ISAIAH commits to North Side “repair job”


For various reasons, race relations in Minneapolis have been fractured for quite some time. Some believe they are forever broken, while many others prefer the band-aid approach, temporarily fixing a specific problem regarding race that only adheres until the next crisis occurs.

ISAIAH, an interfaith coalition, proclaims that it can begin the process of fixing racial inequality, as well as addressing other issues such as education, employment and health care. The faith-based organization emphasized its commitment to positive change on Minneapolis’s Northside at a May 29 public meeting billed as “Co-creating Healthy Communities and Racial Equity.”

“Restoring hope and repairing what has been broken” is this organization’s overall goal, say its members.

“We don’t live in a world that generates hope,” explained Michelle Dibblee, ISAIAH Minneapolis-Richfield-Bloomington caucus chair. “I think the public decisions that are made often are made out of fear rather than about hope.”

Additionally, a huge part of the “brokenness” involves divisions between people, revolving around race, age, gender and economics, she points out. “What I think is broken are relationships, and they need to be restored,” said Dibblee.

An estimated 90 congregations, ranging in location from St. Cloud, the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs to Rochester, Minnesota, make up ISAIAH. “Most of our congregations are White congregations,” admitted Dibblee, a member of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, which has been involved with the coalition since 1998. Greater Friendship Baptist Church and Redeemer Lutheran Church, which has a mixed congregation, are among the few churches of color involved, she pointed out.

ISAIAH is currently working with the Harrison neighborhood in North Minneapolis, where nearly 40 percent of the 4,100-plus residents are Black and the median household income is $21,000. The area also includes Basset Creek Valley, and its “Main Street” is Glenwood Avenue, which provides a primary transportation route to and from downtown Minneapolis.

Why Harrison?

“There is an opportunity there, with millions of public dollars coming in to redevelop the area,” claimed Dibblee. “The Bassett Creek Valley is one of the last underdeveloped areas near downtown.”

A Bassett Creek Valley Master Plan was released in January 2007. It includes building over 3,000 housing units, creating 2.5 million square feet of commercial space, and establishing nearly 40 acres of new open space. The Minneapolis City Council in 2000 established a redevelopment oversight committee for the project, selecting Ryan Companies as its developer.

ISAIAH and the Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA) want community resident involvement in the project from start to finish. The two groups are proposing a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would obligate Ryan to provide jobs and affordable housing in their $220 million redevelopment plan. Ryan is seeking over $70 million in public subsidies to help finance the project.

“The Harrison Neighborhood Association has done a lot of work with the community to determine what the community should look like,” continued Dibblee. “They don’t want a developer to come in and just make all of the decisions about what is going to be built there without input from those who already live there.”

The packed-house audience on May 29 inside Redeemer Church, which is located on Glenwood Avenue, was mostly White, with Blacks, Asians (who compose nearly 30 percent of the neighborhood) and Somalis sprinkled throughout the sanctuary. Originally described as a public meeting to discuss the CBA proposal, it became instead a call-and-response rally as ISAIAH members and others addressed the audience.

“We have to heal each other,” Dibblee told the gathering, which constantly received reassurances that ISAIAH was not just a bunch of White suburbanites who commuted in to tell persons of color what they want or need.

Several public officials, including Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels and Minneapolis School Board Members Chris Stewart and Theatrice “T” Williams, also attended. Samuels, Stewart and Williams were asked during the meeting to publicly show their support.

“I will,” said Samuels as he stood at the front of the church, indicating that he supports the Harrison CBA. MSR later tried to contact Samuels for further comment, but messages left on his office phone were not returned.

Stewart said he had no problem standing in front of the crowd. “I think that’s smart,” he noted. “You want people to do something, you directly put them on the spot.”

HNA’s Aron Khoury urged everyone to fill out and sign pre-prepared postcards addressed to City Council Member Joan Goodman asking for her support. He said that Goodman has not responded to HNA’s numerous requests to discuss the issue. “There have been a number of efforts to meet with her,” Khoury said.

HNA Executive Director Larry Hiscock concurred: “ISAIAH has approached her several times [over the past couple of years].”

However, Goodman’s Policy Aide Doug Kress said that ISAIAH and HNA only once contacted Goodman, and that just a couple of days prior to the meeting. “They contacted Council Member Goodman on Tuesday [May 27] and asked her if she could come to a meeting on Thursday,” explained Kress. “She already had plans for Thursday night and couldn’t change them.”

Furthermore, a Bassett Creek Valley CBA “is not needed,” Kress added. “The City also has their own affordable housing policy.”

Beginning “a repair job” in the Harrison area “is a good place to start for a community that has been marginalized to have a voice and some power in the redevelopment of that community,” Dibblee said, adding that health care and education issues need “fixing” all over Minnesota.

Change “is not going to be easy,” Williams, a Harrison resident, pointed out. “It is going to take a lot of hard work.”

“If the community stands together the way they said tonight, and people stick together, there are a lot of good things that could be done in our community,” said Pastor Hattie Horne of True Love Church Ministries of Arts located on Glenwood Avenue.

Melvin Washington, a former Harrison resident who now lives in another Northside neighborhood, said, however, that ISAIAH isn’t covering any new ground. “[Elected officials] make their decisions at city hall, and you have no input,” he explained. “Healthcare professionals can’t do what they should do because their hands are tied [due to red tape and other obstacles]. Jobs always have been an issue.”

Dibblee admitted that Black residents’ being suspicious of ISAIAH’s efforts is understandable. “There is a lot of stuff that we need to pay attention to as White people. What’s broken in large part is the relationships between communities of different races. Our work right now is to build those relationships.”

Rev. Kelly Chatman, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, said that he observed ISAIAH for several years before finally committing to working with them a year ago. “I had questions early on,” he said. “We had some really frank conversations around [race], and that made me feel these folks are serious about hearing the voice of persons of color, African American and Latino persons specifically. I feel real comfortable now.”

Dibblee was pleased with the huge turnout. “I think that the response tonight from the crowd as a whole would indicate that we were speaking with them,” she surmised. Chatman added, “The goal of this meeting was to build a platform that there would be follow-through on [the issues discussed].”

Washington, however, isn’t that sure. Despite the rah-rah pep-rally approach, “I didn’t feel empowered,” he concluded.

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