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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

 

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.

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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. 

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.

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.

Community Benefits Agreements in the Commonwealth of MA

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Spending a week in Boston with my brother who’d fallen suddenly ill, I took a break from Mass General Hospital and went for a walk with my fourteen year- old nephew Stefan along the Charles River Esplanade,  a public waterway  that rivals the Twin Cities Grand Rounds in abundant natural beauty commonly shared.

In both Minneapolis and Boston however, questions of access lessen the equity of these shared spaces, while private development along public ways and in neighborhoods are pushing out the gente and bringing in the gentry.*  Luckily, in both places the gente are  are organizing.

In Somerville, a town two miles outside of Boston, Union United,  a coalition of “small business owners, residents, immigrant groups, religious congregations, labor unions, and community-based organizations,”  have developed a Community Benefits Agreement in reaction to  a development project in their town square.

Union United’s  CBA  addresses the particular needs and dreams of those living in the community, demanding low-income housing for families and seniors, small business assistance for minority businesses, a multicultural community center and green practices that facilitate  “alternative modes of transportation. ”

More important than particular demands, is the way in which the  Union United CBA creates a process that insures the long-term participation of low-income people and the substantial Latino immigrant population of Somerville, in their own community development.

Based on research of benefits agreements across the country, Tufts university Urban Policy professor Penn Loh believes it is essential that Union United  sign the agreements with developers.  Loh argues that one of the ways CBAs get diluted is when municipal governments  step in and become the signers for the community. Inevitably, the cities end up representing the interests of gentrifiers.

In Minneapolis, activists have joined this nationwide effort  assure the vitality of  working class neighborhoods through  CBAs. One major effort is the campaign to hold the New Seward Food Coop on the 38th Street in the Bryant/ Central neighborhoods accountable for fighting the gentrification that attends  high-end grocery stories when they move into low-income communities.  People working within the coop and others working through the CBA process have together succeeded in an essential first step.  First round of hires included over 60% People of Color,  close to their  representation in the neighborhood, a key demand of the CBA drafted by neighborhood activists.

As the negotiation processes in Minneapolis, Minnesota  and Somerville Massachusetts continue, it is helpful to get a national perspective, to see how communities are winning and losing in the war against gentrification. Loh’s research shows that for the people to win, they have to be at the table.

*At a recent Gentrification forum in Minneapolis artists silkscreened T-shirts that read “Gente-fy the neighborhood. Gente means “the people” in Spanish. 

#cbaNOW

Gentrification meeting in Minneapolis’ Ninth ward.

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Three hundred people met  at Plaza Verde on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis on September 30, 2015 to talk about gentrification and pose the question, who will live in Minneapolis in 2020?

Jessica Lopez Lyman, Chicano Studies Scholar, explained that one of the myths about gentrification is that it happens overnight.  In reality developers, politicians and bankers set the stage for years before the sudden appearance of new businesses and an influx of the white, wealthy, and formally-educated people, buying housing and businesses.

An audience member illustrated how the process has worked in Minneapolis.   Former Minneapolis Mayor Sayles Belton got rid of much subsidized housing in the 1990s. Subsequent Mayor R. T Rybak built luxury condos. Our current Mayor, Betsy Hodges has made it a goal to encourage 100,000 new residents to our city by 2020. The question is: who will these new residents be? From the housing  being built, it looks like high income folks. What will happen to those living here now? We have a housing crisis currently in Minneapolis, with long lines for affordable rentals.  Why aren’t we building affordable housing?

Another participant pointed out that gentrifiers have the luxury to plan long- term, while the residents of a gentrifying neighborhood don’t have the time or space to fight.    Their window is often next months suddenly-elevated rent.

Lopez Lyman explained that displacement of People of Color (it does happen to working class whites as well)  to satisfy the needs of elites, has been happening for eons, this is just the new name for an old game.

Neeraj Mehta of the Center for Urban and Regional Development at the University of Minnesota  noted, we are now told the problem is “concentrations of poverty”, — too many poor people living together — instead of poverty itself. The gentrifiers solution is dissolution and dispersal of neighborhoods. Nothing is done about racism or poverty. Mehta said the bottom line is “It’s easier to move people than to move resources.” We need to demand resources now — he concluded — not wait for the gentrifiers to arrive with their attending resources.

Chaun Webster of the Firehouse Collective and Ancestry Books in North Minneapolis, pointed out that the justification for gentrification begins with the colonial narrative that the neighborhood is empty of human resources. Nothing is begin replaced, only added.  Artists come in to  “beautify,” creating murals  and such, that satisfy the palette of wealthier whiter newcomers, often referred to as “young professionals.”

The crowd was rich in ideas to overcome gentrification.  Here are some of the ideas coming from the panel and the floor.

  • Demand an end to government subsidies to developers.
  • We need Community Benefits  Agreements between neighbors and developers for any project receiving government funds.
  • Fund community development that uses the human capacities already within neighborhoods.
  • Redistribute Park resources to benefit Communities of Color.
  • Turn Section 8 housing system into a home ownership program.
  • Encourage local coops.
  • Protect housing from foreclosures,  tax hikes and rent hikes.
  • Fight the culture of gentrification – when wealthier newcomers demand their cultural norms become law. (Real life example: removing a basketball court in North Minneapolis.)
  • Create an affordable housing trust fund.
  • Fighting discriminatory lending. Prosecute the offending bankers and banks.
  • Fight Charter schools that disperse neighborhoods and support the public schools that anchor them.

A man who encouraged us not to use race language was chastised by people not wanting a race-blind discussion. Unfortunately his original point — that the enemy has a face — developers teaching people to flip houses, planning foreclosures, people who actually plan and carry out gentrification —  was lost.

A woman pointed out that reliance on non-profits ends up with band aid solutions that keep the structure of racism and poverty intact.

Kudos to Minneapolis Ninth ward councilwoman Alondra Cano, for sponsoring a forum that was NOT about band aids.  Hope it is the first of many.

 

Puddle Land

September 21, 2015

The view was clear for an hour as the plane approached Minneapolis.

I laughed.

Minnesota from the air looks like a giant lake dotted with islands– or a land of puddles. Leaving California’s immense ocean, majestic mountains, giant redwoods, endless produce fields — I had to admit: Minnesota is boring by comparison. But we know (those of us who live here and don’t just fly over) those puddles are beautiful. And they are everywhere. We are always a few miles away from peace-inducing waters.

Still, I realized while sitting on the plane a week ago, it is quite possible for me to go days, weeks even, without seeing water.

Today I followed the Minnehaha Creek to Lake Nokomis on my bicycle, then circled the lake seven times, stopping occasionally to walk up to the water. On the west side, in the marshlands I saw a two great blue herons.

On summer weekends the Nokomis picnic area is filled with families barbecuing. The kids swim and playing together on the playground in front of the beach. In a segregated and unequal city, it is an unusually healthy multi-racial space. That is no an accident. It is the result of positive social engineering. Thanks to some far-thinking city officials over a century ago the city’s lake and river shores are public, lined with woods and public walking and bike paths. Houses with lake and River views share them with the world.

Every place has its beauty — even flat Minnesota. Not every place — in Minnesota or California — is the beauty accessible to all.

Even if it is accessible to us, it is easy to get to so caught up with life we don’t take advantage of what we have. Today I made a resolution: to take advantage of the puddles. I will make sure to spend time by a lake, a Creek or a river, at least once a week.

Want to go for a walk?