Pilot program helps residents impacted by North Side tornado move toward self sufficiency

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June 5, 2014
By: Eric Best
Eric Best

North Minneapolis residents still feel the effects of the 2011 tornado that ravaged homes and businesses.

More than two-thirds of the neighborhood now relies on government assistance, but Northside Community Response Team (NCRT), a group formed to guide social services in the area, is helping residents become self-sufficient again.

The NCRT began a pilot program earlier this year, the Workforce Investment Network (WIN), which teaches people in-demand skills in order to bridge the gap to self-sufficiency. Louis King, NCRT chair and CEO of Summit Academy OIC, hopes their work will reduce government dependence rates and curb the area’s huge economic disparities three years after the tornado devastated the area.

“When we started tornado recovery, and I checked the numbers, I couldn’t believe it,” King said at the group’s event at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center on the third anniversary of the tornado. “This is just as serious as the Underground Railroad. This is just as serious as the Freedom Riders.”

King said the group did a survey that revealed 67 percent of those affected by the tornado rely on government assistant, which he hopes to reduce by 25 percent over five years.

Though many of the participants are employed, they often work minimum-wage jobs that keep them dependent on the government, according to an NCRT press release.

He said his goal is to enroll 75 participants in the WIN program, though 47 have signed up and six have already graduated. King said the program would likely expand after 12 or 18 months

Several graduates spoke to a room full of North Minneapolis residents at a ceremony honoring their achievement.

RaShondah Ross is one of these graduates.

Ross said the WIN program opened up a lot of possibilities for her.

“I have three boys. There are a lot of closed doors for me,” she said. “It’s opened up my eyes.”

In a short amount of time — the program touts it takes as little as 20 weeks to graduates—Ross completed the pre-carpentry and construction program.

“Women can wear hard hats too,” she said.

Another WIN graduate, Jasmine Fly, shares Ross’ experience coming into the program without a clear pathway to a career.

“Five months ago I was struggling. I had a 2-year-old and I wasn’t sure which way I was going to turn,” Fly said. “WIN was my support system.”

Fly, a single mother, is now a certified nursing assistant.

Participants learn life skills and career counseling, then go into their specific career track. WIN also provides job-placement assistance.

WIN focuses on in-demand skills in the health care and construction industries, though participants can choose specific pathways, from training in being a community health worker to an electrician. They can also choose where they receive training from a handful of vocational schools and universities around the Twin Cities.

King called Fly, Ross and other graduates “pioneers” because of a lack of social ties between North Minneapolis residents, many of which are people of color, and employment.  Because Minnesota has the worst unemployment disparity among black and white residents, he hopes graduates refer others to the program and connect them to job opportunities.

Many of the graduates had their children up with them when they spoke. King said he hopes WIN participants also set examples for the next generation of North Minneapolis residents as well.

“Parents are the map you use as an adult,” he said.

For King, the NCRT is making a long-term approach to recovery and changing the neighborhood once labeled a slum.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “There is no turning back.”