A seat at the table: Jeremiah Ellison uses artist lens and collaboration to reimagine representation in Ward 5

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This profile is part of our “Seat at the Table” series highlighting seven new LGBTQIA candidates and candidates of color running in the 2017 Minneapolis City Council election. Catch the kick off of our series here, and check back every week for another installment of the series.

The vibe in Broadway Pizza always puts me at ease. It’s just full of real people. The waitresses actually ask questions and joke without sounding like they are reading from a script. They remind me of my mom back when she was slinging plates. The bartenders talk to folks at the bar and laugh with them. Just real people. Broadway Pizza’s location in the heart of North Minneapolis was the perfect place to meet a candidate running to represent Ward 5: Jeremiah Ellison.

Despite the last name, when you see this Ellison you don’t immediately think “politician.” More than likely he won’t be in a suit and he won’t talk to you about the strategy of electoral politics. He might have a comic book or graphic novel at hand. He might have art supplies. And he will talk to you about what he sees impacting his people. He will talk to you about strategizing for justice. And he will talk to you about his home.

 

The community that made Jeremiah Ellison

On May 22, 2011, a tornado tore through North Minneapolis. For a couple days, maybe a week, the Northside received an outpouring of support. It was as if, all of a sudden, the same people responsible for the massive disinvestment of the Northside wanted to talk about collective bootstrapping and Northsiders’ resilience. Politicians and media darlings brought the camera crews and posed in front of fallen trees, swept away shrapnel, with survivors and teams of volunteers. The tragedy made for much political ado about decades of underserved neighborhoods. But as quickly as the attention came it disappeared – a point not missed by some local media. Eventually things returned to normal and we started hearing the same song being spun about the Northside. It was the urban badlands once again, the boogeyman. It certainly wasn’t anyone’s home.

Unlike the fair weather friends who only blustered in when the story was juicy, the Northside to Ellison is a place worth sticking around and standing up for. For him, it’s home.

“I was born and raised in North Minneapolis. On the corner of 17th and Bryant,” he said. “I wouldn’t run anywhere else but home.”

As a kid, Ellison played football at North Commons, the park just a few blocks away from where he grew up as one of four siblings. When he was just 7 years old, he began a lifelong relationship with Juxtaposition Arts by taking classes, similar to ones he would later teach there as an adult. Ellison chuckled when I asked him how he first got connected to Juxtaposition Arts.

“Man, my folks were looking for something to keep me busy in the summer,” he said with a smile. Kim Ellison, Jeremiah’s mother and an at-large director of Minneapolis Board of Education, laughed when I asked her how Jeremiah got interested in art at such a young age.

“I don’t know where he got it from, his dad’s a lawyer and I’m a teacher, I don’t consider myself creative, but he just has always loved art, he’s always loved to draw,” she said. She paused and smiled even more broadly. “We heard about the class and he needed to get out of the house! They told us he would be able to do the classes but when they started the mural he would have to be done.” Ellison ended up working on that mural.

Roger Cummings, who together with his partner Deanna Cummings and Peyton Russell founded Juxtaposition Arts, remembered Ellison from those early days. “He was sophisticated at a young age, Cummings said. “He saw what he wanted and persevered.”

 

Collaboration, for those who ‘don’t do politics

Remembering his earliest days at Juxtaposition Arts, Ellison reflected on how collaboration became so fundamental to his practice.

“We wouldn’t just go out and paint a mural,” Ellison said. “We asked the community what they wanted to see, what they needed…It didn’t mean we couldn’t also put ourselves on the wall, it just meant that we had to expand who we thought of as our collaborators. If the mural will be public, then the process should reflect the people that have to see it every day.”

Similarly, Ellison wants to bring these values of collaboration and accessibility from his artmaking to the political sphere. Arianna Genis, Ellison’s campaign manager and partner, spoke about how he has emulated these ideals throughout his career.

“His art centers around how do you take something complicated like gentrification and design a comic so that someone can begin to understand what that looks like,” she said. ”He is going to show up in the way that he needs to, and he carries those voices and stories with him.” By focusing on engagement and collaboration in his projects, Ellison has seen more people contribute their ideas and have an impact on the outcome.

 

 

“As a public artist, I encounter a lot of people that will tell me they ‘don’t do art,’ only for them to find out later that they do. They have this energy in them that makes them want to create – all I need to do is make an invitation and give some technical knowhow,” Ellison said.

He continued, “Similarly, I encounter a lot of folks who will tell me or others they ‘don’t do politics,’ but a faint scratch of the surface reveals a great many of their concerns are political. And not only that, but they actually have some questions they need answered. And not only that, they actually have ideas for solutions to problems. Again, all I need to do – and not just me – is make the invitation and give a little support.”

Cummings built on this aspect of Ellison’s attitude, “He is able to bring an approach of what’s in it for both people. That’s why people all across the city want to work with him.”

Already, Ellison has garnered the endorsement of organizations like OutFront Minnesota and Our Revolution Minnesota. On Friday, March 17, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change endorsed Ellison as well.

It might be easy to think of Ellison as simply following in the footsteps of his father, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, but the family’s history of service goes much deeper. He speaks with pride about both his grandmothers on both sides of the family organizing in their communities, about a great grandfather who worked on voter registration in the 1950s. And of course his own parents who hold elected office right here in Minneapolis. He values this tradition of service – and it’s not for show.

“I’m community embedded, I’m from here…It makes it more than just about me, quite honestly. I think that anytime you are a part of a community, if you’ve been around and you’re genuine and you contribute, there is going to be some element of serving community that is just a little bit beyond you. Knowing that the community’s needs are not theoretical. And knowing that, your ability and your desire to collaborate with the community is innate when you have that embedded aspect.”

 

Photos by Anna Rajdl Photography.

 

Platform built to engage

In 2013, when the current Ward 5 City Council Member Blong Yang was elected, voter turnout in the ward was 23.53 percent – this in a ward where 82 percent of the residents are people of color, and nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The results beg the question: have Ward 5 residents seen candidates that stand for their values and experiences?

When I talked to Brandon Williams, a sophomore at Augsburg College who grew up in the ward, he mentioned the need for the representative to be “assertive and stand up and use their voice and their power.” He named low engagement as something that needs to change.

“I want a representative to tell us ‘You’re making my job harder [by not participating]. I need your voice,’” Williams said. During the 2013 campaign, Williams knocked on doors for Blong Yang, but later he felt a disconnect between Yang and the Northside. This disconnect was apparent in a number of Yang’s actions: from his absence and criticisms of the Fourth Precinct protests to his opposition to a ballot initiative for a $15 minimum wage – an initiative he argued “would have negative impacts on people in his ward.”

Roxxanne O’Brien, longtime Northside resident and organizer, saw the old approach – platitudes for community and loyalty to the status quo – continue, despite Yang’s campaign platform dedicated “to eliminate racial gaps in employment, education, health, homeownership and other areas.”

“Blong failed because he went straight to elite groups when he came in,” O’Brien said. “All those conversations about equity flew right out the door, he didn’t seem to have much empathy about housing issues, he had opportunities to connect with people who are passionate about housing and he gave them the runaround after he said he would help.”

Conversely, Ellison wants his platform to engage voters in a way the low turnout numbers suggest they haven’t been.

“The process of how North Minneapolis has been engaged, for the most part, especially at the local level is… too many people’s victories hinge on low voter turnout,” he said. “Regardless of who’s there I think that people’s political opinions need to be propped up. I feel that such low voter turnout has translated to a lack of access and a lack of availability of the candidate and of how to make changes.”

Ellison’s platform builds on policies that have gained traction locally and nationally, such as championing workers’ rights, ensuring affordable and decent housing for all residents and addressing issues of environmental justice in North Minneapolis.

When tackling such issues, Ellison wants to implement multi-pronged solutions. For example, when it comes to public safety and policing, not only does Ellison want to bring back a citizen review board to Minneapolis, but also repeal more ordinances that unfairly target people of color and the poor – as the City Council did with spitting and lurking laws in 2013. In addition, especially to reduce youth violence, Ellison wants to see more public health strategies brought to public safety, rather than just confronting such issues with policing and patrolling only.

“I know we all want someone to call when we feel like our safety is under threat,” Ellison said during the Feb. 16 Neighborhoods Organizing for Change candidate forum. “But we need a deep examination of what it is that keeps us safe. Because so far, I don’t believe giving men from the suburbs guns is going to keep Northsiders safe. We know what works.”

 

Photo by Anna Rajdl Photography.

 

All of Ellison’s policies center on input from the community. From Ellison’s call for a participatory budget process to removing lead and asthma triggers in the city, Ellison’s platform taps into issues that affect residents who have traditionally been left out or ignored by their government.

“Once I decided to run, again, it was about having numerous conversations and actually getting together a committee of community members and policy experts to collaborate on making our values tangible and tactile,” he said.

“I want to be able to demonstrate what I mean when I’m using certain language because that allows people to enter into collaboration, and allows me to enter into collaboration with folks who might know more about an issue or might have a different perspective on an issue. It allows for accountability.” This focus on community voice and accountability is intentional with Ellison. Ellison said the platform is his way of paying respect to the community that raised him and treating them as residents deserve.

When I walked in to Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on the morning of Feb. 18, it was quiet. Sammy was working in the back. The Ellison campaign was hosting one of many coffee chats with the candidate. Genis was on her computer at a table and Ellison was having a conversation with Ward 5 resident John Weissert about police accountability. They wrapped up just as I sat down nearby. I asked Weissert what brought him in that morning.

“Man, it’s my neighborhood coffee shop. I’m here often,” he said. He nodded his head at Ellison. “I just saw him at the NOC candidate forum and was impressed, so I wanted to say ‘hi’.” I asked Weissert what he liked about Ellison, “His ideas are sound. He wants to empower and organize his community. It’s about the community not Jeremiah.” He shook my hand and went on about his day.

The Northside is full of people like Weissert, like Williams and like O’Brien. Real people who too many politicians have talked about and not to. Real people who have been represented at City Hall by votes from less than 24 percent of the community. Ellison is running to change that.

“Public art should be democratic. My art practice has always sought out meaningful collaborations – democracy, after all, is just one big running collaboration between all of us, right?” Ellison said.

That comes with having an artist in City Hall.

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