In 2013, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change was the kind of nonprofit that might disappear without a stroke of luck: a single employee working in a drab office, little name recognition and an even smaller budget.
Three years later, the group has emerged as an increasingly powerful force in Minneapolis and statewide politics, pushing for — and often winning — reforms on issues ranging from voter ID to the minimum wage to criminal justice reform.
NOC’s members have led rallies at City Hall, prompted the governor to set aside $100 million to address racial disparities and brought a major presidential candidate to north Minneapolis. Some sit in prominent advisory roles in local government, including on the panels addressing citywide sick leave in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Wintana Melekin, the group’s civic and political engagement director, said NOC thrives on giving people of color a voice and the momentum to push policymakers to do more than just listen. She credits the group’s sustained drive for equity — knocking on doors, lobbying lawmakers, bringing people to City Hall again and again — for shifting the course of local politics as usual.
“Versus before, where racial equity was a talking point or an addition or a campaign, it is now the center of gravity,” she said.
In its earliest incarnation, NOC was a neighborhood-focused south Minneapolis-based offshoot of the national progressive community group ACORN. But in 2011, after a destructive tornado swept through north Minneapolis, the group’s then-director, Steve Fletcher, landed a grant to help the North Side recover. He offered it up to anyone in the affected neighborhoods willing to work.
Anthony Newby, a local entrepreneur looking to get into community organizing, figured it was a bluff: another organization from outside the North Side that would make big promises and fail to deliver. But North siders got the jobs, NOC stuck around to help, and Newby was inspired. Later that year, he signed on to work with the group, linking it up with the Occupy movement protesting economic inequality.
Newby took over as executive director in 2013. He moved the office to north Minneapolis’ West Broadway Avenue and scrawled his goals on a napkin: In one year, he’d build up a million-dollar budget and a staff of 10. He started with $14,000 in the bank and no great prospects to find more money.
“I knew there was enough energy, and that if it could be harnessed and funded and resourced, that over time we could build something dynamic,” he said.
Newby didn’t hit his goals right away. But the connections he’d built while working with Occupy and other movements pointed him to volunteers and groups that could fund NOC’s work. The group built a network of dues-paying members, which includes many donors from outside the Twin Cities. About 1,800 people donate at least $10 per month, while a larger group makes one-time donations.
By late 2014, when NOC found itself in the news after a TV report suggested one of its organizers had flashed gang signs in a photo with Mayor Betsy Hodges, the group had a strong enough footing that it could leverage the moment to draw more positive attention to its work.
Now, the bulk of the group’s funding comes from private grants — and frequently from national organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. NOC has also received money from local groups like the Headwaters Foundation for Justice and the Minneapolis Foundation.
Between 2012 and 2014, the group’s annual income grew from $333,000 to nearly $600,000. It now has more than 20 full- and part-time staff members.
As NOC has expanded, so did its agenda. Its canvassers surveyed North Side residents on their transit needs, found major disparities in the number of bus shelters and got city and county leaders to pay attention.
The group has weighed in on plans for new light-rail lines, staged rallies to respond to the mayor’s annual State of the City address and challenged the Minnesota Twins on their scheduling practices for concessions workers.
A political force
Last year, the group increased its pressure on city officials — through City Hall marches and packed public hearings — to draft policies on wages, sick leave, predictable scheduling and other workplace issues. While the city is still debating raising its minimum wage, the council is likely to vote on a sick leave policy as soon as next month.
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said the persistent drumbeat of demonstrations and pressure from NOC has had an impact on city business — though some council members may not always embrace the group’s more disruptive style of bringing issues to officials’ attention.
“But at the end of the day if you had to say: ‘Are they impactful on what’s been happening?’ I think the answer has to be yes,” she said.
After the police shooting of Jamar Clark, NOC worked with Black Lives Matter and other groups to rally protesters at Minneapolis’ Fourth Police Precinct headquarters. But the group also took the issue several steps further, calling on Gov. Mark Dayton to directly address racial disparities and requesting that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders come to north Minneapolis for a forum on issues facing black communities. Both efforts worked.
Minnesota House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said NOC’s lobbying at the Capitol stands out because the group brings real people to tell their stories, rather than lobbyists.
“Instead of advocating for getting money for a particular program, they are advocating more broadly for getting the conversation going,” he said.
In a statement, Dayton said he is “deeply impressed by the work of these young leaders. Their voices are crucially important in shaping a more equitable and just Minnesota.”
For some, the group’s successes are personal. Sondra Jones, a former temporary worker at Target Field who joined NOC as a canvasser and was recently promoted to co-canvass director, grew up on the North Side. She said she never saw herself as someone who could make a difference or have any real power, until she got an up-close look at NOC’s work.
She said the fact that the organization is located in north Minneapolis — and remained there after a fire destroyed its offices last year — is a sign of hope.
“It means that change is going to come,” she said. “It means that somebody that looks like me, somebody that dresses like me can make a difference. It means that north Minneapolis is not going to fall off the face of the earth. As long as NOC’s here, north Minneapolis is going to be OK.”