Housing, inclusion, ending mass incarceration also on his agenda
Relocating from Milwaukee to Minneapolis was a move that At-Large Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Londel French said saved his life.
In Milwaukee, French grew up in the 53206 zip code, the one with the highest incarceration rate in the country. “A lot of my homies have felonies,” he said. By moving to Minnesota in his early twenties to attend the now-permanently-closed Brown College, French said, “I was running from prison.”
After college, while working as a bouncer at the former Quest nightclub that closed in 2006, French learned that a lot of the people he worked with there had day jobs in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) working security and other jobs. Eventually, he applied to MPS himself, where he has worked as a paraprofessional for more than 15 years.
“I got to work with kids who were like me years ago, and I think I just kind of felt like an instant kind of passion for it.”
While working at MPS, French was approached by a park director who asked him if he wanted to work some extra hours in the parks. Between working in the schools and the park, French saw the disproportionately lesser benefits park employees were getting compared to MPS employees. Wanting to make sure park employees got the same benefits as other public servants was one of the first reasons for French’s park board campaign.
As park board commissioner, French said he wants to focus on affordable housing, more inclusive hiring practices, how to use the parks to help end mass incarceration, and bringing marginalized voices to the table.
“We got a $111 million budget, and I think if those resources can be directed properly they can make people’s lives better,” French said. “[S]pending it improperly or putting [resources] in places they don’t need to be going can demonstrably affect people’s lives. So, I want to make sure whatever we’re doing, we’re doing [it] the right way.”
French recalled a time when the park’s Teen Teamworks program was used to help at-risk youth get jobs for the summer. French said now the hiring for the program is geared more toward youth who are on track to go to college and don’t have a criminal record.
“I want the program to focus on kids who don’t got their s**t straight, that need the help. I want that to come back,” he said.
By creating jobs for 400-500 youth each summer, French’s goal is to help reduce violence in the city. “It’s a lot of kids that get in trouble for some dumb s**t that they do, so let’s keep their a**es busy.”
“It’s time to just start educating folks and letting them know how much power they really got.”
French said he has tasked himself with the job of always keeping gentrification at the forefront of his decision making. He explained that making improvements to parks can have the unintended consequence of raising property values and rents, which leads to displacement.
He used as an example the pending improvements to the Upper Harbor Terminal near North Minneapolis. “I’m really worried about the people in North Minneapolis. There’s no real affordable housing over there, and they’re already in a housing crisis right now,” he said.
French said introducing more inclusive hiring practices would make the parks’ employees more representative of the communities they are serving.
As someone with a criminal record, French also said he wants to be intentional about inclusive hiring practices within the parks. “I want to make sure people who have had a felony eight, nine years ago have an opportunity to work in our parks.”
When French first moved to South Minneapolis, he said the people kids listened to the most were former gang members. “They are more effective than some White woman we bring out from Maple Grove to work in our parks,” French said. “We need to be able to hire some of those people, and some of [them] may happen to have a criminal record.”
With the new progressive city council and parks board, French said, they need to strike while the iron is hot. In order to make policies that lead to more racial and economic equity, marginalized groups need to have a seat at the table.
“I don’t think Black folks or just marginalized groups at all understand the power they have,” French said. “It’s time to just start educating folks and letting them know how much power they really got, and letting them know that this power that you have affects things like your schools and your housing.”