Roxxanne O’Brien: Building Power

Photo by Eric Mueller

My mom moved to Minneapolis when I was three, to teach Special Education. Mom was an organizer. There were a lot of meetings and gatherings at our house, with food, kids, fun, laughter, and support systems for parents. At five, I marched at the University of Minnesota with my mom and a friend of hers who had been raped on campus.

My mom had LGBTQ friends. She raised me to be a freethinker and a book-reader. She never made me adapt to any religion. She is feminist, pro-Black, and a bookworm. She was always working and always going to school. When I grew up, those values she instilled started to make sense.

However, the just world she raised me to believe in was not the world I grew up in. My world was full of contradictions.

When I was 12, my brother-in-law was taken by immigration officials. I figured out where he was, called, and cried into the phone, “You have my sister’s husband. You need to let him go.” He was released that night.

Even at that age, I knew I had to speak up against injustice. Yet I also was one of those kids who wasn’t supposed to succeed.

We moved to California before I started high school. I began to take risks and skip school. I was around adults who had been incarcerated for robbing banks. I was sexually assaulted by men. I got pregnant at 14 and had an abortion. It was a stressful turning point. The world was moving really fast.

My mom was worried. One morning I woke up and, at my mother’s request, there were two white people there, to take me away to a high school in Provo Canyon, Utah, for teenagers with issues. 

Shortly after I returned home, we moved back to Minnesota. I had my first child at 19. I went to the Harriet Tubman domestic violence shelter, and had a restraining order against my son’s dad. I was working four jobs: JC Penney, a concession stand, a bingo hall, and as a personal care attendant.

Fighting Foreclosure

The issues I organize around are things that affected me as a kid. I want to keep people from the difficulties I experienced.

When I was in my early 20s, my mom lost her house. I tried to hold the bank accountable for predatory lending, but Wells Fargo never settled with her. My mom holds on to papers. She says, “Keep notes. Create a paper trail.” She is brilliant. If it can happen to her, foreclosure can happen to any of us.

The crisis hit Minneapolis hard. Banks targeted poor communities, elders, Blacks, and Latino people. People thought they were working toward loan modification. Meanwhile, behind their backs, there was a sheriff ’s sale. When the foreclosure crisis hit, I worked with Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition and Jewish Community Action. I was on triage, taking the calls of homeowners in crisis. I saw the burnout, the sadness. I faxed a letter to Obama. I went to the Capital to push for a Statewide Homeowner’s Bill of Rights. We worked at the county and city level on a Responsible Banking Ordinance. We got that through the city of Minneapolis. We tried, unsuccessfully, to get it through Hennepin County.

Juxtaposition Arts

The world will tell you that you are stupid if you don’t obey the process and the language. I grew up feeling like that. Roger and DeAnna Cummings of Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis saw potential in me and they nurtured it.

For example, I worked with them on a documentary shown on Twin Cities Public Television, “Speak your Mind.” We interviewed community members at bus stops — about transit and about how we interact with each other.

Now I assist occasionally with Juxta’s community engagement tactical lab, which is mostly about mentoring and training young apprentices. We call this tactical urbanism — uplifting community in shared spaces. We play dominoes and music, have chalk and a bubble machine, and offer tools for making buttons. The youth get paid $10-11 an hour to do contemporary art, graphic design, and environmental design. The mission of Juxta is to use art as a tool of engagement in the community.

Environmental Justice

For four years I was the only Black woman on the Community Environmental Board. I began with real hope, but they were interested in development, not environmental justice. Hennepin Energy Recovery Center — the garbage burner that impacts North Minneapolis — never came up unless I brought it up.

Now my work is focused on the Upper Harbor Terminal Project, between Dowling and Lowry on the west side of the Mississippi River. The project includes housing and economic development. Funding is allocated to fix damaged infrastructure: lighting, pipes, and streets.

If this project had a community approach, I would support it, but I can’t support the effort as it is now. It didn’t take long for me to get angry about it. This land is sacred Indigenous Dakota land. The city colonizers took over the waterfalls — the power of a community. That is how Minneapolis became a booming city, rich with flour mills along the river.

Now they have their hands in the cookie jar again. Reparations to the Dakota are not in the plans. No one is paying attention to the history of displacement, exploitation, and terrorism. There’s blood on this land. Black people in North Minneapolis have suffered from industry that polluted the area; exploited our air, water, and soil; and blocked our access to the river.

Justice is about healing and telling the truth about our history. If I was in charge of the Upper Harbor Terminal Project, Indigenous tribes, Black people, Jewish people who stayed in North Minneapolis, Hmong, Latino, and poor white people would lead.

The work would include agriculture based on Indigenous principles, stronger community access for organizing, and building green economies.

Alternative to Policing

I am scared of the police. They harm my children. They are disrespectful, brutal, and inappropriate. A lot of people say, “Don’t call the police,” but what’s the alternative? Domestic violence is 80 percent of the calls in North Minneapolis. We need a neighborhood security system to deal with the violence we internalize. I am working on a new accountability system for our community.

I learned, watching my mom, that if you speak truth at tables and rooms of power, you are considered dangerous. If you talk about what you learned at these tables, you will be blacklisted or marginalized. I also learned that community can be just as passionate as the establishment about building and gaining power to protect the people.

I’m a mother of three, who wants what we all want for our kids — to be healthy and to have opportunities. I watch other people watching. I can’t watch and not speak up. 

This essay is a shorter version of an interview Anne Winkler-Morey conducted for her Minneapolis Interview Project. See the longer version, and all MIP interviews, at