Coyle center's work not slowed by neighborhood crimeby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
It's been a challenging year for Minnesota's most diverse neighborhood. There have been several homicides and other violent crimes in Minneapolis' Cedar Riverside area. That's in sharp contrast to a declining crime rate in the rest of the city. Many young people in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood use the Brian Coyle Center as a gathering place. The center's mission of helping immigrants assimilate is as old as the neighborhood itself.
Minneapolis, Minn. — 'Most diverse neighborhood' is a bold statement, but the facts support the claim.
In Cedar Riverside, minorities according to the U.S. Census, are the majority. More than half the neighborhood's 7200 residents are from at least a dozen nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The neighborhood is used to new faces.
Nearly 100 years ago, Cedar Riverside was called Snoose Boulevard. It was a portal for successive waves of northern European immigrants.
Now it is home for 15 year old MJ, Mohamed Jama.
He came to the neighborhood from Somalia seven years ago as a refugee.
"Back in my home during...war, people getting hurt, most parents the only reason they brought their kids their families to (the) U.S. is lack of education and safety concerns because back at home there is war for no reason."
MJ says the path ahead is clear.
He won't completely give up his culture but he needs to assimilate.
"When I came to the U.S. when I was young, really young, it felt different, you know, new country, new things, you know, but I got to go into this culture because I'm new to it and this is the country...you have to fit into your culture."
Getting a grip on two cultures is a tricky maneuver for immigrants.
MJ is navigating the path with the aid of his friend and mentor Tally Washington, one of MJ's biggest fans.
He is a leader...He has leadership qualities from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, I mean that's what he is," Washington says.
Tally Washington is the Brian Coyle center's youth coordinator.
The 28-year old's confident and welcoming demeanor and his six foot four inch frame would seem to be all the qualifications he needs for his job.
However Washington learned early on that as an African-American, shared skin color is not enough to gain the respect of the young African boys he works with.
"You have to want to know about someone else's culture to respect it, you know what I'm saying? In order for us to all better understand one another we have to want to understand one another."
Besides respecting culture Washington must also win the confidence of parents.
Just beyond his office door, the Coyle center gym is filled with dozens of young men playing basketball.
There are many more in the neighborhood who'd like to be at the Center, MJ says.
But a recent uptick in violent crime has scared parents who are telling their children to stay away.
"There's a problem with the parents and with communication because most parents don't understand this place is supposed to be fun for kids. But parents take a different picture. They think that this place bad kids come around here you know. But that's not cool because they don't know what's going on in here. Don't over-judge things unless you know it, it's for true, for a fact."
The fact is that while there is an increase in crime in the area, there's been a resounding response from the community.
Cedar Riverside neighborhood residents, businesses, the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College have committed time and money. Some of that money is being used to hire additional patrols from off duty Minneapolis police.
There's additional private security and some help with Center staffing.
Visitors to Coyle center, part of the Pillsbury United Communities network, are greeted warmly but no one wanders around without someone asking who they are.
Jennifer Blevins has been on the job as Center director for 8 months. However she's no rookie. Blevins has more than 20 years experience working as a community organizer and a supervisor of other social service workers.
Some of the Center's programs are staffed by students from the U of M and Augsburg College volunteering their time.
When a young man was shot and killed just outside the center earlier this year volunteers responded by telling her they were standing by the rest of the staff.
"We had a flood of students that came in and said, 'I'm committed as ever, I want to be a role model, so that provides hope'. Our strength comes in unity, we're going to work together to solve problems, we're going to work together to support the kids."
The kids seem to sense the support.
One day the police called Blevins at home to say a man had thrown a brick through her office window. Blevins arrived and discovered the brick thrower was a refugee from a war torn country battling mental illness.
Then, Blevins says, a 16 year old boy she did not know offered help.
"He asked could he help clean up and he asked for a vacuum and I gave him a vacuum, and another youth joined in and they took over and they cleaned it all up. Here's a really sad experience with pain. And then you have these two 16-year olds who volunteer to clean up. And now one of the 16-year olds is one of our best volunteers. It's just incredible."
Blevins is witnessing other heartening responses. There are increased donations to the emergency food shelf and help for rental assistance.
Other signs are more worrisome.
There's a pressing need at the center for money and other resources to help young men who are sixteen and older. Blevins knows from experience they respond if they see someone is interested in them.
- All Things Considered, 11/27/2008, 4:54 p.m.