Why the rush to start the Northside Initiative?


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 white institution like the U of M is best suited to lead such an effort.

Bill English, co-director of the African American Leadership Summit/Coalition of Black Churches, has given three reasons why his organization supports the university’s Northside Initiative. The first one: “Economic development… North Minneapolis is one of the most economically deprived areas in the state. [Development] has occurred everywhere but North Minneapolis. Our poverty levels are twice that of others’, and the business incubator is a real first step… We ought to claim West Broadway.”

The second reason, English said, is “It will create 300 to 400 jobs, offering the potential and supports the conditional that whatever [is planned], we’ll own it and build it.

“Third, this offers a chance for real input and oversight,” according to English.

Carol White, lead organizer of the community group African Americans Concerned Together (AACT), spoke about the continual promises of jobs made to the community with each additional building project on the Northside. “They told us, if you let us come in, we will hire you…and we believed [them]. What are the sanctions if you don’t do it?” she asked.

“[It] sounds good, but there are no options…it seems to be all or none. I don’t think they [even considered] anything else,” said Nancy Riley, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Social Workers. “There is a whole community of people working hard with difficult odds, struggling to make the community better, but [they] could not do it on such a massive scale as this. Why would you push people aside?”

“I think it’s socially and professionally irresponsible to give someone the go-ahead and not know the overall plan; it should be co-created,” said Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as the president of the African American Child Wellness Institute. “They just wrote it out to the community. It’s disrespectful and unrealistic to think people would [jump for it]. This is a traumatized, maltreated community that is feeling bullied… A compromise could easily be made.”

“I’m not staying in the past, but you haven’t shown me anything to believe in you for the future,” said Riley. “[Besides], why rush? Why not do a pilot study and [figure out] how to make this work in the community where it is inclusive? Why can’t we wait and do it right?” she asked.

Dr. Dante Cicchetti, proposed director of the initiative’s Child and Family Center, has a motto: “To be committed to ensure that people do well despite adversity.” He says this to concerned citizens in the community: “I have a great respect for your point of view based on historic and contemporary society… I grew up around people of color… I hold lots of passion and care in these communities.

“There are concerns and fears, but this center’s goal is to help and to learn… No child under my watch will be hurt. I would not let anyone or anything compromise my beliefs… I’m eager to develop understanding and trust,” he said.

Cicchetti also shared his personal beliefs and goals. “I understand how research would be so scary for African Americans. There aren’t many [African American] Ph.D.s in the department of child psychology produced [today].”

Cicchetti has assisted 13 people of color to date in the field in receiving their Ph.D.s. “We will be accepting two students of color for Ph.D.s next year. I’m an advocate for cultural competence in intervention,” he said.

“Seventy to 75 percent of the research done in Rochester was for the Black and Latino communities. A diverse group will be served. My vision is that kids served will be leaders in the field,” Cicchetti said. “When you look at me, what you see is what you get… I’m a man of my word.”

At the end of his presentation at one community meeting, Cicchetti asserted, “I may not be Black, but I’m not your typical White academic scholar.”

“This is more than just a project for me,” said Craig Taylor, director of the U of M’s office of Business and Community Economic Development (BCED). “I have a professional and personal interest in it. There are fragmented efforts when there really needs to be a shared vision. We’re all to blame…those in the community and those responsible for the community. There have been so many promises of delivery to address economic ills, and trust is an issue.

“In the eyes of the community, what will determine the success is not the end result, but the process.”

“At the end of the day,” said Gary Cunningham, CEO of NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, “you have to ask yourself what difference did you make for people in this community. What do we do for people standing on our shoulders, just as we did on others?”

To opponents to the plan, Cunningham said, “My question is, ‘What is your idea? What do you propose for a lot that has been empty for 30 years?’ I’m concerned that the university or Hennepin County won’t put anything out there, but will go somewhere else. We can’t just keep beating people down — we have to give them an opportunity.”

“Our community has been stagnant for years,” said Taylor. “We need to be held accountable for the fact that our community is what it is.”

“We’ve got health problems in our community, and we’ve got to deal with them,” said Sherrie Pugh, executive director of Northside Residents Redevelopment Council.

“This is not about the University of Minnesota, but about community needs,” said Robert Jones, U of M senior vice president of system academic administration.

“There may be distrust, but we’re sincere about this. [Please] partner with us to transform this in a way that meets the need,” Jones said at a community meeting. “There are some that choose to use the most negative view, and that is not what the university is about. I understand the fear, but not the tactics being used to get their message out.”

“The people’s fears are legitimate,” said Garrett-Akinsanya, and community members expressed some of these fears and concerns at the public meetings.

“We were an afterthought,” said community activist Al Flowers after demanding minutes from the university’s previous meetings. “They already had a plan.”

“Do what you say you’re going to do,” urged Bianca Rhodes, a recent college graduate who has seen promises made and broken within university/community relations in Chicago.

“The community has to decide who the community is,” said Jones. “It is not appropriate for a small group to think they can deter us from doing this — this will be decided by all the ‘players’ that live in the area. There is a larger group that wants this to happen. Every ethnic group stands to benefit.”

Next week: The series concludes by examining some possible avenues for collaboration and bridge-building.

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.

Do you have an opinion on the Northside Initiative? Join the conversation in our “Government forum”:https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/forum/66.