African American community members deliver message of the Zone
By Vickie Evans-Nash
Later this summer, the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) will be hiring just under 30 people to fill new employment slots. They are looking for people who have a firm understanding of the community and the families they will be recruiting to be a part of the NAZ initiative to support the families until their children enter college.
People like Andre Dukes. Born and raised in South Minneapolis, Dukes is an assistant pastor at Shiloh Temple church who has always had an interest in reducing youth violence. A few years ago he developed a team of residents who went knocking on the doors of Northside residents to talk to them about safety and non-violence. The team would also try to connect families with community resources like employment and afterschool programs in an effort to steer young people from getting into trouble.
Though hard work went into the effort, Dukes was not satisfied with the results.
“Young people continued to die, and I was asked to officiate at several of those funerals,” he explains. “It really got to the point where I didn’t want to have to look another mother in the face and console her because she had lost a child in the streets.”
Dukes attended the Peace Foundation meeting where 50 organizational representatives returned with stories of their visit to the Harlem Children’s Zone, saying “This is not Harlem, New York. We don’t have Wall Street in our backyard, we don’t have the charismatic leader like Jeffery Canada, but we do have a lot of organizations that are doing great work here on the North Side.”
Though Dukes agreed that there were good organizations, there was no continuum of services. So when one program ended there was nothing that bridged children and their families to next steps.
The Peace Foundation shared Dukes’ mission of decreasing youth violence, and they were both engaged in door-to-door campaigns to meet the needs of families. Dukes decided to join forces with them as they began developing the framework for NAZ. The first challenge was gaining the community’s trust.
“This was a community that really has been over-assessed, over-researched. Someone is always knocking at your door to try and get some information,” Dukes explains. In September of 2009, he was asked to lead a team of people from the community that families could identify with, “folks who are from the community, live in this community, that have social capital, knew folks, to really be the carriers of this message.”
Bruce Murray had previously been a family support advocate and educator for Way to Grow, when someone told him that he would be a good fit for NAZ. Though he was born in Chicago, Illinois, he moved to Minnesota at the age of eight. He lived a few years in the Northside Bethune-area projects, attended Anwatin Junior High and after living in a couple areas around the Twin Cities, he purchased a house in North Minneapolis in 1999.
As a single father of three children, he strongly identifies with families living in the Zone. “I love to be able to share my story, and I love to give back to my community,” he says. “Every day it gives me hope to know that I will reach someone in my community as a young Black male, to be an example for our young Black children.”
As a NAZ connector, he recruits families, talks with them about their personal goals and their goals for their children, then he connects them with the 50 organizational partners to help them realize their goals.
“The parents are the drivers, but we want to give them the tools,” Murray explains.
High mobility is the biggest challenge that presents itself for families. NAZ has no income barriers. It commits to provide support for families from birth to their child’s entrance into college, and moving out of the Zone is the only exception to that commitment.
NAZ has created seven action teams, the largest being housing. The housing team is made up of approximately eight organizations led by Project for Pride in Living (PPL) and including Urban Homeworks and Minneapolis Public Housing. All of these organizations have committed to making NAZ families a priority for housing placement.
Once Murray or other NAZ connectors identifies a family with housing barriers, the family is referred to Urban Homeworks who works with families who may have marks on their record that make finding housing options a challenge.
The commitment from PPL consists of 13 North Minneapolis apartment units over the next few months where NAZ families are on the top of their list.
NAZ not only supports the family; it supports the child. Their Family Academy, inspired by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson of Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, is a 12-week parenting education program where parents learn about brain development and positive discipline. Currently, besides public engagement Dukes facilitates Family Academy, helping parents of zero-to-three-year-olds enhance their parenting skills.
“One of the reasons that we have an achievement gap is that children are going into school unprepared, and there is really nothing in the system to help them catch up,” Duke explains. “[If I] only have a 4,000-word vocabulary, it’s going to be hard for me when other students have a 12,000-word vocabulary…to really stay on par with what’s really happening in the classroom. Many families are not talking to children frequently enough.”
Over a course of 12 weeks for three hours each Saturday, Family Academy meets. Half the time families spend together, then children and adults separate. While parents work in a group to discuss parenting strategies, children work with Minneapolis Public Schools’ licensed teachers through their ECFE program doing developmentally appropriate activities.
Family Academy has graduated 50 families so far, but this only represents about half of the parents who have begun the program. Much effort is put into getting parents who have missed classes to return.
Ninety-nine percent of the families Dukes works with are African American, and NAZ CEO Sondra Samuels explains that NAZ’s focus has been specific to the needs of African Americans. To do this, NAZ feels they need to have a strong representation of people who know the community.
“What we are using this  budget for is primarily hiring and building infrastructure,” says Katie Murphy, NAZ communications director. “We [plan to have] 28 hires…and those two roles primary are going to be NAZ connector roles and academic support specialist. And we are really hoping that we’ll find Northside residents to be able to fill those roles.”
“The challenge is trying to help families that are feeling the hopelessness and despair,” Murray says. “So many…programs have rejected them and [have] not truly supported and educated [them] and really tapped into the true value of the families and the children.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.