Northside Councilmember and Southwest activist try to build bridges while dodging political flak
Sometimes it seems as if North Minneapolis is closer to an Iraqi battlefield than it is to Southwest. All too often, bullets fly, bodies fall and mothers cry on the Northside, while families to the south watch the news in the safety of big, comfortable homes.
Councilmember Don Samuels, who represents the North’s 3rd Ward, wants to stop the violence in his part of town — in part by ending Southwest’s passive observation of it.
With Armatage resident Michelle Martin, Samuels has created the PEACE Foundation, a group dedicated to stopping street violence by "bringing together people who live in poor and affluent neighborhoods," he said.
One of the group’s main objectives is to link successful people and organizations with troubled youngsters and at-risk youth in embattled neighborhoods.
PEACE stands for Public Engagement And Community Empowerment.
Not all of Samuels’ colleagues on the City Council are ready to give PEACE a chance, however.
Councilmember Barbara Johnson (4th Ward), who represents the city’s northwest corner, and Southwest’s Scott Benson (11th Ward) say foundation donors could influence Samuels’ votes on Council issues or provide stealth contributions for a future campaign.
However, Southwest Councilmembers Dean Zimmerman (6th Ward), Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) and Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), as well as Northside Councilmember Natalie Johnson-Lee (5th Ward) and Southeast’s Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) and Gary Schiff (9th Ward) are part of the foundation’s "policy-makers for peace." Mayor R.T. Rybak and Chief of Police William McManus are also members.
BOB leads to PEACE
PEACE’s genesis is in Get BOB, the affectionate name for the Getting to the Bottom of the Ballot lecture series sponsored by Southwest Citizens for Civic Engagement (a coalition of the Linden Hills, Kingfield, Fulton, Lynnhurst, Kenny, Armatage and Windom neighborhood associations).
Last September, Get BOB featured Samuels, who talked about the violence plaguing the Jordan neighborhood, where he lives, and how that carnage is connected to the well-heeled parts of town. He and Get BOB organizer Martin talked afterwards — the first of many discussions on how to unite the North and South in a campaign for peace.
The foundation, Samuels said, was "largely inspired by Michelle."
Martin now serves as the foundation’s director while Samuels is its president and public face. He is also the group’s voice, passionately articulating the hopes and fears of the people he represents in his ward.
Samuels said PEACE was "really born out of this void that is being felt by myself and the people around me for something that will create some kind of a permanent solution for individual young people who are trapped either on the perpetrating end or the receiving end of violence."
Martin said Samuels "bridges people from his community who believe in him and people outside of his own community, who can relate to what he says.
"He’s a minister. He’s an African American man. He worked in business as a leader. He’s a crossroads," Martin said.
No turning back
Samuels’ political star is rising. His charisma is undeniable, as is his passion — and if the Jamaican-born immigrant strengthens connections with the paler-skinned voters of Southwest and elsewhere, he might figure to upgrade his title to mayor or congressman.
Barb Johnson isn’t in the habit of speculating about her peers’ political plans, but she is known for speaking plainly when something bothers her.
She wonders why a ward representative would put so much energy into other parts of the city. "He talked to me about cooperation between groups that are working in the communities and collaboration and all this stuff. I’ve heard all these buzzwords. I just don’t have a lot of faith in this kind of stuff," Johnson said.
"I just have a lot of work to do here [in the 4th Ward], and I find it hard to believe that other Councilmembers don’t [in their wards] — maybe they don’t spend as much time on constituent service or something."
Johnson worries that PEACE donors will think they’re buying Samuels’ favor and that foundation donations could aid Samuels in future campaigns.
"It seems to me that the tendency is that people gather these monies up and then have control over them, and then nobody knows how they’re spent.
"Show me the money," she said with a laugh. "I’m like Jerry Maguire — show me the money."
Benson shares Johnson’s reservations.
"[Samuels] didn’t have a foundation before he became a Councilmember and now he does. Why is that?" Benson asked with a laugh. "If they’re not trying to buy influence, I don’t know what the issue is. Otherwise, they would’ve been in the foundation business prior to their election."
(Ironically, Samuels’ likely next opponent, Johnson Lee, is a member of PEACE. They were redistricted into the same Council ward, and could face each other in 2005 if one does not change
Benson said he believes Samuels should recuse himself from any City Council matters involving major PEACE donors.
Samuels said he would only recuse himself if the foundation itself has business before the Council; something the foundation has no plans to do, he said.
Samuels understands why some people, including his peers, might be leery of his motives. After all, he likely wouldn’t be on the City Council if his predecessor, Joe Biernat, hadn’t scammed free plumbing and been convicted on federal corruption charges.
"I think there is a degree of justifiable cynicism coming from these people," Samuels said. "Look, I came into office because someone supposedly got a favor, so I understand the concern. But at all times we have to be careful, lest our concerns begin to rule us and hamstring us from doing good."
Samuels had a strong Southwest connection even before ascending to the Council as a member of Kingfield’s Judson Memorial Church. He is an ordained Baptist minister without a congregation, and he said he might one day go off in search of one.
"At some point, I’m going to have to decide whether I’m going to continue my political career or become a minister, which was my original intent. If I’m going to be hamstrung to this degree, it just contributes to my decision. I can’t play games like that. I can’t be that careful about my life, you know. It’s debilitating," he said.
Martin says full disclosure will put fears to rest. "We’re going to have to tread very carefully. We’re going to set up very visible ways to evaluate who we take money from and what we do with the money. [The names of] large donors will immediately be on the Web site."
The PEACE approach
Samuels’ job is to get out in the community, rallying the faithful and making converts, signing up donors and volunteers.
"My role is to give it a higher profile and to become kind of the chief salesperson for engagement by the larger community. Sundays, I preach at churches…and I try to challenge congregations to give themselves a broader vision than helping their families raise their children.
"When they ask me, ‘What can we do?’ now I have something to point them to."
PEACE will bring together leaders of congregations of different faiths May 25 to help organize a "Congregations for PEACE" group. Samuels and Martin, and PEACE volunteers already brought in Northside congregations such as The Church of St. Philip, and Southwest churches including Kingfield’s New Beginnings Baptist Tabernacle, 4301 1st Ave. S.
Samuels offers a modern parable to explain how the congregations and their leaders might help end violence.
"So you’re on the corner, for instance, and you don’t have a job and you’re not doing well in school. Here’s Bob, and he’s a pastor of this church, and Bob will have a relationship with you from now on.
"And if your relationship with Bob doesn’t work, and you continue to be a blight to the community, well, maybe we’ll introduce you to the warden."
Samuels and Martin are working out the details of just how the bridges of cooperation between North and South will be built, but Samuels is clear on how successful folks in affluent neighborhoods can help those living where gunfire is common.
"Those people have it," Samuels said of successful community members. "They have connections, they have money, they have vision, they have ambition, they have drive. They know how to do it. We just want to make those connections and then let people take over."
‘What’s in it for me?’
People who live in areas where there’s relatively little street violence might well wonder what’s in it for them to actively try to solve problems rooted so deeply in other parts of town. They have their lives to live, with their own time-sucking problems, too.
Samuels thinks there’s a lot in it for them: no less than their legacies and humanity.
"As we look back in history, we say to ourselves, ‘What were the Germans thinking?’ Or what were those Southern, bigot, idiot rednecks thinking? We even say, ‘What is George Bush thinking?’ History and distance always creates a kind of perspective where we can condemn our fellow humans who coexist with great injustice. I think that our children, and their children, will judge us harshly when they assess our community and see the kinds of disparity that we allowed ourselves to live with.
"So basically we’re gaining our humanity here."
You can get more information on the PEACE Foundation at www.citypeace.org or by calling 521-4405.