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MN VOICES | Nieeta Presley: A believer in "people power," family and faith
As the executive director for St. Paul's Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation (ASANDC), which runs social, economic housing and commercial development programs, Nieeta Presley strives to empower people to effect social change. Her work, which ranges from helping people find economic independence through home ownership to rallying for additional light rail stops in the neighborhood, happens mainly behind-the-scenes. Presley, 59, is accomplished in her field, but her greatest priority remains her family. Balancing both is a challenge, she admits, but her faith carries her through it all. Below, Presley, whose life has taken some unexpected twists, discusses how she got to where she is today, her values and future ambitions.
What are some of the things that have shaped you as a person?
My upbringing has shaped my character. I was allowed to be creative, to be myself and try new things. I had a loving, nurturing family. Family was important. Holiday celebrations, birthdays and other activities were all about getting the family together. We need each other and we work together. I've always told my kids that if they don't have anyone else, they have their family members to lean on, no matter what.
I'm very religious, although I'm still on the journey. I'm not perfect. I don't know how you can say there's not some stronger power beyond me, that makes the trees grow, or produces such an array of wonderful people in this world. I was brought up in the church. My family went every Sunday. It's been ingrained in me. Without being able to prove it, I've had revelations in my faith. I think things have happened because of that.
Who has had the most influence on you?
Professionally, Mrs. Timothy O. Vann had a major impact on my young adult life. She was an employer of mine. Whoever came into the office was to be treated respectfully.
My longtime Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Ozeida Warren, influenced my faith instruction. She also taught me how to carry myself as a young lady. The women at the church had these teas, which I remember so vividly. We wore gloves and waited on people with frilly dresses on.
Also, I hold my maternal grandmother, Laurene Tabor-Hancock, with esteem. She showed me how to give back. She held many offices in the church [system] throughout the country. She took me on a bunch of trips that children don't usually go on, such as conferences, retreats and vacations, all over the place. She taught me to strive to be the best you can be, to be a leader and to have a vision.
Is there an event or period of time that most influenced your character or who you are as a person? How did you get where you are today?
In school, I was taught that as an African American woman I could achieve. I felt like I wasn't the prettiest girl, but I was smart. I took that to heart. When I was thinking of my first job, I was married and my mother-in-law was always saying that I had a knack for the medical area. I did nurse's aide training and I was pretty good at it. She said, "Why stop at that?" So when I finally went to college, it was to become a nurse.
When I was in nursing school, my marriage was on the rocks. I was stressed out. I dropped out of school. I got out of the medical field. I thought I wanted to start my own business. I was fortunate to get a brochure about the Local Initiative Support Corporation's (LISC) Careership community development corporation. I got chosen to do a careership, as they called it, at the Eastside Neighborhood Development Company. It changed my whole view of that area, which I had a bad perception about. I got to see how it works. I ended up working as a counselor at the Urban League for the senior employment program and as an organizer at ASANDC. When the Urban League ran out of money for my position, I became full-time at ASANDC. I was able to directly apply what I was learning in my careership. That was in 2000. When the executive director position opened in 2003, I got the job.
Describe your work. What makes it rewarding and fun? What are the challenges?
We're about building assets and wealth. We created a program that allows people who aren't able to get conventional mortgages to find affordable housing, for instance. We work with them to become sustainable homeowners. We have another program to assist seniors with things like with broken windows, overgrown bushes and fences falling down. Most of the folks we've helped are below the poverty line. Although we interface with many different ethnic groups, the primary group we serve is African American. This kind of work clicks for me more than, say, being a nurse. I see this as a way to prevent people from getting sick. If you help make one's quality of life be the best it can be, it can affect their overall health.
I get satisfaction out of seeing people want to have some power over their lives. I call it people power. You can see the results of the time and effort you put into it. Look at our collective effort around light rail. Residents organized. Many people didn't think they could influence it, but they have seeded some tangible things. It's exciting to see people beginning to pay attention to the issues. We haven't won every battle, but in this case, we were able to get elected officials to buy into our proposal for additional light rail stops. They saw that it was important for riders and the viability of the community.
The challenge is that we're a small organization. We compete with larger organizations for resources. Funders are looking at how organizations work regionally. We overcome that by building partnerships with groups that have a broader geographic reach. We're not a social service agency, but most of the funding is going to that right now.
Is music important to you? What is the place of music in your life?
Music is very important in my life. Being religious, I have some favorite hymns I try to hum or sing whenever I'm feeling down. My favorite hymns are Amazing Grace, The Spirit Song and He Died For Me. I also love the jazz song, Summertime, Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the Michael Jackson song, Beat It. My kids have caught me doing the motions to it. Music helps me to look at things in a different light. It's healing. I sing in the shower all the time.
You've said that family comes first. What's your greatest joy and your greatest trial in your family life?
Right now my greatest joy is my greatest trial. I was awarded legal and physical custody of my grandchild, Adrian Hobbs-Presley. I didn't know was in my life till he was six months old. He's 23 months now.
It's a challenge. I had an empty-nester house for, like, 20 years. I thought I could have all nice things. Now, things are broken. There are fingerprints everywhere. I've got milk on my bedspread. But he is a joy.
It's mind-boggling being a mom again. You can't be so selfish. I can't just do things when I want to. Everything in my home to had to be moved high up, or put away or locked down. I can't stay in bed all weekend and watch movies. I do more cooking and eating healthy.
I'm hoping I can be a better parent. In the 70s, I was still growing up myself. Now I'm more settled. I'm in a better position financially. I think, 'this is where I should've set more limits' and not do my bad behaviors as a parent. Kids aren't supposed to be in on all of the adult stuff. I don't have a lot of patience, but I know how to manage it. Hopefully one of these days the parents will be able to take him on again.
Another huge thing is that my 22-year-old granddaughter converted to Islam when she was 16. It was an eye-opener. It revealed my own prejudices and racism. It's been a great opportunity to work through my own issues. After all, what's my faith all about? To overcome it, you have to lay the issues out on the table and take the time to be educated. I took some classes, have eaten Islamic food, gone to Muslim centers and talked with imams. My granddaughter studied it. It wasn't a fancy whim. That's why I have the '99 Names of Allah' hanging on my wall in my office and at home. I also have the Koran and books on Islam.
What's the next chapter for you?
I'm thinking about going back to school, but I know I can't afford it, so I'm trying to figure out how that might happen. I'm torn between law and urban planning and public policy. I've even dreamt of running for office. I'm putting a lot of thought into who will be my successor [at ASANDC]. This baby grandson is very much a part of my life and I've been thinking about how he fits into my future life plans as well.
©2009 Anna Pratt