Group effort helped recovery, but eventually cut others outby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the wake of the tornado that tore through north Minneapolis a year ago, a new group emerged as a leader: the Northside Community Response Team.
The organization was a rare collaboration of dozens of nonprofits. Foundations gave the Northside Community Response Team the largest share of grant money for disaster relief. But some neighborhood groups that have long worked on north side problems say they were cut out of the process. That caused tension in north Minneapolis that lingers as residents try to move on.
Just a few weeks ago, dozens of volunteers swarmed the home of OraLee Law, each working to erase scars inflicted by the tornado.
The storm's winds pushed Law's garage to the ground and tore up her home's roof. Still, she couldn't bear to leave the house where she and her husband raised their children. Nor did she want to leave the neighbors who had looked out for her for decades.
So, Law applied for help from the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Twin Cities. Then she waited — nearly a year.
"I didn't have any money... I didn't think it would take this long but I have a lot of patience and I pray a lot," Law said.
Others are still waiting for help, said Kathy Greiner, Rebuilding Twin Cities executive director.
"As you look around, even just standing here on the street corner, there's still a lot of blue tarps, so there's a lot of work still to be done," Greiner said.
But at the one-year mark, Rebuilding Twin Cities and other nonprofits are running out of grant money for tornado relief, and Law may be among the last to get disaster-specific help. Tornado victims who still need help are now finding themselves among a larger group of north Minneapolis residents who have struggled with poverty for decades.
It's a situation many people saw coming.
In the days after the tornado, about 60 community and nonprofit leaders recognized the time and effort it would take to help a largely low-income community recover from a major disaster. They represented organizations including Urban Homeworks, NorthPoint Health and Wellness, Emerge, and the Minneapolis Urban League.
Those leaders banded together to work under the umbrella of a new organization they called the Northside Community Response Team. They chose Louis King to lead the group.
King, a former Army officer, is CEO of Summit Academy, a north side educational and vocational training program. He said nonprofit leaders put aside previous disagreements to participate in the NCRT.
"You know, they got history with each other. But we overcame that pretty quickly. The storm gave us a project, all right. It brought us together and that's a big deal," King said.
The disaster response required money immediately. Chanda Smith Baker had been CEO of Pillsbury United Communities for just 20 days when the tornado hit. She told her staff she was responsible for the money they were taking from the organization's budget to help tornado victims.
"The reality was that many of us did not have discretionary budgets. We didn't have a nest egg for this type of event," Baker said. "And so it was a little unnerving as we're giving away emergency dollars or providing services that we wouldn't necessarily have funding for."
It didn't help when, in June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Gov. Mark Dayton's plea for funds to help tornado victims. But King said the NCRT never counted on money from the federal government.
"I said to my people from minute one, it doesn't matter about the feds. We're going to do what we got to do to move on. This is our community," King said. "And that's how we treated it. So when it didn't happen — it would've been nice for it to happen — but when it didn't happen, we kept moving and lo and behold we still did the job."
The Minneapolis Foundation gave NCRT its single biggest funding source, a $240,750 grant, in October. Other organizations contributed another $436,373, according to a report to the Minneapolis Foundation by University of Minnesota students in December. NCRT signed a $10,000 contract with the university in December for students to do the work. The report says NCRT helped hundreds of people, although the exact number is unclear.
NCRT spent the largest chunk of money on housing disaster victims — about $161,000. Another $135,100 went toward emergency personal items, according to the report. About 40 percent of households helped by NCRT were headed by single women with children.
When the report was published in February, NCRT had 800 heads of households and a total of 3,173 clients in their database. About 52 percent of the cases were still open; 48 percent were closed.
Jo-Anne Stately, the Minneapolis Foundation's director of grant making, said they were pleased with the Northside Community Response Team's results.
"We're always asking groups to collaborate and I think as funders we can say this was really a collaboration that really did come together — it wasn't necessarily easy or not messy at times — but really did come together to see how they could come up with a coordinated approach to deal with all the high needs and demands that were happening as a result of the tornado," she said. "And I would call that an absolute success."
The Minneapolis Foundation was pleased with the Northside Community Response Team's results and collaboration. But neighborhood groups that have been around for decades say the NCRT wasn't nearly inclusive enough.
Roberta Englund, executive director of the Folwell/Webber-Camden neighborhood organizations, said the Northside Neighborhood Council organized hundreds of volunteers to collect tons of debris and trash after the tornado. But she said when the Northside Community Response Team took the lead role, neighborhood organizations, with their largely white leadership, were cut out of a process mostly run by African American community leaders. Englund says they were never contacted about the NCRT's meetings or activities.
"The NCRT was created out of nothing, with no background in community work at all and the NCRT chose to exclude neighborhood organizations from their structure... It is the traditional north Minneapolis lack of trust," Englund said.
The Rev. Linda Koelman, president of the Webber-Camden Neighborhood Organization, said distributing tornado relief funds in partnership with neighborhood groups would have been more efficient because the groups already had an established network of contacts.
"I think we could've gotten to some people that we know by virtue of living in our neighborhoods. And I think some of the open sores that are left healing might've been avoided."
The NCRT's Louis King says he doesn't work with neighborhood groups because they're dominated by homeowners who focus on housing and crime at the block level. King says the Northside Community Response Team concentrates on the bigger picture of welfare and employment policy.
"Enough of the "Kumbayah" moments, all right? We've had the big group-gropes where people get together and go through all these processes and everybody sees dollar signs ... But all of those efforts have yielded our current result," King said.
The NCRT has shifted away from disaster relief; both it and neighborhood groups now work separately on long-term projects to help the North Minneapolis community.
The Northside Neighborhood Council is working on a project called North First, a redevelopment plan for a unified north side community, including housing, transportation, economic development, and arts and recreation. The project was funded with $600,000 over two years from the city of Minneapolis' Rebuilding of Communities Fund.
NCRT members decided in December to keep their alliance of nonprofits alive and use its momentum to address north Minneapolis' systemic problems. They now have a goal to get north Minneapolis residents jobs so they won't be reliant on county support. Hennepin County awarded NCRT a $150,000 grant for the project.
The people behind the NCRT say the relationships borne in the tornado's aftermath will allow them to help north side residents more effectively than ever before. But the organization does not plan to work with neighborhood groups to make that happen. And neighborhood groups say that's fine with them.
- All Things Considered, 05/22/2012, 4:43 p.m.