Community disempowerment in Minneapolis


The East Phillips neighborhood has experienced more than its share of outrages. It holds a superfund site called the “Asbestos Triangle,” continues to have polluting industries like bituminous roadways and foundries, saw much of its land taken by Abbot Northwestern Hospital, and continues to be ground zero for poverty, alcoholism, drugs and homelessness. What it also has, however, are hopeful, organized, smart residents. Between the East Phillips Neighborhood Improvement Coalition, Little Earth of United Tribes and hundreds of business, nonprofit and activist organizations, they work to mitigate the damage and look to the future.
In 2014, these people spent two years in an extensive, grassroots planning process, looking not only at problems, but also at solutions. They came up with an ambitious and exciting vision. There was a 7.5-acre site between East 26th Street and East 28th Street on Hiawatha Avenue where a roofing manufacturer had stored materials. An architect was hired and financing identified. They entered into negotiations to purchase this site. Hope was in the air.
The plan calls for:
*Real affordable housing (30% of poverty)
*An urban farm
*Job-creating businesses
*The largest solar array in the state
*Bicycle shop on the
*Job training facility
*and more.
Named the East Phillips Urban Farm Project, they had the support of elected officials, including their council member, Alondra Cano, their state representative and senator, and a complete consensus of their diverse neighborhood residents.
In 2016, the city water department stepped in, threatened eminent domain, and bought the site out from under them. The community was outraged that a separate independent part of the city could do this without even talking to anyone.
The city has since set up two community processes to move this forward. Nicknamed GACK and HACK (no, I’m not kidding), they have been disasters. They could be used as case studies of how a community city agency can railroad a community process.
The first process, called the “Guidelines Advisory Committee,” dissolved into chaos and ended when Bob Fridde, the city designer, threw Representative Karen Clark out of a meeting when she attempted to correct a statement about the language in a bill that she and Senator Linda Berglin had written. Everyone walked out with Karen when she was asked to leave. GAC never met again.
In December 2018, a “Staff Direction” presented by Council Member Cano, was passed by the City Council. This set up the “Hiawatha Advisory Committee.” It instructed the staff to put residents on the committee and look at implementing many of the goals of the neighborhood’s plan and report back to the City Council. I was invited to the June meeting of HAC.
Now, I have been on many different committees over the last 50 years, a few good, most of them unsatisfactory. Almost all were staff-run, as this one was. But I have never, I mean never, experienced the level of disdain and disrespect for people, process and simple courtesy that I witnessed at this meeting.
Karen Clark told me that since the committee started meeting in February, their group had not been permitted to make a presentation of the community’s plan. They had received an indication that they could present their 5-minute 9-slide power point at the June meeting. There was a lot of interest and about 50 people showed up with children in tow, banners and signs to support the plan.
When the printed agenda was distributed, their presentation was not on it! The city-hired mediator for the process said that they could present in the public comments time in the last 15 minutes of the meeting. Knowing that most members left after the business portion of the meeting, and that they wanted to have a productive discussion, this was not what was wanted. The lone Little Earth representative on the committee, Chad Herbert, supported by EPIC representative Brad Pass, moved to amend the agenda to put the presentation first.
Heidi Hamilton, who had been hired by the city to “mediate” the process, said that was not possible. She refused to call for a vote on the motion and actually laughed when she was told that people had come to see the presentation.
Jolene Jones from Little Earth stood up and gave a thoughtful, impassioned statement. She said residents of the neighborhood deserved to be heard; that they should not conduct the business of advising the council without them; that only two of the members of the committee were from the neighborhood; that clean air was at stake and they insisted that they be heard.
The goal was not to have their plan endorsed, but just presented. This was not acceptable to Ms. Hamilton, who said with a sneer that they had a lot of work to do and would proceed. Ms. Jones said that they would not allow this sham of a process to proceed without including their presentation. Then the drum started and people stood up and started chanting.
When that was done, a group of musicians started playing “Which Side Are You On” with new verses and much enthusiasm. The delegates left.
I tried to talk to the delegate representing the Mayor’s Office and Council Member Warsami’s Office, but neither would talk to me. Cano’s office was not represented at the meeting. Ms. Hamilton would only say that the meeting was adjourned.
A week later, Ms. Hamilton said that there would be no more meetings of HAC. The City Council would vote on the project later this summer. Supporters of the Urban Farm Project estimate that currently they have five votes to support the Phillips project on the City Council, not enough to prevail.
The community had a well-attended rally/strategy session at Phillips park on June 17th. They discussed their options; none of them were giving in. Civil disobedience was discussed, as well as other options.
The staff clearly wants this space. Mark Ruff (the city CFO) has said that, “There will be no non-municipal use of this site.” Our newly “progressive,” “grassroots” City Council has been unable or unwilling to rein in the staff. The staff direction authored by Cano is being ignored. And Ms. Hamilton’s smirking, disrespectful, racist manner of running this process should not be allowed to fly.
The city staff doesn’t know who they are playing with here. This group of young people are the new generation of activism. Their parents had dogs sicked on them when they stood in the street to get a stop light, they rid Franklin Avenue of its racist, sexist bars, and created the only Native-controlled housing project in the country, and more—none of which the powers-that-be wanted.
If this process is to be salvaged, then Heidi Hamilton should be immediately fired and a new mediator from the neighborhood should be brought in.
We elected our City Council, and we now need to remind them of why. Call the Office of the Mayor, your council member’s office, and especially Warsami and Cano. Express your support for the residents and ask them to be the responsive representatives they promised they would be.

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