This is an expansion to my original comment on Facebook. While Facebook can be a good place for quick short quips, the space unfortunately is not good for getting more complex thoughts out. Councilman Pat Elliot is right be to upset about my comment, and I do feel the need to clarify it.

“It isn’t age as much as lack of diversity in life experience. While many of those on the commissions and city council like to tote their life long connections and residencies to Richfield, that is actually a bad thing especially in today’s …world. Think about it. Would you hire someone for a position that required critical thinking when previously they worked at the same company for 30 years since they were 16 years old or would you want someone that has worked different companies and acquired trouble shooting skills while working at each of those companies?”

First off, having a life long connection to a neighborhood or community is not a bad thing. In fact I do believe that many issues today is due from the transient nature of our society and the inability to put down roots and to stand up for the community that you live in. However, when it comes to community politics, it always appears to be an over-played card.

Not having lived directly in Richfield while growing up, I certainly have orbited it by living in East Bloomington in my childhood and then in South Minneapolis in my teens. I also went to Holy Angels for High School and then settled here buying my Grandparents house they themselves bought back in 1947. I certainly would not trivialize my connection with Richfield in dealing with issues of the day.

However, my thoughts about the need for diversity in life experience in the political ranks come from two different live experiences of my own.

Example One: STAY vs SNO

In my spent much of my 20s and some of my 30s living in Northeast Minneapolis. This was not the hip and happening Northeast of today. This was the old East European, dying part of Minneapolis back in the 1980s. During that time, artists including myself were located their because of the cheap warehouse space after being kicked out of the warehouse district in Minneapolis by real estate speculators buying up the warehouses for “Loft Style Living” condos. The warehouses in Northeast were basically Superfund Sites so no real estate speculator was ever going to touch them.

This was the old Northeast Minneapolis that threatened the new owner of Mayslack’s Bar to stop poetry readings he was trying out to attract new customers  or they would have his liquior licence pulled. This was because it was drawing in patrons that were showing up dressed in black and sporting pink and purple hair . However, the titty bar, “24th Street Station” up the street was ok.

While I was there I followed the local politics and at one point I sought to get involved in the neighborhood and attended a neighborhood meeting of the local neighborhood council, “Sheridan Today and Yesterday” (STAY). It appeared the group was made up by older neighbors that obviously had lived in Northeast their whole lives. And they had a problem, they were very focused on crime and they were trying to figure out how to get young families to move into the neighborhood. However, it was apparent they “knew” what young couples wanted – The housing stock was too old – Northeast was too old. They need to complete with the suburbs so they needed to tear down old Northeast and replace it with new suburban housing with attached garages and split level designs like those in the sububs. The commitment to demolishing was evident in it’s allocation of 1/3 of its Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds for demolition projects. (1)

It was during the particular meeting I attended they were listening to a developer and architect talk about their proposal to turn the Grain Belt Brewery into a hotel and Marina. The problem was the plan literally turned the building’s back to the neighborhood and did everything but wall it off reminiscent of the Riverplace and St. Anthony Main developments several years earlier. Oddly enough,I also happen to know that lawsuits were filed against the architect’s previous building that was built in the uptown community. I brought up these these issues and mentioned that the building or at least the out buildings should have something to do with the neighborhood like say – a library or community center with the development reaching into the neighborhood. The architect explained that the lawsuits were against the contractor and the materials not the building design. Simple explanation.

After the meeting I was approached by one of the members of STAY and he proceeded to scold me for coming in as an outsider and try to through a wrench in the works. I did not bother returning to any more meetings after that.

Years later I come to find out (with no surprise) that Sheridan Today and Yesterday (STAY) group lost its Minneapolis Community Development Agency NRP participation contract to the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization after the STAY imploded (2) and SNO was recognised as the true representative of the neighborhood. And in this case it was a group made up of the talents old timers as well as and the talents of many young non-natives. The new arrivals also had different ideas and priorities that have breathed new life into the vitrified husk of old Northeast Minneapolis. They stopped the wholesale demolition of Northeast realizing its historic character was an asset not a liability. STAY also had an enormous amount of NRP money budgeted for crime prevention. While crime and safety are important in any neighborhood, Northeast had been a surprisingly stable lower crime area. The NRP money given to crime prevention was way out of proportion to the actual problem so the money was reduced. (3)

SNO dropped programs that STAY had developed in total, like The Cop on Every Block program allocated up to $50,000 per property to purchase and demolish a house. The lot would then be offered to a Minneapolis police officer. The officer would then finance the construction of a house on that lot.
Instead money was either increased or newly allocated to programs like the following: Community Health Program, Expanded Pierre Bottineau Library Support, Eastside Food Co-op, Bicycle programs, Business Exterior Improvement Loan Program. Their current phase two plan includes funding for the arts and parks.(4)

The result is with the new blood and creative thinking Northeast has been able to transform itself from a stagnating community pessimistic about its future to one of Minneapolis’ trendiest neighborhoods with enormous economic growth.

Example Two: Social Work

I worked for 6 years at St. Joseph’s Home for Children. One aspect that I have come to appreciate was how hard they worked and how progressive they were in their hiring practices. While they hired they usual college graduates in social work, they also would also hire people without college degrees but lots of life experience. This policy led to some amazing hires and very creative thinking. A staff who is American Indian and has had to deal with homelessness in his life is something can’t learn through a social work degree at the University of Minnesota or the University of St. Thomas and needless to say he had ways of connecting with the kids who usually were minorities  from economically underprivileged backgrounds that many of the other staff simply could not.

After leaving St. Joseph’s Home for Children I went to work for two similar organizations whose policy it seems was to hire only staff with college degrees in social work from either the University of Minnesota or the University of Saint Thomas. The result was of the organizations’ handling and care of the children was at best comical and at worse downright horrible treatment to the children. Not that the staff were not smart, capable, or well meaning or that social work programs at the University of Minnesota or the University of Saint Thomas are terrible programs (they are not) ; it’s just that they all read from the same playbook and shared similar life experiences of white middle to upper middle class kids growing up. All of them came up with the same solutions which the kids they worked with were already wise to. None of the staff could think outside the box for solutions in working with the kids.


So when I talk about “lack of diversity in life experience” I am also talking about how it leads to Group Think and a lack of creative problem solving. It’s not that the Richfield city council members and commissioners are not smart, well meaning, or even capable, but there is a need to diversify life experiences of the group by bringing in more people who have lived life outside of Richfield and outside of their life experience economically and culturally. And while political climate is not nearly as bad as Northeast Minneapolis, their are aspects of it that are eerily similar. Like Northeast, they have to stop looking for White Knights (Private Developers and State Government) to come in and save them. They need to creatively think of the solutions themselves. Like Northeast they have to stop assuming and start researching. Given where Richfield is in its development life cycle is it really realistic to focus on attracting “Young Families” when it would be more realistic and successful to focus on attracting young singles and couples? If Richfield does not have the skill set to attract this demographic (which it has demonstrated over and over it does not have) then maybe it should seek out professional advice.

I understand getting new comers to come out and participate is easier said than done. Sadly citizen participation is at an all time low. Not only does the economic situation prevent people from participating when both parents have to work, and often people have to work two jobs each in order to make ends meet, but in is increasing difficult to get people to turn out to meetings because, pathetically, they can’t be bothered to miss their TV programs like “Jersey Shore.”