Always an advocate: Luz Maria Frias: Building bridges between cultures and communities through communication

Luz Maria Frias (Photo Courtesy of Luz Maria Frias)

Luz Maria Frias recalls a neighbor coming to her father’s storefront repair shop on the west side of Chicago when she was only ten or eleven years old. The neighbor spoke only Spanish and needed someone to interpret for him at the unemployment compensation office. “I can’t go then,” her father said. “But my daughter can go with you.” 

She did well. More people came to ask for her help, so many that her parents began to keep a calendar of her appointments. “I’d go half a day or a full day with people we’d never met,” she recalls. “There was never any concern for my safety, never any expectation of payment. … I went from interpreting to helping them advocate for themselves. I did this from a child’s perspective, in all innocence, no politics involved. It was, ‘What is just?'” 

Focus on people

Frias never lost that early focus on communication and advocacy for people left out of the systems of power, on bridging the gaps between people through communication. But her road was not easy. 

After skipping her junior year of high school, she was a 16-year-old senior when her algebra teacher asked about college plans. Frias admitted that she had no plans. Her parents did not think a girl needed college. They wanted her to work after high school and help support the family. 

“You need to go to college and this is why,” her teacher told her. She helped Frias apply for college and “did all the paperwork with me without my parents’ consent.” 

College brought new challenges. She began with a focus on engineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she recalls battling sexism in and outside the classroom. After changing her focus to criminal justice and law, she completed her undergraduate work in less than four years, going on to a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree from the University of Iowa. 

“I knew I wanted to go to law school to help people,” she said. Her legal career included work as the Fourth Judicial District Chief Conflicts Public Defender, CEO/CLO of Centro Legal, Hearing Examiner for Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and as a family court magistrate. Trained as a mediator, Frias spent ten years mediating in areas of family law, housing, education, and organizational change, such as a 26-person dispute at a local college. She worked for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman before she moved to her present position as vice president for community impact at the Minneapolis Foundation. 

Conversation to defuse conflict

Frias says that, “The issue of racial equity … has been a part of me for thirty years. It’s who I am. It’s what feeds my soul.” 

A board trustee of The Minneapolis Foundation asked whether Minneapolis was prepared for “a Ferguson-type event,” Frias took the question as a challenge to the Foundation. Under her leadership, the Minneapolis Foundation organized a series of three invitation-only, confidential community conversations in 2015. The goal, Frias says, was “to establish communication channels and relationship building.” Invited participants included the City Attorney, Mayor’s office, Police Chief’s office, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, NAACP Minneapolis, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Police Conduct Oversight Commission and the National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice. 

“What brought them to the table,” Frias said, “was working together to ensure that the community’s voice was part of how the system was working and [that Minneapolis government systems] would be responsive to any issue should it happen in the future. Their ultimate goal is to work together, no matter how long it takes, to create a criminal justice system in which everyone in our community is treated fairly.”

Participants, some of whom had never interacted with each other before, spent break times together and began exchanging cell phone numbers. 

At their third meeting, they asked the Foundation to keep the group going, to plan an overnight retreat, to keep them engaged in ongoing conversations. 

Two weeks after that meeting, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark in North Minneapolis. Protests over the police shooting of an unarmed young black man included a weeks-long occupation of the street in front of the police precinct. In March, the Hennepin County Attorney announced that no police officers would be charged with any crime in this case. 

The relationships built during the community conversations made a difference, Frias says. “There was a lot of communication behind the scenes,” with grassroots community leaders having a new channel of communication so that, during the months of protests, they could immediately report police behavior up the chain of command. “Nothing’s perfect,” Frias acknowledges, but the communication helped to de-escalate some of the tensions between community members and police during the demonstrations. 

The group came back together in February and continues, focusing on public safety and policing “with a non-traditional lens.” Frias hopes that the group’s work will lead to de-escalation of tension between police and communities of color, especially African-American communities, but adds that the ideas they are evaluating would benefit all communities. 

“Strengthening the community drives who we are as a foundation,” she says. “I get to work on race equity issues and call it a job – it’s a dream job.” 

Links to articles by Luz Maria Frias:
On building bridges 
Promoting Peace in Difficult Times:

A commentary on the impact of race on hiring
So “Kristin” gets the job while “Ebony” gets zilch: