Marquita Butler, brand new to the Brooklyn Center City Council, seems less an elected politician than a committed community activist.
“It was never an aspiration of mine to run for public office or make a career out of it,” says Butler. “I simply saw many things in my community that I would like to see changed and not enough of people that look like me at the decision table. I live by the philosophy that instead of complaining about something, that I should take action to try and change the things I do not like.”
Accordingly, she had no plans to eventually exploit her office, as routinely happens, in order to step up from one rung on the ladder to the next, accruing higher and higher profiles — with heftier and heftier paychecks to match — while posturing as a woman of the people. Apparently, she’s the real thing.
If her motivation isn’t opportunism, what drove her to seek office? What one might call the best of reasons: personal interest in her community. There is also the innate wish for her own family’s well-being.
“Everything I do, I do for my family,” Butler says. “I want to ensure my son grows up in a community [where] he feels safe.”
That is the quality of commitment one wants to see in action at city hall. That commitment is reflected in her track record assisting at Brooklyn Center High School’s 21st Century Grant Program, which created a learning center for students at low-preforming schools. She also led fundraising and organized travel for high school students and administrators to Liberia at Brooklyn Center High School, and tutored students in its Advancement Via Individual Determination program.
Outside academia, she has made time to go to public forums on community concerns, at least as often as allowed by the busy schedule of directing partnerships and extended programming at Harvest Network of Schools and attending to the duties of wife and mother. From May 2013 to November 2014, Butler put her shoulder to the wheel as campaign manager of Mike Elliot’s bid for Brooklyn Center mayor, which, she states, fell short by only 135 votes.
As someone who grew up in Brooklyn Center, she’s unhappy with the general bad-mouthing Brooklyn Center suffers, similar to the stereotyping of North Minneapolis, whereby the community at large is maligned and perceived as a dangerously unsavory place to be avoided. “I get tired of all the comments on [social media], people who say they’re glad they got out, that it’s a ghetto.
“What did it for me, the day I decided to run, I was exiting off of Route 100 where the old Brookdale Mall used to be. That’s first access to Brooklyn Center you see as you’re exiting the highway, and the common areas that should be maintained by the City, the grass was overgrown with weeds. It didn’t look presentable.”
Just as the saying goes that you don’t get a second chance to make an initial impression, it wasn’t hard for Butler to imagine how the sight impacted those coming to Brooklyn Center for the first time, particularly if they’d already heard unfavorable comments. “It upset me. Something [as] basic as maintaining the grounds, especially when this is the first access for some to our city. If we want to attract people to visit, shop and eat, we’re not giving them a good impression.”
Of course, it should not be expected that the city council can resolve all the issues by itself. Accordingly, Butler adds, “A lot of people like to complain. I would like to see more people get involved in some of the commissions. For instance, there is a youth development commission…about six different commissions altogether.”
Though she has lived outside the state, including attending Loyola University Chicago for a Masters of Arts specializing in cultural and educational policy studies, Butler has by no means abandoned the area. Directly the opposite, she’s moved to improve already positive aspects and, acknowledging problems as the exception not the rule, proactively effect change.
”One of my biggest platforms when I ran was kind of reimaging Brooklyn Center. What’re we putting out there as a perception of what can be expected. It’s going to be important that we’re paying attention to the look of our city.”
One way is to increase accountability in the commercial center. “Pushing back on businesses that aren’t maintaining their space — that’s a big one. There is a certain store [where] the parking lot and general appearance isn’t kept up. They have to clean up their act…because Eden Prairie probably would not put up with the store not maintaining their space. If they’re going to be in our city, they need to make it more enjoyable to shop there.”
She also plans to have Brooklyn Center reverse the trend by which she sees it losing small businesses. “One of the biggest complaints I hear from owners is extremely high taxes. I’d like look into how our neighbors like Brooklyn Park and Robbinsdale are [retaining] the number of small businesses.”
What she sees as exorbitant liquor taxation isn’t doing very much good for restaurants. The result can be that families prefer to dine at neighboring cities where, along with a meal, while the youngsters are having a nice time eating out, Mom and Dad can enjoy a glass of wine as well.
Ultimately, one can and does judge the proverbial book by its cover. Marquita Butler intends Brooklyn Center to follow through on the current initiative to re-brand the city. Surveys have been sent to citizens for input.
Butler sums it up saying, “Improve our curbside appeal so that people will want to come here and those who are here will stay.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.