The Emerging Story of Brooklyn Center

"Hometown Values & Vision" coverage is made possible by the Kurt Pearson Social Concerns Fund and the Wilson Social Justice Fund of First Unitarian Foundation.

Alfreda Daniels (l) and LaToya Turk. Photo Sarah Whiting

Alfreda Daniels says she chose to live in Brooklyn Center in 2018 because it gives her a sense of living in a small town, close to the city of Minneapolis, alongside many fellow immigrants from Liberia.

Daniels ran for City Council shortly after George Floyd was murdered by police. She knew Brooklyn Center was confronting deeply entrenched racism and felt there was an opportunity for serious change to happen.

“Brooklyn Center is very diverse,” Daniels says. “We have a huge population of immigrants, most of whom are not eligible to vote. We have another group that doesn’t vote at all. Another group can be easily swayed based on who’s talking to them at the time. And we have had political campaigns funded by investors and apartment owners.”

She wanted the city government to target racism in the community. “It has made the environment unsafe — mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically — for people of color, especially Black folks.” Although Daniels lost her election bid, she continued to talk with people about their concerns.

When Daniels was eight months pregnant, Daunte Wright was unnecessarily killed by a Brooklyn Center police officer after a traffic stop. She got calls from community members about creating a plan. They knew protests would happen. Daniels and other community members helped get milk and gas masks to sites where police tear gas was expected. Community members asked people in apartments near the protests if they needed to relocate in order to be safe. Construction workers from the local Labor Federation volunteered to board up businesses.

Daniels set up a Facebook campaign that raised $300,000 in a short period of time to help pay for hotels, phones, food, and other supplies. Funds were intended to be earmarked for small businesses in the area who needed to rebuild, and for organizations like Our Sister’s Keeper, who were trusted in the neighborhood for trauma healing.

“I went into labor a month early,” Daniels said, attributing it to the stress of the time. The intention was for the community- raised funds to be disbursed with oversight from the team, which would hold recipients to accountability standards. But while she was on maternity leave, the funds she had given to a local institution to hold were used for citywide services.

After she returned, Daniels told the city manager that the community needs to be part of taking care of itself, with all the funds, planning, and crisis intervention work involved. A community group began to form, calling itself Evolving Brooklyn Center.


From Evolving to Emerging

Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Pohlad Foundation wanted to invest in the work happening in Brooklyn Center. The City of Brooklyn Center began to manage operations of a formalized program that was named Emerging BC.

A diverse cohort of 40 members were chosen by a community- led advisory board, including people from different political parties, cultural backgrounds, and professions. The cohort includes longtime residents, a few high school students, some city staff, and local business owners. The intention is to understand practices and cultures, learn conflict resolution skills, and develop mutual levels of respect.

The team is paid to meet once a month, including child care reimbursement. Activities range from four-hour learning sessions about a system and its historical context — including embedded racism — to multi-day learning retreats preceded by a community dinner with presentations about what participants are learning. There have been two major field trips taken, to New York City and Oakland, to learn about systems of immigration, transportation, housing, and social justice movements; what worked, what did not?

“It is socioeconomically challenged here,” says LaToya Turk, who manages the program as Brooklyn Center’s director of community prevention, health, and safety. “We’re one of the poorest cities in the state. We’re only eight miles long, and we are sandwiched between two larger metros. With such a small group of saturated cultures and voices in a room, we have to be very intentional about being culturally appropriate, which requires work — it requires value. It also increases your budget. We can’t host a conference or a learning session at 11am. The majority of residents are at work during that time with no flex hours.”

If other communities want to do a similar process, Daniels agrees, it is important to be mindful of barriers that can prevent people from participating. “I’m basically a single mother — my partner has been on military deployment — so when I go to these meetings, my child care is taken care of. We also have prepared for language barriers.”

The cohort is now halfway through the 18-month process. Daniels is frank about some of the challenges. She says one frustration she has as a long-time community activist is that there is less participation from city leaders, such as those on the city council.

“I think we have the power to reach the hearts and minds of folks who are participating, but not necessarily enough to influence policies within the city,” she says. “I also would have preferred if the city were not the one facilitating meetings, because they represent an institution that has caused harm. It’s like a couple going through disagreements and a person causing harm is facilitating the conversation.”

At the end of the process, the cohort will identify what they think is most important to see changed and suggest how to do it. Areas of potential change they are discussing include transportation, housing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, and economic development — alongside tools of conflict resolution, cultural competency, and anti-racism.

Turk says it is common to want to see goals named at the front end, but Emerging BC is “a new process of allowing the outcomes to come to us — let’s lay the foundation first. Because you don’t know what you don’t know.”

As someone who has been a community organizer for a decade, Daniels says the pace to action can be frustrating. “If I am saying I am ready for change, and someone is asking why we need to change, I’m triggered.”

Another important part of the process, Turk says, is that the city is the “fiscal holder,” but the community-led planning team recommends the talking points. The city’s role, she says, is to “support them. Who should we be putting in front of you? What is it that you want to hear, and what do you want to know about what’s impacting your quality of life? We empower community to voice needs versus the city saying, ‘Here, this is what we have for you.’”

Members of Emerging BC cohort, in Harlem, during their October Learning Journey to New York. (Courtesy photo)

Measuring Progress

Despite the challenges, both Daniels and Turk indicate a primary success of the program has been to confront and mediate conflict.

“I think it’s shocking to a lot of people to see some folks in the same space, actually enjoying each other, understanding that we can have varied opinions and life experiences and still have a shared respect for each other,” Turk says. “For me, that is a huge win. It helps curb some of that division that you see, especially when it is polarized by politics. We can still have opposing political views and be able to work together.”

Daniels notes, “We underestimated the level of conflict. I’m kind of glad, because throughout the journey we have been readjusting ourselves to make this successful. At the beginning of anything new, there’s going to be friction. And remember, we brought together people of different mindsets and perspectives.”

She says mental health support would have been helpful from the start, because many people who have been traumatized by the system are sitting in spaces with people in a system that has treated them badly. Also, some of the early members of the cohort left. Daniels says it is difficult to onboard new members in a group that is building trust together.

Yet, Daniels says, adapting elements of the process as this first cohort learns together is inevitable. “When there’s a conflict, it’s always an opportunity to grow,” she says. “I think part of the reason we continue to stick together is because people at this table want to be better. That’s our common goal. Conflicts have helped us develop trust for each other because nobody’s running away. Every time there’s a conflict, we can ask, ‘Why did this happen?’ It looks messy, but out of mess comes something beautiful.”

Daniels adds, “Having these difficult conversations is showing that it can be done. “The idea of Emerging BC is great. I want to see this continue, because I want other residents to be able to experience this” as a cohort member in the future.

As someone with a background in the Liberian culture, Daniels says, “What I have learned about Minnesota is that we see conflict in a negative light. I’m from a culture where difficult conversation is part of everyday life. We even believe that in a relationship, if there is no conflict, you don’t truly know the person yet.”

Partnership with Philanthropy

Pohlad Family Foundation is supporting the Emerging BC program. Says executive director Susan Bass Roberts, “We are specifically interested in work to create an unarmed community responder program that sends trained civilian responders to non-life-threatening 911 calls, such as low-level offenses or behavioral health calls. This is a win-win, as it provides residents with a more appropriate level of care, while allowing police to focus on serious crime and emergency needs.”

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is funding the effort as well. After the murder of George Floyd, and with disparate outcomes from the pandemic on communities of color, Blue Cross declared racism a public health crisis. Bukata Hayes, the company’s vice president of racial and health equity and chief equity officer, says, “We want to make sure the work is tangible — not simply statements. With racism as a public health crisis, how do we follow through on the belief that the community has the answers?”

Brooklyn Center has been going through a “racial reckoning,” Hayes adds. “What we saw was a community responding in a way that says, ‘We want to lead. We will do the intentional work of connecting to find solution, grounding in this moment, and working in solidarity with one another.’”

Blue Cross became a supporter, he says, “not for us to lead, but to walk alongside as Brooklyn Center moves through a period of turmoil and deep reflection on ‘what kind of community do we want to create and be remembered for?’”

Hayes adds: “It is the community members who are doing the heavy lifting. Media often glorifies the corporate partners, but it is the people in Brooklyn Center who are doing the work.”