Pillsbury United sees challenges as opportunities

(l-r) Adair Mosley, Chanda Smith Baker, and Tony Wagner
Submitted photo

Pillsbury United Communities (PUC) is undergoing a significant transformation focused on asking the question “What do you need?” and responding to the community’s responses. “We’ve just gone through a strategic planning process, a kind of rebrand of the organization,” said Adair Mosley, PUC president/CEO.

Functioning as a network of neighborhood centers throughout the Twin Cities, among PUC’s direct services are employment and training, early education, youth and adult programming, community health, and food and nutrition, according to their website.

“We are community builders co-creating enduring change toward a just society where [everyone] has personal, social and economic power,” said Mosley of the organization’s goals. He has been with PUC serving in various capacities going on eight years, including assessing its value as well as its impact under his leadership over the past year and a half.

“I’m coming in at a time when I just released our strategy, and I believe the work that’s left on the table is systemic,” he noted. “We’re looking at the systems and infrastructure that really exacerbate the problems in which our communities live on a day-to-day basis.”

The institution’s planned changes run across the board, with various initiatives and touchpoints aimed at amplifying all of their services.

“We’re going to be forming more cross-sector partnerships focused on social determinants of health to improve community outcomes,” he said. “We’re going to do more work around establishing world-class community media to amplify community voice and change narratives about community. We will invest in students of color as an engine of equitable and sustainable economic prosperity.”

Toward that end, the organization will be developing new career and early college enterprise level endeavors. Detailed information on that effort can be expected in the fall, says Mosley. “We’re also going to be advancing policy. We’re intersecting with the community at many different levels. And with institutions. It’s an intricate weave.”

Mosley said PUC also needs support and voices from the community to sustain its services and impact. “[Communities] need to continue to inform us what they need, because we believe we [succeed] through relevancy.

“Relevancy is anchoring this work in the aspirations of the community and continuing to ask that question, ‘What do you need’? That is going to continue to guide this organization into its next future if we keep asking that fundamental question, always have it at the center of discussion.”

People, place, prosperity

The new planning process comes under the 140-year-old organization’s “united system of change,” which focuses on three pillars: people, place and prosperity. The first two, Mosley said is about helping people “achieve greater health and well-being” and creating “places where cultural understanding creates social connections and community voices elevating the arts for social justice, civil engagement and economic strategies.”

Best known among the institution’s artistic ventures is, of course, Pillsbury House Theatre+, which typically produces work characterized by voices for social change. That has included Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and, this season, Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot. It has also become a major venue for cutting-edge spoken word performance with such events as “Non-English Speaking Spoken Here: The Late Nite Series.”

“Arts has always been [an integral] part of the organization,” said Mosley. “We’ve been able to take [the theater] and scale that across the organization, making an arts-based development. We know the arts can be a powerful tool to revitalize communities. We also have a unique focus on supporting artists through our Pillsbury House Theatre + enterprise.”

The last pillar, prosperity, is about more than finances. “It’s the power to learn, work and earn your future,” explained Mosley. “And, we believe that is shared by all through equitable education and employment opportunities. So, that work is really our career, future readiness, economic mobility.”

The organization operates eight social enterprises as well, said Mosely. They include North Market, a grocery store that also houses a healthcare and community wellness center, theater troupe Breaking Ice and North News.

In the current U.S. presidential administration, Mosely acknowledged that social services have been under attack. However, he is confident that the transformation will proceed unimpeded.

“What we’re presently seeing with the current administration is exacerbation,” he said. “But I believe systemic issues have been there to solve, and we ultimately need to [concentrate on] how we advance the prosperity of the communities we’re serving. That’s regardless of who is in the White House.”

Those systemic issues, he said, will require policy change and long-term visioning.

“My legacy, my contribution, is to start looking at both systems and policies going more upstream as an organization to have an impact, to really think about changing the context in which people live their lives,” he said. “We will continue to meet the basic needs of the community and be a place of possibility.

“I also want to make sure as people come through our doors that I’m thinking about the kind of social and environmental context of what brought them to [us]. So, I’m moving this organization to focus more upstream.”

He noted that change does not come without challenge and does not happen overnight. “The challenges are also opportunities,” he said, “how we create a new model of human services. We want to disrupt the sector, bring in a new level of thinking. We will continue to do that as an organization.”