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Vicie Williams, right, doesn’t let anyone get past her: She called to neighbor Kelly Vongkhan and crossed the street to tell her about the National Night Out extravaganza she is organizing.

GAIL ROSENBLUM • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com,

Rosenblum: North Minneapolis neighbor talks of barbecue, violence and jobs

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • August 2, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Editor’s note:

We are sorry to report that Vicie Williams is in the hospital with a serious recurring medical condition and must reschedule her Community Barbecue Extravaganza, which was to be held on Tuesday night, Aug. 5 in the Jordan neighborhood of Minneapolis. An emotional Williams called me Tuesday morning to express her sadness at disappointing so many people and promises to reschedule when she recovers.

Vicie Williams appreciates block parties, but she won’t be hosting one during Tuesday’s National Night Out.

Not one to think small, Williams is throwing a Community Barbecue Extravaganza, a seven-hour catered affair featuring her unique brand of fruit-flavored barbecue sauces — and her unique brand of persuasion.

“Hi! How ya doing, young man?” Williams shouts to a teenager riding up the hill on his blue bike in north Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood. He thinks he’s going to ride away, but he’s wrong.

“You live around here?” Williams asks. “Come talk to me.”

For weeks, 53-year-old Williams has driven her ’97 red Camry, a Bible on the dashboard, to nearby grocers and fast-food chains to drum up food donations. In the hot afternoons and early evenings, she walks with a clipboard, knocking on doors on her block and surrounding streets to pass out handwritten fliers, and gamely approaching drivers in parked cars and neighbors smoking on their steps.

“You need to be here on Aug. 5,” she tells all of them.

Like many National Night Out events, Williams’ will feature a bouncy castle, face painting and visits from local dignitaries. Unlike most, this party stretching for three blocks of James Avenue N. also will include 10 minutes devoted to Parents of Murdered Children. It’s a tragically named group of which Williams is a member.

Williams, a grandmother of five who has lived in the Jordan neighborhood for four years, is bone-tired of the violence. North Minneapolis has suffered four homicides since February, and countless shootings, including one on this street. Guns seized from nearby streets total 258 so far this year, a 34 percent increase over 2013.

While city officials are pumping $300,000 in overtime pay for more police officers, Williams has another solution, and it’s spelled j-o-b-s.

Her gathering, from 2 to 9 p.m., will be more than a chance to meet the neighbors and eat tasty chicken wings. It will be the start of a grass-roots movement to bring her Sister Chris’ Fruit-Flavored Products LLC to the North Side.

“What do you think of a manufacturing company opening in north Minneapolis that this community owns?” she asks a man who steps onto his porch when he realizes this is not a plea for potato salad.

“Nine times out of 10, felons can’t get a job,” she tells him, noting that she’ll give 41 percent of profits to the community. “I need your signature and your e-mail address. I’ll see you at National Night Out?”

He grabs her pen and signs the petition, then pulls two other residents out of his house to do the same.

“The people I talk to, they’re just eating it up,” she says.

Williams hopes to garner 100,000 signatures in support of her production plant, for no other reason than to shout her point to business and political leaders. (With the help of local churches, she’s up to 500 names, “praise God,” she said.) She’s talking with the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, and the Jordan Area Community Council, and is buoyed by President Obama’s recent visit, during which he spoke about “investing in manufacturing start-ups so that we’re creating good jobs making products here in America, here in Minnesota.”

Williams can’t help but believe he was speaking to her, and if you know Williams, you’re inclined to believe it.

I first wrote about her in 2011, when she was promoting her new line of fruit-flavored barbecue sauces: banana, pineapple, coconut. More remarkable than the taste was Williams’ back story.

Abused by her stepfather, she was pregnant at 12 and the mother of three by 20. She was a homeless crack addict and prostitute. She lost a son to gun violence when he was 14. She served two stints in prison.

Then a judge said to her, “You don’t need prison. You need direction.”

Williams took to her kitchen and created Sister Chris’ and, through sublime quality, personal charisma and the grace of God, got Lunds and Byerly’s to carry it. In 2010, Williams’ company was named Neighborhood Development Center Small Business of the Year.

She’s since had to pull the sauces off grocery shelves to obtain a wholesale license, which she’s aggressively seeking. More urgent is her desire to move the operation out of her garage and into the community, so she can hire other former felons to work their way up and out of poverty.

“My life is just different now,” Williams said. “I’m no longer the problem. I’m part of the solution.”

So she walks, past her small putty-colored house with a “Together We Make Our Neighborhood Safer” sign leaning against the wire fence, to door after door, as children’s laughter and squeaky swings at nearby Jordan Park fill the air.

“ … a community business,” she tells a couple. “We’ll focus on people who live the way I used to live. My son was shot and killed out here.”

The woman, petite and wearing a pink T-shirt, raises her head. “Mine, too.” She signs Williams’ sheet.

“I’ll see you at National Night Out,” she tells a young father at a house nearby.

“You got it,” he says. She recruits his kids for a skit they’ll perform about bullying. “But we’ll practice after church,” Williams says, “because they have to go to church.”

She laughs as she walks away. “He closed the door on me. He probably didn’t hear me.”

She’s still laughing as she heads toward another block to recruit for the one and only Community Barbecue Extravaganza.

“There will be other block parties,” she said, “but the community party is going to be on James.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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