Northside Initiative supporters confront community detractors

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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 and organizations support the proposal, while others, including some black professionals, do not believe that a predominantly white institution like the U of M is best suited to lead such an effort.

University of Minnesota liaisons Robert Jones, senior vice president of system academic administration, and Craig Taylor, director of the office of Business and Community Economic Development (BCED), have both lived in North Minneapolis and feel they have a personal stake in the Northside Initiative.

Robert Jones lived on the Northside for 20 years. “I moved to the Northside after living in a suburban area. I wanted a community that was more diverse and welcoming than previously experienced. I enjoyed it… I, too, understand the needs of the community,” said Jones.

African Americans Coming Together(AACT), a community group opposing the proposed initiative, does not understand why the university’s name has to be involved at all. Sending out a message of self-sufficiency together with Parents Speak-Out, AACT’s mission is “to empower African American families to determine their own paths in reaching their highest potential.”

The group sees this happening with the guidance of black professional organizations such as the Black Psychologists and the Black Social Workers. “We need to be in charge of our community,” said Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as the president of the Black Psychologists and the African American Child Wellness Institute.

“There is a gap, and if you don’t fill it yourselves, someone else will. Our disparity is just another money-making opportunity for them [the U of M],” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “It’s great research. But is it culturally appropriate?”

After having lunch with child psychologist pioneer Dr. Dante Cicchetti, Garrett-Akinsanya told him, “If you build this, I’ll still build the African Child Wellness Institute.” This institute is currently a private practice group with an alliance of African American male and female psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists and counselors. The African Centered Wellness Model used by Akinsanya’s institute is based on a system of support using a circular formation of caring, wellness, and balance.

Gary Cunningham, CEO of NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, is possibly the strongest advocate for the Northside Initiative. He has published five reasons why NorthPoint is supporting a Northside Redesign Initiative:
• resources and financial investment,
• increased educational opportunities at the U of M and Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC),
• the creation of a family center,
•increased services, including a new state-of-the-art YMCA fitness center, and
• a place for community use, including meeting space and skills classes.

“I was reading about emotional intelligence,” said Cunningham, “and I came across the PATHS program, which is a program that teaches people how to work with their emotional intelligence before having an outburst. Forty-two percent of Black boys K-12 [in MPS] were suspended in 2000. They’re getting disciplined when they were really displaying a fear response. That’s the first time I saw Cicchetti’s name,” Cunningham said.

He was introduced to Cicchetti during a visit at the time of the university’s search process. After Cicchetti was considered, Cunningham visited Mount Hope in Rochester, New York. “What I had seen there blew me away! What he has been able to do, if the same could happen here, it would have a profound effect,” Cunningham said.

Garrett-Akinsanya wrote an article in response to the initial university meeting back in October 2005. She pointed out that the MN Black Psychologists and Social Workers were never approached. “I admitted…being offended by the fact that the gatekeepers opened the gate and did not allow those of us who hold expertise in working with black children and families to have a voice in their plans to collaborate.”

She referenced the Stages of Racial Identity, including conformity, dissonance, immersion, introspection, and synergetic articulation and awareness consecutively in one’s level of maturity. “The conformity stage of ethnic identity is a prime example of the unique role that white providers can serve in working with minority cultures. People in the conformity stage have a negative internalized self-image of themselves as black people and of their group’s ability to exhibit self-determination.

“Who should be included in the work of formulating healthy ethnic/racial identities for African American children and families? The answer is everyone. Who should lead this effort? African Americans should,” Garrett-Akinsanya said.

Scott McConnell, director of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), agrees on the value of a collaborative effort. “We as a university, and CEED in particular, have to have a broader conversation and bring specific skills in ways that support a broader goal — enduring partnerships with community members, service providers, and policy makers to improve outcomes for families,” he said.

Nancy Riley, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Social Workers, is not convinced and wants to know how the plan will develop. “There is no assurance that they will follow through. What is underneath the words? Show me a blueprint. The community has not been given all the pieces,” said Riley.

The Black Social Workers are identified as “allies” on a list of various partners printed on Jones’ Power Point presentation, but “I have not spoken to anyone,” Riley said, “and I am not happy about that.”

Next week: Institutional promises meet community fears

For more information about AACT and Parents Speak-Out, contact Carol Ann White or Lorraine Smaller at 612-521-5114. The university plans to host more community meetings for discussion of the Northside Initiative. For information, call Northway Community Trust at 612/521-4500; Northside Residents Redevelopment Council at 612/335-5924; Gary Cunningham, North Point Heath and Wellness, at 612/302-4600; or Robert Jones, University of Minnesota, at 612/624-3533.

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