Hope Community trains youth to organize for change

Hope Community celebrates 30 years of shelter, hospitality, and work with housing, community and youth.

On September 8, Minneapolis’ Hope Community celebrated its 30th anniversary with a block party between Franklin and 21st Street along Portland Avenue in South Minneapolis, where their flagship office is housed. The event featured storytelling, steppers, activities for kids, and barbeque dinners.

During its 30 years, Hope Community has evolved from its original shelter and hospitality house to owning and operating a thriving multi-cultural community of 112 low-income South Minneapolis rental units. Although Hope is generally associated with housing, they have a strong commitment to community and youth.

In May of 2006, Danielle Peterson, an organizer with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship, combined forces with Hope Community’s youth and young adult program coordinators Dhop and Chaka Mkali to create programs that promote civic engagement. Through one such program, SPEAC (Sustainable Progress through Engaging Active Citizens), Hope stays true to this commitment by mentoring youth and young adults and encouraging civic involvement.

Dhop, who works with youth ages 14 and under, has a daughter who was attending Inter District School in downtown Minneapolis where Public Achievement (PA) was a part of their programming. Through Public Achievement, students chose an issue that most interested them and worked with coaches to develop strategies for change.

“She had PA on Tuesdays,” Peterson said, “and she would always tell her dad, on Monday nights, ‘We can’t be late. We’ve got PA tomorrow morning.’ So Dhop started getting interested.” As a result, youth programming at Hope changed to incorporate this PA model.

When PA began, it typically took place during the school day, guided by a teacher or a college student who acted as a coach. SPEAC, Hope Community’s evolved version, differs because organizers are not confined to the school classroom, nor limited to the 50-minutes-per-week schedule or the teaching-to-task model or other bureaucracies associated with being an in-schools program.

SPEAC prepares participants ages 15-25 for community organizing and leadership. Danielle Peterson, who co-facilitates the group along with Chaka Mkali, says, “[At] Hope, all the people that are there are definitely there because they want to be there. That, in itself, makes a huge world of difference.”

Shelley Martin, 23, got involved with SPEAC in December of 2006. After living through the experience of losing two friends to homicides, she and a friend decided to create a community forum to discuss the rising homicide rate and what each community member would do to hold themselves accountable for what was going on.

Chaka Mkali was one of the community members they chose to sit on a panel. Mkali had previously spoken to Martin about being a part of what would eventually become SPEAC.

“In the beginning, I think we came together with a mission to change,” Martin says. “Everybody had their own idea about what was a trigger for them, whether it be police brutality or teen pregnancy or racism… When we were looking at the issues in the first meeting that we wanted to attack, there were so many different things.”

SPEAC has a broad-based focus, but works through an issue that holds the most relevance at the time. This past July, Martin says that the group reached its peak at a retreat in Windom, Minnesota, which included intense training on organizing. Prior to the retreat, the group went to 15-20 different community sites and participated in Listening Sessions where they talked with youth about the things they wanted to change.

“A lot of times when we went into spaces, the kids would ask, ‘When are you going to come back? Are you going to come back? They [previous organizers] come here — they write stuff all the time and throw the papers in the corner and we never hear from [them] again.’” Martin says that accepting the challenge of producing change is what SPEAC is all about.

On August 23, SPEAC held a monthly training session. A group made up of teens and young adults met in the late afternoon. The meeting started with members each giving the number of one-to-ones that they had completed since their last meeting. They ranged between 0-31.

One-to-one’s are personal interviews where subjects are asked questions focusing on what their interest and goals are. The practical purpose of doing one-to-ones, as far as community organizing goes, is networking by identifying people and organizations with common goals and resources that they can share.

One of the challenges of completing one-to-one’s is time and scheduling. Group members have jobs, classes and families who compete for their time. But, in response to the challenge of scheduling, Mkali, whose leadership talent consists of being both supportive and forceful, responded, “If you’re [having] scheduling [difficulties] on their time, then what are you going to do to be a priority [with them]?

“The overall goal,” Mkali emphasized, “is to get ourselves seasoned with these one-to-ones, so that by the time we get to the power analysis we start to identify other people we want to go after.”

Unlike many groups where the older members of the group tend to lead the discussion, all members are actively involved. The group blurs the terms “leader” and “follower”; though Mkali and Peterson are co-facilitators, an uninformed observer would find it hard to make this distinction.

After the power discussion, Mkali facilitated the power analysis, where they discussed their current action plan, identified community organizations that could become possible allies, and assigned group members to conduct a one-to one with each possible ally.

“When you think about doing a power analysis, you think about who is in power — who can grant the things that you want or halt the things that you [don’t] want, and what is their self-interest,” Mkali says.

Dhop says that SPEAC becomes an incentive for the 14-and-under group that he works with by engaging them in conversations surrounding community and leadership. They are currently in the process of documenting what SPEAC does through filming.

“They are understanding that they are getting a ringside view to an organization that is being built from the ground up,” Dhop says, “[facilitated] by their peers. Letting them see that the work that they are engaging in isn’t isolated. There are other people who are doing it on a different level.”

SPEAC participants practice the art of patience. “Organizing is a long-term thing,” Martin says. “You can’t come together and say we want things and expect to get a result tomorrow. It’s strategic. You have to be intentional.”

Hope Community’s success is built on the foundation of community involvement, and at the 30th anniversary celebration, MC T. Mychael Rambo compared Hope’s offering of food for the body (free barbecue dinners to all in attendance) with providing the community food for the spirit over the years.

“We have a piece of heaven right here on this block,” Rambo said. “It is anchored in Hope, it is anchored in trust, it is anchored in truth, and it is anchored in life.”

For more information on Hope Community, contact them at 612-874-8867, or go to www.hope-community.org.

Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to vnash [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com.