Building a Better Twin Cities

“We have learned how to make lemonade out of lemons.”
Tania Rivera Perez at Ciculo de Amigos Child Care. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Twin Cities businesses have lost merchandise, building space, staff, and sales due to the pandemic and uprisings. Although the process of reconstruction and recovery may take years, the events of 2020 are being seen by many as incentive for social change.

Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders

Before the pandemic began, Circulo de Amigos Child Care Center catered to infants through preschool-age students. After March 2020, the center’s attendance dropped from more than 80 students down to five. The center changed one of its infant rooms in order to accommodate school-aged children who were no longer able to attend classes in person. The new influx of students required teachers at the center to learn simple tech support and how to navigate online platforms used for distance learning. Says program manager Tania Rivera Perez, “We have learned how to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Circle time and other activities were moved online until it was safe to reopen. After reopening, students and teachers stuck to mask mandates, social distancing, and daily temperature checks. The center has had three cases of COVID-19 to date.

“I do not think proud is the right word, but we are pretty happy that the cases were contained. We acted fast and followed every [recommended safety] step,” Rivera Perez says. The center is back to full in-person learning after almost a year of room closures and has reopened every classroom.

Proper hygiene and nutrition is not the only thing the center is teaching students. After the unrest of the past year, there is now age-appropriate instruction on social topics like racism and police violence.

“It is a very sensitive issue,” Rivera Perez says. “We work proactively to include universal values like compassion, respect, and kindness into our curriculum. We want to make sure kids have a good foundation of how to be kind to one another.”

The curriculum includes short marches through the building in which the kids hold signs with messages of peace. Story time shares books like “Something Happened in Our Town.” Rivera Perez says, “The kids have so many questions. They also have prior knowledge from home. [We are] helping to guide those conversations and be people they can come to if they feel unsafe, without pushing our own beliefs.”

Rivera Perez feels that these types of conversations should be addressed in schools, since serious losses happen regularly in the families of her students.

“The recovery process has to include messages of hope and equity. It will make it feel like the neighborhood is inviting to everyone. That is very important,” Rivera Perez says.


In the Thick of It

Located on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis, Diamonds Home Health Care Inc. is a personal care assistant organization. In addition to providing in-home services, it provides clients with COVID-19 education.

Amina Osman, manager of Diamonds, says that the home health care agency lost many employees because of the pandemic. Many staff members either were resistant to going into the homes of clients or put their employment on hold. Today, the business is down by as much as 30 percent. It had previously planned to expand its in-home care business in May 2020.

Diamonds was also in the middle of the devastation after the death of George Floyd. Businesses on either side of the office were looted and destroyed. A building across the street was burned to the ground. “We ended up taking the paper files to our homes,” says Lyn Lais, supervisor at the center. “[Osman] took the business files and I took the client files.”

Other than a damaged internet server and three bullet holes in the building’s upper windows, nothing else was harmed. “Community members in the apartments above us told looters that we were a home care agency and had nothing of value,” says Lais.

The organization was displaced for six weeks. Staff worked from their homes until it was safe to return. The staff has spoken with other business owners around them about what they were feeling. “This unrest brought us together,” Osman says. “[For the first time] we are in contact with people who live above us.”

Lais says she wants the Lake Street community “to continue to come together and learn about each other.”


Transformation of a County

In June 2020, Ramsey County leaders launched Transforming Systems Together (TST) to make sure everyone in the community has a voice. The team, composed of nine members and eight alternates, will work with the county to reshape nine systems: child protection, the courts, the county attorney’s office, corrections, financial assistance, mental health, public health, the sheriff ’s office, and workforce solutions.

Lisa Deputie, the director of prevention initiatives at FamilyWise and a member of TST, states one intention:

“The Twin Cities needs to breathe. There is a lot of anxiety and mistrust. We need to begin to curate and create spaces where community and systems can come together and begin to talk about what is needed.”

Systemic change will not happen with just conversation. She believes it is about prioritizing relationship building. “In rebuilding and recovering, you have to start with the community,” Deputie says. “Sometimes when decisions are being made, the people that are being impacted are not at the table.”

KaYing Yang, long-time director at the Coalition of Asian American Leaders and a fellow TST member, voiced a similar sentiment. “We have to shift some power to communities and other leaders who can do the work,” she says. “We cannot just talk about making change. Those with power need to act.”

KaYing Yang

Yang says federal funding should be allocated directly to organizations led by people of color to better reach the communities they serve. Philanthropic groups and foundations that grant funds were able to be flexible with their donations during the pandemic, which makes Yang wonder why they cannot have that flexibility even when there is not a crisis.

Through the pandemic and the uprisings of last summer, Yang observed communities banding together to provide food, shelter, information, and other supplies to those who were hit the hardest. She believes that women leaders came out most forcefully.

“Some of the foundations gave funds to organizations led by people of color to regrant,” Yang says. “This funding was made available quickly for general operations, which was important because nonprofits were doing a lot of work and needed the resources. The outpouring of generosity of time and allyship was good to see. I want to see this continue beyond a crisis.”

This will be one of the issues worked on by TST, which is still in its early stages.

“We want to be as innovative as possible, [which] requires cooperation from the community and government leaders,” Yang says. “After the pandemic began, our efforts became more stark and urgent. We do not want to go back to what was normal because that normal did not include us — the voices of impacted people. TST needs to address these disparities in a bold and transformative way.”


The Impact on the Arts

As students, parents, office workers, and other professionals go back to in-person work and school, those in the performing arts do not have the same luxury. Pangea World Theater, a multicultural theater focused on telling stories of the human condition, intends to return to indoor performances no earlier
than spring 2022. Meena Natarajan, co-artistic and executive director of the theater, says that right now is just not the right time to return to indoor entertainment.

“It is hard for all of us to comprehend what is happening,” Natarajan says. “It is devastating to watch the pandemic and racism unfold. It is clear that there needs to be a reckoning.”

Meena Natarajan in front of what will be the new Pangea space. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Pangea does have plans for multiple outdoor performances over the next few months. The theater holds story circles and other meetings virtually, but Zoom performances are not feasible. Natarajan believes that theater is most effective when audiences can be in the same space with performers and where those on stage can see the reactions of onlookers.

“There is a limit to what you can do with your body on Zoom,” Natarajan says.

Along with the hardships of the pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright have led the theater to commission pieces from all staff as a response to loss. One performance that Natarajan is writing will be held outdoors in October. The piece will dramatize what has happened over the past year in Minneapolis, like the differences in land ownership, losing a home, and being displaced.

Natarajan sees the arts as a way to “describe the indescribable” and “make sense of the now unlike any other medium.” That is the intention of “Transformations,” the temporary name for an almost ten-foot-tall visual arts piece commissioned by the theater from Angela Two Stars, a Minneapolis-based artist. The artwork will have a permanent home in the Lake Street community.

Natarajan says, “If theater doesn’t respond to current times, then what on earth is it responding to?”

Natarajan is also a board member of Longfellow Rising, a nonprofit organization formed by members of the Longfellow and Lake Street neighborhoods. She says the group has had many conversations about what they would like to see in the area. One major element the board agrees on is the need for more ownership of land and buildings in the area by Black, Indigenous, and people of color [BIPOC].

“It has been amazing to listen to people [talk] in the neighborhood about what people want in [their community],” Natarajan says. “Those conversations have been rich and emotionally rewarding.”

“It is not just raising money. It is about who we are going to hire, how we are going to support businesses that are BIPOC-[owned], and what the process is going to be like,” Natarajan says. “Right now, we need to make something future generations can be proud of.”


Action = Change

Business and community leaders and individuals who want to help small businesses on Lake Street and West Broadway in Minneapolis and University Avenue in St. Paul rebuild, can give directly to the Restore-Rebuild-Reimagine Fund at RRRFund.org, by emailing [email protected], by calling 612-672-3867, or texting “REBUILD” to 243725. Donations of all sizes are being accepted. Donations will be administered to local businesses by the Minneapolis Foundation’s Restore-Rebuild-Reimagine Fund.