Tuesday, April 26, 2022

New York City

"Imagine" artwork inspired by John Lennon, Central Park

I had the opportunity to spend a week in New York City, helping my sister-in-law, Laurie, after knee replacement surgery.

I have been traveling to NYC for years, my first time in January of 1996, in the middle of a blizzard. The airline did not cancel the flight despite weather conditions, and so I went. I remember stepping over piles of snow up to my thigh on street corners as the city dug itself out. I arrived at my company's corporate headquarters hoping to get trained on some software I really needed to learn. Instead I filled in to get work done for the many employees who couldn't make it in due to the weather conditions. Weather conditions that, in Minnesota, would have caused a hiccup but not a work stoppage.

That same trip I got hungry around lunchtime and was given directions to a little deli around the corner where I could buy an amazing sandwich. The employee's recommendation was, "You'll never get sick there." I replied, "Wow, that's quite a recommendation." She looked at me and said, "Honey, in New York it is."

Aah, New York. I grew to love it after years of traveling there multiple times a year. I stayed in different hotels around the city, explored different neighborhoods. I remember being in the Minnesota office, travel bag in my car, expecting to head to the airport later that afternoon. It was September 11, 2001. Our cohorts in New York could see the smoke and chaos from their office building. I called several clients who I knew lived in the city out of concern, before the phone lines could no longer handle the traffic and all calls stopped. We watched the TV in our office in silence until some of us could no longer hold back our tears. Many of our New York coworkers who lived in that area weren't allowed back into their apartments for weeks. We closed the office that day and went home, in shock. We grieved with them. We grew strong with them. And we felt like New York was a part of us, not some distant city.

Years after 9/11, I remember walking the city and having someone ask me which way Madison Ave was. And I knew!! I knew we were west of it and that they should take a right at the next corner and go down two blocks to reach Madison. How crazy was that, that someone mistook me for someone who KNEW something about the city, and I actually did?

Central Park

George Washington Bridge, as seen from Wash Heights

And now, most recently, I got to know the city the best. I arrived here to take care of my sister-in-law Laurie as she recovers from knee replacement surgery. She moved to Washington Heights 6 years before, far from her previous home in Midtown. I'd visited her a few times in Washington Heights, but it always felt foreign and a little not like the New York I knew. It was quieter here, not bustling. You could not buy a New York t-shirt for blocks around -- no "I heart New York" hats or little Statue of Liberty trinkets. Just grocery stores, local marts, doctor offices and places for people who live here.

I had lots of time to myself as she was in the hospital for two days after her surgery. I took the subway downtown to visit her. I walked Madison Ave, walking in and out of stores far out of my league, smiling at the doormen who opened doors for me, even though it was obvious by my appearance that there was no way I was buying anything in those stores. 

Flowers planted around a tree in the sidewalk, Upper West side.

I walked Central Park, savoring the sun, lilacs and crabapple tress that were in bloom while Minnesota was experiencing the longest "gray out" of any April. I ended up in a different neighborhood on the other side of Central Park and figured out how to transfer trains to get back to Washington Heights. Once there, I learned the local bodega, the best liquor store, the local pharmacy where I picked up prescriptions for Laurie.

I visited a grocery store in the neighborhood where Lin-Manuel Miranda lives, picked up a bottle of wine from the wine store that Laurie has seen his wife shopping in. I didn't run into either of them, but I got to meet the sweetest massive doodle you ever met and talk with its owner for a while. The dog walked up to me and expected to be petted. His owner was embarrassed, I was thrilled. 

Artwork provided by students over a footbridge, Wash Heights.

The local church's community fridge, Washington Heights

There is so much greenery in New York, so many hidden walking trails through flowers, trees, and along the all surrounding waters, be it the Hudson, the East or the Harlem Rivers. The parks I travailed were not filled with garbage, were not littered with the belongings of homeless people seeking refuge among the trees. They were peaceful, only disturbed by the occasional bicyclist or walker. 

Aah, New York. Until we meet again.

Friday, April 23, 2021

A Measure of Justice

Marissa and Lindsey at George Floyd Square on the day the Derek Chauvin verdict came in
At George Floyd Square the day the verdict came in.

 My city was on pins and needles this past week, waiting for the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial.

The trial had lasted a little over three weeks. The prosecution called 38 witnesses and presented their case for 11 days. They presented data showing that George Floyd did not die of a heart attack, a heart condition or a drug overdose, he died directly as a result of Derek Chauvin's knee on his neck for more than 9 minutes.

Photo of Dr. Rich, witness for the prosecution in the Derek Chauvin trial
Dr. Rich, a witness for the prosecution

How can you defend against that mountain of evidence? Derek's team called seven witnesses over two days to somehow defend Derek's actions. By this time Marissa was riveted to the television, watching every witness and piece of evidence.

Every time a witness came up for the defense she would say, "Funny, they don't LOOK like a racist." And then the questioning would begin, the person would speak and she'd say, "Ope, never mind, that's a racist." Because how else could you defend Derek's actions? 

Dr. David Fowler, witness for the defense in the Derek Chauvin trial
Funny he doesn't look like a racist...but his words proved it.

On Monday April 19, 2021, closing arguments were given and the jury was handed the case for deliberation. And the waiting began, the speculation that justice would not be served, that our city would explode in a fiery ball of anger and frustration. The significant National Guard presence throughout the city put everyone on edge, worrying for their safety and the future of our small business owners.

It took four days after George Floyd's murder for charges to finally be brought against Derek Chauvin. It took the jury only 10 hours to convict him of those charges.

The verdict came in at 4:06 pm on Tuesday, April 20. The girls and I sat around the TV, wrapped in blankets and clutching pillows as the charges were read. I felt a great desire to be at George Floyd Square, but did not want to move from the TV to hear the verdict. 

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

We leaped up, hugged, and yelled "Justice!" at the TV. We took great pleasure in watching Derek Chauvin being put in handcuffs and led away. And then we piled in the car and went down to George Floyd Square, to feel the joy of those who had worked so hard for this moment.

The square was packed with more and more people coming by the minute. People greeted each other with shouts of elation, bear hugs with masked faces turned away. You could see the crinkle of people's smiling eyes over their masks. Perfect strangers spoke to each other: "It is a good day." 

There was a microphone set up with a small speaker, too quiet to reach over the growing crowd. We could hear a little of what was being said, of crediting the people for keeping the pressure on, of thanking those who kept "boots on the ground" for justice. And then I heard the calls for justice for someone else, a name I had not heard yet. 

"SAY HER NAME!" the speaker shouted, barely audible over the conversation and jubilation around us. Only those close enough to hear whom the speaker had been referring to responded. 

I thought to myself, "Come on, let us have this moment." The people had just won a huge victory, the first White police officer successfully convicted for killing a Black man in the state of Minnesota, the first in a long line of more than 400 people who had lost their lives at the hands of the police. Just give us a moment to celebrate this before we move on to the next step in changing the system. 

After we arrived home I heard about the girl whose name the speaker was calling: Ma'khia Bryant. She was a 16-year-old girl in Columbus, OH, and had called the police because teen girls were fighting in front of her house and she was scared. I'm sure the details will come out about what was happening. The police showed up and within minutes Ma'khia had been shot four times and was dead on arrival at the hospital. She was sixteen.

My heart sank. On the same day that we received a measure of justice for George Floyd, another Black child in America had lost her life to our policing practices.

The work has not ended, it is only beginning. 

Photo of gas station sign that says "Justice Served?"

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Power of One-to-One Connections

Quote "Only by giving are you able to receive more than you have." Jim Rohn

This is a follow-up to my story about assisting Chandan, a young man who had never lived in his own place, was not employed and needed help caring for his 3-year-old daughter. For more on the original story, read here for the beginning and here for the unfortunate ending.

There are so many lessons to be learned in this experience. The biggest one I'll be adhering to is to donate to organizations instead of to the people those organizations are helping, unless it's someone I personally know and trust. But there are other, smaller, more hopeful lessons to be learned. Truly, every day that someone reached out to me to ask what Chandan needed or made a donation to the GoFundMe campaign, my heart filled with gratitude. 

I learned that people genuinely want to help others in need. One of the reasons why the fundraiser for Chandan was so successful was because all of the donations were helping one person who shared his story. The need was clear, the impact of giving was obvious. In the Twin Cities there's an organization called Bridging that basically does exactly what my donation drive was doing: provides furniture and household goods to people coming out of homelessness into housing. People donated furniture to my request and not to Bridging. Why? Because mine was going to a single person with a face, a name and a story that they could understand.

I also was surprised by the number of people who, when the donations fell through, asked for their donations back. I'm not saying they are greedy, my point is that they weren't going to give these things away in the first place. They were inspired by his story and chose to give away items that they intended to use themselves.

Some more incredible stories of generosity that inspired me in the past few weeks:

  • A woman shared the story of having to escape an abusive situation early in her life. She was able to do so thanks to the generosity of complete strangers who supported her after she got to a safe place. She considered her donations as a way to pay back for the kindness shown to her years before.
  • One person had thousands of Amazon points in her account. She used the points to buy a brand new, adorable bedding set for his daughter, new kitchen supplies, cleaning supplies, a hamper, and other items that people experiencing homelessness usually don't own. She was happy to be able to use the points to help someone else when she could have used them for her own family.
  • Someone reached out to me after the donation drive had been going for a while to ask what was still missing. I had secured dining room chairs but not a table. She went to a local Goodwill, purchased a table for $50 and her husband refinished it for Chandan's apartment. The labor of love that went into this was so inspiring! When the donation fell through, they decided to keep the table and will use it as a card table in their basement. 
  • One of the donors runs her own company staging houses for sale. She has a garage and basement filled with furniture, small appliances, household goods and other items that have never actually been used, just displayed and then put back in storage. It struck me how she owns nearly two households worth of goods while people in other areas of our city don't even have one. I'm not faulting her for her company or what she does, it's simply another example of the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots." 

When our house was remodeled in 2016 we made a significant donation to Bridging, getting rid of furniture that was perfectly good, just no longer needed. One of the workers who came to pick up the items said, "Wow, this stuff is in really good shape. This is better than the furniture we usually get."

People in my community put decent furniture like ours on the curb for solid waste pick-up every week, while people in other areas of this city would love to have that piece of furniture in their home, yet they don't have the transportation to retrieve it. For many of my friends and family, making a $100 donation to help someone out is no big deal, while for someone else, an extra $100 means they don't have to choose between rent or food that month. 

I've done a lot of learning about the history of Minneapolis, about how white people kept Blacks out of the desirable areas in Southwest Minneapolis using racial covenants and redlining practices and how BIPOC folks were given little choice but to live in what is now the notoriously poor North side. The disparity between the resources of North side and the wealth of the Southwest area is staggering. I have to believe that there is a way to make a direct connection between those with excess to give with those in need.

I'm not going to be fundraising for a single person again, but I will be reaching out to organizations working in the North side neighborhoods to see how I can help make connections to people in my area of the city. There's got to be a way we can do more to help people in my own city. 

Thursday, April 08, 2021

"Trust" is a Big Word

A pile of supplies, furniture and other goods that were donated to help furnish an apartment.

I need to complete the final chapter of the story of assisting young Chandan White. Things did not turn out as expected. 

I had reached out to Chandan because I saw a young man in need, asking for help and not getting his needs met despite his multiple requests in the "Twin Cities Mutual Aid" group on Facebook. One of the challenges of our city and society is that we all live and work in segregated circles. People who have more than enough live among other people who have more than enough. People who need assistance live among people who need assistance. So when poor people cry out for help, the only people who hear them are other poor people.

I started a GoFundMe for Chandan with a goal of $5,000 and, through a generosity of spirit, people responded. Within a day the fundraiser was at $1,000, by the end of the week it was at $3,000. This was a far cry from the $5 and $10 Chandan had been receiving previously through the mutual aid network.

Those who donated began to ask what else Chandan may need...so I asked him. People had furniture to donate, did he need furniture? Did he need kitchen supplies? I asked and he said yes, he needed everything. 

I asked him to put together a list of what he needed but he didn't know where to start, which makes sense considering he's never had his own place before. Being a project manager and Excel geek, I put together a spreadsheet of what I thought he may need and ran it by him. I did not want to be a pushy donor, getting things for someone who doesn't need the items and is too polite to turn me down. I called myself a "meddling white woman" to him in a message and told him to tell me to back off if he needed me to. He "LOL'd." 

With the incredible generosity of my friends and community, I managed to get an entire apartment of furniture and supplies donated. The only thing missing was a sleeper sofa — the apartment was a studio and his bed had to also be his couch, and that's a purchase better made by the person who would be using it.

He and I arranged to meet at the apartment complex on April 1 at 11 a.m., move-in day. I coordinated with my sister Kristi and a neighborhood volunteer, we packed all the items into our three cars and drove to the apartment complex. 

No Chandan. And...when I inquired at the management office about helping Chandan moving in, she told me that they did not have someone by that name renting from them. They have a months-long wait list for people who have applied for housing, no one was moving in April 1 as no one had moved out.

Chandan and I had only ever communicated via messenger and other social media sites. I had reached out to him the day before to confirm that we were meeting him there, only to get a message that "this person is no longer available." It was suspicious, but we still showed up as he and I had agreed, only he wasn't there and there was clearly no apartment for him.

I was angry. Embarrassed. My heart actually hurt that day, a heaviness lay on my chest thinking that the entire story had been a scam. 

The three of us brought everything back to my house and stored it in the garage. I let it simmer a few days, hoping (but not hoping) that perhaps something had happened to him, that he would reach out to me eventually with a reason why things fell through.


Five days later, I informed the community that had generously made all of these donations what had happened and offered to return them or donate them to nonprofits where they would eventually go to those in need. I also encouraged people who donated to the GoFundMe — which at this point had raised $4,400 — to report the fundraiser and get their money back if they believed fraud had been committed. 

Finally, days after all the donations were being re-distributed and the fundraiser frozen, I heard from Chandan.

He told me that his phone had broke it took a few days to get a new one, and that he was waiting a week to hear back from the place to see if he was going to be able to move in there, and eventually was going to put a deposit down on a different place if it didn't work out. This was all via text. I asked to talk, and he called me.

I give him credit for calling me. 

When I look back at our many text conversations and think back to our discussion over a plate of French toast, I don't believe that his entire story is untrue. I think he is someone who doesn't understand how securing an apartment works, has no idea of the amount of work it takes to put together a household, and doesn't want to say "no" to a woman twice his age who wants to help. He told me he was able to buy a vehicle, which I was glad for, as that was a part of why we were raising money for him. If that's what he used the money for, then great, it will help him secure employment.

By the time he and I chatted I was over my anger and grief and had informed everyone involved of the outcome. I let him know that the fundraiser had been reported. I have no idea how much money he has withdrawn from it or how he's spent it. He thanked me for everything I did for him to help him get a car.

I was relating this entire experience to someone who works in the nonprofit world. I said that within the Mutual Aid Network, people gave to others in the hopes that their stories of need were true. It's one of the reasons why people only give $5 or $10, because if the need wasn't real then at least it was just a small amount. She said to me, "Trust is a big word."

And she's right. When we as donors give to a nonprofit, we have a base line of trust. To become a 501c3, paperwork must be filed, bylaws written and adhered to, and donor intent is the golden rule. I had taken a leap outside of the world of nonprofits and had gotten burned.

Clearly, I will no longer be fundraising directly for those in need, but giving to the organizations that exist to help them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Courage and Hope

[ID: Painting of a solitary tree on a hill with the words "Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it." Attributed to Mark Amend]

I am a member of a Facebook Group called 'Twin Cities Mutual Aid Network." It's made of over 2,000 members of people down on their luck, and other people who have the ability to help them. Most requests are for $20 for gas, $100 for a security deposit, $50 to help give a little girl a birthday party. Those who are able to donate typically give $5 or $10, a micro-donation amount, and when everyone pools their money these needs get met. 

The pandemic has been unequally unfair to low-income workers and to women, and it is primarily these people who make up the Facebook group, not people like me who are doing fine through all of this.

One of the challenges of this group is that those asking and those giving are going entirely on trust. Donors trust that those who are describing their situations are painting a real picture of what they need, and because there's no way to verify that, the donation amounts are small. The administrators do a good job of monitoring this — one person was kicked out of the group for asking for assistance for her kids but was using photos of her friends' kids to get help (she doesn't have children).

I noticed a man continuing to post throughout asking for assistance. First it was to help pay for repairs for his car, then his car got towed because it sat so long in one place, to money to pay for a hotel so he could have a place for him and his daughter, to money for a security deposit on an apartment. Each time, he never received quite enough to get by. 

He and I got connected via messenger and started chatting. He needed way more help them he was ever going to get in micro-donations. I asked if he would be willing to meet, to tell his story, so that I could rally to get him more meaningful support. He agreed.

We met at Fat Nat's Eggs in New Hope, close to his cousin's apartment where he was staying the night. I asked if he would entrust me with his story, so I could write about his situation and create a GoFundMe page for him. He agreed. You can read the story here, and make a donation if you'd like.

Some of the things he told me brought me back to Dr. Ibram Kendi's book, Stamped from the Beginning, which I read this past summer. 

When he was a senior in high school, he was accused of being involved in an incident that occurred at the school. Chandan was physically intimidated and interrogated by a police officer about his involvement in this incident, roughly pushed up against a wall with his hands forced behind him.  As Chandan points out, if the police had evidence they wouldn't have needed to intimidate him or attempt to get him to confess to something he hadn't been a part of. This is a 17-year-old boy — Chandan is a slight figure, tall and slim. Would a white teenager have been treated so roughly? Because of this incident he left school and never earned his high school degree. He was certain that the police were going to continue to harass him until they eventually charged him with something.

Now, during this pandemic, Chandan is looking for work. He had heard from an acquaintance that a hotel near him was hiring a slew of housekeeping positions because they anticipated that business would start to return soon. He and his friend, a woman, both put in their applications the same day. She was called the next day for an interview and hired on the spot. He was called the day after and interviewed. The hiring manager told him, "If I don't call you by the end of the week, please call me and I'll let you know." Chandan did as he asked and when he talked to the hiring manager on Friday of that week was informed that all the positions had been filled. The manager used this tactic to fill all the positions with people other than Chandan and then turn him down. I'm not sure if Chandan was being discriminated against because of his race or his gender, but once again, he didn't get what he needed.

He and I spoke of his hopes for the future and for his daughter, who is cute as a button. It takes great courage to ask for help and abundant hope that you'll receive it. I am hoping that Chandan gets the help that he needs through this endeavor.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Feeling of Community

Monday March 8th, 2021 was to be the first day of Derek Chauvin's trial for murdering George Floyd. It ended up being delayed by a day as the courts wrestled on a matter of how many charges he can face at one time. Regardless, the community showed up.

People in my house began rousing around 6:30 a.m., wiping sleep from their teenage eyes and dressing for the day. Breakfast was delivered by the boyfriend, bagels were munched down and we all piled into the car with signs in hands.

Downtown Minneapolis during the pandemic has a strange feel to it. No longer are there crowds of business men and women dressed in suits, ties or heels, waiting impatiently on corners for the light to change, checking their phones or talking into their Bluetooth devices. Parking spaces are available in every ramp at steep hourly prices since no one is parking in ramps all day right now. Breakfast spots that used to have lines of customers waiting for food are temporarily closed until employees return to downtown. The few people you see walking the streets are usually essential workers; postal carriers, delivery service people, cleaners. The working poor gather in doorways and corners, wondering what the day will bring them. 

We walked through blocks of this surreal downtown to reach the Minneapolis Government Center since the street in front of the center has been closed and the plaza surrounding it barricaded with fencing, concrete barriers and barbed wire. The flowers we had placed in the fencing the day before were still there. We looked to the left and there we found our people — hundreds of them. 

Our people were of every color, ethnicity and gender. They held signs, wearing shirts from various previous events seeking justice; "George Floyd Changed the World," "Native Lives Matter," "Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied," and many more. 

We walked around a bit to get a sense of the space. We checked out the t-shirt vendor selling "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats and other items. We found the People's Revolution van, a business sprung up from the protests of the past year that provides mobile AV support for marches such as this one. We read the massive banner that marked where the front of the crowd was, then took our place several feet behind it. 

The first speaker began with "Good morning! I am so happy to see all of you here, my community, my friends." And we, four middle-class white people, felt like we belonged. We could sense the people around us smiling, crinkles at people's eyes giving away the smiles behind their masks. 

The words from the microphone bounced off the empty buildings around us. Native dancers performed a traditional dance in front of the banner, the accompanying drums booming from the towers around us. The chants of the people reverberated back to us from the buildings' heights. 

The buildings around us created an echo chamber of sound.

Cries for justice resounded through downtown Minneapolis. The court must listen. The world is watching.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

History Has Its Eyes On Minneapolis

The sit-in on Hennepin Ave and reading of the names of Minnesotans murdered by police in MN.

Today the girls and I participated in a silent march to honor George Floyd's memory and demand justice on the eve of the trial of his murderer, Derek Chauvin. There were several hundred people in attendance. We also noticed a huge contingency of press were there; cameras and microphones everywhere, two broadcasting station helicopters hovering overhead. 

They had a white coffin draped with a massive spray of red roses representing George Floyd and all Minnesotans killed by police brutality. They handed out flowers for participants to carry along the route. Afterwards, many of the participants chose to place the flowers in the massive fence that's been placed around the government building where the trial will take place. 

The coffin being carried to the head of the march, the courthouse where the jury will take place in the background.
 The white coffin and a massive banner that said "I Can't Breathe!" were at the front of the march. While chants and music are often a part of these demonstrations, the organizers today asked people to be silent. It was quiet with the exception of quiet chatter. Partway through we stopped, sat in the street for 8 minutes and 43 minutes, the length of time that Derek Chauvin had his neck on George Floyd's neck, and heard the organizer read out some of the names of the more than 400 people murdered by police in the state of Minnesota. It sounded like a someone reading names at a graduation, only all of these people died at the hands of police. We only got through people with last names starting with A through J before we were out of time. 

For the number of photographers and videographers I saw through the crowd, the one thing that drew many of them to point their cameras their way was the crew who were there boarding up the glass on the Marshall's store. 

Media interviewing a march participant.

A photographer stands on the van at the front of the march, another taking photos through the crowd.

I don't know what this coming week, weeks or months will bring. I do know that Derek Chauvin is the first White police officer being charged for murdering a Black man in Minnesota, even though hundreds have lost their lives to police brutality. As in the weeks after George's death, I believe the national media will focus on the few incidents of violence, anger or destruction. The massive peaceful gatherings will be largely ignored. 

We will be watching this carefully, helping to amplify the voices of those who deserve to be heard and seen, and hoping for justice for George.