In St. Paul, here's how a potentially violent act never came to be

Two men stand in front of a wall of photographs.
Darren Neal, left, and Jason Page stand in front of a wall of photos at the Truce Center in St. Paul Thursday. The framed photos show more than 50 people who have died in recent years due to gun violence or drug addiction. Neal and Page came to the Truce Center to resolve a misunderstanding before it could have potentially turned violent.
Evan Frost | MPR News

There have been a lot of stories about the concerning spike in gun violence and homicides in St. Paul last year. This story is about a potential act of violence that was prevented — thanks to a St. Paul nonprofit, the 8218 Truce Center.

The nonprofit effort launched last month, aiming to eliminate violence and achievement gaps in the community. It’s located inside of a rented house that used to be a neighborhood market at the corner of Selby Avenue and Lexington Parkway. The grocery sign still hangs out front.

That’s why the outside didn’t make a lot of sense to 29-year-old Jason Page. But he went inside because the nonprofit’s founder, Miki Lewis-Frost, was someone he trusted.

Page was there to meet Darren Neal, 33, who he recently had a disagreement with. They both were invited by Lewis-Frost, who heard about their dispute and asked them to come to the center to sit down and talk.

As soon as they stepped inside, the two men were overcome by the powerful photos and artwork that fills the walls inside the 8218 Truce Center. From African art to black-and-white photos from the civil rights movement, the walls show the story of African American history.

And their defenses fell completely away when they first laid eyes upon one wall, said Page and Neal. On it are framed photos of more than 50 people who died in recent years due to gun violence or drug addiction. The pictures are from all over the Twin Cities.

A man points at a wall of photos of men and women who have died.
Darren Neal points to a wall of photographs of deceased community members, many of whom he knew, inside of the Truce Center.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It’s hard to look at the wall and not get emotional,” Neal said. “Because honestly, I know or am related to so many people on this wall."

Neal counted 15 people on the wall he knew or was related to. Page also knew many of the people pictured.

"No one on this wall is bad,” Page said. “They may have made a bad decision, or been at the wrong place at the wrong time, but yet, to see this would definitely open up a lot of young guys’ eyes."

With that backdrop, the men said they were able to sit down and talk through their disagreement. It started one night a couple of months ago. The men didn’t want to discuss the details with MPR News, but both men said it could have quickly become dangerous for them both, even if it was really not that big of a deal.

Page described how the founder of the space, Lewis-Frost, guided the conversation.

“Miki was like, ‘Is that worth giving your life up for?’” Page recounted. “Thinking back, I was like ‘no’, it was a simple misunderstanding. But a lot of issues in our community, we don’t address."

Lewis-Frost grew up in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. He said the last year in St. Paul has been shocking. There were 30 homicides, a near-record since the early 1990s. Most of the deaths involved guns. It made him take action.

“I just thought about putting them together, you know, starting them while they’re young, at the age of 8 to 18, and try to get into their heads then so they don’t end up needing the truce part of it,” Lewis-Frost said. “But if they do, we will be there to help.”

Neal said he agreed to come to the Truce Center and meet with Page — partly because of the deadly year but mostly because of his two children.

"What’s been going on in the city, has been out of control, I'm not going to sugarcoat it,” Neal said. “I think it’s only been getting worse and something has to happen in order for it to change,"

So, the two men decided to become part of that change.

"To come to a resolution with a conflict is just different, I never even thought about resolving a conflict at a safe site,” Page said. “It’s always been just trying to react instead of resolve."

Neal also sees the Truce Center’s approach to conflict-resolution as simple but at the same time, revolutionary.

"I felt like the issue from jump was a misunderstanding," Neal said. “I’ve seen violence occur for less and unfortunately, it’s an environment where we come from, but it’s knowing that environment doesn’t have to define your outcome."

It was only last month that the two men talked through their differences and now they're spending time volunteering at the Truce Center. The men share personal stories and lessons about a variety of life skills with groups of around 10 young people when they volunteer.

Page said he focuses on discussing mental health with children and teens. Those are topics he wishes he knew more about when he was growing up, Page said.

“We don’t talk about mental health or chemical dependency,” he said. “That’s things, if we address, a lot of this, too, could be prevented.”

Neal hopes to set an example.

“Thank God for a place like this,” Neal said. “A place where you can learn hygiene and history, there’s a sense of respect when you have to walk through this place.”

Both Neal and Page said they live more at ease since they decided to check their egos at the door of the Truce Center.

They are grateful that now they are using their experiences to show that differences don't have to end in tragedy.

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