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Through hard times, these women found strength to help others

Today’s growing issues of unemployment, homelessness and disillusion hit close to home for Tracy Coward and Liz Kuoppala.

Tracina Coward
Tracina Coward

Today’s growing issues of unemployment, homelessness and disillusion hit close to home for Tracina Coward and Liz Kuoppala. The two women are among Minnesotans who will receive Ann Bancroft Dream Maker Awards this month for rising above hardships to help others carve bright futures out of circumstances much like their own.

Winners will be honored April 29 at a banquet in Minneapolis. The awards celebrate the pioneering spirit of Bancroft, an Arctic explorer and Twin Cities-based teacher.
A leader helping other youth
At age 20, Coward harbors harsh memories of growing up in North Minneapolis. Job losses and financial instability brought mounting problems for her family, who “bounced around a lot,” often living with relatives or friends, she said. As a girl, she “bounced from school to school.” Along with personal struggles, she saw her community and the world struggling, too. In a piece titled “The Cost,” she wrote: “My little cousin once said it, ‘I wish it was peace jam every day,’ because in her world there is poverty, people dying of hunger, moms and dads strugglin’ to make a dollar. It’s a place where people sometimes listen. And love is only a factor when it’s missin’.”

Coward was 14 when she joined a summer program called PYLI, the Potential Youth Leadership Institute. Her creative work there has nurtured an inner voice that tries to make sense of her world. Though a rapper since fifth grade, “It was the first time I got to show it to other people,” she remembers. With rap, poetry and the performance genre called spoken word, she began sharing with others what she was seeing and thinking.
She has become a leader in helping other youths facing challenges to find their voices, too — through performing, art and music. “It’s the way we message people about what’s going wrong,” she explained. Some of her messages focus on Minneapolis’ North Side. “Parents struggling with two or three jobs. Dads not being there. Girls who are pregnant at a young age.” Sometimes her words suggest her ideas for solutions, such as more money for youth centers and programs that can keep kids out of jail. She has a day job, too: working for the Minneapolis Youth Conference to find jobs for teens 14 and older.

What changed for her? “Life goes on,” she answered. “You’re either gonna sit there and keep bein’ in trouble and getting’ in fights and have my mom yellin’ at me, or take my anger and channel it to me takin’ an art I love so much and puttin’ it to use. I decided to go the right way instead of the wrong way. I have my mom and friends behind me. With people behind me, I wanted to be helped.”
Her dream for her future: “To own my own youth center and run it in North Minneapolis.”

Seizing the opportunities
Liz Kuoppala got her start in the 1970s on a farm outside Eveleth, Minn. She grew up with nine siblings in a house heated only by a wood stove. Her dad worked in the taconite mines. “During the slowdowns, he was sometimes laid off for months.” The family made do with help of government commodities — big bags of rice and flour, slabs of cheese and buckets of generic peanut butter. Or they drove into town to take what they could find from a grocery-store dumpster.

Liz Kuoppala
Liz Kuoppala

Sexually abused as a child, Kuoppala suffered from depression. “To survive was a one-day-at-a-time thing,” she remembers. As she got older, she dropped out of school for a week here and there. She began seizing some hopeful opportunities “just to keep going,” she remembers. That led her to sign up for a high-school class visit to the Soviet Union, enter and win an essay contest and $150 and later apply and be accepted for a year of study in Finland. Yet after high school, college wasn’t on her wave length. “My family was blue-collar. College was looked down on. The guys knew they could get a job in the mines. For girls, “there wasn’t a ‘what’s next’ after high school. Girls could get married, I guess.” Kuoppala got a job driving a locomotive in the mines.

Three years later, she enrolled at St. Cloud University and went on to complete a degree in chemistry. Then came another life-altering opportunity. She went to work for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in Washington. “From him I learned progressive policy and grass-roots organizing,” she said. Sheila Wellstone’s work with battered women helped Kuoppala to see how she, too, “could make connections for women who don’t have power.” Kuoppala took those lessons with her.

As director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, she works with homeless service providers, action programs, churches and other organizations and advocates for them and the homeless at the Minnesota Legislature. She often takes low-income people along to tell their stories, “so policymakers can be in a position to understand.”

Change can happen
Kuoppala, 38, has another cause as well: encouraging women around the state to run for public office. Elected three years ago, she is the only woman on the four-member Eveleth City Council. As a college-educated, young and openly gay woman who grew up outside of Eveleth, she thought her chances of winning were slim. “I door-knocked every house,” she said. She saw that change can happen. She defeated the incumbent by two-to-one.

Maykao Hang
Maykao Hang

Other winners of this year’s Ann Bancroft Awards are MayKao Hang, director of children and family services for the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation. Those efforts serve families and children in St. Paul’s East Metro, home to many families who share Hang’s Hmong heritage. She said she works to spread her belief that “a society where women and girls are equally valued and can equally contribute is a better society for all.”

Winner in the “organization” category is the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, a main multiservice center in the Twin Cities that educates and empowers American Indian women to address and solve homelessness, chemical dependency, childhood education, violence and other community issues.