Miners in a cave covered in soot, and tears that staled upon dad’s first lesson about manhood, are akin to the liver that takes a beating, which is like the lover that couldn’t hurt a fly. A ravine run dry of water and gold, requires a man to sift with patience. These cherokee drums and the sap from this old maple, which is just as thin as water, are just as full of life, as your mother’s round belly on that sweet afternoon some summers ago.
I’m in pain
But I’m doin just fine
Cuz I’m outside
In a shirt
But I ain’t cold
Cuz the spring wind blows
With the whisper of summer’s warmth
I’m feeling the loving breeze
Sipping on some ginger tea
Mother Earth grounding my feet
I could cry cuz this grass so green
Communing with the trees
Sweet birds and buzzing bees
Grandfather sun, Thank you for shining on me
This be my family
And together we sing
While the skies bless us with rain
And thunder is on its way
Together we pray
Thank you creator
Thank you for this day
Thank you for this life
And the beautiful flowers of May
And then it hailed
In Parts 1 and 2of our conversation with community leader Russel Balenger, we learned about how his childhood in Rondo and his family’s example inspired him and how he grew to become involved in criminal justice reform efforts and worked to connect incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with members of the community outside the prison walls. In Part 3, the last installment of our conversation, he talks about his work with the Circle of Peace Movement and his dreams for the former Boys Totem Town site.
Russel’s personal and family experiences didn’t just inspire his involvement with JDAI reforms and InEquality efforts to uplift the voices of people impacted by the court system. His experiences have also led him to found the Circle of Peace Movement, an award-winning weekly community conversation that is now celebrating its twelfth year.
The story of the Circle of Peace Movement started around February 2010, after Russel’s oldest grandson was shot twice during incidents of gang violence. Russ wondered if the violence would escalate and his grandson would end up dead from gun violence that year, like far too many other young people.
Russel decided it was time to invite concerned local families together to talk about solutions. For him, that meant taking the risk of bringing together families of gang members, even though many of them had been at war with each other for years. St. Paul’s Unity Church-Unitarian on Holly Avenue, a church Russel has had a relationship with for many years, agreed to host the conversations. Russel proposed starting with four circles and seeing what happened.
At the first circle, families came in the door angry, pointing fingers and blaming one another. But gradually, after a chicken dinner cooked by Russel’s wife Sarah, tempers cooled and people started to relax.
“They ate,” Russel recalled. “They leaned back in their chairs. And we began to talk.”
By the second meeting, Russel remembered, people had begun to take responsibility for their parts in causing problems. By the third circle, people who’d been at each other’s throats were hugging. And by the fourth, everyone agreed, “We have to keep doing this.”
Year after year, Russel has continued holding circles aimed at stopping violence and promoting racial healing, an effort he and Sarah eventually came to call the Circle of Peace Movement. One thing that Russel insisted early on was that police should be a part of these discussions. At first, people resisted because of bad experiences they’d had with law enforcement. But eventually, participants consented to police being present, and Russel saw many positive relationships grow between community and police.
These days, Russel’s circles are open to anyone who wants to attend, not just families associated with gang members. Local high school and college students sit alongside judges and scholars visiting from other countries. Rondo elders who’ve known Russel for years come to the circle to share their stories and wisdom, as well as youth and adults reentering the community after being in detention or prison. No matter who shows up, as Russel always says, in the circle, everyone is equal.
Each circle includes a hearty meal cooked by Sarah (with help these days from a team of volunteers from Unity Church-Unitarian). Week in and week out, Russel calmly but firmly enforces the circle guidelines, encouraging people to wait their turn to speak, listen well, and speak with respect using I-statements.
As of October 31, 2022, the Circles of Peace have met 615 times, coming together every Monday evening at Unity Church-Unitarian from 5-7 PM.
When we asked Russel why he thought the circles had succeeded so well at bringing people together for so many years, he said, “Well, I think it’s what everybody wants.” The problem, he said, is that not enough people know how to start conversations like the Circle of Peace. To help more people become confident about holding peace-building conversations, Russel frequently offers circle trainings in the community, sharing what he has learned about how to hold spaces that feel respectful and welcoming to all.
Through his work with the Circle of Peace, Russel has forged many deep relationships with a wide range of people and community groups. One of the relationships closest to his heart was the mentoring connection he made with boys incarcerated at Boys Totem Town, a juvenile detention facility that operated from 1913-2019 in St. Paul’s Highwood Hills neighborhood. The facility had a long history of abuse and mistreatment of youth, epitomizing many of the problems that community leaders like Russel were trying so hard to point out.
Russel regularly held peace circles inside Boys Totem Town in its last few years of operation, getting to know the youth there well, and he eventually worked with Ramsey County to bring youth from the facility to the Monday night Circles of Peace, so that the young people could build an even stronger connection with community members and mentors in the outside world.
Russel said he had a vivid memory of visiting Boys Totem Town on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday one year and watching as the all-white guard staff opened up a gate to let him in to see the youth and then locking the gate behind him. The youth confined behind the locked gate were all Black, even though Black people comprise only about 11 percent of the population in Ramsey County and only about 6 percent statewide. Seeing that disparity illustrated so starkly solidified Russel’s conviction that the status quo was unacceptable.
Thanks to JDAI reforms, fewer and fewer Ramsey County youth were being sent to facilities like Boys Totem Town. InEquality and other community members and groups strongly opposed public officials’ attempts to expand juvenile incarceration, organizing a powerful effort in 2016 that succeeded in stopping a plan to build a new joint juvenile facility for Ramsey County and Hennepin County. As part of that effort, Russel and his allies at Unity Church-Unitarian led a campaign that resulted in 1000 postcards being sent to public officials to oppose building the new joint juvenile facility.
By early 2019, as the number of youth put in juvenile detention continued to decline, Boys Totem Town housed only about a half-dozen boys, but it employed 42 people. By August 2019, the last young person confined at Boys Totem Town had gone home and officials had closed the facility.
These days, Russel is excited about the possibilities for the now-vacant site, which is located on 72 acres of forest and prairie on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, not far from the historic Dakota village of Kaposia. Ramsey County officials are currently considering a variety of proposals for the site, but Russel said he believes it can and should be transformed from a place of suffering to a place of healing.
He dreams of seeing the site developed into a camp where youth impacted by the juvenile justice system and their families can address trauma and nurture strong relationships. Peace circles, gardening, habitat restoration, and recreation in nature would be major components of daily programming.
That kind of experience, Russel believes, could have life-changing impacts—just like his experiences visiting Camp Widjiwagan did for him decades ago.
Many people have told him that his dream could take ten years or more to realize, or that it might not happen at all, given all the other proposals being considered. Russel said he feels confident that the Boys Totem Town site can become a haven for peace-making and community-building in St. Paul—and that it can happen much sooner than ten years from now.
What keeps Russel going in the face of obstacles and discouragement, he said, are his children and his grandchildren, who are all doing well these days. “I just want them to see that thing that I learned,” he said. “Just go do it. Do it. Don’t sit around and figure out why it can’t be done.”
In Part 1 of this conversation with St. Paul community leader Russel Balenger, we talked about Russel’s childhood growing up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood both before and after the construction of Interstate 94. We also learned about how his parents profoundly shaped the values he’s carried into his work fighting for criminal justice reform, advocating for incarcerated people, and building peace in St. Paul and beyond. In Part 2, we talk more about how Russel has put the lessons of his youth into action in his work as a community leader.
“I always have this voice in my ear, my mother’s voice, saying ‘You can do more.'”
As a student at St. Paul’s Central High School, Russel was active on the swim team, student council, drama, and French club, and he showed an early interest in psychology. He was one of the first 50 students of color to attend Moorhead State College (now known as Minnesota State University-Moorhead). After graduation, Russel lived for a time in Chicago and Ann Arbor, but St. Paul eventually called him home. By the 1970s, he was running an outdoor vegetable and fruit market in St. Paul. He was later recruited into a management position at Sears through an Urban League program aimed at opening doors that had previously been closed to Black people.
The 1970s were a time of growth and opportunity for Russel, but they were also a time of loss, because both his parents died during that period. His father died after suffering for many years from the effects of his strokes. His mother died of an aneurysm on Thanksgiving 1977, right after she’d finished cooking the family’s holiday meal. She was 66 years old.
Losing her was a devastating blow for Russel and his family. But his mother’s example inspired him to keep persevering the way she had. “I always have this voice in my ear, my mother’s voice, saying, ‘You can do more,’” he said.
Over the years, people have often told Russel that his ideas and plans are too ambitious, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.
“I always feel like, be careful who you tell your plans to, because they’ll poke holes in them and deflate them,” Russel said with a smile, “and so it’s easier for me to just go do it.”
Through his professional and community work, Russel found himself increasingly drawn to helping previously incarcerated people get off to a good start after they left prison.
“There were a lot of people that were negatively impacted by the criminal justice system,” he said. “I felt like if anybody needed help getting a job, they did.”
Russel was excited to learn about Amicus, an organization offering relationship-based reentry services for adults and juveniles coming out of incarceration. He was so inspired by Amicus’s mission and approach, he took a substantial pay cut to go to work for Amicus in the 1990s.
Russel’s first job at Amicus was as the group’s volunteer coordinator. His task was to find volunteers to provide one-to-one support for people in the process of leaving prison and reentering their communities. He thought lining up 200 volunteers sounded about right. It was a daunting number–but he succeeded in meeting his recruitment goals by tirelessly recruiting at local faith communities.
Russel learned that he had to move quickly when it came to orienting volunteers.
“Otherwise, the other people in their house would tell them, ‘you’re going to do this? Oh my God!’” Russel remembered. “So you had to get them placed and get them out of the house to the prison, where they would find out that this was just another human being.”
As part of his work, starting in 2003, Russel began holding peace circles for men incarcerated at Stillwater Correctional Facility the second Tuesday of every month. His way of holding circles was very much inspired by the way his mother had often held family conversations around the kitchen table when he was a boy, with everyone taking turns and given encouragement to take responsibility for any part they played in problems or conflicts.
By 2008, Russ was serving as Senior Vice President of Programming at Amicus, a role he continued for several years. After Russel retired from Amicus, he continued to hold monthly circles at Stillwater, though the COVID pandemic has disrupted his ability to hold in-person circles for the last few years. Russel said he is eager to return and hold a circle inside Stillwater as soon as possible.
While working to connect imprisoned adults to the outside world, Russel has also worked hard to fight racial inequities in the Minnesota juvenile justice system. It was through this work that Russel became close friends with Laura LaBlanc of InEquality and Oyate Hotanin. He recalled a memorable encounter with her at the first Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative meeting in 2005, which was part of a multi-year effort to reduce disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system and reduce the number of young people being removed from their homes, and put in juvenile detention. One of the elected officials who has done the most to lead the way on that effort is Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, the wife of Russel’s good friend Melvin Carter, Jr. and mother to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III.
Russel recalled his first interaction with Laura at that first JDAI meeting. He said, “I was a proponent for justice for these folks that have been incarcerated. Laura walks in and says, ‘Is this the justice for the criminals area?’ And I got mad. But then we talked and she was just kidding. We kind of became fast friends.”
He said that he and Laura bonded over their shared concern about racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
“Although Black people make up less than five percent of Minnesota’s population,” Russel said, “in every correctional facility, it’s at least half full of Black. There are also more American Indians per capita, but generally more Black bodies in women’s prisons.”
He continued, “So for the last twenty years, I’ve been paying attention to that, Minnesota is number one in disproportionate minority contact. So this has become my next thing. You can’t see that happen and not know that there’s some illness in our system. Number one, in the land of milk and honey.”
Those injustices have hit close to home for Russel and his family. Russel told the story of an experience one of his grandsons had when he was fourteen.
“He got in trouble on the playground. It was him and his friends playing around with one of the friend’s little brothers. There was a new woman at the playground, feeling like it was her job to come out and say ‘You guys stop horsing around.’ The children had gotten hold of some scotch tape so they stuck it on the little brother. They were basically playing boys being boys. They put that bag over his head that you put the basketballs in, that net bag. Then they held him over the swing and twirled it up so that he could get spun in the bag. The boy was telling them, ‘Don’t do that! I’ll get sick.’ And he did. They all ended up walking home together. But because they were at the playground all the time, and their telephone numbers were there, when they talked to this woman, she had asked them what their names were. And then she took it upon herself to call the police. The police called my grandson’s mother and told her to bring him down to the station. She did and they said we’re holding him for court tomorrow and you’ll see him then.”
The Saint Paul Police Department charged Russel’s fourteen-year-old grandson hanging out with friends in the park with “Kidnapping and terroristic threat.” Their justification for the charge was that the other boy involved had been taped up and put in a bag.
“If you can imagine,” Russel said, “my grandson had never been away from home. To then be taken and put in jail. Fourteen years old, didn’t weigh a hundred pounds. So I go up to the court the next day and I have my friend, a lawyer, with me.” Russel’s grandson was the president of his school’s Native American Club and had never missed a day of school or been late.
Russel explained how his lawyer friend didn’t know much about juvenile law. The judge said, “Accept the charges and you can go home. If not, he could be here for another thirty days.”
Eager to bring Russel’s grandson home quickly and unfamiliar with how the juvenile justice system worked, the family accepted the charges. Now Russel’s grandson had a record. At the sentencing, even though it all got explained that they were young boys playing around, it meant nothing to the judge. According to the law, Russel’s grandson was guilty of this crime and he had to stay in detention for seven days.
Russel reflects on that moment, “That really changed him. He and his brother started getting into more and more trouble. The police were constantly stopping them. It was always something. They got worse. They joined a gang. My oldest grandson has been shot twice.”
He remembered a moment that really drove home to him how the judge in his grandson’s case didn’t even really see him and his family as full human beings.
“I was dressed just like I was in court the day before for the first Juvenile Detention Alternatives initiative meeting,” Russel said. “That judge that sentenced him and had been there for the previous court thing, she walked in, walked up to me and introduced herself and put her hand out. She didn’t even recognize me. The same judge that sentenced my grandson the day before. And she was there at this JDAI meeting and felt like what she had done was right. I said how is this woman going to make a change? What she’s doing is the problem. She’s retired now. I never said her name again. I told her I’m Russel Balenger. Now the day before, she had been saying Mr. Balenger this, Mr. Balenger that. I watched her in that meeting sit, trying to figure out, and maybe she did that. I’m sure she did. After a point, she knew there was something. I could see it on her face. I could see her trying to figure it out.”
The work of the Juvenile Detentions Alternative Initiative was motivated by a deep concern for youth and families and a desire to create solutions that actually keep everyone safer. Research and the lived experiences of people impacted by the juvenile justice system show that in the vast majority of cases, keeping youth home and providing holistic, wraparound services is much more effective than locking youth up. Based on the findings and work of community members and officials involved in the Juvenile Detentions Alternative Initiative, Ramsey County officials began implementing Deep End Reform starting in 2014. Those reforms led to significant progress in reducing the number of out-of-home placements for court-involved youth and expanding access to alternative interventions.
Russel, Laura, and many other community advocates including Melvin Carter, Damon Drake, David Stark, Long Vang and Joanna Lowry have played an important role in shining a light on the ways that removing youth from their homes harms young people, families, and communities. They also have played a crucial role in pushing for long-overdue, systemic changes and making sure that the voices of the people continue to be centered in policy and decision-making. There’s always still more work to do, but advocates have not given up on pushing for a more equitable, effective system for all, one that serves families, youth, and victims of harm better than the system does now.
In Part 3, we’ll hear more about Russel’s work with the Circle of Peace Movement and his dreams for offering even more ways to grow peace and build community in St. Paul.
See I know death intimately. Sometimes she arrives unannounced Catches me off guard. But she’s usually kinder then. Doesn’t ask for much. Only for a place to lay her head. She tries to stay out of your way, but it’s hard not to meet her in your studio flat. It’s when she leaves you a memo that she’s in a bad way. She comes in a storm, wrecking your things, and makes a home in your belly. She doesn’t mean to be ruthless, but she hardly gives you any head space. She wakes you at night for your warm spot on the bed She leaves you tossing and turning all night feeling the cold in your bones.
She tells your neighbors and friends that she’s here for a while. Then they start to visit her. You don’t mean to be rude, To be short. But it’s crowded in your heart, and you can’t say that. It’s rude to turn away guests, but your soul feels stretched like the shadow beneath your feet. It’s when your heavy, carrying all the sorrow she left. Your back is straining from the bending, And tending to company that she leaves abruptly.
Leaving all of her things. Her broken watch. Ticking haphazardly. Stuck between 11:59 pm and midnight. She doesn’t leave a note or say goodbye. You sit, crowded, in a home that’s empty. Nothing is yours anymore. Not the clothes in your closet. Not the toothbrush on the counter. Not the black shoes at the door. You wonder how a place can be so full of things but still, echo your steps. Wary, and tired you sleep cuddled at the feet of a heater. Death, it seems had taken the bed and all the peace with her.
Reflections on Climate Grief to Joy, Healing Circle Programming at Crosby Farm Park
Written by: Grace Generous
The crisp October day welcomed us into the circle as we gathered in the clearing at Crosby Farm Park. Jothsna, Buffalo, Laura, and Ben welcomed us, asking us to find a natural object to add to the evolving art piece building in the center of our circle. I scoured the ground for my contribution: freshly fallen leaves, bright yellow and shaped like bird feathers. Others brought sticks, grass, rocks, and more, to create a kaleidoscope of color and texture on the ground. We settled into our chairs and began.
We opened the circle with a song. Carrie Owen, Dakota and Meskawaki, enrolled in the Omaha Nation, sang in Dakota. Her voice rang through the park, like it was cleaning the air around us.
Three questions followed.
“What brought you here today? How are you showing up? What are you struggling with?”
Fear, anxiety, apprehension, these feelings spilled into the circle as we shared our stories. People worried for the safety of their families and communities; they worried about the unusual heat we’ve been experiencing here in Minnesota and the chronic drought the state has been suffering from. We talked about experiencing cycles of acute worry, when the summer heat gets particularly bad or when the stream levels are too low or, worse, nonexistent. We talked about the slow, creeping sensation of feeling overwhelmed and helpless as we watch a constant cycle of record-breaking temperatures, wildfires, floods, and other climate-related disasters play out on our TV screens.
We expressed anger towards the unaffordability of food, the treatment of water as a commodity, and the disproportionate effects these issues have on communities already suffering from systemic injustices like racism. Most of all we expressed grief, mourning the loss of what our futures could have looked like without the constant, unabashed destruction of our planet.
The center of the circle filled like a pressure cooker, tension palpable and emotions raw.
When everyone was done sharing, we sat in silence for a moment. You could hear everyone’s breath as the last rays of sunlight peeked above the horizon and the moon rose over our heads.
Ben took up his banjo and Strong Buffalo his drum, and the music began.
We go to the East seeking a new day of hope.
We walk to the south where life comes from, praying for a warm rain to wash away the evil from all of those that are violent.
We go to the West, the gateway to the other side, seeking guidance for this lonely journey we find ourselves on.
We go to the North where the cold wind will help us to endure all the pain and suffering of this life.
We go to the center of the circle and reach down and caress our Mother Earth, who loves and nurtures all her children.
And we look up and look all around and thank you, Creator, for this wonderful life you gave to us all.
We thank you.
Buffalo’s voice filled the clearing, while the clear twang of of Ben’s banjo carried across the field. You could feel everyone’s presence as we collectivley processed what we had shared. As the day turned to night, the cool air seemed to decompress the tensions we had each spoken out loud.
“What can you carry and release for someone else?”
This act of reciprocity was invited next. I picked up a blade of grass that someone else had contributed to the circle. I walked several steps out of the clearing and imagined that blade to be a vessel that could hold all of the worry and anxiety that those in the circle had shared. I took a deep breath and pictured the grief and frustration channeling into the blade. As I exhaled, I released it into the wind, hoping it would carry away some of everyone’s anxiety with it.
Climate anxiety is something I have struggled with since I first learned about climate change. As a child, I managed by avoiding the topic, too young and overwhelmed to face what I was feeling. As I grew older, I learned to compartmentalize better, how to show up in spaces and talk about the climate crisis while managing my anxiety. I believe that focusing on solutions is essential to mobilizing people to act.
As an environmental studies student I am constantly surrounded by people who understand the severity of the climate crisis. We discuss the causes, impacts, and solutions of this crisis in every class, from the introductory ones all the way to our senior seminars. For most classes, however, we tend to avoid discussing our anxieties. Not because we don’t have them, or because people don’t want to discuss them. I think it’s because if we spent a class discussing our climate anxieties, we might never leave the classroom.
Denying myself the time and grace to recognize and acknowledge my own anxiety, however, created further problems, preventing me from managing the rising pressure in my own chest.
Now, sitting in the circle, I let that pressure push out the thoughts and worries I never talk about, even with my peers, friends, and family. I felt tears well up behind my eyes. Tears of sadness, of course, but also, surprisingly, tears of relief.
“What are you taking from this? How will you utilize this experience to make a shift in direction? Has anything shifted for you?”
I reflected on this question for a while. What has changed for me? I felt slightly less alone in my climate anxiety. It always feels nice to find camaraderie in others, to fulfill that human desire to feel seen and heard and understood. Joy felt more tangible. I learned that I can and should find joy in small victories, to find rest and rejuvenation in my community because that is essential to avoid burnout. Cracking open even the possibility of joy felt like a radical shift. It was a possibility, however, that I was more than ready to embrace.
Healing Circle programming is supported by Oyate Hotanin in collaboration with musical duo Buffalo Weavers and Change Narrative LLC—in a year-long climate action-driven project, Society of Mother Earth (S.O.M.E.). Developed with funding as an awardee of the Minnesota Humanities Center 2022-2023 Cultural Heritage and Community Identity Grant, and in partnership with Mississippi Park Connection. S.O.M.E intends to foster relationships between humans and the environment to prompt healing in our broken world through performances, healing gatherings, and storytelling initiatives.
Russel Balenger, is a son, a father, a grandfather, an uncle and a guardian angel to many. A fearless and respected community voice, a son of Rondo, and an elder in Saint Paul. He recently made news when he was appointed to fill a seat in St. Paul Ward 1. Many people in St. Paul and beyond already knew Russel through his community leadership long before he was chosen to represent St. Paul’s Ward 1.
We sat down with Russel recently to talk about his lifetime of work on racial justice and community peacemaking and the ways his efforts have intersected with the work of InEquality and Oyate Hotanin. His efforts have included hosting peace circles for men incarcerated in Stillwater Correctional Facility and connecting formerly incarcerated people with jobs, housing, educational opportunities, and community support. In addition, Russel has been a leader in efforts to reduce youth incarceration in Ramsey County and oppose racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. With his wife Sarah, he founded the award-winning Circle of Peace Movement, a weekly circle aimed at preventing community violence and fostering racial healing.
Throughout his life, Russel has practiced a leadership style that is kind, determined, and deeply rooted in the values of service and hospitality that he learned from his family growing up in Rondo. Russel had so many wonderful stories to share about the ways his life has intersected with key moments in St. Paul’s history, we decided it made sense to present our conversation in three parts. We hope you enjoy learning more about this amazing St. Paul leader and member of the InEquality and Oyate Hotanin organizing family!
Part 1: Growing Up in Rondo
Russel in the 1968 Central High School yearbook
Born in 1950, Russel started his life in a sixteen-room house on two lots at 812 St. Anthony, located on the north side of the Rondo block. Russel says of the house, “It was beautiful!”
Russel’s father, also named Russel, worked for the railroad. “He was very frugal and was very good with his money,” Russel said. His father’s hard work and frugality gave the family a real sense of prosperity and security.
“My mother always carried herself and dressed like she was a queen,” Russel recalled. “We always used to look at it like, ‘Where is she getting all this?’’ She was firm about education and exhibiting manners.
In Russel’s early childhood, Rondo was the thriving, vibrant heart of St. Paul’s Black community, with over 80 percent of Black St. Paul residents calling Rondo home. Officials decided in the 1950s to route Interstate 94 through Rondo, even though there was an alternative route along Pierce Butler Route that would have impacted far fewer people. The highway construction had a devastating impact that still reverberates today. One in eight Black homeowners in St. Paul lost a home because of the highway construction, and many businesses were lost, too.
When the children of Rondo speak now of the neighborhood and the homes they had before the highway was built, they describe them with pride and their homes as grand. In an interview with Rondo elder Marvin Anderson aired on PBS, Anderson noted that white officials had designated Rondo as a slum in 1935. By doing this, as a 2022 Minnesota Reformer article explains, officials were able to assess homes in Rondo for far less than they were worth, pressuring families into taking less for their homes easing the way for the highway to come roaring through.
Russel’s family was one of the many families whose lives were upended by officials’ decision to tear a hole through the heart of the neighborhood. “There was a house fire” at 812 St. Anthony, Russel recalled. “But we weren’t allowed to do the repairs because [officials] were taking [the house] any way to make way for the interstate.”
Russel is the youngest of six siblings. His family was split up because they didn’t have a place to go that was big enough for all of them. They didn’t have the sort of insurance that would allow them to go to a hotel after a fire. In fact, what they did get from insurance for the house fire was $4000. Their family got another home, 817-819 Dayton, a duplex four half blocks up the street towards Selby.
Russel said, “That home cost closer to $20,000. So the insurance payout was merely a down payment on this home that was not as large.”
His brothers went on to find their own apartment. His eldest sister Beverly, who had a son who was four months younger than Russel, found an apartment, and then his sister Lillian got a job and found a place. Russel, his sister Sandra, and his nephew Steven, who was Beverly’s son, were eventually the only family members who remained with Russel’s parents.
Russel recalled, “At that time, more and more people were being moved out of Rondo and off of St. Anthony. And they were beginning to dig the hole for the freeway. There were no housing laws. So you couldn’t just move anywhere. You could only move where you were allowed. So most people had to move right around the hole that was the freeway.”
When Russel moved to Dayton Avenue, the street was predominantly white. He remembered that the adults told the black and white children of the neighborhood that they could not play together. However, Russel recalled that it did not stop their youthful spirits.
“We’d go one way and they’d go around the other, and there was this open field and we would play ball or kickball. When it came time to go home, we’d go around the same way we came and go home. But then, one day we were having such a good time and forgot and just walked home together.”
Russel described adults running out of their homes and shouting “What are you doing?!” Very quickly, the white families moved out.
“When I say the white families,” Russel explained, “it was a lot of Jewish people. There was a man and his family renting the upstairs of this duplex we bought. I would go out every day and talk to him while he burned his trash. In those days, you burnt your trash outside. You didn’t have a trash hauler. But one day, Mr. Koza came down and said, ‘You seem to be very fine people but we just can’t rent from n—-s.’ My brothers got upset. My mother put her hands on the table which meant ‘Be still.’ It wasn’t meant to be derogatory. It was just the only language that he had. My mother said, ‘Well, you’ve been very good tenants. And if you should need a reference you just let us know.’” Russel’s mother found another tenant.
Russel and his siblings were raised to be courteous and respectable young people, and their parents held a high standard. Russel said, “You hear people say that you always had to have ‘The Talk’ about how to interact with police as a black person. We didn’t have ‘The Talk.’ You use your manners and you didn’t want to bring [your mother] any shame. So you were careful about what you did.”
Russel’s family weathered another devastating challenge not long after having to move from their home on St. Anthony to Dayton Avenue. When Russel was 13, his father had the first of a series of strokes. Within a few years, Russel’s father had ended up in a nursing home. Russel said, “In those days, they weren’t doing rehabilitation. You just were there until either you got up or you died…So, my mother would have to take care of us. In those days it was unheard of to have a job downtown if you were a Black woman.”
His mother worked many jobs to support the family, including working at a local department store selling women’s fashions. She also was heavily involved in civic leadership, including founding the North Central Voters League with S. Edward Hall, a prominent Black barber and civil rights activist who ran a barber shop in St. Paul from the early 1900s until his death in 1975.
“There’s a statue of him in the park by the [Cathedral Hill] YWCA,” Russel explained. “He was very instrumental in starting the Urban League here. His barbershop had 12 chairs, but it was all for white men.”
Hall catered to the powerful with a purpose. “He would hear their plans for the city and he would use the information to help uplift the black community. He’s still not getting nearly the acclaim he deserves,” Russel added.
Through the North Central Voters League, Lillian Balenger helped organize voters in the community and who they would vote for. Politicians took note and began to approach her because they wanted those votes. Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be vice president and run for president, and Walter Mondale who did the same, would come by the house and they’d have coffee.
Lillian Balenger eventually leveraged the community connections she’d made through her political organizing to found a successful agency that delivered meals to elders.
As Russel remembered it, his mother employed six or seven administrators at her agency, all women of different ethnicities, and one secretary named Bob. Russel proudly recalled visiting his mother in her office suite at the Commodore Hotel on Western Avenue. She introduced Russel to her staff and asked Bob, “Would you get us a cup of coffee?”
Russel’s mother had to fight every step of the way for that kind of power. She had come from Kansas, which experienced violent divides over slavery leading up to the Civil War. Her great-grandfather was an Irish man named John Park, a slaveholder. Russel said, “When he was 39 years old, he had sex with my mother’s great-grandmother who was thirteen. She had my great-grandfather Asbury Parks. There was an S added.”
Russel explained, “There was Park and then these others would be ‘Park’s.’ They belonged to him. It appears though, that he gave Asbury some land that he ended up with once he was free. Then he had six children. My grandfather Andrew Jackson Parks was one of them.”
Due to Russel’s father working for the railroad, when Russel was young, the family qualified for decreased fares and visited Kansas a few times.
Russel said, “My mother, who was a real go-get-it woman, seemed to be very apprehensive in Kansas. You could see that concern on her face.”
On his mother’s side of the family, there were fifteen family members living in the home plus six children who were orphaned: 21 of them in total.
Russel recounted, “They didn’t think they were poor, but they didn’t have enough dishes. Two ate off one plate. They would tell the stories during Thanksgiving time about how somebody would have the gravy dammed up on their mashed potatoes on their side of the plate, and the other couldn’t get any gravy, and my grandmother would say, ‘Undam them potatoes and let the gravy flow.’”
Russel told us how most of his mother’s family worked for a white family, with several of the women employed as housekeepers. Russel’s mother Lillian and her younger brother Gordon stayed home. As Russel explained, his mother was never afraid to speak her mind—in fact, the white family that employed most of Lillian’s family called Lillian “Sassy.” In early twentieth-century Kansas, Lillian’s strong opinions and confidence put her as a Black girl at risk, and her family feared Lillian’s plainspokenness might get them all into trouble. They decided it was safer to keep her at home to take care of the house and her brother.
Russel’s Uncle Gordon went on to become the Gordon Parks, a world-famous photographer and filmmaker, known as the writer-director of the 1969 semi-autobiographical film The Learning Tree. It was the first film by a major American studio to be directed by a Black person, and it focused on the racial discrimination and violence experienced by a Black boy growing up in Kansas. In the film, a character based on Russel’s mother was called “Prissy.” Russel said a lot of his uncle’s success was due to following the good advice his mother had given him. She also strongly supported her brother’s career as an artist.
Lillian’s determination and strength, forged by her youth in Kansas, made her an iconic leader in St. Paul. Russel told us of an organization she started and led, The Continental. Primarily Black women, it was a philanthropic organization. Lillian took it nationally and internationally! They threw magnificent balls, cotillions, and teas.
One of the many balls Russel’s mother helped organize. You can see her near the back row on the right, wearing a beautiful pearl necklace. Photo courtesy of Russel Balenger
Russel recalled of these grand events, “I would be put in a tux and pulling down the white carpet for them to march on. Then there would be the waltz and evening prayers. In those days, Black people did not have clubs or places to go. So they had to create their own social outlets. There was the Sterling Club which [prominent Black architect Clarence] Wigington was part of.”
Russel reflected on how colorism was a strange phenomenon for him as a child because of his mother. She always had plan after plan, as he put it, and her political organizing meant that there were often many white people meeting in Russel’s home, so he was used to diverse people working together without prejudice against each other based on the color of their skin.
He said, “It always seemed strange to me that everybody had this other thing going on.”
Russel was an obedient, dutiful son in many ways—except when it came to staying put when his mother told him to. When Russel was very young and at home for the summer, and his mother left for work, she would say to him, “Don’t leave the yard!” Starting when he was eight years old, he would constantly leave the yard and go down the street. His mother would come home and somebody would tell her what he had been up to. Then she’d say, “Don’t leave the block!” Hungry for adventure and discovery, Russel would go across the street and let his curiosity lead the way. So then his mother would say, “Whatever you do, don’t go up on Selby!”
But being his stubborn self, he just had to go see what was happening on Selby.
“I was eight years old the first time the police stopped me,” Russel remembered. “Had me put my hands up against the building. They went through my pockets. I was so small and skinny that they could only get two fingers in. I will never forget it. I couldn’t go back home and tell my mother because she had told me not to go up there.”
Russel didn’t let the run-in with the police stop him, though.
“I just began to go a little further and a little further,” he said. “Because I wanted to see and I was adventurous.”
By the time he was nine or ten, he’d made it all the way to the Mississippi River. Around age twelve, he hitched a ride all the way to Winona, four hours from home.
As darkness was falling, a white family drove up and asked him what he was doing there. One of the adults called Russel’s mother, who was quite taken aback when he explained where he was.
Some parents might have clamped down harder on their children. But Russel’s mother wisely saw that her son needed even more chances to explore. The next summer, she sent him to Camp Widjiwagan, a YMCA camp on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It was a place where Russel could find exactly the kinds of adventures his restless spirit craved.
“You had to try to keep the bears from getting your food!” Russel remembered. “You had to work with a map and a compass to navigate through the wilderness and meet up at a rendezvous point across the border in Canada.”
Russel loved the whole experience and went back to camp for the next three summers, discovering a lifelong love of nature, travel, and wild places. At camp, he was the only Black camper surrounded by much more affluent white teens, and from them, he heard about opportunities he hadn’t even known existed. One of those opportunities was a two-month trip to the USSR, a rare, historic adventure during the height of the Cold War. Russel applied for the program and was one of only sixteen Minnesota teenagers to be accepted. It was the first of many overseas adventures that have profoundly enriched Russel’s life and work.
Russel later learned that a Minnesota judge had paid for his tuition at Camp Widjiwagan. When Russel met the judge as an adult, he introduced himself and said, “I just want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me to go to Camp Widjiwagan. It changed my life.” Russel said the judge told him, “You don’t owe me any thanks.” It turned out that Russel’s mother had played a key role in helping the judge gain his position and the judge was simply repaying his debt to her.
Russel recalled that when it came to community and political organizing work, it was hard for his mother to know when to quit.
“She would work all day and then be on the phone with planning these other things,” Russel recalled. “And she’d fall asleep, and I’d have to take the phone out of her hand…and say it’s time for you to go to bed.”
Russel remembered that his mother always reminded him to leave the back door unlocked overnight, in case someone needed to come in. That reminder was rooted in the horrors of the Jim Crow period, Russel recalled.
“If [a Black man] didn’t have a job and you were stopped, you could be considered a vagrant,” Russel explained. “They could say that you looked at a white woman and call it ‘reckless eyeballing.’ And these were all things that you could be locked up for and made to work your time off.”
The Balengers’ open-door policy extended to all of the family’s Rondo neighbors, not just people facing danger.
“In those days, people would knock and walk in,” Russel said. “And if it’s early in the morning, you might be in bed, they would come to the bedroom and say, ‘Is it too early for me to be by? Do you mind if I go sit down and have a cup of coffee?’ And that’s how it was. So if you were the kid in the family, you got up to see what they had and what they needed.”
In Part 2 of this interview, we’ll share more about how Russel carried the lessons of his youth and childhood into adulthood as he grew into the leader he is today.
for her to find the river Nile safer for her infant than her own loving arms.
Same thing, I am guessing, going through the head of the Afghan father
Who lifted his baby over barbed wire into the arms of an American soldier
Or that long ago mother from Vietnam who raised her baby to the blades of a chopper to safety.
Same thing as thousands of parents on creaky overcrowded boats across oceans or wading the Rio Grande.
Same thing as my own mother who walked us across a desert with little water in tow and jungles as lions roared on.
My mother, who climbed with us into the belly of a truck and pretended to be deaf when Kenyan police stopped us.
My mother, who boiled dirty lake water to fend off cholera,
Who went out one night to relieve herself outside the tents and returned to a tent city she didn’t notice when she left us and couldn’t find the tent we slept under.
My mother, who panicked and walked in circles for an hour, looked into each tent till she found us.
My mother, who endured that and more, and who to this day, is afraid of uniformed men.
My mother, who two and a half decades later went to hajj funded by those same babies from that night, those babies she sacrificed everything to keep safe, to keep sane, and succeeded.
My mother was sleeping in a tent on the eighth day of the pilgrimage; she got up to use the restroom and was right back to the refugee tent city and fell into a panic, thinking to save those babies who have long grown and are raising their own back in America.
My mother, your mother, the mother of Alan Shenu Kurdi; our mothers are not different from Moses’s mother.
And even you, if you really ponder it, will place your babies
your tender sweet babies
In the jaws of a crocodile, if a crocodile’s mouth is safer than your hands.
Khadijo Abdi (she/her) is a Minneapolis-based Somali writer and medical interpreter.This poem was originally published in Minnesota Women’s Press.
Let’s talk about winter! Because I don’t like how we as a society are so out of tune with nature that we can’t recognize S.A.D as a symptom of how capitalism is negatively affecting all of us. This year, I greeted winter with a welcoming spirit, unusual for me. My intention was to surrender to winter and lean into all the lessons. I thought this year I would try something new. If the last eight years have taught me anything, it’s that I can’t run away from this cold. I must learn how to live with it. I can’t describe this season as anything less than soul-crushing for me. The sun going down at 4:30 pm messes me up. I was literally born on an island by the Indian ocean. I need the sun like I need sustenance. I need to feel the warmth of the sun like I need air to breathe and water to quench my thirst. I AM NOT BUILT to live in Minnesota. When I see my siblings who go outside in shorts in the middle of December, I know they carry ice in their veins, just like their ancestors before them. Me, there’s lava flowing through mine. I applaud people who have the motivation to be active and go outdoors during this season. I can hardly find the motivation to breathe on certain days.
Despite all that I knew I would be battling, I was determined to not let this bitter winter crush my soul. The winter solstice is a dear time to me. The celebrations are a source of hope for me, at least, the shortest day of the year is now behind us. One of the other ways I found hope during this season was by reflecting on the wisdom of the teachings I have learned in the past on how different spiritual philosophies view the significance of this time of year. How to channel the yin energy and work with it, to get through it. I crave adventure and newness even in my daily existence, that’s why I know life as a nomad is ideal for me. My ancestors wandered in the desert not searching for a home but bringing their home everywhere. My blood remembers past lifetimes and pleads to return to my ancestral ways. I’m constantly fighting the urge to run away. However, this season of stillness and slowness calls for retreat, it calls for hibernation. Meditation and nurturing of the spirit by diving within, silencing the noise that comes with all the hustle and bustle the rest of the year in this maddening metropolis.
This is the time to reflect on all the seasons that passed and everything that needs to die and be released. What needs to be planted, and nurtured, so it can grow and blossom in the upcoming seasons? This is extremely difficult to do in the conditions we, as humanity live under today. Unless you are making a couple of million dollars a year, there is no such thing as going into retreat for an entire season and reflecting on life. Not in this economy, right? But why not tho? We are told that we have freedom and choice. We make up the rules for society, right? Or does another entity have power over our lives?
Nature will run its course. In the first week of December, I fell ill from a psychogenic fever. Suffering through the hell this fever put me through and researching extensively afterward, I began to understand what happened to me. I learned that I fell ill due to stress, that it all manifested in my brain. I had no idea my body, my brain, my nerves, and my everything was so overwhelmed that they decided to shut me down. This scared me, suddenly at 22, I saw the path before me and what was going to happen if I continued down it. I don’t want to suffer a heart attack by the age of 50. I don’t want to be prediabetic, with high blood pressure and high cholesterol by age of 40. I don’t want to develop thyroid issues by age of 30. All conditions that millions of people live with daily, this is the price we pay for our so-called civilization. People come to the land of opportunity, and end up developing cancers and dying before ever fulfilling that American dream. This fever showed me the future I was headed toward if I didn’t change my ways. It is clear to me and so many around me that the systems we currently live under are not sustainable. So many of us are suffering as a result, how long will we continue to live like this?
Why can’t we come together as individuals who live in a community and talk about the realities of these systems we are living under? A lot of us are anxious, stressed, and angry, each burdened in their own way. Filled with so much fear living under a system that we all inherited. It’s become very clear, that it is no longer serving us nor did it ever. We are out of sync with nature, especially living in places like Minnesota, where the cold pierces through your bones for the better half of the year. I can’t help but keep coming back to the same question: Genuinely, I need answers. What are we doing? Why are we living like this? Because I personally don’t want to continue this and I know some folks who agree with me. How can we come together and not live like this anymore? So we can all have our basic needs met, and be free and content with life. How can we make our short time on earth actually about being human? Instead of barely surviving and being robots who work for a machine to keep themselves alive. This is our earth. Everything else we created, and we have the power to destroy. Yes, us.
We didn’t consent to these systems that we live under. We didn’t consent to capitalism, we didn’t consent to working 40 hours/ 5 days a week and this being the norm. We didn’t consent to any of this. We didn’t consent to not being human. In the middle of an economic crisis, talking about the idea of not giving in, of being antiwork seems almost blasphemous. After a global pandemic, we should be fearless about creating sustainable and fulfilling lives. Free of fear and anxiety. I’m anti going to work for 8 hours a day, 5 times a week when the sun is barely out for 7 hours of the day. I’m anti having to pay for our basic needs. Food, shelter, community, and love, that’s all we need. Naturally provided to us by mother earth. We, don’t have the energy to be doing the most during this time and that’s because we are meant to be doing less! Apparently, we as a society decided what was best for all of humanity, but I don’t recall being invited to that meeting.
If you have made it this far, in this rant about life, thank you for listening. To conclude this blog entry, and as we head into the new year, I want you to join me in reflecting, setting intentions, and visualizing a future where we don’t live under predatory systems and there is no shortage of empathy. I have asked many questions in this blog entry and here are my final ones: What brings you joy? How can you add joyful things to your daily life? Dive deeper into your own inner universe and reflect on how you can live more in alignment with nature, and learn from the animal and plant relatives, the elements and the seasons, the stars, the sun, and the moon.
Sunrise in the winter feel bitter A cold that seeps into my bones Spine start to shiver I long to walk and sing along the flowing river But there’s places frozen over, dormant just beneath the surface
There’s lessons in the water, I know I am the daughter The moon is my mother And the sun is my father Spirit don’t let me falter Fall to my knees at the altar
And I feel stagnant Ain’t it tragic Fighting against old habits Tryna find my balance On ice I call upon the healers My ancestral teachers Remind me to believe love Will bring us back to life
Early sunsets got me smoking every night Numbs my body, it distracts me from my mind sometimes The darkness whispers that we are divine And it’s time for you to step into your light My child Remember who you are, the spark the root the heart You are infinity and beyond
There’s lessons in the water, I know I am the daughter The moon is my mother And the sun is my father Spirit don’t let me falter I sit by your feet at the altar
Yet I feel stagnant Ain’t it tragic Fighting against old habits Tryna find my balance On ice I call upon the healers My ancestral teachers Remind me to believe love Will bring us back to life