Anne Long has worked for the Plymouth Christian Youth Center in North Minneapolis since 1973, including the past decade as executive director. She lives seven blocks from the Center and has been a part of many initiatives over the years to improve the north side. The Center is a $3.7 million operation, including a contract alternative high school. The Center also owns and operates the Capri Theater, one of the latest efforts to improve educational opportunities for youth and revitalize the community. Long sat down and talked to Daily Planet reporter Scott Russell about her life, the Center and North Minneapolis.
TCDP: Where did you grow up?
Louisville, Kentucky. I am a southern girl at heart. My husband and I decided that we wanted to change venue. He had gone to school up here and loved Minnesota. We went looking for work in the inner city.
What brought you to this work?
Some of my upbringing in the Episcopal Church and my minister, the Rev. Bill Gentleman. He was involved in the early civil rights movement. He went to help out in solidarity with [activists] Carl and Anne Braden. They had a cross burned in their front yard. Bill Gentleman was the only white minister that showed up to offer them any comfort and support. I remember him preaching about it. I was 11 or 12. I was so impressed with that. It stuck forever. … [Later,] I was active with the American Association of University Women (AAUW). I was part of the AAUW group that started the first Head Start in Louisville. I volunteered as a Head Start teacher for several years.
What was your first job at Plymouth Christian Youth Center?
I worked for a whole summer for almost nothing, as a volunteer with our summer park program. My husband was hired as a teacher. I liked the place. We weren’t in need of a whole lot of money. I said, “Heck, I’ll just volunteer for a while” and a job opened up.
How has that job changed in the past 30+ years?
The direct work with young people has not changed. What has changed is a broadening of our understanding of the scope of our work. We were working with kids and families and doing a little neighborhood outreach. But we did not see ourselves then, as we do now, as being called on to expand and to influence the greater community, even in economic terms. We see that now. We see that our presence here has to make a difference in the community in ways that add economic vitality, that add livability to the community and that also enhance the education and social functioning of the kids and the community. The other part that we have added in, that is really important, is our understanding of the role of arts and culture in accelerating all of this.
We have owned the Capri Theater since 1986. It wasn’t literally until we started looking into it [in the late 1990s] through our strategic planning process that it dawned on us that we had a tool right here in our midst that we had done nothing with in terms of integrating it into our programs, in terms of using it as a strategy for youth development, as a strategy for family stability, for neighborhood revitalization and the turnaround of north Minneapolis. Now we see the infusion culture throughout all that we do, we can’t separate it out from our work anymore.
So given the economy and tight funding, how is the Center doing?
The budget is a constant struggle. If we were only a school or only an arts organization, or only a youth and family development organization or only a community revitalization organization and had to depend on funding streams that were specific to those areas, we wouldn’t be doing well at all. We just happen to be blessed with being a multi-focused agency. We just received a $500,000 capital grant from the McKnight Foundation for the Capri Renaissance Campaign. We are elated. McKnight does arts, McKnight does community revitalization and youth and education. We can cut across all of that. … We also are very lean. I don’t have a secretary. I don’t have anybody who does my schedule. You have to talk to me. I do all my own typing.
Are things getting better for north side youth?
Yes, The drop in crime is real. Still, there is a concentration in our school of young people who have not been successful in their regular high school, which means they are more prone to seek out gang activity. For the most part, things were better than they were the year before. We had a few incidents of cars of young people driving up and people jump out and try to run in and take care of business with some of our students. It is people from the outside. That has not gone away. Gang activity is less organized. It is younger kids. They are more loosely organized than some of the gangs we used to deal with, which means they often can’t be as effective, but it also means they are unpredictable. We still have to be vigilant.
You have seen a number of youth-oriented initiatives come and go over the years. They don’t always have staying power. Now you are active in the Northside Achievement Zone. Are you optimistic?
As long as the people who are involved have several characteristics, I think we can sustain it. One of them is to be vigilant against pessimism. That is an act of will. You decide to be negative and pessimistic or you decide to be realistic with an optimistic flare. The second thing is, you have to keep an eye towards results, and to always make sure that the activities that we are doing-whether time in meetings or getting grants and setting up programs-we have to watch them to make sure there is some movement of the [achievement] needle. …
At this point, what is your biggest concern for north Minneapolis?
I suppose that there would be some major tragedy that would derail the real positive upturn-that would derail the drop in crime. Crime is such a big part of it. For years, that has been the deterrent to the retail coming back, to people being willing to buy houses. And now that it is turning so positively, that something would derail that, and there would be a huge something that would say, “See there-we knew it wasn’t safe in north Minneapolis.”
We are riding out the foreclosure crisis. Certainly it has been tragic for a lot of families. But the foreclosure crisis has had the effect of middle class families moving back into the neighborhood and finding housing values. Granted it is because someone else lost their house, but it is pulling people back in. I know several people that are moving deliberately to the neighborhood. They want to make a long-term commitment to making the neighborhood better. Which is why we live here. We think the best way you can make a neighborhood better is by living in it.
Scott Russell (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.