Northside Initiative meets community resistance


University of Minnesota officials have big plans for the corner of Penn and Plymouth in North Minneapolis, where they envision a national model of university involvement in a community with multiple needs. Some community members, however, view the proposed facility as an unwelcome intrusion that could do more harm than good.

“The University has been ridiculed for not coming to the community first,” said Robert Jones, senior vice president of system academic administration at the University of Minnesota. “The fact is that we really had no plan, just ideas. We wanted to take the time to develop key partners who would have a vested interest and concern about that dialogue. We planned to have the conversations with the small groups first, then to seek out other ideas about what they would like to see.”

“North Minneapolis has faced a multiplicity of problems, an economic shift and a vast disinvestment which has affected the fabric of the community,” said Craig Taylor, director of the U of M’s Office of Business and Community Economic Development (BCED). “There has been a lack of foresight and planning around looking at transformation and communication from the inside out in lieu of continued deterioration.”

A native of Minneapolis and a resident of North Minneapolis, Taylor has seen this deterioration happen right before his eyes. “Money is going out of the community. There is no reason for other communities to surpass North Minneapolis, which has been here since there was a Twin Cites. It should be a strong, well-developed, well-rounded community,” he said.

The potential for intrusive research and the distribution of medicine are worries expressed by skeptical community members. “The concern is that people will be researched and used as guinea pigs,” said Jones. “We’d like to bring to the community clinical practitioners and intervention strategies that are more effective than current strategies.

“We need not be so afraid of research,” Jones continued. “Sometimes people forget that when they go to the doctor, they didn’t just pull their information out of their heads. It comes from a research perspective.”

From an institutional standpoint, said Scott McConnell, director of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), “It’s sad that the university is not a more effective resource for North Minneapolis. We need to be more humble and offer more carefully those things that will make a difference and build trust. Because of lack of trust, benefits will not be seen and, as a result, may not be obtained,” he said.

The issue of trust is not new. “Historically, the university has not been a good partner, and that is mainly because we really didn’t know how,” said Taylor. “That’s not an excuse, but this is the first time the university is looking at a way to be transformative in the community by leveraging resources.”

“The university needs to look at a broader vision to help this community deal with the critical education challenges of North Minneapolis,” Taylor continued, “[examining] what role does the university play in making sure this happens.”

Carol Ann White, lead organizer of the community group African Americans Concerned Together (AACT), named several of the university’s failures to engage with the community. “They closed the Broadway Health Center. They were offering college courses that have been discontinued. Then they closed General College,” she said. “If they were so sincere, why are we in such a pitiful state?”

AACT is composed of Northside community members, the faith community, and even former educators like Lorraine Smaller. “If the community will become whole and well, it has to be done ourselves,” she said. Smaller, former founder and director of the Hands On Cedar-Hill Academy (1989-2002), said, “We fought to save children from the consequences of special education.”

“We cannot just deal with promises, but evidence,” said White. Statistics, charts and graphs have been shared at community meetings hosted by AACT and Parents Speak-Out, another community group opposing the proposed research facility. One such graph showed the “Racial Composition of Total Hennepin County Children in 2000” compared to the “Alleged Victims of Maltreatment” in investigations begun in 2003. Of the 14 percent of African American children in Hennepin County, 44 percent are identified as victims of maltreatment. “Most kids are taken out of their homes not because of maltreatment, but neglect,” said White.

“And there is never any consideration of why,” she continued. “Maybe the mother couldn’t afford to put food in the refrigerator.” Members of the group have composed a 52-page document of research done in African American communities from 1833 to 2005.

This research includes the clinical trial of fenluramine (fen-fen) used on mostly young African American and Hispanic males at Columbia University’s New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in 1992, and the more recent disclosure in 2005 by the New York City Administration of Children’s Services that foster care children were used in experimental AIDS drug trials.

The group also cited research done on the Northside since the late 1970s. “In 1976, they took away our disciplinarian rights. Then out-of-home placement was on the rise. Then Hennepin County collaborated with the federal government to recruit welfare recipients to the Twin Cities,” said Smaller.

“Cicchetti had North Minneapolis as a stipulation for hiring. The [Northside] seems to be set up, creating an environment [over the years] so that Cicchetti could come in,” suggested Gail Smaller.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment lasted for 40 years between 1932 and 1972, affecting the lives of some 400 Black men and their families. These men, mostly illiterate sharecroppers from Alabama, were told that they were being treated for “bad blood” when in fact the men, who were in the late stages of syphilis, were not treated at all.

How does Tuskegee compare to what is being proposed by the University of Minnesota’s Northside Initiative? Due to this experiment and many other studies done on people of African descent in the United States, there is a history of “bad blood” between black communities and major institutions such as the government in the case of Tuskegee and the university in the case of North Minneapolis.

How are African American institutions responding to the university’s plan? Gary Cunningham, executive director of North Point Health and Wellness Center, doesn’t see the Tuskegee connection: “How does Tuskegee compare? Because every time I look at it, I just don’t see that,” he said.

Perhaps that was the case with Eunice Rivers, a black nurse who participated in the Tuskegee study, who defended herself by saying, “We were taught that we never diagnosed, we never prescribed; we followed the doctor’s instructions!” A Tuskegee doctor even praised “the educational advantages offered our interns and nurses as well as the added standing it will give the hospital.”

“We need to be holding blacks accountable in key positions who are sitting at the table,” said White.

“Black people have been known to be reactionary, but it’s imperative that we are proactive on this as well as other issues,” said community liaison Brother Wesley Smith. “There is a war going on, and it is serious,” added Smaller.

AACT has discussed other ideas about how to use the space at Plymouth and Penn for the benefit of the community. “We could have the first Northside Business Association where we provide business training for small businesses and young entrepreneurs. Or a recreational facility with a playground for children. If they have no plan, then we should get together to write our own,” said Brother Abdul, a presenter at the community meeting.

AACT members say they will continue to petition and urge supporters to call Hennepin County commissioners, city officials, and community institutions such as Northpoint Health and Wellness that have supported the Northside Initiative, and to tell them, “I do not want the U of M building a Mental Health Research Center in my community” (as stated in a Parents Speak-Out handout). Protests have been held by Parents Speak-Out and AACT on the corner of Penn and Plymouth Avenues in North Minneapolis every Saturday for the past two months.