North Minneapolis. One of the most impoverished parts of the city. A place ridden with crime almost on a daily base. A struggling economy felt by those who live and breathe the Northside. All narratives told countless of times by the media.
Bill English, a prominent figure of the Northside says North Minneapolis was once much like Black Wallstreet. He calls himself a servant leader of the community. Work brought Bill and his wife to North Minneapolis in the sixties. It didn't take very long for the Northside to become home. "Businesses, the Given's family, other names that have not been forgotten; Nelly Stone Johnson. These were all people who helped build a thriving economy along Plymouth Avenue," explains Bill.
But in 1967, all of that changed after riots broke out between police and protesters on Plymouth. The thriving street that once was, suddenly was no more. Butcher shops, bakeries, a bowling alley and theater. All destroyed. "For thirty years, the only new building built on Plymouth Avenue was the Urban League and the shopping center that was there, where UROC is today. "
You could buy anything illegal on a Saturday that you wanted to. Anything! And the police station was right here, next door. That's not Bill English's story, that's the facts.
Bill says it had a devastating impact on the community. "People didn't see the police there to serve and protect. How could the police station be right next door and you could pull up there and people offer you an arm full of watches, dope, prostitution, crack. It was sold right out of there [the strip mall next door]. That's why when the University choose to make that investment I was an early adopter, along with others."
After 40 years of stalled expansion, major construction is in full swing on the corner o f Penn and Plymouth. The largest black owned company in Minnesota, Thor Construction, broke ground last January on a 36 million dollar project to build a new headquarter, including retail and office space for outside users. Ravi Norman, Thor's CEO, says they try to change the way people assess certain places places, spaces and people. "They may look at North Minneapolis and hear the narrative, 'oh it's just the toughest place, crime and education and income, etc., etc. And we say, 'oh that means it's the greatest place also for opportunity."
The project will include the expansion of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center, which sees about 25,000 patients annually. Through the years, demand has increased by 67 percent from 2006 to 2015. Today, NorthPoint is “operating at or near capacity." Dr. Michael Brooks says a lot of their patients have expressed their frustrations at times with delays in appointments and due to the fact that the time between appointments are so great. He believes the expansion will be a game changer. The $60 million dollar expansion will began as soon as the Thor project is complete.
In the past, the Northside has struggled to attract business, but with the new emerging projects, leaders expect this to change."The dollars are going to start coming here," says Ravi. "Part of our challenge is that we want to make sure as that money comes in, we're making sure that the people that have been here, lived here, worked here, played here for decades and generations, continue to be able to be here. And that we make all of these things attainable for them and that means we ought to be working on human capital and educational opportunities. Making sure the health systems, the Northpoints' of the world are serving people appropriately. Making sure that one of the reasons that I am doubling down trying to create more of an entrepreneurial opportunity and focus that can be very efficient."
Investing in the Young People of the Northside
A drive through Northside on a Tuesday afternoon in late April and the streets are somber, quiet and in many ways, peaceful- despite the many critical issues residents face on a daily base.
But that’s not the narration often conveyed by the media.
"Everybody's opinions is not good over North. And just because you hear over North is bad, don't mean it's bad. There's a lot of programs that kids can get into and there's a lot of stuff for people to do other than go out there and sell drugs or just shoot or go to jail. There's more than that to Northside," says Passion, a junior at North High School and an intern at StepUp, one of the country’s premier youth employment programs, based in Minneapolis.
StepUp empowers Minneapolis youth to create bright futures through training and paid internships. 88 percent of their student interns are minorities and half their youth are from the Northside. "It's very empowering," says Anna, the executive director of StepUp. "They start to see themselves in the workforce. They start to see themselves having their bosses jobs someday or wanting their bosses jobs someday and seeing the people around them saying, 'this is where I want to be."
Before becoming a teacher, Courtney's first job was through StepUp. "Before that, I hadn't had any jobs that were real. And what StepUp taught me was first of all, professionalism, they taught me how to prepare for an interview. They taught me how to get dressed. They taught me the difference between casual, business casual. And I think that's translated very heavily in my life." She’s now a teacher at North, the high school she attended.
Throughout the years, North High on Jefferson and Penn has definitely met its share of challenges. "As a student at North High School, I always knew that education was important and that people that looked like me and that came from communities like North Minneapolis, at that point-in-time I didn't know why, but for whatever reason, didn't have the most fruitful educational outcome," says Courtney.
Minnesota is one of the top states for education, adult literacy and high school graduation rates. But that's not exactly the case for minority students. In fact, the largest achievement gap between black and white students is here in the land of 10,000 lakes. "It's not an achievement gap, it's an opportunity gap." Heidi Barajas, the executive director of UROC, the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Engagement Center, works to solve critical urban challenges- one being education.
Since UROC opened its doors in 2009, they have been working on tackling the opportunity gap. "UROC's work with Northside Achievement Zone has grown exponentially. That would be for me, sort of, the way that we as a community would face inequality and that is, all of us doing the work that we do everyday, if we collaborate can make it stronger and have better impact across. Unless we do that work together, we continue to make small impacts for a low number of people, but this is bigger than that. "
Heidi says one of the root causes of the gap is how American's perceive the issue.
People think because you have privilege, it means you didn't work hard. I had four children, who I raised for a very long period on my own. But that's neither here nor there. My privilege still exists there. And I don't think a lot of people are poor because they deserve to be poor. I think they're poor because they don't have opportunity. I think a lot of kids aren't educated because they don't have the opportunity.
She believes to change people's perceptions stems down to awareness. Her particular college at the University of Minnesota, the college of education and human development has the highest percentage of students of color and highest percentage of low income students. "We all have our North Minneapolis' and what we mean by that, is those neighborhoods who tend to be under-served. It's a difference in seeing a community that's under-served rather than as the problem. "
Many of us that work here, who have lived here for many years, and have had partnerships through here, we all understand there's a difference between under-served and the fact that their are so many community assets.
One of things that UROC has been working on is job creation. By 2020, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is expected to have major job shortages. Anna says it's one of the things they talk to their employers a lot about today. "Investing in the young people now is a great business decision. That data is the reason why they should be hiring young people so that young people are getting exposure."
That's why organizations like StepUp, educators like Ms. Courtney and Heidi believe the key to closing the gap is by investing in the young people of the Northside, preparing for tomorrow's workforce today. "I believe it is my obligation to be here," says Courtney. "It is my obligation to serve my scholars because they are me. My scholars, they are my life-force. They give me a constructive arena to take all of the angst of being a person of color in this country. They give me a constructive to channel that by teaching them and giving them the vocabulary regarding the social ills that they are always dealing with so they can understand it and do something effective for their own lives, their own future, their own community."
Future Leaders of the Northside
Some of Minneapolis's prominent leaders hail from the Northside. "The Northside is emerging with an energetic and energized population that is beginning to understand that we're much more than the crime that's going down. The crime that exists here. That we are much more than that and that we want to rebuild our community," says Bill English.
As an artist, Jeremiah Ellison painted his first mural at the age of 7. "That first mural for me represents that deep sense of collaboration that's infused into everything that I do."
Now, he’s merging his passion for art with politics. He's running for City Council in Ward 5 in hopes of bringing change to his community. "I think we need a great start to some of the problems that we are facing. And I think it is as simple as pushing that community in that direction. If you have a collaborative process and if you are working with people in a genuine way, you're going to see the community start to heal and repair itself."
Jeremiah comes from a political family. His father, congressman Keith Ellison, is a rising leader in the Democratic Party. "You know I actually never thought I would run for office. I'm perfectly happy painting drawing, telling stories. That's what I love to do. For me, it was realizing the place that I grew up in, the community that had raised me in a lot of ways, is struggling. And I felt like the conversations I was having with neighbors, there is the sense that people thought that the qualities that I possess as a an artist, whether that be creative problem solving, collaboration, they wanted me to take those qualities into elected office."
It's the collaboration of the community that has greatly contributed to the Northside's reboot. And now construction on the Northside is advancing quicker than ever. The vacant spaces on Penn and Plymouth will soon no longer be empty. "We're one piece of the puzzle," says Thor's CEO, Ravi Norman. "We're not out here doing it alone. It's a cooperative model. It really does take a community."
What might be the cities toughest corner, the cities poorest community today, is changing with every passing day and heading towards a brighter future. "It's changing, but it's changing for the best," says Bill English.