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A ‘prolonged tornado’: how north Minneapolis leaders are responding to the fallout from COVID-19

Louis King
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Louis King and others have reconvened a coalition of African-American organizations called the Northside Community Response Team, which was launched after a tornado tore through north Minneapolis in 2011.

As restrictions on public life shutter business and community, leaders in north Minneapolis say the effect on their neighborhoods will be dire.

An open letter written by Louis King and staff at his vocational school Summit Academy OIC, said unemployment on the northside was already much higher than state averages before the coronavirus — a time of relative economic prosperity. Closing businesses will only widen the gap between white and black unemployment, he predicted.

“It is projected that the economic recession we are now facing will exceed the 25 percent black unemployment rates witnessed in 2011 as a result of the Great Recession,” the letter says. “In fact, this economic recession is projected to more closely resemble the Great Depression.”

Yet beyond help with economic hardship, King said in an interview that people need health care, including mental health services, and community support from places like churches, mosques and news organizations.

In response, King and others reconvened a coalition of African-American organizations called the Northside Community Response Team, which was launched after a tornado tore through north Minneapolis in 2011. Now facing what King described as a “prolonged tornado,” the group’s outreach strategy includes television and radio programming, community health efforts and economic aid.

A slideshow prepared by the NCRT 2020 shows the group will respond to a span of challenges facing the northside, from mental health and chemical dependency to business development, food security and education. For instance, it says the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance and Better Futures Minnesota — which helps formerly incarcerated people gain construction skills and find jobs — are part of a business development working group.

But to combat what King described as “isolation and despair” brought on by the closure of church services, restaurants, concerts, gyms and schools, NCRT partners are bringing new programming to radio and television. King said Black Music America, a privately owned cable channel, is running sermons and prayer services as well as providing information from mental health and substance abuse professionals. “Spirituality at a time like this is definitely needed,” King said in an interview.

Freddie Bell, general manager of KMOJ FM community radio station, said his staff has been forced to record many segments that once were broadcast live, but they’ve still managed to carry the state’s afternoon news conference live each day and air interviews on mental health, access to food, and finances.

“It was just an obvious thing that we needed to do to get actionable information to our listeners,” Bell said. 

Minneapolis Public Schools officials like Superintendent Ed Graff are weekly interviews, and the station recently had Christine Tucci Osorio, the superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, on as a guest. On Monday evening, KMOJ had a “community health dialogue” with Clarence Jones, a leader at the Hue-MAN organization, which works to reduce health disparities with partners like Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, the state Department of Health and more.

Freddie Bell
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Freddie Bell, general manager of KMOJ FM community radio station, said his staff has been forced to record many segments that once were broadcast live, but they’ve still managed to carry the state’s afternoon news conference live each day and air interviews on mental health, access to food, and finances.
KMOJ has also added more livestreams of church services, as well as pastors and ministers who give sermonettes and daily devotionals. 

Bell said many of their listeners are gig workers, part-time employees or people who have been laid off, and they want to provide comprehensive information from a source that people trust. “They are getting the information from the different hosts that they’ve known over the years and they listen to,” Bell said.

Like many businesses, KMOJ has seen a drop in revenue since the coronavirus outbreak. Bell estimated it was a more than 50 percent hit, “almost instantly.” Much of the station’s income is from underwriters and advertisers for live music or events, though a smaller portion comes from grants. “My only concern is sharing the information with our community,” Bell said.

King said the programming blitz includes a TikTok competition for videos about social distancing with weekly cash prices. 

For his part, King’s Summit Academy is lending staff and communications expertise to the recovery effort. Despite the dire predictions from his letter, King said what was a “red-hot” economy before coronavirus will come back and Minnesota businesses were generally well-situated to ride out a downturn. “I’m not worried about people getting jobs when they come back,” King said.

Yet right now, many are being financially hurt by the pandemic. King said many black Minnesotans who were finally getting jobs — black unemployment has dropped in recent years — are in industries hardest hit, or may be new employees at a workplace and therefore the first to be laid off.

Commissioner Steve Grove
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Commissioner Steve Grove
Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the state has an “opportunity and a responsibility as we rebuild the economy coming out of this crisis to make sure that we close those income gaps and build an economy that is more equitable than the one we had going into this crisis.”

For now, Grove said they’re focusing on people hit “immediately” by the crisis by expanding the state’s unemployment insurance, providing loan programs for small businesses, as well as a “robust outreach effort” to reach people who are most affected by coronavirus. “Leaders like Louis and others are going to help us understand ways that the government can play a role” in rebuilding the economy after the crisis, too, Grove said.

King said the northside recovery effort can help meet the many challenges of an outbreak. “The focus now needs to be on keeping people safe and keeping them healthy both physically and mentally — and emotionally,” he said.

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