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Activist roundtable: MNxMN conference aims to educate activists and change the system

As activists across the state gear up for the second MNxMN conference (Feb. 24 at Harding High School), the group’s tagline says it all: “Empowering civic engagement in Minnesota.”

photo of women seated around table in cafe
MNxMN activists and organizers (left-to-right) Mary Curry, Michelle Gross, and Kate Havelin at Geek Love Café.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Over the course of a recent hourlong interview with some of the founding members of the activist umbrella group MNxMN, the words “engage” and “engagement” came up early and often. Indeed, as activists across the state gear up for the second MNxMN conference (Feb. 24 at Harding High School), the group’s tagline says it all: “Empowering civic engagement in Minnesota.”

“We came up with the name MNxMN because it was created for Minnesotans by Minnesotans to get people engaged,” said Kate Havelin, a St. Paul-based freelance journalist and social justice worker,  over tea recently at Geek Love Café inside Moon Palace Books.

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Havelin was joined in a MinnPost roundtable conversation by Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality and a MNxMN board member; Mary Currie, volunteer with Women’s March MN and a MNxMN board member; and (by phone) Nausheena Hussain, founder of Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE) and a member of the MNxMN advisory committee:

MinnPost: Tell me about MNxMN — how it happened last year, what was accomplished, and hopes going forward for this year’s conference.

Michelle Gross: MNxMN came together a year ago when 25,000 were expected and 100,000 people showed up at the Women’s March. So now you have all these activists in the street who need something to do, who need a way to connect with the rest of the movements that are out here doing very important work. These movements are starving for volunteers, and MNxMN can connect people with [causes] they’re passionate about and give them the tools and skills and information that they need in order to really be effective as activists. Some of the people at the Women’s March were already doing things, but a good number are new activists who were really upset with the [presidential] election and we wanted to capture that energy and put it to very good use, and that’s what we did last year — it was an excellent conference with 400 people and over 70 groups. This year, we’re in that same space (Harding High School), and we think we’re going to have even more people come to this conference.

MP: How does the momentum feel compared to last year?

Kate Havelin: Last year’s conference was called “Resistance.” That’s what was going on last year, that’s where people were: We’re resisting what’s happening. OK, we are moving beyond resistance, beyond the vote. We just had an election. What do we do next? These are steps in building a movement, and that’s what MNxMN is. We are a group of grass roots advocates and people who are concerned about social justice on a lot of different fronts, and we are building strength. It’s the idea that it’s freezing cold and people want to burrow in or go to the gym, and we’re saying, “Work some other muscles. Work your civic muscles.” Honestly, we want to build people’s voices, and that’s what this is.

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MP: You all are not new to this, but your energy suggests a passion that these days sometimes feels like it’s the sole domain of younger activists.

Gross: I’ve been doing activism in the streets since my teens, and as an elder activist, it’s exciting to me to see all these folks coming out and who have been inspired and sickened by things they’re seeing and not being OK with things like kids being held in cages and the whole Trump agenda. Now we want to say, “OK, it’s not enough to just show up at a march. You need to plug into the work because we need to be giving strength of power to all of these groups who are doing amazing work to take on all the oppressions that are going on.” People are hungry for this information, and it answers a little frustration, an itch, for some people.

portrait of woman
Nausheena Hussain
MP: Tell me about the sessions — last year and this year.

Nausheena Hussain: We were marching for a lot of different causes in 2017, and usually when you come out of a march you’re like, “Now what do I do?” To me, MNxMN was that space of figuring out, “Here’s what you can do.” Last year, I was so impressed by all the sessions. All these sessions are by people who are local. It’s not like trying to bring in these heavy-hitter speakers and celebrity-type people. It’s people you’ve been marching alongside who have knowledge and who are able to share that, and that really resonates with RISE because when we do our trainings, we tap into the amazing talents of Muslim women who are already in Minnesota doing that work.

Mary Currie: This year, we’re going to have about 50 sessions. We run about 12 rooms, and people can run four sessions a day, and each person will put together their own unique day depending on what they’re interested in. It falls into three categories: issues, skills, and relational work, how you build coalitions. All of the trainers are activist leaders, and there’s a broad range about what’s available.

Havelin: This is not an academic exercise. Look at our topics. We’ve all spent time on the streets protesting or in committees, but this is really to get more people to do more. They can take a session and learn how their legislature works, or about the court system, or hear about the sex trafficking of Native women — to hear other people’s voices and learn skills at the workshop, and you can learn about so many issues.

Gross: A lot of our issues are complex. I work in police accountability, and I have for 30 years, and there are many parts to it but we need to figure out ways to make it bite-sized for people so that people who are interested can get involved.

Hussain: RISE is 3 years old this month. Our mission is to amplify the voice and power of Muslim women, and one of the things that we do is leadership development and civic engagement. So we believe that if we provide the right skill-building workshops and training, and we plug the women into the right spots in the community, the women show up and they make significant change. MNxMN is that same kind of advocacy and professional development and hands-on skill-building that translates into actual action.

MP: How much of this is inspired by the Trump presidency and the daily dose of bad news?

Currie: [Combating the Trump presidency] is not the focus. The focus is on the issues that need to be resolved, and a lot of them were there long before [Trump was elected].

Gross: These oppressions have gone on under every administration. The attack on immigrants is revolting to me, but people don’t realize that Obama deported more people than the previous five presidents combined. These are oppressions that have been going on forever, and these issues will be there whether they impeach the guy, or whatever.

Currie: This is about building civic engagement for the long term. It’s not like it’s going to end in 2020, or whatever. This is forever.

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Gross: It’s about systems of oppression, not who the president is at the moment.

Havelin: I grew up with Watergate. I was 13 in the summer of 1974, and it had a big effect on me; it’s why I went into journalism. I think a lot of us in my generation grew up learning that we couldn’t trust government, and learning to pay attention. And then I think a lot of people, we stopped paying attention and we totally took our hands off the wheel. And really, we’re the citizens. We have to have our hands on the wheel, and what we’re doing really is helping people learn how to drive.

Courtesy of MNxMN
Scenes from the 2018 MNxMN conference at Harding High School.
MP: It’s been a long haul, getting longer. How do you keep your and your fellow activists’ energy up?

Hussain: [Civil rights activist] Shaun King always talks about how there’s four things you need in a movement, and one is energized people and I think that’s what we see in our organization and in MNxMN. The people who attend MNxMN are really dedicated, energized people that have passion for making change.

Gross: Cesar Chavez always talked about doing movement work as being part of a great love for the people, and I think about that a lot. I always remember that, because I really feel like the work we do … . You would never give 50 hours a week of your life every freaking week of the year if you didn’t have a great love of the people. Everybody at MNxMN is a volunteer, and a lot of these groups are mostly functioning through volunteers, and to do that kind of volunteering you have to have great passion, but you also have to have a great love of the people, otherwise you will burn out very quickly. You have to have a heart for this stuff, and you have to be a little optimistic that you can actually make a change. This is something I can tell you from 30 years of activism.

Havelin: That [change] happened because you built community around police accountability in the same way that gun violence [activists] and women [‘s rights activists] have made community, and that’s what this is. It’s getting more people. It can’t just be a few activists, it needs to be a lot of people, a community of people who are together working to move things forward to drive our country to do more.

Hussain: MNxMN is a great opportunity for RISE to get in front of our allies and show our allies what we’re doing, and signing partnerships with our allies for future work. Where else am I going to be able to learn about all these organizations?

Gross: One of our themes is “Be a Force To Be Reckoned With.” We have made ourselves forces to be reckoned with. They cannot ignore us.