I know how it happens. I did it. I was one of those people. They don’t have evil intent. But the money handcuffs them.

If you start something, they will not fire you. They partner with you and then they take your agenda over. Until you complain.

In the Council for Crime and Justice*  we had a legislative meeting every year with the Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyers association, Minnesota Bar Association , County Attorneys – 8 or 9 mostly wealthy white guys sitting in a back room talking about the next legislation session, talking about racial disparities. I made myself persona non grata when I said — ‘We are going to have an event on racial disparities at Metro State with an all-White panel of men who have been running the state,  who are largely responsible for the policies we are trying to fix — and we are gong to ask the community to come in and listen?’

So then they brought in Justice Alan Page, former Minnesota Viking. Now, 50 years ago he lived with injustice, but now he lives in a couple million dollar house in Edina – a little bit removed from the racial disparities people are facing.

Since then they have changed it up, brought in people who’ve lived it, which is really good. But it was a struggle.

You can’t organize a grassroots movement run by people who live in the suburbs. They know how to write reports. What they don’t know how to generate excitement. They don’t talk to people.

There is part of me that will alway consider Minneapolis home. I miss the woods, the lakes, my friends. but I will never go back there. Too much history. Today I live in Albuquerque with my wife and kids. I host a blog on veterans issues, homelessness, mass Institutionalization, and First Nations  and make websites for grassroots groups. I go to the annual George Soros’ Open Society Conference. I was a Soros Fellow from 2010-12. This year I am doing a presentation with a young indigenous woman, an Iraq veteran looking at structural racism, incarceration and Pacific Islanders.
Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] was a Soros Fellow. She gave a presentation that stuck with me. ‘One strategy for us’, she said ‘is to just clog the system. Everyone who comes into district court charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent crime should plead innocent. Clog the courts so the system can’t function anymore…’

I thought — we could do the same thing with homelessness. Refuse that tainted shelter money. Suddenly there would be 5,000 homeless people on the streets. Clog the system. Force a change.

*The Council For Crime and Justice shut down suddenly in May, after 60 years of operation.

Minneapolis Project. 

“The city is ripe for taking over.” Marjaan Sirdar

 

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I interviewed Marjaan on June 11, 2016, during the two weeks between the death of Muhammad Ali and what would have been the 45th birthday of the late Tupac Shakur. He was thinking about them both as we talked and then edited this piece.

I was born in Chicago in 1979. We were essentially homeless – although I didn’t realize it until I worked with homeless youth in Minneapolis thirty years later. My father, an immigrant from Pakistan, was struggling to find work. My mom was busting her butt working at a Department Store, but it wasn’t enough. Mom, my older brother and I lived with my grandma for a while. I was one years old when we first went to stay with my grandfather in Minnesota.

My grandfather ended up in Minnesota because he was sent to Federal prison in Sandstone. He was a minister in the Nation of Islam. He opened up the first Mosque in Kansas City in the late 60s. According to him his conviction was a FBI set up. I’m not sure the real story. His wife moved to Minnesota to be near him when he was incarcerated and when he got out they settled in Bloomington.

We moved nearly ten times before I was five. My mom and dad were trying to work it out but mom was determined not to have us grow up in Chicago. She grew up in the Nation of Islam in a Black middle class bubble on the south side . She watched as Chicago grew more violent from the 60s to the 70s and didn’t want her children to end up dead or in jail. My father left permanently, a month before I turned four, back home to Pakistan. We finally settled in Plymouth, MN when it was time for me to go to kindergarten.

I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially. We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything, but I liked it because I was with other kids of color. At Kennedy High School I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

The thing that saved me when I was a kid was hip hop, not the 1990s commercial stuff but the late 1980s artists. They–and my mom — instilled in me a sense of self-pride.

I went to Inver Grove Heights for college for a couple semesters. Didn’t get much work done. I lived with other college kids and we hung out and partied. I hardly worked, just sold drugs mostly. I began going out with a girl I’d know since junior high and eventually I moved in with her back to Bloomington.

I started working at a warehouse in Edina. I was making good money. I knew people with college degrees working at Perkins.  I decided college made no sense. My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. For the nine years that I worked at the warehouse I listened everyday, Monday through Friday, while at work. And I argued politics with my coworkers, customers and my boss. It politicized me.  I learned how to debate and hold my ground, arguing with people listening to conservative talk radio. We discussed the news of the day from 9/11, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to when Barak Obama ran for president.

In 2007, I bought my own house in the Bryant neighborhood, a historically African American community in South Minneapolis, where Prince lived and went to school as a kid. I was 28 years old,eager to get out of the suburbs and be in a Black neighborhood. To get away from conservatives. To meet liberals. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I got a six-week job working in Keith Ellison’s 2008 relection campaign. I canvassed and door knocked. It was exciting. I loved the people working on his campaign. Multicultural, multiracial, Muslims, Christians, Jews, old and young, Ellison was bringing them together. At that time I was drinking Obama’s Koolaid. I related to his life story. My father was an immigrant like his.

It was a bittersweet time in my life. In 2008 my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He had his leg amputated at Mayo clinic the day before Obama’s first inauguration and just days before I turned 30. I stopped looking for work because my brother was getting sicker and sicker. He died April 18, 2009. I grieved for a while, not working.

When I started to look for work in non-profits I discovered most of them required a college degree. I applied for a job at a welfare-to-work agency in St. Paul. I killed the interview and they hired me. I was dressing up to go to work, learning new skills and getting good feedback. It felt good. Until one day, they told me I was fired for “lying on the job application about my criminal record.”

But I didn’t lie. I had told them about the DWI and drug offense, neither of which wer felonies. The courts had my criminal record mixed up with my brother who had just passed.

They wouldn’t even check to see if I was telling the truth. I was the only Black man working there. I knew if I was a White woman — like most of them — they would have listened to me and checked my story. I would’ve been innocent until proven guilty. Their attitude was: “I knew you were too good to be true.” That was my introduction to social services.

I enrolled at MCTC the following year. I was 31 years old. It was the greatest thing I ever did. The professors were great and so were the students. Soon after I got a job working with homeless youth. My education into the world of liberal social services continued. My coworkers and bosses were all White folks, most of whom grew up in small towns, went to college and wanted to do good. Their first experience with people of color was in this position of power. They embraced the social service charity model and ignored systemic racism. They’d say “we can’t change the world.” Almost all of our clients were Black.

I ended up arguing with them like I did the warehouse workers. I learned that I preferred the conservatives. Racism among liberals comes out in bizarre ways. Micro-aggressions. They would never admit their racism. At least the conservatives were honest.

It is a crime that in this rich liberal city, people who look like me are struggling, youth are homeless. The youth I worked with were some of the most talented and brilliant people. Some were high school educated, some were not. The majority were Black, almost all people of color. The same system that controlled their ancestors under slavery and Jim Crow was still keeping them down. Poverty and homelessness are completely intertwined with the history of racism.

The system is fucked up. It keeps people in poverty, gives them just enough to make deals to find a place to stay. Two hundred dollars in food stamps is not enough for anyone to survive; $200 dollars in cash assistance – those are death wages. There was a white homeless population who traveled across the country, from the west coast, who chose a hobo punk rock lifestyle, but the folks of color were not choosing it. They became homeless because a they were in section 8 housing and they turned 18 and were kicked out of their family homes because the system did not allow that many adults to live in one apartment. They might have trouble getting on the lease because of a criminal record.

They didn’t want hand outs. They wanted work. Some were unable to due to mental illness. Some ended up homeless because their families couldn’t deal with their mental illness but others acquired mental disorders as a result of the trauma associated with homelessness. None of them asked to be there.
These youth experienced so much trauma: one night in the shelter, the next on the streets getting raped or selling their bodies for a place to stay, then back in a shelter, acting like nothing happened. Young men as well as women, selling their bodies for a place to stay. A couple bags of groceries was useful to them because they could barter food for a place to stay. They get thrown in jail for the crime of being homeless. The city of Minneapolis was always trying to get rid of them so they could bring white suburban dollars and attract well-off buyers of new condos downtown.

In addition to racism these experiences helped me to reflect on my own complex class background. I grew up in low-income housing with other poor Black, Native, Asian and White people but surrounded by a middle class White community with all its resources. I had access to the education, and was within walking distance of everything we needed, even if we couldn’t afford it all. My father came from one of the poorest countries in the world but his family was rich. They lived in gated communities with servants. My mother grew up in the Nation of Islam, socially well-respected people. She went to a private Nation of Islam school named after her grandmother. She lived in a Black middle class bubble. She was a good kid who never drank or smoked. Her kids on the other hand, grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs and were exposed to drugs and gangs at the age of 11-12, stuffed she was shielded from growing up.

My mother had middle class values she passed on to us. She would say “Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we have to act like it. We hold our head high with dignity. We come from great people.” Those values helped me out in life, but I recognize them now as classist in nature. Today I am very much middle class but I identify as working class. That is where my allegiance lies.

My neighborhood is historically black. I am surrounded by small African American churches. But if you go a few blocks west you are in Kingfield — all White, supposedly progressive – but not many people look like me. Go ten blocks south and you have those big mansions on the parkway. I hate it. I really hate Minneapolis.

But I am attached. I don’t know anything other than the Twin Cities. I feel an obligation to change it. At the same time its a big burden to put on anybody. Especially people of color. We didn’t create the problem. How many of my White peers wake up feeling an obligation to change their city? Those who do are friends of mine. I have managed to create community with them.

I hate and am attached to America in the same way. I hate this country because this country has always hated us. I idolized Muhammad Ali as a kid for standing up to White American racism. His values are alive inside me today . My story is very American.

In kindergarten my teacher told me I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag because she knew we were from the Nation of Islam. It kind of alienated me because I sat there while the other kids stood up, but it set me apart in a good way too.

There was always an anti-imperialist sentiment in my household. My mother’s second husband was Ethiopian. Her best friend was Palestinian. At ten years old we were in solidarity with Palestine. In 6th grade current events class I was the only one who knew who Yasser Arafat was. We have always been internationalists.

So I organize. Listening to Democracy Now in my 20s, I romanticized organizing. When I moved into Bryant Neighborhood I assumed my house would be worth less over the years. I never thought White people would be moving to the neighborhood. I never saw White people there until the bike paths came. Black and Brown people have been riding bikes for decades, but when White people start doing it, because gas prices are rising, because they want to lower their carbon foot print, we get bike paths in the street, Park-and-Rides in the suburbs and bike lanes cutting across Black and Brown communities.

Now the White people are moving in, running, biking, walking dogs, pushing strollers. Now we have the coop, the yoga studio, a Spanish immersion day-care where the Urban League office was for 40 years. I want Black people to have organic food, yoga, and Spanish immersion, but they can’t afford it. Its pricing people of color out of their neighborhood.

You ask, am I a gentrifier? Growing up in the suburbs I craved a Black community to be a part of. I wanted this to be my community. I didn’t join one of the churches that surround me because I’m not a Christian. (I was taught that Christianity was the White man’s religion. I believed that until I took Keith Mayes Black history course and learned about the Revolutionary role of the Black church in Black liberation movements.) Now I am slowly building relationships, to organize with those Black churches right outside my door. So yes ,in many ways I am a gentrifier. But I like to think I did not come to the neighborhood and ask it to change for me.

I challenge White people who say to me they have a right to live wherever they want to live. Because Black and Brown people don’t have the right, the access, to live wherever they want to live. I like to push back on people. They don’t realize when they come into a community they come with a lot of social capital. They might not intend to change the community but they do. When White people show up in waves, those communities change to accommodate their families.

I joined the Bryant Neighborhood organization when I heard about the coop coming in. Now three years later I am the chair the Bryant Neighborhood Organization. We have a big pot of money, $500,000 . It has been used for home loans, home improvement loans. It has not been used to protect people from foreclosure. We want to recruit Black and Brown people to buy homes by creating a first-time home buyer loan. If they live there for ten years the loan is forgiven. We want people to stay in the neighborhood. We don’t want people flipping homes. We have an emergency fund for people with very low-interest, but unfortunately most of the people who use it are white. So getting the word out is important. Our neighborhood organization has operated like a social club for many years. We are finally hiring staff. Radical organizers. We are creating a land-use committee to make decisions about new development. We have talent in the community that we can use to build the development the people want and need.

There is a difference between white organizers and organizers of color. Whites organize to organize. We organize around issues that directly impact our lives. Sick Pay. $15 minimum wage, restore the vote, drivers licenses for the undocumented. But it is harder to get Black and Brown people to mobilize. We are struggling with survival. We don’t have time. And now I do. I feel powerful as an adult. I’m learning how to step up and use my power.

In my 20s I wanted to be Che Guevara or Malcolm X. Eventually I got this idea of teaching. I’m not going to be the next Che Guevara but I could teach the next generation of freedom fighters. I’d rather be working with youth than going to meetings with adults.

I want to indoctrinate kids to teach them to believe in themselves. I know indoctrination is a controversial word but you need to realize the kids are already indoctrinated with White supremacy. We need to challenge that dominate message. The Black Panthers, when they had their free breakfast program, they were indoctrinating kids, teaching them Black love, pride and Black History. They had them singing songs the kids didn’t understand but eventually they would.

I want to be the teacher who teaches kids how to destroy education. The government created education to grow an obedient citizenry with a false nationalist identity. A false sense of unity when in reality you have all these marginalized groups. There is nothing more critical than to teach kids to question nationalism, to question patriotism, to question the education system.
So that is why I am in school. To get a master’s degree in education. We’ll see how much I like teaching. I may hate it.

If you are committed to changing the system you will probably have to hate some of it. But then, just like the city you hate and the neighborhood you love… there will be the kids….

Yes. Direct service is my passion — working with kids. Teaching high school history. Teaching kids about the history of resistance. But I will have to challenge the administration, organize faculty, like I have done with every other job.
Because there is so much wealth here and so many poor people, we are in some ways ground zero in this new movement. The new Montgomery. And that is why I need to be organizing here. It is where the struggle is.

Here is a predication. There is going to be a power shift in this next few local elections. The young activists in Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Immigrant rights are going to be moving into positions of political power. The city is ripe for taking over.

All these things I was ashamed of growing up: being poor, Black, Muslim, son of an immigrant, I have learned to find power in those things. I think that is the definition of being an adult. Owning your past and using it to be who you want to be.

Minneapolis Project. 

 

Minneapolis Project Explained (Updated)

 

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Minneapolis Interview Project

Motivation:

My motivations are complex. These factors are all part of the reason I am doing this:

  • I lived in thirteen different places in four states by the time I was twelve.
  • As a child the story of my Dad’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany came with a lesson: nationalism is bigotry. Love humanity and principles, not places.
  • After my trip around the perimeter of the United States on a bicycle in 2011-12 (story told in my forth-coming book Turtle Road) I concluded that attachment to place (even places we hate) might be innate for humans.

All of these factors made me want to interrogate the place I have called home since I arrived here, on my own, at the age of seventeen.

  • My motivation in May of 2016 when I began,— was to crawl out of my introverted shell and get out there and talk to people. It was in part a response to the passing of Kirk Washington Jr. in April of 2016, a former student, who I had plans to meet for coffee the week he died. There are so many questions I wanted to ask him. Kirk embodied the philosophy of building social justice through personal connections. His interactions were always on the profound level.  May 28 is my birthday. The project was a resolution to stop  missing chances to connect.

Parameters:

  • 100 interviews, beginning on May 28, 2016. (# could change.)
  • Interviewees have lived and/or worked in Minneapolis.
  • By interviewing people of different ages, races, genders, economic classes, migration experiences, who live in different parts of this city, I hope to see as much of the elephant that is Minneapolis as possible. There is, however, no science to who I interview. People who are willing and who I know or know of, is not a scientific sample. that is not a goal.
  • As of October 2017 I interviewed ten people who  decided not to allow me to publish their stories. My head is full of their stories as well.

Things  I am interested as I approach the project:

  • How do places define us?
  • How we build communities that celebrate place and culture without building walls/ gates?
  • How we create borders for corporations and developers and tear down walls and regulations for working people. On the national level we combat a free trade economy. On a local level, gentrification is basically the same process.
  • How do we combat bigotry couched in nationalism or local pride?
  • Can we love local places and enjoy their evolution as newcomers arrive?
  • What does a focus on place tell us about how to advance social justice?

Letting people tell the stories they need to tell is more important than my larger interests. I do little intervening during the interview, as most people have no problem talking about their lives once they get going. Still there is clearly some of me in the totality of these interviews.

Methods

  • I use a tape recorder and a computer.
  • I  create an essay based  on the interviewees own words, rearranged to tell full stories, with occasional words changes for clarification. It is not a transcript. 
  • Interviewees may edit the final version before publication.
  • I am sensitive to telling  the story of the interviewee. If the stories of others are told I will most likely curtail them so the focus is on the interviewee.
  • I do not check stories for verification except for known facts like dates, places, and names.For example, the night of the week Martin Luther King was killed, or when an organization started.
  • Each essay is accompanied by at least one photograph.

Final Project
The final finished project is yet undetermined, but will include compiled interviews and an analytical essay. If  you are a publisher and this sounds interesting to you, or if you have any questions about the interviews or suggestions about someone to interview, you can email me at  awmpedalstory@gmail.com

Anne Winkler-Morey