‘The Wheatley’ reinvents itself as needs evolve

Director Milon talks about what holds communities together

The Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (PWCC), also affectionately known as “The Wheatley,” is widely known and respected as a source of strength and pride for children, youth, families and elders in North Minneapolis. The center’s namesake is a slave who won her freedom and emerged as the first African American to publish a book of poetry.

In the past, PWCC was once a settlement house where famous Black artists and musicians found shelter after discrimination kept them from local hotel establishments. Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ethel Waters, and Paul Robeson among others stayed at the settlement house from the time it first opened its doors back in 1924.

In the present, it still serves as a gathering place, particularly for those interested in educational and social supportive services. Everyone is welcome at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, where a spirit of diversity prevails.

Phyllis Wheatley Community Center’s Executive Director Barbara Milon (front, center) with students of the Environmental Explorer, an eight-week summer program for student from grades four-seven
Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.

This month, the center has again reinvented itself with the completion of the new early literacy classroom with plans currently underway for its official opening. This is a collaborative effort between the PWCC and the Minnesota Children’s Museum with major funding support from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

One of the center’s oldest and most thriving programs is the Mary T. Wellcome Childhood Development Center, which has been in existence since 1929. Phyllis Wheatley remains committed to supporting even more generations of North Minneapolis families through their programs and community partnerships.

The MSR had an opportunity to sit down with PWCC’s current executive director, since 2003, Barbara Milon (BM).

MSR: Are you a Minnesota native? And can you give us a brief description of your upbringing?

BM: I relocated from Cincinnati, Ohio. I have lived here for nearly 10 years now and this is home. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, the oldest of four brothers and two sisters in a community on the East Side and in the Church of God in Christ.

My dad pastored Faith Temple COGIC until he became ill, and he later was elected district superintendent. One of the amazing attributes about growing up in the church is its cultivation of my leadership skills and in many ways [my] education. That experience is transferrable to every area of my life.

“Mary T. Wellcome Early Child Development Center is the oldest continuously operating early child center in the state of Minnesota.”

MSR: What led you to become executive director of Phyllis Wheatley Community Center?

BM: I was enamored and loved reading about the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center history. I felt then as I do today that PWCC is an extraordinary organization with a wonderful legacy of supporting families. The history of PWCC was a primary and motivating factor for my decision.

MSR: Today, as more and more members of the community are reaching out to their local community centers for assistance with a variety of immediate concerns and issues, what would you say is Phyllis Wheatley’s unique strength for meeting the needs of the community you serve through your programs and services?

BM: Strength-based approach to service delivery based on the theory of change and empowerment. Last year, Dr. Reatha Clark King received an Award of Distinction from the Hubert Humphrey Center for Public Policy for her distinguished services. Dr. King identified in her acceptance remarks the importance of nonprofit organizations. She identified [nonprofits] as the “cohesion of the community.” This relationship of nonprofit organizations and cohesion is related to the social, educational and economic tapestry of the community.

[Nonprofit] organizations provide the glue to support the social fabric and well being of our community…We all do better when we are all better. Economic performance and social performance are interrelated.

MSR: One has to wonder how community centers such as the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center keep up considering budget constraints. When you look at the political landscape, and consider this year’s election, how will the center be impacted based on the outcome of the election?

BM: The results of the election will have major ramifications for the nonprofit sector. Our hope is that the needs of our most vulnerable in our communities are not sacrificed and that the approach is one that supports our elderly, children, education, housing, employment, the poor and families with the greatest needs…

Implementation of the Phase I campaign was just completed to support the renovation of classrooms at PWCC for our early child development center, Mary T. Wellcome (MTW) [when Milon first became executive director].

Mary T. Wellcome Early Child Development Center is the oldest continuously operating early child center in the state of Minnesota. [It] provides a comprehensive educational and developmentally appropriate programming for infants, toddlers and preschool students…

Fewer than 50 percent of kindergartners in North Minneapolis are on track to read well by third grade… Children in the neighborhood experience a number of obstacles to academic success. Our goal is to ensure that every MTW student is cognitively, socially/emotionally, language/ literacy and physically prepared for success in school and in life.

For more information on Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, call 612-374-4418 or go to www.phylliswheatley.org