My name is Betsy Leach and I am the executive director of the District 1 Community Council, one of Saint Paul’s 17 official neighborhood organizations.
We represent the southeast corner of the city as a liaison between neighbors, the city, and county. We work to create a sense of community among our four neighborhoods, and to identify and develop leaders.
Our district is the largest in Saint Paul in terms of physical area and the fifth largest in terms of population. We are also one of the most rapidly changing districts in terms of our demographics – which is where the Minnesota Compass neighborhood profiles come in.
Too many people and organizations think they know what our neighborhoods are like – including governmental entities, foundations, developers, and business owners – but they are basing their assumptions on what they “know” from 20 or 30 years ago. Twenty years ago, our area was over 90 percent white and relatively wealthy. Today, our area has a population that is over 50 percent people of color and incredibly diverse economically. We have slightly more of both youth and seniors, proportionately, than the city as a whole, and among people of color we are almost equally divided among Black/African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos. This isn’t who most people think we are – it is who we actually are.
I have talked about data in the neighborhood profiles with businesses. Owners sit back and say, “So this is why I am seeing these products selling well and these not…” I have had leaders from our faith communities come to me saying they want to be more involved in the community – so many churches throughout the city draw their membership from elsewhere than the neighborhoods where they are located. We guide them to the neighborhood profiles and say, “This is who your neighbors are. These are potential partners you should be talking to if you want to make a contribution to this place…” We have shared the profiles with social service agencies to advocate for help providing activities to youth, or to seniors, to our immigrant communities, and so on. We have had developers come to our area, seeing that we are located on the freeway and thinking that they are going to draw their customers from those headed home to the eastern suburbs from their jobs in the downtowns. “No,” we can say. “If you want to be successful here, you need to be focusing on who lives here, not who is driving through.“ We have also used the profiles, internally, to hold ourselves accountable for representing who actually lives here.
So, we use the profiles all the time to dispel misconceptions. We use them when people try to compare us to other neighborhoods – usually making inappropriate comparisons. But we don’t use them in isolation. We need to use them with the on-the-ground knowledge that we have about our neighborhoods. One of our problems previously was that people generalize about us based on the averages – average age, average income, whatever. But that eliminates all the diversity that enriches and identifies us.
Our organization uses the profiles in conjunction with maps that were created for us by the city or by the University of Minnesota. These visualize the diversity – even segregation – that exists in our area. We have a large East African immigrant population that is largely segregated from the African-American population, and is actually quite isolated in the district – surrounded by high-income folks. By comparing previous renditions of the profiles and studying these maps, we can “see” where the Latino population is growing, how the Asian American population first took up residence in one part of the district and is now throughout the district. We know where the large scale apartments are. With the profiles we can think strategically about just what populations are living there and how we can best make them feel welcome as members of the larger community.
These neighborhood profiles are a vital tool to educate, to strategize, to work effectively within our community. And they help us advocate for resources that our constituents tell us will create an even more vibrant and welcoming place to live.
Betsy Leach served on the Minnesota Compass Neighborhood Advisory Group.
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Insight opinions are the authors' alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Minnesota Compass. Compass welcomes a range of views about issues pertaining to quality of life in Minnesota.