Planting Our Flag

Graphic of a single illuminated lightbulb

The Upstream Imperative, Volume 1

This is the first article in “The Upstream Imperative,” a series of articles exploring the challenges and opportunities facing the social services sector.

By Adair Mosley, President and CEO, Pillsbury United Communities

Here’s a hard truth: our systems are failing our communities. The black and brown families we see every day inhabit a society where they are in last place. Minnesota is 49th or 50th nationally for disparities in earning high school diplomas. We are 49th for racial gaps in home ownership. Mortality rates for African-American and Native residents are up to 3.5 times higher than for other racial and ethnic groups.

While these challenges disproportionately affect people of color and families living in poverty, they are a legacy of choices we’ve made as a community. So how will we respond to these shared problems as a society?

Will we focus on providing services that ease suffering in the short term, while ignoring the systemic causes that have brought us to this point? Or will we embrace deeper, more lasting solutions?

Make no mistake, traditional human services are a lifeline our communities can’t do without. Our sector improves millions of lives in thousands of communities by working to close gaps in food, housing, education and beyond. These efforts must be preserved and strengthened.

But on their own, they are not enough. Beyond delivering programs and services, it’s time to re-envision the ecosystem and impact of our work as a whole. To remove systemic barriers that hold back people’s lives, we need to embrace radical and disruptive innovation. And urgently.

Social needs: widening the scope

Agencies often say they address social determinants of health when in reality they treat symptoms. Food shelves help feed families, but they don’t solve the financial and transportation burdens that put grocery stores out of reach for many communities. Health education can save lives, but it only succeeds when supported by healthcare infrastructure that makes the knowledge actionable to people where they live.

While providing near-term services to individuals is necessary, it does little to change the systemic issues on the ground — most importantly the long-term economic disadvantages faced by families living in poverty. Until we confront that social reality, food, housing and health assistance will be a temporary salve at best.

Responding only to individual needs can give us a false sense of progress. We celebrate the number of people we’ve served through our programs while ignoring the conditions that make these programs necessary.

To move the needle on a population scale, we must take a broader view. If we are serious about addressing social determinants of health, we must dismantle the systems that perpetuate inequities and hold people back across generations.

Changing the ecosystem

Shifting the context in which people live their lives is hard work. System-wide solutions take more effort, money, and political will. They require cross-sector partnerships that can reform complicated entities like our health care and education system. They require us to ask difficult questions, demand more of ourselves and our partners, and refuse to be complacent.

The social services sector can’t be expected to move these mountains on its own. Partners in government, philanthropic community, and businesses must also step up. When money is restricted to incremental solutions, entrenched problems fester and our communities remain unstable. We need brave financial partners willing to collaborate on ambitious solutions — and allow those with proximity to the community to focus dollars and energy where it matters most.

In over a century working with and for our community, we have learned that the best solutions flow from the community itself. But only when we understand the lives behind the challenges and stay anchored in their dreams and aspirations.

This is where we plant our flag as an agency. We envision communities where people achieve greater personal health and wellbeing together. Where cultural understanding creates social connections. Where prosperity is shared by all through equitable education and employment opportunities.

This is our motivation: going upstream to reform entrenched systems that can meaningfully change people’s lives long term. As an agency, as a sector, and as a society, we must be willing to think bigger and do the hard things. Only then can we realize a healthier, happier, more prosperous future for everyone in our community, no exceptions.

Serving with a smile at People Serving People

EPIC program participants volunteering with People Serving People

Every Tuesday, volunteers from our Employing Partners in Community (EPIC) Program are at People Serving People to assist with building beautification. This is a partnership that has been in place since 2010. Its just one of the many places where program participants and staff volunteer each week.

The EPIC Program, based at the Pillsbury House, is all about skill building, involvement in our community and making memories. Volunteering is practice that provides program participants a chance to gain and strengthen work skills while also helping others and integrating in the community.  At People Serving People, EPIC helps with the janitorial services and that’s a big job. There are seven floors and a long list of housekeeping tasks that need to be done on each floor. Tasks include sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, and cleaning windows. After the work is completed, People Serving People kindly provides a hot meal in exchange for the work. Some of the volunteers favorites are beef nachos, tacos, and smothered chicken.

Public Allies volunteer to help raise youth voices

Public Alies participants in ideation session

On March 30, 2019 the Minnesota Youth Council hosted the first of its kind, Youth in Educational Leadership Summit at Patrick Henry High School. The Minnesota Youth Council is a group of youth and adults working together to empower and mobilize young people across the state to use the power of their voices to address issues affecting youth. The event featured many young speakers. Janaan Ahmed spoke about advocacy and leadership and Maddy Fernands spoke about climate justice. Edie Weinstein, a young author, spoke about her book and connecting with people with dementia. More than 200 students, parents, mentors, and teachers participated in the event.

A team of Public Allies volunteered at the event.  They did everything from provide childcare to take photos while not participating in workshops. “As a Public Ally, the experience at YELS was refreshing.” said second year Public Allies fellow You Lee. “Many times, youth voices are pushed aside to make space for adults or professionals in the room. So, it was cool to see youth-led presentations and overall coordination of the conference. I can see that the conference was a good experience for youth as they continue their work in the future.” 

Public Allies is a national movement committed to advancing social justice and equity by engaging and activating the leadership capacities of our young people. Since 1992, Public Allies has helped thousands of underrepresented young leaders serve our country, get on successful pathways to higher education and careers, and bring communities together to work for the common good. Public Allies seeks to find and cultivate young community leaders and connect them to the issues and causes that ignite their passion to create last change. Allies are placed with a nonprofit organization where they help address critical community needs such as youth development, education, workforce development, environmental issues, arts programming and community health.

Sisterhood Boutique celebrates diversity with style

Models at the Sisterhood Boutique fashion show

On March 5, 2019 Sisterhood Boutique celebrated its fifth anniversary with a fashion show. The boutique was started by Somali and east African girls as safe space to learn skills like financial literacy, leadership and sewing by running their own business selling secondhand clothes.

“We do a lot of things and the fashion show is a way to show the community what we’ve been doing. We’ve had over 200 people go through the process,” said store manager Amal Muse.

The fashion show is part birthday party, part fundraiser and features models of all shapes and sizes wearing looks designed by students from the University of St. Catherine’s Advanced Construction Class to reflect the diversity found in the West Bank neighborhood where the boutique is located.

“We have women wearing traditional hijabs and burkas; there’s everything. It really runs the gamut of what you would see walking around in a very fashionable Minneapolis,” said Julie Graves, Director of Career & Future Readiness.

For some of the girls involved with store, the show is a chance to strike a pose, while for others, it’s one more example that the Sisterhood Boutique lives up to its name.

“It’s very family-like. You feel like you are part of a sister family. I don’t have sisters, so I gained sisters,” Ali said.

Full Cycle delivers food and more by bike

Full Cycle bicycle food deliveries

On May 23, 2019 the team at Full Cycle made their first food delivery of the spring. The weather was great, everyone biked hard, and most importantly 150 meals were delivered to transitional living programs in Minneapolis.  Food delivery by bike is just one of the many programs offered by Full Cycle, a social enterprise bicycle shop in south Minneapolis, MN that offers support and connection to young people experiencing homelessness.

Young people who have experience with homelessness can make an appointment to pick out and help fix a bike they can use for transportation. The free bikes also function to relieve stress, provide a fun outlet, and allow youth to practice being self-reliant. In addition, bike appointments are a natural way for youth and youth workers to get to know each other and how Full Cycle can be useful.

Full Cycle also offers youth a two-phase, six-month-long paid internship, which teaches a structured mechanic curriculum and imparts professional knowledge like résumé writing. The idea is to give kids a complete set of skills—not just the know-how to work on bikes.

Pillsbury House Theatre amplifies the stories of older adults

Public memoir reading at Pillsbury House + Theatre

In 2018, Pillsbury House Theatre received a grant to run Centerstage, a series of free memoir writing classes for residents of local Augustana Care buildings. Teaching Artist Jen Scott taught three separate 8-week courses, culminating in a reception at Pillsbury House Theatre in which participants and professional actors read their stories out loud. It was a joyful occasion punctuated with laughter, a few tears, and even music; one of the participants played the harp as she told her story!

This year, Pillsbury House Theatre is doing it again, this time hosting three free eight-week classes for adults 55 and up in their building on Chicago Avenue. The first class, Intro to Memoir, taught by Jen Scott, is wrapping up this month. The second class, Advanced Memoir, will be taught by Dr. Louis Porter starting in June, with a third class to follow later in the summer.

Centerstage is not just about teaching people how to write in the form of memoir. More than that, it’s about empowering people with the knowledge that everyone has a story to be told, and that telling those stories both grounds us in ourselves and connects us to one another.

Plays on the political divide, by and for women at Pillsbury House Theatre

Performance at Pillsbury House + Theatre

Every year since the spring of 2017, Pillsbury House Theatre has produced a series of new 10-minute plays called The Great Divide. Featuring five brand-new 10-minute plays by local playwrights, The Great Divide is a response to the deeply partisan political climate that has become our new normal.

For this year’s installment, titled She Persists: The Great Divide III, Pillsbury House Theatre focused on women’s stories, commissioning plays from local playwrights Cristina Florencia Castro, Casey Llewellyn, Oya Mae Duchess-Davis, Philana Omorotionmwan and Aamera Siddiqui. In addition to the playwrighting cohort, She Persists also featured an all-woman production team and cast, starring Ashawnti Sakina Ford, Audrey Park, Nora Montañez & Sara Richardson.

“These are really politically driven shows, and a few of them deal with the future,” said actress Nora Montañez. “These women, these playwrights took in the theme, and then they went with it, and it’s absolutely gorgeous how different each of these plays are, and how it affects the audience seeing what currently is happening and what could possibly happen in the future.”

Written and performed by and for women, She Persists was a powerful, intersectional look at the place where womanhood and politics collide. To learn about Pillsbury House Theatre’s current season, visit http://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org/mainstage/

New star emerges at Chicago Avenue Project performance

Chicago Avenue Project performance

Each spring, kids and their adult acting mentors star in plays written just for them by adult playwrights, and each winter, kids and their adult playwriting mentors write plays to be performed by adult actors. The most recent CAP show, Fortune Favors the Bold, was performed by kids and their adult acting mentors on April 22nd and 23rd. Among other stories, the plays included a robot uprising, a wolf directing a nature documentary, and a couple of cartoon characters having an existential crisis!

One of the CAP stars, 8-year-old Deparis, made his acting debut in Fortune Favors the Bold. He played a DJ named Mr. Peep who was on his way to the biggest show of his career, along with his trusty sidekick, Donkey. “I’ve been watching CAP since I was three years old,” he said. “I always wanted to do CAP, and now I have the opportunity, which I’m very excited about… I love CAP because I finally get to let out all my energy and I get to make things that just express me.”

Since 1996, the Chicago Avenue Project (CAP) has brought local youth together with the Twin Cities’ best adult playwrights, actors, and directors to create and produce original theatre that is heartwarming, hilarious, and infused with the brilliance of young minds.

To learn more about the Chicago Avenue Project, visit http://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org/chicago-avenue-project/.

Sisterhood Boutique heads north for adventure

Sisterhood Boutique participants preparing for Boundary Waters canoe trip

In July 2018, Sisterhood Boutique took a group of young women to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This was the third year the Sisterhood has facilitated an expedition in lead by Big City Mountaineers.

On this trip, youth camped for 8 days, paddled 39 miles, and portaged 350 rods where they carried 80 pound canoes on their shoulders and 50 pound bags on their backs. 

These expeditions are meant to introduce youth to the outdoors (especially young East African women) through backcountry camping and canoeing where they are taught how to be independent in the wilderness. Youth learn technical skills including how to set up a tent, purify water, cook and clean outside, and paddle a canoe—all while making sure to take care of the land and ‘leave no trace’ in the process. While developing these hands-on skills, youth are simultaneously enhancing their communication and leadership skills, pushing themselves to new limits, and experiencing what it means to work as a teamwork at a whole new level.

It was a life changing experience for many of the young women:

“It was a nice trip. I never used to enjoy nature like that. I always used to ignore it and stay in my house. But now I learned the real meaning of being outdoors and it’s actually pretty fun.” Sara, 13

“I learned that after some hardship, there comes an ease. After going through some really tough situations, we came across a nice place to stay, played a little, had a swim in a cool lake, walked on a beach, experienced something new.” Fardowza, 17

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