Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for February 2010

Faith leaders want St. Paul to pay for its sins

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My recent story in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

Faith leaders want St. Paul to pay for its sins

by Anna Pratt

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Originally posted 2/17/2010

Years of contracting neglect bring calls to ‘repair the breach’ with low-income communities.

Over the next four years, the City of St. Paul will direct $1 million to building the capacity of low-income people and small, disadvantaged businesses as a means of increasing their participation on housing construction projects.

The fund is part of a Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA) the City is entering into with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

However, some community activists who have been working for years on the issue — which they’re characterizing also as a racial justice matter because of the number of low-income minorities living in the area — want the City to do more to make up for lost time. They’re lobbying for a restitution plan, but the likelihood of that happening is unclear at this point.

The 28-page VCA follows HUD’s August 2009 determination that the City violated Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which requires HUD grantees to provide job training, employment and contract opportunities to low-income residents for projects and activities in their neighborhoods “to the greatest extent feasible,” as it reads on the HUD website.

Specifically, 10 percent of contracting dollars are supposed to go to low-income people and businesses, while 30 percent of new hires should be low-income residents.

Over the years, Section 3 enforcement has been relaxed, but lately HUD has tried to change that. As a first step, last fall it notified each of the cities and public housing authorities it contracts with, including St. Paul, about reporting annually on Section 3 compliance.

Maurice McGough, director of the Chicago HUD Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, attributed HUD’s renewed interest in Section 3 to the federal stimulus package, which is investing huge sums into local economies. “It makes Section 3 even more important to ensure that there are local benefits,” he said.

Until the agreement was reached recently in St. Paul, HUD went so far as to withhold from the City $18 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Project (NSP) housing funds, which were competitively awarded to cities. NSP is a program to combat the foreclosure crisis.

“I don’t know of any other city that was awarded NSP money but had open findings of noncompliance [with Section 3] other than St. Paul,” McGough said.

When asked about the possibility of restitution, McGough responded, “The purpose of the VCA isn’t to address past noncompliance, but to be a blueprint to ensure future compliance. Restitution isn’t something that we seek in our compliance activities. We try to make sure a city or public housing authority is compliant going forward.”

Right now it’s tough for a lot of small contractors to compete with larger, more established companies. “There are programs built into the VCA to assist in providing access so that those smaller businesses are in a position to get the dollars that are being pumped into the local economy,” McGough explained.

The VCA has provisions for monitoring and enforcement of the program, he said.

For instance, it calls for HUD and the City to meet semi-annually to evaluate progress. The VCA can be modified if something isn’t working for the City, or HUD can impose administrative sanctions and terminate future funding, he explained.

Coming into compliance

The agreement between the City and HUD cites the efforts of Fredrick Newell, a St. Paul resident who filed complaints with HUD in 2008 against the City, alleging that it failed to comply with Section 3. In 2005, Newell, owner of Newell Companies, brought a lawsuit against the City, which was dismissed because the court determined that Section 3 doesn’t afford a right of private action, according to the VCA.

Newell’s complaints, along with the research he had gathered, triggered HUD’s review of St. Paul’s Section 3 activities over the course of a three-year period. It turned out that the City, which hadn’t reported on it in several years, had no Section 3 plan. Additionally, the City lacked the ability to meet goals, reach out to contractors, and more, HUD found.

Cecile Bedor, who helms the City’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, commented about the VCA: “The compliance agreement says that we’ll do what we always agreed to do and what we thought we were already doing.”

Further, the City had requested a draft agreement with HUD in the fall. When it finally came in January, “We immediately took action,” she said, adding that the $1 million Section 3 Implementation Fund represents “an effort that will continue forever.”

Bedor explained that the City plans to train staff and developers while Section 3 businesses will be recruited. A Section 3 point-person has already been picked out, which was another part of the agreement. The City has done outreach to over 600 businesses, encouraging them to register as Section 3 companies.

On some recent projects, the City has exceeded goals for inclusiveness, she said. As for the VCA, “We were able to do it because it embodies the values of the city,” she said, stressing that Section 3 is race and gender-neutral.

Some local faith leaders from the interfaith activist group ISAIAH and the Black Ministerial Alliance, who have been meeting with Mayor Chris Coleman and other City officials, issued a written statement on the issue: “It’s a good step that we’re finally moving to enforce this law … We hope St. Paul moves to become a model city for living out this program with the job training and small business development mentioned in the compliance agreement.”

However, they also say that the VCA isn’t enough. They claim that for the past four years, at least $4 million should have gone to the low-income community in contracting, and possibly a lot more as many projects were at least partially funded with Section 3 funds. The faith leaders are calling for that money to be restored in the form of job training and small business development.

A debt owed to the community

Lonnie Ellis, an ISAIAH member who serves as the minister of social justice at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in St. Paul, said they feel that a debt is owed to the community. To make amends, he said, the group is advocating for the City to allocate $4 million to small business development over the next four years, ensuring that 30 percent of work hours are given to low-income people.

Some precedents have been set elsewhere, he said, such as in Long Beach, California, which was also found to be noncompliant.

According to a document for Section 3 advocates, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) had filed a complaint concerning the City’s spending of HUD dollars in 1995. HUD checked it out and determined that the City fell short.

Long Beach, HUD, and the complainants were able to come to an agreement, which Ellis and other advocates modeled their proposal after, for the City to implement a $3.2 million small business incentive program. HUD spokesperson McGough pointed out that the Long Beach restitution plan is the only one that he is aware of.

Jonathan Zielske, an ISAIAH member and pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Paul, commented that he and other advocates had thought the VCA was going to be developed more collaboratively between the City and community. “We thought we would be able to weigh in,” he said.

“The impression that we got from a January 12 community meeting with the mayor and other City officials was, ‘We’ll listen, but we already know what we’re going to do.’ We look at this as something they’re doing to look good.

“We don’t want to assume that the outcomes are going to happen. We’re going to keep an eye on it,” Zielske said, adding, “We’ve had a good relationship with the City in the past, and we want it to continue. We think this is a win-win to make the community more livable.”

On this issue, he and other advocates reference a passage of scripture, Isaiah 58:12, which calls on believers to be the “repairers of the breached, restorers of streets to dwell in.” He added, “We feel that [not fulfilling Section 3 requirements] is a breach. It’s like the City has taken care of some but not others for too long.”

It’s that breach that Zielske and others hope to repair in the future.

Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to

Written by annapratt

February 17, 2010 at 1:50 pm

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College fund staffer recalls mom’s fight for her children’s education

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Here’s a Q&A I did with Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, the area development director for the United Negro College Fund Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and TC Daily Planet.

College fund staffer recalls mom’s fight for her children’s education

by Anna Pratt

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Originally posted 2/16/2010

UNCF’s Sharon Smith-Akinsanya now advocates for Black higher ed

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, the area development director for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), is in constant conversation with representatives of corporations and foundations and others about how they can help close the racial achievement gap — by giving money to the organization for Black students’ college tuition.

Smith-Akinsanya, (SSA) who arrived in the Twin Cities 25 years ago after having lived in St. Louis, MO, and elsewhere, talked to MSR about how her mother’s unusual tactics for getting her children a decent education in the segregation era and her past work in sales and marketing influence her present work on behalf of Black higher education.

MSR: Tell me more about your job. Why is it important?

SSA: I feel privileged to be talking about educating kids with individuals, corporations and foundations on a daily basis. I help donors understand why it’s so critical to continue to support UNCF. Conversely, I help students understand the need to be great stewards of those dollars, making sure that they’re meeting requirements and making us proud.

It’s important that the community pays attention to what scholarships are available. Education is the key to success. Even in the recession, there are jobs available that we [as a society] can’t fill. There’s a skills gap.

Corporations know how critical it is to have an educated workforce. They get it.

It’s our responsibility to do more advocacy efforts to help give Black and low-income kids what they need. They’re falling behind in school while today a college degree is more important than ever. If you don’t educate children, crime goes up. Everyone gets mad at one another. Education affords opportunities to make it an even playing field. People are happier. They can take care of their families. In America, to be competitive, we have to up our game.

MSR: What did you do before coming to UNCF? How did you get here?

SSA: I studied mass communications at Lindenwood in St. Charles, MO. At first, I wanted to do radio and TV. Later, I decided to do sales and marketing. I got good doing radio sales in St. Louis, MO, New Orleans and Richmond, VA, before coming to Minneapolis in 1991. I did radio sales at KDWB. After that I worked with Prince, doing marketing for some nightclubs that he owned at the time.

Then I went back to radio. Twelve years ago I started the Rae Mackenzie Group, where I worked with corporations, teaching them how to build better relationships with communities of color.

In 2007, the recession started and businesses were hurting. I had a business that many companies could delete. I was in denial because as a salesperson, you don’t want to believe there’s something that you can’t continue to sell. But that was the reality. So I started looking for something else. One day, I got a phone call about the UNCF opening from someone who had previously done this job. He said, “You’d be great for this.” So I followed up on the lead. It was a great opportunity.

MSR: How does your education relate to your work?

SSA: Growing up, we lived on the wrong side of the tracks. My mother said it wasn’t an option for us to go to the neighborhood school. She wanted my brother and me to go to school with the White kids. She wanted us to get a quality education. So, she used to borrow addresses.

MSR: Wait, how did you pull that off?

SSA: She would drop us off at the bus stop and we would stand there like we lived there. We’d have to remember our new address. I think we collected the mail in our backpacks. I’m not sure how my mom arranged that. We’d stay about six months at a school, until we got kicked out. Then she’d borrow another address. I think we went to eight schools that way.

At one point, we were in a Catholic school, which my mom scraped money together for. Finally, when I was in high school, places became desegregated and we were able to go to school legitimately.

Going to college was a given, with her making that sacrifice. I have that expectation for my daughter Rae, who’s 13. I know what it’s like to have someone fighting for your schooling. I’m trying to be a role model for her.

MSR: It’s interesting that should be your experience considering what you’re doing now. So, who has been a role model for you?

SSA: My role model is my mother. She is special. She has great wisdom. She used to say that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. Donald Trump has the same 24 hours [as you]. It’s about what you do with yours.

She taught me to be a caretaker, but she said, “Always take care of yourself first so you can help others.” If you’re looking good, smelling good, you can take care of your family. You can’t be run down.

MSR: How do you achieve that kind of balance?

SSA: I try to get out of here at a decent hour. You have to reach out and grab balance. After a good full day of work, fun has to be a priority. You have to take time for that, to have work-life balance. That means planning happy hours, getting them on the calendar.

My daughter and I love theater. We’re huge musical fans. We’re huge consumers of TV, public TV, documentaries and educational pieces. All of us — Rae, my mom, me, we all live together — we’re all big music fans.

We like jazz, pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, soul and blues. We also like good food and cooking. We like to have meaningful fun.

To learn more about UNCF, check out www. (Click on the Star Power logo to donate or the “For Students” button for scholarship information.)

Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to

Written by annapratt

February 17, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Ordway Turns 25

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Here’s another story I did for the current issue of Twin Cities Statement:

The Ordway Turns 25

St. Paul’s “crown jewel” celebrates its success, while toasting to the next 25 years

By Anna Pratt

In the 1980s, St. Paul arts lover and philanthropist Sally Ordway Irvine got people thinking about a cultural center that would offer “everything from opera to the Russian circus” under one roof. Irvine is credited with the initiative, vision and commitment that inspired the center. In Irvine’s honor, the Ordway also gives awards to movers and shakers in visual and performing arts.

She donated a hefty sum to the cause, which attracted additional corporate and foundation support. In the end, she and others raised enough money – to the tune of $46 million – to pursue her dream. The Ordway Music Theatre, which was later renamed the Ordway Center for Performing Arts to reflect its broader scope, opened its doors on January 1, 1985. It was then the state’s most expensive privately funded arts facility.

George Latimer, who was the mayor of St. Paul when the Ordway originated, has high praise for architect Ben Thompson, a St. Paul native, for the modern design that blends in gracefully with its historic surroundings. The alcove, he says, is well known to urban planners and architects across the country for its elegance, warmth and openness. As a result, “If you go to the Ordway,” says Latimer, “you feel as if you’re there for a happening, not just a performance.”

The Ordway, which is home to the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and the Schubert Club, turns 25 this year. Described by some people as the “crown jewel of St. Paul,” Joe Spencer, the city’s arts and culture director, says the Ordway has successfully paved the way for a number of arts organizations that have sprung up since.

Even though he acknowledges that other factors are also involved, the cultural hub has certainly played a big role, generating foot traffic that benefits many other businesses, especially nearby restaurants. “It has done such an amazing job of strengthening the community. It’s made possible the success of others,” Spencer comments, adding, “Its impact on mid-sized and smaller companies is critically important.”

Through the years, the busy place has produced such notable shows as Always Patsy Cline and Plaid Tidings, plus Buddy Holly and South Pacific, which went on to tour nationally. It has been a destination for many Broadway musicals, including Les Miserables – which had a record 11 engagements – as well as Show Boat and Spamalot. Both Phantom of the Opera and Rent made their Twin Cities debut at the center.

Patricia Mitchell, the Ordway’s president and CEO, says the center has boosted the arts community and had a huge civic impact. It provides a first-class venue for its resident companies, making a high level of performance possible. That’s good for artists and audiences, she says. The complex has a 1900-seat Main Hall and 300-seat McKnight Theatre, along with two rehearsal rooms, a foyer and a two-story lobby. “There was nothing like it here before,” she notes. “It’s a true performing arts center.”

Every year, nearly 400,000 people, including thousands of public school students, arrive to the Ordway. As the Twin Cities demographics have changed, the center has broadened its offerings, bringing in performers from around the world. In general, Mitchell adds, “The community is engaged in a way that it wasn’t before.”

Mitchell hopes that the anniversary will inspire discussions about the Ordway’s next quarter of a century, which she says promises to be “even more exciting and dynamic.”

Plans are afoot to convert the tiny McKnight Theatre into a 1000-seat concert hall. As it is, the McKnight is too small for many shows and doesn’t have the proper acoustics for the orchestra. As a result, it’s underused, while the main stage is booked to the max, she explains. The $35 million project, which is still in preliminary stages, would allow the orchestra to grow without competing with the other companies. “It makes the next 25 years possible,” says Mitchell, adding, “The building enables us to bring more art to more people.”

Written by annapratt

February 15, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Satisfy Your Thirst

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Here’s my story about Thirst Theater from the latest issue of Twin Cities Statement.

Satisfy Your Thirst

Unique theater returns to Joe’s Garage

By Anna Pratt

Thirst Theater, a cross between dinner theater, improv and reality TV, incorporates real-life happenings at Joe’s Garage into its edgy dramas. The theater company, which showcases a handful of fast-paced skits on Monday nights now through March, debuted at Joe’s in 2006 under the direction of Chris Carlson, Tracey Maloney and Alan Berks, who are reputable local players. Later, the group did a stint at Jitters in Northeast Minneapolis, which has since closed. Now, after a two-year hiatus, Thirst has found its way back home to Joe’s, with the same formula, plus old and new faces.

Each play takes place literally in a bar/restaurant. There’s no designated stage or special lighting and sound effects. The barebones setup allows for the unexpected. For example, one night when two guys came to blows in the bar, the audience watched as a manager tried to intervene until he learned that it was part of the act.

Unlike more traditional theater, which goes through many different phases before the final product reaches the audience, Thirst is raw and immediate. The boundaries between actor, audience and playwright are blurred. Co-founder Chris Carlson explains, “An actor who might be feet away from you onstage at the Guthrie Theater ends up being 16 inches away from you at Joe’s.” He adds, “The drama comes out of the life of the bar.”

Plays, which deal with such universal themes as love, life and the pursuit of happiness, are written under tight deadlines, while the actors are given mere hours to rehearse. The results are lively, heartfelt, funny and everything in-between. Featured playwrights include Craig Wright, who was Emmy-nominated for the HBO miniseries Six Feet Under and is a writer and producer for the shows Lost and Brothers & Sisters, Tom Poole, Carson Kreitzer, Joseph Scrimshaw, and Allison Moore — plus other notables, according to information from the group. Actors, all of whom belong to Actors’ Equity, were still being cast as of press time.

Carlson hopes that Thirst inspires people to engage on a deeper level with their environment, to view it as theater. “There’s something about seeing art in life. We want to celebrate life and drama and everything about the social gathering that is a bar,” he says — which just goes to show that there’s no reason to thirst for theater in this part of town.

For reservations call Joe’s Garage at 612-904-1163 or check out

Written by annapratt

February 15, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized