Community catalysts

Lyndale neighborhood Women's Leadership Program yields rental building fixes, extra ESL classes

(l to r) Adriana Morgado, Gabriela Guzman, Guzman's daughter Diana, Pepina Jimenez, Alberta Valeria Credit: Photo by Michelle Bruch

While living in Mexico City, Pepina Jiménez tried to help poor children in her community. She joined political groups and requested government funding for carnivals and Christmas gifts.

When she joined family members in Minneapolis nine years ago, she wanted to go home.

“I’m not doing anything here,” she said through a translator. “And then I got to know that there was a way I could be helping people and getting involved in things. It really changed what it felt like to live here.”

Jiménez is a graduate of the Women’s Leadership Program in the Lyndale neighborhood. Participants complete a community project, learn how to navigate city government and learn how to become a local activist. More than 60 women have graduated from the program, including a new group of Somali participants.

“You never stop learning in your life,” said Alberta Valeria, a current member of the program.

In the Latina community, women are particularly grateful for information on renters’ rights.

Gabriela Guzman, a local baker and mother of a 1-year-old daughter, said her neighbors encounter bedbugs, cockroaches and leaky ceilings. She helped one nearby building obtain a permit to clean for bedbugs, armed with basic paperwork from the Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA). The neighborhood-issued form explains the requested fix and requires a signature from the landlord.

“One of my neighbors took [the form] and showed it to the owner, and he was afraid,” Guzman said. “He was like, ‘Where did you get this?’ And she said, ‘Just sign it. I know you’re going to fix it, just sign it.'”

Adriana Morgado, a preschool worker and teacher’s assistant, said it’s hard to tackle rental problems with limited English.

“We’ll go to the office and we’ll explain what’s going on, and they say, ‘We don’t understand you,’” she said through a translator. “They don’t want to help us because we’re Latinas.”

After participating in the program, however, she started making copies of the form.

“I give them to my neighbors when they need the landlord to fix the floor or the ceiling, or they need painting, or they need fixing,” she said.

As part of the leadership program, participants also visit the 911 call center. Staff assures them that local law enforcement does not check for citizenship status and encourages them to call 911.

“Sometimes the guys are shooting on the street, and [Latinas] don’t know what they’re going to do — if they call 911 or we just keep it silent,” Guzman said.

Valeria once saw a suspicious man taking photos of children at the neighborhood pool. Because she had learned about 911, she felt comfortable calling the police.

“A participant in the program said, ‘Oh you shouldn’t have called the police, that’s scary. Did you tell them your name?'” Valeria said through a translator.

Jennifer Arnold, who translated the Latinas’ answers and works as lead community organizer at LNA, said the issue is difficult for Latinas to discuss openly.

“It has everything to do with their feeling of if it’s okay to call the police, if it’s okay to stand up for yourself,” she said. “We work on developing a relationship with the police department.”

The Latina women are building relationships with their Somali neighbors as well. Somali women hosted a cooking class last summer and taught Latinas and their children how to make sambusas.

Jiménez lives across the street from Horn Towers on Blaisdell, where many Somali women live.

“She’ll run into them on the street on the way to ESL class, and she’ll say ‘Let’s go!’ and they’ll walk together to class,” Arnold translated.

Herada Sidow, a Somali program participant, fled the fighting in Mogadishu for a refugee camp in Kenya. When she moved to Minneapolis in 1997, the snow was a shock. But her six kids love the snowballs, and she’s met nice neighbors.

As part of Sidow’s leadership class, she surveyed the Somali community and discovered many neighborhood needs. People didn’t know where to find homework help for their kids, for example, and they wanted nearby ESL classes.

“They were the first people who said we need an ESL class around here,” said Nasra Hassan, LNA community organizer and translator for the women. “People are elderly. They need a place that’s close that they can go to.”

Consequently, LNA started offering additional morning ESL classes at the Wells Fargo community room at 31st & Blaisdell.

Nearly 2,000 people speak a language other than English at home in the Lyndale neighborhood, according to Minnesota Compass staff at Wilder Research. Twenty-four percent of the population is Latino, and about 21 percent is African American.

“This is an enormous opportunity,” said Mark Hinds, LNA executive director. “[ESL classes are] designed not only to teach English, but engage in community volunteering as well.”

Sidow said she appreciates advice to reach outside her culture.

“We all go to the ESL classes, and I know where to get the homework help for my kids. … Now I know how to go to the store,” Sidow said through a translator. “I have that confidence. I make a lot of friends.”

Khadijo Abukar, a current program participant, has five kids between the ages of 5 months and 15 years. She left Mogadishu to live in Egypt for about five years, and she moved to the U.S. through a United Nations program. She said she leaves each class feeling refreshed.

“We go to school, go to college, we are stay-at-home moms. We came here as adults, and there are a lot of things that we do not know,” she said through a translator. “So the more exposure that we have to see how the city works and how the organization is run, the better chance for us to know and be aware of what is going on.”

Hinds said the program is seeing results. One woman recently became the first Latina to serve on the parent-teacher council at her child’s school. Other women started looking at new job opportunities.

Morgado said a letter of recommendation from the Lyndale neighborhood helped secure her job at a local preschool.

“I was shy and I was afraid to talk to people before,” she said. “I learned to develop myself. … I learned to speak with people like I’m speaking with you now.”

Hinds said the program also helps prioritize neighborhood focus.

“After three or four years and 60 or 70 graduates, this changes the whole conversation about what’s important,” he said. “This is how you build a real, working multicultural community.”

Hassan offered some advice for the larger community, as well.

“We are very hard-working people, and people do not know exactly who we are, and they just go with the media and judge,” she said. “Take the opportunity to get to know us. … We are good citizens, good human beings, we strive to make here our home, and that’s where we are raising our kids.”