Jerry Rau: Minneapolis Boy, U.S. Marine, Twin Cities’ Troubadour.

 

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… I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over… 

I was born in the General Hospital in Minneapolis — where MCTC is now, ushered into the world during a period of great disharmony. The next seven years were war years — the whole world at war. It made a big impression on me. The intensity. Children can feel that kind of thing pretty strongly. By the time I could read it was 1943. I remember seeing the picture of Iwo Jima in the paper and bringing it upstairs to show my mom. I said – “Isn’t this something!”

I was a serious child. I lived in North Minneapolis with my mother. It was just the two of us. My mother had had 13 siblings. There is a picture of her family. One sister is holding a guitar. My Grandma could play the guitar a little bit. I think guitars were pretty common in the homes of Swedish immigrants.

When I was six we were riding the Minneapolis street car past a pawn shop and I saw a banjo in the window. I told my mom, ”I want that!” I had just seen a movie with Bing Crosby playing the banjo. I liked the sound of it. A few weeks later a man — a coworker of my mom’s — came to the door with a case in his hands, — a full size guitar with the word “Swede” stenciled on top of the case.

I had small hands! I couldn’t handle it . A Banjo I might have been able to handle. Maybe if I’d gotten a banjo I would have become Earl Scruggs. But the guitar was worthless to me. I could make a sound — that was it. Mom didn’t have money for music lessons.

I ended up trading the guitar for a trumpet, and then the trumpet for a 22 rifle.
My mother and I went to war movies. Mom loved John Wayne. The Sands of Iwo Jima was indelibly X’d in my mind. I joined the army reserve when I was 18. We had meetings once a month and a summer camp — Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. At 20 I decided to join the Marine Corps. Why? I was having trouble with my girlfriends. And I went to see a movie.The hero was in the Marine Corp and I liked the way he looked— wanted to be like him.

I went to the government building on Washington and 3rd Ave; walked around it three times. The third time I said to myself “You don’t have a hair on your butt if you don’t go in there”. I took a sharp left and went in. The Officer asked me when I wanted to begin. I said “Right away.”

My mom hardly ever listened to me when I was young. She was always off somewhere else in her mind. I had a droning voice, so I’m sure I put her to sleep. I would sit at the kitchen table and talk and she would be busy cooking or cleaning and she never heard what I was saying.
I told her I was joining the Marines. She said “Un- huh.” The next day when I came home from work mom said, “There was a man from the Marine corp here today. He said you joined the Marine corp?!” She was shocked.

A week later I walked out the door, headed to the recruiters office. There was a group of young guys down there. Because I had been in the army reserve, they put me in charge of the group,
gave me all their records. We got on a plane and flew to San Diego.
The Army reserve had been a pretty low key thing. The Marines was something else. Twenty minutes after I got off that plane I knew I had made a tremendous mistake. The guy who greeted us was Marine from his hair to his toes and down to his bones. He had a voice that scared the hell out of me. They put us in the back to a pickup truck, seated so we bounced from one side to the other. When we got out of the truck there were two Marine commanders yelling at us. They were from the south. We got screamed at more because we couldn’t understand their accent or what they wanted us to do.

That night we had to stand by our bunks until every man had memorized the Eleven General Orders. If one guy got it wrong we had to start again. We were up until the early morning. Two hours later the bugle blew and we had to get up and the insanity began again.

It was always that way in the Marine corps. If one guy got it wrong we all had to pay. It was indescribable. Just shear terror for young kids.

I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in southern California. During leave, I took a bus from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. We stopped in Omaha Nebraska for a break. When I came back to the bus depot, I heard a girl saying she was going to Minneapolis. I asked her if I could sit with her. We got married several months later.

For a woman to have a husband in the Marine corp — its about the worst thing that can happen.
We had two months together before I got sent overseas to Okinawa for 14 months. When I got back and I don’t know who she is — she didn’t know who I was….

After that we lived together at Quantico in Northern Virginia. I was there to train officers to how to use machine guns. We were close enough to Washington D.C. that we got to go see Kennedy speak at the Iwo Jima memorial and lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on Veterans Day 1963.I will never forget it — all those men in black suits with grey hair and the young President with his tomato red hair. Two weeks later, we were in the middle of a graduation at the instructor school. They told us to go home. They said we were in a state of national emergency. Stay by your phone. You may be called up at anytime.

We didn’t know the president had been killed until we got home. We were just leveled. We went up to Washington a few weeks later to see his grave. My wife gave birth to a son during this time. He died 24 hours after he was born. To this day it still kills me to say it. I still cry. His name was John. We named him after the president and buried him in Arlington cemetery not far from where Kennedy was buried.

At Quantico, while I was teaching officers to use machine guns, I was aware there was a war going on. There had not been many ground troops at that point, but I could sense that something big was going to happen. From Quantico I was sent to Hawaii — where my wife was from. She had family not far from where I was stationed. She was happier there.

One night in 1964, we went to see a movie with our whole battalion. Before the show began the officer came out and said to us, “I can’t tell you where we are going — but pack your bags. All I can tell you is— when they ask you what you did during the war you won’t have to tell them you shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
It was gut wrenching. I went home and told my wife I was leaving the next morning. She was pregnant with my daughter.

Vietnam

It is hard to explain war to anybody. Friends of mine were killed. Good friends of mine. It doesn’t go away. Every night in Vietnam was a horror show.

I was there for seven months… until the incident when I cracked up.

We were in the middle of laying in ambush in a heavy rainforest. It was thick – you could barely get through it. We were on a ridge line – we had set up ambush control — something we had to do from time to time. We were all scared as hell. There was movement. All of the sudden I heard a grenade blow up. I turned around. Everyone was saying ”Get off this hill.” I tumbled down. Everything restricted me. I couldn’t make my way through vines. I was like a wild animal. I beat my way through. People were falling down behind me into the bottom of the ravine.There were hogs in the ravine.

In an area smaller than half a closet, seven of us piled up. I had a rifle in my chin and someone on top of me. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything. We lay there in a pile until day-break, trying to stifle our breathing. About half way through I heard screaming and yelling. I assumed most of our group were dead.

In the morning we unwound ourselves.

I felt like I had been a coward. That is the way you think. I didn’t know what I would say to my commander. The other guys had already told the officer what had happened. No-one said a word to me. It weighed on me. I felt like I couldn’t be a Marine anymore.

We carried M14 rifles. Every squad had a grenade launcher. As a squad leader I was supposed to have a rifle. I gave it to the guy who carried the grenade launcher — switched with him. I didn’t feel like I could carry a rifle any more. I didn’t feel Iike I was a squad leader any more. I wasn’t in command anymore and I didn’t act like I was in command anymore.

It was a shattering experience. The Marine way of thinking was gone.

That night someone came and told me “At dawn you go down and see the first sergeant.” So, when the other guys were still asleep I went to the first sergeant. He said “ Check your gear. You are going back to Hawaii. Your wife is in the hospital and we are giving you emergency leave.” I couldn’t believe it. My wife had a break down the same time I did.

I wish you could understand. We were defending an airstrip. There were planes taking off all day long. My first sergeant gave me a new set of dungarees and told me to go down to the airstrip and find a plane going to Hawaii. Can you imagine this? I was walking on the airstrip as the planes were taking off, yelling, “Where are you going?”

I got on a plane going to the Philippines with five Coronals in dress uniforms – all spit and shine. They wouldn’t even say hello to me.

That night I ended up in a barrack in the Philippines with some Navy guys. They were heading out on a liberty night. I wanted to go to the club and get drunk but all I had was my Vietnam rags. One of the guys gave me a pair of pants to wear — size 28. I was a size 32 when I went to Vietnam — but they fit. He gave me a white t shirt. I went up to the club and had a couple beers. I ordered some food but I couldn’t eat. I went back to the barracks.

The next morning I found a plane home to my wife. I couldn’t believe I was in Hawaii. No one was being shot at. Everyone was walking around like nothing was going on. Business people. Tourists…

They gave me a position with the arm forces police and told me they would not send me back to Vietnam — but a few months later I got orders to back. I could not figure out how to tell my wife. We had a new baby. They gave me a month to get things worked out with my family.

When I showed up 30 days later, the guy looked at me. He’d experienced combat and he could just tell. He said “How long you been in the Marine Corps?” I said “Nine years.” He said “You’ve been to Vietnam already haven’t you? I think you should try to get a hardship discharge.”

I had never heard of a hardship discharge.

He said “You have to go to the doctors, have them examine you psychologically, visit a priest…”

So I did. Went through all the hoops. Then we waited, my wife and I. We were like zombies — just waiting.

The Rising Sun 

I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over.

One day while waiting to hear about my discharge petition, I was watching television — this is in Hawaii —this woman comes on and she says My name is Laura Webber. I am going to teach guitar on this channel and I invite your to join me. If you send me $5 I’ll send you a workbook. Every Wednesday we will have a lesson.
I got the workbook and watched every Wednesday, come hell or high-water. She’d say This is the E string….  

Then — Laura Webber came to Hawaii!! She invited her audience in the area to come down to the University of Hawaii with our workbooks and she would give us a couple live lessons.  I went down. There were fifteen of us — guys — with our guitars and our workbooks. We sat on the grass and had a lesson. We opened up the workbook and played and sang together.

Laura Webber saw I had a classical guitar and she told me to get some Bob Diamond albums. I went down to the record store, but I could not find Bob Diamond. Finally the record store clerk said “Maybe she meant Bob Dylan?” So I got some Bob Dylan albums.

I finally got the call about the discharge. The guy said , “You got your bags packed? Well unpack them. You got a hardship discharge.” That’s how I left the Marines. We moved back to Minneapolis. I got a job driving taxi, which I hated. The dispatcher was corrupt and I didn’t make any money doing it.
I decided to see if I could make some cash playing guitar.
My wife thought I was crazy.

I saw an ad in the paper that said musician wanted It was at a place.It was in White Bear Lake . Dave’s Courtyard. There was a women with a piano. I played there behind the piano, where I couldn’t be seen. I played there for eight weeks.

Veteran Against War.

The anti war movement was growing in Minneapolis when we returned. Once, my wife and I were going to a movie at the campus theater. The cops were in riot gear and there were 400-500 people there throwing marshmallows at the cops. It was amazing. We walked through the crowd to see the movie. It felt weird. It introduced me to what was happening. Later on I got involved in the Vets Against the War. We were following a group in Chicago. We had a protest at the airport where the reserve. We had a hunger strike.

In the eighties I was involved in another hunger strike — against the war in El Salvador. We fasted for twelve days at the Cathedral.. Roy Bourgeois was the Priest who fasted with us.

I was a leader. He was a leader. Roy and I had some friction.

The Cathedral was freezing. At one point the Bishop came in. I knew him. I was brought up Catholic. Went to Catholic school and I was still going to mass. I had served mass with the Bishop at St Stephens. I said to him “Could you turn the heat up in here?”
I told that to Roy and he said “You said that to the Bishop?

[Jerry suddenly began to cry.]

It was a crazy time. I had an affair with one of the fasters. Her boyfriend came at us with a gun.

Here we were acting like saints, but we were anything but saints.
Becoming a Troubadour. 
After the gig in White Bear Lake, my confidence as a musician grew. I got other gigs. In 1973 I saw Bob Bovie playing on the corner of 7th an Nicollet. He was a cowboy singer. I followed him, getting a corner (where you could encounter people from two directions.) It was noisy as hell but I had a loud voice then — as a Marine you learn how to project — I could be heard down the block.

The cops did not bother me much. Once in a while I’d see musicians packing up, saying, “They are kicking everyone off the Mall.”  I’d take off, wait a little bit and then come back. The cops were done with their sweep.  I could get the best spot then.

Once I was playing where the City Center is now. I had my case out facing the building. A group of teenage kids came around — four or five of them. One said “Let me see your guitar.”
I said “No I’m trying to make a living.”

They came real close, encircling me, talking about how to take my money. I was intimidated by them but something inside me said, the best way to deal with this is to sing and give it your all. I started to play Mr. Bo Jangles, with all my heart and soul. A few people came and stood behind the kids. Then more people came. Pretty soon I had 20 people standing there. People started clapping and throwing money into my case. When one kid started to try to grab the money, someone in the crowd said

“Get away from that case — that guys is a singer, man. A singer! Leave him alone.”

 

I began writing my own songs in about 1968, but it was several years before I felt like it was legitimate to play them. I would test them out on the Mall. It was hard. Most people like to hear the classics they know.

I started playing in the Dinkydale hallway on the East bank of the University of Minnesota — did that for decades. One day in 1975 ,this guy came into the mall. He looked strange. Dressed in white. White jacket, white pants, and a black beard. His face looked kind of like an owl. He stood there listening to me, peering at me like a bird.
After a couple songs he said to me “You know I have a show…”
I thought “Sure – you have a show” I nodded. I was humoring him. “What kind of show is that?“
He said I put up some bleachers. People play. I do some story telling. Would you like to come?
I said “Sure.” I thought “Yeah sure you do.“ but he gave me a date and directions.
I thought, “What do I have to lose.”

I showed up at the address at the appointed time. There were indeed some bleachers and about 40 people there listening. I saw my friends Bill Hinckley and Judy Larson.
I thought “Holy shit, this must be real.”
Afterward the man in white said he had a morning show if I wanted to come. He kept inviting me to play on his morning gig. Public Radio. Garrison Keillor.
I’ve played in clubs in 25 states. In the late 70s I got a tour in Southern California. Some people in Los Angeles had a radio show. They got a copy of my tape, liked my music and set up gigs for me from San Diego to Los Angeles.
I almost missed my radio appearance with them. I was driving up from San Diego. I was excited. I stopped at a gas station and locked my keys in the car. I told the gas station attendant I was supposed to be on the show in 45 minutes. I ask if I could borrow a a mop and a beer can opener. I shoved it through a tiny slit open in the window. After 20 minutes, of praying and finagling, I got it open.

I got to the radio station just as the show was starting.

I did the Nursing home circuit across the country — got that because a man who was 90 years old — a pastor — liked my music. Sometimes my audience was so far gone they ‘d be sitting there saying “Take me away.. take me away” It’s pretty hard to play when someone is doing that.

Now I’m getting to be that age.
I have had a love affair with the guitar. My songs go in many directions. I like all forms of music. Some sound like country, some sound Cajun. I borrow from everyone. Simplicity has always been my game. I heard once that “Any damn fool can be complex — its hard to be simple” — I think maybe it was Woody Guthrie who said that.
I stopped playing for five years. 2010. I didn’t even play on the street. It was a terrible period. I was getting too anxious about having an audience and where I was playing.
I just started again. Bought a new guitar. A “Collings,” made in Austin, Texas,.  Why did I start again? I’m not sure. I guess I just decided I’m not too old. Willie Nelson is still playing and he is a little older than me…. It’s never too late. I should probably start listening to City’s 97 and work my way into the 21st century. I like some of the new stuff, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Memorization is harder now.
I would not trade my life for anyone. I am blessed a thousand times. It’s humbling.. Someone told me I should write a book. I said “It would take a life time to write it.

Minneapolis Project. Transformational moments when life takes a turn.

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

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up…

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

The fourth precinct occupation rearranged our life — the things we did to make sure the family was safe. My son would follow me to make sure I got home safely. There was a lot of toying around with our different phones. I’m sure my phone was tapped. Many people’s phones were tapped. But it was a positive experience. People came together from a place of hurt and stood for justice. It was an indescribable feeling. I think about it a lot; how exhausted people can be. Many put in way more time than me —out there for days and nights. I was able to come and go. Go to work, come back. There were times I didn’t go to work….

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were no…

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

In 2012 I was watching the news. I heard a conversation about a young Black kid,Trayvon Martin who was killed that by that guy — George Zimmerman.  I …

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

After Ferguson, three things happened.

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

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

3) …

Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many…

I was invited to attend a Critical Resistance conference in September 2009. Their goal is a complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. I was in a session with individuals talking about their difficulties in getting jobs with a record. It was really hard for me because I had a criminal record and I was pardoned and I didn’t have those problems. It was an important weekend for me. I met people from Minnesota who were active on the North side. During the key note address, Angela Davis asked all who had been incarcerated to stand. At that point only a few member of my family and close friends knew..,

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

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

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

I didn’t realize my students ….

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

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

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

After the Revolution everyone promised to stay united, ….

 

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

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

But I didn’t lie….

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On her own in Minneapolis, 1949.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a small business. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activism

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

Integration/Equity in the Schools 

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

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

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

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

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

Neighborhood Activism  

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

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

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

Southside Clinic

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

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

Running for City Council. 

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

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

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

Racism

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

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

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

The police were inciting trouble.

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

Becoming an elder. 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

School Days. Minneapolis Project interviewees in conversation.

img_1656-2Excerpts from the first 22 interviews of the Minneapolis Project, contemplating  school experiences. The interviewees are ages 17- 85.  Click on the first words in each paragraph to see who said what and read the whole interview.

Kindergarten

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

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

Elementary  and middle school

In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience. I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage. Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom. I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

High school

West high school — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners. Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox. We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

My education was much better in Mexico. I didn’t speak English. I remember so clearly my first day of Home Ec. The teacher was giving out a quiz. When I asked a girl who spoke Spanish to help me, the teacher yelled at me. To the whole class she said, ‘I don’t know why people like her come to this country.’ When the girl told me what she said, I felt a pain I never felt before. I began to cry like a little girl, but I also asserted my dignity. I told that teacher: “You think I made the decision to come here? I actually don’t want be here.”

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….My parents were sharecroppers…. I was drafted into the military out of high school.

I was born in Decalb, Mississippi, the sixth of nine children. My dad was a school teacher, 8-12 grades. I was fortunate that I was not in his classes. My dad had a reputation for being mean. He wasn’t mean, just strict. He wanted the students to learn, not play. It was kind of hard on my social life when I was a teenager, having him as a teacher. I remember once when there was a church revival. The whole community came out. When they started passing the platter me and my friends left together. When my dad came out of the church tent, my friends said ‘I don’t want the teacher catching me around his daughter’ and they left me.

I live in Southwest Minneapolis and go to South High School which isn’t in my school zone. I disagreed with my parents decision to send me to South and I still do. My parents thought I would have better Special Ed. supports. I have ADHD, depression, anxiety. Teachers always say I m great, I’m smart but I don’t finish assignments. In Middle School I had a tough time and hopped school. .. All of them were White schools except for Folwell. So it was pretty amazing at South to see people who looked like me. We have a Native American program that is incredible. Beautiful. I have friends in it. I grew up in a very different neighborhood than where South is. My neighborhood is 95% Caucasian. 95% two parents, two kids, a dog and a cat. I feel really safe. So it is interesting to go to South. I see people on the streets. There is a bus line that people actually use. Going to South has made me realize that people don’t all live in the fantasy world I live in. I think it has made me a better person. Being at South has broadened my perspective but it has also isolated me socio-economically. It’s hard to switch over

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

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…

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved. I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios.

I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school. The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers. I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.

 

Post secondary

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.’

Hundreds of students were killed that day. After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no student movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you…. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

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.

The Somalis who came to Minnesota spent years in refugee camps. Many never had a chance to finish high school. We suffer from the trauma of war. I was nine years old when a gun was put to my head. My brother was killed in Mogadishu 1990. I saw as many as 200 dead people lying in a field. These experiences stay with you. When we came everyone had four goals: get an education, own our own businesses, practice our faith, and go back home. Now 30 years later very few plan on going back home. There is little for us back home. We are staying here, and putting down roots. We are getting college degrees —60% of Somali women and 30% of Somali men in Minnesota have college degrees.

Working downtown I was meeting people who called themselves artists. They were adults and my parents weren’t happy I was hanging out with them, so I moved out ,got an apartment near Loring Park. Laurel Apartments. They were scummy. They still are. But it was $200 a month and I was on my own.At Edison they had a trades-in-the-schools program. I signed up for cosmetology. It was the only thing I liked about school. I was able to continue that program at Minneapolis Community College.

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

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

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

img_1477

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a Postal Worker and Union organizer.

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

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

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

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

Letter carriers are the eyes and ears of the community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Precinct and Governor’s Mansion Occupations

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for Racial justice in the Parks.

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

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

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

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

 People of Color Union Members (POCUM) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Mexico City Student Movement, 1968.

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

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

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

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

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

Hundreds of students were killed that day.

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

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

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

Border Crossing 1969 – 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took me several years to finish writing the book.

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

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

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

Calle Lago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palabristas

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

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

Gabriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carmen, Teresa and Gabe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lucila Dominguez of CTUL, Teresa and Aaron.

Altar de Muertos by Teresa Ortiz

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

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

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

Kendrick Wronski: Woman Behind the Painted Signs.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

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Kathleen Farber, AFSCME activist. Since her Sister’s passing, a realization that it is the daily minutiae that make a life.

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Mom grew up in Minneapolis. She went to Edison but graduated from Holy Angels. She always said her Dad was a businessman, but from what I could understand he was a real estate flipper. They’d live in a house, sell it, buy another, live in it and then sell it. Both my mom and dad were only children. Mom was an orphan at 20, during the depression so she always worked — factories, piece work. One day when we were at a movie theatre downtown — I think it was the State Theater — she pointed to the proscenium curtains and said “I made those.”

Mom had tuberculosis when I was three and she had to go to the sanitarium for nine months. My dad had gotten laid off. We got some kind of relief, but it wasn’t enough. My Dad had to ask my older sister, her husband and child to come live with us and pay the mortgage.

I missed my mom a lot. I was sent to a babysitter down the street. Rosy. She was a character. She didn’t put on a dress. She wore a full slip with a chain of safety- pins hanging from it, nylons that she rolled down to her knees, quilted loafer-type slippers and curlers in her hair. She’d go down to the store like that — not Lake Street, but the corner store.

Rosy’s husband frequented the Yukon Bar on Lake Street. When she thought he’d been down there too long we’d go drag him home. He drank beer at home all the time. They were German and she had a tiny one ounce beer stein she’d fill up for me. A shot of beer. My parents knew about it and thought it was OK. I do love beer now. The taste. It doesn’t even have to have alcohol in it.

Rosy would make me barley soup which I loved. She was very very clean. She used to make her own lye soap in the bathtub. She taught me how to play cards. She always smoked. She made me a birthday cake. She’d take me with her to Woolworths. Once every three months she’d buy a new oil cloth for the kitchen table. She’d let me pick out the pattern. She’d buy me a plastic horse — the realistic kind, with saddles.

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During this time my dad — partly because we didn’t have any money, and partly because he was looking for work — decided to lose weight. 70 pounds. From 220 to 150. He shaved off his hair and got bifocals. People didn’t recognize him. Even relatives.

Dad always did entry level jobs. He worked in the foundry, as a bartender, at General Mills. He eventually got a job at Minneapolis Moline – a farm implements manufacturer. Moline was one of the first companies to file for bankruptcy and screw all the workers out of their pensions. Supposedly they passed laws in Minnesota to prevent that from happening – but it still happens. My dad worked there for 15 years.

My parents were older than most of my friends parents. My dad was 45 when I was born, in 1955. They were the “children are seen and not heard” generation. Decorum was important in my family.

Dad was always active in his union. So was mom. She worked as a nurses’s aid at City General – which turned into HCMC. She helped organize AFSCME 977 which is the nurses aids union, so they were both very strong union activists.

My Dad was also active in DFL politics. He used to write resolutions and present them at his caucus meetings. He would have all his resolutions in folders on the table and I was told, DON”T TOUCH YOUR FATHER”S PAPERS. When I was six, this man came to the door with a handful of papers. They were shiny and had that ink smell. I wanted to touch them but I knew I shouldn’t. Campaign literature. I think they had Mondale on them. My mother thought Mondale was really handsome. My father didn’t like her going on about Mondale.

Dad and I went door knocking with the campaign literature. He’d have me run up and stick them in the door. If someone came out I would call him up and he would talk to them. I was supposed to just be quiet.My dad was what they call “emotionally unavailable.” Door knocking, was one way to have a relationship with him.

Today I am the consummate door knocker and phone banker. I drive people crazy because I am always pushing something. For a long time I rode the bus with the county budget in my pocket and if anyone complained about welfare recipients I would show them what a tiny amount is spent on cash assistance. I’ve been doing phone banks for AFSCME recently, long-form conversations about what concerns people and motivates them to vote. It is inspired by the Marriage Equality phone banking campaign. We are encouraged to get into deep conversations with people. I love it.

Lake street circa 1955-1970

I grew up at 3051 Pillsbury, right off of Lake Street.

We didn’t have a car, growing up. My parents took the bus to work. We took the 21 on Lake Street, or the 18, going downtown on Nicollet. But we did much of our shopping by foot.

On Blaisdell and Lake there was a Department Store — Gimbels. That’s where my mother bought my first Barbie Doll. 1961. I remember it was in the window. We were looking at it. They were new then. My mom asked, “Would you like to have a doll like that?” I had just had baby dolls. She wasn’t sure it was Ok to give me a doll like that.

Near the Department store was a Kresge’s which was like a Woolworths but it had fabric — a sewing department. Kresge’s went out in the mid 60s and the Glamour Beauty school went in,. I had my hair colored there a few times when I was in my teens. When they had Dollar Days on the sidewalk the Beauty Shop would put out little plastic bottles shaped like elephants filled with shampoo. I thought those were so cool.

Then there was Liebs — a woman’s clothing store. Not Daytons Oval room, but not Sears either. A step up. The stuff they had in there they didn’t have other places. When we were working, my sisters Janet, Karen, and I would sometimes go down there and buy something special.

My mom bought my children’s clothes at Woolworths. I got an Easter dress there with lavender flowers. They had a dressing room that was more like a phone booth. They had party supplies and I’d look at the patterned bridge score cards and wonder what they were for. Fancy napkins and invitations. Stuff laying flat on counters. Shirts wrapped in cardboard. The place was dim — not like stores today. Old, beat up, slivery wood floors. When you went in there it was quiet, stuffy and dry.

There was a men’s clothing store on Nicollet and Lake. The only time we went there was for fathers day or my dad’s birthday. They had boxer shorts — three to a pack — on the table and I got to pick out the designs. A Scientology Room sat on the Southeast corner of Nicollet and Lake. We were Catholic and my mom said “Don’t go in there,” so we didn’t. We went to Incarnation Church on 38th and Pleasant. It’s now a Latino congregation.

A block down on 29th there was a Night Club called Mr Lucky’s. The Underbeats used to play there. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to go there because Dad saw teenagers smoking outside of it. My mother smoked, but my Dad didn’t.

Mom called hanging out in stores or window shopping “bumming around.” It’s something we did together.When I got a little older I’d bum around with my sister Karen. We’d would go in the hardware store and look at all the air mattresses they had for swimming at the lake hanging down from the ceiling — colorful, with whales and seahorses on them. In the late 60s they outlawed them at the Lake, so they stopped having them.

We used to go to Lake Calhoun- the 32nd street beach. My sister Karen wore a nose plug. I didn’t and I got an ear and throat infection. The doctor told me to stop swimming in the Lake “it was a cesspool.” We didn’t ride our bikes because we were worried about them getting stolen. We we’re very conscious of that — always brought our toys in doors. Always worried about things getting stolen. I think it was warranted but not to the point that my parents were fanatics about it.

One time when I was in 6th grade there were two wrestlers down at Calhoun. Handsome Harley Race and Pretty Boy Henning (?)— everyone thought they were something. One of them said something to my sister, but she didn’t pay them any attention. They were older. One had a scar on his back that looked like a knife wound.

Class, race and school in the 1960s.

Where I lived the school districts overlapped. There were lots of kids then and the schools were overfilled. In elementary I had a choice of Lyndale or Whittier l. I went to Lyndale because my parent didn’t want me crossing Lake Street by myself. In junior high I didn’t have a choice. I was supposed to go to Jefferson which fed into West. It took me away from my elementary school friends. I asked them if I could go to Bryant and they said no. Jefferson was very different. The kids were well to do, from the Uptown and Lakes neighborhoods. They bussed kids in from Bryn Maur. It was a whole different culture. The kids didn’t wear make-up or nylons like I did.

Jefferson fed into West High School, but they wanted me to go to Central, Byrant’s feeder school. I had new friends by this time. I felt like I was always being uprooted. Central was rough and I knew that being a new kid it would be difficult for me.I put my foot down then and said — you are not going to take me away from my friends again. My parents were indifferent. I had to advocate for myself as a 14 year old.

It wasn’t hard to get into West. It was hard to get out of Central because I was White. A lot of White kids were leaving, which is why they wanted me there.

My sisters graduated from Central. I know their school rouser by heart. But I went to West.

West — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners.Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox.We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby. Occasionally I went to the houses of other kids,— mansions on Lake of the Isles. Even the more modest were four square houses with places to hang out. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I would have liked it to be with kids from my neighborhood. But there weren’t any kids anymore in my neighborhood.

Model City (“Urban Renewal”).

When my family first moved to Lake and Pillsbury the people who lived there owned their houses. There was a lady down the street with an immaculate lawn and flowers, and a Sicilian couple next door who owned a gas station. Their house was extravagant, with a mural of Venice.There was a lady on the block whose grass was lime green, and she had flowers. I went in her back yard once and I was stunned at how beautiful it was. A big shade tree, lawn furniture It was like a foreign country to me. Our yard was terrible.

In the mid 1960s all the homeowners on our block left. We were the only family left who wasn’t renting. It was hard to make friends, because people came and went. There were riots and some looting in the 1960s and the stores started to close. The city responded with an urban planning project. In North Minneapolis they called it Pilot City. In the fifth precinct they called it Model City.

Model City wanted to buy our house. They made my parents a deal: they could buy a house with the same number of bedrooms anywhere within Minneapolis and the city would pay the difference. My mom wanted to move to North Mpls. My dad wanted to live in South. We ended up on Holmes Ave in a big beautiful house my parents could never have afforded, near the lakes and closer to some of my friends at school. They tore down our old house and built Findley Place — subsidized town houses.

Work and growing up early.

On the corner of Findlay Place and Lake and a restaurant called La Pizzeria which was quite large. It had a Gondola room. My sisters and I worked there. The guy who owned it was Catholic and he had all these underage kids working there who were going to De La Salle — the Catholic high school. Even younger kids — who had school tuition and they’d send them down there to work to help with tuition. 13 -14 year olds.

I started at 13 when my older sister Karen was waitressing there and I came in and helped her bus tables. Then I answered the phones on the weekends, wrote up the orders. Later I worked as a waitress.

I worked through junior high and high school — at 510 Groveland delivering things to rich people, at the La Pizzeria, Kentucky Fried Chicken, — two or three jobs because I was too young for full hours in any one place. I always had my own money. I went to rock concerts, saw the Beatles, the Doors,…

My parents didn’t push college. They didn’t talk about getting married, having kids, just work, supporting yourself. Mom would say — “you can be what ever you want — the Governor” — but they didn’t plan things. Their big thing was GET A JOB.

I graduated when I was 17. I had this idea that college was more expensive than it was and I didn’t know people who were going. I had taken tests at school that said I could be a psychologist or judge. I thought those jobs sounded stressful. Mom wanted me to get a trade. She watched this matinée movie on TV when she worked nights. They had some sponsors —Plywood Minnesota and Minnesota School of Business….

The Minnesota School of Business was actually more expensive than the U. It was a secretarial school, basically. It still exists. It was $2000 for a two-year program. I was selling Avon and making pretty good money. I also worked at Powers Department store — my first full-time job. I saved enough for the tuition. I took speed writing, and I learned the difference between a statement and a bill of lading …

I was in there a year when my mom had a massive heart attack. She was bedridden. I quit to take care of her.

My Dad had lost his job at Moline by then and was working at North Central Airlines as a maintenance person. He would not help care for mom. I was working at Century Camera on the weekends. I stopped working first and then quit school. There was animosity building up between my Dad an I. He was having an affair. Mom told me she was going to confront him about it on the day she had a heart attack. While she was sick, he stayed out all night. I decided that once my mother was better I would move out. I didn’t think to ask my sisters to help me. Twenty years later when my parents moved in with me, I wrote up a contract, enlisting my sisters’ help.

I was still 18 when I moved out. I got an apartment on 24th and Harriet. I didn’t have a job but I had 1,500 in the bank. I went back to Century Camera but my boss was sexually harassing me. I bit him in the arm and then quit. Tore his shirt. He was married . I thought — you go home and explain that to your wife.

I took the summer off — went out at night with my best friend. In August I began working at the President bar. I made $600 a month. A lot. I was paying $125 for rent. The bus was fifty cents. That puts it in perspective. It was a union bar. I had insurance and weekends off. I worked there 1 and 1/2 years, until a bartender told me I could make even more at the Hyatt, a quiet piano bar. I was lonesome . at the Hyatt. The people in the President were my people — South and Central high school grads. They thought like me.

But I was making $800 a month at the Hyatt. — A union place too.

The theme of the bar was the hubcap pub. They had hood things that went over the seats like old Model T Fords. A car theme. Then they decided they wanted to change to a beach theme. They wanted us to wear these white shorts and pale blue polyester tops. At that time I was a size five, 115 pounds. The smallest top they could get was a size 8 . Because I was so short, the blouse came down to below the shorts and looked like it was all I was wearing. I told him that I wouldn’t wear it.

Around this time there had been some sexual harassment suits in the news. Bosses weren’t sure anymore what they could get away with. There was a suit having to do with uniforms at Henrices. Because of that, my manager capitulated. Later he showed me this bunny suit, all black satin. He joked, “How about you wear this?” Well, I knew if I wore that I could make it a lot of money. I said “Great!” He couldn’t believe it because I had used the sex discrimination card to get out of the other uniform. I even said I would pay for it myself. He said No.

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

I had never been to a union meeting. The only thing I had done with the union was participate in the waiter and waitresses race at their yearly picnic, –balancing champagne glasses on trays. But I knew my rights because of my parents, I knew I could push this guy. I got my break! The manager waited on people while I ate. Afterward the cooks were like — “What is she going to do next?”

Karen

My sister Karen was 81/2 years older than me, but we became best friends when I was still a kid and she was a young woman. My other sisters got married and had families. We both remained single. Half of my adult life I lived with Karen. We had been living together for 20 years when she died last September.

She got her first apartment in 1968. I was still in junior high. I spent a lot of time there. It was on the corner of Lake and Hennepin above shops, in the old brick building where Calhoun Square is now. The steps were made of stone or marble, worn from people walking on them. She lived on third floor. We dragged a christmas tree up those stone steps. Three flights. After Karen passed away I thought about going to see if the old stairway is still there.

When she moved into that apartment, the place was a wreck.We painted the cabinets bright yellow and orange — the psychedelic colors going on then. We decided to use high gloss paint. The apartment had one window that was glued shut. It was summer. Hot. We both got high on paint fumes. I had gotten paint on my shirt, two circles around the part of me that sticks out the farthest. When she took me to the bus stop on Lagoon and 29th we were laughing so hard about my T- shirt, we could hardly stand up. Some guys in a car saw us and gave us a hard time.

We worked so hard on that apartment. She had blue and white wall paper in the bathroom. The rent was $75 a month. She paid two months rent to get a guy to install the paper. Karen was working at La Pizzeria and she spent every penny she made. There was a green corduroy couch she wanted and never got and she talked about it the rest of her life. Not getting that couch.

It was so hot in there. she took the doors out to try to cool it off. She replaced them with gold-colored beads and a golden shag rug. She had a bookshelf of bricks and board. Bohemian. She bought an air conditioner , but it would only run if she didn’t have the lights, TV, stereo, or clock on. If she forgot and turned on the light the fuse would go. There was no caretaker there. She had to deal with the fuse box.

I had a key to Karen’s apartment and I would go there before and after school, even when she wasn’t there, and listen to the stereo. We bought the stereo for $120, but then we couldn’t carry it home. The guy said “I can put it in the car for you.” We told him we took the bus. We couldn’t carry it on the bus. The guy gave us a ride home. We listen to that stereo all the time. Melanie Safka singing I don’t eat Animals and They don’t eat me. Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, Ike and Tina Turner, Funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter, Delaney Bonnie and Friends, Only you know and I know.

Only she knew and I know.

When Karen died I kept thinking two things. The cliché – “you don’t know what its got till its gone” and “Life Interrupted.” You are just going along, and then it’s all over. After her death I keep coming across all this minutiae — a receipt for the last movie we went to. Grocery lists. There is a Burger King close to our house. When I pass it I remember all the times Karen would say, “I’m hungry and I don’t have any money.” I would answer, “Well if you want to go to Burger King, I’ll pay for it….”

Yesterday I talked to an AFSCME member who was going to staff our booth at the fair. It got me thinking about the first time I staffed the booth, maybe 16 years ago, before the “new” labor pavilion was built. I took Karen along. We had this survey on clip boards we wanted people to fill out. I think it was about health care. It was me and another lady, Barb Streit, handing out the surveys and talking to people — which I love to do. Karen wasn’t real big on persuading strangers to do things, so she prepared the clipboards for us and arranged the postcards and pens. She was always officious. She had a certain unique style.

Minutiae. The little things that add up to a life.

 

When Karen was dying, I moved her bed close to the kitchen. She was dosing in and out. I went to load the dishwasher. I told her “I’m just going into the kitchen. I’m still here.” She said “Yes Kathy, I know, you are always here.”

She died on Saturday morning at 4am, September 19, 2015. Three days earlier we watched Jeopardy together and she was still answering questions.

When she found out she was going to die she said, “There are so many more books I wanted to read.” That is what she was thinking about. When she was in high school she read this book, Life Without George , published in 1960, about a woman who restarts her life after her husband dies. The memory of that book came back to me recently

I have begun Life Without Karen.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. Growing up in Phillips Neighborhood; Indigenous Writer; Poet for the City.

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

We are from North Dakota – The Three Affiliated Tribes – NuE’ta, Sahnish, Hidatsa, all within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My ma said she had always wanted to get out of Twin Buttes, North Dakota. She was raised in a dirt floor log cabin. When she first saw Star Trek on a friend’s TV it changed her. To my mom, the whole world outside of her Rez was like the cantina in Star Wars and she wanted to see it.

Minneapolis was exactly what mom wanted. Her brothers were playing in bands and the Indigenous movement was going from protest and activism to working from within the system, joining and creating organizations. She helped start the first Indian clinic in St Paul. When we moved to the Phillips neighborhood she did the same kind of helping out but moved on to the Food and Drug Administration.

My dad had worked at the Red School House, but I went to Bancroft elementary where I was one of four Indians — and two of them were my sisters. I had long hair . Everyday I would fight someone who pulled my hair and called me a girl. That went on until 9th grade. My mom let my sisters transfer to the awesome Indian schools — Red School House, Heart of the Earth Survival School and The Center School.

When I asked to go there my mom and dad said No. My grandma said “If you want to hang out with Indians all day you can stay home with gramma and do the dishes. The world is filled with all kinds of people not just Mandans so it’s important for you to be able to talk to all kinds of people”

The places that I’ve been on the short time that I’ve been on this big old turtle have been pretty amazing and I attribute that to my mom and grandma insisting that I go a little further.

But it was Indian youth leadership groups that helped me to build confidence.

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Golden Eagles Baseball Team. Twin Cities Champs circa 1993

I was always a super shy kid around non-Native people and even when I went to Folwell Junior High there were still only a few more Indians. I was in the Soaring/Golden Eagles youth group and and became involved in the Indigenous Peoples Task Force theater troupe. They helped me get out of my shell.

In high school we moved to Corcoran neighborhood and our first house. I got an internship for the Circle newspaper’s Native youth run and produced paper called New Voices The only other Indians in the neighborhood were our relatives the Yellowbird/St. Johns. My mom became a case worker for Ruben Lindh Family Services and my dad went from every once in a while construction jobs to working full-time for a big old construction management company. My parents wanted us to have something a little bit better. The house wasn’t big enough for all of us but it was ours.

What was also really great about moving was that we were going to be living down the block was my very first non-Indian friend. We were inseparable. Shane Caird– my older sisters called him our Albino brother. With Shaneo drawing and my stories, we even produced our very own single issue comic book, “The Adventures of Super Shane and Mighty Vince”

Then coaches at South came to see me play football for Sibley park and recruited me. I was always deceivingly fast and had lots of what they called “upper body violence”. They said “There are all kinds of Indians in a program called All Nations, and you’re going to love it.” So, — though I lived three blocks from Roosevelt High and I knew Shane would be upset (we only cried once about it) — I went to South. Most diverse school in the city. I met my first Somali friend there. His name was Mohammad Mohammad. I wanted to be Vincent Vincent but then he explained to me who Mohammad was. —

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults. Left me there all day.
My mom and dad — activists from the sixties and seventies —had always told me “If the cops get you don’t say nothin.” So I didn’t. “Luckily”, one of the cops who worked at South saw me and me said “What is he doing here?”

While I was there at the JDC I had a moment. I thought “I don’t want this.”

My parents yelled at me that whole Halloween and then I had to go to Minnehaha Academy. I tested so well I got into The Blake School but my mom said it looked like one of those schools from TV where all the mean white people go, so I went to Minnehaha. I lasted seven weeks. I came home and my parents asked me – how was it? I told them about a math problem they gave us, it was kinda like – “If Jesus had five apples…” They want us to figure out how many apples Jesus would have. I answered “Jesus is magic. He could have as many apples as he wanted.” My dad was not about Jesus at all. I went back to South and put my head down and studied.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

 

14081460_10153623203465518_839800547_n-1 All Nations Awards Graduation Banquet Dinner, South High School, 1998.

Three of those kids and I went to Golden Eagles. For the most part (my pops was gone some times) we had strong male and female role models in our houses. That is the truth. David Paul Saice, Jr., Jesse James Strong, George Chi-Noodin Spears. I’ve known them for forever and a day. My friends who didn’t make it though South? All but one are still just trying to get right and they will, Indians are slow not lazy and stubborn, but when we set minds to something, doesn’t matter how long it takes, we’ll get it done.

Theater also saved me. When I was in Junior High, Sharon Day started a Native youth theater troupe called the Ogitchidaag Gikinomaagaad Players (Warrior Teacher in her people’s language Anishinaabe), but first came a theater boot camp in Phillips. It was taught by Spider Woman Theater, these New York Indian ladies: sweet but tough. You fooled around you were out. They widdled it down till they had the troupe. The Players. We performed plays for AIDS awareness, drugs and alcohol, and big list of other topics and for the play “My Grandmother’s Love” we performed monologue about our gramma Blanche Benson. At that time — ’92-93 — AIDS was an epidemic on reservations. Sharon got the money to train us and travel to reservations. I’ve been to just about every state traveling by van and airplane with them.

I won the Outstanding Youth Award of the year award for my work with the Ogitchidag Gikinoamaagad Players. Right after high school I went to the short program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto, “perfecting my craft”.
But then I came home to Minneapolis and I got myself in trouble again…

 

I ended up burning every bridge. I was 20. You couldn’t tell me nothin. All these awards, writing, acting — I had a pretty big head. I ended up homeless, living on the streets. If you are 20 and homeless, you WILL have a mental breakdown. I ended up at HCMC and from there Catholic Charities.

2000 to 2002 — starting back from zero.
My mom and dad loved me however their addiction to alcohol and drugs created an environment where we could do whatever we wanted. My sisters as well. Our structure was loose and because just trying to keep the lights on was an adventure unto itself, we suffered and sometimes when I’d come home from a weekend trip with the troupe or even tired from a football game at South and our the lights would be off, but only for a couple days here and there. We were all really smart so we could always fall back on ” Well, I’m doing well in school… ”

By 2002 I was climbing out of it. I got my own studio apartment downtown. I felt like “I DID IT!” I went from just owning a backpack to having a place of my own! I started acting again. I went back to the Children’s Theater. They were doing heavier plays in their Black Box series. They’d take kids like me, trained in their programs or other places, work with and eventually work with the meatier stuff. They were going to do One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest. I said great – what will I play? The director said Nurse Ratchett. I was like, alright , cool! He said “I’m kidding. I want you to play the narrator.”

I met my partner Megan Treinen through Cuckoos’ Nest. One of her friends was one of the orderlies in the cast. He asked me to go out to Burnsville to a bowling alley. I had never gone out to Burnsville. They used to have an Indian head for their high school mascot. I never wanted to go out there. But I went.
And right when I walked in. I thought — holy smacks — that lady is pretty. I told her as much that night. I stole her away from this really awesome African guy named Duke, I never met him, but I’m assuming as much because Megan is awesome. I always tell Megan that when I’m really old I’m going to tell our great grandkids that I stole her from a Zulu warrior, that I fought for the right to ask her out by fighting him in a ring of fire — my tribe against his — lions against coyotes and bears.

She was my white passport. She hates when I say that, but it is true. I moved down to Winona to be with her while she finished her degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies I got a job at the Green Mill and later at The Blue Heron coffee shop. Damn is Winona racist! Even their foundation myth. They invented their own Indian maiden myth and put her on a statue in the middle of town.
Across from the court-house where all the judges and police hang out is the Red Men Club. In it are photos of white men — lawyers, cops, judges, dressed up in feathers holding fake spears. And they have that statue of the Indian slumped over — “End of the Trail” — sculpted by a white guy.

Winona State University asked, “how do we get more Indians here?” I said, “First, you shouldn’t have kicked out the Santee Dakota that are from here. Second, maybe you shouldn’t have this effigy to the dying of my race. I’m standing right here, my brown-skinned self! Indians don’t want to look at that.” Their response was to hire another white sculpture to put some positive Indian imagery around the dying Indian. I said “Good luck with that. This is a very racist town and I’m out of here.”

Because Megan was white, I knew we could move to North Dakota and she would flourish. Her parents — some of the most racist suburban white people I have ever met — didn’t want her to go — said there were drugs there like somehow people weren’t doing any drugs anywhere in Savage, MN. We went, this is just something they do, justify they’re racism I mean. When we first started dating, she had her own apartment in Winona but for the summer she was staying at her parents. Out of the blue, she had a 12 o’clock curfew, a 20 year old with her own apartment. They could never come up with real concrete reasons they don’t like me, so eventually I started to help them out with some because that’s what I do, I’m a giver.

Almost immediately Megan became an intern for Senator Kent Conrad, and then worked for the Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. Needles to say, Megan flourished, but that’s what she does, because she’s a beautiful flower.
With her resume built up, we headed back to South Minneapolis. I knew that I would need this white ambassador and I would need to help this white ambassador’s resume, if we were going to be able to build a life for ourselves.
Because, even in South Minneapolis, even with a degree, even the Indian organizations don’t hire us too much. We did have a short stay out at Megan’s mom’s house. I say short because her mom ended up kicking us out on the street, effectively making us homeless, because I got upset when Megan’s dad decided to grab some of our stuff packed up in the garage and use it as things for their dog to play fetch with. I guess when you live with white people in the suburbs, you have to let them use your things for dog toys and if you don’t like it and you raise your voice in defense, well then you’ll just have to find somewhere else to live. So we did.

There are four types of Indians: the urban Indians, suburban Indians, rural Indians and Rez Indians. (Most people don’t realize that rural Indians are not same as Rez Indians.) Now maybe it’s just me but the non-profit Indian organizations in Phillips, really only seem to hire light-skinned Indians who grew up in suburbia or other places where they may be the only Indians in their communities and here’s the thing, I don’t know why. Indian Health Board, Native American Community Development Institute, American Indian Center, Little Earth, Native American Community Clinic — go into any of those places and you will see mostly light-skinned and/or suburban Indians working, it’s like maybe a certain small percentage are people from the neighborhood, and an even smaller percentage of dark skinned Natives, I could speculate on why this is like this, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that they get money to develop our community aka “help the Indians” but even the ones that got a quarter of a million dollars in funding only put up stickers on the lightboxes, and then just on 1 street, the one thing the Native not for profits in my neighborhood have done in unison is Not hire from within the neighborhood for top positions.

Megan was incredibly excited to move to the city. I had an opportunity to finish my degree at Augsburg College but for the most part, I was scared to move home.

Augsburg was a really different experience.

Augsburg is open to all types of Indians but what they really wanted was the “safe” suburban Indians – those who know how to operate in this world. They elected me to the American Indian Student Association. That was a big scary thing. Some of those Indians were really entitled people. So mean and back stabby, on the southside beef is handled up front and direct, on site, that is not how they got down and the subcultures clashed. They kept asking us for drugs. I told them off.

I said to one guy, “We wanted you to help out with the Pow Wow but we have to pull back because you keep being mean to all the Indians.” His mom and dad were like these mega sciency Indians. They got postcards from Obama. His mom came down and got mean and everyone bowed down to her, I guess when you offer to buy the Indin student group hats and jackets, you can make moves like that. That is when I realized I was not cut out for college. I could not kiss anyone’s ass. I lasted two semesters and then the perfect storm hit. My older brother passed away and every semester Augburg went out of it’s way to remind how poor I was. it was tough. But not as tough as learning about how over and over again Indigenous nations were forced to convert to Christianity to survive in one class and immediately after I had to go to my mandatory theology class where the instructor told us all to just “think of this as Sunday school, because it is.”

Transfer students didn’t have to take this mandatory class, but I did even though I transferred in from a technical college they wouldn’t accept my Algebra credits I tried so hard pass (im not good at math and have had to take algebra at every school ive gone to) and that followed with mandatory Sunday school and American Indian Studies professors who weren’t up to facilitating conversations about misuse of Indigenous iconography by people who have vague Indigenous descendancy. I’m not kidding when I say a senior in film studies actually said that because he was 1/3rd Cherokee (he wasn’t, people don’t come in 3rds of anything, that’s absurd) he was entitled to use any and all Native imagery without asking permission, and the professor said nothing, I on the other hand am a pro at dropping knowledge bombs on the 33.33% Pretendians but not having that backup in the department of study that I switched because it would inform my work as poet, was disheartening. And so because if all of that, I dropped out, still owe the gov’t 5000, I’ll probably never get a 4 year degree. That’s a dream now, like buying a projector, or owning an electric car.

I had gone to technical college and to get my associates degree so I had planned to finish my degree in Information business management at Augsburg. Fortunately I decided to take a few non-management classes. Intro to acting. American Indian Studies. Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet I was getting to be friends with, who had given me a copy of her first book of poetry when I was an intern at the Circle in high school.

Cary Waterman was awesome — that 90 days was like my second birth. I had thought my art was acting, performing. The way I learned to write at the Circle was right down the middle and you piss both sides off. Inverted Triangles. I never thought I’d be able to do creative writing. Now I was learning all these forms of poems….

Cary Waterman wanted us pick a poet and get them to mentor you. Other students chose Walt Whitman, Shakespeare. I didn’t realize she meant we were supposed to read the work of one poet. Asked my playwright/poet, friend who gave me her book, if she would be my mentor. I told the other students “We went to a coffee shop and talked for an hour….”
One of the kids who wrote for the student paper said: “that woman was the poet laureate of Augsburg College.”
I was like, “Dope! I’ll tell her.” I felt like I messed up. I only took the class so I could talk to my poet friend and have better conversations.

I started writing poems, mentored by this great Indigenous writer. That changed my life. She waved her hand and the hallway of closed doors in my life just opened up. I followed her, walking through doors. She was constantly telling me “You’ve got something. You’ve got agency in your braids”
A year later I won my first Jerome Foundation Grant. My mentor told me it was BIG. She never won one.

I was ready to go to my first professional Indian writers conference. Returning the Gift: Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. It was held at an old University of Wisconsin Mens dorm — a mansion. Those white fuckers had a mansion. But now it was the Mansion that Indian Writers Built. I walked in and there was Jim Northrup laughing and teasing Joy Harjo. I saw Gary Farmer, Denise Sweet, Wade Fernandez, Susan Power coming down the stairs talking with Heid E. Erdrich….

We were about to drive back to the cities when my mentor said “I think you should try that poetry slam. If you win this you go to the next round and they will pay for it.”

I was like — “pay for it? Pay for Indians?”

She said there is only one other Indian champ. Sherman Alexie.

I thought OK, I’ll go and do my poem and get the hell out of here. I was sitting at this table with this guy Norb Jones. He came only for the poetry slam. He was there to win. On the other side of the table was Charlie Hill – he worked for Richard Pryor! He was one of the judges. There were Indians from Canada, Hawaii, Mexico, the Sami even– they were all there to compete. Some of them were reading from their published books.

I got up and put my two worlds — writing and acting — together. The first bout I got all tens. I was like, that was great – can we go home now?

My mentor said “No. Tomorrow is the championship and you are in it.”

It was me and Norb Jones. I got all tens and won the championship. Now it was Sherman Alexie and me, the two champions. That was it. I was a writer. After that I started winning every Minnesota poetry grant you could win.

I went with my mentor to Michigan, and to the Turtle Mountain Writers Retreat and Workshop to work. Dr. Gordon Henry was there at both but while in Michigan he asked me “Do you have 90 poems?”

I thought he was asking me — how much do you write — are you working hard enough?

My mentor said — “Ninety poems is a book. He’s asking if you have enough for a book. He runs a Press, dumdum”

The rest of the time there is a blur. I only remember that he paid for dinner.

My mentor told me to take my time getting the work together. She said “It took me five years – you are in this one year and some change — take your time. It was like she put a force field around us.

Then someone showed my Youtube videos to Sherman Alexie… and because he’s got super powers and he was in town at the Fitz AND my friend was a DJ for the event I got to go. We got box seats. I’m thinking — I’m going to say right to his face that he should stop writing so positively about fry bread and Pepsi. He’s giving us all diabetes.

During the sound check Sherman looked up at me from the stage. “There is an Indian in Lincoln’s seat. Watch out they are going to shoot you.”
After his performance he hung out with a group of Indian kids from one of Indian Schools for about an hour. I thought –he is a really good dude.
Then he looked up at me and motioned with his lips, “Hey – come on down here.”
I had one of those movie moments — Sherman Alexie just called me down… So I did.
He said “I’m Sherman Alexie.” I was like — I know who you are.
He said “How’s it going? Your name is Vince.” I thought “My name IS Vince.”
“People have been sending me your videos.”

I thought, I am about to get in trouble.

“Do you write them down?”
“Yeah.”
“Do you want to show me them?”
I said “Well, they are being looked over by Dr. Henry at University of Michigan Press, I don’t think I can….”
He said “I know Gordy, its OK. Send them to me.”
He asked “Do you have any of my books for me to sign?”
I said “I don’t have any of your books. I read em and I give em to my Aunts and my mom to read. So he said “Do you have anything for me to sign?”

I pulled off one of my red Pumas and he signed it “Less fry bread, more running. ”
That’s when I realized he read my tweets and eventually I would send him my poems, because he asked to see them, he being Sherman Alexie.

When he was back in town — at Macalester, the only college in town that can a afford him – that and the U when he takes a pay cut. I emailed him: “What do you think of my poems?”
I thought he was going to break it down – tell me what to work on — tell me to read more of this or that poet. His email was: “You know your pretty good right?”
That was it! I thought to myself — “fuck that guy.” I thought I was going to catch some knowledge….We went a year. I finally sent him another email.

Sometimes its problematic to be Sherman Alexie. Sometimes Sherman Alexie makes decisions that Sherman Alexie shouldn’t make and he catches some national shade for those decisions. I sent him an email and told him he can’t talk for all Indians…

His email, back said” I’ve been writing this email to you for five days. I write and I delete it, write and delete it. I have been having this conversation with Indians on and off the reservation for 25 years. Instead, for you– I am going to give you a to do list.”
All the things I wanted to hear were there. But then there were other things like: “Eat More Salads” and “Run more.”

I was 450 pounds two years ago. I weighed myself a month ago — 265 pounds. Sherman Alexie didn’t do it. I was already on my way — but you know it’s getting bad if Sherman Alexie is telling you to run and eat more salads.

**********

I took on my niece and two nephews a few months ago, from North Dakota. As we were driving out of Bismarck together, I got text from Sherman. It said “Write me a story about an Indian Kid.” That was it. I thought – doesn’t he know I just write poetry? I don’t write short stories.

I started writing, — my first five pages — not ready to read, but on my way.

It’s all moving pretty fast. I scares me a little bit. I was an actor when I was a kid. I even went out to LA and auditioned during pilot season. I was Indian Famous — which is like being a Z level celebrity. It was awful. I had to learn that lesson hard. I have learned that there are so many tertiary people who want to have a piece of you and they want to be your friend. I had to push those people away. They started un-friending me on facebook. I learned to create a bubble around myself. All you can do is what you can do.

That’s me. That’s where I’m at. I made some bigger mistakes recently but I’ll learn. Then I drove over here to tell you about it.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr.   Performing his work.

Drew Edwards, 30. Pushing and Turning the Stone in North Minneapolis

20160604_122317 2 (1)I come from a talented, capable and impactful family. They inspire me and keep me honest. I believe in them. I think the most of my younger siblings. My mom and my grandma set the tone for excellence. My mom is not a bigger teller — she showed me her love with everything she has done. My dad is my best friend these days . I can tell him anything. Anything. That is why I move the way I move. To make my family proud. Worthy of their investment.

My Grandmother and my great Aunt Loraine came up here in the early 70s from Louisiana. One was a Nurse, the other worked in a linen manufacturing company. They came for the work. My grandma remarried here, extending our family to include a side with St. Paul roots. My Aunt also got married here, giving me a gallow of cousins.

My mom was born in Hammond, Louisiana 90 miles from New Orleans — a town so small that my family has their own street. My great uncles have barber shops and other businesses, on property the family h owned since my great grandpa moved there and worked that land.  Mom left Louisiana for Minneapolis when she was 9-10 years old.

My Dad’s family are originally from Mississippi by way of Chicago. My Dad came up here while still in the military. He was a Marine. He was also a minister and had connections here through the church.

My mother, brother, and sister brought me into the world. Mom went into labor in the house. She called grandma, who navigated her through it on the phone. My sister and brother — two and three years old — helped out.

I lived in the house in Cedar Riverside until I was 9-10 years old.  It was a pocketed part of the neighborhood. You have to come in through 28th street. No businesses, just a park, a hospital and a river. We would go down to the river all the time. I knew all my neighbors. I would go next door until my mom came home. It was traditionally White and Black. Native Americans shared the enjoining neighborhoods — Cedar and Franklin, and I was aware of their presence.

Minneapolis has that distinction of being six blocks from any park — one of the things I love about it. When I moved to 34th and Bloomington I was a block from Powderhorn Park. The neighborhood was more competitive. It was on a major street. Near Lake and Chicago. We didn’t know our neighbors. There was a gang. It was not like the tight-knit community I was raised in when I was little.

My parents got divorced when I was four. My dad had a new family by the time I was six. I didn’t even know that was problematic until I was of a teen age and I realized — boys DO need their father.

I started school at Trinity Lutheran. From there I went to Hall, then Four Winds and then Wilder( Benjamin Banneker). I kept getting kicked out. Expelled. Why? I think its layered.

1. I had personal stuff I needed to address. God has blessed me with discernment; knowing right from wrong. I would say what I thought, regardless of whether a person was my  elder. I got adults upset with me.

2. I was the victim of un-engaging curriculum styles. Even as a young kid I always felt like “This is not for me — it is not entertaining, fulfilling, or rewarding.” I think that led to my outbursts. Acting out.

3. I was in Special Ed from 3rd to 11th grade. My mother didn’t know how to help me. She had no idea how to advocate for my needs. She did what she thought was necessary. Signed on the dotted line.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience.  I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage.  Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom.  I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

Moving to so many schools, I didn’t make friends. My cousins were my friends. And kids at Church. When I was eleven, my mom changed churches. Three years later the pastor decided to move the church to California and Mom decided to follow him.  I was given a choice: stay with my dad or go with her. I chose to go with her to Salinas, California.  It changed my life.

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up. Hispanics brothers and sisters. It was serious. I didn’t think it was something I wanted to partake in, so when my mom gave me the option of leaving I said yes.

Mom didn’t know any of this.  She worked fifty hours a week. Still does. She gave me everything I needed.  She did what she was required to do. I needed a community to raise me, as any kid does. But some in my community were not the American Dream.

In Salinas I didn’t have any cousins or friends except for the other people from the church who migrated too– about 20 people.  My friend Ashley, a white girl from the Church became a close friend. To this day I miss her because we had this experience that others don’t understand.

In Salinas I was more outgoing.  I went to North Salinas High — the not-so-well High school  in town. I had failed two of my classes as a freshman at Roosevelt in Minneapolis, so I wasn’t  allowed to go out for football.  It crushed me. It was one of the only things I had.

In Salinas I got to play football.

My first day of school in Salinas I saw this guy getting his breakfast by himself. He was alone at lunch time as well. I walked up to him and said “You are not from here either.”

He said,”Naw I’m from Tulsa, Bro”

From that day we’ve been best friends. Tulsa Tony.  We had the whole California experience together and then he came up here to live in the Midwest for a couple of years.

I made some other friends on the football team.  I played with some future NFL players. My school was predominantly Hispanic — it was a different feel. Their were gangs but they were different. But I didn’t have to worry too much about it.

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were NO jobs for me. For teenagers in Minneapolis at least there were some job programs.

I was in  California for two years. I came back half way through my junior year. I finished high school at Central in St. Paul.  Made some really good friends there.
At Central I learned  something about myself. Proof that I could do well. I was working and taking after-school classes and still managed to graduate on time.  I had friends who were in Gen. Ed. the whole time, who came from nuclear families, who did not finish. I was on the wrestling team and  I had good support system there.

In the end, I didn’t get what I wanted at Central, but I got what I needed.

But, I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. Nobody ever approached me about taking it.  No one talked to my mom about it.

After high school I went to MCTC, studying Business. I have alway  had an entrepreneurial  sense.  MCTC had all these buffer courses. I went for a year and a half, paying to be ready for college. Still, MCTC was cool because it was different from high school.  I had choices, freedom,  opinions. And I had a different sense of its importance because I was crossing to be there and paying for it. I took out a student loan. I met some really good friends. I got more of the experience of pushing through when things are difficult.

It was also  a maturing period because I had a stint of homelessness. The work I was able to get was doing security at the metro dome.  I was also hustling, selling weed. I faced unemployment, learned how to find the ‘no- excuse button.’ Learning how to support myself.  My mom and grandma had set the foundation— showing me how to work and support yourself. Now I had to do it. I graduated after four years with a two year degree. I got my first apartment when I was 20 — me and my homeboy.

After MCTC I worked. I retention specialist for Comcast basically door to door bill collection. I learned about why and how people move, selling techniques. I learned that if you help enough people help themselves, you will get what you need in the end. I did that for about three years, without a lot of financial success but with a lot of mental success.  I have been savvy. When I get started with my own business, it is going to take off.

In my early 20s I seriously considered moving out of the United States — Brazil, Toronto. Or moving to Tulsa, Boca Raton, Florida, California…just moving. I didn’t feel like Minnesota had anything to offer me.  But, I thought, first I should finish school.

I talked to people at Metro State, learned about their Urban Education program. I asked “What is your success rate? How many people of color actually pass through your program?”

They said “Well, we are working on getting our numbers up.”

I said, “Exactly!” [with sarcasm].

I was really suspect.  But I had learned from business that you have to put value in yourself for others to invest in you.  So I tried. I got the encouragement and support from professors. Ever since then I have been very successful in school — mostly A’s — a few Bs.

My philosophy for education is the same as for policing. It is not good enough to say there are some good cops if the overall system is racist. Likewise,— so what if there were a few good teachers, if the overall system is not good. Lets work for overall excellence — all the teachers in the community, going to bat for kids.

When kids try to out-slick me, I tell them I was the slickest. I hear kids in 8th grade talking about joining gangs. I say, “What the hell are you talking about. You are playing a dangerous game. You need to find a different kind of support. Take Mr. Drew’s advice and find a sports team or other venue for support. I know about that life and it is not for you. You think you have time but in 8th grade decisions are being made and compounded.”

Ive been a teaching sub. It is frustrating to me when people don’t care if I have the knowledge to teach something. They will say, “Would you like to do art today? Here is some material.” I say, “I don’t feel comfortable teaching something I just looked at ten minutes ago.” That is not excellence. The students deserve more.
I was involved in activism from a young age — May Day parades, church involvement, volunteering, coaching football at Powderhorn. That gave me a community advocate platform where I could speak. From doing business, my speaking voice has become more toned.

In 2012 I was watching the news. I heard a conversation about a young Black kid,Trayvon Martin who was killed that by that guy — George Zimmerman.

I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t understand it. It changed me. A grown man can kill a kid and get away with it?! Then people came out with that whole “hoody” shit. Even people in my family were saying — “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t wear a hoody.” I’m thinking to myself — “Oh hell. So now we can’t wear hoodies, walk at night, eat skittles, drink ice tea, travel alone… enter gated communities….”

It was a call to action. I’ve got to do something. So when Black Lives Matter first took 35W I said “Wow. They took the Highway?!  Hmmm… “ Then when came to shutting down Hiawatha I was like —”IT’S TIME!!.”We shut it down.

Today (July 25th) I took a plea bargain on my Mall of America charge.  If I get another trespassing charge it will become a misdemeanor.

I don’t claim a Black Lives Matter Banner.  At the end of the day, the banner’s going to fade away . The movement continues. The struggle is real.  A lot of different banners are going to be waved in the process. I’m with the movement. With the stone being pushed and turned.  At the Mall of America, the Black State Fair. Nonviolent rallies, Education. Conversations with people at work and in my community. Working broadly allows me to have many circles of friends — people who would not naturally speak to each other.  I try to unify people, to bring them together.

A lot of people don’t know how to be politically savvy in letting people know the truth. You have to be person who can shine light without people feeling burnt. I am trying to master that.

There are two faces to my life right now. One face I stay strong and show my best side. The other face –I just want what I want minus the sacrifice and the hard work.
I moved to North Minneapolis recently. I love it. One of the best decisions I made in my life. My dad was always a north-sider, so I was never a person who said — “I’m not going to North…”  but once I started working on the North side I thought, “These are my people!”  They are more loyal, more responsive to community concerns than other people.  Concerned about what is going on with their kids. They want to get it right.

If you don’t got over to North Minneapolis you really don’t know what we are dealing with — be it food deserts or economic mobility,  or this whole bad narrative about people getting shot. Every time people get shot in Northeast, or a Northern suburbs it is reported as North Minneapolis. It could be in Crystal, Robbinsdale but they say its North Minneapolis.

Part of the problem is that people want a token. They say “Go to Him.” There are  people who get a little recognition, who claim to still be part of the neighborhood. They get a nice little severance package, get used to an 80K diet and now they live in Robbinsdale. They still go to Zion or Shiloh, and their mom is still in North… but they still haven’t pushed a stone. It’s true nationwide. When was the last time Jesse Jackson actually did something impactful?

I have become involved with many groups:  Brotherhood Empowerment, Black Coal, Mad Dads, Black Lives Matter, and Social Justice Education Movement. I really believe it is about bringing the groups together.  That is my goal. The by-any-means-necessary folks, people of faith, teachers, business people. I work with them all.

I go to many meetings.  I want to be at the table as much as I can.

Anna K. Binkovitz. Poetry and the Politics of Consent.

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Anna Binkowitz age 23.

Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I grew up outside of Granville, OH, a town of 5,000 on the edge of Appalachia.  We had deer in the yard, farms close by. I walked barefoot. Still, do even in Minneapolis. It’s what I’m used to doing.

We were a liberal family in a conservative region. The first national political event I remember is the 2000 elections, when they decided to stop recounting the votes in Florida. I was six. I went up to my room crying “I don’t want a bad president.”

Ohio is a little bit of everything— Midwest, East, North, South. Growing up there and coming to school in Minnesota convinced me that the United States is a regional polyglot. It is not just weather. People in Boston survive  winter differently than Minnesotans do.

I came to Minnesota to go to college at Macalester.When I first came I was startled in the grocery store when people turned around to say hello. Driving is so polite here it’s almost rude. I’m picking up the accent — my o’s are getting longer. I caught myself saying Oofdah.

My Macalester advisor was Marlon James. He is the sassiest. He taught me about putting narrative arcs in poetry. With him I felt like a writer with my editor, rather than a student with my teacher. He is not only an award winning author. He is a great educator. He is why I want, someday, to come back to Macalester and teach creative writing.

I loved Macalester, but I almost left it. I was raped by a fellow student. I went through the school process. They put restrictions on him and said if he violated the sanctions his status as a student would be “severely jeopardized.” But he violated the restrictions and I had to keep pushing to get the school to enforce them. For a year he stalked me. The case was referred to the Macalester College Harassment Committee (MCHC). Despite my having a witness, nothing was done.

I wrote an open letter to my rapist in the college paper, saying that I was always going to know that I could be proud of my time in college, while he would always have to think of me and what he did to me.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you. (There are places I wont go back to — I went to the Gay 90s once and some guy tried to assault me and I won’t go back there.) But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I will not let him — let me — not love this place.

I wrote a poem,  Asking For It, (watch) that went, well, if not viral, then bacterial. It has had over 800,000 views. I think it can be hard to talk about sexual violence using humor. I was able to do it. People are interested in quick socially conscious pieces  they can use to answer that dumb or ignorant comment. With the popularity, came the negative comments. After a couple days I stopped reading them. I thought about something Barney Frank once said to a woman who was arguing with him and not listening. “Mam talking to you is like talking to a brick wall”

I think Break the Silence Day , Take Back the Night, Slut Walks are very important — it is essential to have people say they believe you – they know what you are going through.

Take Back the Night is hard for men and non gender conforming people who have also been the victims of sexual assault. I saw something on the internet about that I thought was perfect. The sentence “Men are victims of Sexual Assault” must be said. When you add the “too” — is when it becomes a distraction from the experiences of women.

After my poem went viral I got an invitation to speak at Muhlenberg College and got to pick my price.  I did 30 minutes of poems and a workshop on consent. I argued that asking for consent is sexy. All the participants were women – no cis dudes there – I was not surprised, but I was sad. I think it is good to show how to have healthy relationships after something like rape happens.

I did a Yes Yes Yes workshop at Intermedia Arts for Planned Parent Council, with the poets Keno Evol, and Guante. We had poetry, some  story telling, some music. Someone said “We can’t have a discussion about consent without Anna Binkowitz.” That made me feel really good. I am proud to be known that way.

When it comes to youth education on these issues, I think Abstinence-Only education has to go. We need to talk about consent. We should have people who have been abused in college speak to youth, say “this is what it happened to me” as plainly as possible.

****

I graduated in 2014 and went across the river to Minneapolis. I live in an apartment near the river that is central and safe, but noisy.   My next door neighbors act like you would think recent college graduates would act. Partying on Saturday night when I’m ready to go to bed.

It was easy to find friends in college. Since I graduated it has been harder. I worked so many short part time jobs. As a sub in the schools I do not have work friends. I hang out with poets and some friends from college. As  the web editor for Button Poetry I have become friends with writers in the community. It is interesting working for your friends. It changes the work relationship AND the friendship. We are all artists so we get that deadlines can be tough.

Button Poetry produces high quality spoken word videos, often filmed live at Poetry slam contests. They also run a monthly live poetry slam in St Paul and publish chapbooks of poetry.

They have let me take the reigns of the blog. I had the idea a year ago to use a blog to get more web content for our site and expand the publishing we do. I am in complete control. I decide who I want to interview. Each week we have a button play list of the best videos. On Thursday we publish an essay, a book review, or an interview by, for, and/or about poets, or we do a writing prompt. It rotates every week. Then we do a round up—- six interesting poems.
Keno Evol wrote an essay We need You to Show Up to the Riot Well Rested. He asked me what I thought. It was daunting and flattering to edit his work.

As far as my own work, I write poetry and compete in poetry slams. The idea behind the slam was to get away from poets reading to poets. Everyone can write, read and win. The audience decides — using whatever criteria they want — who wins.
How do you become a successful slam poet? There are coaches. One of the things I’ve learned is to use “down tones,” — important advice for women who often sound less authoritative because they end sentences with an upward questioning note.
At these poetry slams there is a problem with sexual assaults. People who commit assaults are kicked out, but there is nothing else done. Those who commit the assaults can go off and join other art groups and do it again.

I see a difference between someone who is a rapist and someone who once raped. I was raped twice, once by a man  who was sorry and didn’t want to ever do it again and wanted to know what he could do to change. The other guy who raped me and stalked me for a year — he, I consider a rapist.

What I love about poetry is gives you a license to write about things that are otherwise too close to write about.

I write just as much for myself as for anyone else. The more I can talk about my sexual assault experiences the more they do not take over my life. It is not about erasing something — it is about integrating it into your life. It is also – nothing for us without us. I want to be a safe place for people, but I can’t do that about sexual assault if I don’t talk about my experience as a survivor.

*******

Part of my Hebrew name means cactus flower. I struggle over the Palestine issue. I agree with an economic boycott of Israel but not an academic boycott. We should not boycott ideas. I get the most flack from other Jews who are Zionist and think I don’t support Israel enough. There are others who think we should demolish Israel. I don’t agree with them either. It exists, it is not just going to— poof, disappear.

Israel is recognized as a state so it has more responsibility to follow international law. They are a government and they should act like one. No country should be founded out of fear, and that is how Israel was founded. I also think Britain needs to stand up to the plate, since they are the ones who made contradictory promises to the Jews and the Palestinians and then sat back to watch the mess…. Although after Brexit — maybe not.

It’s been hard of me to find the right Synagogue in the Twin Cities.  I went to Mount Zion for a while but they had an organ — they sounded so Churchy. Shir Tikfa was too conservative. I grew up with Debbie Freidman tunes. I need them. The singing is everything.

*******

I don’t plan on staying in Minneapolis. I’m looking to move on for grad school. Maybe Pittsburg, Madison, Ann Arbor, Houston or NYC. I will miss the Mississippi River when I go.  It is my best friend. I read Mark Twain, and the history books…. and then there it was! I love that I live in the state with the Headwaters. Before I move I want to go up there and step across the Mississippi River. I was excited when I moved from St Paul to Minneapolis and two blocks from the River. Water is very important to me. When I die I want to have my ashes scattered in water because then part of me will end up everywhere.

 

 

 

Gilberto Vázquez Valle. Mexican Folk Musicologist Finds Poetic Justice in Minneapolis.

 

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All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards working people of my country, who paid for my education. But I have learned … the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States. One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

Coming to Minneapolis

I was born in Yurécuaro, in the State of Michoacán, Mexico. When I was 14, my family moved to Guadalajara. I went to college there, at the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas of the Universidad de Guadalajara, which had a relationship with the University of Minnesota. Students and scholars would come up to Minneapolis to do research and to study. I came in the 80s for some research projects and then to go to graduate school. So I was unusual – I wasn’t part of a migrant stream like so many of my relatives. I had nothing of the experience that my uncles or father had.

My father spent chunks of time here in the U.S., starting when I was about four, until I was thirteen. At that time it was easy to come if you were sponsored by relatives, as he was. In Mexico he was a tailor all of his life. In the U.S. he did agricultural work in California until he found more lucrative work in the steel industry in Chicago.

Today — even though I like that city and have relatives there — “Chicago” is a sad word for me. In my childhood it meant my father was going to leave us again.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

I was very critical of the United States government. I felt hypocritical coming and staying in the U.S. to work at the University of Minnesota —a little like José Martí: inside the entrails of the beast. All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards the working people of my country who paid for my education. But I also learned — both through my own family history and through simple observation — that the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States.

I made myself available to talk to groups about the role of the U.S. in Central America. We would have events at the University — educational forums on what was happening. I wanted to give U.S. students some historical background and a radically different perspective, to get them to question what they heard in the media.

One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota

In the early 90s I met the late Guillermo Rojas, faculty in Chicano Studies, and he asked me if I wanted to be a faculty/technical adviser for La Raza Student Cultural Center. It was going to be something temporary, just to clean up the place (there were accusations of financial mismanagement) and to reorganize it. The activist mission of La Raza’s creators in the 1970s, had disappeared and it was run by a cohort of students from wealthy families —-mostly from Central America —people with whom I would never have had contact in other circumstances. They couldn’t care less about activism and social responsibility. For them, La Raza was a social club.

Also fighting to regain control of La Raza , were a number of mostly Chicano students from throughout the United States —mainly women — determined, courageous, hard­-working, and politically aware. Most of them were of Mexican descendant, frequently first generation Americans and the first ones in their families to get to college. They regained control of La Raza.. and it became a place for community, activism, consciousness and a vibrant cultural center.

When the Zapatista uprising happened in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994 (the same day that NAFTA was implemented), we began having educational and political events every week focusing on the uprising and indigenous issues in Mexico and Latin America, the poverty, the discrimination, the cultural genocide still happening. Zapatista Sub­-Comandante Marcos sent communiques through the internet, and we were getting them a day after they were published in Mexico City — which was amazing at the time. La Raza became a sort of unofficial Zapatista resource center in town.

One of the sad parts of that uprising is that many of the issues that the Zapatistas were talking about, Ricardo Flores Magón was talking about in 1908 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. But on the positive side, there was a new respect and interest in the struggles of the Latin American indigenous peoples and a new understanding of the social and political movements in Mexico and the whole of Latin America. For the first time the word neo-­liberalism was used to understand what was happening on a global level. That was meaningful and refreshing. The Zapatistas had a global view, connecting their uprising to the struggles of workers in Bangladesh, Chicago and elsewhere.

The beauty, poetry and eloquence of the language of the Zapatista communiques also inspired and moved everyone, including myself. I remember reading the communique “¿De qué nos van a perdonar?”, in a coffee shop in Dinkytown and openly crying. Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many formerly apolitical young people in La Raza beginning to show an interest in the social and political movements in Latin America — and making connections with patterns of oppression and resistance in the U.S. That was the richest moment of my experience in La Raza —seeing that awakening, not just in others, but in myself.

My activism was focused on the U of M. I was trying to stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile. At that time, my immigration status was as an international student. I knew my legal status was vulnerable. So I was trying to frame all the events I was involved in as academic. I was invited to speak at some rallies in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis, and I had to decline.

When the energy around the Zapatista movement diminished, I still continued being involved in La Raza, providing continuity in the organization as students came and went. There were many more first generation Mexican American students, in the late 1990s and their stories of immigrant struggle and resistance inspired me. Even though they spoke English among themselves, they enjoyed speaking Spanish to me. I have a fascination with Spanish language proverbs and know thousands of them. Those young students would come to the office and ask me “so, what’s the proverb of the day?” They enjoyed the wisdom, earthiness, sparkling quality and sense of humor present in the proverbs.

In spite of the age difference, with those young students I had a feeling of prodigal sons reunited.

Youthful obsessions: comic book super heroes and Latin American folk music.

When I was little in Yurécuaro, my hometown, I was so much into comic books that my father went around to all the barber shops and asked them not to let me in because they had comic books there and he thought I was reading way too many of them.

There used to be a system where you could buy comics for a peso or sit on a bench and read them for ten cents. I was so obsessed with the characters and the stories being told, that I got to the point of stealing money from my mother in order to rent them. One day she found me at the rental bench and asked me to come with her immediately. When she saw me pay for 13 comics, she immediately knew who had stolen her money. Back at home, I got such a monumental spanking that, many years after, it still mortified her to the point of tears.

The comic books I read avidly were made in Mexico— “Chanoc”, “La Familia Burrón”, “Kaliman”, “El Payo”, “El Diamante Negro”, “Memín Pinguín”, “Fantomas”, “Tawa”, etc. —even, to my father’s mortification, “Lágrimas, Risas y Amor”. There were also many American comic books, translated, of course, which never got my interest. It wasn’t only that I was indifferent to them: I openly disliked them. Perhaps it was the language: They were probably translated in Spain and the dialogs always felt contrived, silly. So, I was totally oblivious to “Superman”, “Batman”, “Los Cuatro Fantásticos”, etc. There was, however, one of those American characters and comic books for which I’ve always had a soft spot: “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman).

When I was fourteen I gained a new obsession. We had just moved to Guadalajara, which, at that time, was a town of about 2 million people. Almost immediately I discovered the radio stations, one run by the Department of Fine Arts, the other by the Universidad de Guadalajara, that played some folk music. I’m immensely grateful to both of those stations. They enriched my life beyond measure. The music I heard there for the first time, sounded strange yet familiar. In a primal, visceral way, I knew that it was my own. It was like hearing an ancient tune apparently long forgotten but in actuality always present within me.

By the time I was 18 there were already a few places where Latin American folk music was played live. Some were small venues related to the local Department of Fine Arts the others were “Peñas” (coffee houses) that appeared in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities throughout Mexico. Most of the performing groups were local and non-professional. Through college, I met two brothers and their uncle who, together with two other friends, formed one of those groups: “Los Cachicamos”. They took me with them everywhere they played: Schools, Peñas, labor union halls, music festivals, small villages’ festivities, public plazas. They were really good and played not only folk music from the Andes but also from Argentina and Mexico, which, amazingly, few of the Mexican folk groups at the time played. They even traveled to South America to get music and instruments, and they lent me recordings that were impossible to get in Guadalajara.

From their trip, they brought back several “Charangos,” a string instrument with five double strings (similar to a mandolin) that is fundamental in the Andean music tradition. The back of its box is made from the shell of a small furry armadillo that lives in that region.

My friends got their Charangos directly from a legendary Bolivian charango maker, Sabino Orozco. This man introduced my friends to his son who was chosen to continue the Charango making tradition. His name I can not forget: Clark Kent Orozco.

Bringing Latin American Folk Music to Minneapolis through KFAI radio.

In Minneapolis my Latin American friends were often surprised that I knew old folk songs from their countries. They would give me names of genres, groups and performers they thought would interest me. They would also give me tapes. My collection grew.

KFAI, the local community radio station, was one of the first stations I heard in the U.S.  I also listened to obsessively to the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The whole concept of a public community radio station struck me as both beautiful and powerful.

One Saturday morning, a couple of weeks or so after I had arrived to the U.S, while listening to KFAI, I  heard “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican celebratory song used in Birthdays and Saint Days. I was moved to the point of tears. I had discovered Willy Dominguez’ show, “Sábados Alegres” —one of the longest running shows at KFAI, that plays Tex-­Mex music. Soon afterwards I discovered the Latin American music program run by Rafael Varela, from Uruguay, as well as shows centered on American folk music (which was one of my “discoveries” upon coming to this country).

After a few years volunteering and subbing at the Station, I applied for and got my own radio program, “Encuentro” —now airing Thursday nights 8­-10 pm. The show aired first on July 29, 2007; so I have been doing my program for nine years! I explore the cultural history and traditions of our continent, and to tell that story, folk music is fundamental.

I put in six hours every week just preparing the show. Sometimes more. My program is never improvised; it always has a defined order and structure, a theme or themes to explore for the day. I believe that to improvise implies that I don’t take it seriously and that would be a disservice to my community, to the station, to the listeners, to myself. I usually explore a composer, a genre of music, a country in particular, or certain themes or historical events that can be talked about or explained through music, like “The Music of Liberation Theology” and “The Music from the Life and Times of Frida Kahlo”.

I think I would never be able to find space on a commercial Latino radio station for my program. Those stations are all about business, commercial interests and commercial music. My program, proudly, doesn’t fit that model at all. At first I was disappointed that the people calling in to my program were mostly White, or not from the Latino communities. I would have been happier hearing from Latin American communities from South Minneapolis, and youth like those I worked with in La Raza. It was with them that I witnessed first-­hand, the power and inextinguishable relevance of language, history, culture and traditions.

Changes in Latino Minneapolis in the 1990s

Before the mid 1990s, if I wanted to buy a hint of home I had to go to West St. Paul and the options were very limited. It was rare to hear somebody speaking Spanish in the bus or in the street .

Lake Street had historically, been a sort of entry zone for immigrants in town. In the 1990s it was the front line, the border where demographic changes were most visible and tangible. Small Latino restaurants, stores and bakery shops started opening up there, seemingly out of nowhere. Latino communities revitalized that area, not only Lake Street but that whole part of South Minneapolis.

Visiting some of those Mexican and Latino stores on Lake Street was a lesson for me in the perseverance of memory and traditions. I found the same brand of laundry detergent (“Roma”) and bar soap (“Zote”) that Mexican working class families have used for generations; I found healing herbs and teas that, in Mexico are available only in a special store or market. I saw “leche de burra” soap — a product I heard about from countryside people from my parents’ generation, but never actually saw until the late 1990s, along Lake Street in Minneapolis!

And the food!

Food is a living manifestation of memory and tradition. It is also a noble, fundamental thread that, along with language and music, provides some the most immediate and visceral links between immigrants and their country of birth, their family history, their ancestral memories. Food is also a savior. Selling cooked food is frequently how a struggling family can get back on its feet; a means available to immigrant families to aspire to a measure of economic independence and one of the precious few venues available to them for upward mobility.

The traditional Mexican “refresco” (bottled soft drink) “Jarritos” —especially the tamarind flavor is easier to find in Minneapolis (you can even find it in Cub foods!) than in Mexico, where, in conventional stores, the only “refrescos” you can get are Coke, Pepsi and such. I see a measure of poetic justice in this.

Living in Seward/Surviving Assaults/ Growing  impoverishment in Minneapolis 

I don’t know how to drive. I walk, I bike and I use the bus. These observations, below, are the perspective of one who has been riding the bus and walking in the city for more than 20 years now.

When I first moved out of the dorm, I lived in Marcy Holmes near the University Campus — a fairly transient neighborhood. Then I moved to Seward, also near to Campus, where I have been ever since. I really like living in Seward, even though I have had some bad experiences. I was assaulted twice. Because of those incidents I have become much more watchful and alert of my surroundings.

I do not think these assaults necessarily reflect Seward. It is just part of living in an urban place, within the inner city, especially when you walk alone at night. Both times, those who assaulted me were Native American youth. That is only incidental— a reflection of other underlying factors, among them the growing impoverishment in Minneapolis and the ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S.

When I first came to Minneapolis I wrote home saying that everyone here seemed to be well­-off. But I have seen a noticeable and continuing growth in poverty since then — more homeless people, for instance.

I see it on the bus and in the streets: Everything from more clothes and shoes that are not appropriate for the weather or that don’t fit, to obvious signs of poor health, especially in people’s teeth. This might be considered only anecdotal evidence but the fact is that data and statistics confirm it.

I have noticed an increase in the body language of sadness. In the early 1990s I used to travel by bus to go to Madison, Wisconsin. For me it was fun and convenient, but I saw that those who traveled by bus seemed to always be sad and down on their luck. Now I see the same sadness every day in the city buses and in the streets.

I also see more conflict, more tension. Twenty years ago or so, it was the sort of conflict that normally happens within a crowded urban space. Now I see more signs of confrontation —in racial, social and economic terms.

Of course, there has always been some grumbling about immigrants. But the resentment now seems to be greater, more openly belligerent and confrontational. Two examples that have happened recently:
— In downtown Minneapolis there were two East African youth waiting for the bus. An African-American guy stopped by, just to cuss at them, to say he hated Somalis. When he left the girl said to me, “They are always hating us.” I told her “He is probably struggling —maybe he doesn’t have a job.” She said “You know, I didn’t see it that way…. but… this happens to us all the time.”
— A Native American man, complained loudly to the whole bus about how the immigrants have come and taken all the jobs, the resources.

I think that when I was assaulted those two times, I was a victim of this growing poverty, exacerbated by a massive housing crisis and a recession, and that ever-growing social and economic disparity. Before at least there was a feeling of hope in a not too distant future. Now even that is gone. And people are taking it out on each other.

Disparity and Hope. 

But there’s something else: mounting disparity,  long-­lasting hopelessness, and the closing of venues to upward mobility are by themselves a form of inflicted violence and, as such, it have been detonators for community activism.

In the 1990s there was little evident signs of activism among new Latino immigrants. People went to work, and, on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps to Mercado Central to eat some tacos, menudo or tamales with champurrado. People just stayed in their corner, making as little waves as possible. That has changed significantly in response to the desperate immigration situation, the constant political backlash, lack of upward mobility, and limited, low-paying and frequently exploitive job market for people in our communities. Recent restrictions on driver’s licenses (since 2001), have brought into the streets many immigrants who, because of fear, would never have been active in the political process. People now have the boldness to be directly involved in different stages of political activism, even if it implies taking significant risks, including being deported.

In that sense, I’m hopeful. I see different community organizing efforts going on locally at different levels: grass-roots, faith-based, workers’ centers, etc., and the growing consciousness that comes with these efforts. I particularly admire the work done by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) a local workers’ center that is doing amazing organizing with retail cleaning workers.

Something else: These movements also plant a seed for future generations. A tradition of consciousness and community organizing doesn’t happen overnight, it is nurtured and that is what all of these community organizing movements are doing.

One thing immigrants from Mexico  know quite well is that they are very valuable to both the U.S. economy and the Mexican economy. The U.S. economy desperately needs the cheap, vulnerable labor and their remittances are absolutely essential for Mexico. There is power in that.

We saw an assertion of that power on May 1st 2006 when millions of Latino workers and their families throughout the United States rose up and marched through the streets —40,000 here in the Twin Cities — who marched to the State Capitol wearing t-shirts that proclaimed:  “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

May First, the International Workers Day is, of course, rooted in the rich, proud, obscured and ignored, U.S. labor history. It was celebrated in nearly every country in the world except the United States where it originated — until 2006, when the most marginalized exploited immigrants of this nation, rescued it, dignified it, and brought it back to its place of origin. Poetic Justice.

A final thing: I had my own stereotypes when I first came to the U.S. — about the “average” White U.S. person. I did not know there were people here concerned and aware about the policies (both foreign and domestic) of the U.S. government, that there were so many people committed to change things, doing so out of solidarity.

And that’s the key word: Solidarity —not empty, self-gratifying charity, not condescending attitudes, but understanding and solidarity. I meet people all the time, many times young, who are active and committed, to achieve and build a more just economic and political system; people who talk the talk and walk the walk, as the saying goes; not out of empty romanticized notions, but out of solidarity. I think that Minneapolis is special in this way. It has a rich local history of solidarity movements and I constantly see that tradition not only being kept alive but also moved forward.

 

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

Jimmy Patiño Jr. Adopting an Insider/Outsider strategy to build Chicano/Latino Studies.

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I was born in Houston. Certain branches of the family have been in that part of Texas for several generations, and before that they lived in the Texas/Mexico border region. My grandparents grew up during segregation so they wanted their children to know English.  I did not grow up speaking Spanish.

Houston is half Latino and a third African American, with a pretty sizable Asian population too.  I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school.  The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers.  I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.

I was a graduate student in San Diego for five years before I came to Minnesota in 2010. For professors your job market is nationwide and you just land somewhere. I landed at St. Cloud State University. I was hired in the Ethnic Studies department.   There was one Native American woman, an Asian American woman and two African American men. I was the Mexican American faculty.

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Minnesota was colder than I ever could have imagined.  I was afraid to drive in Minnesota snow, but my son was six and daughter three when we arrived and they liked snow. We played in it — made snowmen, went sliding.  I tried to look at it through their eyes.

In the city of St. Cloud one main engagement was with my son’s school. There was a Spanish immersion program — which was one of the reasons why we thought we could live there — but he was the only Latino in the school. Their focus was on teaching White kids Spanish, not engaging Latino kids.

There is a Latino population in the surrounding area.  I was told that the best place to get Mexican food was at a restaurant in Melrose, a small town about 30 minutes northwest.  We went to check it out. There was tiendita next to the  restaurant. The food was pretty good.  It was such a weird sight — flat, uninhabited land all around, and a dancehall in the back with Mexican people arriving for a baile.  I wondered, “Where am I?  How did I get to this place and why did these people come here in the middle of nowhere?”

My son got picked on at school because he had long hair and spoke more Spanish than the other kids.  We ended up pulling him out of the immersion program and putting him in a neighborhood school.

Had I heard of the White Cloud reputation? A little.  I was involved in MEChA at the University of Houston when I was an undergraduate.  I had met St. Cloud members at national conferences.  MEChA at St. Cloud were a big part of the activism that created the position in which I was hired.  They recruited me.  They hinted to me about White Cloud — the hostile context in which they worked.

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

I didn’t realize my students came from tiny towns around St. Cloud and northern Minnesota and had very little experience with non-whites. Many of their initial reactions to learning about race, particularly from a person of color, was their assumption that we were attempting to shame them or guilt-trip them.  We were coming from different worlds. I had them write response pieces and they would say “There was one Black guy in my high school — one Mexican guy.”

One thing I learned from that situation is to teach White students that they are part of the race process. I had them read How the Irish Became White. That drew some of them in.

I had a number of issues at St. Cloud State.  I was finishing my thesis when I began there. We had an agreement that when my dissertation was finished my pay would go up immediately, but I had to struggle for several months to get them to fulfill that promise.  We had a union and a Faculty of Color group who were helpful, but it was very stressful.  In the end I was awarded my pay.   Soon after I was offered the position at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

 I was already planning to move to the Twin cities and commute because of the issue with my son’s school, so when they hired me at the U  I was excited. I was eager to be back in a diverse urban space with a sizable Latino population and a real Chicano Studies department.  Louis Mendoza, the U of M Chicano Studies chair quipped, “I’m sure Minneapolis seems like a cultural mecca to you compared to St. Cloud.”  That was absolutely true.

The U has a great reputation. Smart colleagues.  We had an outreach coordinator Lisa Sass Zaragoza and she connected me right away with community. That grounded me with the Latino communities off campus and other social and political groups I was interested in: El Colegio, a Latino oriented charter school, CTUL and SEIU, who were doing labor union work with Latino immigrants.

My first full year it was the 40th anniversary of the department so we had events all year bringing students and community together. In advance of the 2012 election there was a Latino political action committee and I took my students to their events connecting them with local elected officials.

My first two years, me and Louis Mendoza were the only two full time faculty.  When Louis decided to leave, we assumed we would begin a hiring process right away.  They  put us on hold all summer before saying No, they would not replace him!

Before he left Louis had put community people on notice that they might be needed.  Now I found myself in the center of a struggle to save the department.  We had to reengage the community.   I was still acclimating, establishing a social life, finishing my book.

We called a community meeting at El Colegio in the fall. I was amazed when about 100 people came — graduates, undergraduates, alumni (some of the founding members of the department), labor educators, coming out of the woodwork to help us. I learned that this has happened periodically throughout the 40 years of the department. We made a collective decision about what to do.  We would demand the position be restored and other positions created. We addressed the structural problems that lead to us having to have such a campaign.

Soon after, a fraternity group on campus had a party called the Galactic Fiesta and Goldie Gopher, the University mascot, turned up wearing a poncho and sombrero — illustrating that it was an administration-endorsed event.  Many faculty members including myself wrote letters to the administration pointing out that they were stereotyping Mexicans as a homogenous group. This homogenization, I argued, was part of the long history of systemic violence and ongoing issues of marginalization, that were exactly why we needed Chicano Studies.  We had a postcard campaign with a picture of Goldie on one side and a photo of Chicano Studies books addressed to the Dean and the President — letting them know the community was watching and demonstrating to the public the dire need for Chicano Studies.

We followed the students lead on much of the campus campaign.  They pressed the new Dean on his plans to hire more people at a meeting with him that attracted dozens of students and community members. He said he was not opposed to considering new hires, but emphasized that there was a process in place that had to be followed.  He mispronounced the word: “Chiceeeno” at the meeting, which a lot of the community remembered as an indication of again the dire need for Chicano Studies and the misunderstanding and dismissal of the Latino community by administrators and other people in power.

There was a group on campus called Whose Diversity. They had a whole list of demands, including hiring faculty of color and investing in Ethnic Studies. They invited me to speak and facilitate dialogue among students in a couple of events. It was really good for me to have those experiences across campus. I was in a silo at the U because my classes were majority students of color.  It brought me in touch with what it was like, for example, to be a non-white medical student on this campus and how, in mainstream departments, it was hostile to talk about race or gender or homophobia.

Whose Diversity carried out a series of actions, trying to creating a dialogue with administration. When the administration refused, the students began interrupting the Dean and President at events. On a Friday in February 2015, they staged a sit in at the Presidents office.

After the President decided to arrest them all, I told a reporter that when the department was founded in the early 1970s, students sat-in to demand Black and Chicano Studies. At that time, administrators dialoged with those folks and the result was the creation of the department.  This time they just arrested them all, a fact that spoke volumes about their unwillingness to engage the students.

On Monday after the sit-in, the Dean of College of Liberal Arts called an emergency meeting of all the Chairs of departments, (the first time that had ever happened in several decades at least.) He announced the University had somehow found some money over the weekend and they were going to hire four people in Ethnic Studies, one of which would be in Chicano/Latino Studies. He stated that the sudden emergency change in faculty had nothing to do with the sit in.  Nothing at all.

This spring we hired two people.  When they join us in the fall we will have three full-time tenure-track faculty — more than double what it was.

Louis had told me to be ready for an insider/outsider experience when you are a professor working in the institution. The community can say different things and pressure in different ways. I watched the insider/ outsider campaign pay off.

We know we still need to be vigilant.  To have a fully functioning department we  need at least five full time faculty. It is normalized that our department is supposed to be small, justified by enrollment. It is a business model, “you don’t bring in enough customers you don’t get the investment.” I describe it as abusive — not giving us the resources and human power we need to attract students and then blaming us for not attracting students.

Departments like ours that emerged out of social movements, have a stated objective of tying themselves to marginalized communities and making knowledge useful to those communities so they can solve their own problems.  Most of the University is structured around the idea that intellectual inquiry is this disconnected thing that comes from objective research.   Ethnic Studies is often characterized by the powers that be as political and therefore not intellectual which is an under-riding reason why I think it is not invested in. It is frustrating trying to convince administrators that we are valuable. We know we are valuable, but they will never be convinced, so our struggle will be cyclical.  What seems most important me after recognizing this cyclical problem is that we have a community inside and outside of the university prepared to mobilize and demand that the university serve marginalized communities through investing in Chicano and Latino Studies and other departments that centralize the experiences of aggrieved groups.

*********

I am finding roots in Minneapolis.  My kids are doing well at the Spanish immersion program at Emerson school, which is I think 80% Latino. The school is the oldest Spanish immersion program in the state and has roots from the 70s.

As a parent that is a basis for being grounded; knowing the kids are OK.

I live in Corcoran off of 35th Street. It passes the good-taco-near-by test, being close to Lake Street in South Minneapolis and a Latino community. I have a network of friends — other parents of color and social justice folks. I work with a group called Tamales y Bicicletas which is an environmental justice community organization led by longtime community activist José Luis Villaseñor.   He has a speaker on his bike. We show up to provide music and a loudspeaker for organizers speaking at the marches. We brought it to 4th precinct occupation rallies to provide the speaker for the organizers. 

TyB  is challenging the idea that environmental movements are separate from communities of color.  It emerged around the bike culture here. Minneaplis is a bike city but in many ways that culture is exclusive. The Greenway goes through Phillips but does not necessarily attract youth of color to participate because it is seen as very expensive. Bike shops and equipment are pricey. TyB has a shop on Lake Street where we teach kids to fix bikes.  We go on rides together. We sponsor environmental bike tours in the city, especially South Minneapolis. We go on-location to learn about polluters and the people doing something about it. We also have an urban garden for families and sponsor community harvest meals and give away produce.

I have also made friends through Left Wing Twin Cities, a local chapter of a national soccer movement. We usually play in Powderhorn. We approach soccer as a way of creating community. We have people of all abilities playing together in a way that is not competitive. The point is not to win, but to help each other build our skills and to move away from being hyper masculine and hyper competitive. We encourage gender non-conforming folks to join us. Children play with adults. I take my kids.  For my daughter it has been really good. We have a game for women and gender non-conforming folk only and the cis-gendered men and boys cook and cheer.

Professors’ Keith Mayes, Yuichiro Onishi and Erika Lee and I are working on Curricula on Ethnic Studies and history for high school students. We are also training social studies teachers to teach 3 classes:  African-American History, Chicano/Latino History, and Asian-American History. It will be required for all freshman students at Roosevelt High school.  Some other schools are doing it as an elective.

I am finishing up my book this summer — a study of the Committee of Chicano Rights in San Diego from the 60s- 80s.

I go up for tenure next year. I feel good about that.

And the winter doesn’t shock me anymore.

Yes, I think I’ll stick around.

 

Labor activist in Minneapolis recalls her 40 years of struggle.

FullSizeRender (1)I interviewed this Minneapolis union activist on July 2.  When I sent her the  draft of this essay she held on to it for two weeks. She finally decided to allow me to publish it, but did not want her name or photo attached, for fear of reprisal.

My parents met at Wayne State University in Michigan and moved to Minneapolis so my dad could go to grad school. They bought a house on 55th and Fremont. It cost $15,000. Four bedrooms. Two car garage. It was a working class White neighborhood. Still is I think. 

We lived with my mom after my parents divorced. I was about 10. Mom got a job as a Machine and Tool designer. The “Grandma” next door took care of us during the day. That was when you walked to elementary school and came home for lunch.  One day she made us sardines on crackers. We didn’t like food with spines, so we threw them against the wall. We went off to school and “Grandma” had to clean them up. I still feel guilty about it. 

All the neighbor kids ran around together. We performed plays for our mothers. Mom was the best costume designer. She made halloween costumes for the whole neighborhood. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, The Quaker Oats man,  Big Ben clock, Mr. Peanut. We made periscopes out of milk cartons, mirror and the bottom and top, and use them in the garage to spy on people.

We spent summers in Detroit with my Aunt and Uncle. Mom would take us up there on the train. We’d pack bacon and peanut butter sandwiches and Tang. The last week we’d spend at Dad’s parents. Dad was second-generation Lebanese, fully assimilated, but at his parents house we ate kibbe, cooked or raw stuffed grape leaves, tabouli.  Dad did go to Lebanon in 1970 with grandpa. He died very young, in 1976. He would have been a sheik if they were back in Lebanon.

I went to Anthony Junior High. In 9th grade I skipped school to attend an anti war rally. We took the bus downtown. We chanted “Hell no we won’t go!” We were excited to be saying a swear word.

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved.  I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios. 

I had my first boyfriend in high school. He was abusive. He’d hit me, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again.  Then he would hit me again.  When he came at me with a gun I tried to hide under a bed to get away from him.  I think that is why I hate guns to this day. The last straw for me, however, was when he came at me downtown when I was coming back from the library to pick up some music. I had my flute with me. He took it and threw it on the ground. All the pieces on the street.

That is how much my flute meant to me.

I never allowed a man to hurt me again, but when I hear about women who stay with abusers, I understand it.

At 18 I got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds. I lived in the apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she would make us work the meals for free. She was a strict boss. We had to clock in to get paid. Sometimes I would forget to clock in and I would have to go up to Mama D’s son and get my time card adjusted. He threatened that the next time we forgot to punch in we wouldn’t get paid. It happened to me and he refused to pay me. I called the department of labor and they said “You must be paid for every hour you work.” That was the end of them giving us a hard time about our time cards.

That was the first time I stood up for myself at work. 

Soon after, I got a job at the Radisson downtown. It was a union shop, but I still didn’t get it. All I knew about unions is they deducted dues. I didn’t pay any attention. One day when I was in line to get a paycheck I was handed a ballot. It said, 5 cents, 5 cents, 5 cents, Yes or No. I asked the waiter in front of me how I should vote. He said ‘Do you want to go out on strike? If not you better vote yes.’ So I did.

I left that job to follow a boy out to Vancouver. When I got there he treated me badly so I left. I called a friend in Minneapolis — a gay man I worked with at the Radisson. He joined me and we hitched our way down the coast to San Fransisco, bought a week of rooms at the Y for $12. We ran out of money, went to the mission for a meal, standing in line with the homeless folks.

After my trip out west I got a job at Radisson South. HR signed me up with the union. That was wrong. It should be union person who signs you up and explains the benefits.

I worked in the Tiffany Room with women that were in their 40s and 50s. We had these uniforms — a polyester cranberry skirt with a velcro waistband. In the back of the dining room  we had silverware, coffee pots, and our ashtrays. We all smoked while we worked. We’d take a puff and then go back and serve the food. My first day I was walking back to get a coffee pot with one of the bus boys and my skirt got caught on the handle of the silverware drawer and it came right off. I learned to pin it after that.

A few months in there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I didn’t want to be fined so I went. So did 3 or 4 other people. They showed us the film, With Babies and Banners, about the 1936 Ford Sit-Down Strike. I was so moved by it. At the end of the meeting they appointed me and my two coworkers to be stewards at the Radisson.

That is how I became a union activist.

We went out on strike in 1980, demanding major medical insurance. We were out for three weeks. The union ran a full page ad about a woman of color, a single mother who worked full time in a hotel downtown, but was paid so little she qualified for food stamps. The ad was very effective.

When the business agent called me to say we were on strike I was working.  The manager had left early, leaving us the keys so we could lock up. He often did this. We took all the water pitchers and silverware and locked them in cupboards. I took the keys with me.  When I was on Highway 62 driving home, I threw them out the window of my car — a big ring of keys. When we returned to work, the doors of the cupboards had been taken off.

I was the picket captain on the graveyard shift. The trucks that brought food to the hotel would come at night. The hotel was next to an Embers and the hotel would shuttle scabs in through the restaurant parking lot so they didn’t have to cross our picket line. A teamster trucker would come with produce every night. He would stop the truck and a scab would drive it into the parking lot. Then he would take me out for breakfast at the Embers and we’d talk union.

Our hotel was the first to go out. Every day another hotel would join us. My friend was working the Radisson downtown as a waiter. He and a few friends used some creative tactics. At the Sheraton Ritz they poured dish soup in the fountains and stuffed the toilets with toilet paper so they overflowed.

There was an arcade between the Radisson and Daytons and the hotel got an injunction so that we couldn’t run a picket line on the arcade. Scabs used the arcade to get to the Personnel office without going through our picket line. My friends went one night and glued the doors to the personnel offices — 20 tubes of crazy glue. So then the scabs had to cross our picket line. They didn’t get the door open for three days. 

When we went back the scabs left quickly because none of us would talk to them. They would get their dishes on a plate that was so hot they’d burn their fingers. One guy stuck it out. He was Lebanese. I finally started talking to him, got him to join the union.

We had this young whippersnapper of a manager. He really rode us. Wrote people up all the time. One night we were really busy.  He was at the front desk, standing up at the podium and he turned around and said “I am fucked.” We wrote him up. We posted it on the union bulletin board behind glass so he couldn’t take it down. He quit writing us up.

In the ’80s a number refugees from South East Asia worked at the hotel. They put them in the back of the house— the dish room, housekeeping. We heard the  employers would get subsidies from the government for hiring refugees. Around that time a group of us from various hotels — union activists — organized ourselves into a rank and file group we called Workers for a Strong Union — WSU. We would we write educational flyers to distribute to the workers in the hotels. For each flyer we would chose a section of the contract or a labor law. They were  know-your-rights flyers. We translated them into Vietnamese, Spanish, and Hmong.
To get them to the housekeepers we had  people in room service slide the flyers under the door of the maid’s closets. 

One of the bus people in the dining room was from South East Asia.  Other workers made fun of his name —  called him “cow.” I asked him about his name. He told me it was Mai Khao, so that’s what I called him. One of the waitresses said “why are you calling him your cow?” He invited his coworkers to come to his place for dinner, to feed us the food of his homeland — made a huge feast– seafood dishes, beer. I was the only one who showed up. It was terrible. I sat there and ate as much I could.

We had a friend who worked for a graphic arts company on Stinson Boulevard. The graphic arts workers — GCIU — went out on strike. We went to the picket line. The company got an injunction stipulating that only a certain number of people could stand on the driveway, so we would line up on the curb. When the scabs came we threw rocks at their cars. When the the light turned red we would run into the street and gather all the rocks.

Around that time Minneapolis taxi drivers union had a strike. All the companies. Yellow, Blue and White. They lost that strike. Shortly after that Mpls cab drivers became  non-union.

I knew someone who was at a Paint manufacturing company. The workers were trying to organize a union– the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union — OCAWU. He was making good money, but the conditions were hazardous.  No matter what he did he reeked of chemicals. He would breath them out! He was fired for union activity. The Union took his case and he prevailed. The NLRB put him back to work.

When I got a divorced I needed higher pay work. My mom saw a notice in the paper about women working in the trades. I decided to go into Heating and Air conditioning. For two years I waitressed at night and went to school in Eden Prairie during the day to get my trades license. My mom took care of my kids.

By the end of the first year I had these new skills. I put a new compressor in my neighbors refrigerator, a new motor in my brother’s dryer, a new compressor in my own air conditioner. It felt good.

I got a job at the U and was a pre-apprentice in the pipe fitters union. The U was considered easier than working for a contractor. All the guys were near retirement and their bodies were shot. There was only one other woman in the fitters union and she also worked at the U. The only younger man there was Native American.

I worked in the refrigeration shop. All men. Every day Jim, the guy I was paired with, would say to me “You shouldn’t be here. You should be home with your children.” Finally one day I said to him. “Shut up. I have to make a mortgage payment just like you do” and he never said it again.

We drove the truck around campus, Jim in the drivers seat. We would do the chillers in the basement of Coffman Union down where the floor was dirt and the centipedes hung out. One day instead of stopping at Coffman, Jim kept riding. He  wouldn’t tell me where we were going. He took us to a diner and we had breakfast. I was a nervous wreck because I knew we could get fired in a heart beat, but we never got caught. He paid for my breakfast and told me to save the money for my kids.

On my child’s first day of kindergarten I told the shift leader I wanted to come late so I could put my kid on the bus. He said “You are not going to start that — kids and busses, coming in late and all that shit are you?” But he said OK and he punched me in so I wouldn’t lose time. It was nice I guess, but  every Friday I would have to punch the guys’ time cards so they could leave early to go up to their cabins. They’d leave at noon. They told me I had to do it because I was the junior person. I was always scared of losing my job because of it, but we never got caught.

I was assigned to work in a shallow tunnel with “Doug”. The other guys all warned me about Doug. They said ‘Remember four things 1. Don’t talk to him. 2 Do what he says. 3. Stand back from him when he is working. 4. Make sure he takes his medication.

Doug didn’t shower. He was very fragrant. A trucker would come and pick us up and take us from one area of the tunnel to another. The drivers would complain about how he smelled….

They had removed asbestos from the tunnel the summer before. It had dirt floors. It was hot down there so Doug ran a fan, kicking up dust. I had friend in Canada working in Health and Safety. He said the standards in the United States for asbestos safety were really low, that I shouldn’t be bringing that dust home on my clothes. So I went to administration and told them I wanted full asbestos gear. They told me I didn’t need it. I told them I wanted it. They gave it to me.
Doug was mad. He said he “kicked asbestos off the boiler and sat down for lunch and nothing happened to him.”

I left work for a week to go to my brother’s wedding. When I came back I wasn’t assigned to the tunnel anymore. Doug had complained about me. They put me back in refrigeration. Later this guy who was a welder was assigned to go down with Doug. Doug went nuts and tried to strangle him. I was glad I wasn’t working with Doug anymore.

I got laid off in November. They had a big union meeting. I introduced myself to the guy next to me. He wouldn’t shake my hand. I tried to tell him where I worked.  He interrupted. “I know everything about you. You better watch your step. When you start union school you will see its one night a week. You need to be quiet about that when you are with the fitters’ wives because they think its three nights a week. You tell and you will be lucky if you get out with your life.”

When the hall called me about positions a few months later, it was all the worst jobs — like drilling holes in concrete for a parking ramp. Finally I said ‘will you guys let me collect unemployment?’ and they said yes.

I soon got a job as a labor union business agent. Been doing that ever since. I negotiate and administrate collective bargaining agreements. Many of my bargaining units are public schools. Recently one district tried to outsource bus drivers. All the workers showed up at the school board meeting and talked about how most of them went to area schools. They knew the kids, the families, they watched the kids grow up. We won. That one. 

When I was working for OPEIU Local 12, the clerical workers who worked in union local offices went out on strike. A male business agent negotiated their contract. It was insufficient. Most of us who worked for the union, staffed the picket lines and did work at home. We would not cross their picket line. The international union was furious. Turned out it was illegal to have your employer also be your union…

Union reps are not always on the right side. I have seen labor officers cross picket lines. Postal workers union officers crossed the line once. We picketed his union meeting. They called the cops.

Some unions today are willing to move beyond their industry and strict labor issues. Take stands on the environment, Black Lives Matter. They organize the organized. They are working to expand beyond the old white boys network. Some unions have learned to reach out to immigrant populations.

A few years ago I went to Riverside Clinic for a mammogram and one of the people that I represented at Local 12 checked me in. He told me about the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and encouraged me to join. I did so reluctantly. At first I didn’t go every week, but it grew on me.  The members are my friends. Union activists. We sing for everybody. We do picket lines and union meetings, picnics and union parties. We bring the lighter side to events. I want us to get more young people, to recruit more People of Color in our choir.

These days I get my energy from the Twin Cities Labor Chorus. I want to spread that energy.

____________________________________

*I looked up Ronald Judy. He is a professor of Critical and Cultural Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburg.  I asked for an interview.As luck would have it, he was coming to Minneapolis to see family.  We talked on July 18th.  The result of our conversation will be published here soon.

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 Roya wrote.

* Link has updates on ongoing protests. See sidebar for upcoming events.  See also Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. 

Kiya Shafer age 28. Growing Up in Foster care, Ferguson, Shaping her Career Plans.

Kiya Shafer

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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

 

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

13487438_10154882610506102_196698438_nI heard Guy Terrill Gambil speak in 2007 at a forum in North Minneapolis on the Lurking Ordinance. He talked about being homeless, an ex-offender who had struggled with substance abuse. He testified that even at his lowest-low, White privilege happened. He argued that ordinances were used to criminalized the homeless and target People of Color and presented data showing that the Lurking Ordinance was inherently racist, used almost exclusively to lock up homeless Black men for taking up space.

I recognized in the tone of his feverish presentation the intensity of one who feel injustice like the touch of a lit stove. For ten years I have been sharing his insights with my students.  I was glad when he agreed to be interviewed. We spoke on the phone on June 19, 2016. Guy was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was sitting on my mother’s porch in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the bubble burst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The city is ripe for taking over.” Educating Youth, Organizing Bryant Neighborhood to Transform Minneapolis. Marjaan Sirdar

Marjaan Sirdar Age 37.  Minneapolis Project.

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

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

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

We moved nearly ten times before I was five. My mom and dad were trying to work it out but my mom was determined not to have us grow up in Chicago. She grew up in the Nation of Islam in a Black middle class bubble on the south side . She watched as Chicago grew more violent from the 60s to the 70s and she didn’t want her children to end up dead or in jail. My father left permanently, a month before I turned four, back home to Pakistan. We finally settled in Plymouth, MN when it was time for me to go to kindergarten. I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially.

We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything. But I liked it because I was with other kids of color. I went to Kennedy High School. I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

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

I went to Inver Grove Heights for college for a couple semesters. Didn’t get much work done. I lived with other college kids and we hung out and partied a lot. I hardly worked, just sold drugs mostly. I began going out with a girl I’d know since junior high and eventually I moved in with her back to Bloomington. I started working at a warehouse in Edina. I was making good money. I knew people with college degrees working at Perkins.  I decided college made no sense.

My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. For the nine years that I worked at the warehouse I listened to Democracy Now, everyday, Monday through Friday, while I was at work. And I argued politics with my coworkers, customers and my boss. It politicized me. It was there that I learned how to argue, debate and hold my ground, arguing against people listening to conservative talk radio. We argued about the news of the day, on 9/11, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when Barak Obama ran for president….

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t lie.

I had told them about the DWI and drug offense, neither of them felonies. What happened was the courts had my criminal record mixed up with my brother’s— my brother who had just passed.

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

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

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

It is a crime that in this rich liberal city, people who look like me are struggling, youth are homeless.

The youth I worked with were some of the most talented and brilliant people. Some were high school educated, some were not. The majority were Black, almost all people of color, the same system that controlled their ancestors under slavery, Jim Crow was still keeping them down. Poverty and homelessness are completely intertwined with the history of racism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like to push back on people. They don’t realize when they come into a community they come with a lot of social capital. They might not intend to change the community but they do. When white people show up in waves, those communities change to accommodate their white families.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Reed, Age 17. In Divided Minneapolis, Seeking Space to be Unique and the Power of a Group.

Isaac Reed Age 17

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I interviewed Isaac at 9am on Sunday morning, June 12, 2016. As he got ready to leave, we hugged. When the door closed I checked my phone. Someone on Facebook had posted: “ If you know a young GLBTQ person of Color, please give them a hug and tell them how important they are.” I thought, “Cool! I just did that!” Then I read on, hearing for the first time about Orlando.

***

Isaac.

Who Am I? I am unique. I am not a normal story. I have two moms and a sister. I’m gay. I’m adopted from India and I grew up in a white wealthy neighborhood. I could care less about sports. In the last year I lost one of my moms and two grandparents. I wake up at 5am. I go to bed at 8:30pm I am not a typical teenager .

I was born in Calcutta, India and adopted into a two-mom family in Minneapolis. I came home when I was 6 months old. I’ve been told it was sweltering when we got to Minneapolis, but I was fine with it since it was like that where I came from. My mom Jan was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months before I was adopted, so I never knew her without her cancer. There was a point where she was in remission, but that was only for a short time. She passed away last May. It’s been a rough year.

I was two years old on 9/11.  When President Obama was elected I was in fifth grade. I was so excited. It was historic.  In retrospect his election was a mixed bag. We still have a long way to go.They didn’t show the inauguration at Armatage elementary school. They showed it at Kenny and a bunch of other schools. My mom was upset they decided not to show it at my school. 

I was  14 when we got marriage equality in Minnesota. My moms always told me they were married in their hearts and that was what mattered. It was interesting to see different people in our community making the decision to get married or not. It is so important to have a choice. Still, for full equality, we have a long way to go.

My mom Cindy, got together with someone shortly after my mom Jan died and I really like her. Her name is Kristin. It is hard for people to understand that even though Kristin is in our family, we still love and miss Jan everyday. She was a wonderful mother, and I feel incredibly blessed to have gotten 16 years with her.

I have a sister, age 15. She was also adopted from the same orphanage in Calcutta- IMH, International Mission of Hope. She was born with bleeding in the brain which led to cerebral palsy so she uses a wheel chair to get around. When I describe her to someone I try not to say “she’s the one in the wheel chair.” That like saying, “he’s the fat kid.” But its hard. That is the description that people first see. My sister and I are incredibly close. I love her so so much. She is my best friend, and I couldn’t be in this world without her. She is such a guiding force in my life.

I recently went back to India with an organization that specializes in trips for people who have been adopted.  I was going to go with my mom, Jan, before she died. I went with my aunt, Beth, Jan’s sister, instead. 

 I have a twin, born and brought into the orphanage the same day. We don’t know if we are biological twins. He lives in Boston. He grew up with a strong Indian influence. He lives with his mom and his sister. I grew up watching American cartoons and using a dishwasher while he grew up reading Bollywood comics and eating Indian food. When I told him I was going to India he was indifferent – like, “Well good for you’. My knowledge of India before I went was all things I made up in my head, like dirt roads. To see the TRUTH of it was really incredible

One of the things I enjoyed most about the trip to India was being with other kids who looked liked me and had my American experiences. They knew what a double cheeseburger was.  We could talk about Dunkin Doughnuts. Usually when I meet someone from India they have an accent and family ties in India. We look alike but we don’t have anything else in common.

I went to Calcutta, where my orphanage (INH) was. I met a man who was adopted through INH, who moved back to Calcutta as an adult and started an adoption alternative, Foster Care India. 

Turns out INH was corrupt. They burned  their papers including birth certificates.  There are no documents left about my birth. It is a huge mystery.  The only thing good about INH was the superb care we got.  They focused on premature babies. If a girl got pregnant and she wasn’t married, they induced labor at 6 months so no one would know she was pregnant. When I was born I weighed one pound, five ounces. 

In Minneapolis I don’t know adoptees from India but I do know many adopted kids. We have a social network of adoptees with two-mom families.

***

I live in Southwest Minneapolis and go to South High School which isn’t in my school zone. I disagreed with my parents decision to send me to South and I still do. My parents  thought I would  have better Special Ed. supports. I have ADHD, depression, anxiety. Teachers always say I m great, I’m smart but I don’t finish assignments.

In Middle School I had a tough time and hopped schools : Anthony, Minneapolis Academy, Folwell, and back to Anthony, All of them were White schools except for Folwell. So it was pretty amazing at South to see people who looked like me. We have a Native American program that is incredible.  Beautiful. I have friends in it. 

I grew up in a very different neighborhood than where South is. My neighborhood is 95% Caucasian. 95% two parents, two kids, a dog and a cat. I feel really safe. We don’t worry about locking our doors. I take it for granted that I can walk outside at ten at night and not worry about anything. (Although people don’t walk in my neighborhood unless they are walking their dog.)

So it is interesting to go to South. I see people on the streets. There is a bus line that people actually use.  Going to South has made me realize that people don’t all live in the fantasy world I live in. I think it has made me a better person.

Being at South has broadened my perspective but it has also isolated me socio-economically. It’s hard to switch over. When I say “Im going to go to Hawaii for Spring break” my friends say “ Im going to stay home and take care of my little brothers.” I can choose not to tell them things like that, but they can tell where I come from. I show up in my own car… If I make a friend, its hard to get them to come over to my house. Its an hour bus ride for them.

Even after three years its still hard.  

I have not joined the GLBT group at South. There are only five people in it. I don’t want to be confined to those five people. At Southwest they have a large group. More than 20, I think. People are dating each other. I would like to date someone of the same sex. That is not happening at South. Right now I don’t really have friends at Southwest or Washburn either. So I spend a lot of time alone.

I’m not in any clubs at South. I may join the South dance team next year. For eight years I was involved in Young Dance, a city youth dance company. On Saturdays we’d be downtown. Other days we rehearsed at Barton school. I did it until my sister got involved and it became her thing and not mine anymore.

 This summer I am taking a course at the Loft with a Star Trib. Journalist. I am excited. I enjoy all kinds of music except country. I love the Hamilton Soundtrack. I love Broadway soundtracks. The Indigo Girls speak my truth. I danced with them on stage when I was 10 years old.

I am really focused on my future. I have two different plans. One is to be an Occupational Therapist working with people with permanent special needs like my sister. The other is to be a Foreign Service Officer and work in a place like Baghdad. I really like that whole embassy experience. I’d like to say there’s a reason behind that Foreign Service Officer thing that is meaningful and moving but the truth is I watched the TV show Homeland and I really really liked it. I think it’d be really fun.

Someday I’d also like to go back to India and do something like Foster Care India.

For college I want to stay around here — family distance. Maybe Mankato, Winona State, UW Schools, Hope College in Michigan — it has a good Occupational therapy program and I know someone from the India trip who went there.

I go to Church on Diamond Lake – UCC. My mom Jan is buried  in a columbarium there. Its a place where her ashes are – and a plaque. It’s a mixed bag going there now. Lots of support – but its a constant reminder.. .

I think my sleep habits are a reaction to grief. I don’t want to join a grief group at South. I feel like we would just all sit around and cry. I don’t want to be stuck in that place. And I might not have anything else in common with the others….. 

One time that I felt a sense of community at South is when I participated in a Black Lives Matter walkout. We walked in the middle of the street from South to Martin Luther King Park where we met up with other schools. It got on the national news and helped change the story. I felt like, wow, we really can make a change. It was powerful. You know, if one person walks out, they get suspended, but they can’t suspend 500 students. We all were there for one purpose,for something we really believed in. I felt like we were unified ….

Hmmm. I think I just talked myself into going to a grief group.

Effie Lee, Age 79. Mississippi Girl Recruited by Tuskegee to Work Minneapolis Food Service Industry

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 Julius and Effie. Part 2: Effie’s story.

I was born in Decalb, Mississippi, the sixth of nine children. My dad was a school teacher, 8-12 grades.  I was fortunate that I was not in his classes. My dad had a reputation for being mean.  He wasn’t mean, just strict.  He wanted the students to learn, not play. It was kind of hard on my social life when I was a teenager, having him as a teacher.  I remember  once when there was a church revival. The whole community came out. When they started  passing  the platter me and my friends left together. When my dad came out of the church tent, my friends said ‘I don’t want the teacher catching me  around  his daughter’ and they left me. 

My mom was a homemaker. She came from Louisiana. There’s a lot I don’t know about my mom’s childhood. When her parents separated  she was sent to live with her aunt in Meridian Mississippi.  I only met two of her six brothers and sisters.

My dad’s mom had a farm — about 80 acres  We grew some cotton to sell –we’d take it to the gin in a big bin — and we grew everything we ate on that farm. Most of the black people did not have their own land.  We shared food with neighbors who had a lot of kids.   People in the south were good about helping each other out. 

When you are reared up on a farm there are lot of things that people from the city have never heard about. We never bought anything except flour, salt and sugar.  For shortening or lard, we’d kill a hog. When we killed a hog we would bed it down in a two foot bed of salt, and then put another layer of salt on top of it. Curing it. I have no idea how they cure a hog today. 

My niece and I visited my grandma’s farm a couple summers ago. It was amazing.  It was all grown over with pine trees. The pond  was still there. They used to lease ponds in the south, for people to fish. I was the only kid that would go with my grandma. I would play in the water while she fished. My grandma loved to fish. She cleaned them, fried them up. 

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Effie’s Grandma.

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

Oscar Howard had a catering company that provided what they called in-plant feeding.  He would run the cafeteria at Honeywell and other companies.  I worked for him at the Cafeteria of Coast to Coast. 

He knew a couple that lived in Minneapolis who were from Jackson, Mississippi, and he set it up so I would be able to live with them.  She worked for Honeywell and he worked for the VA. They didn’t have any children. They called me their daughter. They lived on 42nd and 5th Ave S. This part of South Minneapolis was already integrated in the 1950s with a few Black families.  Oscar Howard lived on 5th avenue and 41st and his company was on 38th.   I went to the St. Peters AME Church  on 41st Street until I met Julius.   St. Peters is still there. When I get so I can’t drive over to North Minneapolis maybe I’ll go back there.  

I was brought up in the Methodist Church in Mississippi.  After I met Julius we went together to the Zion Baptist Church on Olsen Memorial Highway.  It was strange for me. I told my mom about the services there, how the preacher was running from  one end of the church to the other, screaming and hollering.  In the Methodist church the preacher gave a speech and the people sat and listened.

The Zion Baptist Church became our community. We went there together until there was a split. I followed the side that formed Fellowship Baptist — and Julius stayed with Zion. Both Churches still exist on the North side.   We continued to go to different churches until our grandchild started going to church with me. He told his grandpa he was going with grandma. That’s when we decided we needed to all be  together.  Now Julius can’t go to church. He listens to Zion on the radio on Sunday morning. Fellowship are the ones who come and give him communion. 

*******

I kind of fell in love with the food service business. Especially the baking part — cakes and cookies, though didn’t like making pie crusts. The work in the cafeterias was hard. The hours were early. I got up at 3:30 to get to work, to make sure people had their coffee when they arrived at 5.  When it snowed I’d have to leave even earlier. At least there is no traffic at that time in the morning. 

My last job was Lunds and Byerly’s. I made 41 salads. We’d prepare them in the afternoon so they’d be ready to platter up the next morning. Most people liked the turkey salad with the almonds in it and the wild rice salads. I stopped working when I was 78. Nobody wanted me to retire, but it was time. The retirement benefits is good. It was a union job. United Food and Commercial Workers.

****

The first time we talked, I asked Effie if she told people she was from Minnesota or Mississippi.   She hesitated, then said “Well, I guess I say Minnesota — been here all my adult life — but not like my children, who were born here. I asked if she’d ever thought of moving back to Mississippi and she said No. Instead she tried to recruit sisters to come up and live in Minneapolis, telling them there’s no place like it. 

The second time we talked, after hearing her descriptions of her grandma’s farm in Mississippi, I asked if she was a country girl of a city girl. This time she did not hesitate.

No, No, No, not a city girl. Country girl, definitely.  And a southerner. When we have visitors from the south at the church, I’m so eager to meet them. One man came to visit from Decalb. My dad was his  teacher! He said ‘He was a mean old teacher too.’ On KMOJ the other day someone came into the station who was visiting from Philadelphia, Mississippi. I wanted to drive over to the station and meet the guy, to see if we knew anyone in common, but he was probably too young.  Maybe I knew his parents. 

 I miss foods from Mississippi. In the garden we had string beans, butterbeans (lima beans) collard greens, turnip greens. When you plant turnip greens you have the root. We fried the greens and root in salt pork with some corn bread.  Now, that is really good. 

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Effie and Julius Lee. 50th Wedding Anniversary photo

Crossing Minneapolis’ Internal Borders; Using Art to Build Equality, Diversity. Tammy Ortegon, 46.

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I remember hearing that we were a City of Lakes. I never saw the lakes until I was 16-17 years old and getting around on my own. When you live in Northeast or North Minneapolis and you don’t drive, you have to go pretty far to get to a lake.
My Dad’s grandparents came from Poland and settled in the Polish/ Ukranian section of Nordeast — Mayslacks Bar, church ladies selling perogies on the corner, beautiful ethnic churches. Yep, a neighborhood known for its bars and its churches.

My grandmother on my mom’s side always said she was Eastern European – Hungarian, Bohemian, Czech. When they came to Minneapolis they lived in the Bohemian flats over in southeast. My Aunt told me later that we were actually Roma (Gypsy.) They tried to hide it back then because of discrimination. Still today, there is not much understanding of that culture.

When I was a kid, Northeast WAS Minneapolis. My parents didn’t drive. Many people I knew didn’t have cars. It was a big deal to go anywhere outside of the neighborhood. We walked to Applebaums and Sentryrz for groceries. Sentryrz is still there.

The butcher and the cobbler that were there when my parents were young were mostly gone by my time. I didn’t know anything about the history of the factory era of Noreast when I was growing up. They had all closed down and the work was outsourced. We were surrounded by these empty factories. Kids would play in them. They took the jobs, left the people and the buildings. It created a general sadness. On top of that were the stereotypes developing, that unemployed people were lazy.

My parents and grandparents didn’t graduate high school. They had street smarts, very intelligent people, but without the schooling.

Northeast was diverse in terms of Europeans but it was all white. I was exposed to other cultures in school because of bussing. I am very thankful for that. They bussed poor kids of color over to poor white areas. I don’t think there was that much bussing in south Minneapolis. My mom complained in kindergarten when they wanted to bus me to North, when I had a school across the street. She said ‘I don’t have a car. How will I ever get over to the school to visit the teacher?’

She had a point. Kids who got bussed – it made it really hard for their parents to get to school. Then they said – ‘those parents don’t care about their kids.’ Still, I support bussing. If we lived in a perfect world I would be all for neighborhood schools, but as long as we have these inequalities we need bussing.

My grade school was the first Open school and Spanish immersion. It was great for me. It was a destination for children who had just arrived from war in Laos, Vietnam. I knew nothing about where they had come from. (Today its Somali refugees. People don’t understand the trauma refugees are going through.)
Northeast Junior High did not have the same kind of stability as my grade school. The teachers were tired. Edison high school was more of the same. There were lots of gangs, drugs, and racial animosity, toward Southeast Asian refugees and Blacks.

As a teenager I hated Northeast Minneapolis. It seemed redneck. Old. Not progressive. I got a job in downtown Minneapolis working at the yogurt bar at Daytons in 1985. It felt like an opening to the rest of the world. Music also taught me about the wider world. My Dad was a record collector. He listened to everything. I learned about Central America and Afghanistan listening to “Washington Bullets  by the Clash.Sun City” taught me about Apartheid in South Africa. I listened to Prince and drew his portrait all the time. Especially his eyes. Today you can find Prince eyes in most of my paintings of people.

I didn’t get involved in social movements until later. I didn’t know I had the power. Black Lives Matter and Idle No More – the way the kids today are walking out of schools …we would never have thought of that. There was no social media. To find out about the world in the 1980s you had to go to a radical bookstore. I finally did that. I walked into Amazon Bookstore when it was in Loring Park. A Feminist bookstore! What’s a feminist? I didn’t know, but I did feel at home there.

My parents didn’t understand any of this. They never voted. I don’t think they even knew where or how to. If they had voted they would have been social democrats — but they just didn’t know. I moved out of my parents house at 17 because I was rebelling, I was new wave. My mother and grandmother were artists, but they never knew they could actually call themselves that.

Working downtown I was meeting people who called themselves artists. They were adults and my parents weren’t happy I was hanging out with them, so I moved out ,got an apartment near Loring Park. Laurel Apartments. They were scummy. They still are. But it was $200 a month and I was on my own.At Edison they had a trades-in-the-schools program. I signed up for cosmetology. It was the only thing I liked about school. I was able to continue that program at Minneapolis Community College.

I thought I was in love; got pregnant. The father left. My parents said I wasn’t going to make it so I had to show them I could. I got three jobs. I realized the apartment I was living in wasn’t safe for a baby so I moved up to 14th and Nicollet. With a baby my goals and dreams were put on hold, but also having a baby gave me new dreams. I wanted to finish high school, get my cosmetology license. Support my baby.

I got on AFDC.

Welfare is not free.

Most people, who talk about foodstamps being a handout would never be willing to wait in those lines and take that kind of abuse. I know there are people who work in welfare offices who mean well. They get tired and they don’t have the resources they need to help people, and after a while you just become a number to them. It was even worse when my grandmother was on AFDC in the 1950s. The social service officers would come to her house and look in her drawers to make sure her clothes were folded right.. I learned about that later. At 18 I didn’t really know anything about welfare. Somebody had told me to go down to social services. I was treated like a criminal, but I also saw how Women of Color were treated even worse than me. Dehumanizing.

We got $437 a month for a mother with a baby. And its the same amount today! Not enough to live on then. My rent was $375. Mothers get on welfare because it pays for health care. I could make more working, but I needed healthcare for the birth and afterward.. I really believe if we all had universal health care, affordable housing and day care, no one would want welfare.

You have to break the rules to survive. Its part of the system. They are always checking on you to make sure you are not working because they know you can’t make it on what they give you. So they would call me and say . “You have $20 in your bank account. How did you get that? Your mother loaned it to you? We need a document signed by your mother and a notary saying that she loaned you that money.I f she gave it to you, we are going to have to take it our of your check next month.’

I’ve always been a very honest person. I had to learn to lie. They call people on welfare con artists. Actually we were just good business people. You learn that if you sell $20 worth of foodstamps for $10, go to the food shelf to get food, then you can go to the corner store to get diapers. I was an artist, so my “con” was to find a shelf in the dumpster, paint it up and sell it. That kind of stuff. I’m still doing that.

You can’t be lazy and be on welfare. You can get depressed; you can get disillusioned; you can get so sad that you just can’t get up anymore.

All these people were marching for us to keep our babies, but now that we had them they treated us like we were the scum of the earth. I remember taking out my food stamps at the grocery store and the woman behind me saying. ‘My taxes are paying for that.” I didn’t understand what she meant. I never had enough money to think about taxes. Now I know its the cooperations and the military that steal our tax money with their giant subsidies. Food stamps cost taxpayers about $3 a year. And its food! Something good.

I moved into an apartment building with other single mothers – subsidized housing. The rent was $150 instead of $300. All the other women were in the same situation. We supported each other, but we also got depressed, because we didn’t see anybody getting out of this hole we were in.

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

We were preyed on by abusive men. Poor men pimped, and offered us drugs. Rich men came in their fancy cars. Vultures. The police knew the pimps by name. They left them and the customers alone and went for the women. The women would go to prison, lose their kids. The pimps were protected. At night, from my kitchen window I would see people who were homeless, getting harassed by the police.

 

When I met my husband Eduardo, and I had to get out of subsidized housing. They didn’t want you to have a partner. We found a house to rent on 48th and Nicollet. A really fancy neighborhood. I had another baby. My older son went to Ramsey for kindergarten. I started doing hair at Great Clips. Once my kids started going to school in southwest, I was shocked at the resources the schools had, compared to the Northeast. The hardest thing was that the other parents were completely unaware. They complained about not having enough. I learned that when you are experiencing privilege you can’t see it. And no matter how much you have you always see those who have more. If you don’t drive you want a car. if you get a car you want a better one…

We eventually bought a house on 38th and Stevens. I was cutting hair at an independent shop then, working with an African American woman who was very talented and popular with customers. We were both looking for a way to open our own shops. She kept calling places and they would say it was just rented. She began to wonder and asked me to call. I called and they said the place was available.

I opened up a shop called the ColorWheel on 46th and Grand where I cut hair and sell my art. It is an unusual combination, but most art studios sell something else to survive. Hair is a trade. In February nobody is buying art but they do want their hair cut. I use my art to open people’s eyes. I don’t feel bad for anything I went through, it gives me material.

I love public art and the impact it has. It is a labor of love. One summer I did two murals with kids in Corcoran Neighborhood and Kingfield. In both places the Kids were kids. Wonderful. But the difference between the neighborhoods stayed with me. In Kingfield, the parents would drop the kids off, supply them with snacks, make sure they had sunscreen, bring me coffee. They were pampered and so was I. It was easier.

In Corcoran the kids were brilliant, but sometimes they wouldn’t show up. I’d call and the phone would be disconnected. I’d visit their apartment and situations would not be safe. When the kids did come they’d be hungry and I have to find them food. The parents didn’t have the time or resources to monitor us, or help the project. A young girl who was 16-17 who was selling her body on the street, came over and painted with us one day

I worked with the Corcoran kids ahead of time to decide what they wanted to paint. They chose all the public entities in their lives: parks, the neighborhood association, the light rail, Anishinabe Academy, and kids jumping rope and playing basketball.
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These two murals are two miles from each other. Different worlds.

Tammy is always thinking about how to support local independent businesses like hers, and how to fight gentrification. She has watched her old neighborhood of Northeast and her new neighborhood on 38th street go through swift changes recently.

I never imagined 38th street would get so fancy. I’m not against cleaning things up, flowers, public art. But why can’t we bring it up for everyone, instead of pricing people out of their neighborhoods. Now I hear people say “ Finally I can feel safe on 38th street.” Well they never went there before. They say “It used to be a bad neighborhood “— It was never a bad neighborhood. They say, “We are taking the city back.” From who? That’s like Trump saying we are going to take our country back.

In Northeast they have all these new microbreweries and pedal pubs. Suburban kids come in for the evening, get drunk and throw up on my Aunt’s lawn. And then she gets complaints from the new condo across the street about her grass being too long!

Tammy sees Lake Street as a good example of how a neighborhood can revitalize without gentrifying.

After 9/11 I teamed up with photographer Dawn Vogel, for an art show we called Building Bridges, We did it at the midtown Y on Lake street just after it opened. People were saying we were all coming together but I didn’t see that. I saw the racism, xenophobia growing. Our goal was to fight that. We focused on Lake Street and on Minnesota’s four largest immigrant communities at the time: Somali, Hmong, Mexican and Russian. I created a painting of Lake Street for the exhibit — a vision of the Minneapolis I wanted, showing how newcomers were revitalizing the area, replacing porn shops and massage parlors with stores catering to immigrant communities.

That was the first of series Tammy did of Minneapolis, depicting the city as one of diverse equitable neighborhoods, filled with local independent businesses and public spaces.

Part of what I paint exists, part of it is where I want us to go. I usually paint in the winter. My Minneapolis paintings are warm and green. They do not have any snow.

Bianca Zick, Southwest Minneapolis. Finding Her People by Showing Up For Racial Justice. SURJ!

 

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I begin my interviews by asking “How did you end up in Minneapolis? Though Bianca came to the city as an adult, to explain she transported me to a couple generations back in rural Wisconsin.

My grandpa was not able to keep a steady job. We believe he suffered from depression. My Dad’s family lived on what my grandma was able to make on working class female jobs in rural Wisconsin. School was easy for my Dad and he goofed off. His vision of his future was working class until a high school teacher who told him he was real smart and should stop goofing off pursue college. He listened. Being a White working class man in the mid 20th century, there were opportunities to move up. He went to College at Stevens Point and put himself through Law school working three jobs.

I knew Dad as a workaholic with little time for us. Making a good living was his focus, but he did not spend the money. We lived in this working/low middle class world with middle class security and the knowledge that we were heading to college. My parents divorced in 1973 when I was eight and my mother found her strong feminist voice. There was no question that me and my two sisters would have careers doing whatever we wanted.

I went off to college in Madison absolutely committed to NOT becoming a lawyer. But then I got a job working as an advocate through the Dane County Big Brothers Big Sisters program. I noticed the limits of what I could do to help women impoverished by divorce and uncollected child support. I decided to go to law school to learn how to help them. My first summer of Law school I worked at the Legal Aid Society, helping people obtain disability benefits., I also participated in a law clinic for prisoners. It felt like important work. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I would have to graduate and then interview and compete for a handful of coveted Legal Aid jobs. On the other hand , private firm were making offers of employment even before I graduated.

I went for the financial security of the downtown Minneapolis law firm offer.

We moved to Minneapolis in 1990. We bought a house on 52nd and Logan. It was a white middle class neighborhood when we moved in. Now it’s upper middle and upper class. Housing prices have quadrupled. New neighbors are young people, beginning adult life much wealthier those who moved in 25 years ago. It’s the new Edina.
I would like to downsize and move to a diverse neighborhood. I don’t know how to do that without being a gentrifier.

In the early years, my husband and I traded off having the “big job,” providing the family with financial stability. We built a retirement fund, a college fund for our two children, security, health insurance. Trapped in the capitalist game. In those years I would tell myself, at least there are gender issues I am advancing here at the law firm. The world we were in gave us financial security, but I felt socially alienated in that world. I knew these were not my people.

When Ferguson happened the Black Lives Matter Movement called to me. It wasn’t so much that my consciousness was raised but more that now I knew I needed to act.

I grew up with a feminist mom. My two sisters are both lesbians. I was aware that the world was not fair. I was born with birth defects and had a series of surgeries in Milwaukee that exposed me to racial diversity and racial disparities I would never have known about from my experience in Waukesha.

A turning point in my education about white supremacy came when one of my law professors did a survey. There were probably 50 White students and five Black male students in the class. He asked everyone to stand and then went through a series of questions having to do with criminal injustice. ‘Stay standing if you have you ever been stopped by the police for x.’ At the end the only people standing were the five Black students. One had just been pulled over on his way to class.

I was not unaware, but after Ferguson, three things happened.

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

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

3) Now I had a place and way to act.

It was hard at first to figure out how to be involved as a White person. I began going to the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis (Unitarian) because they were doing the work. I also went to a Minneapolis meeting of Showing Up For Racial Justice. An amazing group of local leaders had created SURJ as a place for White allies to join together and support racial justice work.

As a White person, I am still trying to figure out my role in supporting Black Lives Matter and other groups led by People of Color. I want to support and raise up what work is being done. It is about being respectful and being centered in our interconnectedness. Sometimes I am cautious. At the same time, I know we (White people) need to be willing to make mistakes. I am so sick of us as White people being afraid for ourselves, negating the violence and racism People of Color face every day. I am practicing shutting off my White “I need to know all the details” mind. I want to just show up in full spirit and follow the leadership of Black Lives Matter.

I used to always go to social justice events by myself. I noticed other White women doing the same thing. Now through church and SURJ I have others to go with, or I know I will meet someone I know. I have found my people.

When my daughter Zoe was in high school. She was my political buddy. She is a racial justice activist and my mentor in this work. When I see the young people leading Black Lives Matter and the young activists in the field, I am filled with hope.

Minneapolis Project Explained

 

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Minneapolis Interview Project

Motivation:

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

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

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

  • My motivation at this moment — to crawl out of my introverted shell and get out there and talk to people — is a response to the passing of Kirk Washington Jr. in April of 2016. There are so many questions I wanted to ask him. He embodied the philosophy of building social justice through personal connections. His interactions were always on the profound level. I don’t want to miss chances to connect anymore.

Parameters:

  • 100 interviews from May 28 2016- May 28 2017.
  • Interviewees have lived and/or worked in Minneapolis.
  • By interviewing people of different ages, races, genders, economic classes, migration experiences, who live in different parts of this city, I hope to see as much of the elephant that is Minneapolis as possible.

Questions:

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

HOWEVER….letting people tell the stories they need to tell is more important than my questions.

Methods

  • I use a tape recorder and a notebook.
  • I am creating an essay based primarily on the interviewees in their own words, rearranged to tell full stories, with occasional words changes for clarification.
  • Interviewees may edit the final version before publication.
  • I am sensitive to telling only the story of the interviewee. If the stories of others are told I will most likely omit or curtail them so the focus is on the interviewee.
  • I do not check stories for verification except for known facts like dates, places, and names.
  • Each essay is accompanied by at least one photograph.

Final Project
The final finished project will include the compiled interviews and an analytical essay. A book.

Mustafa Diriye. Colleges, Coffee Shops, Inequality, Islamophobia, and Social Movements.

 

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I interviewed Mustafa on June 3, 2016, the same day the news broke that the three young Minneapolis men, Somali Americans, were found guilty by an all White Minneapolis jury, of conspiring to join ISIS. The men were entrapped by an FBI informant and never acted on their plans.

I was in a Refugee camp in Otanga in the Mombasa region of Kenya from 1991 to  1995. My sister was in San Jose California and sponsored us, so that is where we went first. My brother had a teaching degree. He came to Minnesota to see if he could get a job. The rest of us followed him. When he visited Minneapolis he was looking for three things: a Mosque, education opportunities, and coffee shops. He found them in the Twin Cities.

My first impression of Minneapolis? Cold! I had a t-shirt. Thats it. I almost lost my hearing going outside with only a t-shirt. It was November 1996.

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

I worked for American Express Corporation for 14 years in downtown Minneapolis. It was such a strange atmosphere at  lunch time. The downtown  workers were more than 90 percent white. It was very different from other U.S. cities I have visited: Chicago, Philadelphia Nashville. Even San Jose had more Asians and Latinos working downtown. It is strange because the neighborhoods surrounding downtown are mostly people of color, but they don’t have the jobs. It’s like downtown Minneapolis is a private district, and the owners only hire white.

In 2011 I lost my job. I was newly unemployed just as the Occupy movement began. One of my friends was a union activist and he invited me to come down. It was really inspiring. I spent everyday there from early morning to night, but I would not sleep there.  I thought about Tiananmen Square. I was afraid of the police, the FBI especially being Muslim.  

I still communicate with some of the people I met during Occupy. The movement didnt die. People  just got involved in other things. I have met some of the same people in Black Lives Matter, Minnesotans Against Islamophobia, and at the 4th precinct Occupation last fall.

Today I work with an education reform organization that focuses on getting parents involved, to empower them to help their kids get the best education. My colleague are Puerto Rican, Black, and Hmong and we get along really well. The biggest obstacles to Somali parent involvement in the schools are a) They work different shifts and several jobs. b) There is an attitude that if my kid is doing OK I dont care what is happening to anyone else) c. There has been a severe breakdown in trust. The parents dont trust me, or their kids  teachers, or other parents. Part of that is the tribalism we did not leave at home. However the mistrust has grown due to the  role of the FBI recruiting informants. No one trusts anyone.  Not even our religious leaders, the only ones who can really help us deal with the trauma and the internal divisions.

Those young men accused and found guilty of being ISIS sympathizers are in their early 20s. They have experienced a lot of discrimination. The FBI informant was just 19 years old when he was paid $119,000 to set them up, get them high on marijuana, and egg them on.  Now they face life sentences. When Donald Trump talks about beating people up, when he says he could kill someone and not get arrested, well, he is right! It is the double standard that infuriates me. And the role the FBI is playing in sowing distrust in the community.

Now when there is suffering within our families people do no reach out for help. They just endure or get divorced. We have more and more single mothers.

The Somalis who came to Minnesota  spent years in refugee camps. Many never had a chance to finish high school. We suffer from the trauma of war. I was nine years old when a gun was put to my head. My brother was killed in Mogadishu 1990. I saw as many as 200 dead people lying in a field. These experiences stay with you.

When we came everyone had four goals: get an education, own our own businesses, practice our faith, and go back home. Now 30 years later very few plan on going back home. There is little for us back home. We are staying here, and putting down roots. We are  getting college degrees 60% of Somali women and 30% of Somali men in Minnesota have college degrees. We have our own malls and whole neighborhoods dominated by Somalis. We are getting into politics.  

How do we create healthy communities? We need homes people can afford. We need police to come from the communities they serve. We now have three Somali police who came from the neighborhood and crime has gone down to a trickle. I think instead of a two year certificate, police should go to college four years. One of those years should be spent engaging in community service, not as cops but as social service agents.

I think Bernie Sanders is putting forth the kind agenda that Minneapolis needs. He has nearly unanimous Muslim support. African American Muslims, Asian Muslims, African Muslims Arab Muslims. We all support the white Jewish guy who is saying something different.  The other candidates are offering more of the same oppression for us. Islamophobia. If the pattern continues we will be like the Jews in Germany in 1940 .

Islamophobia is a daily trauma in my community. It is so normal that many stories are not even told anymore. We have the triple whammy. We are Black. We are Immigrant. We are Muslim. The women get picked on more, People drive by and yell go back to where you came from.Just today I heard from a mother whose daughter is a crossing guard. A kid yelled She is ISIS, run! and all the kids ran away from her. The mom put the story on Facebook and her page was full of threats. These are everyday experiences for us.

Talking like this makes me hopeful. It is this kind of exchange of experiences that we need. But I am always hopeful. If people survived Hitler, humanity will survive.

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Julius Lee, Age 84. Born in Alabama. Wanted to Go as Far North As Possible To Escape Jim Crow.

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Julius and Effee Lee have been my neighbors for 23 years. They saw my daughter grow up and never fail to ask how she’s doing and share the joy of her accomplishments. I watched their little grandchild take his first steps. Julius loved to walk the baby up and down the block, showing him off. He’s 16 now. They have a large photo of him sporting a mohawk in their dining room. He got a bad grade in math and his parents made him shave the mohawk.

We live in South Minneapolis on a block of stucco houses built in 1932. Going into their home felt familiar — the same little cubbies built into the walls, the same arches between living room and dining room, the same crack in the living room wall. Their cubbies were filled with books. Volumes of stories. A collection of Negro Poetry. Black History.

Julius says: I’ll be 85 if I live to July.  Effie is a few years younger. Effie worked up until recently. She had a stroke in February. Julius is blind now, but he still walks up and down the block most days and I feel lucky when I happen to see him. On Sunday June 5, 2016 he was out in his yard dressed in a suit. Members of Zion Baptist church had just left after conducting a private service and communion for him. I was unshowered and on my bike, headed to the farmers’ market, but I stopped anyway and asked if I could interview him and Effie. We agreed I would call at 10 AM the next morning.

We started with Julius. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the names of his grandchildren on them and a Mason’s crown. He gave me the 2016 Spring Bulletin of the Mason’s to educate me. The Black Masons are a Fraternal organization with roots going back to the 18th century. Today chapters engage in school supply drives and Black History programs. The Minnesota chapter just initiated a “Take the Kids Fishing” program and a “Healthy Lives” event that included private HIV/STP screening.

Julius was born in 1931 in Demopolis, Alabama, the oldest of nine children.

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….

My parents were sharecroppers. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have anything to show for it. They encouraged us to get out of the place, get moving. Most of my siblings went out east. A brother went to Chicago.

I was drafted into the military out of high school. Served in the Korean War. I fought for my country and put my life on the line. Afterward I said I’m going to get my freedom one way or another. It wasn’t right being treated like that – being an American citizen — I couldn’t live with those (Jim Crow) conditions.

I went to Tuskegee. Afterward I was offered jobs in Miami, Washington D.C, Detroit and Chicago. I didn’t want nothing to do with those places. I didn’t want Chicago. Shoot me up, drug me up, too much violence too much poverty, too much suffering. People stacked on top of each other. Not for me.

I wanted go farther North. They said ‘How far North?’ I said ‘As far as I could go.’ They said ‘How about Minnesota?’ I said ‘I’ll take a shot at that’. They said, ‘Well you know, not many Blacks live up there’. I said ‘I’m not looking for Blacks, I’m looking for equal opportunity.’ I wanted my children to live in a better environment. I wanted the best education they could get.

There was a man who graduated Tuskegee before me and had set up his own catering company in Minnesota. He was looking for Tuskegee graduates to work for him.

When I came to Minneapolis I lived in the YMC downtown. The old building, you know? They had place for single men to live. They kept it nice and clean. Economical. It was like a dormitory, had a nice restaurant and coffee shop. That is where I stayed until I became engaged and married.

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof . My boss stopped to throw me up a lunch. I saw her in the car and I almost jumped off the building. My boss said,

‘Man don’t jump off that roof! Man, you might hurt yourself! You’ll get to meet the young lady.’

Julius laughed. In that laugh you could hear the young Julius, seeing the lady of his dreams.

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The story of Julius and Effie Lee continues. This is the first in a three-part series.

 

“Don’t Suppress My Voice.” Local/ Global Citizen Shows Minneapolis Youth Their Power: Adriana Cerrillo

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I conducted this interview with Adriana Cerrillo on May 31st, one week after the Minnesota Legislature finished their 2016 session. The lawmakers had failed, once again, to pass a bill allowing driver licenses for undocumented immigrants — an issue that Adriana has been organizing and lobbying for since 2015. This, and so many other things, were on her mind, as we sat down to talk. She asked for strong coffee with cream and sugar and I obliged. Aided by caffeine, her normally agile brain and tongue raced. I tried to keep up. 

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When I introduce myself at political meetings I say: I was born and raised in Mexico, lived in Florida 20 years. I have been in Minneapolis three years. I am in love with this city, but I would be a trouble maker for social justice anywhere. I don’t believe in borders, I don’t believe in countries, I don’t believe in flags that separate us as humans.

I came to Minneapolis to visit for the first time on April 18, 2013. It was snowing. My first snow! It was beautiful. We went to visit my partner’s family in Shakopee. We visited the German American Catholic church his family had been attending for decades.

I was amazed. Out of the church came all these Brown people!  The demographic shift from White to Brown felt like a  sign that it was the right time to move to Minnesota.

In Minneapolis, I took a walk in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was a women with a tan hijab and long skirt. She smiled at me. She was so beautiful. Her face stayed with me all these years. She seemed so comfortable in her surroundings. In comparison to Palmetto, Florida, Minneapolis seemed like a welcoming place for a woman of Color.

We moved here a couple months later, into the Loring Park neighborhood. The park, with it’s fountain, pond, and walkways was so beautiful. I also loved my view of downtown – a mini city. I loved that the area was economically and racially diverse. You see Mercedes’ and penthouses alongside low income apartments. A good number of people are homeless. The Basilica in downtown Minneapolis is within hearing distance of my home. When I hear their bells playing, I think of my grandmother’s town in San Luis Potosi where my mother grew up.

I live blocks from Nicollet Avenue in downtown and I walk it all the time. I noticed there is a Black side and a White side of the street. I walk with my brothers and sisters on the Black side. I am not comfortable in neighborhoods that are predominantly White because I have been discriminated and hurt by many.  

We need more affordable housing in Minneapolis so we can preserve and grow racially diverse neighborhoods.

I first became involved in police accountability after talking to Latinos at the Church in Carver and hearing their stories about a racist cop who targeted Brown people. I helped organize a group to testify at a city council meeting and met with the Chief of Police of Chaska. We filled all the seats with Brown people facing the White city council. We got the cop suspended and after a long investigation, he was terminated! It was this experience that led me to join the Minneapolis Police Oversight Commission.

Getting Brown and Black people to work together is central to me. I began doing that kind of work in Florida, and won an award for it from the NAACP there. I joined the NAACP in Minneapolis a few months ago. I am pushing MIRAC,– (Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee) — and the NAACP to  jointly lobby at the Capital to agitate for voter’s rights for former felons and drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.  We need to have laws that give people of color a better chance to get out of the shadows.

How did I become a trouble maker? I think it comes from being an undocumented student in Texas in the 1980s, before DACA, before DAPA, before there was a movement of youth  declaring themselves “Undocumented and Unafraid.” * I was fifteen when we moved to Brownsville,Texas, from Reynosa, a border town in Tamaulipas. It was my mothers choice. I did not want to leave. I felt very alone in my struggle. I was determined to make sure my daughters — and all youth of color — would not have to deal with the indignities I experienced.

My education was much better in Mexico. I didn’t speak English.  I remember so clearly my first day of Home Ec.  The teacher was giving out a quiz. When I asked a girl who spoke Spanish to help me, the teacher yelled at me. To the whole class she said, ‘I don’t know why people like her come to this country.’

When the girl told me what she said, I felt a pain I never felt before. I began to cry like a little girl, but I also asserted my dignity. I told that teacher: “You think I made the decision to come here? I actually don’t want be here.”

At age 18 I had my first daughter Jasmine. That is when my life took a 360 degree shift. I became a single mother . I knew that the border life was not what I wanted for my baby. I moved from Texas to Palmetto, Florida, where my best friend lived and had my second daughter Stephanie four years later. My daughters have been my biggest motivation to fight and work for social justice.

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In Florida, I helped to start a non-profit UnidosNow and I joined other trouble makers”organizing in a coalition for immigrant rights. Florida has very few non-profits, so resources were slim. Churches were essential sources of space and funds. It is so different here in Minneapolis — the land of 10,000 nonprofits. In Florida it was easier to get people to work together as they were not all competing for the same pot of money.

I’m not religious in the formal sense, but a big believer in recognizing the people and events in your life that can enlighten you. I look for signs that I’m moving in the right direction. In Florida there was a moment when a vision came to me that changed the way I organize.

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

People began shouting “Amen’! and “Praise the Lord!” It was a pivotal moment in my life. Now I do this every time I do a presentation in which there are youth present. I tell the Moms and Dads, if you don’t tell your children they are going to succeed and lead, no one will, because the system is set against them.

Youth are my personal check against ego, reminding me this is not about me. I am working with Latino kids with LYDC at the Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. I’m teaching them “American Basic Civics, ” a program I helped create in Florida. I am introducing youth to the political process and teaching them to assert their voices. If we are going to be fighting for social justice we have to have a clear vision of our future. This is about our kids; the future leaders of our communities and the world.

Adriana confronts “Minnesota Nice” with uncompromising directness. She has learned that her appearance — a petite, beautiful, brown woman who speaks perfect English with a lilting accent— leads people to believe they have nothing to fear from her presence. Legislators who oppose the bills she supports, police who engage in racist behavior and activists who want to take the less confrontational road, know she is capable of a piercing critique. She is a woman of uncommon courage, willing to speak truth to power. She is also one of the most optimistic people I know.

I can feel something big and good coming, she told me. A time for healing.  A time for true reconciliation!!!

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*DACA — Deferred action for Childhood Arrivals is Obama’s executive decree giving young adults brought to this country without documents by their parents, two-year, renewable green cards. DACA can be rescinded by the next president. DAPA is a similar temporary program for the undocumented parents of  resident children.

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Poem that so inspired Adriana, she had the last lines tattoed.

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