New Sabathani director explores new ways to stretch limited resources


Ernest Johnson’s mission for South Minneapolis’ Sabathani Community Center is to move the organization to the next level. In his view, Sabathani serves “a changing population within a political environment that hasn’t been nonprofit supportive.” He has accepted the challenge of leading this 40-year-old institution into the future. “We owe it to [the people] to be around,” he said.

Johnson was hired as Sabathani’s executive director in October 2006 and officially took office in January 2007. He first joined the Sabathani community as chief operating officer in October of 2001.

Johnson’s predecessor, Jim Cook, served as executive director of the center for 28 years. Sabathani embarked on an eight-month search for a new executive director, with 27 strong candidates chosen from a national applicant pool. One of three finalists for the position, Johnson proved to be the last man (or woman) standing.

The first aspect of Johnson’s vision for Sabathani is to cultivate an environment of cohesiveness. “Structurally, we want to provide the best service at the least cost… We need to reduce the silo affect,” he said. That’s where his plan to incorporate more partnerships comes in.

Sabathani is part of the Metropolitan Alliance of Community Centers (MACC), a collective of 21 organizations around the Twin Cities area that share knowledge in best practices, capacity building, training, and even executive support. Other member community centers include Pillsbury United Communities and Phyllis Wheatley.

“We need to stop trying to do things by ourselves,” said Johnson.

Sabathani is a community of small and large nonprofits and service agencies. Within the last several years, there has been a noticeable turnover rate of tenants due to economic changes within some of these organizations, including loss of funding. Sabathani relies on the support of its tenants — their rent is the only support for day-to-day operations.

But Johnson believes there is a way to better align resources. He would like Sabathani to partner with tenants to improve the center’s service provision. “This is one way to make sure that we are helping everyone who walks through the door,” said Johnson.

Eventually, Sabathani will increase partnerships with other organizations like African American Family Services, the African American AIDS Taskforce, and even Southside Health Services. They are already on their way with the establishment of the new James G. Cook First Health Access Center.

This new health center is a free, small health clinic with a volunteer pediatrician and even a free pediatric dental clinic. “Health Access will eventually grow to serve the community, beginning to address health disparities, especially for those without insurance,” said Johnson.

The mission of Sabathani Community Center is to strengthen youth, children and families and to build the capacity of the community it serves. The mission drives the behavior of the center as it relates to the community.

Members of Sabathani Baptist Church originally founded Sabathani Community Center in 1966. The church later split to form Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist and Macedonia Baptist Church, both located in South Minneapolis. “We try to carry on those same principles from 40 years ago,” said Johnson.

At that time, Sabathani focused on youth and family development for predominantly African American service seekers. But times have changed, and so too have the constituents who come to 310 East 38th Street.

Johnson says that one-third of Sabathani’s constituents are now Latino. He says this doesn’t mean the center will lose its African American heritage, but they are there to serve everyone in need. “Our funders and the community keep us accountable,” said Johnson.

Part of the unseen mission is to work with individuals to help them overcome barriers to achieving self-reliance and healthy lifestyles. Sabathani will continue their legacy of service by making the best use of what they have.

In 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, Sabathani Community Center housed a Katrina Advocacy Group that was quite successful. “We noticed how successful we were in helping people to move on with their lives,” said Johnson. He would like the same influence repeated with recipients of the food shelf.

A navigators unit is being established for intense advocacy and case management. This newly added system will help food-shelf recipients become less reliant on this specific service and more likely to use other services that Sabathani provides, including Life Skills, language classes, or youth development and mentoring programming.

“The grand plan is to work with the whole person, and if we’re going to work with a child, we have to work with their parents,” said Johnson.

Sabathani’s major challenge moving forward relates to moving from activity-based to outcome-based. To address social ills like poverty and hunger with maximum impact, Sabathani is charged with a greater responsibility. “It is no longer acceptable to feed just 10,000; you have to go further and figure out how to help people feed themselves,” said Johnson.

Lauretta Dawolo Towns is the news director at KFAI-Fresh Air, Inc. She welcomes reader responses to