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Too Much Coffee: Cassandra Holmes asks you to make a phone call

Posted on 01 July 2019 by Tesha Christensen

Tesha M. Christensen, owner & editor

At 14, Trinidad Flores was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which an enlarged heart struggles to pump blood. His mom, Little Earth’s Cassandra Holmes, watched him endure three surgeries and a failed heart transplant before he died in 2013 at age 16.
Now she’s leading a charge to decrease the pollution in South Minneapolis.
She doesn’t want to see any more neighborhood babies born in need of breathing tubes, or young people who’ve succumbed to asthma and diabetes.
During a community meeting about the Roof Depot site off Hiawatha and 28th St. on June 17, 2019, Holmes walked through the crowd holding up maps that show how many kids in the neighborhood have been treated for lead poisoning, how many have visited the emergency room because of asthma attacks, and how many have dealt with arsenic poisoning.
For every 10,000 people, over 200 are hospitalized because of asthma in this area. Of the 7,000 children who live in Phillips, about 40% live in poverty and 80% fall into various ethnic groups.
The Clark/Berglin Environmental Justice Law was enacted by the state legislature in 2008 in an effort to curb the amount of pollution in this South Minneapolis area, particularly in the Arsenic Triangle near Cedar and 28th where the Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways asphalt plant still operate, belching out fumes each day over Phillips, the Midtown Greenway, South High School, and the rest of us.
“This is what environmental injustice looks like,” former state legislator Karen Clark told those gathered on June 17 at the East Phillips Recreation and Cultural Center.
“People tell me, “I plug my nose when I drive past your neighborhood,” observed Steve Sandberg.
“We want to live a long life and we don’t want any more trucks in our community,” said Holmes. She pointed out that residents have asked the city to consider the load Phillips already carries and support the EPNI plan community members put together in response to the needs they know they have.
They see the trouble residents have finding apartments and homes they can afford. They see the problem of not having access to fresh, green vegetables. They want their kids to have better. They want to be part of fixing things for their neighborhood and the world, and they have some bright ideas about using aquaponics and solar power in their corner of South Minneapolis. They’re inspired by the Midtown Greenway and want to fashion a neighborhood that places a high priority on biking and walking – two methods of travel that are accessible to the poor and the rich, build better health, and don’t spew pollution into the air.
And so the idea for the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm was born. To make it affordable, planners pinpointed a large building that they could reuse (another green initiative).
But the city has other plans for the former Roof Depot site, and it involves moving its water yard there. They intend to use the land to store manhole covers, sewer pipes, and sand-salt mix, and send out public work’s fleet of diesel trucks into other areas, concentrating the air pollution. Although EPNI once sought to buy the entire site, after the city threatened eminent domain and subsequently purchased it out from under the community, EPNI asked for three acres, then two acres, and then one acre.
“They said ‘No,” pointed out Holmes. And they haven’t once allowed the community group to present to the city council.
So she asked community members to take out their phones, and engage in grassroots organizing by calling their city council members one by one and asking them to support the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm.
Twenty-nine-year-old Margarita Ortega took out her phone. “I know what it’s like to grow up in pollution and grow up with asthma and breathing problems,” Ortega said. “I have two children going through it, as well.” The Little Earth resident also knows what it is like to struggle to find green food, and is excited by the idea of an indoor urban farm within a few blocks of her house. She shook her head when talking about city staff and council members. “They’re just worried about money and power,” she said.
Adam Fairbanks doesn’t live in South Minneapolis anymore, but his family still does. He took out his phone, too, and started calling city council members. He works with Red Lake and helped meet the needs of residents at the Wall of Forgotten Natives last year where he saw the large number of nebulizers and inhalers prescribed to those who were there. He blames the smog and pollution in Phillips for the health problems residents have.
“I’m amazed that the city has not supported this project,” Fairbanks said.
“They don’t listen,” agreed Cindi Sutter, who has dreams of living at a revitalized Roof Depot and having access to garden plots and solar energy.
Abah Mohamad had her phone out, too. She’s also baffled about why the city isn’t supporting the urban farm plan. “It has everything the community needs,” Mohamed pointed out. “I’m a little bit emotional and very upset. It is the only hope and only vision that this neighborhood has. It’s exactly what will serve the neighborhood.”
Is this the same city and the same leaders that are telling the nation that they are encouraging community involvement, racial equity, and affordable housing?
Is this the same city that pledged to do something about homelessness following the largest homeless encampment last summer that this state has ever seen, and is going into another summer without having made much progress towards solving things?
Are they really ignoring a plan that’s already in process, is designed, has funds already designated, and could be up and running quickly in a building currently sitting empty that helps our community solve homelessness in a comprehensive manner?
Talking about issues and supporting grassroots activism is something newspapers are very, very good at. We’re here to shine the light into the dark corners of government, like this one. We’re here to give you the information you need to change your communities for the better.
While the Roof Depot site and the center of the controversy is in Phillips neighborhood, it isn’t confined to that one neighborhood. It affects all of South Minneapolis. If this water yard and its trucks start traveling along Cedar and Hiawatha and 26th and 28th, the pollution center will spread outward. Travel along the Midtown Greenway now in the Longfellow/Seward section and you’ll be accosted by the strong fumes from the existing foundry and asphalt plant, as well as vehicle traffic.
This is an issue that affects the health of our children, our ability to breath in this city that we love, and our ability to live the lives we want to.
And, so, Holmes is asking, “Will you take out your phone?”

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Five Myths about NENA’s Official Statements

Posted on 19 December 2014 by robwas66


Doug Walters

Editor’s note: This is a statement released to the Messenger by former NENA Associate Director Doug Walters

It’s time to pull the Board’s official statement on staff firings. It has been on the website for nearly two months. It has shaped the same faulty logic from their lawyer, and now from the head of the City’s NCR department. But no matter how many times they repeat their chorus, it is still wrong.

From the official statement: “The Nokomis East Neighborhood Association (NENA) is making a change in administrative leadership because, despite significant effort over several months, the Board has been unable to rebuild and maintain a positive working relationship with existing staff. The Board has regretfully concluded that a change in NENA’s day-to-day management was necessary.”

Myth #1: That NENA needed a change in “administrative leadership.” Arguably, administration was not the problem; NENA was in good financial condition, had strengthened community partnerships and was poised to grow when the firings occurred. More accurately, it was the firing of all executive staff of which admin was just a part of their duties. This wasn’t just a change in day-to-day management, no matter how they spin it. In one fell swoop, they eliminated all of the company’s operations, from human resources, to fundraising, communications, program management, accounting and much more. That is called a “poison pill” in corporate speak.

Myth #2: The Board made significant effort to repair the declining relationship with staff. Contrary to the implications in Director Jelatis’ original motion and the Board’s later Official Statement, absolutely no effort was made by any of the currently seated Directors to rebuild a positive relationship between the Board and staff. We challenge the Board to list a single real example of where that effort was made.

To the contrary, some members of the currently seated Board purposefully built a hostile work environment. Ramping up in September 2013, the initial focus was to redirect an individual Director’s negative performance at the Monarch Festival to a staff problem.

By February 2014, that effort had escalated into an effort to punish staff after the Executive Director, doing her due diligence (an internal audit), wrote to the Board listing several ways in which the Board was operating out of compliance with the bylaws and state statutes, risking both financial and legal problems. To this day, the board has never discussed that letter’s content or the issues it highlighted, with the Executive Director.

However, several members were hugely angered and discussed it among themselves in private sessions. In March, Rita received a hand-delivered memorandum of reprimand, chiding her for writing the January letter on company time, placing her on probation and adding an incredible amount of additional and petty admin work. For instance, the reprimand demanded that all communications going outside of NENA be pre-approved by the board three days in advance. Basically, this incredibly vindictive document was retaliation for speaking up. Note that her letter was written after months of unsuccessfully trying to discuss and resolve these matters with Chair Knopp Schwyn.

Myth #3: That memorandum of reprimand was an official board approved action. It was not, no matter how they spin it. Director Jelatis introduced a draft of the letter during an executive session of the board, following their regular March 27th board meeting. Because an executive session excludes staff and public, it is considered private, no minutes are kept, and most importantly, no official board business may be conducted while in session. The only legally acceptable purpose is to discuss legal matters and/or personnel issues of a sensitive nature. Presumably, all board members present discussed the reprimand, and presumably all signed it. (Later, a now-former Director stated that he felt coerced into signing). Director Preston’s minutes and a later revision of same, both showed that the Chair never resumed a full board session to motion and pass the memorandum and its actions.

Director Jelatis took the letter home and revised it. The following day, Chair Knopp-Schwyn and Director Jelatis handed an unsigned, rewritten version to the Executive Director without comment. The full board never saw or approved the final version. Staff position was that it was not a valid NENA action or document and that most of the added requirements were vindictive and unworkable.

Myth #4: Where there is smoke, there is fire. Contrary to the implied reasons, the firings were not about performance, or lack thereof. In fact, the board, had not done an employee review in over 10 years and had nothing official to rate performance against. Understand that by contract, the board has the legal right to terminate an employee at any time, and for any reason, with 14 days’ notice as part of an official board action. They didn’t need “cause” to fire us. Of course, that doesn’t explain why Directors Jauli, Jones and Jelatis spent so much time and energy arguing against, and finding fault with, virtually everything staff did or proposed, as if trying to build just cause.

The truth is, in spite of a hostile work environment, we were looking forward to wrapping up a good year. We had new programs in the works, new technology for mass emails was ready and a new mobile-friendly website was being developed. We had just produced our largest and highest rated Monarch Festival ever and had made tremendous progress with integrating the Latino community (a requirement for our funding). We had four new board members, two of which had extensive board experience. NENA’s future funding was stable and the books were in good shape. Of course, we made mistakes during the year, our biggest being the poorly attended annual meeting in April–where the Board took over planning and most of the execution for the first time in memory.

This was about a personality conflict with certain Board members that became entrenched in their views and wanted to maintain total control of the neighborhood organization. It was about staff resisting micromanagement of the company side of NENA, and an effort to redirect a board that had become completely disengaged from NENA’s mission and the residents who elected them.

Myth #5: Staff knew it was coming. While there was history to predict the eventual outcome, the poison pill that Director Jelatis introduced at the very end of the October 23 meeting was not expected. We knew something was up, because Director Jauli, the driving force behind the anti-staff movement, was in attendance for perhaps the second time in all of 2014.

It was readily apparent that the individual Directors, with the exception of Directors Jauli and Jelatis, were caught off guard. Rita and I were in shock. It took several minutes for anyone to second the motion. (By Robert’s Rules of Order, the Chair should have stopped the motion for lack of second, but he instead allowed it to go into discussion.) Eventually Director Koncak seconded, then thought better of it and withdrew his second. Director Pikus-Li then immediately re-seconded the motion. For the record, former Directors Duran and Antin tried hard to delay the firings, requesting that at the very least, the full board should be informed of, and involved in, such an important change to NENA’s operations. Director Jelatis would hear none of that. I asked for a two week transition period where Rita and I could put things in order, turn over passwords, the website and secure private data like membership information and payroll. We also wanted to make sure that NENA had enough funding in the bank account to last a few months. Again, Director Jelatis outright rejected the idea.

It’s time for the Board to either remove the official statement or at least revise it to show the truth. The same mistruth has been spun since the end of October, and with every retelling, their dug-in position becomes grander. Yet, the facts show otherwise. I think the residents and businesses of Nokomis East deserve better.

The question that the membership should be asking is not about staff, but about what NENA has become.

Doug Walter

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