Something for the Little People

The Twin Cities-based Northwest Area Foundation has a $450 million endowment to use on charitable programs. So why has it been nearly invisible for years?

The success or failure of the Northwest Area Foundation's efforts to fight poverty will ultimately be judged in large part by what it accomplishes in north Minneapolis. Because the foundation is based in the Twin Cities--and because its grantmaking has long been disproportionately skewed towards Minnesota--this is where its efforts will be most tightly scrutinized.

Some north Minneapolis residents have been skeptical of the effort from its inception. "I looked at it as an utter waste of time," says Louis King, executive director of Summit Academy O.I.C., a nonprofit group that provides job-training services in north Minneapolis. "Been there, done that. It just sounded like social tinkering with no end game." For three years, as the planning process in north Minneapolis ground on and on, King's initial skepticism seemed prescient. "We've changed presidents; we've changed governors; we've had a recession," King summarizes the ensuing years. "Power is a seductive thing and it can lead to the road of ruin."

In the last three years many residents have joined King in watching the Northwest Area Foundation project from the sidelines. As the number of meetings mounted, with little progress to show for it, people became fed up. Countless hours were spent in "strategy circles" discussing such seemingly obvious issues as how to define poverty. "I'm one of those who just got worn out," says Folarin Ero-Philips, a north Minneapolis resident and executive director of African American Relief and Development Initiatives, a nonprofit group that works primarily with African immigrants. "A lot of community people were very fired up and very interested in the process, but there seemed to be a continuous dialogue that was just leading into the ocean."

Natalie Johnson-Lee, who worked as a consultant on the project in its early stages, says that residents began to fear that--as later happened in Yakima County--the money would never materialize. "Were they really gonna put their money where their mouth is?" Johnson-Lee recalls wondering. "It was unclear whether or not we'd be funded. It was always if, maybe, we can't promise. That got people frustrated."

Some of the people who did stay involved had a financial incentive to do so. Al McFarlane was actively involved in the project from its onset. His company, McFarlane Media Interests, publisher of Insight newspaper, received a $244,000 contract in 2000 for "media coverage." McFarlane did not return four calls from City Pages seeking comment. Stauber, however, maintains that the money is a perfectly legitimate expense. He says that it was used to pay for coverage in four different newspapers targeted at various ethnic groups so that residents could be kept abreast of the planning process. "Rather than speaking to the media, and having the media decide what the story is, it's a way to speak directly to the consumers who subscribe to that publication," Stauber says.

Whatever the missteps along the way, Northway Community Trust, the nonprofit group that was created to administer the project, is now poised to implement the plan that was three years in the making. Paul Bauknight, a north Minneapolis resident and architect, is chairman of Northway Community Trust. He's widely respected among community leaders in the area, even those who have criticized the project. Bauknight is sympathetic to the complaints of residents who grew frustrated and dropped out of the planning process. He himself stopped attending meetings for a while because it was too much of a time commitment. "There were days when I was, oh, I wish they could move a little faster," he laughs. "A part of it is there was a big push to achieve a lot of consensus. It's difficult to achieve consensus and it takes a long time to achieve consensus."

Even Bauknight has a difficult time explaining exactly what Northway Community Trust will do with the $10 million that it's set to receive from the Northwest Area Foundation over the next four years. "The idea here is that we're going to try and reduce poverty from a much broader base, systemically," he says. More specifically, the group intends to work with existing nonprofit groups, government agencies, and businesses to tackle issues that directly impact poverty: housing, health care, education, and economic development. In housing, for example, Bauknight says, Northway Community Trust will not directly build units, but rather provide grants or technical assistance to organizations that are developing affordable housing. "You'll never see a sign saying 'Northway Community Trust Commons,'" he maintains. "Our job is going to be much more to invest in the partnerships and help them succeed."

Over the next few months Bauknight will guide the organization in hiring staff and electing a new board of directors. "This is a very unique attempt to reduce poverty. It's new and therefore there's still a lot of work to be done to get it to the place where it needs to be," Bauknight cautions. "Negotiating the next months, to when we have our board election, the staff will be in place, and all that, is what causes me to lose sleep at night because there are a lot of things that could go wrong."

The outcome of the north Minneapolis project will not be known for years. Its success or failure will depend on whether Northway Community Trust ultimately helps to stem poverty in North Minneapolis--no matter how many meetings residents had to endure to make it happen. The Northwest Area Foundation and Karl Stauber may be viewed by history as visionaries--or hucksters. "We think we saw a community that was close to a tipping point," Stauber surmises, "where if a number of things can go right in north Minneapolis, then we believe that north Minneapolis is very well positioned to be a national model for how a challenged, troubled community has turned [itself] around."

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