Shannon Nordby: At Home on Leech Lake and Roosevelt High School.

10168093_10152378534258033_6780100279175478209_nMy mom was born on Leech lake. She spoke only Ojibwe until she was five. She was put in foster care, and grew up in various places between the Reservation and Minneapolis. I was born in Minneapolis and I have lived on the south side my whole life.

I grew up a block from Barton, where I went to school, where my kids go to school, where, as a parent, I am still very involved.

As a kid I loved exploring outside. I was into rocks at a very young age. One of my favorite things to do when I was really little, before I could go anywhere on my own, was to look at the stucco of the houses on my block. We lived near Lake Harriet. There was so much nature there. There was a great big hill near my house and all us kids used to play there together without adult supervision. We felt very safe.

My dad used to take me rock hunting at a gravel pit near Osseo, when that area was still country. (It’s a first ring suburb now). I loved the baked smell of the biosphere. You don’t get that in the city. We searched for agates. My dad said I had eagle eyes for agates. That always made me feel good. He is the one who got me interested in science.

Dad is a house painter, in his 70s now and still working. He says “motion is lotion.” He knows if he stops he won’t start again. He grew up on 36th and Garfield. His mother was a union activist in the servers union at a fancy hotel down town and his father worked in an adding machine company. Dad went to Central high school. He was in the Painter’s union when he was younger.

My mom was a media specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools until she got hit by a car. I got the call on the first day of school during my second year of teaching. She quit after that.

I grew up with one brother — five years younger than me. About four years ago I found out I have another brother. My mothers first child. He was adopted when my mom was in her early 20s. I have never met him. I want to, but we need to buy haircuts, food, a car. I don’t have any money for the trip right now.

K-12 Schooling, and Finding my People in Uptown.

I went to Barton school from kindergarten to 3rd grade. I was lucky to have Mrs. Finch as a teacher. She was African American. She was very kind. To have an African American teacher was life changing. I had had all white ladies up until that time —- I grew up in privilege — not a lot of diversity — she was really supportive. She knew what life is really like. A lot of people loved Mrs Finch.

Then I went to North Wind Warriors —- a district-wide program for Indian kids in 4 and 5th grade held inside the Seward and then Lyndale schools. I had Mrs. Roberson. She was not a good teacher. One time she was reading a story I got in trouble for closing my eyes and imagining instead of looking at the pictures. They picked us up on little buses. I felt no stigma about those buses. They were cool. I knew we had a special class — we did not mix with the school.

I went back to Barton 6-8 grade. After being crushed by Mrs. Roberson for being creative, I was now instructed to be think on my own. Barton was now an “Open” school, but they had yet to figure out how to guide student’s in the open program. I had a hard time. The principal thought I was selling drugs. I didn’t even know what drugs were.

I went to Regina Catholic school in St.Joan of Arc for one year, and then to Southwest. I didn’t take high school seriously. I could have done better if someone was looking out for me.
I started to get in trouble in Uptown — hanging out with skin heads and punks. Anti Racist Action (ARA) — that was my group. We hung out— we did political stuff too — went to rallies. My boyfriend did more than I did, but that was still my crowd. Among those friends at Southwest I was the only one to graduate from high school.
My identity was formed by anti-racist, punk Uptown. I was not punk myself and I wasn’t a skin head, but that was where I wanted to be — where I found interesting people and I could be myself. I did not fit in Southwest. I fit in with the misfits in Uptown. We all still know each other. Some of their kids have gone to Roosevelt. They are still my connections.

But once I got to college I did not go back. That is when Uptown changed — there was a new library, the greenway, gentrification.

I went to St. Thomas University because I was accepted there. That was another place where there weren’t people of color. I don’t claim to be a Tommy. I had a job, went to college parties, but mostly it was a waste.

I knew I wanted to study science. I thought about pre-med, but I did not like how drugs were being developed. My Plant Biology professor, Chester Wilson accepted me for who I was. We did interesting experiments in his class. I got a Life Science degree and a teaching license in Life Science education. I can teach biology, 9th grade physical science and middle school science.

Idle No More, Native Lives Matter, Leech Lake Council.

I have four children. Avery (14) and Aneila (12) and Biiwan (6) and Tyr (2). When I had three kids and a car and I was able to get involved in a lot of things: Idle No More, my teachers union and the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council.

Idle No More was formed in Canada — four women saying we are not going to sit back any more. The movement moved to the U.S. A big part of it was round dancing. If you had a rally you had a round dance, if you shut down traffic you had a round dance. Round dances make community. Everyone holds hands and is looking at each other, having fun and making friends.

No one recruited me to INM. I went on my own, made my own flyers. It broke down because of personalities. People wanting to take ownership over what was going on. The same thing happened to Native Lives Matter.

The person I had best time organizing with was JR Bobick. He is open to other people’s  opinions and brings people into the work. You go hang out with him and he is so positive. We organized together with Idle No More when there was an oil spill in MN. We went to the company headquarters downtown and round danced there on the mall, sang some great songs. We also connected with Save the Kids, organized by Anthony Nocella — until he moved away.

After that we formed our own local chapter of  Native Lives Matter, to mourn and organize against police brutality and missing/ murdered Native woman. I got out of it when I was pregnant with my fourth child. I also wanted to get away from all the drama — especially around people’s native identity, criticizing people for not being Native enough.

A big issue that has arisen recently is how heroin is killing our people. My students tell me how they are involved in Natives Against Heroin. I would love to be involved with them. Maybe when my youngest baby is in day care…..

I became the secretary of the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council nine months ago. We have monthly meetings to open communication links between Leech Lake and the tribal members in the Twin Cites. I write the minutes — keep us going. There is a dichotomy between Indigenous people having an oral tradition versus me writing everything down. What I am doing is making sure people who are not there know what is going on. Increasing communication. We talk about heroin —how it is affecting kids, the education our kids need, supporting our elders. All of the work is really political. It is hard to keep out the jealously and ego stuff in order to get stuff done.

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About six years ago  I started a Facebook group for all staff of Minneapolis Public Schools — a place to organize. The union president saw that and asked me to run for secretary of MFT executive board in 2012. I won. I really enjoyed my two-year term — getting involved in how our union works.

Our new union president Michelle Weiss is working on “leveling out our union — so there is less hierarchy. I just said yes to being the assistant steward in my building and running for the MFT executive board. It is an important time to be doing union work. Minnesota is in danger of becoming a Right to Work state. That would be devastating for our union. Fewer members, less clout. People who are not in the union can’t vote on the contract. That is just the beginning of how it would affect us.

Teaching.

I teach urban farming right now at Roosevelt High School. I’m teaching the kids the basics of sustainability. I tell them this is the most important class they will ever take; learning to grow their own food. They hate it when I tell them that.

The food surprises them. They say “I didn’t know cherry tomatoes were so small…” There is no standardized test that goes with my course. That gives me freedom to design my own curriculum. We can go outside. I love the plants. I am learning and teaching indigenous farming. I am signing up for great conferences.

I need to get a car first though..

Its fun, because the kids tell me the school is like a prison — they hate the seating chart, the time limitations. They don’t want to be there…

Does anyone like high school? I just want to be a positive force in their lives, empowering them in anyway I can.

These days, instead of being so involved in social movements outside of work, I am taking it into school. I am planning a Native club. We will have eight meetings a year. I got someone to donate Tanka Bars and Leech Lake is donating wild rice.
I never thought I would love teaching as much as I do this year. In addition to Urban Farming I teach a class with RISE, for 12th grade kids who are in danger of not graduating. I love that as well. I can use positivity to help kids get through, so they can move on to the dreams they have, for after school.

I had a kid yesterday who got his diploma. He came down to see me. We were both so happy.

My principal is great. He supports my course and is excited that I am teaching it. He wants the students to have a voice. He understands we need to deal with white supremacy. After Philando Castile was murdered, he brought it up in a school meeting. He said “I know this makes you uncomfortable..”

I told him “For some of us, bringing it up makes us more comfortable.”

As a white man he has no idea what we go through as people of color and Indigenous people, but he opened the door. He wants to hear how it affects the school. This is different from other places I have taught where the principal did not want to hear it.

But I’m grateful for all my experiences, even those dysfunctional times at other schools. I learned from them. All the work I’ve done inside and outside of work, Leech Lake, Native Lives Matter, I can now use in my classrooms at Roosevelt.

The job I have now is not for first year teachers.

I’m living a good Ojibwa life. I want the best for everyone else. I hope my ego will not be called into question in breaking movements down. We Ojibwe have our Seven Teachings. One of them is humility. I strive for that.

These days when I’m done with work, I stay home with the kids and husband and the house and the dog and the cooking and the dishes and the laundry. The thing I need now is time —to do all this work, and watch the plants grow.

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Minneapolis Project. 

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

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

Growing Up in Rural Conservative Religious Family.

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

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

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

Coming out as gay was not an option.

Rural Activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chipotle and ICE

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

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

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

My Coming Out Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living and Advocating on the North Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Master’s Degree in Homelessness. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said What? What do you want?

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

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

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

Taking stock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Sandy Velaz: Undocumented Immigrants Are My People.

 

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Growing up I had these images in my mind of helicopters at night. I thought it was a movie I had seen. No one told me the story of how I got here and somehow I knew I shouldn’t ask.  I didn’t find out until I was 18 and had to go back to Mexico to live with my grandmother. With her I discovered things about myself I didn’t know growing up.

I was born in Mexico City. My dad migrated to California soon after and for two years he saved up money for the Coyote so we could reunite with him. My grandma and grandpa were the ones who crossed the border with me and my four-year-old sister. We got on a raft at night and went across the river. Once we were over on the U.S. side there was a car waiting for us. They grabbed my sister and I and threw us into the trunk of a car!

Luckily I don’t remember this.

When we got to Los Angeles there was a huge party — celebrating being together again. All my uncles were there. We got some new clothes because we were in a America now! There are these pictures of me and my grandparents. I was teeny tiny, and so happy. I didn’t know how dangerous it was, how scared my grandma was for us.

I lived in Los Angeles until second grade. I look back at my L.A. school pictures and everybody looked like me. That was some of the best years for me because my parents were together. There was domestic abuse and we lived in poverty –my sister remembers that. I remember it was really fun.

I lived in Huntington Park. I have images, memories of drive-bys—the car coming through, guns, having to run inside and get down. We were there in 1992 when Rodney King happened. I was five. We couldn’t go outside. We didn’t have electricity. But we were all together. We had candle light. For a kid — it was fun! I didn’t know people were dying— the racial conflict that was going on. I’m sure the adults were scared too, but for me — it was a good time. My parents came home with a piano and food for us. So for me — I got a piano and it was awesome! Now I think — that was really bad.

In first grade I had a white male teacher who spoke Spanish to us, but we were supposed to write in English. I was confused about language and expressing myself. My parents didn’t speak English but they did their best to expose us to it.

In 1994 my parents weren’t doing too well. There were problems with money. My dad had a friend who had moved to Minnesota who told him, “There’s lots of jobs here.” Everything about that move happened really fast. I felt so confused and scared. In LA I had a pet turtle, my sister had chicks. We were living the kid dream. We had to give all that up.

I told my classmates “ I am moving to a place that is like Alaska — really cold.”

My mom, sister and I went first. We came on a plane — the first and last time I was on a plane until I was 18. We got to Minnesota at the beginning of winter. The first place we went to was the Kmart on Nicollet and Lake street to get coats. In L.A. buying and getting things was different. More bartering. I don’t ever remember going to a department store until Minnesota. I was scared. I looked up and the room was spinning with Christmas decor. I got lost.

We moved to the area around 33rd St. and 1st Ave.  A duplex. There were many people living with us. Family friends. For the next ten years of my life I slept on the floor and shared a room.

My dad took longer to meet up with us. My mom had to find a job. My dad’s brother came up. We pulled our money together and got an apartment on Nicollet Avenue and 33rd. Mom, us kids, her brother-in-law, and his wife and kids in one apartment. Mom worked night shifts, so for a while it was just me and my sister, alone at night.

My parents being apart, made my mom realize she did not want to be in the relationship. There was a lot of fighting over the phone.When dad came about a year later, we were together for two months before the apartment building got raided by ICE.

It was a weekend. Someone knocked on the door. We did not know we had the right not to answer. Now people are more aware of what to do if the police come to your door due to Know Your Rights campaigns — but not then. 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. Four men came in. They didn’t take my mom, or us, but they took my dad. I think that’s lucky. Sometimes — then and now — kids go to school and come home and both their parents are gone.

Once again my sister and I were separated from my Dad. While he was back in Mexico, my mom found a new partner. It was a nasty divorce. I didn’t understand it. For many years I wondered, did I do something wrong? For me Minneapolis represented everything going wrong in our family. From my kid perspective, everything was good and we were all together before we came here. If we had only stayed in LA my parents would still be together. But Minnesota was also prosperity for us. It wasn’t easy, but the struggles that came our way all made us better people.

When I started second grade me and my sister were placed at Bethune Elementary on the North side even though we lived on the South side. I liked the school bus, seeing the whole city. The school was a culture shock. My little classmates in L.A. were all Latino. Bethune was African-American. They thought I was weird, but we soon got along fine. Before the end of the year my sister and I were transferred to Holland Elementary in Northeast.

Before I knew Brown, I knew Black. At Bethune and Holland I had all this exposure to African-American artists and writers, slavery in America. It wasn’t just in February that we learned about it. All year long we had plays about civil rights. In choir we sang freedom rider songs. We sang the African-American anthem. I loved it.

Holland Elementary was a small community school. It was the same elementary that Prince went to and we had the same music teacher he had. She was a great teacher. They all were. Compassionate. They weren’t afraid of administrators. They just taught us, took care of us. The ESL teacher was a Latina with two educational assistants who were Latino men. It was a great place to be. The teachers exposed us to material that was relatable. I remember watching a movie about a kid who grew up in the Projects and he finds a cat. His mom gives him money to buy food and he buys cat food too — on credit. I could relate to that.

When my dad returned from Mexico, mom already had an apartment and a new partner. It was nasty between them. My mom, was one of those adults that didn’t really want to be a parent, they just happened to be a parent. So my dad got full custody of me and my sister. That was interesting growing up in a female body without a mom. My dad said. “Its OK. I’m going to do this.” We lived in a house on 35th and Nicollet – Central neighborhood — with my dad and a friend and his wife and kids. It was fun. We played backyard baseball, went to the Hosmer library, chased after the ice cream truck.

My Dad worked two shifts so we didn’t see him much. When we came home from school, no one was home to give us a snack. Dad would leave us an envelope with money in it and we would go down to the corner store. After a year someone from the neighborhood complained. They were going to call the cops on us because they noticed we walked to the corner store everyday alone. That had to stop. As a kid that didn’t make sense. I thought, “we are just getting food.” So then my dad had to find someone to take care of us. Single parent struggle.

Holland Elementary was filled with working class families, single parent families, kids in poverty. We were normal. You couldn’t pick on anyone because they only had a mom or a dad. Everyone was from different backgrounds. I had Native American, White, African-American friends. I had an Afro-Latino friend. I would say to him “You’re Black! — but you speak Spanish!” It was trippy. He was from Panama.

I feel lucky that I went to Holland. I have heard horror stories of kids being put into ESL even though they spoke English, being put back a grade. None of that happened to us.

I moved to a duplex in the Powderhorn Park area. That was the period when people were talking about Murderapolis, you know. I saw gun violence three times.

  • We were pulling up into the driveway – near Wilder Elementary and there was a girl peeking out at the corner store, then shooting a gun and running.
  • Another time I was at the playground and someone pulled out a gun and everyone just scattered. All kids.
  • The third time I was in my dad’s car on the corner of Lake and Chicago and it was a green light but nobody was moving. Two cars were in the middle the intersection shooting it out. I said “ This is like a hollywood movie!” I guess you become desensitized. To me it seemed normal. It reminded me of LA. No big deal. We still enjoyed the park.

Later more family came up. Dad bought a house with his cousin in North Minneapolis and then I took the bus from North to South to attend Folwell Middle School. Before making that transition my teacher told me, “Your English is at the highest level. It’s up to you if you want to do ESL in 7th grade.” I decided to do it so I could be with my Latino friends. I didn’t realize there were so many Latino kids at Folwell.

Staying in ESL meant  I didn’t get to have music or other enriching classes. When I tried to get out of it they put in a remedial reading class. It was a little degrading. In the long run though, my reading level in 8th grade was above average and I thought maybe I needed that little extra boost. I didn’t want to be sad that I never got to learn an instrument.

At Folwell I began to pay more attention to race. In elementary school, watching Roots and learning about the underground railroad and singing freedom songs, Black was all I knew and it was amazing. In middle school I realized there was Brown and there was Different. There was racial tension between the Asian and Latino students. If someone had a beef with a Hmong student, we were all together, against them. I tried to be neutral and have all kinds of friends and activities.

I had an English teacher who had a white savior complex. In her journey to teach us about social justice topics and Native American culture, she was coming at it from an angle of “I’m sorry.” I saw through it and I didn’t like it. It was interesting to start noticing those things in 8th grade.

In Highschool I decided I liked the open program at Roosevelt so I applied. Otherwise I would have gone to Henry or Edison. But I got in. So I was taking a long bus ride again. I always liked the school bus.

In my dad’s cousin house in North Minneapolis, in the Camden neighborhood, close to Folwell Park.  We lived in the basement. That part of North was pretty safe then. There was a Kowalski’s and a Target in the area and a charter school across the street. Eventually the stores went away. Today it’s a very dangerous intersection.

My dad’s cousin had a lot of kids. He felt that pressure to provide and do better. He had been in trouble in Mexico. His nickname in my grandma’s pueblo was the Diablo — the Devil. My dad decided to give him a chance, but he eventually got involved in selling drugs.

My dad would tell us “We are not involved. Stay away from that.” But we would see it. We would see guns and my uncle doing drugs. Overnight they would suddenly have material things. It was interesting, but eventually the police were on them. One night, a swat team came in. I saw my little cousin standing behind the door and there was a cop with a gun to her back saying “Put your hands up.” Because it wasn’t an official rental, the basement was considered part of the drug house. Everyone in the house was searched. We sat in the living room all night long while they went through everything. By then I had a step mom and she had just given birth to my brother. She had a baby shower and got a lot of cash. They took the cash and she never got it back. There was no way we were going to go and claim that cash.

That was the second time my dad got taken away. I was in 9th grade. They confused him with a fugitive and for three months he was in a detention center until they figured it out who he was.

It took him sixth months to come back.

All my life my dad has been my super hero. He is taken away, and somehow he comes back! He just shows up. Recently, more and more he has been willing to tell me about crossing. He told me about seeing some young kids with an elderly grandma. The grandma couldn’t do that walk, across the desert, with a crying baby. “I wanted to help her but we had to keep moving.”

Those experiences that people hold onto about crossing the border — I think about the mental health aspect — everything they carry.

During the raid all of the adults got taken away somewhere, except my 21-year-old mentally ill cousin who had been under guardianship. She wasn’t fit to take care of us. It was her and ten minors in the house. We were lucky to be able to stay home. For a week none of us went to school. We were all fending for ourselves. I wanted to stay home and take care of my newborn little brother. No one wanted to come near the house because they were freaked out about the raid.
Our teachers didn’t know. No one knew.

Eventually my step mom, my step brother and I moved back to the South side with our Aunt and Uncles. We had four families in a three bedroom apartment. It was fun — all my cousins and Powderhorn Park to play in. When we made breakfast it was breakfast buffet— so much food and community; everyone watching out for each other. We lived there for a couple of years before my Dad came back and we moved back to North Minneapolis to a big house, with the entire extended family.

My senior year I had to face the fact that I was undocumented. I really wanted to go to school. A teacher of mine, Jehanne Beaton was a good mentor for me — she was my social studies teacher in middle school. When I went to Roosevelt she did too, so she was my social studies teacher all through high school. We had a close relationship. She wanted to help me figure out how to get to college. I was doing “Admission Possible.” I got accepted into St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, the U, … all these awesome schools, but I knew I couldn’t afford any of them, especially with out-state tuition. There were some legislative campaigns for Dreamers at the time – but nothing had passed.  Jehanne found me a free legal clinic. Since my parents got divorced, my mom had married a white guy— A U.S. citizen. She had become a resident. I hadn’t been in touch with my mom for about a decade. Now I realized that through her I could have been a citizen!

I understand now as a woman, that my mom’s relationship with my dad was abusive and she did not want to reach out, so I don’t have any resentment about that. People gotta do what they gotta do.

I talked to an attorney and they said, there is nothing I could do, but another attorney said “There must be a way.”

My sister — a teen mom— was also working on it. My dad did not want to help if it meant reaching out to our mother. But my sister did it. She contacted mom, who was living in Anoka. She was willing. She would pay for the attorney to get status. We started the paper work, but the process wold take time, and I was about to turn 18 and start to incur fines for my undocumented status. So I had to leave.

In August 2005 I returned to Mexico. My dad paid the plane fare. It was scary because I knew I might not come back. But I was 18 and ready for adventure. Besides, by then I resented the system, inequalities, the lack of opportunities for me. I told everyone indignantly, “I’m leaving this place! I am going to TRAVEL.”

Even though I had grown up in bad neighborhoods my parents had done a good job of sheltering me — keeping me at least feeling safe. Mexico was such a culture shock. The homelessness, the kids without shoes, people with disabilities on the street. The most exposure to that kind of poverty was in Chicago one time when I was sixteen and seeing people cleaning windshields for money.

Mexico City was shocking. The air was different. It smelled like sewage. There wasn’t much green. One thing I struggled with the whole time I was there was people’s ability to become numb to other people’s suffering. There would be little indigenous children with no shoes on, trying to sell you things on the train. I thought “Why does nobody care?”

I spent 2 years and 8 months in Mexico City with my grandma. My first year I was pretty depressed. I didn’t leave my neighborhood much. But I was getting to know my family and what had happened to me when I was two. I knew it was a gift for me, to be able to spend that time with my grandmother, to hear about how I crossed, about my parents and their relationship and the hardships they went through.

The second year I started to travel more. I went to my grandma’s pueblo and saw mangos growing on trees and beautiful green mountains. I went down the Yucatan peninsula and Cancun. All these beautiful magical places. Chiapas, Chetumal, Playa del Carmen.  I thought, “I will never be able to come back. I need to see it all.”

I started working at an outsource call center. We were lien collectors and our calls were to the United States. Because I spoke English I got the job. It was fun because my co-corkers were all these college-aged English-speaking Mexicans. It didn’t even feel like a job. We would joke all the time.

I found a couple of jobs teaching English. The first was a grueling. It was run by Protestant Christians. We had to start the day reading the bible. They threw me in a classroom after a week and I was supposed to give the students a test – kids and adults. I was supposed to assess them. I was 19 and had never accessed anyone. I quit and got a job as a tutor with a small company. I was a popular. I would have these conversation clubs where I would give them a theme and they would have to converse. I enjoyed teaching. I had a student who wanted me to help him translate a YouTube video about levitating. He said “I know levitating is weird. But don’t argue with me, just translate. I want to levitate.”

When I got my letter about my immigration appointment, I got my grandma on the smallest plane and we went to Ciudad Juarez.. The whole process was scary. They did a medical examination and questioned me. I was ready to cry,  holding on to all my tears the whole day.

We were there for about a week. I didn’t want my grandma to stand in line with me but the letter said Tuesday 8Am and 100 other people had the same time. So we got there and there was already a super long line. Eventually we entered the building and I turned in my paper work. I went to have my medical exam. I heard all these rumors like that if you have piercings or tattoos they do a mental health evaluation. They asked me if I was pregnant. Luckily I went by and didn’t need any extra examination. But then I went back to the main building and just sat there. It was like a bank with rows and rows of chairs. I sat there  waiting for my name to be called watching people shouting “Yes, Yes!”, and others walking away crying.

When my name was called I went to the teller window.  I had to turn in my passport. The interview was about five minutes. Just a guy shuffling through my papers. It was intense. The guy’s first and last name were Latino. He looked like me, but he spoke only in English. I was there by myself. He looked at my paperwork and asked me. “Where is your mom?” I said “She couldn’t come. She’s sick.” He said “Look out there. All these people are sick. Go sit down.”

I thought “Shit — I messed up.”

For an hour I sat there. I made eye contact with other people in the room. I knew they were feeling the same way I was. Gut churning.

Eventually they called my name. He gave me my visa and said “You gotta go get it stamped at the border.” That was it. Two years and 8 months and now it was done.

The whole time I was in Mexico I was homesick. Some people might say — “Well, you were home.” But I wasn’t. I really missed Minnesota. Even though I had made the best of it in Mexico, I was so ready to be home.

When I came back. I had two new siblings. My sister had another baby. Life had happened. Yet some things were the same. Many members of my family (even to this day) were still undocumented. I got to go and they didn’t, and when I came back I had a status and they didn’t. It was difficult.

But I was happy to be home. I got a job as legal assistant, and in 2012 I enrolled at MCTC. I wanted to go to college with people who look like me. I could have gone to those other schools but I didn’t want to be the token. One thing about Minnesota is it’s so White and it’s easy to be the only one. I decided to do the Urban teacher program at MCTC. Every choice I’ve made since, I have been intentional about doing it here in the city, working with people who look like me. Whenever I have volunteered or interned it has been with communities of color.

I think all these experiences have made me stronger but I still don’t know what to do with those years in Mexico. Every thing I saw and everything I learned. I haven’t found a good outlet for all that frustration — all the inequality.

I still consider myself a part of the undocumented community and anytime I have a chance to be that voice — to say — “hey this is my experience,” I take it. I don’t do it to teach others. I do it so that they are aware that we exist still. When I do things like healthcare, I think about undocumented folks — what are the opportunity gaps. Because it still affects my community.

Now I am a citizen. In 2016 the question is “who am I going to vote for?” The ability to vote is super heavy and important, but when I think of my choices and my intersectionality — a person of color, an immigrant, a woman, an undocumented person — voting is picking my poison.

I have learned so much from people in Minneapolis:

  • My wild music teacher who had us singing freedom songs.
  • Jehanne Beaton, who was with me in the school system who came from the perspective of — the system wasn’t built for you —so how are you going to beat it?
  • My sister, who is really strong doing everything she could to help me get to where I wanted to be.

I feel a strong sense of having to give back — to do what those people did for me.
My dad still lives in North Minneapolis so that neighborhood is still on my mind. Now I live in St. Paul. I am discovering this whole other side. My professors have done a good job of teaching me about African-American Rondo, the immigrant East Side, the Latino West Side and its history of dislocation.

I recently graduated from Metro State University with a BA and people keep asking me “What are you going to do?” Right now I answer “I’m doing it!” I work for Planned Parenthood, teaching sex education to Latino youth. I do two projects — an internship rooted in social justice work, and STD and sex education for students who want it.  I partner with kids from El Colegio.

I am conflicted sometimes about how to tell people where I work. The organization comes with a heavy history of contributing to oppressing the reproductive health of Women of Color, but I think that by doing the work I do I am turning that around. Latinos are going to have a healthy community. Young people are going to know their choices. I hope the students who work with me feel like — if she can do it, I can too.

***

Recently with all the police violence  I am reminded of all the great things I learned in school about the African-American resistance and liberation movements, but I understand that people are still not free.  The murder of Philando Castile affected me the most.  At this moment  people of color are seeking platforms to be heard– not remaining silent about the injustices we face. With Black liberation there will be Latino liberation, Asian liberation, GLBT liberation and so on.

This weekend — September 18-20 —  I attended the We Wont Wait Summit in Washington D.C. bringing together more than a thousand activist women of Color.   We talked about economic justice, defining family, immigration reform, reproductive rights, gun violence, state violence and building solidarity across these issues, and how to fix them for ourselves.  When I returned to Minneapolis I attended the Navigate gala with Rosa Clemente addressing anti-Black sentiment in the Latinx community. She said we need to recognize our race because the state has already racialized us. It was powerful for me because I am a person that has always wanted to keep race at the forefront, but other people in my community have wanted to get away from it. Rosa Clemente gave me inspiration and a blessing to continue to speak up.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Getting in and out of Trouble 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My disaster, fortunately, was getting arrested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics through Architecture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My life project: architecture and design of livable cities

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

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

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

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

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

Segregation, racial inequality, immigration and whiteness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration 

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

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

Building equity

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

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

Minneapolis Project. 

Roya Damsaz: From Iranian Revolution to Cooperative Politics on Mpls.’ Northside.

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Roya Damsaz 

Somebody asked me, did you move to Minneapolis for money or love?

I moved here for love.

I was born in Tehran, the youngest of five children. All of my siblings came to the U.S. for professional graduate school careers. I had just started studying for my engineering degree in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. During the Revolution, they closed all the schools. Shortly after the revolution, my University closed again for “cultural revolution.”  They didn’t like that our classes were taught in English—the “language of Satan.” After a lot of “cleanup,” my university finally reopened and I went back. Because of all this, my five year program took 8 years.

I married in Iran and had two children there. My oldest sister,  a US citizen, had applied for a green card for us. Even though my husband and I were both engineers, we were having a hard time making a living and did not foresee a good future for our kids. We moved to San Diego in 1995.

I got a job as an engineer, designing air conditioning systems for industrial buildings. It was an American company, but their plant was across the border in Tijuana, Mexico — a product of NAFTA. At the time I did not have a clue about free trade and the exploitative border factories that were the result.

The Mexican culture in San Diego and Tijuana was similar to my culture — very warm and family-oriented. I was not facing any discrimination. I think that was also because of my education and status as a professional. I knew Iranians without degrees who struggled to find jobs and to fit in; some of them eventually went back to Iran because they could not survive in the U.S.  My eight year old son had a tough time though. He didn’t know a word of English.  It was hard to leave him in school. He will still say that it was really tough. I would tutor him every day after work starting with baby books. My ex could not help because he was taking english classes too.

I was getting promotions. We were frugal. In three years we bought a new house. Moving up. Our citizenship ceremony was a few days after September 11. We were afraid the ceremony might be postponed or cancelled, but it wasn’t.

After 9/11, the border crossing slowed to a crawl. After going through a deep background check, I enrolled in a program that allowed me to get across faster, but I could see the way the Mexican people who went back and forth were treated terribly—body searches, looking for weapons. This seemed especially ridiculous; there were way more weapons on the U.S. side than on the Mexican side!

I lived and worked in San Diego for 16 years. By 2007, I was divorced.

Mike and I met through an online dating site. In 2010 we both had mid life crises. We left our jobs in San Diego and moved to Everett, Washington, where we bought a coffee shop/used book store. It was funny because we had no experience with coffee. Mike didn’t drink coffee and I thought instant coffee was just great. We had to learn from the previous owner how to make a mocha, latte, etc.

The area (about twenty miles north of Seattle) was loaded with artists. We had many events such as open mic nights, knitting groups, Native American flute players, and environmental activists. The first meeting for Occupy Everett was in our coffee shop. The Occupy site was not far from us and we supported them in many ways including free coffee, sandwiches, soup and, perhaps most importantly, access to the store’s bathroom.

The community was mostly white people with blue collar jobs. Many of them worked for Boeing. ‘Money out of politics’ was a big issue for them and so were environmental concerns such as global climate change. There were train tracks right across the street from our coffee shop, and we watched the coal trains passing through downtown Everett, leaving a grey cloud of coal dust.

We managed to increase the store’s customer base, but we were not good business people. We knew that many of our customers were in bad financial condition, so we were reluctant to raise our prices. The store was so popular that when we decided to sell, a group of our regular customers got together and decided to buy it and run it as a community business.

After we sold the store, we thought, “Where do we go from here?” My mom in Iran had just died. For several years before her death, all of us children took turns going back to visit her. It was hard, because I could not be with her when she died. Mike’s ninety year old mother lived in Minnesota and I didn’t want him to have the same regrets, so we decided to move to Minneapolis.

At first I was really impressed with Minnesota. It had a different kind of cultural diversity. People working in the stores who were from Somalia were wearing their traditional clothing! I said, “Wow! I never saw that in San Diego!” There were also lots of Latinos and Black people, unlike in Everett. I was impressed.

Gradually I began to see it differently: I was treated very nicely, but there was this wall. Nobody would get close to anybody. The conversations were formal. Nobody wanted to know who you were and nobody wanted you to know who they were. I just couldn’t make friends. I would come home and whine to Mike: “Is there something wrong with me?” We started getting involved with a group of environmental activists. They were really nice people, but it was a milder version of the same thing. It was odd: Everybody told everybody they did a great job. People were reluctant to give honest feedback. To me that was not how people would learn, right? It pissed me off. I gradually began to learn what “Minnesota Nice” was, but I couldn’t accept it.

I worked in North Minneapolis and somehow we went to one of NOC’s events. I don’t remember how we found out about it. Nekima Levy-Pounds gave a talk that was eye-opening. I had no idea that racial inequality was still going on in the U.S.

I came from a country in which there is no race. Religion is the big divider. On your birth certificate it lists your religion: I am Muslim because my father was. (In my heart I am a Buddhist although I don’t practice that religion either), but if anyone would ask me I would say I’m Muslim. I never thought of race. Last year we had an opportunity to buy a house. At the time I wasn’t much familiar with the concept of segregation and even if I was, we just wanted to live in the real world with the people we cared for, so we moved to North Minneapolis.

We kept coming back to NOC events, and then NAACP and anything else that we could find which was related to social justice in North Minneapolis. I remember we went to the event at Sabathani Community Center where the police chief was supposed to give a talk, but did not show up because she was concerned for her safety. I looked around the room at the other people who were there, and couldn’t believe that the chief of police would be “scared” of these people. I listened to the testimony of people talking about police brutality. It was shocking. Jason Sole, Rose Brewer, Nekima spoke. My eyes were opening. We went to rallies for Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and unfortunately many more. Going back to work after these meetings I began to see that there were these two parallel worlds. You can live in one and never hear, never see, what is going on in the other. It was just shocking.

I did not feel the Minnesota Nice at NOC or North Minneapolis, which was great. People were more straightforward and courageous. But the African-American culture was also foreign to me. I was not a part of it — it was totally different. It took me a while to understand how little I know and how much there is to learn.

It was confusing for me. I was not sure who I was. Am I white? According to the U.S. census I am. I went to SURJ meetings. They say, “We are white people showing up for racial justice.” I wasn’t sure I belonged. Do white people think I am white? I don’t know. Is it skin color? If it is not skin color, is it European descent? Iran is not in Europe. I am still not sure where I fit in.

The area where we live in North Minneapolis is diverse. There are lots of empty houses, though, because of foreclosures. It is a quiet pocket not far from busy streets: Penn, Dowling, Lowry. I feel that I am becoming connected to the neighborhood and we are starting to make friends here. I am starting to feel like this community is close to my heart. I want to be a part of it.

I have started to understand the way things work in North Minneapolis. People come in and do things to the neighborhood, not with the neighborhood.

I recently got involved in a group called Carbon Zero Homes. The founder wants to bring a Carbon Zero house to North Minneapolis. He really does care. He thought talking to Mayor Betsy Hodge’s husband who is African American would be a way to reach the Black community. I told him ‘No No, No, you have to talk to people who live here.”

I work at an air-conditioning manufacturing company that is across the street from Northern Metals. I went to a forum on environmental pollution in North Minneapolis. Keith Ellison was there, along with folks from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, NOC. MPIRG and the City of Minneapolis.  As I was listening I realized how much I have changed. They were talking about doing more research collecting, more data. It got me so angry. I got up and said:

“Why do we need more data? The data is in. North Minneapolis has the most cases of asthma, the highest lead levels in the state. We need to act! It’s like you have a house and there is a leak here and leak there and you have $1,000 and  instead of fixing the leaks you hire an inspector. It makes no sense. There are programs that work to reduce asthma. Why aren’t we implementing them? Hire and train people from the community and give them the jobs implementing these programs. Research has shown a connection between companies like Northern Metals and asthma levels. They are using water tanks to clean the air. That just removes it from the air and puts it in the soil and the water. Air, water and soil are all connected!”

They responded that Northern Metals is just one of several sources, including vehicle traffic, other businesses, and the garbage burner that are responsible for air pollution in the area. I said, ‘Then you need to have even stricter standards for each of these sources, to lower the overall levels impacting this community.”

I was really mad. I walked out. I would never have done that before. Now I know why people in this neighborhood get so frustrated.

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. Then the revolution happened. Everyone promised to stay united, but it turned out to be just like Orwell’s “Animal Farm”–some people became more equal than others. At first the people leading us after the revolution were intellectuals–people who had motivated me and other university students. The first thing they did was look for agents of the Shah’s government and put them in jail. Little by little they began to also arrest the communists, the socialists, and other “non-religious” revolutionaries. It was not long before the Mullahs took over, and the whole government changed into a religious government. Nobody trusted anybody. Yet, rich people who were against the revolution managed to hold on to economic power. It was like when Obama got into office and appointed Bush people.

I began to feel like this was human nature: In the end people take care of themselves. It was really sad to see. So, I have no faith in revolution. But I am excited about grassroots movements. I went to a meeting recently that inspired me.

I am on the Board of the Wirth Co-op that will be opening soon in North Minneapolis. I was there on behalf of Wirth. We want it to be different from other food co-ops—more like a year-round farmer’s market. To share ideas, the city had invited all of these people to come and talk about their cooperative efforts. A Somali man talked about how they have created a global community cooperative. They helped their community members who didn’t speak english, didn’t know the laws or were unable to access resources. The ones who could provided the service for others. Sharing is caring, right? If you need something, someone will help you. They have 1,200 members already. At the same meeting, someone from CTUL talked about their union organizing work. Another person talked about Northside urban gardening. I was so excited.

This kind of cooperative economics is what we need. Being involved in the community—SURJ, MN350, NOC, Wirth Co-op, etc.—I am beginning to feel like I could stay here in North Minneapolis. I am growing some roots.

****************

I interviewed Roya on July 3. We’ve been in regular contact since. On July 9 she texted me: OMG WHAT A DAY!  

She had just returned from Day of Atonement * march against police violence, to protest the brutal police murder of St Paul elementary school nutrition services supervisor, Philando Castilo.

We walked nearly four hours!  

Roya and a thousand others had walked the streets of downtown Minneapolis and interrupted a Cathedral block party.  At the same time protestors in St. Paul marched on to Interstate Highway 94, occupying it for five hours and the 24 hour occupation of the block in front of the Governor’s mansion continued.

So empowering and yet sad people have to fight for human rights!

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. 

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Kiya Shafer. Growing Up in Foster care, Ferguson, Shape her Career Plans.

 

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I can’t imagine growing up NOT in foster care. I feel like I have many families. I am able to find comfort wherever I am. I think that is a gift. I lived in three foster families. Two of the families were related. My families were white. Try as they might, they were unable to teach me things they did not know — like how to do my hair.
Until I was 14 I lived in the cities. I went to Jackson elementary, preparatory magnet school in St Paul. The students were primary Hmong, African American and White. I was always active in sports, dance classes, and especially community theater. I did Odyssey of the Mind at the Walker, and Black Nativity. I loved it.
At fourteen I moved to Inver Grove Heights to live with my final foster family. The teachers there struggled with my name — Shakiya. So I became Kiya. Prior to that no one ever called me Kiya.
In the Cities people had always told me what a great actress I was. In the suburbs I felt like I didn’t have a chance. There you paid to be a part of theater. It was elitist. Being one of the only kids of color I was type cast — given the sassy Black girl role. It made me uncomfortable. I am sassy, but not in that way. By senior year I decided to stop auditioning. I did make-up instead. If you don’t compete you can’t lose.
Coming out of high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. I took advanced classes, but no AP classes. They had prep tutorials for those courses, but you had to pay. I had nine other siblings and limited means. That wasn’t going to happen. My foster parents were not supportive of me going to college. Neither of them had ever gone. They wanted me to get a job. ‘Degrees are for snobby people.’ they said. ‘Work hard and you will move up.’
I got my first restaurant job at 16. As soon as I turned 18 I came back to St Paul. I decided to go beauty school. Aveda Institute off Central Avenue. They had one section for ‘highly textured hair’ and they would send all the African American women and others perceived to have highly textured hair to one section of the building so that all the students could have experience with our hair. As a result, even though I have a beauty degree I still don’t know how to take care of my own hair. It is embarrassing.
When you graduate from beauty school you don’t know anything — how to hold a pair of shears — that’s about it. I got a job at Body Works in Woodbury. It was more of a massage parlor. I was the only one doing hair. I lucked out in that people were happy with what I did. But business slowed. I was getting about one client a day. So I quit and went to work at Trade Secret at the Mall of America. I thought it would be great!
People don’t come to the Mall for a hair cut. If they get one they won’t be back. Especially those people who come from out of town. You never build up a clientele. They showed me a chair, a row of coloring products, and said “Good Luck!” I had some blunders there. One person who had black hair and wanted blond. I told her it was going to turn orange, but she made me do it, told me to keep that peroxide in. The customer is always right you know. It was blond, all right, but it was also a little burned. I hope she’s OK.
I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough. I wasn’t making money. So I went back to waiting tables.
At 22 I had a crisis. I had just gotten out of a really bad relationship. We were living together and I decided to let him keep the apartment. I didn’t know where to go. No job, no home. I went on Craig’s List to look for apartments, jobs and came across an ad for a nanny for two little girls. I thought ‘I have nine siblings— I know how to babysit.’
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 a lot of time to think. I was working for a single mother who worked two jobs. I took the kids to pre K screenings, dental appointments, soccer games. I became like a soccer mom.
The woman I worked for was inspiring. She worked in construction and wanted to become a foreman. She was all about encouraging me to be strong as a women because people always told her she couldn’t. After a year and a half, even though she still really needed me, she said ‘What are you doing here?’
I said ‘I’m taking care of you and your family.’
“No, I mean, what have you always wanted to be? Think of something that has affected your whole life, the one thing that you can’t imagine your life being without.’
Well the answer to that was simple. Foster care. While it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, if it weren’t for foster care my life would have been very different… I still didn’t know what that meant in terms of a career. I enrolled at St. Paul College and let myself explore. I thought for a while I would be a nurse. Until I got into some of my courses and I realized I’d have to clean up poop and deal with needles.
I took a family policy class. I really liked the content. It focused on issues facing single mothers. I wanted to do something to change the cycle of teen pregnancy and the system that does not support single mothers. I thought ‘this is a no brainer — I need to be a social worker.’ After that classes became easier.
I transferred to Metro State. 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 they were talking about me.
I went through a series of emotions. Feeling helpless, then angry, then feeling like I have to do something. I realized the same things were happening in the Twin Cities — like that individual who got rounded up in the skyway for sitting. I could no longer ignore it. I could no longer avoid it.
I decided to take as much course work; to get as close to policy as I could. I am now a graduate student in social work at the U of M. I want to work with/for children but I also want to change racist policies. I could go either way.
How will I be working for family rights?
I’ll be working for paid maternity leave, family leave. Right now I work full time and go to school full time and so does my partner. We never see each other. What if we threw children into that mix? Good Luck!
How will I work for racial equity?
First of all, I won’t have to go anywhere to do it. Minneapolis has the second greatest racial disparities in jobs and education in the nation. What to do? Honestly I’m not sure. I need to be more comfortable saying I just don’t know. There are so many interwoven issues. I don’t think there is a quick solution, but I think we need to do something! I don’t want people to feel like they got the job to fulfill a quota, but businesses must open up. On some level I’d also just be thankful to have a job.
It is difficult to be the only one. I know! As a worker who is the only person of color you feel like an outsider in the place where you have to go to make money. How is that fulfilling in anyway? How can you develop your full capacity in that situation? At the U of M, the students are mostly middle and upper class,and there are few students of color. I feel like a visitor in the place where I go to school.
I will be working at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education this summer, writing a report on all the programs put in place for low income students and documenting their outcomes. Most of these programs work — they are just not reaching very many students. I don’t know why we don’t implement them school-wide instead of having them as after-school programs for a few kids…
I was a vista volunteer at Pillsbury Elementary in Northeast, tutoring third grade Somali students who were English Language Learners. It was summer school so these kids were from different schools. My teacher was having a personal crisis so she left me alone. We had a rigid set of exercises geared toward the tests I was supposed to implement, but I was largely unsupervised. After week three, I decided to do my own thing. Every day at circle time I would have them draw a picture, label it in their language and then in English. They made a book out of all of the pictures and took them home at the end. The students loved it. I would do that again in a heart beat, but I’m not sure I could exist in the realm of public school. I am not a rigid format person.
Do I think of myself living in Minneapolis for the rest of my life? Like I said, I can find home anywhere, but I have always felt as though I belonged somewhere else. The way I approach life and social interactions. I am direct. I don’t have time for passive/ aggressive behavior. So when I think about living somewhere it is the people that make me want to go. And I hate winter.
But then I have a group of close friends I couldn’t imagine leaving. I am thankful for the amenities we have here — theaters, lakes, green spaces. We are starting to get more traffic, but nothing like the West or East coast. I was in LA two weeks ago. We planned to go to a park but never made it. Too much traffic. Here you could take your bike and be there in half an hour. I like being able to afford a house, a backyard. Here I can have experiences and be able to afford them.
There is a rivalry between Minneapolis and St Paul. I always argued that St Paul is better. But about three years ago we had some friends come visit and they said ‘maybe we should check out St Paul’ and I said ‘Oh No, You don’t need to check out St. Paul. We have it all here at home.’
That was the moment I declared Minneapolis home.

I interviewed Kiya on July 3. She gave me the green light to publish on July 10. In between those two days the world witnessed the brutal killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. A lone gunman killed five policemen in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest. People all over the world took to the streets to protest police violence in the United States. The world followed what was happening in the Twin Cities.

Kiya participated in the Governor’s Mansion occupation in St Paul and wrote this on facebook:

There are no words that truly capture the emotions that have been stirring inside me in regards to these recent shootings of legally armed /cooperative African American men.
I feel sad, confused, angry, scared and afraid.
I feel sad because there’s a family who woke up this morning and will have to live forever without their father, husband, brother, uncle, cousin, friend… etc and it didn’t have to be that way; someone else got to determine when that life was going to end and one of the determining factors was likely the color of the man’s skin.
I’m confused about why this is still a problem and why some people refuse to believe the problem exists at all.
I’m angry because I don’t have a solution much different than the ones my community has already suggested and still have not gotten.
I feel scared because I don’t know how to stop these shootings. I feel scared because I will be out there marching and doing whatever I can to solve the issue…. but I fear it’s not enough…. I am not enough.
Lastly, I’m scared to admit that I’m afraid it could be me next and someone’s first reaction will be to ask: what did she do to deserve it?
#blacklivesmatter

Minneapolis Project.