The Alliance: Changing the Narrative

A few members of The Alliance: (l-r) board president Nelima Sitate-Munene, executive director Joo Hee Pomplun, and associate director Maura Brown; photo Sarah Whiting

In a time when there is a lot to be stressed about, it is helpful to take a step back to see long-term vision that is being accomplished. For 26 years, The Alliance has reminded policy makers, through its long-term relationships and community partnerships, how issues are interconnected, that racial disparities are deep, and that people directly affected by development decisions need to be at the table.

People of color are starting to have more transit options, that originally had been focused largely on bringing white commuters to downtown jobs, and are starting to get a more fair share of public infrastructure jobs. In July, The Alliance members were part of S.A.F.E. housing protections enacted in St. Paul, to take effect in March 2021, that will reduce evictions, displacement, and discrimination.

The Alliance is a largely foundation-funded coalition of 33 member organizations, based in Minneapolis, that works on issues of transit, housing, and strengthening jobs throughout the Twin Cities. It has a staff of six, focused on coalition and campaign building in frequent meetings with member and partner organizations. The board consists of members who are not simply engaged in governance, but understand how the on-the-ground work happens.

Board president Nelima Sitati-Munene, of African Career, Education & Resource Inc., has been a member for eight years. She serves the coalition because it “is made up of some of the best organizations in the Twin Cities and in the nation, coming up with innovative ways to engage community and solve some of the most pressing issues of our time. The staff builds strong relationships in the community and among policy makers. The organization enjoys the trust and respect of both, which is key to bringing about change that is needed.”

A priority is to change the narrative around density development so that it is inclusive of affordable and equitable housing, local hiring, and public green spaces. The Alliance notes that the Twin Cities needs 65,000 affordable units.

Moving at the Speed of Trust

The Alliance got its start in 1994 when social justice activists realized their capacity to influence decisions at the local level could be amplified if they united as a coalition. Regional growth and development was perpetuating imbalances because of disregard for impact on environment and racial equity. As long-time staff member Maura Brown put it, the Twin Cities area was becoming “sprawling, with no regard for the consequences.”

By the early 2000s, The Alliance was partnered with organizations rooted in low-income communities of color. Says executive director Joo Hee Pomplun, “A collective of people at the table know their community issues better than any individual decision-maker can.”

Before taking the lead staff role, Pomplun had been an organizer in community and public health, increasingly aware of the disparities, and did mitigation for small businesses. That work led them to The Alliance before joining the board, then the staff.

“I always admired the work of The Alliance in being responsive and diverse. It’s about not looking to represent a specific community, but the whole community, and those most disenfranchised and harmed by systems.”

Brown, who grew up in South Minneapolis, attended college on the East Coast. While there, she read a description of her neighborhood as a “ghetto” and wanted to know who had the right to define a community. She knew her home neighborhood to be supportive and nurturing of one another. When she returned, she went to work organizing with low- income tenants.

Essential to the work of The Alliance, Brown says, is developing respectful relationships so that everyone feels heard, which can mean “slowing down policy work to unpack power and other dynamics.” It is about moving at the speed of trust.

Adds Pomplun, “It’s not only about problems and systems. It is essential that we are strengthening leadership and shifting the decision-making processes to be more centered in communities that are the most impacted, currently and historically.”

Acknowledging intersectional identities and experiences of individuals and communities also is key. “It is important to create environments that are safe to talk about perspectives — learning what drives those passions,” they add.

At a particularly difficult time in one coalition, when there was harm and distrust to confront, members took part in a healing practice, which helped them take a step back. Pomplun reports, “We were able to re-see each other as the human beings that we are, reconnect in relationship, then go back and think about the work we wanted to do. Working on the human side means the work moves forward.”

Adaptation

The Alliance did extensive work in 2020 with small businesses led by people of color. The initial outreach was to survive the pandemic, says Brown. Now it is about taking relationships and conversations to “move from survival to creating a system in which we can thrive,” says Pomplun.

Brown says 2020 “stretched our capacity for adaptation. The work plan we put together changed dramatically. Our central mission now is to help our partners survive and transform as we see what COVID and uprising has brought. Along with tremendous suffering is unique opportunity.”

Pomplun adds, “It is essential that we move from short- term emergency relief to what is next for our entrepreneurs, who are taking on debt in order to keep business alive, who will struggle to bridge that gap.” If revenue largely goes to landlords and corporations, “what is next in being able to have communities retain its unique identities?”

Munene indicates 2021 will be a year for the organization to work at state-level advocacy. “We will be supporting efforts to prevent evictions and support renter’s rights. We will increase support for an inclusive workforce and lift up the role of small businesses to preserve our communities.”

As Brown noted, “Partners are eager to work with ideas that, two years ago, seemed unrealistic. Now it is about changing what is conceived to be possible.”


To connect with the work of the Alliance, sign up for The Link, its bi-weekly newsletter. Explore two tools created by The Alliance that offer questions and checklists of requirements for development and planning work that centers equity and community benefits: “Our Area: Alliance Regional Equity Agenda,” and The Equitable Development Principles and Scorecard. thealliancetc.org


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