Promise Zone could invigorate north Minneapolis

A federal program would grant north Minneapolis special designation, but some question its efficacy.

Ethan Nelson

Lesa Clarkson started connecting Minneapolis’ middle and high school students with University of Minnesota undergraduate tutors last year.

As an associate director for the University’s STEM Education Center, she oversees a group of undergraduate and graduate students who prepare students citywide for the ACT.

The program operates partly in north Minneapolis, a historically low-income part of the city. The area has been subject to much attention from both city officials and University staff members, some of whom say it needs lasting attention for it to improve.

“A thing like this will take a generation,” Clarkson said.

To help the area, University and city leaders applied late last month to receive a Promise Zone designation. If approved, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would make a section of north Minneapolis part of a program the president started last year to help create jobs and improve education in low-income areas.

The designation, which would last 10 years, doesn’t provide any grants. But it would give the proposed zone preference for some federal programs, said Jay Stroebel, Minneapolis’ deputy city coordinator. Five AmeriCorps VISTA members would work in the area, and a federal liaison would be assigned to the zone.

The city applied for the first round of designations in 2013, but wasn’t on the list of accepted areas released early this year, Stroebel said. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will announce the second group of Promise Zones this spring, he said.

Obama designated five Promise Zones this year, and he has pledged to create 20 in total by the end of 2016.

The University is active in creating opportunities in north Minneapolis. For example, its Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center — which houses initiatives like Clarkson’s Prepare2Nspire program — is located within the proposed Promise Zone. 

UROC Executive Director Heidi Barajas said the federal designation would align the University’s work with the city’s to help identify problem areas, adding that the two could more closely collaborate if the Promise Zone designation is approved.

“People are already doing remarkable work,” she said. “The way that one aligns is to take the work that you’re doing and look at where the overlap is, look at where the redundancy is, but also to look at where the gaps are.”

Ward 4 City Councilwoman Barbara Johnson represents part of the proposed zone and expressed some concern with the proposal, saying the city is applying for the designation without looking at what kinds of initiatives have worked or not worked in the past.

“I’ve been around long enough so that I’ve lived through an empowerment zone and an enterprise zone,” she said. “You just wonder sometimes when you don’t see a lot of change, are these efforts worth it?”

Although community workers may not have fully met their goals, Barajas said, that doesn’t mean there’s no progress.

“[Past initiatives] may not have moved the dial to where we want it, but I know there are things that have been impacted and families whose lives have been improved.”

Gloria James, a University family social science junior and a tutor for the Prepare2Nspire program, said there are already enough programs in the area, but they’re missing the people power to make them run.

“A lack of volunteers seems to be the issue,” she said. “We need people to volunteer.”

James said programs like Prepare2Nspire do a good job of providing children with college role models, but they could do more to encourage professionals to volunteer.

Although some people expect results to come instantly, true progress takes time, said Forster Ntow, a University STEM education research assistant, who works for Prepare2Nspire.

“People think it’s like a vaccine and that you’ll see results in a week,” he said.

Stroebel said improving the outcome of education takes more than programs aimed at education. Public safety and housing should be top priorities, he said, followed by the educational achievement gap.

“What works is not coming in and doing something to the community,” Clarkson said. “It’s working with the community.”