NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Tuesday August 20th 2019

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The Power of Story in the Backyard

by Janice Barbee, Cultural Wellness Center

Throughout the process of bringing together residents to work together to improve health in the Backyard area, we are constantly reminded of the importance of story. When the Cultural Wellness Center first convened residents to hear about plans for the Backyard Initiative, residents told many stories – stories about the history of the community, about residents’ relationships with Allina and other organizations, about people’s hardships as well as hopes.

“I see a lot. I see street level negative activity. I see garbage everywhere. I see people struggling. I see people on street corners, standing off the freeway. I see prostitutes. I see people going to work. I see people like Carol and Shirley and Miss Phoebe, people with conviction.”

“I see more diverse businesses, more activity up and down Lake Street coming back. I own a business. There are so many smaller, family owned businesses, which is great because they tend to grow and develop the community. I’ve also seen a lot of manufacturing leave the area, which needs to come back.”

The process of building trust and learning to work together has involved continual story-telling. Many of the early meetings featured the stories of cultural groups, about their history and their experiences in this community. Native Americans told the stories of being uprooted from this land and eventually coming back to a way of life that is unhealthy for their spirits. Long-time residents told stories of watching their homes be demolished to make way for new buildings and parking lots. Gay and lesbian residents told stories of being thrown out of their homes because their parents couldn’t accept them for who they are. New immigrants told stories of their homeland and ways of living they are trying very hard to keep alive.

“Think about the land that is around us. What is the history of this land? The Dakota have a history here; we have stories about the land. This land was not always covered in trees; it used to be more like a prairie. The trees were further north. It looked very different. The history of this land speaks to how we see ourselves and our connection to the land.”

“Phillips was named after Wendell Phillips. He lived in the middle 1800s…He was a lawyer, and practiced for free…He would speak for 2 – 3 hours at a time. He was speaking out on the liberation of Chinese slave labor, slavery, and women’s rights.”

“Minneapolis was incorporated in 1858… Franklin Avenue was the southern border. This area was the suburb. South Minneapolis was prairie…Minneapolis became a city because of St. Anthony Falls. Hiawatha was the path from water to water, from St. Anthony Falls to Hiawatha Falls. Hiawatha Ave. represents the history before, because history was before.”

“We should be proud we have the only cemetery in the state that is in the National Register of Historic Sites…The cemetery was never segregated.”

“In 1885 there were three key issues that defined Phillips: transportation, immigration, and affordable housing.”

Stories for Assessing Health

The Backyard assessment process affirmed the importance of story. Residents chose Listening Circles as a part of the process of creating a snapshot of the community’s health in 2009. Listening Circles provide a space for stories to be told, for people to say what is on their minds, not just fill in a blank on a survey.

“I’m not just trying to keep my family healthy, but I’m an older brother in the community. I tend to get others involved as well. This brings trust and unity to our community…We need to do little things like ask people to do things with you, like running, coming out to play.”

“We’re from a different era [when] it wasn’t so much about video games and media. I see it now, how it fries brains, because they sit there and watch movies all day. I say get up, clean your room and go out and play. These things are important because it instills a sense of responsibility.”

Story and the Commission on Health

The Commission on Health has been meeting monthly this summer to consider proposals from the Backyard Citizen Health Action Teams (CHATs) about projects to improve the health of the community. The Commission is composed primarily of residents from the CHATs. The work of the Commission is to monitor the health of the community, build the community’s capacity for taking responsibility for its own health, and support efforts to maintain and improve the health of Backyard members.

The Commission has been working on developing a supportive process for approving the proposals. The Commissioners have stated that they want to act as community members holding the interest of the community at heart, and not function like a governance council or a foundation or board. They have tested out a proposal form based on criteria for a good project as well as a numbering system, or rubric, as a guide for discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of a proposal and have found these decision-making tools insufficient and even burdensome and annoying.

One of the outcomes of the last meeting in August was a commitment to listen to people’s stories about what they want to do to improve health. Commission members said they want to give people of different cultures room to express their ideas in their own ways, in an organic process and not necessarily in a linear, pigeon-holed way. Stories can hold a lot more than a form full of questions – they can hold the facts, as well as the emotions, the motivations, and dreams of people. They can hold a culture’s ways of thinking and valuing.

The Commission will continue to develop a process that is supportive of cultural ways, communicates a vision to the whole community, is doable, and is accountable to the whole community. Members of the Commission have affirmed that the telling of stories is an essential part of that process.

If you have a great idea to improve the community’s health that involves community residents working together, please come to the next CHAT meeting. You may also join one of the 14 existing CHATs.

Call the Cultural Wellness Center, 612-721-5745, for more information.

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