Dani Tietjen’s push to reclaim her north Minneapolis neighborhood started in the garden next to her house.
Volunteering at the community garden opened her eyes to the problems in the Folwell Neighborhood Association, an organization that many felt had grown distant from the community. Two years ago, Tietjen joined with others to replace the board with a more representative membership, stabilize the finances and increase its outreach.
Beyond its crop of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins, the Story Garden has become a hub of movie nights and other neighborhood gatherings.
“This has made the community stronger, and it has brought people together, and it has restored elements of hope,” Tietjen, 40, said last month.
For Tietjen and other neighborhood leaders, what happened in Folwell is an example of how the city’s 70 neighborhood groups can control their own destiny.
Neighborhood associations across Minneapolis are facing an existential crisis. With their funding source set to expire at the end of the year, the city is looking to assume greater control over neighborhoods and their leadership in order to continue receiving city money.
The Folwell Neighborhood Association has emerged as a leading voice against the plan. Through Folwell’s own story, Tietjen, who runs the association’s outreach efforts, wants to show city officials that associations can rebuild themselves from the ground up without municipal oversight.
“We have everything we need in the neighborhood,” she said. “It just needs love and care and attention and investment.”
A neighborhood ‘takeover’
Under longtime Executive Director Roberta Englund, the Folwell Neighborhood Association focused heavily on reducing crime. It also worked on recovering from the tornado that tore through Folwell and other North Side neighborhoods in 2011.
But the association lacked diversity. In a neighborhood where more than 70% of residents are people of color and over half are renters, most of the neighborhood association’s board members were white, homeowners and seniors, according to the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR) department.
Tietjen joined the board in 2017. She and other neighbors then found that several board members had stayed in their roles years after their terms had ended, violating the association’s bylaws, she said.
Upset about financial practices and what they saw as a lack of transparency under Englund’s leadership, dozens of neighbors began showing up to meetings demanding change. “The meetings were incredibly contentious,” Tietjen recalls, with threats of lawsuits, “a lot of yelling and a lot of frustration.”
Of the 11 board members, 10 were replaced in the 2017 elections; Englund resigned around the same time.
In their stead came a new wave of leaders. A majority were people of color. More than 30% were renters. The average age of the board dropped to 35.
With a 2018 budget of about $80,000, the Folwell Neighborhood Association focuses most of its time and money on community outreach.
It started a monthly meeting where residents eat dinner and talk about neighborhood issues. It hired four part-time “connectors” who, sporting green shirts, introduce themselves and the association to residents. It organized several large events during the summer, including a fair at the park’s community center and a block party by the Northside Boxing Club.
“We’re not a one-and-done door knock like everybody else,” Tietjen said.
Englund, now 80 and retired, described the change in leadership two years ago as a “takeover” — albeit a “legitimate” one — by distraught residents. But she said the new board has failed to act on what she sees as a key issue: improving safety in the neighborhood.
“I think they started out with good intentions,” Englund said. “I have not seen those good intentions develop.”
Others have seen results.
Esther Goodell, 45, who has lived in Folwell for seven years, saw members of the association’s new “Green Team” picking up trash off the street earlier this summer and asked how she could get involved.
“I was totally impressed with how they’re working,” Goodell said during a neighborhood meeting in July. “I came home and said, ‘I did not know there was so much going on in our neighborhood.’ ”
NCR Director David Rubedor oversaw financial audits of the association that showed a “management override” of the former board’s decisions. He now calls it a “model organization in the city.”
“The organization has ... done a lot of work in building grass-roots connections with the residents in the Folwell neighborhood and getting a really broad, diverse set of people involved,” he said.
Against Neighborhoods 2020
But Folwell’s new leaders are skeptical about what Rubedor’s department has proposed for neighborhood associations.
The “Neighborhoods 2020” proposal would closely tie the city funding neighborhoods receive to their performance. Associations would have to elect boards that are demographically representative of their neighborhoods, revise their bylaws, adopt board term limits and try new forms of community outreach.
The changes, Rubedor said, could help stagnant neighborhoods accomplish the turnaround that Folwell did, but faster and more efficiently.
“We see a lot of value in trying to provide consistency,” he said, “so that as a resident of Minneapolis, regardless of where you live, you know how to get involved in your group and how to get elected to the board, if you should so choose.”
After turmoil nearly capsized Folwell, Tietjen is skeptical that the city will actually help struggling neighborhoods. “They’re trying to quickly, now, deal with their chronic neglect that has allowed neighborhood associations to be as toxic as they have,” she said.
Englund, who worked with neighborhood associations in the North Side for nearly two decades, believes the groups will lose their independence entirely within the city’s plan. Associations will have to consolidate out of necessity, she said, and look more like the larger district councils in St. Paul.
“The neighborhood organizations as we know them today will become irrelevant,” she said.
Rubedor said the city is not looking to disband any of the 70 associations. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs will help develop the final recommendations, which the council will look at early next year, he said.
‘Know the community’
At National Night Out in August, Tietjen stopped by several parties in Folwell, introducing herself and the neighborhood association. At a smaller gathering, she handed a neighborhood newcomer a welcome bag filled with a library card, bike map, garbage bags and other information.
Later in the night she ran into Stacey Henderson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 23 years and was elected to the association’s board last year.
Henderson, 51, said that while all board members have their own priorities, she has noticed her own efforts start to make a difference. After she arranged for the city to place a public trash can near her house, other properties around her began to do the same.
“I think they’re starting to care more about their environment,” Henderson said. “It’s a little thing, but I think people want to take pride in what they have and where they live.”
While she doesn’t know much about Neighborhoods 2020, Henderson said city officials should first learn the different needs of each neighborhood.
“If you’re sitting behind a desk and you’re making decisions without actually meeting the people that it’s affecting, it’s not going to help anything,” she said.