The new Nokomis East Neighborhood Association Executive Director Brandon Long is no stranger to neighborhood work.
“I’ve learned that community is immensely powerful,” said Long. “I spend a lot of time explaining that to people. You don’t need to be an elected official to have a voice. We have the power to convene, to release information to large groups of people, institutions and officials. We can provide each other with mutual support, financially or otherwise, when other, larger institutions struggle or fail us. We saw that play out very obviously during the pandemic through things like food distributions and grant assistance.
“When national news is getting me down, I find that community work gives me hope.”
Long began working for NENA in April following the departure of Becky Timm.
What drew you to neighborhood organization work and what do you enjoy most about it?
My journey into this work started with the premature birth of my brother who is 12 years younger than I am. Due to many complications he is subsequently blind, has cerebral palsy, and lives in a group home. My parents are both nurses so when I asked how I could work with someone like him they told me occupational therapy (OT) may be a good option. Before I started in community work I held just about every position you can within the disability community over the course of a decade, including as an occupational therapist at the Minnesota Autism Center for three years after graduate school. While I was doing this work, I realized that what I valued most was advocacy for folks like my brother which got me into political organizing both on electoral and issue campaigns. Through that I found the district council system in Saint Paul and sat on the Highland District Council while simultaneously forming an advocacy group called Sustain Ward 3 (now Sustain Saint Paul).
I loved advocating for things that made my community more equitable and sustainable, which led me to make the professional transition to the Union Park District Council as its executive director. I loved spending my day getting to know anyone and everyone I could, helping connect people to each other and resources and tools that they needed to make their lives better. In conventional OT I didn’t have the opportunity to make whole systems or communities healthier, happier, and more equitable. Stepping outside that convention allowed me to tackle issues in a bigger way. I love getting to know the histories of areas and understanding how things work and who people are. The relationships you form in place-based neighborhood work are what I enjoy the most.
What brought you to Nokomis East?
I was intrigued to learn more about what a different city’s neighborhood organization system looked like for starters. I have many acquaintances in Minneapolis who had spoken highly of NENA as an organization and its outgoing executive director - who I have subsequently gained a lot of respect for.
Aside from getting my feet under me my initial goals are a fresh restart. The board was very intentional about providing me with enough to get started and point the ship in a general direction while also leaving me the flexibility to make the role my own. I really appreciate the work that they put into our strategic plan and their emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The pandemic upended all of our lives and NENA was no exception. There was a lot of pivoting to deal with the huge issues and barriers cropping up and they navigated it well, understanding that post-pandemic NENA would look a bit different. Not only do we now have a new ED, we are once again expanding our staffing by hiring a full-time community organizer and part-time communications person.
What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed about St. Paul and Minneapolis neighborhood organizations?
There is more clarity of purpose in the Saint Paul District Council system. The one contract that those 17 organizations have is called the “Community Engagement Contract” which covers roughly half of each organization’s operating budgets (with some exceptions). Those organizations are a formal part of the development engagement process, Saint Paul’s Planning Commission and its city council members are informed of the positions district councils take on any given new development. Since they are independent non-profits they are free to do other things, but they all have at least that in common.
The city of Minneapolis use to have a more formal connection to their neighborhood organizations this way – as contracted engagement that informed their decision making. It does not seem to be the case any longer – we are not given any meaningful notification for proposals and our input is not sought. Our power to influence these things seems quite a bit softer depending on relationships we have with our city council members, but then again, we don’t get notifications in a timely enough manner. Minneapolis also has three different funding sources from different eras sometimes operating at the same time for each of the 70+ organizations rather than just the one for Saint Paul councils. While the Saint Paul system is definitely underfunded, the newest funding stream for the Minneapolis system is being massively underfunded to the point that many in this system are considering merging because they will not be able to keep the lights on.
What are some of the projects you’ve worked on that you are most proud of?
Co-founding Sustain Ward 3 is the project I am the most proud of. The idea behind this was to intentionally create community first and foremost, and that collective action would naturally occur after that. The way this played out was backyard barbecues and happy hours, neighbors getting to know neighbors, conversations about Star Wars, dogs, bikes, anything folks were interested in. Community “shop talk” occurred naturally and without structure at gatherings in small groups without any need for direction. We needed to get to know each other, like each other, and trust each other. Over a few months this morphed into creating a formal organizational structure and name. Too often community engagement dives into business first, overwhelming new folks with jargon, acronyms, and stuffy procedural conduct. Working families are tired in their off time or they need a mental or physical break – I know I do.
We need to ease folks into community involvement, provide food and create fun and trust. Meeting folks where they are at is the surest way to peak their interest and motivate them to be further involved.
This group created an organization built on creating more equitable and sustainable neighborhoods. Specific examples of this include successfully organizing around ensuring the preservation of critical affordable housing targets on the Ford Site and helped paved the way for the West 7th Street Car in Saint Paul. It has now expanded citywide and continues to educate and activate residents around issues of equity and sustainability in development and transportation and is well respected by city officials.
How do neighborhood organizations like NENA contribute to the community?
Neighborhood organizations like NENA create touch points and connections for residents amongst each other and with the city government. They have the power to convene, which gives them the opportunity to be a voice for the neighborhood and provide resources and education for neighbors. Not everyone has the time to be sifting through the flood of information that we are inundated with daily – place-based neighborhood organizations are entities that can funnel relevant information to their residents. Staff and board members form relationships with city officials giving residents a more direct line to general decision making. NENA, and organizations like it, offer small matching grants to residents and businesses to ensure that local economies stay strong.
As funding shifts due to Neighborhoods 2020, how is NENA changing?
Rather than shrinking away from the challenges we face, we are meeting them head on. We are fortunate to have a strong cash reserve that will keep us going for the next 5-7 years, and we are going to spend that time not downsizing and just trying to perpetually survive, but rather, expand and show our worth to attract new outside funders and/or convince the city of our merits. We are becoming increasingly connected with other neighborhood organizations to work in coalition as we tackle new challenges with changing neighborhood demographics. We have implemented diversity, equity, and inclusion policies that will guide all of our work and decision making.
What’s ahead for NENA?
Once we have secured more staff, we are committed to reassessing which committees we would like to establish and how they will be structured. This will provide more opportunities for community members who are not board members to become more involved with the work we do as an organization. This will also provide spaces for NENA to flesh out what our engagement looks like and what projects we take on.
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