Amen Corner taps the power of free speech—By Dwight Hobbes, Contributing Writer

Dee Henry Williams at Thrones Plaza —Photo by Dwight Hobbes

Peavey Park in South Minneapolis may never be the same. It certainly won’t if participants in the Amen Corner have their way. The community engagement committee of the Ventura Village Neighborhood Organization sponsors an outdoor public forum to, as Dee Henry Williams emphatically states, “celebrate and embrace community.” Williams, the well-known KFAI Radio diva currently hosting the “A Great Blend of Watercolors” show, is on the neighborhood committee. Thursday and Friday afternoons, from four to six, she takes the mic to emcee Amen Corner at the Chicago and Franklin entrance to Peavey Park: Thrones Plaza. The idea is for people in the park as well as passers-by to come listen and take up her invitation to speak, sharing whatever might be on their minds about community life — as long as they refrain from profanity.

“It’s an opportunity for people to make a commitment to themselves to engage community. [To share] a positive understanding of who we are. The chance to speak your truth.” On August 12, the park’s reputation as a drug market was the primary topic. A few weeks previous, the Minneapolis Police Department swept through the area with a wide broom, locking up dealers left and right. Since then, things had been idyllic, with Peavey Park looking pristine as a picture postcard. The difference it made in people’s lives was on every speaker’s tongue. Encouraged by Williams, one lady overcame a bit of reticence to step forward and say, “I’m glad to see you all out here. Personally. Because a month and a half ago I was [here] and got jacked [robbed], and it made me really not like this park. Or this area, period. I wasn’t going to come on this corner anymore. “I don’t live by fear, never have. But it gave me reason to be cautious. Seeing you here, it made me feel safe. That it was okay to walk up here. It’s honorable what you’re doing. Keep it going.” Ventura Village Neighborhood Organization Chair Robert Albee, after helping to set up the p.a. system, listened for a while and, before leaving, told the MSR, “We’re taking on the worst park crime statistics in the state, right here on this corner.

“We’ve turned it upside down in three weeks by this kind of involvement. In partnership with the police. Having the camera, lights on at night. Also by engaging people during the daytime in positive events so that people start looking at this in a positive light. We’re stepping forward and taking our responsibility to make this a good, lively community corner.” Albee compared the Amen Corner to the famous Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. “We want to make sure everybody feels welcome to come and speak their minds. Regardless of what their culture is. As long as [people feel] welcome. That’s the key thing.”

Cecil (last name unknown), who owns property in the area and originally hails from New Zealand, made spirited remarks at the microphone. “This is [about] free speech. That’s why I live in this country. When I was an immigrant, I lived in this community. Twenty years later, I’m a citizen. And I love the freedoms of this country. It’s beautiful.” A hip hop performer, “D,” brought backup music and rapped several numbers, including one holding forth about how important it is for him to be a better dad to his son than his own dad was to him. An individual named J.B. had to be cut short because of his language.

A Black woman named Ernestine, passing through with her two daughters and granddaughter, had the granddaughter sing for everyone. Then she spoke at length with a blond fellow from Minnesota Public Radio about how she used to dread the thought of passing Peavey Park and hated not being able to allow her granddaughter to go there. Ernestine was, she said, immensely grateful for the recent change. “I lived here for the last two years, and this is the first time I feel comfortable enough to take my daughters and go have a picnic. Which is what we were on our way to do.” Minneapolis MAD DADS partners with the Ventura Village Neighborhood Organization, creating an instantly high profile with their green shirts and the presence of Gil Bagett, who said, “It’s very important for people to come out and support this type of program in our communities. It gives [community members] a chance to voice their opinions and their concerns on the things they want to see changed.” And, of course, on how much they would like to see some changes, like the recent improvements in Peavey Park, stay exactly the same.

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