Elizabeth Faue: Feminist Labor Historian Sought the Exotic in Her Youth; Returned to Working Class North Minneapolis Roots.

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19th Century Minnesota Roots

I come from a mixed marriage: Norwegian Lutherans and German Lutherans.  

My mom’s family (her mother’s side) came from Norway in the 1840, joining a chain migration from Dane County, Wisconsin, to Dodge County, Minnesota, to Woonsocket, South Dakota, and ending up in the Twin Cities. These migrants were the younger siblings who did not inherit the farm, who came in search of land, to re-create what their parents had in Norway. The land they settled on in South Dakota (like that in Wisconsin and Minnesota) had originally belonged to the Native Americans.  

In Woonsocket, these families grew diverse crops — flax for weaving, wheat, and corn. They had a few sheep and goats, a cow or two. A little for the market, but mostly for themselves—a subsistence-plus existence. Their kids went to school.

Woonsocket today is a bar, a place you can get your car fixed, a library, some houses, and cemeteries. It was a rail hub for a while (1880s) when the railroad went through, but people began to leave after a period of decreasing rainfall by 1890s. What had been crop land slowly became grazing land.  My grandmother (Myrtle) hated the place, and she left South Dakota when she could—after going to Normal School in Madison, SD.  

The other side of my mother’s family came in about 1895, first settling in Crawford County, Wisconsin, near the Saint Croix. But my great-grandfather (Bersven) was a cabinet maker, so they moved to the Twin Cities where he could practice his trade. There they experienced a great tragedy: his wife —my great grandmother Malena — was killed in a fire. As a result Berven split the family up. His son Mel, who became my grandfather, ended up back in Wisconsin and later in South Dakota working as a harvest hand. I believe he was a Wobbly, (member of the  IWW — Industrial Workers of the World).

Grandpa was an ambulance driver during World War One. After the war, he came to the Twin Cities, re-united with my grandmother (They met, I believe, in South Dakota), and they married promptly. My mother Yvonne was born about a year later.

On my father’s side were the “territorial pioneers” of Minnesota, something I did not know growing up. The Hohensteins came in the 1850s, and Henry Faue came in about the same time. Henry Faue was a “Freiegemeinde” or Freethinker, a religious liberal. These people founded their own congregation in Medina, Minnesota, in rural Hennepin County. They built their own cemetery, which is still there. Henry Faue enlisted in the Union Army late in the Civil War (1864) as a private.  

His son, my great grandfather Louis, inherited land in rural Hennepin and Wright counties, but he was a “wastrel” (so says the family story) and so he lost it all. His children at best felt conflicted about him; some hated him. My grandfather Louis, the second oldest son, was thrown out of the house when he was quite young and went to live with an uncle.  Louis became a carpenter and mechanic—a fixer of creamery machinery. His carpenter skills were legendary.  He built a dining room table with 800 separate pieces of wood, fit together into a mosaic design.  Louis became the manager of a cooperative creamery in St. Michael — until he was fired during the agricultural depression in the 1920s. After that, he worked as a traveling machine fixer for creameries and dairies.

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Double wedding of my grandfather Louis and his brother Bill, who married sisters (Lillie my grandmother and Lizzie, my great aunt), in Hanover, Minnesota  1880s, I think.
Parents Growing Up in North Minneapolis

The family moved into a small house in North Minneapolis on Bryant Avenue. That is where my father Vince was born and where his older siblings (five of the six) went to North High School.  His sister Vernetta, also born in Minneapolis, went to Patrick Henry after the family moved farther north.  My Dad didn’t go to high school.

My mother Yvonne was born just blocks away from my Dad, in a tiny house not too far from Victory Memorial Drive and close to Camden. Her father worked as a Minneapolis public school janitor.  When he got his veterans’ bonus, they bought a bigger house — on 43rd and Sheridan, two blocks away from Victory Lutheran Church, where my mother, and all of us, were baptized.

Victory Lutheran was a Norwegian congregation. My grandfather was one of the charter members, and my mother was one of the first children to be baptized in the unfinished church (the baptismal font was in the basement). It was sold some time back. It think it’s a Baptist Church today.

My parents met when my mom was 14 and my dad was 18. He decided she was the world. Shortly after they met, he went into the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).  Then he was drafted in 1940. After basic training, and before he was shipped off to Europe, he got permission to take three days off to go home and get married.

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After my Dad returned to Fort Knox, he was sent to Northern Ireland and then to North Africa. He became part of a reconnaissance unit in North Africa — a half-track gunner in the First Armored Division led by General Patton. He hated Patton. After that campaign, I believe he did not want to kill any more. He volunteered as a stretcher-bearer at Casino but went instead to Anzio.  He served as a medic in Italy until the army go to the River Po. After 30 months of combat duty, the Army stationed him back home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at an army hospital, where his job was making prosthesis for injured soldiers. My mother went to live with him there. After the war, the army offered him a permanent place. He said “hell no” and came back to the Twin Cities.

When my parents came back to Minneapolis, they started having kids right away. First, Jeff, and then five years later, my oldest sister.  Eventually there were six of us. I was the fourth.

Dad had PTSD after the war, although they didn’t call it that then. In other ways, the war affected him.  He wouldn’t go camping because it reminded him of the army. He always supported his government, but he never liked war. We never had a gun in the house. No toy guns either, until my brother Greg came along. My older brother, who grew up when no guns were allowed in the house, became a firm pacifist. Greg, on the other hand, had a romance with the military, joined the Navy, and served in the first Gulf War. While he was serving in that conflict, Dad started having his post-war nightmares again.    

Two Generations of Janitor-Engineers in Minneapolis Public Schools

My mother’s father helped Dad get a job working for the Minneapolis school system as a janitor engineer. It’s a job most people don’t understand. The custodians stoked and maintained the furnaces and (later) cooling system. Part of the job is quite technical — the kind of expertise you now have to go to college to obtain. Grandpa was there to give Dad advice as he rose through the civil service ranks.  (Both of them being veterans, being quiet men, they always got along.  And, to think of it, they both had shortened education; my grandpa only finished the eighth grade.) The technical parts of the job of Stationary Engineer are coupled with everything from cleaning the floors and windows to —well— everyone’s been in an elementary school. The janitor is the one who talks to the kids who don’t have anybody to talk to.

When he started, Dad got moved around to a lot of schools. To get the right number of points to advance to a good position, he got assigned a junior high — the hardest job.  He worked as third man, second man, and did night shifts. When he got the seniority, he settled at Cleveland Elementary in North Minneapolis. (The school closed, and the building is a Post Office now. A block away, in Cleveland Park, is Lucy Laney Elementary).

Dad loved being a school engineer at Cleveland Elementary. Not the cleaning — he told me how much he hated some of those tasks. What he loved was being his own boss.  He got along with his second man, Stan, and they both made good overtime.

My maternal Grandfather — who was a member of a farmer-labor club in the 1930s — was a founder of the union —Local 63 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.  The union’s slogan was “Janitors Carry School Houses on Their Backs.” My father became a member. The two were never leaders, but they were joiners. They participated in a janitors’ strike in 1951 that I have written about.  Dad used to say, “What Labor Has Fought to Win, Labor Must Fight to Keep,” echoing the sentiments  of his beloved Minnesota Farmer Labor Governor, Floyd B. Olson. 

The job quality of janitor/engineer has been eroding in recent years. There has been a continual pressure to privatize, create a two-tiered system with benefits and pay, and force speed-ups in the work. I cannot think that it would have allowed us the life we had.

Me, Growing up on the North Side

 

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I grew up near Brooklyn Center and went to Patrick Henry High School.  It was a quiet, post-war neighborhood, built on the site of a former truck farm.  With six children, we were a bit cramped in our small cape cod house.  My younger sisters Anna and Debbie and I shared a room throughout almost all of our childhood. They have been an important part of my life and not just because we shared close quarters.

My family was not deeply religious, but we were churchgoers.  Almost all of us sang in the junior choir as children.  I worked Sundays watching toddlers at Victory Lutheran after I was confirmed.  I didn’t like the services, but I liked the music and could hear it in the nursery.

My parents were quite conventional believers. All of my sisters still attend a similar church. As for me, I lost my faith after being confirmed. This was after I thought about being a minister. For a while I was a raving atheist. By the time I was 19 or 20, I decided that the only reasonable approach was to be an agnostic, to know what I did not know. It was also in some ways more compassionate and respectful to not insist on having a monopoly on the truth. In the vein of my favorite ancestor — the Freethinking Henry Faue — I’m a Unitarian now.

Our household was pretty normal for our neighborhood, though more bookish. We had books all over the house. My mother was an avid reader. My dad read the newspaper, from page one to the end, every day.  The oldest brother’s college books, classic children’s fables, two encyclopedias, and cereal boxes and games—These were my library, along with the Bookmobile. My parents had all the Reader’s Digest condensed books. I read that version of Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie. I was dazzled. I was fascinated with Russia and other places and times exotic to me. I studied the Byzantine Empire,  listened to the music of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.  

I decided by the time I was 11 that I was not going to have my parent’s life. With my two oldest siblings gone, my brother Greg bullied me from time to time—mostly verbal teasing, and that made me want to run away. My parents were busy grieving my older sister, who disappeared for a few years.  They didn’t pay any attention to us, giving my brother the opportunity to boss his younger sisters around. We later resolved all this; but as a teenager, I felt besieged. My way of escaping was to delve into far off exotic lands. I read all the time.

It was sometimes difficult for me to get my needs met in the family. At ten I told my mom I needed glasses. My mom said, “We don’t have money for your foolishness.” So I went without glasses a few more years. I would find ways to work around it: go up to the black board after class to write things down …I got through faking it until 10th grade.  Then my German teacher asked me to read something on the black board. I said,“ I can’t see the board.”

It was clear that she was mad. Her anger was important to me. She was mad at a system in which a student would not have glasses. It was empowering. I loved that teacher — Liz Borders. Everyone did. She wore turtlenecks and short plaid skirts and looked like a tall Liza Minnelli. She would take small groups of us on hikes along the Mississippi and planned field trips to the German restaurant. She took me and a group of other German students to Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see an exhibit on Albrecht Duerer. That was not my first but one of the most important museum visits.  And because of it, we all wanted to be her.  

After school that day, I went home and said “I have to have glasses. I can’t see the board.”

Mom said “Money is really tight right now. If you can wait until March, we will get you glasses.”

I think now, if I had told my mother earlier, I would not have spent so many years squinting at the board; but I knew that we did not have lots of money.  Still, when I finally got glasses, it was transformative.  I had really long thick hair at the time. I got my glasses and got my hair cut in a shag. I was a new person.

Two years later, when I was a senior and angry at not being able to go on a trip abroad, Liz Borders asked me to stay after class one day.  She said, “If there is anything I can do, you should tell me.”  I felt as if I could not tell her.  It seemed an extraordinary thing I wanted—I felt unjustified in wanting to go, but her words mattered.  Someone cared enough to listen me.

I had a few other great teachers.  Francine Moskowitz —my English teacher in 7th and 9th grade. She kept in touch with me. We went to a coffee shop (Florence and Millie’s) near Henry to talk. She took me to dinner on occasion and to a play. She read my poetry and talked about ideas.  She took me to the University to see it before I began college. And she was, in many ways, my big sister and mentor. Another teacher in high school, Doreen Savage, who read everything I wrote—poetry and prose—through high school and college, watched over me.  She also paid most of my way on that school trip to England.  

If any teacher did that today, wouldn’t they end up in court?

In high school I was in college placement classes with the bankers’ and professionals’ kids. My father had a ninth grade education. My mother had a high school education but knew nothing about college. They were smart, and she was well-read; but they were not people who knew the world I was entering. They weren’t simple people, but they weren’t people who had a whole lot of knowledge about how you navigate the world outside north Minneapolis. By the time I was 10 my mom had me making calls to billing companies and Sears and Roebuck. She was that uncomfortable with the world. To have been her must have been difficult. To be her daughter was to know that you had to help out.  

My parents did not let their children down when it came to food, clothing, housing or basic education.  Still, when I was emotionally troubled or faced worldly obstacles, my parents had no idea what to do. So those teachers—and my big brother Jeff—they brought me through.

I was aware of the class differences and racial differences in our high school. I don’t remember any African American students in my college prep courses (They constituted 3 or 4% of the entire class), and I know they were treated differently. The top 3% of our class was all White. I shared a lunch table with a group of Black girls my age  in junior high school. They were so much better read on politics.

My cohort was — and still is — self-segregated by race. Today, whenever there are reunions, the Black students are the ones no one can find.  I never go to the  reunions-but I always check the list. I really want to re-connect with my old friend Jennifer Jenkins–but she’s always on the missing list.

 

During high school, I was able to take advantage of a program called the Twin City Institute for Talented Youth.  Every summer they had a program at Macalester College. You would take a specialty topic in the morning and spend the afternoon at the library, or a play, or attend a workshop. It was great! It got me out to the house, which was really important. I took Russian language with Larry Buckland and Gene Adamchik.  We also learned Russian folk dance.

I don’t know why I ever dropped doing that dancing. I really loved it.

There is a popular quote from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King: “Learning is the one thing that you can never lose.”  It is a quote that hints at the joy we get from learning new things. That was the three summers at Macalester for me. Creative writing and Russian and extracurricular events. The time spent learning opened me up to new ideas and possibilities.  I met Catholics who hated the Catholic Church. I met young Marxists. I met deeply conservative people. The program brought public and private school kids together so I met kids form Northrup and Blake, all of whom were college bound. In my high school less than a quarter of the students went to college.

College. Seeking the Exotic, Coming Back to my Roots

When I went to the University of Minnesota. I thought, since I had this Russian thing going— and since it was the 70s and we were talking Détente with Russia, that I would major in Russian and journalism. But during orientation someone said. “You like writing, I’ll put you down as an English major.”  I wound up majoring in English, although I took Russian and Modern Greek.  

During college, at Doreen Savage’s urging, I read Report To Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. Inspired, I signed up to go to Greece with the SPAN program (Student Program for Amity among Nations). I spent two summers there (including one at the Balkan Institute), and the year studying everything Greek.

I still think of myself now — at 60 — as a shy person, but it was much worse in those days. Greece was an important part of the process of learning how to talk again.   I had an awakening there—I discovered who I was and a little bit of what I wanted.  I also found people to talk to.  My friends Jill and Patrice and a kind Swedish student who called me a butterfly, emerging from her cocoon.  It was that and more.  

Greece is a different kind of beauty than we have in Minnesota — It was warm and beautiful, and the food was amazing, and you could eat vegetables and bread and be happy.

The biggest mistake I made was continuing to live at home when I returned. Because I had taken those steps out on my own, and then I walked back into a family crisis that lasted few years. My parents leaned on me to get them through. It was not a good time for me. So when I started graduate school I was depressed and confused.  And learning woke me up again.

Feminism and Graduate School

I had my first feminist awaking at 15, when we were all talking about the Equal Rights Amendment.  But then I forgot I was a feminist — until I took a class from Tony McNaron on Virginia Woolf. It was eye-popping. I wrote my honors thesis on Emily Dickinson and her way of seeing the world.  It was the beginning of women’s studies for me.

I wanted to keep my job at the library, so I graduated with more than a year of extra college credit!  During my last semester, I signed up for a 17th century literature class. The professor — whose name I have blissfully forgotten — was rocking himself in front of the class. I was literally getting sick watching him. I talked to my coworker about how I needed to get out of this class.  She said, “There ’s this person who teaches women history. She is supposedly pretty good…”

I went to Sara Evans’ class on the second day and went down to the front to get the syllabus.  She handed me it to me and smiled!  I have to tell you, I had never seen a professor smile. I was somewhere new.

Sara gave a lecture that day on Native American women. It was the best thing I had ever heard. I had taken many history courses, and I had never heard anything about Native American women.  Come to mention it, other then Catherine the Great, there weren’t any women at all discussed in those courses. Evans started talking about the “Manly-Hearted Woman” in Native American societies, and … Whoah!  

I transferred into the class. When Evans talked about the Lowell Mill girls, it was the first time I had heard anyone talk about workers. All the classes I had taken were about monarchs and writers and revolutionaries — not ordinary people. By the end of the semester, I had decided I was going to study women’s history—and labor and social history. It was clear to me that the way to change women’s position in society was to study their history. We didn’t know enough about women.

In graduate school I had some great mentors. Sara Evans invested in me.  She read everything I wrote up through my first book. Mary Jo Maynes taught European social history—She has a capacious mind. Rus Menard was funny, skeptical, and systematic. He knew where the pieces fit together.  There were others. I was interested in studying where class intersected with gender. The first step of that had to be looking at the labor movement.

Rewriting Minneapolis Labor History

My first book’s subject was an accident. I wanted to study textile workers in the South in the 19th century, but my committee persuaded me to write a dissertation on the 20th century labor movement and to focus on something local.

Great Depression in the 1930s was a period of labor activism and organization. Minneapolis had this major truckers’ strike in 1934, key to Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota becoming much more liberal and unionized. In that moment of organization, I knew I’d find women organizing.  Oral sources were scant. There were some taped interviews about the truckers’ strike or Hubert Humphrey the Minnesota Historical Society did in 1970s. They were not interested in women involvement or gender questions.

Women in the Twin Cities in the 1930s worked in industries where they were not prominent or where unionization was low. The huge Munsingwear plant up on the near North side employed hundreds of women workers. It wasn’t unionized until the late 1930s, and the unionization campaign did not involve much organizing.  The Company negotiated with the CIO without much worker input.

About 5000 Twin Cities women worked in various aspects of the garment trade. Relative to other cities that was not a big number.  I found some sources on those women in the national ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) papers. The Minneapolis labor papers then, only provided bits and pieces.  I was frustrated.  I just didn’t have enough for a book, and I didn’t have a governing thesis.

Then two things happened.

  1. I was reading the labor papers and taking notes on the cartoons for my own amusement. One day I’m at the Minnesota Historical Society recovering from a headache from reading microfilm, thinking about Joan Scott’s contention that sometimes in women’s history silence speaks louder than words.  That is when it struck me. There was no female representation in the cartoons. Social construction and solidarity in the labor movement were all based on male models. They were also racially constructed.  I wrote a chapter on these cartoons. It has had the most lasting influence on the field and was the basis of many job talks.19578349_1821640474547005_1661172932_n
  1. I was reading two books at the same time: American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis by Charles Rumford Walker, first published in 1937 and Mary Heaton Vorse’ s Labor’s New Millions, two entirely different visions of the labor movement. Walker was a proto-Leninist guy who believed a small group of guys would lead the class to victory, and Vorse believed in the people and wanted the workers to get justice. Her vision is of the revolution at Pengally Hall in Flint, where women and children were making meals and walking the picket line with men. Hers is rooted in community, and Walker’s in an elite group (a vanguard) of workers. Both were operative in the 1930s, but only community-based unionism brought the women in.

In Minneapolis in the 1930s women were involved in the movement-building stage; but they were eased out when things became bureaucratized. One of the mechanism by which this happened was the social and psychological casting of labor solidarity as masculine. Born in manhood.  This is why women can both be central and yet invisible and excluded at times in labor.

All of it came together in my book — Community of Suffering and Struggle:  Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, published in 1991.

Because I haven’t lived here since the book came out, I don’t know what affect it has had locally. I am friends with people at the Historical Society. Labor historian Peter Rachleff — now at the East Side Freedom Library — liked the book and taught it. I see it referred to on web pages about local strikes, women, and the labor movement.  

I’ve given talks at the Minnesota Historical Society, but I have never been invited to commemorations of the Teamster’s strike. The truckers’ strike in the book is to show how the Teamsters local was instrumental in helping to organize the rest of the city and played a prominent role in the struggles discussed in the book. So it is there, but it is not central.  The cartoons came from a Teamster paper. Sometimes the labor agenda and feminist agenda conflict. A book that points out the discrepancies may not be welcome at a celebratory event.

Half of my second book was set in Minneapolis. It is a biography of a labor journalist Eva McDonald Valesh, who was here in the 1880s and 1890s. I talk about labor and working class culture in Minneapolis, which was quite vibrant. Mainstream Minneapolis newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s were sold to working class, and they covered labor issues.  I got terrific stuff on the strike of women garment workers and the Minneapolis’ Scandinavian Uprising (Streetcar strike of 1889) and a good deal about what workers of the time did and thought.  My most recent book, Rethinking the American Labor Movement, also talks a bit about Minnesota workers.

Teaching Labor and Women’s History in Detroit

I have been teaching labor history and the history of feminism at Wayne State University in Detroit for 27 years now. Wayne State is an institution with about 30,000 students: 55% White, 25% Black, with a growing number of Latino students, and immigrants from all parts of the world.  Most of the students grew up in Detroit or the surrounding suburbs and most are  first generation college students.

Politics on campus are center to left, but we also have some White students who come from the suburbs who don’t share those feelings.  We have dorms, but many students live at home or independently off campus. Many are returning adult learners. A significant number are not Christian, but Muslim or of other religions.

The Flint Water Crisis in Context

The crisis of 2008 was acute in Michigan. Pervasive gerrymandering is what allowed Governor Snyder—and the Republican-dominated legislature—to win in 2010. As in many states, the Democratic votes are underrepresented and have less power than they should.  Snyder’s background experience was as the head of Gateway, overseeing the lay-off of 30,00 workers. He has overseen the privatization of the state. Public lands and resources have been taken over in cities. Bridge and roads left in disrepair. Snyder cut corporate taxes, and his appointed Emergency Financial Managers sold many public assets. They even tried to sell off the treasures at the Detroit Institute of Art—unsuccessfully due to a political bargain. But Snyder appointed financial managers in Detroit and Flint and other cities, and they were able to make decisions without community oversight. The decisions behind the poisoning of Flint water were not entirely about budgets and certainly disregarded the long-term effects on the community.

Comparing Labor Movements in Michigan and Minnesota

The labor movement in Michigan was different than Minnesota. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was and is nearly everything. Minnesota has a mixed economy while Michigan — everything is made or broken by the fate of the auto industry. When the auto industry falters, it is very difficult to organize labor.  And the economy seems to cascade downward as it did in the 2008 crisis. Today, the auto industry is doing well, and even the cities are doing better, but we still face real challenges.

Finding Home in Two Midwestern States

When I first moved to Michigan, I traveled a lot. I did not much like the state. I learned over time to appreciate it and its beauty, but it was not until the last year or two that I have begun to call Michigan home. I found a vacation haven in Traverse City 200 miles north of where I live. It dawned on me recently that it was what Emily Dickinson called “the slant of light” there that made it feel like going home. It is the same latitude as Minneapolis — 45th Parallel.  

For now Michigan is my home. I have thought about moving back to Minneapolis with my partner in retirement. I would love to be in a city with public transportation and green spaces and many people that I love.

It is good to know that you can make home in more than one place.

Family history is what taught me how rooted I was — figuring out I had a grandpa who was part of the farmer-labor movement and a Wobbly, and another ancestor who was a Freethinker. For years, I pursued the exotic as a way of finding myself when I was young—learning about the peoples and cultures of other lands; but for the past two decades I have steeped myself in the history of chosen ancestors closer to my own roots, finding home in those stories as well.  

 

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.

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

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

Getting in and out of Trouble 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My disaster, fortunately, was getting arrested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics through Architecture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My life project: architecture and design of livable cities

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

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

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

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

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

Segregation, racial inequality, immigration and whiteness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration 

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

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

Building equity

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

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

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.