First person: Helping neighbors in need

Chanda Baker
Chanda Baker experienced the devastation of last year's tornado both professionally and personally. Baker, the President and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities, led the organization and distribution of financial assistance to families affected by the tornado. She also received damage to her own north Minneapolis, Minn. home.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

One year after a tornado damaged homes and businesses in north Minneapolis, some residents are still coping with fallout from the disaster.

Chanda Smith Baker is the president and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities, a non-profit organization offering programs across Minneapolis. She's also a resident of the north side and member of the Northside Community Response Team. Smith Baker spoke with Tom Crann of All Things Considered about the area's recovery.

An edited transcript of that discussion is below.

Tom Crann: Pillsbury United Communities, what sorts of things in the community are you normally assisting with?

Chanda Smith Baker: We're a multi-service organization that operates after-school programs, college readiness programs, adult support, some housing support, some employment support. We operate a theater, we have an interpreting business, we have services for adults with disability, a daycare center. We operate [54 distinct programs] throughout the city of Minneapolis.

Crann: Tell me about the types of needs you were seeing, that people were calling on you and your organization to survive. Maybe even things that normally would be beyond the scope of what you do.

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Smith Baker: I would say that a lot of the work that we did was beyond the scope. This has been an important piece for me to describe. We weren't in disaster recovery at all around tornados. But the needs matched with the emotion and the fear was elevated for what it may be for just kind of the day-to-day crisis that you may feel.

Obviously, we were worried about medical needs, food, electricity. You have people that need medical assistance with things that plug in. Those are the things that felt very immediate to us. How do we triage just need? There weren't many places on this side of town that had electricity, so how do we manage that?

Crann: We're here at the corner, pretty much, of Plymouth [Avenue North] and Washburn [Avenue North], you see on one corner a house that has been gloriously rebuilt, and next to it, one that's still boarded up, and still needs a lot of work. Assess where you think the community is now a year later, and what still needs to be done.

Smith Baker: We know that there are homeowners that live in north Minneapolis that either didn't have the resources financially, or the resources emotionally, to deal with what was needed for their recovery. We're still seeing that need. There are people that had homes that were completely destroyed that are just getting back into their homes.

I think there's still a sense of sadness, I was in another part of north Minneapolis and looked up the street in the middle of a conversation, and just felt almost like crying because I could see the maturity of the trees. And we have lost a lot of that from down here. It will take years for that to get back.

Crann: The community comes together at a time after a tornado, but then you have to move forward. What do you see as the biggest challenge for the north side moving forward?

Smith Baker: There's still rebuilding going on. And I do think that preparedness will continue to be a challenge. Hopefully, families and individuals now see the importance of spending the money on proper insurance. I think we'll have to spend time as leaders of organizations on the north side, promoting that differently than what we've done in the past.

In terms of the NCRT [Northside Community Response Team] moving forward, I think the challenge is: How do we spend our time, and do we stay together as a group? And I think that's been answered and it's yes. How do we work together?

Even in the time period of the last year, there was a homicide that happened of a young person, and the community came to that group and said, how are we going to respond to the recent surge in crime. At that point, we realized that the Northside Community Response Team didn't have the word tornado in it, and that while we came together because of the tornado, it didn't mean it had to be limited to that work. It was really important for us to figure out how to stay together, moving forward.

Interview transcribed and edited by Jon Collins, MPR reporter.