Connecting with kids in Kingfield

KINGFIELD — Neighborhood leaders sometimes struggle to find ways to really connect with young people, especially teenagers.

That has been the case in Kingfield for years, where ideas to involve youth have generally been less than exciting, including one recent pitch to have teens rake lawns for senior citizens.

“We’ve tried organizing with youth before, but we’ve never really found a way to get them engaged beyond a single project,” said Sarah Linnes-Robinson, executive director of the Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA). “People often talk about youth as a resource without understanding how they might think of themselves.”

A program scheduled to launch this summer could change that. After months of discussion, the neighborhood organization partnered with Southwest-based nonprofit Project Footsteps, formerly known as Project Legos (Leadership, Empowerment, Growth, Opportunity and Sustainability). The youth-empowerment organization, now in its fifth year, will launch a program this summer called It Pays to Change Kingfield.

Based at Martin Luther King Park at 40th & Nicollet, the program’s focus will be to give youth from Kingfield and nearby neighborhoods an opportunity to become community leaders while improving relationships and creating positive change in the area.   

“What we’re really looking for is for it to change the way that Kingfield relates to youth in the neighborhood,” Linnes-Robinson said. “What haven’t we paid attention to? Why don’t we ever see teenagers in Kingfield?”

Kyle Rucker, executive director of Project Footsteps, lives in Kingfield with his two sons and wants to answer those same questions. He said he’s met young people at the neighborhood park and others during a program his nonprofit ran just east of the freeway.

Kingfield’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, along with the area’s support from local businesses and residents, makes it an ideal place for an open program, Rucker said. Project Footsteps has partnered with hundreds of Twin Cities schools and organizations such as the YMCA, but last year started looking for ways to reach young people not tied to a specific entity. The organization’s first try at an open program, launched last summer in East St. Paul, proved overly popular. That same model is now being applied in Kingfield.   

“This is a big step for us actually,” Rucker said. “We’re putting a lot of resources into launching what we call this open-program model, which is really organizing folks and figuring out the win, win, win, win, win for everybody.”

He said the program in Kingfield, as it was in St. Paul, would be largely youth-driven. About 15 young people between the ages of 14 and 18 will be selected after a tryout process in early June. Those youth will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from July 6–Aug. 24, initially discussing social issues and problems specific to Kingfield. They will eventually have to decide what to do about those problems and develop and carry out some sort of action, Rucker said.

 “We’re not an organization that particularly focuses on social issues; that’s a part of the process,” Rucker said. “But for the most part we are an organization that focuses on empowering and preparing young people to be real social leaders in action. For us, it’s not enough to talk the talk … for us, we push young people to implement action projects.”

In East St. Paul, the youth organized a one-day retreat for teens that drew 50 attendees. The goal of the retreat was to erase negative stereotypes and assumptions about teenagers in the area through positive action in the community. The organizers worked with area businesses to get food donated to the event and with the local Boys and Girls Club for the space.  

“For me, personally, [Project Footsteps] made me realize that me, by myself, I can make a difference in the world and I can improve my community whether people think I can or not,” said East St. Paul  program participant Marlisa Esherick, 15.

A group at St. Louis Park High School created a video called The Inside Look to expose racism and discrimination at the school. It was played before more than 600 students and staff and two years later, the program has morphed into a talk show.

Students at Arlington High School in St. Paul hosted a student fair, a reversal of the traditional job fair, at which each student had a table and was visited by representatives from local businesses and colleges.

Program facilitators, who are also teenagers or young adults, help guide each program and various resources are made available to participants to help them decide on an action plan. Resources can range from a hundred burritos from Chipotle to free online space and a website designer.

Project Footsteps’ programs are free for participants and those involved in It Pays to Change Kingfield will receive a $250–$300 stipend.

Rucker said there are no firm criteria for participants, except eagerness and commitment.  

“We’re not necessarily looking for kids that are already deemed leaders,” he said. “We’re looking for kids that are leaders, but they just don’t know it.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or

Get involved

A kickoff event for Project Footsteps’ launch of It Pays to Change Kingfield is set for May 23, from 4–6 p.m. at Martin Luther King Park at 40th & Nicollet.

Interested youth, parents, area residents and business leaders are encouraged to attend. The event will feature food, an overview of the program and a timeline for participation.

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