Walkin’ the talk, and other stories of longtime Phillips resident Muriel Simmons

"My love goes out to Muriel's family, friends and neighbors while together we hold this sacred moment. I'm remembering my dear friend and mentor's grace, her boundless, loving heart, her tenacity and courage in standing up to the toughest of the tough, her audacity when she persisted in the halls of power until they took note and the tide began to turn, the twinkle in her eye, her sassy wit, her sage advice, her honesty in telling her life story, the truth that cut out of her lovely mouth, the way she respected and honored everyone she met, her glowing, soft skin, her strong hands, her shoulders that carried the weight of the world and made it look like pure joy, the open doors of her welcoming home on the corner which anchored our whole neighborhood, her readiness and enthusiasm to do whatever the moment called for, her sweet affection, her encouragement, her vision, her walkin' the talk as she lived "community"...There's a massive emptiness where her tender-thundering heartbeat has been. Thankfully her heart will carry on beating in us, once we've lingered a while within this blessed stillness of remembering. Her words and deeds will resonate and forevermore illuminate even the darkest of places. Simmons family, thank you for sharing her with us and for all of the many ways you continue to shower Love on our community. We are so very blessed."

“Grandma was on the syllabus!”

When I started my block club and asked Open Eye Theatre to present a puppet show, Muriel immediately agreed to host us in her yard. When I called to say Madeline Douglas and I wanted to interview her on video, she didn't hesitate. When I asked her to be in the Snow Cone Cart skit, she said, "YES!". Every time I called Muriel, this is how the conversation would go. I'd say, "Is this an ok time to talk? You sound under the weather". She'd respond, "My body's not cooperating with me lately, but I can't bother with that now. I know you've got something going on, so tell me what you need me to do and let's get it done!".When I shared frustration that I wasn't drawing a lot of people to my meetings and events, she said, "That's not how it works! You'll start with one or two people and it'll grow, one by one by one". She said she started the walking club by enlisting folks one at a time from Ebeneezer and the Park Ave apartments

Once when I told her I was experiencing self-doubt, she said, "There's nothing wrong with self-doubt, because it gives you an opportunity to look things over and to turn 'em around, to flip them out on the table and say, 'is this really gonna work?' or, 'is this job too much for me? Well, it's never too much because there's always another avenue...You're gonna feel frustrated a lot of times and at the last moment, you're gonna be wondering, 'Is anybody gonna show? Are they really gonna do what they said they're gonna to do?' As long as you have these feelings, you're on the right track. When you stop having feelings, you've distanced yourself from the people and the problem."

She told me that one of her grand kids took a community activism class in college and was thrilled to discover that her own grandma was on the syllabus to be studied as part of the class.

"Do you CARE about this neighborhood?"

When I bought my house Muriel asked "do you CARE about this neighborhood?" "This neighborhood needs everyone of us to get involved and that means YOU". 

When her husband died she moved with five children to 27th and Portland & realized she had moved to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Mpls.;gun shots and a drug house nearby. Most would've closed the curtains and hid. Muriel opened her curtains & kept the lights on so dealers saw a family lived inside.

They set up on a corner to chat, hand out snow cones, meet the neighbors-moms, kids, drug dealers and prostitutes, & soon knew them by name. She'd say to dealers "It's tough out here and I see you working hard day and night, in rain and snow. If you'd find a positive way, you could have a really good life. Do you want my help? She was also tough and would say, "it's not going to work, having you and me on this same block and I hope you know, I'm not leaving".

Muriel:

  • made friends with other moms, started a phone tree to watch each others kids
  • Started an evening walk group to reclaim the neighborhood,
  • invited people to home for a holiday social gathering; now 300 -400.
  • started the Spring Fling,
  • started Phillips West National Night Out; now Mpls’ largest,
  • met big corporations asking "Do you CARE about this neighborhood? Because we need everyone to be involved and that includes YOU".

The Snow Cone Cart Story: “Stay Cool and Help…”

For the 2011 Bridging Festival, I wrote a neighborhood skit called “The Snow Cone Cart” to honor Muriel's community activism. Earlier in the day, Bart Buch from In the Heart of the Beast Theatre had neighbors write messages on white cloth with images of snow cones. Then we gathered in an empty lot on 5th Ave and, with Bart as director, the skit began with Muriel's grand kids playing with a big red ball. They heard groaning and looked over to see a bunch of adults trapped under a thick, black tarp. The kids ran over and heard adults grumbling, "I'm scared! This is horrible! It's so dangerous! Why doesn't somebody DO something?". The kids tried to help, to no avail, then ran over to Muriel. They gathered around her rocking chair and said, "The adults are stuck! What do we do?". Muriel answered, "We gotta stay cool and help each other out". The kids shared her message loudly, "WE GOTTA STAY COOL AND HELP EACH OTHER OUT!!" Together, they pushed Muriel's snow cone cart into view. She dipped her hand in and pulled out one of the neighbors' snow cone banners, "Stay cool neighbor". One by one, the kids handed out banners until we each held one of the precious messages. "Hola". "I love your laugh". "Have Courage". "Stop. Breathe". The band played while the kids freed the adults from their complacency and pushed the tarp to the side. Then, they began a spiral dance and invited the audience to join in. Soon the lot was filled with laughter and music as we all held hands and danced, celebrating the work and vision of Muriel Simmons. Afterwards, we had a party at Center For Changing Lives where her grand kids served hundreds of delicious snow cones to happy neighbors dancing to African music, telling stories and playing games.

For more stories and eulogies of Muriel Simmons, see:

"It's time to move up to the next level": Longtime Phillips resident Muriel Simmons still an inspiration

Muriel Simmons: "Grand Dame" of Phillips community

Muriel Simmons: Servant of the people, gentle giant, drum major, and more

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