The Banyan Community turns out to support proposal for former Waite House site in Minneapolis

Virginia and Diamond Jackson

High school sophomore Diamond Jackson was one of the people advocating for the Banyan Community with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation commissioners. “I grew up there,” she said in a very matter of fact manner. Jackson told the commissioners that they should allow the sale of the former Waite House property to the Banyan Community. The comments that she and other Banyan supporters made boiled down to one word: family. For Jackson, who has participated in the Banyan since she was in kindergarten, the community is like her whole life, she said. Now that she is in high school, she is passing down the same sense of community she has experienced to younger children by serving in the homework tutoring program at Banyan.

The Banyan, a community development organization, has a waiting list of over 100 kids, said Executive Director Joani Essenburg. In 1998 Essenburg started the organization, meeting with students in her home. As the group grew, they purchased a home in which to meet and then leased space at a church in 2007. The purpose of the Banyan Community is three-fold, said Essenburg, “develop youth, strengthen families, and create family.” Their work includes support of block clubs, visits to families, after school programs and homework help for students.

Naomi Mohammed, a single parent, is grateful to the Banyan for encouraging education. All five of her children have been a part of the Banyan and received scholarships for high school. Four have graduated from college and the youngest is a freshman in high school. “As a single parent,” Mohammed said, “I had backup on homework, tuition, food, uniforms, and school supplies.” She said that she also received assistance in organizing the summer months for her children. Without the help of Banyan, she doesn’t think she would have been able to attend college, graduating with three of her children in 2012.

Emelie, Naomi, and Marissa Mohammed

Mohammed’s daughter, Marissa (pictured far right), the high school freshman, said that the Banyan has only been a positive experience for her. It “helped when I was younger knowing that I had a place to go. I didn’t have to be alone,” Marissa Mohammed said. Emelie Mohammed, a 2012 college graduate, agreed, saying “Kids get to know parents of classmates and everyone keeps an eye out on everyone else.” For the Mohammeds, too, the Banyan has served as an extended family.

To serve more families, add a preschool, provide more adult education classes, and to fulfill other goals, the Banyan Community began searching for a more permanent location. With a change in lease conditions for their current building, finding that new location became more important. When Pillsbury United Communities moved Waite House from 2529 13th Avenue South, property owned by Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, the Banyan Community thought they had found their answer. They weren’t the only ones.

Heart of the Beast Theatre also had a proposal to use the Waite House property. Like the Banyan Community, Heart of the Beast Theatre has been in a multi-year search for a new building. Their Waite House proposal focused on reusing the building and utilizing the green space, said Executive Director Loren Niemi at the meeting. He later explained that with the Waite House location, the Heart of the Beast would be able to increase their operations—education, theatre, art, and other activities—by 20 percent. “Right now, in the theatre we can only do one thing at a time. If you’re building or rehearsing something, you can do that. If you’re presenting something, that’s the only thing you can do. In the Waite House, we could do both,” Niemi said. The Heart of the Beast Theatre has had a 29-year commitment to the community, he said, and would like to partner with other organizations for use of space to present plays or other activities.

Minneapolis City Councilman Gary Schiff commended both the Banyan Community and the Heart of the Beast for their service to the community. “Both organizations are incredible assets to the Phillips community. Both organizations develop the future potential of youth,” he told the MPRB. He then addressed the Banyan’s need for a new building. “I’m worried about what will happen if the Banyan cannot build on this site. There are a lot of vacant sites in Phillips, but those are sites that are zoned residential… It is not an option of the city to sell other vacant lots to the Banyan to use as a community center.” Schiff added that the city of Minneapolis has worked with the Heart of the Beast in the past and would do so in the future as well.

After more than 26 people spoke in support of either the Banyan or Heart of the Beast, the MPRB discussed the proposal and unanimously voted to authorize the sale of the property to the Banyan. The proposal will next go before the MPRB at its February 6 meeting.

“We go back to ground zero. We have to continue looking for space,” said Niemi. “The value of having Waite House is it met all of our needs. So all of our needs need to be met in another building.” They are looking at options in the Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods, he said.

Diamond Jackson’s mother, Virginia Jackson, was all smiles after the meeting. “Banyan is a safe haven,” she said. Instead of kids just hanging out in the streets, the Banyan offers a place where kids can feel comfortable and safe, she explained. “Education is the key to moving forward,” Jackson said. At the Banyan, she sees children learning to be leaders and parents learning how to be a part of their children’s education.

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To see the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board meeting on the proposal, check out the Jan. 16, 2013 webcast on the MPRB website. Start at around minute 96:30.

Related articles:
• Minneapolis: Public hearing on future of former Waite House building set for January 16
• E-DEMOCRACY | Midtown community meeting held to vote on old Waite House site reuse proposals

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Andrea Parrott's picture
Andrea Parrott

Andrea Parrott is a freelance writer from the 'burbs. (Twitter: @andrea_parrott)