By Sondra Samuels
Years ago my husband Don and I had a neighbor I’ll call Teresa. Teresa was pretty, smart and caring. She lived down the block from us in a dilapidated house riddled with roaches, mice and lead paint. Her home was and still is owned by a well-known slumlord.
Teresa, about 22 years old at the time, was a single mother of six children between the ages of 10 and two. Almost all of the children had different fathers. All were absent.
Teresa was seldom alone, though. Drug-addicted and abusive men seemed predictably attracted to her because everyone knew that Teresa was literally alone. With no relatives that she knew of, she spent her childhood in one abusive foster home after another.
As a result of her familial isolation, we witnessed one predator after another move in with her only to use and abuse her and the children. Most of them left her to take up mandatory residency at one of our fine correctional facilities in Hennepin County or Stillwater.
To exacerbate her situation, Teresa was a jobless high school dropout with no formal training or employment prospects. She also suffered from frequent bouts of depression and struggled with alcoholism.
Don and I tried to support her but often felt impotent in the face of all her challenges. Ultimately, she moved. I’ve heard her children are now all in the system, struggling in school and poised to live the same life their mother and fathers did.
What we tried to do wasn’t enough. Teresa’s children needed the proverbial “village” to help raise them while supporting their mother (and fathers). I often think about them and ponder “if only” the village had been there for them, “if only” we had done more.
The desperateness of Teresa’s story may be at the extreme end of the continuum of suffering and hopelessness that plague those most left behind in our community, but tragically many of us know far too many children growing up in somewhat similar situations.
In response, leaders and neighbors have long been asking themselves many ”if only” questions, looking for a place to blame or an avenue to take: If only parents would get it together and do right by their children. If only community organizations and churches, as well as social service and government agencies, would use their resources to really impact the lives of the people they serve.
If only schools would radically change and actually educate Black children. If only policymakers would pass more legislation that really supports families and students. If only all of these folks who make up the village on the North Side would actually join together and commit to ensuring the success of all our children — no excuses!
At the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), we are no longer passing the buck between families, schools, organizations, agencies, programs and policymakers. Together, over 60 community organizations and schools are declaring to our families and children that the village has arrived!
We believe we can help the children of the Teresas of our community as well as their parents. We can also give more support to struggling families that simply want to improve the lives of their children. The solution is a collaborative, comprehensive approach that relies on every one of us to play our role. This is why the NAZ was formed.
The NAZ is a 13-by-18-block geographic area on Minneapolis’ North Side chosen to encompass the area with the most concentrated convergence of negative indicators, including pervasive patterns of racial and geographic disparities. Funded by many different foundations and individuals (most notably by Northway Community Trust), our mission is to build a culture of achievement in North Minneapolis to ensure all youth graduate from high school college-ready.
NAZ is doing this by partnering with schools, organizations, and families to significantly improve education and support for children from pre-birth to college. To meet the needs of all children and their families, NAZ, in partnership with many local organizations, is planning and developing a connected stream of effective services that directly impact a child’s education and their family’s ability to support them in their development.
Strategies range from early childhood intervention such as timely prenatal care and preschool screenings to extended learning time through quality in-school and out-of-school programs, as well as implementation of researched and proven educational strategies in the Zone’s partner schools. Families will also receive supports such as housing, job training, and health services.
Some of these solutions are in place and undergoing pilot testing. This year 200 families have already been identified to participate in NAZ as a pilot group before we scale up in 2012 and beyond.
Today, when I think about Teresa, her children and their fathers, I wonder how their lives might have been different if the NAZ village had been in existence then. But today I’m brimming with hope. I truly believe that the village is beginning to really get to work in North Minneapolis on behalf of the children and families that need it most.
Together we can ensure that all our children succeed! Together is the only way it will be done. No more “if onlys”! The time for collective action is now!
Sondra Samuels welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.