BY JULIE KNOPP
When I was growing up in Fresno, Calif., my family lived next-door to Matzi and Norman. My parents sometimes exchanged greetings with them during evening walks. When my sister was born, Matzi brought over a gift for the new baby. Our families started to form a friendship. We often joined them for meals of han (rice) and sukiyaki (a traditional stew cooked in a Japanese hot pot).
Matzi’s experience of this country was remarkably different from my own. As a Japanese American, she was imprisoned in a U.S. internment camp after World War II. Throughout her life in the U.S., she faced discrimination. She once mentioned that she was not allowed to use the fitting rooms in the department store.
My family’s friendship with Matzi exposed me to more than just another caring adult in my life. Matzi introduced me to food, language and culture distinct from my European heritage. Her story confronted me with the harsh realities that communities of color often face.
Two years ago, I moved into the Central neighborhood. One day, a friend and I were outside playing with the dogs. The neighbor kids would run up to the fence, and as the dogs approached them, they would giggle and race away. My friend invited the children to bypass the fence to play more closely with the dogs. Their mother politely informed us that many Muslims prefer not to play closely with dogs. The Koran instructs that they must wash themselves thoroughly if dog saliva touches them. From a simple conversation over the fence, we learned something new about a community that makes up such an essential part of our community’s social and economic fabric. That simple invitation was the starting point for our relationship.
The majority of us know only some or none of our neighbors. Pew research suggests that about a quarter of Americans don’t know any of their neighbors by name. Perhaps in a community as diverse as South Minneapolis, we’re limited by the mistrust between our different racial and cultural groups. But forming relationships across these demographics is perhaps the most powerful tool for building a more equitable community. As we make these connections, we build trust, reduce stereotypes and increase access to resources across communities.
When my family moved from California to Minnesota, Matzi called regularly and even came to visit. We went back to California every spring and met up with Matzi and her family. Three years ago, about 30 years after her friendship with my family began, Matzi died. My mom still has a picture of Matzi at her bedside.
Our relationships with our neighbors can play a powerful and informative role in our lives. In Minneapolis, our time to comfortably socialize outdoors is short. Use the remaining warmer months to have a conversation with your neighbors. Introduce them to your kids or pets. Keep your fence low. Greet them whenever you get a chance. These simple acts are perhaps the first steps to reducing community mistrust and increasing social equity across Minnesota.