Hope Community buzzed with activity the night of Dec. 15, as 50 or so people gathered for a Parks and Power event titled “People’s Assembly on Gentrification.” It was a people’s assembly in the truest sense of the words. Newcomers and longtime organizers alike shared a meal and shared ideas, discussing everything from the state of the city’s dilapidated and underfunded parks, to park workers’ rights, public spaces and gentrification.
Meetings such as this are at the heart of the Parks and Power campaign, a grassroots movement born out of the Sustainable Progress through Engaging Active Citizens (SPEAC) trainings facilitated by Hope Community Inc. Parks and Power aims to forward racial equity within the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation system by engaging everyday people to come together and articulate common values, find common ground and build solutions together.
Through community meetings and trainings, the growing movement has helped residents gain an entryway into organizing, residents like Londel French, Felicia Perry, Martin Brown and Brettina Davis.
These four represent just a few of the many community members that have contributed to the projects within Parks and Power. Through art, representation, community gardens and combating gentrification, they are helping to build community power to make Minneapolis parks – and the city as whole – spaces that everyone can enjoy.
Profession: Special Education Paraprofessional at Minneapolis Public Schools
“I want to run to give a voice to people who look like me and come from the places where I come from,” Londel French, a candidate for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB), explained.
French grew up in Milwaukee, in a predominately Black neighborhood that deteriorated when French was a teen as the result of a local factory closing. In his early twenties, French moved to Minnesota with hopes of finding and building community in another Midwest metropolis.
French found his way into part time positions working at Minneapolis parks, beginning with Richard Green Central Park. He also began working for Minneapolis Public Schools in 2000.
In a way that he had never experienced before, he began immersing himself in the community around him.
“There is so much joy, knowing that you made an impact on a kid’s life and that they remember you,” he said.
It’s now been 17 years since his journey in Minneapolis parks and schools began. He still works with special education students within Minneapolis public schools. He still coaches adaptive bowling and oversees other youth activities throughout the city.
But his longtime advocacy work on behalf of equitable parks, child advocacy and education, and park workers’ rights has compelled him to do more and run for an at-large, citywide seat on the MPRB. One of Parks and Power’s main goals – without endorsing any particular candidates – has been to change the representation of the parks board to be more reflective of the diverse communities the board serves. Currently, only one out of nine members is a person of color. On Nov. 17, Parks and Power held an open meeting to help educate community members on how to run for the board.
Upon hearing about the meeting and the opportunity, French suited up, showed up, listened and shared with fellow participants his vision for building power for a better Minneapolis Parks system. French is one of several candidates taking up the mantle.
“When I say, ‘the parks, the people and the power,’ I’m talking about the folks that work at our parks. They’re non-union jobs. They’re at-will employees. And for many of these folks, it’s their only job,” he explained, advocating for a living wage and benefits for the employees.
He also wants to see more career growth opportunities at Minneapolis parks for people that have spent their lives within those communities, who have devoted themselves to the parks’ successes, regardless of whether or not the funding was available.
“We need to pick people who have been invested in our communities to be park directors… I want those people to be regarded as educators,” French said.
And, as French insists, these imperatives illustrate just the kind of changemaker that he is and will be.
Profession: Fashion Designer, Teacher, Dancer, Artist
“Families have so many roots here. And yet they are just invisible.”
Felicia Perry is a mom, a fashion designer with her own couture line Feeperella, as well as a dancer with Anayana Dance Theatre, a teacher, and a community organizer.
This March, Perry and her two children will celebrate seven years living in their home, a stone’s throw off of the bustling West Broadway Avenue corridor in North Minneapolis.
Although Perry has experienced some professional success in recent years, but she also noted he frustrating struggle of being an artist on the Northside.
“As an artist, I really get that feeling of exploitation,” Perry said. “The value that the organizations in this community put on the social capital in this community is almost nonexistent. They seem to look at this community from a point of deficit rather than empower what is already here,” Perry explained.
Where Perry has emerged as a vocal community organizer around the issues of art, community and representation. She has also participated with Parks and Power to speak up on development projects on the Northside.
At the Parks and Power meetings, she saw a space where, in her words, she could show up righteously and strategize along with a myriad of different perspectives.
“Everybody doesn’t look the same at Parks and Power, everybody doesn’t live the same, but we all believe in something and make that our focus to get the positive things done,” Perry said.
Perry came to the Parks and Power community assembly on gentrification after hearing about a particular MPRB development project near her neighborhood in North Minneapolis.
Art and artists have long been an integral part of Parks and Power. Organizers with the campaign have advocated for numerous public art projects in Minneapolis parks for years. From the homage to Black innovators at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park to the new Dakota-centered art installations to be placed at Bde Maka Ska, also known as Lake Calhoun, Parks and Power organizers have brought art that not only beautifies but represents the cultures of the communities that surround Minneapolis parks.
Parks and Power, as well as Perry, have set their sights on a new location for community and art centered development – the Upper Harbor Terminal. An unused North Minneapolis land site situated on the Mississippi River between the Camden and Lowry Bridges, the Upper Harbor Terminal is being considered by the Minneapolis Park Board and the city as a site for redevelopment, whose “goal is to transform this 48+ acre site from its historical use as a barge shipping terminal to a combination of riverfront park amenities and private development,” according to the project’s website.
Although the city has already begun a community engagement process surrounding Upper Harbor Terminal (Perry has already attended one community brainstorming session), Perry and other organizers on the Northside are wary of investors from outside the community developing the Northside’s spaces and excluding the needs of the community in mind.
Perry is keeping a watchful eye on the upcoming Upper Harbor Terminal’s “Call for Artists,” which is a contracted, two-year position that would hire an artist as a liaison in engaging the community and ensuring equity building around the development of the Upper Harbor Terminal.
Whether or not the artist will be a Northsider or someone imported from another community remains to be seen.
Either way, explained Perry, the residents of the Northside are the ones who should have the final say. And that is what she is fighting for.
“I want to show up whether people are looking or not,” Perry said.
Neighborhood: Phillips and Powderhorn
Profession: Urban Agriculture Program Leader at Waite House Community Center
Waite House Community Center, with its bright murals and bustling activity, helps make Phillips neighborhood shine even in the dead of winter. Since 1958, Waite House “programs integrate civic engagement with human services focusing on employment and job training, health and nutrition, youth development, and more,” according to the organization’s website.
Martin Brown, lovingly called Farmer Brown by friends and colleagues, leads the urban agriculture program at Waite House. His nickname is well deserved; Brown has worked across the globe learning about equitable and organic agricultural practices. He is active in the Parks and Power campaign to create a revolution around city planning, public parks, and community access to urban agriculture in Minneapolis.
The Phillips neighborhood is one of the most ethnically diverse in Minneapolis. Native, Asian, Latino, East African, African American and European American community members all reside there and have access to Waite House’s programs.
“There is a lot going on in Phillips that is really cutting edge, and there are a lot of obstacles. There can be tension and conflict for resources within the communities. It’s the laboratory to learn how to work together,” Brown, who lives and works on the Southside, said.
Waite House’s tenancy in the old Phillips community center helps make the programs more accessible for the neighborhood. There is a wildly popular indoor basketball court, a swimming pool in the works, soccer fields, employment and educational classes, youth programs, food shelf and community kitchen. Many of the herbs and ingredients used in their daily community meal come directly from Waite House’s so-called Guerilla Garden, its name alluding to its somewhat clandestine existence.
“There was no policy in place to say how one could get a garden space in the parks. We wrote letters asking for permission…after not hearing from the Park Board for two years about whether we could put a garden in here or not, we did it,” said Brown. The MPRB now recognizes the garden.
Brown and his colleagues have a four point mission around food justice and urban agriculture: support garden areas in the neighborhood, grow food at Waite House for their in-house programs and educational trainings; grant land access in public spaces, and develop policy measures to increase spaces in the park where people can grow food.
“We are trying to transition people from having to use the food shelf at Waite House, people who are ready and interested to gardening spaces where they can grow their own food,” Brown said.
Brown and his colleagues are particularly looking forward to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board 2017 Garden Policy that will be revealed in the coming months.
The Garden Policy “is part of their redesign process, or their master planning process, that the city is rolling out. This draft policy that they come up with has to go through the legal department, then it has to be passed by the park board,” Brown said.
“We got a lot of barriers out of the draft policy, but we need to wait and see what the final draft looks like after the park board and legal team have had a run with it.”
With all of the promise that Phillips holds as an incubator community for food justice and cooperative urban farming, at the end of the day, there is only so much that can be accomplished in the city without the support of an equitable, engaged and invested MPRB.
“The use of land to grown your own food is a human right,” Brown said.
Profession: Community organizer with Corcoran Neighborhood Association
Jamar Clark’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in November 2015 mobilized many young community members to action. Brettina Davis is one such person who emerged as a formidable organizer with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, organizing critical actions during the most active months of the campaign.
Through that experience, Davis said she learned a lot of hard lessons about activism, ground work, and how door-to-door community organizing makes a huge difference in terms of getting stuff done.
Davis, a native of South Minneapolis and graduate of University of Wisconsin-Stout, grew up in the Lyndale neighborhood, where her childhood home still stands on 35th Street and Pleasant Avenue.
“We grew up there, we had little marks on the walls where our heights were,” she said.
Then, while Davis was away at college, the family had to move to North Minneapolis due to rising rents on the Southside. She was disheartened by the fact that the neighborhood where she grew up was no longer affordable to live in for her and a lot of other working class families.
Now as a Corcoran Neighborhood Association organizer, Davis was energized by Parks and Power’s mission, especially how it speaks to the crucial connection between neighborhood associations and parks.
One of the key goals in Parks and Power’s racial equity agenda is imagining how the parks system can be a way to combat gentrification. When new amenities come to a park – thus making the neighborhood more attractive to outsiders – there’s no guarantee that the people who live in the neighborhood will be able to afford to stay there in the future. The MPRB owns the largest amount of land in Minneapolis, and thus has a lot of power. Leveraging how that land is developed – as Parks and Power is doing – alongside efforts to increase wages or keep people in their homes, can be a more holistic way to curb gentrification.
“What caught me about [Parks and Power] is that they wanted to tie all the neighborhood organizations to the parks more,” she said. “That is really important because the neighborhood organizations and the park can usually be separate. We don’t interact a lot.”
Davis believes that Parks and Power seeks to do just that: build more power and consciousness within our robust community networks. Thanks in part to the training and conversations she’s had at Parks and Power events, Davis and her Corcoran colleagues have reached out to their local park director to make changes at the neighborhood level.
“That’s how I see Parks and Power bringing the organizers and people together under one house, talk about things, get to know each other, and talk about all the different things that are going on,” Davis said. “There was just an amazing energy in that space.”