Empowering families essential to healthy Black communities

Future scholars at Path to College Walk
Photo courtesy of Danielle Bylund

Sondra Samuels on NAZ progress and lasting change

“I feel called to partner with parents — not fix or change them,” said Sondra Samuels, co-founding president-CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ). Samuels explained this and more as she updated the MSR on how NAZ is faring since its early origins back in 2003 as the Peace Foundation.

The organization is in place, she shared, to rectify disparity and end generational poverty for North Minneapolis low-income families as they steer their children on a path to higher education. 

“It’s about a fundamental understanding of the potential of African American children and families.”

Samuels stated that where too many organizations offer a cosmetic bill of goods, NAZ’s work is “leading a revolutionary culture shift in North Minneapolis focused on ending multigenerational poverty through education and family stability…”

 Interviewed in the NAZ conference room, she said, “We’re not just focused on getting funding and helping some families and some kids and you’re done without having made lasting change. The revolutionary part is that is we’re turning the social sector modelon its head.” 

Not the least of this “revolution” is an approach designed to actually place serving clients as a priority. Rather than run pillar to post navigating a system that can eat up time and bus fare or gas, pile up a headache of paperwork from different organizations, and, in general, frustratingly fray the nerves, consider it one-stop shopping for social change in which one demonstrably can believe.          

“The current models for low-income is [counterproductive]. You need housing? Go over there. A job? Go another place. After school program? You can’t go to work, because you have no place to put your child. Go to a center, maybe they have a spot open.

“Families [are] running all over the place. But, families don’t come in pieces. We have created one system of support for the same families and the same children.” 

Each household is assigned a team to provide hands-on help, including coaching in life skills, career guidance, and, if necessary, such basics as housing. 

“I want to surround families with the support they need to stabilize their homes and prosper. So that kids aren’t worried about ‘Am I going to eat? Am I couch-hopping tomorrow? Am I going to get shot? Does my mom have a job? Is my dad going to come around?’

“We can’t expect them to be worried about all that and still show up to school and reach their unlimited potential.” 

Samuels added, “We’re working with the schools and saying, ‘How are you teaching our kids? How are you addressing racial trauma? Many times the teachers are all White on the North Side where the students are all Black and Brown.”

“Right now we have 1,000 families, which is what we hit annually. The endgame is life success.” 

Nothing spells success like results. Accordingly, with education being a key component, last year, African American NAZ scholars outpaced other Northside students with more than double proficiency in math (26 percent and 12 percent) and 25 percent proficiency in reading versus 18 percent for other Northside students. Even within their own systems, scholars with additional layers of support are more than twice as likely to be proficient in both reading and math: growing from 13 percent to 29 percent in reading and from 19 percent to 30 in math.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Bylund Sondra Sameuls speaks a Path to College Walk.

She further underscored the importance of walking the walk, not just talking the talk, with what she calls basic collaboration. “In the past you might say, ‘It’s a bunch of nonprofits collaborating,’ which often turns into ‘conblaboration,’” she said. “You just have meetings and no action. You don’t get anything done. I shouldn’t be paid if the outcomes aren’t changing.”

NAZ is currently working in a collaborative with over 40 partner nonprofits and schools. “You can’t do it alone,” Samuels said.

“A lot of leaders partner with [us] in this work. We share data across all the partnering organizations and schools. We’re looking at data constantly on how are the kids and families doing, how many got housing, how many got career support.” 

Samuels repeatedly emphasized a concentration on parents, the concept being to empower whole families. Parenting education is “a 12-week series. Learning about brain development, positive discipline, and how to have
child ready for kindergarten,” she said.

“We strive to have college graduates and have a shared expectation with parents of what the children will become. We want to close the belief gap. One of the mothers said to me at a graduation ceremony, ‘I’m finally believing my child is worthy of college.’”

Employment, of course, is a critical piece. “One parent came to me and said, just last year, ‘This is changing my life. I want my kids to have this training, too.’ [Consequently] we’ve started empowerment training for teenagers. Part of that is job training, so when they get a job they understand how to keep it.” 

Good work habits, after all, can be a new concept to someone not used to punching the clock. Samuels said she is convinced there’s nothing wrong with Black communities that strengthening families can’t fix — including the problem of gangs. 

“If a youngster has a strong family, they won’t need to turn to a gang to be their family or protection [or] to make money so they can eat. They have hope and support. You take away the reason to join a gang, you change the outcome.”

Just as the destruction of families has held low-income Black communities back, Samuels pointed out, NAZ focuses on empowering families to move communities forward. “Family and children are at the center of everything we do.”