Julia Freeman“Organizing is harder than brain surgery…
And the reason it’s harder than brain surgery is: e
veryone thinks they can organize. Believe it or not…they think ‘Oh, I can do that job.’ But nobody walks into the operating room and takes the scalpel out of a brain surgeon’s hand and says ‘Hey, move over. I got this.’ To be an organizer you actually have to get the tools and training to do the job.”

Julia Freeman

On Thursday, November 6th, the BCLI kicked off our first Issue Series of the season with nearly 50 community members gathered at Gandhi Mahal’s Community Room to explore the role of community organizing and community engagement in the equity movement. Specifically, we explored the following two questions, “What does effective community organizing and engagement look like? How do these two fields intersect and advance racial equity in the Twin Cities?”

Issue Series Attendees

The evening began with a group discussion of the differences and similarities of the two fields, before turning over to three panelists who shared their stories of success engaging and organizing for systems change. Check out the photo gallery here, and the links to the speakers’ audio below.

Issue Series Panelists

Julia Freeman, Senior Organizer for Racial Justice at Voices for Racial Justice (the former Organizing Apprenticeship Project), shared her experience working toward education equity, engaging those most impacted by racial disparities in education to co-create a rubric for measuring racial equity in schools:

Jay Bad Heart Bull, President and CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), commented how the American Indian Community Blueprint demonstrated the process of engagement with the community around visioning for what American Indians wanted rather than just needed. This led to deep relationships and trust-building within and across communities, which created a large base to mobilize organizing for the Indigenous People’s Day campaign in Minneapolis:

Janice Barbee, Director of Healing Roots and Manager of Building the Field of Community Engagement at Nexus Community Partners, shared her experience working in community over the years in South Minneapolis and the various projects that the community has driven, created and sustained. One of these was the Backyard Initiative, an initiative driven by community members in partnership with Allina Health to create a healthier community in Minneapolis:

The session ended with powerful questions ranging from how to avoid burnout to suggestions for moving from a direct service organization to a social change organization. See below for the list of questions recorded and to listen to the full Q & A.*

1. How do we create shared ownership so communities remain engaged long-term?
2. (2:54) Does a network exist across organizations to build power and movement at systems levels?
3. (6:32) How do we transform direct service organizations into social change organizations?
4. (10:54) How do we avoid burnout?
5. (13:38) What tools or strategies do you use to engage and communicate with those most impacted by issues?
6. (16:43) How do you deal with institutional racism that forces us into silos?
7. (22:45) What advice do you have for people who are doing or want to do work in organizing or engagement?


*There was a question asked about how to deal with funders’ timelines when real engagement takes time; and unfortunately there was an error on the recorder during that portion of the Q & A. Our apologies!

FellowsOn Thursday, October 9th, over 90 people gathered at the Dakota Lodge at the Division of Indian Work to celebrate power in community and to welcome the new Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI) fellows into the BCLI family. These 15 fellows will be the next group of advocate commissioners advancing racial equity and social justice through locally appointed boards and commissions. Meet the fellows here.

The theme of the night was centered on the Kenyan proverb, “Sticks in a Bundle are Unbreakable;” the idea that we are more powerful collectively than we are as individuals. A panel of two social justice leaders, State Representative Rena Moran and BCLI Alum Roxxanne O’Brien, shared their experiences advocating and advancing equity, while staying grounded in the community. Check out the event’s photo gallery here.

Five key themes emerged from the panelists as messages to the fellows and broader community:


  1. Being “in so deep, you can’t get out” – as a reminder to people who do community work that they do not have a choice because it affects them as individuals and their entire community; therefore, we share the collective responsibility to push for equity.
  2. People come to the work where they are; no more, no less. People come to these decision-making tables with only their experiences and it is our job to educate them on differences of opinion, strategies and impacts on underrepresented communities.
  3. Relationships, relationships, relationships. If we are not in the community, how will we know the pulse of our community? Being from underrepresented communities means we come to the work with these relationships and feel that pulse – therefore it is vital that we maintain those relationships to stay rooted and to uplift our communities together once we are on decision-making bodies.
  4. One-on-ones are a powerful tool. The reality is that in Minnesota, we have very few leaders of color at the capital, in elected office, and on boards and commissions. In order to change policies and incorporate equity into systems and institutions, we must find common ground with current leaders to reach some agreements – and one-on-one conversations are very effective at sharing and learning about each other’s stories, values and vision.
  5. We must break out of the matrix. Racial equity and social justice work can be exhausting – especially when caring for families, working one or multiple jobs, and also being expected to show up for rallies, meetings, events and/or one-on-ones. But in order to break the chain of systemic racism, we must show up and break out of the business-as-usual mode of operation. Look at what we can accomplish together in action – together we are unbreakable when we all realize our power and move collectively.

From the community members, to fellows, to alum, to the panelists and the organizers in the room – Nexus is looking forward to what we will accomplish together this year and to advancing racial equity and social justice in the Twin Cities region in the years to come.

We hope to see many of you at our upcoming Issue Series, which are open community events where we highlight the work of partners in the equity movement. Our first Issue Series will be on Organizing and Engagement on November 6, 2014, from 5:30-8pm at Gandhi Mahal in Minneapolis. Sign up to receive e-invitations three weeks prior to each event at www.nexuscp.org. Or contact the program associate, Angie Brown, for more information at abrown@nexuscp.org.

Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales

Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales

Developing Leaders to Advance an Equity Agenda: Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute Announces its Second Cohort!

Nexus Community Partners is pleased to announce the second cohort of the 2014-2015 Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI). The 15 cohort members come from various communities in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs and bring a wealth of experience and knowledge working in community, non-profit and private sectors.

The BCLI will train and place these dynamic individuals onto publicly appointed boards and commissions in the Twin Cities. The fellows will have the capacity and community support to advance a regional equity agenda and serve as the next generation of leaders who are representative of, and accountable to, the region’s communities of color and other underrepresented populations. These fellows join a prestigious group of alumni, eight of whom serve on a current board or commission or at a high level policy position in government. Read more about our alumni here.

Nexus is proud to introduce this unique and powerful cohort and look forward to their futures as advocate commissioners and board members:

(Name, Nominating Organization)

Antrinita Wright, Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP), Amherst H. Wilder Foundation
Carla Kohler, Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES)
Chamath Perera, Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA)
David Martinez, Wells Fargo Community Development Department
David Milton, Mastery Charter Schools / Harvest Education Network
Donna Evans, BCLI Alum
Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, Navigate MN
Falmata Bedasso, Oromo Community of MN
Jamez Staples, Community Elder
Leila Paye-Baker, Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), City of Saint Paul
Nasser Mussa, Oromo Community of MN
Sonya Lewis, AFSCME 3800
Suyapa Miranda, BCLI Alum
Tescil Mason-Kimmons, BCLI Alum
Yolonde Adams-Lee, MN Department of Human Services

Fellows were selected through a competitive nomination, interview and selection process led by a committee of six community members and BCLI alumni. The final cohort reflects a balance in race, gender identity, geography, issue area, experience and target boards and commissions. Read more about the fellows here.

We invite partners and community members to join us for the BCLI Launch Event on Thursday, October 9th from 5:30-8pm at the Dakota Lodge at the Division of Indian Work, 1001 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55407. You’ll have a chance to meet our fellows and hear from a panel of long time local social justice leaders on the historical context and significance of people of color and other underrepresented communities joining boards and commissions. Panelists include State Representative Rena Moran, District 65A, and BCLI Alum Roxxanne O’Brien, Inaugural BCLI Cohort. Additional panelists to be announced.

RSVP for the 2014-15 BCLI Launch Event Here

For more information about the BCLI, the Launch Event, or ways to become involved, please contact the program associate, Ms. Angie Brown, at abrown@nexuscp.org, or program director, Ms. Terri Thao at tthao@nexuscp.org.

“When our partnership of more than 25 community organizations presented its “Vision and Agenda for Racial and Economic Justice” to Minneapolis City Council members and Mayor Betsy Hodges in January, we came in the spirit of partnership and collaboration. We know — because our communities are experiencing it — that the racial disparities in our city are destructive to our social and economic fabric. We came with the readiness and willingness for the hard work it was going to take to break down the barriers to success for all Minneapolis residents.” Read more.

Nexus Community Partners is proud to announce the graduation of our inaugural fellows from the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI)! Over 40 friends, family members, knowledge partners and supporters joined the celebration on Thursday, April 10th at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. We honored our twelve graduates as they move beyond the seven-month training toward placement and decision-making on local boards and commissions. Meet the graduates and see what boards and commissions they are seated on or targeting here.

13-14 BCLI Fellows

From left to right: Ilhan Omar, Abdirahman Muse, Cathy Jones, Naida Medicine Crow,
Kandace Montgomery, Maleta (Queen) Kimmons, Marsha Cressy,
Roxxanne O’Brien, Sammie Ardito Rivera
Not pictured: Cynthia Campos, Maggie Lorenz, Mee Cheng

Elder LeMoine LaPointe, who participated in the BCLI Launch Event, opened the graduation with a blessing alongside his two sons, Wakinyan and Thorne LaPointe, and relative Mi-zi-way Mi-gi-zi Desjarlait.

The graduation program featured a slideshow of the various activities of this year’s program, including photos from our Saturday training sessions, the October Program Launch and from the BCLI Thursday Night Issue Series. The fellows then got a chance to share their stories of what this program meant for them personally and for the broader equity movement in the Twin Cities.

Fellow Panel

From left to right: Kandace Montgomery, Roxxanne O’Brien, Ilhan Omar, Sammie Ardito Rivera

“[I am] part of a group called Advancing Women’s Voices where we gather and we talk about leadership and power within the Somali community and what it means for women to have a voice…We decided to all nominate each other for this [BCLI] and I luckily got picked,” said Ilhan Omar, who was appointed Senior Policy Aide to Council Member Andrew Johnson after beginning the BCLI.

Roxxanne O’Brien spoke about her success on the Minneapolis Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee: “It was really frustrating the first few months…being one of the only black women on the board and trying to bring forth my values and experiences…[Until recently, when] we just finally had a unanimous vote to pass equity language to the City Council and the Mayor, which would [bring] some options for floods or emergency situations in our communities that would reach people in poor communities – would reach people of color.”

“I want to see more unity amongst people of color to rise together to get what we need…I was really excited about the possibility [in the BCLI] to work across culture with people working on different issues…I was seated on the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council this January…I’m glad to be able to expand my work of health and wellness and my knowledge about food systems and gardening within my own community, and larger systems change for all our communities,” shared Sammie Ardito Rivera.

Kandace Montgomery acknowledged that advancing equity through boards and commissions is but one strategy for systemic change: “It doesn’t stop at the city level. There are five legislators of color at the capitol…We need to be running our own folks for seats by building power that pursues true democracy…We need to be developing leaders to be bold at those decision-making tables and to never leave their community behind. This is how we tell our own story. This is a story that tells everybody they can belong, and this is how we build our movement.”

Check out the video of the graduation here, and the photo gallery here.

Wellstone MemorialThe graduates were gifted a Certificate of Graduation, as well as a signed copy of local activist and artist Ricardo Levins Morales’ work titled Wellstone Memorial that included a quote from the senator: “Significant social change comes from the bottom up, from an aroused opinion that forces our ruling institutions to do the right thing.”

Nexus President & CEO Repa Mekha concluded the event with the following remarks: “This is not about individuals, but about the power that comes when people from across cultures that have shared vision about change in this world weave themselves together, learn together, and commit together; that’s much more powerful than what any individual can ever do.”

The BCLI has prepared these leaders to serve as the next generation of appointed officials who are representative of, and accountable to, the region’s communities of color and other underrepresented populations – creating real demands and real change for our children, our community and the Twin Cities region.

BCLI staff would like to say a special THANK YOU to all of our funders, knowledge partners, training facilitators, guest speakers, Issue Series panelists, evaluators, nominators, fellows, selection committee members, and all of the BCLI community and family – thank you for all of your amazing work, and for helping with the development and implementation of this program! We couldn’t do this without you!

Keep an eye out for these upcoming 2014-2015 important dates! For more information about the BCLI, contact the program associate, Ms. Angie Brown, at abrown@nexuscp.org, or the program director, Ms. Terri Thao, at tthao@nexuscp.org.


From left to right: Ilhan Omar, Abdirahman Muse, Roxxanne O’Brien, Cathy Jones, Angie Brown, Kandace Montgomery, Repa Mekha, Maleta (Queen) Kimmons, Sammie Ardito Rivera, Marsha Cressy, Terri Thao
Not pictured: Cynthia Campos, Maggie Lorenz, Mee Cheng, Naida Medicine Crow

“Significant social change comes from the bottom up, from an aroused opinion that forces our ruling institutions to do the right thing.” Senator Paul Wellstone 1944-2002

Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh, in her annual State of the Region address, challenged the Council and all its partners in the Twin Cities metro area to address the significant disparities in school achievement, employment and poverty between the region’s people of color and its white population. read more

On Thursday, January 9th, 2014, over 60 community members gathered at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul to discuss the shifting demographics in Minnesota’s workforce. Together, attendees explored how local government, employers, and community members are ensuring that communities and leaders of color will capitalize on these demographic shifts in the Twin Cities.

Jane Tigan of Minnesota Compass – Wilder Research kicked off the event with a presentation of the data. In her PowerPoint (available here: Minnesota Compass Demographic Shifts Data), Tigan demonstrated three key shifts in Minnesota’s population:

1) Our population is aging, with retirement-age population soon exceeding the school-age population for the first time in Minnesota’s history;

2) Our population is rapidly diversifying racially and ethnically: nearly all of our population growth in the past 12 years has been in communities of color, where populations of color have increased 250% since 1990;

3) The workforce needs are heading toward more education requirements, with significantly higher demand in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).

Listen to Tigan’s entire Shifting Demographics presentation below.

Jane Tigan
Research Associate
Minnesota Compass – Wilder Research

Following Tigan’s presentation, panelists Karen Francois (City of Minneapolis), Debbi Harris (The Arc Greater Twin Cities), and Chris Ferguson (Bywater Business Solutions) shared their reactions to the data, and – most importantly – how they are prioritizing these demographic shifts in their respective work as a policymaker, an advocate, and an employer.

Click on the links below to hear each speaker’s segment of the panel. Click here to view the photo gallery of the event. 

Karen Francois
Director of Employment Equity
City of Minneapolis

“In August of 2012, the City of Minneapolis passed a resolution supporting employment equity …one of the things it did was it directed staff (staff in my division) to develop a racial equity toolkit and we’ve been working on that ever since [working closely with the City of Seattle’s Racial & Social Justice Initiative]…One of the things that I’m most proud of is our Urban Scholars Program, which is a leadership development summer internship program for college students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to prepare them for positions of influence in the public sector…Mayor Rybak was so impressed with the program [and our results] in such a short time that he doubled our budget.  And so we’re going to go forward with 35 urban scholars this summer [some placed in Minneapolis Public Schools, some at the Metropolitan Council]…We [City of Minneapolis staff] do not reflect the population…so we are preparing young people, young college students of color, for positions of leadership for a population (as Jane said) is going to be increasingly diverse.”

Karen Francois

Debbi Harris
Immediate Past President, Board of Directors
The Arc Greater Twin Cities

“Our son, Josh, has very complex medical needs…when you look at Josh, you know he has a disability; you know what his barriers are going to be…I think the first barrier was that the medical community would not accept him as worthy of treatment based upon his potential, or perceived lack of potential …There are a lot of our children and our children of color who a couple things happen: the first is that they might be pushed into receiving labels of disability when that is not the case; and secondly, those who do have disabilities that might have an impact on their potential employment or how their education is approached who aren’t getting those diagnoses early enough, who aren’t getting support early enough, and are not getting the advocacy that they need. That’s why I’m here …My message here is more so: I think we need to raise the question about how we value disability. When we look at the numbers of how many workers are available – those are typical workers without any compromises at all. So when you have a student or a young person who wants a job but maybe is on the Asperger’s spectrum, maybe has autism, maybe has an intellectual disability that affects speech or whatever – how do we receive those people? And how do we approach them?”

Debbi Harris

Chris Ferguson
President & CEO
Bywater Business Solutions

“How do we start thinking about creating jobs and attracting companies that fit the assets we have? [Businesses have] figured out very well how to make money…I do think that given the right opportunity, the right resources, the right champion, that we could encourage them to use that same brain power to be thinking: ‘How do we take the physical and human assets we have today [and create jobs for those specific human assets]?’ Some of those jobs might be great for people with disabilities; some of those jobs might be great for people that need a flexible work schedule. But if we think about that as we’re creating the business model, as opposed to trying to shoehorn those people into an existing business model…we might be more successful in thinking about how do we [both give] those people a greater opportunity to stay employed.”

Chris Ferguson

This event, Engaging for the Future: Demographic Shifts & the Call to Action, was part of Nexus’ Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI) Thursday Night Issue Series, in partnership with Wilder Foundation’s Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP) Link-up Sessions, part 2 of a 2-part series titled: Leadership in the Twin Cities: Our Networks. Our Future. The first event was held in November, emphasizing the importance of social capital, and capitalizing on each other’s networks to create opportunities for leaders of color in the Twin Cities.

Joining the event were two additional key partners:

1) Brotherhood Brew of Brotherhood, Inc., an innovative social enterprise that provides comprehensive coffee services to businesses, nonprofits, individuals and events in the Twin Cities. All proceeds from the sale of Brotherhood Brew allow Brotherhood, Inc. to provide participants employment opportunities and essential job skills.

Brotherhood Brew Compressed

2) Members and organizers of Discussions that Encounter: Race & Racism in American Society, a group of community members who hold discussion forums two Thursdays each month to explore the injustices in American society based upon the concept of race, and the resulting engagement of racism. View the Discussions Brochure to learn more about Discussions that Encounter.

For more information about the BCLI Thursday Night Issue Series, the BCLI, or any upcoming events, click here, or contact Ms. Angie Brown at abrown@nexuscp.org. For more information about NLP or NLP Link-up Sessions, contact Mr. Damon Shoholm at damon.shoholm@wilder.org.