In May 2011, a tornado packing 100 mph winds tore through a large section of north Minneapolis. The storm damaged thousands of homes and disrupted livelihoods in mostly low-income neighborhoods, but the crisis also inspired a new community alliance to bring attention to the recovery effort. The partnership of African American leaders and others called itself the Northside Community Response Team.
Nearly nine years later, the group has relaunched to face down a new threat: the coronavirus pandemic. This time, instead of helping residents connect with resources to repair their homes, the team’s main task is to preserve the social and civic fabric of the community.
“We can’t go to church. Our kids can’t go to school,” said Louis King, president and CEO of Summit Academy OIC, a north side vocational school. “People are feeling isolation, despair, depression. They lost their jobs, and the experts say that will only continue to mount after the crisis is over.”
Without access to churches, barbershops, beauty salons, coffee shops and other gathering places, people are missing opportunities to connect and catch up with each other, said King. To help fill that void, response team member organizations KMOJ Radio and Black Music America TV, which is available on Comcast, are producing programming designed to help people cope with their new reality as well as deliver critical information.
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“It is a matter of life and death,” said Pete Rhodes, president of Black Music America. “Never has it been more important for our audience than it is now to be able to tune in and get information that is important and relevant to their survival.”
Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation in terms of health outcomes and health care access. And public health officials say they expect COVID-19 will disproportionately harm black Minnesotans who suffer from higher rates of preexisting health conditions that can make the virus more deadly.
Local radio and cable programs are reinforcing messaging about physical distancing, hygiene and spiritual health. Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in south Minneapolis is one of a growing number of churches using the cable channel to deliver sermons and daily devotionals.
The television audience has been steadily growing, said Rhodes, who’s been broadcasting black cultural programming for more than 20 years.
Other north side groups are also mobilizing to respond to the virus. Activist Nekima Levy Armstrong and members of the Racial Justice Network, which is not part of the recovery team, put out a call on Facebook to collect masks for those in need.
KingDemetrius Pendleton, an activist and independent photojournalist, responded.
“I figured, ‘Oh, I can give back to the community.’ And the best way to do it is to make masks,” said Pendleton. “So, I decided to start making masks.”
Pendleton, who learned how to sew in a high school home economics class, said he’s made between 60 and 70 masks. Last weekend, he and several others handed out more than 300 masks as well as free bottles of hand sanitizer to people in the parking lot of a north Minneapolis Cub Foods store.
Local musicians are also using the internet to keep community members connected.
The Capri Theater hosts a number of community-based arts programs including Capri-Glee, an adult choir directed by JD Steele.
“I wanted to find a way in which to keep people practicing and singing songs we had been learning,” said Steele, who is one of five singing Steele siblings and a faculty member of the MacPhail Center for Music.
Last month, JD and his brother Fred started recording choir lessons on MacPhail’s YouTube channel because there are too many choir members to be able to video chat.
Fred provides piano accompaniment and backing vocals as JD sings soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts to the songs. The lessons are for choir members as well as for people who just like to sing along.
“The songs are all very uplifting, inspirational songs,” he said. “That’s the kind of music I choose to teach.”
In one rehearsal, JD leads his virtual choir class in the Al Green classic, “Let’s Stay Together,” and tells them, “we got to stay inside, but we’ve got to stay together.”
Ultimately, community leaders hope their outreach strategies benefit people far outside north Minneapolis, just as similar efforts united people across the Twin Cities following the 2011 tornado, said King. They see this challenging time as a chance for northside residents to strengthen their civic ties and return the favor.
“So in a sense, we’re repaying the Twin Cities for the help that was given to north Minneapolis,” he said.