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  • Writer's pictureLoren Niemi

One Thing Leads to Another


I am late in posting this missive. As late as spring’s arrival in Minnesota feels.

When I got on the plane to go to the Texas Storytelling Festival, Minneapolis was expecting another 3 inches of snow, closing in on 81 inches this winter. Enough snow to put this winter into the top ten winter accumulations on record. Enough that the city has banned parking on one side of the street. Enough false starts at warming that the potholes are more numerous and deeper than the road crews can fill before they re-appear. When I got off the plane, it was a sunny 65 degrees with flowers in bloom.

A week later, leaving for Atlanta to do a “Difficult Stories” workshop with Elizabeth Ellis, the temp was a cloudy 32 degrees here and a “cold” 56 degrees with green grass there. Elizabeth was late in arriving, having to get off the plane when a tornado was sighted touching down a mile from DFW. Passengers rushed to the picture windows of the airport to see what could be seen, prompting Elizabeth to ask if they knew what a tornado does to plate glass? Such is March in America. The madness is not confined to basketball.

Weather aside, this post-pandemic March offers me storytelling every week. The Tejas Festival and Atlanta are done, “Sharing the Fire” in Portsmouth, NH and the American School of Storytelling’s FREE “reading poetry as if it mattered” workshop are yet to come. It is exciting to be with an audience in the room. As much as I both love and hate Zoom, as much as it got us through isolation and expanded the reach of who could tell and who could listen around the world, telling stories or teaching a workshop with folks in the same space is better. Being able to read the body language, to hear the individual and collective breath, focuses my energy and manifests the essential relationship of teller, audience and story.


On the connecting flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, I was seated next to Cauzaé McCall, a tall, thin, handsome African-American who is working as a community organizer in South Bend, IN. We had a wonderful conversation about that work – his with local Black Churches and my own efforts in Chicago and Minneapolis. As part of our conversation, I suggested to him that stories played a critical role in community development.

He asked me what issues/projects were most successful for me as an organizer? Two came to mind: the “Implosion project” with David Hunt in Chicago and the “Hennepin County Detox” campaign in Minneapolis.


From my notes on the “implosion project: It began as David (Hunt) and I were sitting in Alderman Toni Preckwinkle's office when she mentioned as an aside to the conversation at hand that four public housing buildings fronting Lake Shore Drive that have been vacant for over a decade were scheduled for implosion in early December. An aside that immediately caught David's attention.

"We have to do something," he says, getting out of the chair to pace, "because this can potentially be a very wounding event for the community. We have to use this as an opportunity to heal the riffs which you know are there and will come out when those buildings come down."

It was that easy. See the opportunity and seize it, use this event as a community building experience. Later we would deal with who else would have to be involved and who would pay for it. In that moment, the question for David became how to bring former CHA and current neighborhood residents together to tell their stories. For me it was whether there a way of ritualizing the actual event to mourn and celebrate and give the TV cameras something else, something symbolic, to show besides toppling bricks. For Tony there was a more pragmatic concern, how to keep some control, since the other player's - the CHA, HUD, and especially Mayor Daly, would have their own agendas. Her concern was that her message about building new opportunities, which was to her way of thinking also the community's message, not be lost in the shuffle.

The project was organized with the help of Judith Heineman, the head of the Chicago Storytelling Guild and the wife of Joseph Shuldiner, the Executive Director of the Chicago Housing Authority. It will be a Friday night event in the gym of the Jackie Robinson School, next door to the buildings that are coming down. David's daughter, a graphic designer, has done a flyer and at least a 1000 are being printed and will be distributed by Toni's office throughout the neighborhood. Dr. Dyson, the High School Principal and Ms. McKenny have recruited some youth to act as "greeters" to welcome people. Both CHA and the Chicago Historical Society will provide photos of the neighborhood over the years for a "wall of memories". A list of potential community storytellers was developed, and David, Judith and I would meet with them to coach their stories. We needed representatives of the Ministerial Association, some youth, some local businesses. Toni's office is putting $3000 towards the project cost, so is the CHA. The Hyde Park Co-op which is going to occupy a new commercial site in the neighborhood will provide the food. The local convenience store will be asked to provide something as well. It is not clear who is going to do the child care piece, because the local arts organization, Little Black Pearl, has an event the same evening and has begged off involvement. Judith and I will be taking Polaroids, which will be given to everyone who attends. They will also get a booklet about the revitalization of the neighborhood that the Mayor's office will print.

It will take the better part of two months to organize the event.

By 5:15 on the celebration evening the greeters begin to arrive. There are three big foam core panels we will attach maps of the neighborhood to for people to sign in and list when they arrived and where they live or lived. The Parks department is going to send over a couple of staff people to take care of the kids. One crisis adverted. The Chicago Historical Society folks arrive with a pile of photographs of the community from the last fifty years which Judith begins to label. We're still waiting for material the CHA is sending over by courier to arrive. As I head out of the gym towards the men's room, I notice that the demolition company is now hanging sheeting over the playground equipment.

At 6:30 PM the official program begins with Howard Newsome welcoming people. He introduces the Paradise Church Youth Choir which sings a couple of spirituals. This quiets the crowd and prepares them to hear a brief history of the community and of his personal response to the two central questions: "Why did you come here?" and "Why do you stay?" Howard then introduces David who goes through the basic material on storytelling and community, and most importantly, the "rules of council" that we ask people to abide by when telling their stories around the table. At the tables where our community storytellers sit, they begin first, modeling in the process the kind of stories we invite others to tell. At other tables, someone starts and the murmur of voices grows.

As the storytelling winds down, David refocuses the crowd to unveil the time capsule and place the first item inside. A succession of folks place letters, mementos, photos of loved ones or their houses in the box. One man, a teacher at the school, puts his tie in. Many people put in the Polaroids I have taken of them. Karen Newton puts in the original blue prints for the buildings that are waiting for their final bow tomorrow. Joe Shuldiner puts in a copy of the legal decision that paved the way for the demolition. One guy puts in a piece of campaign literature and thanks Toni for the help her office has given him in getting control of his drug habit. Finally, David closes it out and invites Toni up to tell folks about what to expect on Saturday morning. No long speeches. Just the demolition at approximately 8:20 AM.

The morning of begins and ends with the sound of a boom. Then another and another, all in quick succession like firecrackers going off but there was no smoke, no visible sign of a change. At the building closest to the Drive, the Southern-most structure, the walls sagged and the brick facing separated like a knife cutting a piece of cake. The roof sank and behind it the next segment of the building turned soft and fell towards the first, on and on along the whole length of the building, the solid mass of floors and wall twisting open to reveal the innards of wall and window openings then sinking into the small swirling cloud.

Seeing this leaves no time for rejoicing at the sight, or the wishing for an instant replay will have to be left for the evening news because a yellow cloud of pulverized brick, spewed like some material fart, comes relentlessly forward. In the blink of an irritated eye, it crosses the Drive, darts through the tree branches, covers the crowd, turns the cold yellow light of morning a thicker shade of pale. You can feel the grit of air, smell the residue of crushed brick and wood lathe as the hands instinctively reach up to cover the mouth and nose, the eyes wince and the crowd breaks into a run looking for the edge of the cloud.


These things happened in succession: A police officer put a chronic Native American inebriate in the trunk of his squad car which provoked understandable rage. Hennepin County was informed by the State of Minnesota that they were about to lose their license for Detox treatment due to overcrowding and other treatment issues. Their response was to close the 80 plus bed Detox facility with the only treatment alternative being Hennepin County Hospital. To get one of the 12 hospital beds you had to be life-threatening drunk.

A wave of homeless chronic alcoholics flooded the Elliot Park, Phillips and Stevens Square neighborhoods. How do I know that? I was working with the community organization, Elliot Park Inc., and the effect of closure was immediate. We did not want to have to step over unconscious inebriates at the office door. Also, when we did the data studies, we determined that 14,000 people went through Detox every year with approximately 12,000, mostly white and suburban, being admitted once for a 72 hour hold but approximately 200 chronic inebriates were admitted 100 or more times a year. In effect, Detox was their source of housing.

In response to this crisis the neighborhoods, Native American community and 12 social service agencies came together to form a task force to negotiate a resolution with Hennepin County (and by extension the City of Minneapolis). First and foremost, we agreed not to meet one on one with the County to prevent unfulfillable promises or side deals being made. Whatever was said, was heard by all. This led to some tensions between the parties, especially those whose self-interest was in one piece of the puzzle. Holding each other accountable strengthened us in what would turn out to be a two-year long process.

The whole was a sum of these parts: In response to the chronic inebriate issue, we proposed the City and County create sufficient wet-dry housing to shelter most if not all. Focus on safe housing first and offering supporting services that lead to sobriety. Two projects came out of that initiative, one specifically for chemically dependent Native Americans and one for others. In response, to police conduct, we got an agreement to have a dedicated transport van and officers trained to interact with chronic inebriates. This worked well for several years, and the officers, knowing the community could actually bring particular people to the appropriate wet-dry facility. Unfortunately, budget woes and a change in police culture ended that program, The third response was to contract the Salvation Army to staff and manage the County’s Detox facility allowing it to re-open without the State pulling the license.


None of it easy to achieve. Money, politics, and particularly the political will to take a risk on wet-dry housing in a state that even in the 1990’s was riddled with the judgement that alcoholism was a moral failure. To overcome that hesitation, we repeatedly recruited and coached folks to tell their stories, without shame or blame. Focus on the circumstances, focus on the impediments to sobriety. Recognizing the “Not in My backyard” aesthetic, we took them to suburban Hennepin County tax hearings to testify to the need for programs and found support from those who were glad it would be located in “inner city” neighborhoods I will confess that rather than argue NIMBY, I thanked them for that support. We had bigger (or other) pragmatic fish to fry.

The stories fell into groupings: Those of individuals who were harmed by or would benefit from an effective detox program, those stories of the neighborhoods themselves as communities deserving worth in light of their historic roles as the welcoming ground for immigrants and provider of affordable housing, and finally, internally, the stories of the partnership organizations taking on the challenge of moving the City and County to do what was right. That last story was necessary as a reminder that the work we were doing would strengthen our organizational capacity and political capital.


That airplane conversation was a reminder to me that it is time, perhaps past time, to write the memoir of storytelling and community building. Where to begin? I have a significant amount of material from the years in Chicago working with David Hunt and my partnership with Megan Wells and Nancy Donoval in explicitly story based organizational consulting. I have other material from the ten years of the Public Policy Project working with James Trice. What I do not have much of or will have to do some research on is the organizing before 1998. Not only the years with Elliot Park but the actions and lessons, the back to the roots of anti-war / anti-draft organizing in the late ‘60’s.

How do I separate my own tangled history from the principles and practices I want to offer? Would you, dear reader, want to peruse a combo memoir and how-to manual? Or would you rather have a “lean” case study of principles and practices with accompanying examples of their application? The truth is where the hard documentation is missing, the internalized stories can be an indicator of how the work played out. Where I have “handouts” such as those for Story Circles or Oral History collection, they can be easily inserted.

Let me know what your interests might be. Also I will say, that since I have time, I might as well begin the spew.


As always with these seasonal missives, let me end by celebrating all that is right with the world. Spring is coming and has already appeared for some. Enjoy the green and blooming. Consider what you may do to plant and tend the garden of joy.

Above all else, even in this post-pandemic world, take care of yourselves and each other. Be well.

1 Comment

Mar 23, 2023

Or would you rather have a “lean” case study of principles and practices with accompanying examples of their application? *This writing style draws me in. I can see a principle/practice defined at the top of a paragraph and then your real world application follow with the successes playing out and the failures to achieve the principle, either temporarily or in total, explained along the way (given your 20/20 hindsight).

BTW, I have a very critical editing eye and would gladly read.

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