“Eight years ago they came up with a comprehensive plan and said that something was going to happen, and it didn’t happen,” says SPEAC member Shelly Martin, her voice echoing across the high-vaulted ceiling of Hope Community’s main building during a conversation with MSR. “As far as we’re concerned as community organizers, accountability is the number-one thing.”
Martin is talking about the Minneapolis Park Board and the disappointment of a group of Phillips organizers over what they say are the board’s broken promises to revitalize nearby Peavey Park.
On the corner of Portland and Franklin in South Minneapolis sits an impressive, brightly colored building identified as Hope Community. During the 1980s the area was in the middle of a crack-cocaine and crime-riddled neighborhood where Hope Community started as a women’s shelter in 1977. The organization is now a beacon to Phillips neighborhood residents, consisting of 173 units of low-income housing located mainly in and around its flagship office building.
Hope’s approach to community development has always been through involving community members in civic engagement. As a result, SPEAC (Sustainable Progress for Engaging Active Citizens), made up of community organizers between the ages of 18-25, was born.
After receiving the letter to the editor published here, we checked in with the editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, which originally published this article and will publish a second installment. He told us, “Park Board staff still have not returned our calls asking for input on this story.”
MSR was first introduced to SPEAC by sitting in on a listening session in 2007 as young community organizers discussed the results of conversations they’d had with neighborhood youth. Their model of community organizing consists of first identifying a community concern, then locating the root of the concern through research, presenting the results of the research to all interested parties, and finally approaching the power brokers for solutions.
Since the early 1990s, HOPE Community had been in conversations with the Minneapolis park board on revitalizing Peavey Park. In 2001, with community input, the park board created a plan that included a park facility. MSR recently revisited SPEAC for follow-up on their action plan.
“The park board never followed though with that promise,” Martin explains. “Now, almost eight years later, we are still waiting for a building.”
SPEAC member Marcus Ford says that through their research they’ve found that a dollar of community investment goes much further than a dollar spent to repair the damage caused by violence and crime. According to the City of Minneapolis’ “Blue Print for Action on Youth Violence,”
• A non-fatal shooting could cost the state $2-5 million.
• Most violent crimes take place between 2-6 pm.
• Youth are more likely to engage in criminal activity between the hours of 3-4 pm.
Park funding comes from the City of Minneapolis, property taxes and Local Government Aid. The park board then allocates funds to parks around the city. In an effort to determine whether Peavey Park in the Phillips neighborhood was receiving a fair share, SPEAC looked at all Minneapolis parks and found that Linden Hills Park in Southwest Minneapolis was most comparable in size to Peavey.
“We found huge disparities in the amount of funding that went into Linden Hills versus Peavey,” says SPEAC member Christy Clemmons, “which is really unfortunate for everyone, especially the youth, because recreation has such a profound impact on education, on income [and] on health.”
Clemmons says that while Peavey Park has four park programs, Linden Hills offers over 40. As for structural improvements, “Between 2005-2007, Peavey Park received no funding and Linden Hills received $55,000.” She adds that while Linden Hills has several staff members, Peavey Park has one full-time staff member.
“It’s funny because where you put your investment is where you’re placing your values,” Christy says. “So what does it say about where the park board is placing their values?”
Ford, a longtime resident of the Phillips neighborhood, says he knows most of the youth that live in the area. “I’ve watched them change from kids…playing basketball and in school, to being pulled into gang violence. I’ve had a couple of friends that have been shot or shot at, and they’ve done the same thing in return.”
Ford says he strongly believes that park programming could have helped reverse negative statistics for youth in the area.
Though SPEAC members are aware that all park programming has been hit hard by State and City budget cuts, they feel that the income level of residents should give some neighborhoods priority over others in the competition for available funds. Unlike those who live in the Linden Hills Park area, their research found that 38 percent of Phillips residents live below the poverty level.
Also, Martin says, “We have to acknowledge and recognize the racial equity piece and the disparities in funding… And we also have to always remember to hold institutions like the park board, city council, [and] the mayor accountable.”
SPEAC’s research found that 70 percent of Phillips residents are people of color, and people of color in the metro area make less money on average than Whites — $17,974 for individuals of color versus $35,619 for individual Whites.
“It is imperative that we invest more in the communities that need it,” Clemmons says, “because we are the ones who are going to be hardest hit in these difficult economic times.”
Making a sustaining impact
SPEAC member Shelly Martin is a strong supporter of park programming. She credits the parks for many of the leadership skills she developed as a youth.
“Part of the reason why I wanted to be an organizer [is] because I had people who invested their time in me. I was surrounded by peers who were doing positive things. I honestly believe that along with other institutions — schools, family, other mentors and teachers — [it] all had an effect on my development,” Martin says.
SPEAC members believe that a revitalized Peavey Park has the ability to improve the condition of Phillips residents. “Once there is a resource where people can build relationships and give back to their community, it does build who they are,” Clemmons says. “It builds self-esteem, their confidence, their connection to community.”
SPEAC is the product of what occurs when community members work together. It operates on a six-month training cycle, after which members may choose to either continue to do community organizing or become a part of the advisory council, keeping the group sustainable. Currently, the founders of the group are part of the advisory council.
“Leadership development is a huge core piece of what we do,” explains SPEAC member Clemmons. “[We] get the chance to lead training and facilitations for the next group… And it’s always based on the level of involvement that people want to have. So if life is hectic and [a leadership role] doesn’t work, then that’s cool.”
In late July, SPEAC met with community members to showcase their research, but action from the park board, they feel, is long overdue.
“If they would have followed through with their promise, how many children’s lives would it have affected?” Clemmons asks. “How many people would have been doing community organizing training and leadership development and giving back to their community now if that resource was there?”
Efforts to reach park board staff for comment on SPEAC’s charges of broken promises were not successful by our press deadline. We hope to provide the park board’s perspective on allegations of funding disparities in a subsequent story.
“The longer we wait,” says Clemmons, “the more generations are going to be lost in this neighborhood that’s already so strongly affected by poverty.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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