By MATT PEIKEN

St. Paul Pioneer Press; April 14, 2006©

A sagging banner inside its headquarters spells out the pledge of the Thomas-Dale Community Council: “Keeping its eye on the prize, its finger on the pulse and its feet on the ground.”

It’s a call to action among neighbors at moments of community need. People are all that’s missing to fulfill the pledge.

Of the 19 community councils advising St. Paul officials on the gamut of local issues, Thomas-Dale, representing homes and businesses in Frogtown, has become an issue unto itself. Only five people living in the area serve on the all-volunteer board—other councils have two to five times that number—and committees that do much of the council’s legwork sit empty.

Recruiting is such a priority that Thomas-Dale, otherwise known as the District 7 Community Council, has commissioned a performance poet to work with young adults in the area to produce an evening of civic-centered hip-hop. Diversity is a parallel problem: In a neighborhood with large Hmong, Somali and black populations, only one person of color sits on the board.

The recruitment and subsequent dedication of volunteers is cyclical, peaking in the heat of hot-button issues, and many who come on board are surprised by the monthly commitments that go with sitting on the board or committees. Funding is always an issue, and most community councils at one time or another have weathered bouts with solvency.

Still, in the lead-up to the annual election of board members at the end of May—for practical purposes, anyone who wishes to join is elected—Thomas-Dale’s board and two salaried staffers have made outreach a top priority.

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure why we’re having this problem,” said Eric Haugee, who chairs the Thomas-Dale board.

“We don’t have any crack houses or problem properties in my immediate neighborhood. That’s a testament to the work the planning council has done,” he said. “But it seems there isn’t the urgency to fix anything, so people aren’t looking to us for help, which means they’re not getting involved.”

TRYING TO FILL SEATS

Haugee is sitting at the head of a small conference table at the Thomas-Dale Community Council headquarters. In front of him is a white paper nameplate with the word “vice” blacked out with felt pen in front of the word “chair.” This is the second Tuesday of March, when the board convenes its monthly meeting, and the room’s energy spikes when the agenda turns to recruitment.

The matter is at once simple and complex. Board members want to attract youths and people of color. The question: How?

Haugee thinks the organization’s name—District 7 Community Council—is unwieldy. He shows the group a proposed flier with text in a bold, black font calling the group “D7.”

“It has a nice ring to it,” he tells his colleagues, adding he’d like to distribute and post fliers around Frogtown well in advance of the annual meeting in May.

The flier features an illustration of a speeding train, a nod to the Central Corridor and its promise of transit trains along University Avenue. The corridor would have a direct impact on the neighborhoods of more than half of the city’s community councils and is a top focus of St. Paul’s new mayor, Chris Coleman.

“I figured people could grab onto light rail as an issue,” Haugee said.

A board member shakes her head—one person’s issue is another’s shrug, she said.

“Well, we could have a train going through a house and someone pointing a gun at it,” Haugee said with a chuckle.

Someone suggests a series of fliers featuring different themes. Soyini Guyton, the only board member of color, said the flier does nothing to reach those who can’t read English. Hiring a translator for meetings, she said, is impractical.

“The meetings would be interminably long,” she said. “At that point, I’m off the board.”

COUNCILS HAVE THEIR SAY, SOMETIMES

During the 1960s and ’70s, community councils cropped up across America as grass-roots efforts among neighbors concerned with crime, development, road construction and other issues. These groups foster relationships with leaders of local government and law enforcement to voice concerns, have a say in city policy and bring news back to fellow neighbors.

Little has changed about how these councils work. As nonprofit organizations, their meager budgets come from government and foundation grants. Some can afford only one paid, part-time staffer. District 7 overcame serious financial trouble in the past couple of years. Even councils with larger budgets and staffs lean on board members and committee members to lead fundraising drives and the varied committees that draft positions on specific issues.

Kristen Kidder, a onetime board member who is now executive director of the Thomas-Dale Community Council, ticks off a string of successes for the council over the past 20 years: pushing out two adult theaters at University and Dale avenues, rehabilitated housing, more beat cops on the streets through a multiyear Weed and Seed grant and the spinoff formation of the Greater Frogtown Community Development Corp. The council pushed for building the new Rondo branch library at the site of one adult theater. It also has been working with the Frogtown corporation, Port Authority and its brethren in District 6 to redevelop abandoned railroad sites in the North End.

But ultimately, community councils are only advisory boards—city officials are under no obligation to adhere to their wishes—and anyone involved for any length of time with a community council can recount episodes that left them sad, angry, frustrated and mystified. Frequent turnover on many boards is common, and those who leave a community council shortly after joining often cite an imbalance between the time and effort they put in and the subsequent impact.

Representatives from several community councils said the city’s previous administration, under Mayor Randy Kelly, kept the city’s community councils at arm’s length. Their hope is for closer working relationships with the staff of Coleman, who chaired the District 7 council during the early ’90s and has spoken of bolstering the bridges between neighborhood groups and City Hall.

“There was a lot better cooperation between community councils and city government back then,” Coleman said of his time with District 7, citing the staff position within the city’s planning department to specifically work as a liaison with community groups.

“From the city level, the district councils (became) viewed—I think unfairly—as a hindrance, and there were (efforts) to minimize their role,” Coleman said. “But despite those efforts, they continued to play a significant role and still do. You have people on the ground who have a real sense of what a neighborhood needs, and that knowledge is power.”

HOPE FOR HIP-HOP

The Thomas-Dale council has contracted with a Twin Cities performance poet, Tou Saiko Lee, to recruit and mentor as many as seven black, Hmong and other Frogtown youths to channel their artistic expression into performance pieces dealing with the neighborhood and, specifically, transit. Hip-hop might seem an unlikely bridge to civic engagement, but Thomas-Dale insiders hope their initiative— culminating in an evening performance April 29 at Moonlight Magic, at Western and Thomas avenues—is a step toward educating minorities and youths to the council’s work.

“District 7 doesn’t mean anything to people, but a train running along University Avenue, people want to know what that’s about,” Kidder said. “From there, it’s about people seeing District 7 as a place where they can learn more about these issues.”

Thomas-Dale’s hip-hop project is unique but every community council deals with turnover.The main hurdle to recruitment is awareness. For every person who attends meetings or calls on the council for help, scores of others have either never heard of their council or have only vague notions of their roles. This is particularly acute, insiders say, within non-English-speaking migrant populations.

“Part of what we need, and I feel in some ways conflicted, is we need some of those second-generation folks who get it more about how American culture works, about how decisions are made and how voices can be heard,” Kidder said.

Other community council leaders can relate. The Lexington-Hamline Community Council, representing one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, has only two black board members. The council once employed a community organizer to work with the several hundred residents—most of them Somali—of the Skyline Towers, a high-rise apartment building near Interstate 94 and Griggs Avenue. Funding for the position dried up, and the organizer found a better-paying job elsewhere.

“It’s the language barrier, the social barrier, and most of them probably don’t even know we exist,” said Laura Nevitt, president of the Lexington-Hamline board. “So what ends up happening is board members are recruiting people they already know, so you tend to go to the same people, and right now there isn’t that mechanism to get out into the broader community.”

Holding onto the relative few who want to participate is another challenge. Board members spend 2 1/2 to three hours at monthly meetings and are generally required to commit themselves to at least one council committee. Board membership isn’t required to join specific committees, but even there, meetings and the work that follows can chew up several hours each month. Volunteers grow discouraged and drift away when city leaders don’t respond to their work.

“We all have busy lives, and our kids are in 14 sports and some people have two jobs, so it’s just hard to engage people of any race in this kind of work,” said Coleman. “So you have to create processes that are meaningful and respectful of people’s times and commitments.”

Elections to a board are rarely elections in the real sense. Every council has somewhat different rules and guidelines—at Thomas-Dale, anyone who generates 20 signatures from within the council’s boundaries and then gets enough votes at the annual meeting, May 23, will land a spot. Most annual meetings draw fewer than 200 people, many of them pulled there by people who want their votes to sit on the board.

Most community councils advertise in neighborhood newspapers and have varied online presences. The Thomas-Dale council is just catching up online—it’s among the last to have its own Web site—and reaching out to the businesspeople who have recently cropped up around Frogtown.

“It’s not so much an issue of the problems were there and now they’re gone. It’s more a developmental life cycle of an organization,” said Kidder, Thomas-Dale’s executive director. “Huge strides have been made, and I really feel we’re on the brink of a new era.”