Don Samuels was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he grew up one of 10 children in his family. Although he lived in a poor section of town, Samuels went to school with middle-class kids, which he feels has given him an advantage.
To obtain a secondary education, youth had to earn a scholarship, and there were only a limited number of spaces for all children. Middle- and upper-class kids had the advantage of being exposed to higher quality learning institutions at an early age. Moreover, they were more exposed to a manner of speaking that, according to Samuels, enables people to become more educated.
“If you were middle class, then your parents had a better language at home — less patois dialect, Ebonics. And once you get to school, you don’t have to learn English. Literally, you’re speaking like a second language if you’re poor,” says Samuels, describing the way Jamaica’s educational system put the poor at a disadvantage.
“So when you go to school at seven, eight, you’re starting to learn [and/or speak] formal English for the first time…and so your reading and your writing becomes more of a challenge.”
Nevertheless, Samuels, along with seven of his nine siblings, were able to obtain scholarships and continue their educational pursuits. Samuels later moved to New York in 1970. He earned his degree in industrial design at Pratt Institute and eventually wound up working for various toy manufacturers such as Fisher Price, where he designed a variety of toys.
Samuels was invited to join a group of friends who had started their own company based in Minnesota, which is what initially brought him here. He eventually wound up on his own, designing toys and selling them to major manufacturers for royalties.
He continued this line of work until 1996, when he decided to enroll in Luther Seminary and follow in the footsteps of his father, a minister in Kingston. Although this was something he had thought about doing for years while designing toys, he wanted to make sure that he was not making a hasty decision.
“All through my design career, I was heavily involved in church,” Samuel says.
“Every Sunday in church, I was teaching Sunday school somewhere, running children’s programs somewhere… It was just my life. There was this half of my life that was not my profession — that was more passion [driven].”
When Don Samuels married his wife Sondra in 1996, they began to plan their future together, starting with where they were going to live and raise their family. They eventually decided on the Jordan neighborhood, on what Samuels describes as a “ravaged block” with prostitution and drug houses neighboring his new residence.
“We began to organize our neighbors and formed a block club, and we just kind of moved in on those [problem] houses. We did everything, like all of us piling up in two cars and going to the precinct after our block club meeting and demanding that they pay attention to our block…
“There were a couple of times when, after a meeting, we just walked around the block to all the problem houses, and all 15 of us or whatever stood at the fence, and two people would walk up to the door and knock on it and say, ‘You’re dealing drugs out of here, and we just had a meeting and talked about you. We want to talk to you, people to people.”
Samuels says that they eventually got rid of all the problem properties on his block and others in North Minneapolis using this approach, as well as going out to the suburbs, where most of the negligent property owners reside, and picketing in front of their homes.
At the time, the area that Samuels lived in was a part of the Third Ward, whose city council member was about to resign due to legal issues. Through the urging of others, Samuels decided to run for the Third Ward council seat, and won the post in 2003. After redistricting, his residence became a part of the Fifth Ward. Instead of moving, he ran for, and won, the Fifth Ward seat in 2005.
Samuels feels that the class and racial makeup of the community is a serious issue. Young White families are buying homes and moving in next to poor Black families who are renting properties owned by people who live in the suburbs.
According to Samuels, many professionals who work and earn their money in the Fifth Ward — police officers, teachers, pastors, even drug dealers and users — do not live in the area. He feels this is allowed to happen — the North Side gets used as a dumping grounds for non-residents’ problems and a place to go to have their vice needs met.
Ironically, to Samuels this situation creates a unique opportunity not just for the North Side, but also the entire country. “This is America’s greatest opportunity to do right. It’s the greatest opportunity to finally show the world that we are America! Until that happens, this is not America, and you know the truth about it is [that] as long as this is not America, there is no America!” Samuels states adamantly. “America is a fake!”
When all is said and done, it is clear that Don Samuels believes education is fundamental to developing and maintaining a prosperous community.
“When you stand far back and you look at the problem, you see a guy unemployed over there; you see a girl pregnant over there; and you see a guy selling drugs on the corner over there — that’s kind of the way you move into the problem.
“So you start saying that guy needs a job. Then you find out that he’s not educated; he needs some training, so you have to find some training for him… That girl’s pregnant, so the baby needs prenatal care, some food, and a place to live. And that’s how we’ve been solving the problem.
“But when you dig deeper, you ask how did that girl end up pregnant? How did that guy become unemployed? How did that guy end up selling drugs? And you realize [that] they’re not educated! But if we keep putting the Band-Aids on — and we have some pretty good Band-Aids — that girl’s kid is going to end up poor, and that drug dealer’s kid is going to end up poor…because what is happening at home and in schools is not life-transforming,” Samuels says passionately.
He believes that educators are the true community transformers, not politicians and policymakers, and that education is the key to the North Side’s future.
Both candidates see economic opportunity, security and stability as crucial elements to a healthy community. Aside from one candidate being a young woman, and the other being an older male, the clearest difference between them may be how they believe these things can be accomplished most effectively. In recent interviews, we asked the candidates to talk about their hopes and plans for the Fifth Ward:
For more information, go to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.donsamuels.com.
Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
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