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Why I believe in Minneapolis — three ways to move toward racial and social justice

The answers we are looking for are right here, in front of our eyes, if we know where to look.

Agony is one of the 52,803 Greek words used in the English language and it captures extreme suffering, one of the emotions that propelled dozens of artists to take advantage of the plywood that covered windows and transform our city into a messenger of hope.
Photo by Tasoulla Hadjiyanni

As the calls from family and friends around the world are coming through these past few weeks, I am out of words. How can I talk about the U.S. leading in COVID-19 cases and deaths? And since May 25, how can I respond to why, in the land of opportunity, George Floyd died at the hands of police only 13 blocks from my house? For those of us advocating for Culturally Enriched Communities, healthy and connected communities in which everyone can thrive, none of this is surprising. Minneapolis is one of the healthiest and well-off cities in the nation and yet, it experiences some of the widest health, income, educational, death, and incarceration disparities in the US.

For the past three weeks, I have been gathering stories of communities through buildings and places where many of the protests occurred. When I started, I called this storyline “Landscapes of agony.” Agony is one of the 52,803 Greek words used in the English language and it captures extreme suffering, one of the emotions that propelled dozens of artists to take advantage of the plywood that covered windows and transform our city into a messenger of hope. Landscapes of Hope speaks to how Minneapolis can lead the way for racial and social justice. Here are three steps:

Step No. 1: Coming together

Decision-making must be led by those on the ground and communities impacted and must be founded on responsibility and accountability. All sectors together — from federal, state, and local governments to public safety officials, educators, health providers, businesses, faith leaders, city planners, designers, and citizen advocates — must denounce racism, injustice, and marginalization in all forms.

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We can start with housing. Stable housing has long been tied to well-being an all fronts, from health to school outcomes and job prospects. “The right to home,” however, pushes us to work toward homes that support diverse meaning-making processes — from how we eat and sleep to how we play and work. The city of Minneapolis has a serious shortage of affordable housing and census data shows about half of renters in the city struggle to pay their landlords. Avoiding gentrification is an instrumental aspect of community development, particularly in a city that has long struggled with segregation.

Supporting minority businesses is also dependent on synergistic practices. Take, for instance, East Lake Street, envisioned as one of Minneapolis’ six cultural districts. Driving down Lake Street one can witness Mexican bakeries and markets, Black barber shops, signs in different languages, and some of the city’s most beautiful murals. If we zoom in on Latinos, Minnesota is home to more than 9,000 Latino-owned businesses, which bring promise for a thriving economy to the state and beyond. In 2018, Minnesotans in immigrant-led households had $11.2 billion in spending power (after-tax income) and paid $4.4 billion in taxes. Nearly 16.8% of the U.S. labor force in 2016 was Latinos, and Minnesota is counting on foreign-born residents, most of whom are working-age adults between the ages of 18 and 65, to counterbalance the trend of Minnesota’s general population toward a higher proportion of older adults who are not of working age.

No. 2: Eliminating disparities

North Minneapolis’ Juxtaposition Arts is one of the many Black-led arts organizations in the Twin Cities. It is a nonprofit youth art and design education center, gallery, retail shop, and artists’ studio space. Being teen-staffed, it helps develop community “by engaging and employing young urban artists in hands-on education initiatives that create pathways to self-sufficiency while actualizing creative power.” In an area where 36.3% of the residents are below poverty and 56.3% are Black or African-American, access to after school programs is instrumental in improving academic performance, classroom behavior and school attendance, reducing drug use, encouraging physical activity and good dietary habits, and increasing parents’ working opportunities.

Tasoulla Hadjiyanni
Tasoulla Hadjiyanni
The same can be said for Cookie Cart, which provides teens 15-18 years old with lasting and meaningful work, life and leadership skills through experience and training in urban nonprofit bakeries. In 2018, 259 teens were employed for their first paid job experience. Before the pandemic struck, the unemployment rate among Blacks in Minnesota was almost double the state average. The West Broadway and Business Area Coalition supports such efforts through for example, the Facade Improvement Grant Program, which helps upgrade the look of West Broadway, instilling pride and sense of belonging.

Minneapolis has one of the largest urban Native communities in the country, and many live close to Lake Street, where the majority of the protests took place. Native American nonprofits such as Migizi Communications, which provides media arts training to hundreds of youths a year, are instrumental in  eliminating disparities as Native Americans face some of the greatest disparities in health, income, and education and American Indian youth experience the lowest high school graduation rates in the state, a stark reality of 51.0%, followed by Hispanic (66.8%) and Black (67.4%) youth. Migizi collected over $600,000 for rebuilding from more than 13,000 donors.

No. 3: Investing in relationship-building and dialogues

Art and theater create opportunities for people from different backgrounds to come together and learn about each other’s dreams and aspirations, bringing the “I” closer to the “We.” The In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre is a Lake Street landmark. Its annual May Day Parade, Ceremony, and Festival have been vibrant examples of art as community building in the Twin Cities area for 45 years. It also hosts many of Pangea World Theater’s productions, a forum where difficult conversations that “illuminate the human condition” can happen in a city that prides itself for its support of the arts.

These are just a few of the examples that solidify why I believe in Minneapolis – the answers we are looking for in terms of how to move toward racial and social justice are right here, in front of our eyes, if we know where to look.

Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, Ph.D., Northrop Professor, College of Design, University of Minnesota – tasoulla@umn.edu. Hadjiyanni is the author of “The Right to Home – Exploring How Space, Culture, and Identity Intersect with Disparities.” She is also the editor of Culturally Enriched Communities, www.cec-design.com, which includes Landscapes of Hope.

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