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.

“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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