Growing up in South Central Los Angeles at the height of the War on Drugs, Nekima Levy-Pounds watched her neighborhood friends invariably turn to gangs and drug dealing as though programmed for a lifetime of checking in and out of prison. South Central in the early 1980s was mostly black and Latino; there weren't many jobs, but there was a lot of crack and a lot of cops.
She never joined up with a gang, Levy-Pounds says, because she was a girl and also a huge nerd. At 14, she got a scholarship to the prestigious Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., where her eyes were opened to what a difference generational wealth made in the way kids thought about success. She started studying race relations in high school, and then she went to law school for civil rights. See also: Minnesota Has the Worst Financial Racial Inequality in America, According to Study
"I knew since I was nine years old that I wanted to become an attorney," Levy-Pounds says. "I didn't know any lawyers, but I'd seen them on television. I thought if I became a lawyer, I could keep young people from becoming involved in gangs, having negative interactions with the police, and winding up in the criminal justice system."
After moving from coast to coast, Levy-Pounds settled in the Twin Cities in 2003 to teach at the University of St. Thomas law school. She started working for the University's Community Justice Project, which researches the impact of law enforcement policies on black communities. Then she founded Brotherhood, which helps formerly incarcerated men reintegrate into the real world by giving them jobs.
"A lot of folks have the assumption that because African Americans have been here for so long, that any issues we face are the result of a lack of trying or a lack of desire to become upwardly mobile, and that's just not true," Levy-Pounds says.
For her racial equity work, the Saint Paul Foundation is giving her a Facing Race Ambassador Award, which comes with a $10,000 grant. She shares the award with Lucila Dominguez, a cleaning lady who helps other low-wage workers reclaim stolen wages from Twin Cities corporations.
Dominguez arrived in the United States looking for work. She started cleaning restaurants late at night and apartments during the day, and was paid a salaried rate twice a month. The contractor she worked for wanted her to pay for her own cleaning supplies and also siphoned money from her paychecks for alleged damage. When the company lost cleaning contracts, she wouldn't get paid for weeks of work she'd already completed.
"It seemed like people were treated like machines, just to produce for the wealth of companies," Dominguez says. "I decided to learn more about my rights."
Dominguez joined a 12-day hunger strike organized by workers' rights group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha in pursuit of her lost wages. Then she became an organizer at CTUL, helping other low-wage workers recover their pay on a case-by-case basis. The calls came flooding in, from construction workers to retail janitors to fast food cooks.
"Workers decided that we did not want to keep acting like firefighters, putting out fires once they had already been lit," Dominguez says. "We decided we wanted to catch the people who were lighting those fires. We wanted to get to the root of the problem."
After a number of strikes and marches, Dominguez and other CTUL workers won a $9 minimum wage for Twin Cities janitors, and last year Target created a Responsible Contractor Policy requiring their cleaning contractors respect that minimum wage as well as overtime.
The Saint Paul Foundation is also recognizing four runners-up: Russel and Sarah Balenger, co-founders of the Circle of Peace movement in Rondo; Delores Henderson, Hazel Park principal; and Chaun Webster, a poet and artist who teaches at the Loft and runs Free Poet's Press.
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