Hawthorne Neighborhood’s newest staff speak

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Helping residents buy affordable houses in the Hawthorne neighborhood will be his priority, said Hawthorne Neighborhood Community (HNC) Executive Director Laban Ohito. “The community needs permanent residents. When people own houses, you have a community you can rely on.”

Ohito has been in his job for six months. He is the former Executive Director of Los Amigos, an international non-profit organization with a development program in Peru and a branch office in St. Paul. He left that job, he said, because “I was spending three weeks out of every month in Peru. At the time, I was a single parent. I could only be successful in my job at the expense of my kids.” He has five children; his wife Florence died of breast cancer four years ago.

Prior to Los Amigos, Ohito was the Executive Director of Kaleidoscope in South Minneapolis, where he established a summer youth program. Born in Kenya, he has a masters’ degree in public and nonprofit management from Metropolitan State University. A naturalized U.S. Citizen, he has been a Minnesota resident for 15 years.

He said he knew about the Hawthorne neighborhood’s challenges—it is a high crime, low income neighborhood—before he took the position. “The non-profit atmosphere is something I’m used to. Before I came here, I was following a lot of news stories about crime. This is the right place for me to make a difference. I want to look back in 10 years and say I was part of the team that helped turn things around.”

(Hawthorne is bounded by the Mississippi River on the east, Emerson Avenue on the west, West Broadway Avenue on the south, and Lowry Avenue on the north.)

Ohito said he believes the key is to involve the neighborhood. “I want to get them thinking about what we should do for ourselves. We have problems with drug dealing, prostitution, child neglect. You cannot come here with already-tailored plans and say to people, ‘This is best for you.’”

Hawthorne has many foreclosed houses, Ohito said, and also suffers from low-level livability issues such as littering. “There are people who deliver phone directories to abandoned houses. Even if there are five to 10 newspapers or pieces of literature already on a doorstep, they still drop their things there. We’re trying to stop that.”

Ohito said he has made staffing changes, including discontinuing the job of communications director—held by Bryan Thao Worra–and creating a new job, assistant director of community affairs. He recently hired neighborhood resident Alexandra Jasicki for that position. “She’ll be attending all of the neighborhood meetings. Some of them, she will organize herself.” He said there were 50 applicants for the job. Jasicki, he added, is a seasoned community organizer.

Jasicki said she has worked as a career counselor for the Minneapolis Workforce Center. She has experience in human resources and homelessness prevention. “I am excited to start learning what we can do to get area residents employed in North Side businesses,” she said. “This job encompasses all the things I want to do. I like working for the underdog. There are so many good things in Hawthorne and so many issues. As long as I live and work here, I’m committed to having a safe place to raise my kids.”

Jeff Skrenes, who has been HNC’s housing director since April, 2007, said that sorting out ownership on foreclosed homes has been difficult. “Mortgages get split; there are PSAs, pooling service agreements, which spell out who has the right to do what with a property.

“If a house is boarded and vacant,” he added, “it might end up on the city’s boarded and vacant registry, which creates another set of financial and bureaucratic hurdles. The hurdles are intended to ward off speculators and predatory investors, but it makes it hard for somebody to get one of those houses.”

There were about 160 boarded and vacant houses in Hawthorne last July, he said. “Six years ago, we had 16.”

Dealing with rental property also is a problem, Skrenes added, but “you don’t want a moratorium on rental licenses because if people lose their homes, they’re probably going to need to rent something. On the other hand, people who don’t want to get a license will just go underground and rent it out anyway.” He said the city and county have stepped up the demolition process, tearing down more than 100 houses last year, most of them in North Minneapolis.

Ohito said the executive director job came with its own set of challenges when he first arrived, because it had been vacant for so long. (Previous executive director Tait Danielson Castillo left more than a year ago.) “It was a free-for all. Board members would come in and ask me how far I had gotten in a letter I was writing. That is not how it works. A board sets goals, and after a period of time we have a conversation about whether or not I’m meeting them.

“I don’t do well with micro-management. I don’t micromanage my staff and nobody micro-manages me. I told them no, they’re not doing that. I think my accent makes the word ‘No’ more emphatic.”

Now, he added, “I have an excellent working relationship with the board. Sometimes we disagree strongly but we can sit back and listen to each other.”

Hawthorne Neighborhood Community (formerly called the Hawthorne Area Community Council) has 15 board members. The chair is Peter Teachout.

HNC has finished reviewing its Phase 1 NRP (Neighborhood Revitalization Program) plan and is now in Phase 2. “There is much less funding,” Ohito said. “As I looked at what they set out to do in the first phase, it seemed like anything that crossed anybody’s mind was put on the list. I don’t think the community was fully involved in what its immediate needs were. They didn’t define the major priorities. There was money tied to some projects and the projects were never implemented. There was no proper planning. When you plan something, you have to have it in mind how it is to be implemented.”

Ohito said, “I have a strategic fundraising plan. That has been my strength. I don’t want to look at NRP as the only source of income. If we do that, this organization has no future. I will approach some foundations, based on my past associations with them.” His goal for 2009, he added, is to get $100,000 in new money coming in. “That’s on the lower side, because of the downturn in the economy. I would have preferred that it be $500,000, but you can’t get half a million now. I want to be realistic.”

The neighborhood group had set up a revolving loan program, although Ohito said, “I don’t want to focus so much on that; my focus will be on foundations and grant writing.”

The neighborhood group will likely soon move out of the house it rents at 2944 Emerson Ave. N., he added, because the house changed ownership. He will be encouraging the board to buy a building. “If you own a building, it becomes the community’s property. You can’t rely on renting or having free space somewhere for long term planning.”

For information on HNC, call 612-529-6033. The web site is www.hawthornecommunity.org.

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