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.

30 May 2018 . Comment

Building Opportunity: What does it mean?

“Opportunity moments can change the trajectory of a person’s life,” said Joshua Mbanusi, the keynote speaker at Opportunity of Saint Paul’s learning community event on May 22. Using his own story as the backdrop to a content-rich presentation, Mr. Mbanusi talked about the moment in his life when a high school adviser opened a door for him and exposed him to new ways of thinking about his future.

That message resonated with the group of Opportunity Saint Paul volunteers and partners who gathered May 22 at Mount Zion Temple. Mr. Mbanusi defined opportunity moments as those times “when your own unique blend of personal drive and ingenuity is matched with public support from systems and institutions that show you windows of opportunities you may not have heard about or known.”

Mr. Mbanusi is a program manager at MDC, a nonprofit in Durham, North Carolina, that focuses on poverty alleviation across the South through improvements in education, employment, economic security, and strategic philanthropy. MDC’s research and reports provide the framework for the Opportunity Saint Paul program. His presentation also included eye-opening data regarding opportunity in Saint Paul.

The learning event also included an interfaith dialogue session led by Hamline University professor Earl Schwartz. Using texts from Deuteronomy 21: 1, 6, 7 and 8, as well as the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 38b, Professor Schwartz asked attendees to grapple with the “fatal left-undones” in our community.

Opportunity Saint Paul’s last learning community event of the year will take place July 26, as staff and volunteers gear up for the 2018-2019 program year.

14 May 2018 . Comment

Annual Assembly Builds “Habits of the Heart”

Clifton L. Taulbert addresses the Annual Assembly crowd.

Nearly 200 people gathered on Thursday, May 10, for Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul’s 2018 Annual Assembly. Our new venue this year was spectacular: the Klas Center at Hamline University. We were thrilled to be welcomed to the beautiful space by Sandy Klas, whose founding of The Arc in Minnesota has improved the lives of people with disabilities and their families in myriad ways.

Her welcome kicked off a spirited, hopeful evening with music by the talented Walter Chancellor Jr. and Brian Nielsen from Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project. The Honorable Lucinda Jesson, who serves on Interfaith Action’s board of directors, served as emcee. Daisy and Coco Leonard from Interfaith Youth Connection offered their heartfelt and unique prayers.

“Our interfaith community of 4,187 volunteers, 298 community partners and 1,000 donors built opportunity in 2017,” Executive Director Randi Ilyse Roth noted in her remarks to the crowd. “We are deeply grateful for the support and know that nothing can stop us when we work together.”

The Report to the Community multi-media presentation highlighted the impact supporters of Interfaith Action made possible in 2017, from meeting vital needs to providing quality, culturally relevant after-school enrichment, from packing 550 backpacks with supplies for success to helping 252 people prevent diabetes, and from launching the first cohort of Opportunity Saint Paul volunteers to providing 215 interfaith youth with leadership training and service opportunities.

Bruce Nerland, president of the Interfaith Action board, paid respect to retiring board members Betsy Keyes and Rev. Norma Rae Hunt. Those in attendance then voted to renew the terms of Sharon DeMark, Kirk Kleckner and Rev. Javen Swanson, and elect new board members Diane Benjamin, Suzanne Kelly, and Fr. Erich Rutten, plus Dr. David Misemer to the Interfaith Action Foundation board.

Board member Louis André Fischer presented the Interfaith Progress Award to Rev. Dr. Thomas Duke for his many years of leadership of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches and Saint Paul Interfaith Network. Ken Crea from the Catholic Church of Corpus Christi received this year’s Bringing Faith to Life Award for his extraordinary contribution to faith-based poverty relief in the Twin Cities.

Kristi Anderson, Interfaith’s long-time Director of Development and Communications, was recognized for her years of faithful service. Kristi is retiring this summer. Staff members Sara Liegl (Project Home) and Kathy Denman-Wilke (Department of Indian Works) were respected for their 20 and 5 years of service, respectively.

The evening culminated with Clifton L. Taulbert’s keynote address, “Eight Habits of the Heart: Connecting and Inspiring Community.” Mr. Taulbert challenged us to “affirm, inspire and include” in all we do. Fr. Erich Rutten closed the Annual Assembly with a fitting interfaith prayer:

Holy One, Creator of us all, Lord of the Universe, and Shepherd of our souls,
You have made us to be incredibly powerful – masters of commerce and industry and science,
But you have also made us humble – from the clay of the Earth.
You have made us in such a way that we are incomplete on our own.
You have made us like yourself – with a heart.
You have made us for relationship and for community…
To depend on one another, to nurture each other, for friendship, sisterhood and brotherhood.
You have made us with responsibility for each other.
It is YOU who gather us – knit us together in and through our service to each other.
We thank you for this evening,
For the amazing work of Interfaith Action.
We thank you for Clifton Taulbert’s message that reminds us of the habits of our hearts.
O Holy One, be with us, Guide us, Empower us in our community building
Help us to bring respect, affirmation, and inclusion.
Give us high expectations for ourselves, for each other, and for our community.
Give us the courage and hope we need in our work for justice and peace and the common good of all.

Watch the video of Mr. Taulbert’s keynote address.

1 May 2018 . Comment

Eight Habits of the Heart

Clifton L. Taulbert, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, businessman and entrepreneur, is the keynote speaker at Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul’s Annual Assembly on Thursday, May 10. His widely acclaimed book, Eight Habits of the Heart: Embracing the Values That Build Strong Families and Communities, is the foundation for his address.

So, what are those eight habits? Taulbert explains:

  • Nurturing Attitude: “In the community, a nurturing attitude is characterized by unselfish caring, supportiveness, and a willingness to share time…We were given time so it can be shared with others.”
  • Dependability: “Being there for others through all the times of their lives, a steady influence that makes tomorrow a welcome event.”
  • Responsibility: “Showing and encouraging a personal commitment to each task.”
  • Friendship: “When friendship is absent, people often live in envy and fear, and community breaks down.”
  • Brotherhood: “Brotherhood must be continually embraced to rid our communities of racial divisiveness and our homes of dinnertime conversations that put down people who are different from us.”
  • High Expectations: “Believe others can be successful, tell them so, and praise their accomplishments.”
  • Courage: “Courage always involves risk,” he says. “But for those who practice it, courage always confirms your own value.”
  • Hope: “Hope is believing in tomorrow—because you have learned to see with your heart.”

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear one of the country’s leading voices on how to inspire and build strong people and communities. Register here. 

1 May 2018 . Comment

Interfaith Action Bids Farewell to Project SPIRIT

Nine congregations came together in 1993 to create a place and space that blended academic and cultural enrichment activities for African American children. The program taught strength, perseverance, imagination, responsibility, integrity and talent — SPIRIT!

Over the years, numerous organizations have collaborated with Project SPIRIT to make it one of the community’s most exemplary after-school programs, including the Science Museum of Minnesota, Retired Senior Volunteers Program, St. Paul Urban League Senior’s Program, Mentoring 101, Model Cities Family Development Center, Reading Corp, Get Ready, and St. Paul Public Schools. Hundreds of children have benefited from the academic and cultural support of this program.

Last year, two major funders—United Way and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development—made categorial changes in their giving, which resulted in loss of nearly 80% of funding for Project SPIRIT. The Interfaith Action board voted to operate the program in 2017-18 with one-time bridge funding, while searching for new funding or a new host organization. “We have not found adequate support or another host,” said Executive Director Randi Ilyse Roth. “While we stand ready to do anything in our power to support the success of this program in another site, we do not have the reserves to fund it beyond this year.”

A final celebration of Project SPIRIT is planned for Friday, May 18, from 4-6 pm at Maxfield Magnet Elementary School with the current group of 75 Project SPIRIT students served at Maxfield and Jackson Magnet Elementary Schools. Past participants and partners are encouraged to attend.

1 May 2018 . Comment

Lawyers Help Community Power-Up

Randi Ilyse Roth, Executive Director

For about a year, the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church community near Selby and Dale engaged in what their pastor, Rev. Carl Walker, called “Community Power-Ups.” One Wednesday night each month, in partnership with deeply invested community organizations, Morning Star congregants enjoyed live jazz, a meal, and education about financial and legal matters. At the end of the year, the community collectively said, “We know we need lawyers here!”

That response sparked the birth of the Power-Up Legal Clinic. Working closely with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), Interfaith Action, and the Cardozo Society of the Jewish Federations of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the Church began to sponsor volunteer legal clinics every other Thursday afternoon.

The clinic has been going strong since November 2016, seeing 71 clients to date, with issues ranging from landlord-tenant problems to employment-related issues to financial/legal issues of surviving spouses to debt collection issues.

Each clinic session is staffed by two volunteer lawyers from Cardozo, and one or two lawyers from SMRLS. Every effort is made to place cases with lawyers who can complete the case if the problem can’t be solved right in clinic.

“This Clinic is delivering real value,” Rev. Walker attests. “It’s just what our community needs to enforce their rights.”

As word of mouth spreads, the clinic is beginning to attract clients from beyond the Morning Star community. We are actively advertising in CommonBond housing properties, at Wilder, nearby faith organizations, and neighborhood stores.

The clinic is one of the many ways Interfaith Action supports work that helps heal our community. A clinic client recently said to me, “You have no idea how it feels to be a Muslim woman in full hijab in the waiting room of a Black Baptist church knowing you’re about to tell your deepest problems to a Jewish lawyer!” This client was very pleased with the excellent services she received at clinic.

Interfaith Action is pleased to be a part of this important service to our community, a service that is stabilizing lives while engaging volunteers in meaningful work.

1 May 2018 . Comment

Ending Homelessness One Family at a Time

“It takes too long to move from shelter to stable housing.”

That’s the feedback Interfaith Action’s Project Home staff continually receive. Families report that they struggle to get necessary documents, to find affordable places to rent once placed in a scattered site program, and to track down their assessment caseworkers for assistance.

To address this situation, Project Home is hiring a rapid exit caseworker to reduce length of stay in a shelter and prevent renewed homelessness. Research has shown that this is an effective and efficient approach that improves outcomes for those using shelter services. In Hennepin County, this approach cut the average shelter stay in half, from 60 to 30 days.

Here’s how it works: The rapid exit caseworker receives the screening information from Ramsey County and, together with the family, develops a housing stabilization action plan that looks at all aspects of the family’s needs. The caseworker focuses primarily on the housing portion of the plan and uses community resources to address the family’s other needs. The caseworker helps the family gather necessary documents required for most housing programs and then works alongside them to locate and apply for affordable housing opportunities. The caseworker continues to provide case management for a period of six months after the family has moved into housing to support stabilization.

“Many of the families we serve struggle with the stress and trauma of homelessness, including sleep deprivation, which greatly reduces their ability to properly focus on their housing journey,” says Sara Liegl, director of Project Home. “We believe, by surrounding each family with the right supports, including this new rapid exit caseworker position, that we can end a family’s homelessness with a single stay in Project Home.”

4 April 2018 . Comment

Please Join Us

Please join us on May 10 at Hamline University’s Klas Center for the 2018 Annual Assembly.

By Randi Ilyse Roth, Executive Director

Interfaith Action’s Annual Assembly is right around the corner! This year we will convene on the evening of May 10 at the Klas Center at Hamline University, and Sandy Klas herself will welcome us to the space.

We start with a social hour that is always buzzing as we share delicious appetizers and a drink with old friends. We can catch up with the people who we never get to see enough, and we can meet the people we have heard so much about.

Once the program begins, we will find out how the judges sorted through the nominations to choose the winners of this year’s Interfaith Progress Award and Bringing Faith to Life Award. We will share a delicious meal, and then we will see a video presentation of Interfaith Action’s Report to the Community. We will elect Interfaith Action’s new board members, and then we will turn to the keynote talk.

We are honored that this year’s keynote speaker is Clifton Taulbert. Mr. Taulbert grew up in the Mississippi Delta during the era of legal segregation. Growing up in the deep South before the civil rights era presented Mr. Taulbert and his community with many challenges.

But Mr. Taulbert is coming here to teach us not about those challenges, but about the tremendous strengths that nourished him in his community. He’ll explain the “Eight Habits of the Heart” that his community taught to him. When United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor heard Mr. Taulbert speak about community, she found the messages so valuable that she invited him to speak to the full Supreme Court in the Library of Congress.

Mr. Taulbert has taken some time to learn about our Saint Paul community; he is excited to engage with us and to think with us about how we can build community rooted in the eight habits.

To sign up for the Annual Assembly, click here.

Warm Regards,

Randi Ilyse Roth
Executive Director

22 March 2018 . Comment

OSP Volunteer Highlight: Janet Murphy

Janet Murphy
Janet Murphy, Opportunity Saint Paul volunteer

Edited by Emma Grisanzio, Program Support Coordinator, Opportunity Saint Paul

PLACEMENT | Saint Paul Public Library
VOLUNTEER ROLE | Homework Helper

Janet volunteers with the Saint Paul Public Library at Arlington Hills Community Center. The homework center supervisor there shared this highlight with us:

“Janet Murphy…is a really great addition to our staff. She is extremely flexible and diligent in her work. She is especially helpful with some of our kids that struggle with learning disabilities. Thank you for connecting her to us. We really appreciate her

We asked Janet about her volunteer experience so far:

Why did you decide to join Opportunity Saint Paul?
“I decided to join Opportunity Saint Paul because I am a retired Saint Paul teacher, and am well aware of the needs of the students in this district. I can make the time to tutor regularly. I also know some people have difficulty tutoring math, and it is one of my strengths and something I love to do. It is important to me to stay connected to the community and contributing in as many ways as I can.”

What’s your favorite aspect of your volunteering?
“I love the diversity of people at the library where I volunteer. We get everyone from kindergarten to adults coming in for assistance or a quiet place to study. Some people are occasional and others are regulars, and we get to know them a bit. I never know what I am going to be doing, and that, too, is a challenge. At times, something will really strike me…like helping a high school student (Karen from Burma) read and find literary techniques and make connections with The Latehomecomer, about a Hmong family escaping though the jungle, across the Mekong River, to Thailand and eventually to Saint Paul. He was making so many connections to his own life and family. I always come home feeling fortunate to have the life I have and the family I have, and all of the good fortune I have had in my life.”

Thank you for your great work, Janet!

To learn more about Opportunity Saint Paul, please contact:

Zac Poxleitner
Director, Opportunity Saint Paul

7 March 2018 . Comment

OSP Volunteer Highlight: Josh Rebholz

Josh Rebholz
Josh Rebholz, Opportunity Saint Paul volunteer

Edited by Emma Grisanzio, Program Support Coordinator, Opportunity Saint Paul

PLACEMENT | Reading Partners
VOLUNTEER ROLE | Reading Tutor

Josh volunteers at Anishinabe Academy, where the site coordinator shared this story with us:

“Josh is an outstanding young man. He is dedicated to his student and it really shows. He is always on time or early for his session and always stays late to chat with me about his student in order to make sure he is doing everything he can to help her improve her reading. He even goes out of his way to bring cookies for the holiday celebration and even purchased his student a book set for Christmas. I have nothing but positive feedback for Josh!”

We asked Josh about his volunteer experience so far:

Why did you decide to join Opportunity Saint Paul?
“I joined OSP because I wanted to better educate myself about the issues we face in our community. Volunteering through OSP allows me to make an immediate impact and, hopefully, become a part of the long-term solution to these issues.”

What’s your favorite aspect of your volunteering?
“Seeing my student learn and improve every week is hugely gratifying. The collaboration between teachers and tutors is an awesome thing to be a part of. Getting the chance to make learning fun is something I will always look forward to!”

Thank you for your great work, Josh!

To learn more about Opportunity Saint Paul, please contact:

Zac Poxleitner
Director, Opportunity Saint Paul