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As Minneapolis teens keep dying, North Siders push for a new youth center

Emily Utne

Emily Utne

‘You sold us out’

On August 26, as police cornered a homicide suspect on Nicollet Mall, he raised a gun to his head and pulled the trigger in front of a group of teenagers.

Many of those young people used to frequent the Teen Tech Center, a creative alcove in downtown’s Central Library. Students would go every day after school to read, screen-print, use the beat machine, and hang out. There’s nothing like it on the North Side, but the Teen Tech Center’s just a 40-minute bus ride away.

After COVID-19 shut it down, young people were left wandering Nicollet Mall, giving some a front-row seat to the suicide and its aftermath.

When social media falsely accused cops of the shooting, young people flooded into downtown to loot and vandalize. Mad Dads, a Mother’s Love, and other street outreach outfits tried to quell the rumors. But the truth didn’t matter at that point.

“I was seeing a whole bunch of posts like, ‘Everybody’s going downtown!’” says Jania Kloeppel, 19, a recent graduate of Patrick Henry High School. “There’s so much dopamine when you see everyone else do it,” she explains. “To partake in something that we’ve never done before, it’s like a big opportunity for us.”

Many of Minneapolis’s Black community leaders grew up at the Way, which closed in the 1980s and has never been replaced.

Many of Minneapolis’s Black community leaders grew up at the Way, which closed in the 1980s and has never been replaced. Star Tribune

Kloeppel blames the looting on a pent-up summer in which the closure of schools, rec centers, and libraries left teens maddeningly bored with nothing to do and nowhere to be.

“The biggest myth about teenagers is that we just sit on the phone,” she says. “That’s not really true. We get tired of looking at our phones, tired of watching TV. We want to actually get out and do things.”

Just in case unrest re-flared the next night, Minneapolis declared a state of emergency and a curfew. Anyone caught outside after 8 p.m. could be arrested.

Nevertheless, dozens of North Side residents gathered for a pre-planned meeting in front of the Gordon Center, a vacant Minneapolis Public Schools building at North 16th and Queen Avenues. More than 400 people have been shot and 64 killed this year to date. A large contingent of Black mothers believe a youth center is needed more than ever. They’ve long eyed the Gordon Center as the ideal site, but county, city, and school board officials had other plans.

Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando wanted it to be a 50-bed Salvation Army women’s shelter instead. The City Council, including Ward 5’s Jeremiah Ellison, approved the permits. By August, the Minneapolis School Board was poised to sell the building for $1, making the shelter all but a done deal.

Residents were vigorously opposed. A Mother’s Love went door-knocking in a multi-block radius of the Gordon Center and found no one knew about the proposal. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council—the official neighborhood association—filed an injunction to halt the process.

Council member Ellison showed up. Elected in 2017 on the promise “to imagine a future for the North Side authored by North Siders,” he apologized for poor public engagement and encouraged constituents to lay out their concerns. “I don’t at all take skepticism of this project as, like, an attack on homeless women,” he assured them.

Frustrated residents pulled no punches. There were already three homeless shelters within a mile of the Gordon Center, yet the North Side had been without a sanctuary for at-risk youth since the 1980s, they said. Many community-led proposals for the Gordon Center had been rejected over the years. Next door, Willard Park was one of the only places young children could play. A youth center would invest in the future, while a bare-bones emergency shelter would merely bandage a broken theory of investment in north Minneapolis.

Once again, officials were telling North Siders what they needed rather than letting them choose their own destiny, residents argued.

“Our children are dying!” declared Cathy Spann, executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council and a 2017 candidate for City Council. She said she recently found a stray bullet lodged in her son’s mattress after an overnight shooting. “That’s what we’re trying to tell you. A 17-year-old just got shot. I need to know what you’re gonna do!”

“You don’t know what your position is,” admonished Cheryl Anderson of A Mother’s Love, who announced she was running for Ellison’s seat. “You sold us out, Jeremiah!”

Visibly shaken, Ellison lashed back, “What I don’t like is this conflation of criminality and the homeless. That is the thing that I have the problem with. That is what I’m hearing from you.”

Objections erupted from residents who felt intentionally misunderstood. Ellison did not respond for comment about their desire for a youth center.

Within a week, Hennepin County tabled the shelter plans. It felt like a big win for proponents of a youth center, even if it just meant they could now advance to the starting line. Rejecting an unpopular development was one thing. Constructing a better alternative would take more work, community buy-in, and money.

They’re pushing forward, buoyed by hope that the city’s renewed awareness of racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd would translate into concern for the rising body count of north Minneapolis children.

Mahmoud El-Kati, Verlena Matey-Keke, and Spike Moss were some of the original founders of the Way, which is now the 4th Precinct police station.

Mahmoud El-Kati, Verlena Matey-Keke, and Spike Moss were some of the original founders of the Way, which is now the 4th Precinct police station.

The Way

In 1966, young people frustrated by the lack of opportunities in north Minneapolis set scattered fires and broke windows along Plymouth Avenue. The following year, teenage girls got into a fight at the Aquatennial Torchlight parade in downtown Minneapolis. Police threw them to the pavement. A boy who complained was also beaten. A Plymouth Avenue march against police brutality clashed with riot police. A cop clubbed a pregnant woman in the stomach, causing a miscarriage. Protesters torched Jewish businesses and firebombed the home of alderman Joe Greenstein.

Spike Moss, an outspoken young freedom fighter, held whites responsible for backing Black people into a corner.

“Brick throwing ain’t nothing,” he told a group of clergy in 1967. “You wait two or three years while this young generation comes along. They see that if you want anything, you got to take it. This is a new time. You gotta face up to it.”

Moss wasn’t just talk. He co-founded the Way Opportunities Unlimited Inc., which would show kids “the way out, the way to a new world, the way to a new life.” The owner of a fish market on Plymouth Avenue donated a building, and Greater Twin Cities United Way funded 90 percent of the budget.

There were other youth services in the area, including a Boys and Girls Club, but the Way addressed a cultural void by teaching Black kids about their lineage of greatness, recalls Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis), who grew up there.

Macalester Prof. Mahmoud El-Kati taught Black history, beginning in Africa with pyramids and the birth of mathematics. They bused to Washington, D.C. They organized locally to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday. They understood it was their civic responsibility to march on behalf of the community.

Groundbreaking for the Way.

Groundbreaking for the Way.

Bobby Lyle taught music classes at the Way. A young Prince Rogers Nelson rehearsed there. The drum corps named for Leo Johnson, a Black school resource officer who died in a car accident, traveled all over the country.

Black icons like Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali showed up at the Way to encourage young people to do their best. At fashion shows, Black models taught teenagers the importance of dressing to make an impression, how to walk with confidence, and how to make a speech.

The Way organized Valentine’s Day dances, Halloween parties, and Christmas toy giveaways. Everybody was poor, but the Way encouraged kids to view poverty as a temporary condition. Summer jobs could be had setting up Juneteenth and other festivals. When they visited college campuses, they were told to imagine themselves belonging there.

“So when you look at the youth unrest, where can they go where they feel like their needs can really be met?” Champion asks. “Who’s talking through what true protest really means and how the demands that you’re making have got to be connected to mobility of your community, not looting?”

In 1984, the United Way withdrew its financial support, accusing the youth center of mismanaging money. According to the nonprofit, the Way failed to hire staff for which it had funds and kept poor records of who was using its services. Over the Way’s objections that the inspection came during a reorganization period, more than $260,000 worth of grants were disseminated to other community groups. The youth center closed.

To this day, the Way’s core supporters believe the United Way dredged up false allegations to distance itself from Moss, who’d raised hell after Minneapolis cops killed unarmed Sal Saran Scott during a botched robbery sting.

Moss called it murder. Relentlessly, he asserted that white supremacy permeated society. People told him he was stuck in the 1960s. Police Chief Tony Bouza called him an “apologist for bums.”

Seventeen-year-old Astrid Elizabeth Loor Espin, a north Minneapolis resident, brought a youth perspective to neighborhood plans for the Gordon Center.

Seventeen-year-old Astrid Elizabeth Loor Espin, a north Minneapolis resident, brought a youth perspective to neighborhood plans for the Gordon Center.

Today, Moss maintains that he paid the United Way more than $900 a year to manage the books while he focused on what he knew – running the Way’s programs and visiting three prisons a week, telling young inmates to do no harm once they got out. “They didn’t like me standing up against injustice. They didn’t like me standing up against police brutality,” he says of the Way’s defunding.

After 35 years, the youth center has never been replaced. It’s now the 4th Precinct police station.

“The community suffered in every way,” says Moss, whose 27-year-old grandson Kevin Beasley was shot and killed this year. “There was nobody to guide these young men with troubled views.”

“When [George] Floyd died, they raised all that money and gave it to [activists] that don’t even live here. They never came and asked the Black community about what they need or want. Thirty million dollars, they never even think to ask. As long as you keep dismissing us, that’s what keeps us where we are.”

In the early 1990s, Minneapolis gave neighborhood associations millions to fund projects of their choosing. Most of that money went into repairs for white homeowners, according to a 1994 University of Minnesota study. Years later, City Council Member Jackie Cherryhomes was voted out of office after it came out that $34,000 from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program went to rehab her 5th Ward home.

In the 2000s, the city distributed another round of NRP money, this one significantly smaller. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council gambled on ill-fated condos and the perpetually vacant King Shopping Center on Plymouth Avenue, which had to compete with open-air drug dealing in the parking lot. The U of M ultimately bought the building for its urban research center.

Part of the problem was that volunteer neighborhood boards lacked the skills to lead development, says NRRC Properties Chair Gayle Smaller. He says NRRC never prioritized replacing the Way because north Minneapolis had so many other needs, including helping elderly people repair and keep their homes. Even now, he doesn’t want to rush into saying whether NRRC will help secure the Gordon Center for a youth center.

DonEsther Morris and Cheryl Anderson, outreach workers with A Mother’s Love, advocate turning the Gordon Center into a destination for at-risk youth.

DonEsther Morris and Cheryl Anderson, outreach workers with A Mother’s Love, advocate turning the Gordon Center into a destination for at-risk youth.

“You have half the community saying they want a youth center, but then you have a lot of people in the community saying that they want some form of commercial, some form of senior housing, so there’s tons of different voices around what we want to use that building for if the district, now that they’ve expressed their willingness, will sell it.”

A stubborn vacancy

A few days after Hennepin County canceled its homeless shelter plan, Lisa Clemons and DonEsther Morris of A Mother’s Love laid out their vision for the youth center they want to replace it.

The longtime street outreach workers are clad in bright pink. Their tiny office is wallpapered with the names of a decade’s worth of homicide victims, organized by year. There are asterisks next to the ones killed by police—about 3 percent. To the women of A Mother’s Love, each loss of life ripples through the community. Behind many of the names are even more children currently growing up without the support of one of their parents.

Clemons, a retired police officer, wants a youth center that will cater specifically to the “throwaway group” of teens and young adults creating most of the trouble in the community. Violence isn’t always gang- or drug-related, she explained. A lot of it stems from social media fights, adults escalating conflict, and grudges that reignite after people are released from prison because no one worked on them there.

“Right now we’re boots-on-the-ground. We make these contacts in parking lots, on street corners, and that’s not lasting,” she says. “Even though they recognize us, they know us, they stop and talk to us, we’re not changing their lives in that short contact. We want those contacts to be longer. We want those contacts to build trust that can’t be broken. They have to know we’re here for the long haul, not for this temporary moment of intervention.”

A Mother’s Love wants a building with a history component, an African-American museum rounded out with Asian- and Latin-American history to reflect the diversity of north Minneapolis. They want counseling for crime victims so families don’t have to chase down funeral arrangements in their moment of crisis. They could have a food shelf, a community kitchen, sports, arts, and anything else that a patchwork of existing North Side youth organizations might want to contribute. It should be safe, comfortable, and free, with everything geared toward telling young people that their lives matter, and not only when one is taken by police.

Miki Lewis, program director of the 8218 Truce Center in St. Paul, uses Black history to mentor young people.

Miki Lewis, program director of the 8218 Truce Center in St. Paul, uses Black history to mentor young people.

The closest analogy is the 8218 Truce Center in St. Paul, a Black history museum and mentorship program. The director there is auto dealer Miki Lewis, who also works with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office to help young people leave gangs.

The Truce Center costs him $30,000 a year. He keeps it afloat by donating all the proceeds from one car sale a month, and by tightening his own belt.

The kids do question why he has anything to do with cops. Lewis admits he’s lost friends over it. “One of the things we explain to them is that whether it’s the police department, the judicial field, the economic or political arenas, we need to start being a part of those arenas. We owe it to ourselves to be more in life, give more to our culture. We can’t keep putting ourselves in a box.”

To replicate the concept at the Gordon Center, a group of mostly North Side women have weekly planning meetings over Zoom. Lately they’ve been trying to establish a cohesive vision for the center and compile a list of youth groups willing to invest as tenants.

They have just the germ of an idea, but to inspect the building with an architect and get anywhere after that, they’ll need the support of the Minneapolis Public Schools, which has proven elusive over the years.

In 2014, MPS and the U of M held a signing ceremony for an early literacy center in the courtyard between Gordon and neighboring Willard School, another vacant building most recently used by Minneapolis Police for tactical exercises. An architectural firm was hired and illustrations drawn up, but then the project mysteriously withered on the vine.

About a year after that, Project Sweetie Pie, an urban gardening organization, asked to lease the Gordon Center. Director Catherine Fleming wanted a place to train young people in culinary arts, and stage vegetable distribution across the North Side. Ange Hwang of Asian Media Access wanted to bring arts and culture programming to the building.

“And we were summarily rejected on that,” says Fleming. “They’ve been consistent with their rejection of different ideas that the community has brought to them without explanation.”

In 2018, MPS Chief Operations Officer Karen DeVet told North News that the district didn’t want to green-light any of the community proposals before coming up with a master plan for all of its vacant buildings. It still hasn’t done that. Two other vacant schools in north Minneapolis—Lincoln Junior High and Hamilton Elementary—host the Minneapolis Urban Robotics Alliance and Minneapolis Police Academy. There’s no plan for four others.

“We’re not giving it up. [Gordon]’s going to be a youth center,” says school board member KerryJo Felder, a proponent of putting all of Minneapolis’s vacant schools to use. “Because now, the funny thing that’s not so funny is we have to come in and save some kids that we should have saved all along. We needed those early learning centers. We needed those youth centers all over north Minneapolis. We haven’t been able to do that, and now we have to save some kids that are pretty much grown up, and it’s just horrible.”

Taught up

In mid-September, dozens of Minneapolis Public Schools principals lined up outside the Super USA on Dowling and Fremont Avenues, where 17-year-old Andre Conley had just been shot in the face and killed. His 19-year-old friend was also shot, but the bullet traveled through the right side of his torso and he survived. Another 17-year-old, Jomoy Lee, was charged.

In a video dispatch from the scene, North High Principal Mauri Chantel Melander Friestleben called on Minneapolis to restore order. Not with a “big stick,” but with good law enforcement. Whole blocks are overrun with drugs, she said, while cars speed at 70 mph down the street, hitting kids on skateboards.

“We have an opportunity in Minneapolis to try something different, to do something new, and that’s to say that we are not going to be held hostage by the voices of a few,” said Friestelben.

“You overhear law enforcement in our city right now, and they feel like, ‘Well, the City Council doesn’t want us, or the people don’t want us.’ Who, which people? Show me where they’re at! Are you talking about the few, some of them that don’t even live here? Are you talking about the people that don’t have to worry about their children coming to a store like this?”

Early Monday morning, three teenagers aged 13 to 15 died in a high-speed car crash near Emerson and 18th Avenue. They’d been fleeing police in a car stolen from an elderly woman when they slammed into a tree. A Mother’s Love showed up at the scene shortly after. “Today is a sad day. Kids out joyriding in a stolen vehicle when they should have been on a bus en route to school. So many lives lost. So many families crying,” Lisa Clemons said on Facebook.

Students with the Minneapolis Youth Congress—a body of teens created to bring a youth perspective to policy—recently weighed in on how they and their friends are faring after a summer of COVID and violence.

Gisell Ayala-Corral lives in north Minneapolis and recently graduated from Patrick Henry High School. The pandemic canceled prom, graduation, and all her summer plans. Now that crime is rising throughout the city, her parents want her to stay home as much as possible.

“It’s been quite stressful and kind of overwhelming, not having an outlet,” she says. “Having a youth center could open a lot of doors for youth that otherwise are not available. I feel like it could create a sense of community and belonging, which is kind of hard to find. It won’t 100 percent prevent gun violence, but it’s definitely a way to reduce the chance of teenagers being shot because they’re not out in the streets.”

Breanna Kirk, an Edison High School junior who also lives in north Minneapolis, knew Conley, as well as Serenity “CeCe” Shief, a 17-year-old girl shot in the head in August. Kirk’s own older brother died this year from complications of a surgery stemming from a gunshot wound. Kirk relays these losses with stony impassivity.

“I can’t sit here and be like, ‘Here’s what you can do to fix it,’” Kirk says. “There’s no type of way you can fix it. I look at the gun violence as, it should stop, but how our generation is and how we get taught up, it’s all gun violence.”

Kirk means both civilian and police violence. She used to look up to cops. Now she doesn’t want to be around them.

Victor Martinez, a pastor who recently announced his candidacy for the Ward 5 City Council seat, says the group planning the youth center is now writing grants and trying to build broader community support by creating a board of representatives from various North Side organizations.

School board chair Kim Ellison pledged her support once they come up with an official proposal, Martinez says. (Ellison did not respond to a request for comment.) When that time comes, they’ll ask the district to sell them the building for $1, the same price offered to Hennepin County for the shelter.

In the meantime, he invited 17-year-old Astrid Elizabeth Loor Espin to be a part of the planning. She attends the General Colin L. Powell Leadership Academy in south Minneapolis and lives over North.

Loor Espin suggested leaving the youth center open-ended, and offering a variety of activities for teens to test the waters. It should be a safe space for bored kids to be with each other even if they don’t want to do anything in particular.

Loor Espin attended middle school with Shief. She also knew Mario Sanchez Mendieta, who was shot multiple times and killed outside a market in Powderhorn Park. But she was closer to Eduardo Avila Santiago, a “funny, goofy” Minneapolis boy shot in the head in Burnsville. All three were 17, and killed within a month of each other.

It’s a lot to process, especially when no one’s been arrested and there’s no telling why they were murdered. It feels like it could happen to anyone at any time. Add the mysterious theft of her car and the weekly drive-by shootings that sound like thunder when they’re close, and she can barely sleep.

“It’s kind of gotten me paranoid when I go to different places with a lot of teens, or where I know there’s gun violence. I don’t know, a lot of our friends are like, ‘Who’s next? Are we next?’ It’s just traumatic. We’re still trying to process it.”