The Value of Sharing Neighborhood Stories in Duluth

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Healthy Hillside team member Tiffany Fenner helps youth share their vision for Duluth’s Hillside neighborhood at Family Freedom Center’s Big Tent event. Photo Rachel Kilgour

I am the community development manager for Zeitgeist, a nonprofit in Duluth that is known for our public-facing entities, like a restaurant, cinema, and comedy theater.

Community development work is supported by ticket sales and the restaurant — the only nonprofit restaurant in our community. We also are funded through the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) for active living, which is how we enter into conversations around community design and urban planning. As an arts and storytelling organization, we use that lens to give a platform to local voices.

We have a history of doing work in the highly diverse Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth. According to Minnesota Compass, 20 percent of the 10,000 residents in this neighborhood are people of color, compared to 12 percent for Duluth overall; 25 percent have a disability. Additionally, 30 percent of households do not have a vehicle, and 61 percent earn less than $35,000 a year.

It is a neighborhood that has historically been redlined, so there have been decades of disinvestment in the area. We call attention to the need to reinvest in this community and address historic and current policies.

The life expectancy in the Hillside is 20 years less than in an adjacent neighborhood, and 12 years less than the Duluth average lifespan. A few schools in the area have closed, meaning that folks need to move further outside of the neighborhood for K–12 schooling.

People in the Hillside feel a great sense of pride, vibrancy, and beauty, while at the same time they recognize significant challenges, dangers, and concerns. Many people in the neighborhood feel misunderstood by people elsewhere in Duluth, who tend to think of it as a place only of disparity.

Values Clarification

At the height of the pandemic, few people in the neighborhood trusted vaccines. Since most of our focus to that point had been on health disparities, active living, transportation infrastructure, and biking, we started to raise vaccine confidence through story sharing. Locally, the American Indian Housing Community Organization was doing a very effective job reaching Indigenous populations with messaging and outreach. We worked with them to learn about their approaches.

We hired seven people — now we are up to 11 people — who are Hillside neighbors. The team started its work in December 2020, right before the January 6 insurrection in D.C., and navigated the feelings that came from that revolt. We sat together virtually and processed how we wanted to go forward and build community. It was a powerful time to be together and strengthened our relationships and commitment.

Our focus is around built environment — how we build community physically. We have done door-knocking campaigns, social media campaigns, tabling at public events, and trips to our local soup kitchen and the local transit center. We went to locations where we could interact with folks directly. We have had over 13,000 conversations with Hillside residents since 2020.

There is political polarization in our community, so there was concern about what those door-knocking conversations would be like and whether people would feel safe.

We developed a loose script that focused on what people loved about where they lived. We started with that in every conversation. We heard about how people loved the connection they felt, the views of Lake Superior that people experience on the Hillside, the diversity in the neighborhood.

Then we were able to move into conversations about what they wanted to see more of. We heard about supporting locally owned businesses that were within walking distance of their homes; they wanted to see their neighbors thriving. People wanted access to housing, and more spaces for social gatherings and being outside together. We heard about addiction recovery and the need for more accessible mental health and physical resources.

One of our artistic team members said many people seemed to want to go the other way when they saw her coming with a clipboard. She noticed that people were drawn to the art supplies when we were giving away coloring books and colored pencils related to the vaccine information. So we set up spaces where people could create and draw together — a vision board with guiding questions. We asked people to illustrate what they wanted to see.

We did an art show with those drawings. We will keep using that method to help people tell stories about their vision for the community, especially youth, who can use art to help them talk to elected officials.

In 2022, we put together a report based on those conversations, surveys, and vision boards.

Being in the Right Place

I’m actually an aquatic ecologist with a focus on green infrastructure, stormwater management, and a love for community organizing. I worked for the city of Superior as their stormwater program manager and did a lot of work on code changes and public green infrastructure projects.

This work seemed like a great way to take my organizing interest into a focus on how to build a healthy, livable, and environmentally sound community. It also enabled me to work in grassroots advocacy that wasn’t possible for me as a city employee.

People here are concerned about housing, which is not in the Zeitgeist wheelhouse, but we make new connections. For example, we knew our elders were not being reached well, so we approached Meals on Wheels, Agewell Arrowhead, and local food shelf agencies.

We are an arts and storytelling organization, so we are using that skill around various topics.

For example, some of us attended a housing summit. People were asked to respond on a piece of paper to the prompt: “Safe housing means __ to me.” One of the organizers asked if we could collaborate on a future storytelling event with those phrases.

With that ask, I felt like I was in the right place doing the right thing. People see how we can be helpful to each other.

Influencing Transportation Policy

The team is hosting focus groups in the neighborhood about issues to address, grassroots solutions, and how we can work with community partners to address concerns with those solutions.

We recently wrapped up a public event with the mayors of Duluth and Superior to talk about transportation equity. This year, we focused on a road that cuts through the Hillside neighborhoods — Sixth Avenue East, a part of the former freeway system that is no longer used as such but that has never changed. Like so many other stories about freeway systems that divided a low-income neighborhood, it continues to be a huge barrier to people in the community.

We shared a 15-minute documentary about that street — the history, the experience of those who live and work in that neighborhood, and how the street impacts their day-to-day choices, their health, and their safety.

In the last 10 years, 20 percent of pedestrian deaths in Duluth have happened on that road. More than a third of our residents don’t have personal vehicles, so there is no other place where a walkable community is more important.

In the winter, it is an added challenge. We had a record-breaking snowfall this past year. There have been conversations about transportation access and snow-clearing for our elders and people who are living with disabilities.

We were able to announce at a recent event that the city has dedicated staff time and finances to do a resurfacing and improvement to all of the curbs and pedestrian crossings on Sixth Avenue East in 2024. We’re kicking off a massive public engagement period through the fall, working with residents and local businesses to help co-design what that road will look like. The city transportation planner is partnering with Zeitgeist weekly.

Learning Lessons

Our team members gain experience, leadership, and connections. One of the original team members is now running for city council. We have others that serve on statewide health boards. Each of these folks continue to deepen their reach as they find a niche that speaks to their passions. It’s a huge win for our community.

We continue to respond to what we heard from the listening sessions, using grant funds. Other funding sources include Saint Louis County Public Health and community foundations. We have a film school, both in Duluth and on the Iron Range, which leads to additional grant funding and helps us reach into the underserved Iron Range audience.

Many people come to the restaurant and the independent films and aren’t necessarily aware of the community development work we do. That’s a powerful position to be in — to create bridges between two groups and grow empathy, especially with well-intentioned progressive folks in Duluth who might resist Section 8 housing development in their neighborhood.

Our goal is to create good neighbors across the entire city, and to share stories that recognize how we benefit from each other.