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.
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.
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.
I mold myself to be whatever you want or need, I paid attention to your social cues. I noticed you give affection to those that pay their dues, this is the service conditioning of survival. Sometimes we fawn and end up as someone’s pawn left to deal with their shadows.
Adolescent fight and flight
Sometimes you just start hitting back, you get stuck in combat. And one-day cps takes you away, they then label you as a runner, that’s in your file now, they say “your like a little rebel warrior” we’re in denial now because I just didn’t wanna be at that place and, I didn’t choose to be this way. I need something to soothe it hurts to feel this way I can’t go to school, I mean really step in my body, it feels so heavy, and sometimes I can’t breathe what’s happening to me?
What they failed to convey, it’s spiritual warfare going on here. You’ll start to feel like you’re just better off fading away. You take a sip of alcohol and think maybe this’ll help me stay. pretty soon it’ll become a violent exchange with the person you fell in love with this is the person you’re supposed to struggle with you guys will get into everyday bawling brawling thinking love is pain and then suddenly you’ll realize what you thought was love wasn’t. Then you’ll meet this crazy beautiful girl, your soulmate you and her will Eat papers and plants and fly away together in her cool spaceship.
The wind hits and it’s warm, full of courage and wisdom, and guidance. This whole experience is what they call metanoia- a change in one’s way of life through penitence or spiritual conversion. Sometimes I think it was Katrina’s presence-RIP along with the psychedelics, what sparked a change in me and probably my brain. I started seeking sobriety, healing, and peace. This is something I had never seen
Big baby freeze!
At this point, you’re just running in place scared to face all that’s coming. You hop from one addiction to the next, self-diagnose to make it make sense, cry drunk cry high, cry night, and the next morning cry baby cry. They’re gonna tell you “You don’t need treatment you’re working and sober for most of the week.” Little do they know there are 5 younger siblings at home that don’t even know they’re the reason you haven’t gone ghost. I dissociate 4 times a day, & have 3 best friends who don’t really know what to do with my broken beaten lost, mind-body, and spirit. 2 sisters and cousins who are also going through it, and one baby nephew on his way.
I gotta break these chains, this cycle, and start paving the way. Creator knows all I ever wanted was to be better, for myself. Maybe that’s why I wrote this letter, but definitely, for our youth, they’re the ones that deserve better.
The morning that Flower Power took place I woke up to the voice of my soul sister, Bella. The alarm that I had set the previous night failed to wake us up. We’d been planning this day for a year. We couldn’t afford to be late for one of the most significant parts, the sunrise prayers. We had to be there to start the day with the right intentions. I was pleased to see everyone who came to start the day with us when we got there. We stood in a circle and filled it with good intentions, song, and prayer. The way we start the day is of the utmost importance because it sets the tone. As a lead artist this year, I felt responsible for the energy and tone of the day. I needed to feel grounded and calm so that every one that came to spend a few minutes or stay for hours with us could also feel a sense of peace. This is the culture we are cultivating. A culture of mindfulness, compassion, and love.
I felt so blessed that morning as the thunder and rain came to greet us and start the day with us. I was feeling absolute bliss. I ran and ran until my legs gave out up on that hill, getting soaked. I was transported back to my childhood, so carefree and so present in the moment. As the rain was washing over us, I couldn’t help but feel as though it cleansed us. It set us back in preparing the flowers to be laid in the installation but that was the vibe of the day. To just go with the flow, literally. As we were designing our universe of planets and stars with these flowers, I watched our community show up and connect. Many stimulating conversations and stories were shared. Micah Nickey, a healer in his own right, led us in a healing moment with the trees. He so graciously shared his knowledge with everyone present. The voice of Carrie Owen singing in her native tongue, while we collectively connected with the trees around us, was so soothing. Darren Thompson peacefully played the flute as the flower artists were working on the universe of stars.
I had Indian tacos for the first time, it was so mouth-wateringly delicious. The mango salsa is an inspired culinary gift to humanity. By the time sunset was approaching, I was exhausted, yet so full of hope. The journey to a billion good relatives is not going to be easy. It is going to be slow, it is going to require patience and consistency. But it is very much possible. This is what Flower Power means to me now, the ability to bring people together for one day, and create something beautiful, that is nurturing our spirits and our earth.
After starting my journey with Oyate Hotanin in the fall of 2021, I sat down with Laura LaBlanc, one of the founding members of IN Equality, a Saint Paul-based community group seeking to transform criminal justice and build a coalition of those with firsthand experience with the criminal justice system. Alongside LaBlanc in the early 2000 battle to make it visible that the criminal justice system is the culprit in harming many people were Melvin Carter Jr, Damon Drake, Russel Balenger, David Stark, Long Vang, Eva Song Margolis, and Joanna Lowry. LaBlanc describes IN Equality as a collaborative community leadership team. IN Equality is committed to fostering conversations and partnerships that aim to create a criminal justice system that solves human problems, not simply punish individuals. IN Equality formally came together in 2015, but the stories of those involved and the work they were doing goes back to the mid-1990s.
At the time, there was a common myth about criminal justice creating public safety. A myth about who benefited from that version of public safety.
The JDAI Table:
Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, a community voice, was elected in 2005. She asked the county to create a table to address what at the time was called Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC). In 2005, thanks to Commissioner Toni Carter, LaBlanc and her peers now had a place to speak. There was a legal foundation for what they had been trying to address. The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) table was created that same year. The Annie E. Casey Foundation lit the fire under juvenile detention reform around the country. Their model was using data to examine why children were being detained and use the data to create other pathways. Their model of reform is what Ramsey County chose to take on. LaBlanc recalls being asked by the director of corrections her thoughts on the model; she told them, being somewhat skeptical of national experts, it was something; it was good enough. The Annie E. Casey Foundation proved itself to be pivotal in making a case that the overuse of detention was a national crisis. “This lens provided the push we needed locally to do the hard work of changing our practices and policies across intertwined but independent systems,” said LaBlanc.
In the 1990s too many youths were funneled into detention and criminal justice procedures, all under the guise of helping them get services through the court. When Ramsey County chose to go down the path of reforming juvenile justice in 2005, the first step was to have the Burns Institute do a readiness assessment. The Burns Institute facilitates a collaborative environment where community and system folk work together through shared values, using qualitative and quantitative data to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity. The Burns Institute was to determine whether Ramsey County was ready for this reform. The Readiness Assessment set the stage for establishing the partnerships and opening the frank conversation necessary to take on this important challenge.
Dade & Cook County:
The first jurisdictions Annie E. Casey foundation assisted were Cook County in Chicago and Dade County in Miami. LaBlanc said she was shocked because they were not counties she viewed as progressive but they implemented reforms years earlier than Ramsey County had. She soon learned through site visits to these other efforts how Dade and Cook County were in deep detaining so many youths, they were facing lawsuits and budget crises. It is important to understand detention is a lock-up used prior to a conviction. Detention centers hold children that haven’t been convicted of crimes. LaBlanc spoke candidly when she said, “If that is my daughter, it would be traumatic, alarming, and overwhelming if she had to be anywhere against her will during the years I was raising her. That would have been more than I could bear. So, a child in detention over the weekend or even overnight feels terrifying to me as a mother. But often it was not just a day or a weekend: sometimes children were held twenty days, sixty days, or ninety days and it wasn’t clear what they were there for and why they were being held”.
Cook County had a facility that was built to house four hundred children per night but instead housed eight hundred. The county board was looking at building a new facility. The question was asked, instead of building a new five-million-dollar facility, could fewer kids be detained? This created Cook County’s choice to examine whether they were holding too many kids a night. They were. When the new director took over, there were no records that mentioned the identity of the eight hundred kids. The director went to every child and gave them a postcard. He asked them to write down who they were, why they were in there and what was happening. This is how he assessed what was going on in that facility.
Frustration with JDAI:
By 2008, the community hit a big frustration point, because they’d spent thousands of hours on the committee. Nothing looked different from the point of view of the children, families, or adults entering the system. The attitude LaBlanc and her peers were met with at the JDAI table when they raised the observation that the system was based on structural racism was, “No, there is no racism, we are doing the best we can with the kids that are struggling and that’s not racism. We’ve got to do it; these poor kids are being let down by their families.” This was the table’s energy. The finger was being pointed at the family or the community. Rarely would the finger be pointed inside the system and when officials did, they never pointed at their own entity within the system.
At the time, no public officials or public employees saw racial disparities within their own entities. It was always somebody else’s responsibility. Melvin Carter Jr, founder of Save Our Sons and retired St. Paul Police Sergeant, and LaBlanc hit a tipping point where they said to themselves, “We can’t keep doing all these committee hours that don’t do anything.” So, they called Tshaka Barrows from the Burns Institute. They went to Burns Institute because LaBlanc and Melvin Carter saw Burns Institute researchers as capable and sharp. They understood racism. The battle that LaBlanc and her peers were up against was racism not being acknowledged and a lack of urgency to interrupt the harm being done to the black and brown children in our detention center. The community needed change urgently and the system was overly cautious. So LaBlanc and Carter went to Barrows and asked him what they could do with this situation. He gave them some technical assistance that set them on their course. He told them they needed to create an organization. Barrows also told them they needed to create a small committee of like-minded people who wanted to be a force for change. He told them to pick low-hanging fruit. What was a battle they could take on that they could win so that the system couldn’t ignore them?
Juvenile Justice Reform Committee (JJRC):
In 2008, Laura, Melvin, and other community leaders formed the Juvenile Justice Reform Committee (JJRC). The advice they received from Burns Institute was they should try to look like a government committee. The thinking being, that if you can look like a formal committee, government entities will respond to you when you send a letter. When you ask all the tough questions in this formal way, they are more likely to answer than if individuals from the community call. LaBlanc recalls, however, that they were unable to hide in a county the size of Ramsey. They couldn’t pretend they were a government task force, they had established relationships with too many system representatives. What they did, however, was gather people at the community level. They told them they needed to organize and what they were up against.
Summer of 2008, LaBlanc and her peers organized, and Barrows came to town and did a presentation for the community. The presentation was on the history of the juvenile justice system and how racially motivated the system has always been. It was a wake-up call for them. The community had gotten used to these practices as though they were normal. After that meeting, the people who wanted to stay and organize were invited to a future meeting. Regular meetings and discussions on how to assert the community voice began. They chose their first battle. An official in a key position for juvenile corrections was retiring. The JJRC chose this focus as their first campaign, seeing it would be a game-changer to get someone selected who wanted to change the system. They had a shot at having one of the system heads on their side. The JJRC was effective in creating the conditions for getting Michael Belton selected as the Director of Juvenile Corrections in Ramsey County. Belton was a career system guy working toward correcting racial disparity, he demonstrated he was a system representative who understood and acknowledged the harm being done by the system.
Once Belton was in this role, the JDAI table managed to put a Risk Assessment Inventory (RAI) at the door of detention. Before the RAI was instituted, a child who police wanted to put in detention would be put there with no assessment taken on whether they needed to be there. Once the RAI was in place, children would get turned away from detention. A game-changer. The police and the county attorney were not too pleased. Prior to the RAI, anybody who got dropped off was locked up. Ramsey County was locking up ninety to a hundred children a night. Three thousand children a year, many of who had not even committed a crime, were going through this experience, and it was the full prison experience: cement block cells, iron doors, long hours of isolation, and, at the time, we were still strip-searching children as they arrived.
By the time 2015 came around, the JJRC had some important victories. They had worked with the JDAI partners to significantly reduce the number of children locked up and juvenile crime wasn’t going up. This pushed back against the fear narrative that is used to this day to justify why so many people are being locked up. We can see, however, that not locking people up does not mean an increase in crime. Core policy changes like the RAI and helping children stay with their parents and guardians while getting them in front of judges faster were in place. Prior to a conviction, fewer children were being held in detention.
Unfortunately, the gains that they had were being fought against so now they were stuck playing defense. They wanted to be on the offense, fighting for further change. The JDAI table was still important because County Attorney John Choi, behind the scenes, was trying to build a “receiving center.” He got pushed back at the table. He was trying to build a back-door detention center. LaBlanc recalls, “I remember raising my hand, and it’s a very public setting, judges were listening, commissioners were listening. I said, ‘John, are the kids going to your receiving center in the back of a police car? That sounds like an arrest to me and from the child’s point of view, that sounds like an arrest.’” They were able to destabilize the plan because John Choi had made his plan visible to the table. JJRC still was concerned that he had still spent a year developing his plan when he could have been working on changes that would benefit youth instead of harming them. LaBlanc and her peers were getting frustrated and rightfully so. From their point of view, they shouldn’t have had to be playing defense. If everyone at the JDAI table wanted reform, they all should have been playing offense together.
In 2015, the stagnation at the table was in conflict while the need to organize outside the JDAI table felt urgent. Damon Drake sent a letter resigning from the JDAI table. In his resignation letter, he addressed several of the concerns he had about the table. He said, “This is my official notice that I am stepping away from the JDAI table. At this point, there is no community engagement, involvement, and no community influence. This has become a table exclusively for the voice of systems folks and their nonprofit counterparts. I feel that the JDAI table has become political theater.” That’s just the beginning of Drake’s resignation letter which goes into detail over three and a half pages. He mentions gratitude for those he called sincere and committed champions of the work, Commissioner Toni Carter and Michael Belton.
LaBlanc says, “Our frustration was building, Ferguson was happening, and it wasn’t a wakeup call for us, we couldn’t unsee what had been going on around us for decades, but suddenly it wasn’t lonely anymore. It’s like we were these crazy individuals just saying, ‘there’s a problem here!’ Now there was a movement, Black Lives Matter, and there was a Department of Justice investigation that came out with a quick report and showed how many things were wrong with how they were handling the Black community in Ferguson; how the community members were pawns in the criminal justice system, documenting that court fees were used as a significant income source to the county.” LaBlanc mentions the fatal shooting of the eighteen-year-old boy Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, 2014 by white police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent March 4, 2015 report that was published by the Department of Justice entitled, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.”
It was the tenth anniversary of the JDAI table as well in 2015. Commissioner Carter is the force behind this table and is the reason why most people kept showing up. For the anniversary stakeholder meeting, twenty minutes each were given to corrections, the County Attorney’s office, the bench, and the police. All these public officials got to do a presentation about what they had done in ten years to address racial disparities. From the community’s point of view, the ten-year anniversary was just a celebration of fruitless things they did. LaBlanc and her peers raised their hands at the end of that and asked where the community report was. They stated that they didn’t think the community was as happy with the systems as the officials seemed to be about themselves. Drake and LaBlanc spoke with Commissioner Carter and asked if they created a community report, could they present it? Could she give them time on her next agenda?
Commissioner Carter gave them the whole one hour and thirty minutes of the next meeting to do their presentation. That’s when they started strategizing and organizing again. They wanted to have an organized approach; they didn’t want it to be just the seven of them making the community statement. Though they shared an important point of view that was not showing up at the table, the community was bigger than the seven of them. They felt they needed to present their report that way. So, they created an interview project design in 2015 and crafted an interview guide.
LaBlanc describes the experience of conducting these interviews as deeply moving. At that point, she realized that this was work she was embracing for the next decade. She spoke with people who she didn’t expect would necessarily trust her. In 2015, LaBlanc had twenty years of community activism under her belt and she knew people didn’t trust the system. She worked with Hmong families, Indigenous families, and African American families since the eighties and nineties and was married into a large Dakota family. LaBlanc said, “I often felt like a compassionate witness to something that was so much bigger and so much more complex than I was. Here I am as a white person asking people to answer questions about how they are experiencing the criminal justice system and I just expected them not to want to talk to me. It was extremely moving to me that people wanted to talk, they wanted to tell their stories.”
LaBlanc, alongside her peers Long Vang, Damon Drake, David Stark, Russel Balenger, Eva Song Margolis, Joana Lowry, and others, completed seventy-seven interviews over three months in St. Paul within the Indigenous, African Americans, and Hmong communities. Balenger and LaBlanc wrote up a report that captured people’s fears and grave disappointment in criminal justice practices within Ramsey County and beyond the Ferguson outrage. This is when IN Equality was born. They started pursuing funding because they’d learned that organizing needed infrastructure and support or it would fall to the wayside. They wanted the County to pay for this work, but at the same time, they knew they needed to maintain their independence. At any point down the road they were in a predictable place of conflict with the county, it was important the county didn’t have the power to replace them. While they continued the conversations in the community and brought community members to the JDAI table, it wasn’t until 2017, two years later, that IN Equality started receiving funding.
IN Equality hosts an annual event called Flower Power. It is a day that organically emerged from an idea LaBlanc had in the aftermath of the fatal shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. It is a day of honoring all those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system in any way, and creating a healing space for the community, creating the opportunity to be good relatives to every living being. The event happens once a year, always on the first Saturday in August, and goes from sunrise to sunset. The community is invited and we ask them to bring us a bouquet of flowers if they can. Artists in collaboration with the community create flower art installations. We have performances, food, healing circles, and community building.
The journey from several individuals coming together, to creating the JJRC to the birth of IN Equality spanned over a decade. It puts into perspective how change doesn’t come fast or easy. It takes dedication, consistency, and patience. In having conversations like these, not only have I learned so much relevant history about the community I live and work in, it has also made me have a deeper appreciation and respect for all the elders who are living history.
Peace! I am Sabrina and I’m twenty-two years old. I moved to Minnesota from Kenya when I was fourteen years old. The culture shock, nothing like I had ever experienced before, turned my world upside down. I prayed every day to go back to Mombasa, back to the Indian Ocean. The bitter cold, the individualistic culture, nothing in this country seemed better than what I had in Kenya. I started at Washburn High School, where I loathed being and where I was made to feel like an outsider from the very first interaction. My English, good thanks to our British colonizers, was under scrutiny. And my skin, my beautiful brown skin, for the first time ever I was made to feel ashamed of it. But despite all the ugly I experienced at that school, I met two people that would drastically change my life.
Crystal Spring and Bella Dawson. I met these beautiful souls at Blackbox Theatre, where I found my voice as an actor and a poet. Spring, teacher, and director unlocked my passion with her guidance and support. Dawson has been my partner in crime ever since high school. We live together now in East Saint Paul, working towards collective healing in our community the only way we know how: through our art. That’s why I am here at Oyate Hotanin, it’s why I’m writing this article. I drove Dawson to a meeting about the annual Flower Power gathering with Laura LaBlanc in the summer of 2021. Flower Power honors all those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system in any way. Artists in collaboration with the community build fresh-cut flower installations, creating a day for healing and community building. LaBlanc and I hit it off, and before I knew it, I was waking up at 6 am on August 7th to take part in my first Flower Power, from sunrise to sunset.
Early fall last year, I got involved with Oyate Hotanin, Dakota for “voice of the people”. Founded and led by poet Tom “Strong Buffalo” LaBlanc, Oyate Hotanin is working to lead a movement that supports a new era of art, healing, and change. Out of Oyate Hotanin, INEquality has been born to transform the criminal justice system and policies. We want to keep the community updated on these interconnected efforts. So, this is the first of a series of articles, to be published once a month in a newsletter. My uncle used to say to me, “one who doesn’t know where they come from, who doesn’t know their kin, will be lost in this life”. The leaders of our society have always fallen into the same traps throughout time. We are stuck in a cycle of our past traumas. We need to be able to heal, and the only way to do that is to go back to our roots. Break down the old that hasn’t been working and start building a new foundation we can build on together.
I would like our communities to join us on this journey so that we can learn together. We need everyone. Come with your stories, with your questions, with your experiences, with your skills. Get your hearts involved. Build hope together. See how interconnected we all are. Let us see, live, and know that we have more in common than not. Let us have such deep empathy for one another that no one will ever be a stranger. All beings on earth: we are all relatives. I hope our words help plant the seeds that lead us down the path to collective healing as a community.
When that fire blew by, you just drove on, you were just leaving the place and in walked that superstar, and you just opened the door for her, she smiled and said ,”Thanks”, you didn’t pay any mind, as the cameras’ flashed and the people rushed her, you were sleeping, when that train wrecked, just below your home, chemicals and fire roared, smoke and sirens didn’t wake you from that dream you had of him, the love of your life, who just left you a few months ago, you were together again and enjoying times like so much before, he looked good, smelt like him, felt wonderful next to you, made you laugh, taught you something with each little event, kissed you and said, “I will always love you and be with you here and in the next world, i will wait and wait.” And, you didn’t see the time fly by, the months turning to years, the days alone, the world going on around you, the life and one you need is not here, but there, so, you don’t see, you see only that ahead and way behind you, you didn’t see, that love is visible, now, and remains, regardless, you sang that song he taught, “See you, in that place where vision is felt, where time is endless and heartaches belongs to those who only see reality, you didn’t see, for you didn’t need to, you loved me and i love you!”