Sign of Things to Come

The Minneapolis mayor's State of the City speech last week was, in many ways, vintage R.T. Rybak. The 45-minute address was anchored by rhetoric about an affordable-housing crunch, budget shortfalls, and the city's rapidly changing ethnic makeup.

At times, though, a different, somewhat darker Rybak emerged. It seems Minneapolis is a bit worse off than our mayor thought before taking office three months ago. "We faced an immediate budget crisis," he said to the more than 100 elected officials, city workers, and citizens crammed into the recently constructed People Serving People homeless shelter just two blocks west of the Metrodome. "We looked it in the eye. We attacked it."

The word attack captures the tone of the talk, during which the always energetic, but often blithe Rybak came off like a real scrapper, albeit a wonky one dressed in a crisp gray suit. The speech brimmed with fightin' words: The mayor used attack and aggressive 20 times.

As Rybak picked up steam, a slender, brown-haired woman standing on his left furiously kept pace with a flurry of hand movements and facial expressions. Dressed in black, she was signing the address for the deaf, and more than a few eyes in the room were glued to her gestures.

It turns out this is the 20th State of the City address Alina Schroeder has interpreted for the mayor's office. Schroeder is the sign language coordinator for the city's communications department. Along with signing speeches for politicians and city employees, she interprets for citizens who come to city hall to take care of everything from getting "a license for their kitty or a permit to get their garage painted."

"My parents were both deaf, so this is like a native tongue," Schroeder says. "It's been 20 years, and I'm still excited about [signing speeches]."

Afterward, Rybak made the rounds, shaking hands and slapping backs. A group of activists talked to the gathered TV crews about the mentally ill citizens who have been shot and killed by Minneapolis police. And Schroeder, wiping her hands on her slacks, took a moment to catch her breath.

Two middle-aged, professional women eventually approached Schroeder, giggling like teenage fans, saying that they were riveted. They concluded that Schroeder's performance was a work of art. The 49-year-old humbly accepted the praise, grew flush, and quietly explained her craft.

"I just try to honor the style of every mayor, and every one has been different," Schroeder began, adding that Rybak's staff only produced a brief outline of his talking points a few minutes before the event. "I just try to get ready to lock in, concentrate, and come out with whatever the energy level is at the moment." (According to the mayor's communications director, Laura Sether, Rybak does not write out his speeches.)

Schroeder went on to share some of the secrets of her trade, explaining that she takes care to catch voice inflections and relay them to her audience. To demonstrate a speaker's passion, she bulges her eyes and pounds her left fist into an open palm. She conjures empathy by tapping both hands over her heart. She conveys praise--important with Rybak, a habitual name-dropper--by miming applause.

The only laugh line Rybak got off during his State of the City address came when he spoke, with a self-conscious touch of Minnesotan naiveté, about how important it is to bridge cultural divides and embrace diversity in Minneapolis. "Eating an enchilada will not cure the world of its ills," he reasoned. "It ain't Lake Wobegon anymore, and that's great."

Schroeder quickly bit an invisible enchilada, then patted her belly.

For the most part, though, Rybak was heavy on battle cries and light on levity: The city is "exploding with diversity," we have to "pick up a hammer" to "attack" the affordable-housing shortage, and so on--all of which transformed Schroeder into a whirling dervish.

"I don't sign the word attack," she admitted later, explaining that she traditionally uses her thumbs and forefingers to make mini-pistols, which is "not exactly right in this context." Instead, Schroeder made a fast hand-over-hand motion, punctuated by some finger jabs; an expression that literally means "begin to get to work," a sentiment that Rybak certainly would approve of.

In the end, Schroeder was spent. But she still had five speeches to do that day, plus some one-on-one interpreting. So she wiggled her fingers to keep loose, cleared her throat, which was dry from having to mouth every one of Rybak's words, and left the room. "It's not about interpreting a speech," she claimed. "It's interpreting the everyday life that goes on in this city that I love."

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