14 October 2018 . Comment

“Mni Wiconi: Art by Skill Crane” Debuts at Can Can Wonderland

This past summer, local artists worked with children in Interfaith Action’s American Indian Youth Enrichment program to create “Mni Wiconi,” a one-of-a-kind art skill crane. The project has its debut Sunday, October 21, from 2-4:30 pm at Can Can Wonderland (755 Prior Avenue N, Saint Paul).

The interactive machine, which evokes the waves and flow of water, challenges players to try their skill at grabbing an art object, which the youth made from recycled and found items. Local artists worked with the youth over the summer to create the skill crane. Youth experimented with a variety of art styles and tools to build the project, connect with their cultures, and develop an expanded knowledge and appreciation for art.

The activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. It will remain permanently at Can Can Wonderland.

The art skill crane was one facet of the AIYE summer program. The program’s theme, “Mni Wiconi,” (“water is life”) was particularly relevant to the youth given the Dakota Access pipeline protests. Youth met with a graduate student of the University of Minnesota for a lesson on water treatment and took field trips to sacred sites, such as Minnehaha Falls and Bdote, where they picked up trash to repurpose for the skill crane.

American Indian Youth Enrichment is an after-school (for grades 1-5) and summer program (for grades 1-8) providing Indigenous cultural activities for Saint Paul youth. Youth learn from Indigenous leaders, gain awareness of their heritage and history, and receive culturally relevant educational support. Through participation, American Indian youth gain a strong Indigenous identity, become advocates for their culture, and succeed in school.

12 October 2018 . Comment

Farm-Faith Project Finishes Strong

Over the past five years, Interfaith Action, working with Hmong American Partnership, has partnered with six Saint Paul churches on the Farm-Faith Project. Through this initiative, dozens of recent immigrant and refugees have had space to grow food for themselves and their families.

With the recent expiration of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm-Faith is celebrating its final growing season.

“The beauty of this program is that it built relationships between congregations and immigrants and refugees,” said Eamon Goodall, project coordinator. “We are grateful to the churches that so generously provided space over the past few years.”

The churches who participated are:

  • Our Redeemer Lutheran Church
  • Mounds Park United Methodist Church
  • Hope Lutheran Church
  • Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church
  • Hazel Park United Church of Christ

In the past two years, Farm-Faith also added a community supported agriculture (CSA) option, providing bushels of delicious produce raised by Hmong farmers. “The CSA helped build the business of a group of family farmers,” said Goodall.

Interfaith Action thanks to all who participated in Farm-Faith over the past few years.

11 October 2018 . Comment

Proving That Our Work Makes a Difference

At Interfaith Action, we believe that there are thousands of people in East Metro faith communities who would love to be paired with volunteer work to bring their faith to life—if they can trust that their work would really make a difference.

How do we know that the work we’re asking you to engage in makes a difference?

  • Observations. With Project Home, for example, you are right there with the guests, experiencing the power of what safe shelter provides.
  • Feedback. We frequently ask clients to provide input. In our Department of Indian Work emergency services, we seek feedback several times per year and adjust our services accordingly.
  • Experience. Our professional staff have deep subject matter expertise, and our partners, such as those in the Opportunity Saint Paul program, are trained in proven approaches, from teaching reading to coaching adults in how to get and retain a job.

These ways of knowing give us confidence that we are making a difference. But we also believe we can and should be in a rigorous spiral of learning and improvement. That is why we are engaging outside eyes to evaluate our work. With Opportunity Saint Paul, for example, we know that our tutors’ impact on reading levels is a function of our nonprofit partners’ strength, so we provide these partners with monthly sessions with Michael Quinn Patton, the evaluator who wrote the textbook on developmental evaluation.

Developmental evaluation is designed to increase the effectiveness of work in real time, as the work is happening. Patton listens closely to our partners’ most pressing concerns and helps them to design pathways to even greater effectiveness.

Your most precious resource is your time. When we ask you to volunteer with Interfaith Action, we’re asking you to trust that your time will be well-spent. We do the hard work that is necessary to deserve your trust.

18 August 2018 . Comment

Sarah Peterka Joins Interfaith Action as Program Director of Opportunity Saint Paul

Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul is pleased to announce the appointment of Sarah Peterka as program director of the organization’s Opportunity Saint Paul program. Peterka will work closely with the executive director to build partnerships with clergy, community leaders, and nonprofit partners. She also will be responsible for recruiting and supporting individual volunteers and houses of worship throughout the program year.

Opportunity Saint Paul (OSP) is expanding Interfaith Action’s ability to promote economic mobility. OSP engages with churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship to recruit and support volunteers in a combination of high-impact tutoring, mentoring and job coaching. Volunteers also participate in several learning events that advance understanding of how to address poverty. The program just finished its pilot year, with nearly 100 volunteers providing 3,500 volunteer hours for seven nonprofit partners.

“Sarah is a perfect match for the challenges OSP is designed to meet,” said Randi Ilyse Roth, executive director of Interfaith Action. “We are bringing together our area faith communities to promote economic mobility, and Sarah’s life work has been about building engaging youth and adult ministries to accomplish that same purpose.”

Peterka most recently served as program manager for Urban Immersion Service Retreats (UISR), a core program of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches. USIR provides opportunities for groups to participate in immersive community learning experiences and to learn how to take action on issues and challenges facing people living in poverty. In her position, she led participants through the organization’s “Poverty and Privilege” training and facilitated service learning at human services partner sites. Peterka has worked professionally with children, youth and families since 2000. She earned her bachelor’s degree in youth and family ministry from Augsburg College in 2001 and a master’s degree in religious education and leadership from Luther Seminary in 2006.

6 August 2018 . Comment

The Value of Volunteers in Anti-Poverty Work

Interfaith Action closed out its Opportunity Saint Paul (OSP) pilot year on July 26 with a learning community event that brought volunteers, staff and nonprofit partners together to share accomplishments, experiences and advice for the future.

Imam Hassan Mohamud welcomed the crowd and talked the importance of interfaith work. The group also heard from Joyce Ester, president of Normandale Community College, who said that the success of her students many years later depends on the kind of work OSP is doing with young children.

OSP works on three levels: It helps increase economic mobility; it activates members of faith communities through transformative volunteer experiences; and, it strengthens congregations by providing a well-supported pathway to engage in effective social justice. Volunteers provide weekly, high-quality tutoring and other supports through seven nonprofit partners who have proven records of impact. This past year, volunteers provided roughly 3,500 hours of tutoring and other service. They also gathered for six learning community events to build understanding of how to effectively reduce poverty.

What we learned in the pilot year

  • Volunteers believe strongly that they had impact through their weekly volunteering. They also said that the learning events both advanced their understanding of poverty and helped them build intergenerational, interfaith relationships. More than half of the 80 first-year volunteers have signed on for year two.
  • Our nonprofit partners said that OSP volunteers were significantly more consistent, committed, helpful and in it for the long-haul. They also said OSP creates efficiencies for their organizations, which strengthens them: wholesale v. retail model. All seven partners have signed on for year two! 

Our call to action for next year

  • Engaging more volunteers of color will be a significant focus for us in the coming year.
  • We want to expand volunteers’ ability to work effectively with children who are dealing with trauma.
  • We are expanding our volunteer base by engaging ten houses of worships to serve as deep partners. Two members of each congregation will recruit a team of at least 10 to build broad investment in OSP as an anchor social justice program/ministry in their communities. Michael Quinn Patton, one of the country’s leading evaluation experts, will closely evaluate the impact of these ten houses of worship and work with our nonprofit partners monthly to build their capacity to measure impact.
  • In addition, we will continue to encourage other houses of worship to provide smaller groups of OSP volunteers. With 700 faith communities in the East Metro area, just think what we can do together!

As we close out this first year, we are grateful to the Saint Paul City Council for its resolution to name Thursday, July 26, 2018, “Interfaith Action” day in recognition of the impact the organization’s Opportunity Saint Paul program had in its pilot year. We also were thrilled to be profiled by the Pioneer Press in this editorial.

If you are individually interested in joining the second year of OSP or if your house of worship wants to join or needs more information, please contact Sarah Peterka.

6 August 2018 . Comment

Fairmount United Methodist Church Steps Up

When Central Baptist, a faithful Project Home site partner since 2006, discovered that its facility needed requisite upgrades, Interfaith Action needed a new host for the September slot. Enter Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church (FAUMC), a congregation that has provided dozens of volunteers over the years to work at Project Home’s Messiah Episcopal site.

“We are deeply grateful that Fairmount has stepped in to fill our September gap,” said Sara Liegl, Project Home program director. “And we’re equally grateful to Central Baptist for hosting more than 200 families for the past 11 years and now for offering to send many volunteers to help at Fairmount. Central Baptist’s devotion to providing this essential service to our community has not dimmed.”

Homelessness and housing are priorities for FAUMC, according to Rev. Shawna Horn. “We are passionate as a congregation about caring for our neighbor, about justice and about being involved in our local community.” FAUMC also previously served as a Project Home host site in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

In addition to partnering with Messiah Episcopal for Project Home, FAUMC also is actively involved with Simpson Housing in Minneapolis and the Sheridan Story Program. “The importance of housing is in our DNA,” says Horn.

26 July 2018 . Comment

City Declares July 26 “Interfaith Action” Day

The Saint Paul City Council passed a resolution this week declaring Thursday, July 26, 2018, “Interfaith Action” day in recognition of the impact the organization’s Opportunity Saint Paul program had in its pilot year.

Read the editorial in the Pioneer Press.

Nearly 100 volunteers and the seven nonprofit partners who joined Opportunity Saint Paul (OSP) for the first year will gather tonight (July 26) to share experiences and feedback for the year to come. We look forward to learning a great deal in this session.

We know from our initial year-end interviews that participants believe strongly that they individually had impact through their weekly volunteering. They also have told us that the learning events throughout the year advanced their understanding of how to systemically reduce poverty and provided opportunities to build community among volunteers who would not ordinarily cross paths.

Our nonprofit partners said that OSP volunteers were significantly more consistent, committed and helpful, and that being a part of OSP created significant efficiencies in their operations.

As we learn more, we will share our findings and plans for the coming year. Stay tuned!

4 July 2018 . Comment

Pilot Year of Opportunity Saint Paul Nears Completion


The pilot year of Opportunity Saint Paul (OSP) is almost complete!

In this first year, we have learned that OSP mobilizes volunteers to build economic mobility, supports the effectiveness of volunteers, and strengthens faith communities.

We are heartened by the positive feedback from our volunteers. In fact, several have even doubled their time commitment!

The July 26 Learning Community evening will focus on what we have learned. Our nonprofit partners will brief us on our collective impact, and we’ll hear from volunteers about what worked and what might strengthen the program.

Together with our expert evaluator, Michael Quinn Patton, we are planning for next year by asking hard questions and learning from the work others are doing around the country to build the most promising program design.

Looking to next year
Sign-up is open for OSP for the 2018-19 school year! We’d love to have you and/or your faith community join us in this energizing work.

For the 2018-19 school year, we will expand our recruiting to include not only individuals but also houses of worship—churches, mosques, synagogues, and others—or, as we affectionately call them, HOWs. We aim to engage ten “anchor” HOWs. Each will identify two congregants to participate in the full OSP program and eight more congregants to volunteer with a chosen nonprofit partner.

We will provide many ways for the whole HOW to share in learning about effective anti-poverty work. If your house of worship might be interested in OSP – and/or if you would like to join us as an individual – please email Randi Roth at rroth@interfaithaction.org.

29 June 2018 . Comment

American Indian Youth Enrichment Demonstrates Tremendous Impact

Nearly 80 youth in grades 1-8 signed up for Interfaith Action’s annual Indigenous-led, holistic, and fun-filled summer American Indian Youth Enrichment (AIYE) program. For two months, Native youth are learning about their heritage and history alongside Indigenous leaders and becoming advocates for their culture. Activities include Native foods, lacrosse and other traditional Native games, Reading Warriors challenges, weekly fields trips, and special family celebrations.

This type of culturally based, community-connected youth development programming shows substantial positive impact for the youth Interfaith Action serves, according to an independent evaluation conducted by Michael Quin Patton of Utilization-Focused Evaluation and Nicole MartinRogers from Wilder Research. Importantly, participants showed positive results different from traditional programs related to cultural identity and connections.

“Culture is protective,” says Patton. “Culturally relevant and specific out-of-school time programming, done correctly, is one of the most protective infusions we can give to children living in poverty. Ample research supports this finding.”

With this evaluation, Patton and MartinRogers developed an innovative tool to more meaningfully evaluate culturally based, community-connected out-of-school time educational programs. They found that AIYE met all of the important requirements related to basic needs, safety and security, social belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

One community member summed up AIYE with this powerful statement: “Students who are quiet and withdrawn with other students during the school year – during the summer at AIYE, when they’re just with the Native students, they open up. They blossom. They communicate better. They feel more comfortable.”

Patton and MartinRogers also discovered that AIYE students frequently turn into program or community leaders. As one of the young leaders said, “I think AIYE is the best thing ever. As a child, one of my highlights of my summer was being in this program every year. And I’m just really happy that I’m allowed to be a part of it now and keep doing what I got to experience with the youth.”

Read the full evaluation report from Patton and MartinRogers.

18 June 2018 . Comment

Creating Opportunity Moments: An Interview with Joshua Mbanusi

Joshua Mbanusi
By David Schimke

A week before hitting the ground in Minnesota, MDC Program Manager Joshua Mbanusi took time to chat about his profession, his passions, and the importance of social supports, both institutional and individual. What follows are a few excerpts from that discussion.

David: What do you hope participants in Opportunity St. Paul take away from your presentation and the accompanying video?

Joshua: I would hope that folks would walk away with an understanding that for some of the most pressing challenges and barriers that stand in the way of people achieving economic opportunity, there are structural and systemic issues and barriers. And while those barriers require systemic solutions, at the same time there’s a role that we can play as individuals to ensure that we are moving the needle.

Sometimes when you have a conversation about structural issues that deter opportunity, it can become overwhelming, and people will have a tendency to either step back or check out. But as [author] Alice Walker says, the most significant way that people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any. So the question then becomes how do we leverage our individual power and influence and social capital impact some of these issues—to take a slice of it as opposed to getting overwhelmed by the big pie, if that makes sense.

What’s an example of taking a slice?

I was thinking a lot about hunger and poverty in Durham and made this commitment that, over the course of a year, I would donate five cans of food on a weekly basis to a local shelter. Five cans sounds like a small amount, but when you multiply that over the course of a year it adds up. It is, as Robert Kennedy said, all about creating little ripples of hope.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues that face our communities. What advice would you have to combat the feeling that no matter what you do, it’s not enough?

To paraphrase the Talmud: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

That to me is so powerful because I think that sometimes—particularly people of my generation—we have a heightened sense of moral responsibility to see the world be a better place. And while I hate the language about the “microwave generation,” I do think we want to see what the issues are quickly, and address them quickly. And that’s because of the moral urgency. Consequently, we place on our shoulders this notion that we must take on the enormity of this entire task. And I am oftentimes reminded—and I think this is true no matter how old you are—that some issues take lifetime to address. There’s a generation of suffragists that worked really hard and never saw women get the right to vote. There is a generation of farm workers who were working for better working conditions and better pay, so on and so forth, and never saw that happen. But we don’t necessarily do the work to complete it. There’s a level of humility that comes in understanding we’ve got to stay engaged, and sometimes it’s not always going to be a straight line or be the way we want it to.

What attracted your current employer, MDC?

MDC focuses on poverty alleviation across the south. They look at education, employment, economic security, and strategic philanthropy. And that multi-dimensional space was attractive to me. I also appreciated their focus on systems as opposed to policy. Now, policy is super important, of course, but you could have policy on the books and if the institutional actors that operate within that ecosystem don’t have their act together, if they don’t know how to help people access opportunity, then the policy alone isn’t enough. You have a disconnection problem if institutions aren’t talking to each other the way that they should and communicating and operating seamlessly. That’s where MDC focuses its work, and that was really attractive to me.

It’s about the people? It’s about the execution?

That’s exactly right. Institutions are made up of people, and these people have roles and responsibility of positional authority, and if we can rewire the nature of those relationships within and across institutions, if we can increase the capacity of these actors, if we can make them more aware of inequities that exist and generate an appetite and a willingness to address those issues, that can have profound consequences on a community.

And outside of these institutions the same applies, correct?

There’s something to having a politically and civically involved population that I makes a community bend towards justice. The more aware you are of the issues that matter, the more empathetic towards folks you become. I keep talking about systems, but I think even for someone who’s thinking about volunteering, you are also thinking about altering the trajectory of someone’s life, altering an institution that you’re attached to, altering, you know, a set of relationships that are hopefully beneficial for the person that you’re interacting with and also mutually beneficial and that they impact you. So you see that change happening whether it’s interpersonally or institutionally, and you believe that it can happen again. So yes, I think that it’s crucially important.

Given where we’re at politically in this country, is it harder to have these sorts of conversations than it was two years ago, or is it easier to get people fired up?

I think it depends. I really do. There are some people who have really dug into supporting their side or their point of view or their team at the expense of everything else. And that can make it really hard to have meaningful conversations. I also think in some communities the current political climate has created a sense of disbelief: Like, how could this have happened. And the positive part of that is it’s creating a dialogue to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. I think another positive byproduct has been that people are not necessarily looking towards the federal government for solutions and are looking internally and saying, ‘What can we as a community do to address these issues that we believe helped create this situation?’

During your talk you discussed ‘opportunity moments’ and how essential they are to all of us. What’s an example of such an opportunity moment that’s happened to you recently?

I was very recently invited to be on the board of a really strong academic enhancement nonprofit here in Durham. That happened in part because the program officer for the nonprofit and I used to work together in a different capacity, and she feels really strongly about my analytical skills and how I might contribute to the board. She started advocating for me. Now I don’t know how this is going to play out, but I feel like that’s going to be a really huge opportunity to sort of have an impact on a nonprofit that’s doing really incredible work in the city. So…boom…there you go.