It’s no secret that America’s suburbs are changing. Long gone are the days of “The Brady Bunch” and “E.T.,” when everyone living there was white, middle-class and spoke only English.
Fifty six percent of poor people in the Twin Cities now live in the suburbs, according to a 2011 analysis of census data. The most racially diverse cities in the metropolitan area are not Minneapolis and St. Paul, but Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park. People of color make up at least 10 percent of the population in 73 of the 187 communities across the seven-county metro area.
Ethnic and economic diversity is taking hold in places you’d least expect — like the west metro suburbs. Eden Prairie is 5 percent Somali, according to the latest estimate.
And take a look at Blake Road in Hopkins, right across from the elite Blake School and a few blocks north of the Edina city line. A 1950s-style shopping plaza reflects the rich diversity of ethnic communities that populate the area, as well as the presence of poverty. It sports a halal meat market right next to a pawn shop. Around the corner is Sambusa King, specializing in spicy Somali meat pies, and down the street is Blake Grocery, which advertises “African American and Mexican Food” as well as the fact they accept food stamps and sell moneygrams.
Forget the stereotypes
The blend of Somali, East Asian, Latino, African-American and white families, all living within this small section of Hopkins, recalibrates stereotypical images of the West suburbs.
This explains why the Blake Road corridor is a focus — along with North Minneapolis, St. Paul’s East Side, the Central Corridor and South Minneapolis — for the Local Initiative Support Corporation’s Building Sustainable Communities Program. The Twin Cities is one of 30 areas nationally where LISC works to help residents of distressed communities find transformative solutions to their problems.
“There are not as many community organizations or outreach services in a place like Blake Road as there are in the central cities,” notes Gretchen Nichols, LISC-Twin Cities program director. “The cultural dynamics are very different, so we’re trying to create a sense of community ownership.”
LISC helps fund an extensive roster of projects that engage low-income residents in making improvements and creating opportunities around Blake Road. The projects range from sprucing up a neighborhood park to expanding participation in early childhood education classes. “We give support to help build community and involve residents in decisionmaking about their future,” Nichols says.
Community garden, tutoring
The Blake Road Corridor Collaborative (BRCC) — which includes the city of Hopkins, the police department, school district, recreation services, Hennepin County, a local food shelf, a basketball academy, a Lutheran church, several West Metro social service agencies and LISC — spearheads programs to improve life in the area.
BRCC Coordinator Ann Beuch notes that residents have initiated many of the collaborative’s projects such as a community garden, a fitness challenge, after-school activities and a tutoring program for elementary school children.
Transportation access is a significant challenge for the neighborhood, according to a study BRCC did with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. Many residents rely on public transportation but the service is not fully meeting residents’ needs, Beuch notes. The community celebrated a victory in 2009 when sidewalks were installed along Blake Road. “Before that there were only beaten paths where kids tried to ride bikes and parents push strollers,” Beuch explains.
Buses to ECFE classes
Because many Somali families do not have access to a car, BRCC and LISC partnered with Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s Growing Up Healthy initiative to provide bus service to special Somali early childhood education classes at the Harley Hopkins Family Center, which is run by the local school district and conducts special Somali and Latino early education classes along with other classes in English serving many East Indian, African-American and lower-income families along with the middle-class white families you typically expect to find. The buses doubled participation in the Somali classes, notes Christine Fehst, coordinator of the Early Childhood and Family Education programs for the Hopkins School District. “Many families would not be able to come here without the buses.”
In the Somali and Latino classes, families with children under five receive advance preparation for elementary school, learn more about American culture and get advice on typical child-raising questions. The classes, like all those at the Family Center, begin with 20 minutes of child/parent interaction with kids taking the lead in choosing activities.
The parents then move to another classroom while the children stay with early childhood educators to play, do art projects, hear stories or begin reading lessons, depending on their age. Parents, meanwhile, discuss perennial issues such as sleep, nutrition, discipline, sibling rivalry and communications with each another and parent educators, as well as learn about family resources available in the area.
“One of our main goals in all of our classes is that parents pay attention to their ways of parenting,” explains parent educator Kathryn Moore. “It’s the most important job in the world! And these classes are an opportunity for support in this important job.”
Somali immigrant Nimo Ibrahim enrolled in the class in 2010, and now works at Harley Hopkins as a teacher’s assistant and para-education assistant. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she says about first attending the Somali class as a parent. “I had not seen anything like it when I lived in St. Louis and Atlanta. It was like Wow! — to be part of a group of people from your own culture taking and learning about raising children in America.”
Jay Walljasper specializes in writing about cities, travel, and social issues. He is author of “The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons,” and is the editor of On the Commons. A version of this article first appeared on the LISC website.