Created only four months ago, HIRE MN (Healthcare, Infrastructure and Renewable Energy), a grassroots coalition of community organizations pushing for public investments for new green jobs with living wages while promoting more environmentally sustainable communities, has been turning out hundreds of people at their town-hall meetings.
How has HIRE MN been so successful in mobilizing hundreds of Minnesotans in such a short time? I sat down with the dynamic founder of HIRE MN, Louis J. King at his office at Summit Academy OIC to find out.
TCDP: How did the idea for HIRE MN come about?
Louis J. King: When I look at things I don’t just look at them for where they are now, I think about where they’re going to be tomorrow, a month from now, a year from now, and where do I want them to be? How do I create that? What does it take? When [Barack Obama] got elected – he set a new example and you could visibly see all the different people he had around him. But winning a campaign was one thing, going to D.C. and changing business is another, so can he do that? And if he does do it, what does that mean for us here in Minneapolis, city hall, St. Paul? What can we do as everyday people and how do we do it, to make sure that the lofty goals set forth by the president reach Joe Kool-Aid, Joe Crystal Light? Everyday people.
I looked at it and said wow, this is a great opportunity, a great challenge that is way too big for me, so I got to get something to get their attention. What is it all about? Stimulus. Jobs. OK, HIRE: Healthcare, Infrastructure, Renewable Energy.
Renewable energy is hot and sexy right now so you’ll just get people all over. Infrastructure: MnDOT, the evil empire, just a bad reputation – doesn’t do right – closed society. They don’t include minorities and women, don’t care about what the public thinks. They’ve never been under any scrutiny, never had to take a punch and be part of a sustained campaign. Healthcare: down right now, but the population is getting older, the workforce is shrinking, gonna come back, gonna be a priority, lets deal with this.
So I got on the phone and called a woman by the name of Maura Brown who works for the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability and I knew Karen Monahan from EJAM (Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota) through Keith Ellison, so we sat down and by now I had this vision, this idea that if I didn’t have a lot of money I could show up with a lot of people and the way you get a lot of people is to have these town hall meetings.
So we had one on December 16th, a really miserable night, and 200 people came out. It was like, phenomenal. Then we moved to the Lao Family Center in St. Paul. Now what’s interesting about this is, people in North Minneapolis don’t go to St. Paul. In fact, people in North Minneapolis don’t go to South Minneapolis! So for a North Minneapolis-born idea to pick up and maneuver to University Avenue and partner with the Southeast Asian community – that’s like, you don’t do that – oh yes we did! And we turned out 400 people.
People in North Minneapolis don’t go to St. Paul. In fact, people in North Minneapolis don’t go to South Minneapolis! So for a North Minneapolis born idea to pick up and maneuver to University Avenue and partner with the Southeast Asian community – that’s like, you don’t do that – oh yes we did!
Then we picked up again and moved to the American Indian Center and turn out over 500 people & then we ended up at Sabathani.
There’s a formula to this thing that I figured out – typically, the environmentalists are over here saving the whales and they miss the middle-band people and they definitely miss poor people and people of color because we’re too busy trying to make it – like what’s happening tomorrow? Where’s the next meal coming from? Where am I gonna live? Those fundamental things. Can I get a job? The whales? God help em!
Then you have the social justice people and they don’t have any of people of color with them. They are part of the dance at the capitol. Then you have people like me. I just focus on doing what I do: training people. Let’s put them to work. We don’t have time for all of that other stuff. Don’t feel sorry for us – social justice is a job. You wanna do something for us? Help us get some work. Other than that, all these other issues we don’t have time for.
But, here’s what happened and this is why we can fill a room: the environmentalists understand the environmental issues around saving the planet, renewable energy, energy efficiency, so they’re the subject area experts there. The social justice people understand lobbying and organizing and strategies for bringing people together and they have communication channels that can mobilize.
I got a lot of people and I also understand the ground game. So if you take all three of those together and people from all walks of life – from greater Minnesota, from suburbs… you got all those people there and a common vision and strong leadership. So it’s a special group at a special time doing a special thing. So that’s how it all came together. Now it’s much bigger than me. It’s much bigger than Summit. It’s got a life of its own and the deal now is figuring out how to close on the short term objectives and figure out the long term future.
You say at all your meetings that the best social service program in the world is a job. That’s kind of the main philosophy of HIRE right? Can you say more about that?
King: Oh absolutely. We believe in several things. Three principles drive us. One: organize across boundaries. If you’re just rolling with your own kind, like the Republicans, you’re going to be very limited. The Republican party has said this; there are some smart people over there and they’ve looked out and said, ‘huh, there’s a whole heap of them from different kinds of places and then look at us.’ Organize across boundaries.
Two: be prepared and be heard. Don’t just roll out there on emotion. Go out there and make sure you’re doing the right thing. Know the facts. Be properly organized. Do the trench work. And be heard. Either you will make it happen or it’s going to happen to you.
Either you will make it happen or it’s going to happen to you.
And the third thing is, at the end of the day nobody wants to be taken care of. Everybody wants the dignity of being self sufficient. In the rawest sense it’s the guy standing out on the corner depending on people to give him ashtray money. Well, what if we gave that person a job, and before that we gave him some skills, and before that we gave him a culture to belong to. See, we’re herd animals. We like to belong. There are some weird people that don’t, but for the most part we’re joiners. Give them a culture, some skills, and then an economic opportunity and that is the true measure of this country.
It was initially about, can I be free? I couldn’t vote. If I can’t vote I can’t make any laws, I can’t influence capitalism. Now that we have those two matters settled – can I get some of the doe-ray-me? Can I work?
Instead of you fixing my social ills, how about let’s create a scenario where everyone has equal access. And I want to be very careful about this, I don’t want to talk about you giving me the opportunity. You don’t have the right to give me that, the constitution guarantees it. We the people, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, inalienable rights – its all there. So let’s go with the best social service program, that the people in Edina have, Wayzata, Minnetonka, Woodbury… lets go with the best social service program – a job.
What unique and important function do you feel grass-roots organizations have in making change?
King: They take away the intimidation factor. It’s everyday people meeting in everyday places talking about everyday things. They are accommodating. They reach out to make people feel welcome, instead of breeding elitism. There’s no uniform. Its meeting people where they are and letting them know that their voice is important. Have you ever seen Finding Nemo? At the end all the fish are swimming down – well, if all the fish swim down the whole net goes down. That’s grass roots.
HIRE has focused a lot on pressuring MnDOT to provide jobs for low-income communities and people of color. What specific role and responsibility do you think MnDOT has in this?
King: Government agencies often lose sight of the people in government agencies. They always want to say there’s no such thing as an agency, it’s the people. But they lose sight of who they work for and why they’re there. They get too cozy with the people they do business transactions with. This is clearly the case with MnDOT. MnDOT has become insulated, it has a fortress mentality. There is no sense of accountability to the public, the public being the taxpayers.
MnDOT has become insulated, it has a fortress mentality. There is no sense of accountability to the public, the public being the taxpayers.
One of the rules says that if a contractor takes money from the government they are required to meet certain hiring goals set by the department. The department’s job is to enforce those rules, that’s on one side. On the other side they’re given a budget to conduct outreach and training so that there is a workforce – a workforce that has knowledge, skills and access. And they have failed miserably on both accounts and continue to fail and offer excuses. And they do have a commissioner that appears to be willing to turn the corner, but he needs a lot of help and we’re gonna help him.
Can you tell me about how you teamed up with Will Steger?
King: I had never heard of Will Steger. You know, I’m out there just doing my thing and this guy shows up at the first town hall meeting and the waters just kind of parted. Everyone was like “ahhhhh…” and I thought what is this? And he starts talking and he’s the kind of guy I can follow cause he’s so calm and reserved, but he’s been to the Arctic a couple of times – I mean I slip and fall in my garage on the ice! This guy is tough.
So I thought… I gotta get out of my box. This is not about me. Here’s a person I can learn from, here’s a person people look up to and respect. Here’s a person who’s been out there and committed for the longest. So I researched him and thought, I have to have him for co-chair. If he’ll do it I think it would send a powerful signal to the community that we are one people on one planet. He said yes & now we’re unstoppable.
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HIRE MN held a rally at the capitol on April 20 to send a message to the legislature that citizens want access to new transportation, infrastructure, and green technology projects that are to be created with federal stimulus funds. No specific next event has been planned yet, but with lots of public interest, support and excitement around what HIRE has been doing, it is certain that they will be back out soon – prepared and being heard!
Mysti Strege is a student at Hamline University and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.
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