18 November 2018 . Comment


Family Homelessness at Epidemic Levels

Remarks by Sara Liegl, Director, Project Home, who spoke on a panel at a recent “Community Conversation on Poverty,” sponsored by JRLC, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Immanuel Lutheran Church and Mount Zion Temple

Our news has been full of stories about “The Wall,” the growing homeless encampment at Cedar and Hiawatha Avenues in Minneapolis. Family homelessness on both sides of the river has reached epidemic levels.

Unlike Hennepin County, however, Ramsey County has no “right to shelter” laws for families with minor children. Emergency family shelter beds are extremely scarce. Between the Ramsey County Family Service Center, which has 65 beds, and Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul’s Project Home, which has 40 beds of family shelter, we do not even come close to covering the need in our area.

Recently, at a Coordinated Access housing provider meeting, Ramsey County staff stated that there were 83 families on the wait list for emergency shelter. If these families average just three members, that means 249 people are waiting for emergency shelter — most of them children. In fact, 82% of the children Project Home serves are age 12 and younger. They are sleeping in cars and vans, doubled up with other families in basements and backrooms, sleeping in unheated garages and abandoned buildings.

To stay on the list, they are required to call in every week to say that they still have nowhere to go.

This list only grows.

What are the biggest structural and societal barriers we see that our clients face?

  • Affordable housing for families. Single-person housing is easier to build in large numbers but we need 3+ bedrooms. And we need this housing on good transportation lines so families can get children to daycare, have access to grocery stores instead of high-priced convenience stores, and get to work easily.
  • Racism & Disparities. In Ramsey County, people of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness. While 5% of all Minnesota adults are African American, 70% of the parents served last year at Project Home were African American. Racism touches their lives every day – in housing, employment, services, law enforcement, everywhere.

How would we solve these problems if we had the full support of elected officials?

  • Building affordable housing is difficult—and doing so for families is even more so. At the systems level, incentives need to be built in so that developers want to crate 3+ bedroom unites near good public transportation lines. Incentives need to be created so that local landlords will consider families who do not make three times the rent in monthly income, who take a chance on families with credit problems and criminal records (not even talking felonies here).
  • All of our work, at ever level, needs to be done looking through racial, cultural and poverty lenses. If we continue to develop programs, zoning laws, and local statutes without including the voices of those affected the most, we will never make real change.

Where do we ned the most support from voters and community members?

  • Volunteer! See our families, hear their stories, and pass it on.
  • For every story you read about a homeless individual, remember there are many more children about whom no one writes. Be a voice to the invisible. If you don’t know their stories, seek them out.

4 November 2018 . Comment


Unconscious Bias is Topic of Opportunity Saint Paul Learning Community Event

The second Opportunity Saint Paul learning community event of the year on November 29 features speaker Dr. Becky Evan, who will present on the topic “Unconscious Bias.”

Part of our human experience is our brain’s ability to continually make behind-the-scenes decisions to get through our day efficiently. This unconscious bias is mostly a good thing; it keeps us alive, interprets what is safe, and creates mental shortcuts to make sense of everything coming our way. However, it’s important to understand how unconscious bias negatively affects our thoughts and behaviors.

This interactive session will help us understand what unconscious bias is, how it manifests itself in our relationships, and how we can take steps to create more innovative, caring, and inclusive relationships with those around us.

Dr. Evan’s core belief in diversity and inclusive workspaces is reflected in her education and work experiences. She received her bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies, worked at domestic violence shelters, led anti-violence programs, and has been a college professor on topics of diversity and inclusion at Iowa State University. While earning her doctorate degree, her research centered on the experiences of lesbians who are executives in Fortune 500 companies. Currently she is a professor at Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities.

Opportunity Saint Paul Learning Community Event
Thursday Nov 29, 6pm -9pm
The Wilder Foundation

Learn more about Opportunity Saint Paul or contact Sarah Peterka at 651-789-3853 or speterka@interfaithaction.org to get involved.

26 October 2018 . Comment


Interfaith Community Gathers for “Bringing Faith to Life” Breakfast

Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter talks with breakfast guests

Nearly 300 volunteers, donors and faith and community leaders gathered early on October 25 at Mount Zion Temple for Interfaith Action’s annual “Bringing Faith to Life” breakfast. Energy and commitment best described the mood in the room!

Joyce Ester from Normandale Community College (and a member of Interfaith’s board of directors) welcomed the group and introduced “Mr. D.,” also known as the beloved Mr. Thomas Draskovic, Hunkpapa Lakota from Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota and a Lakota culture teacher at American Indian Magnet School. He read a beautiful blessing in Lakota and then translated it into English.

“The Community Gets to Choose” was the title of Interfaith Action executive director Randi Ilyse Roth’s inspiring message to the crowd. Her talk reinforced Interfaith’s belief that if we harness the untapped volunteer power of faith and spiritual communities, we can make major progress building economic opportunity in Greater Saint Paul — we just must choose to do so.

Breakfast attendees got to see the premiere of Interfaith’s new video and to hear from two program participants: Victoria Abraham, who works with Interfaith Action’s Department of Indian Work (DIW), shared her story of getting assistance and then work at DIW. Sage Demarce shared his thanks for the stability Project Home offered him and his family. They now are living in their own apartment.

The morning concluded with Louis André Fischer, an Interfaith Action board member, encouraging the crowd to share their resources to advance the mission and vision of the organization — and they did! We were thrilled by the generosity of our community.

Thank you to all who shared this truly special morning and made an investment in the work of Interfaith Action.

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!