We sat down with Soren Stevenson, candidate for City Council in Ward 8, to talk about his background, why he decided to run, where he stands on a couple major issues like housing, public safety, transit, snow removal, and more. This is part of a series of interviews of people running for City Council – if you have any questions or feedback, use the “Add Context” box at the bottom of this piece.
Southwest Voices: What made you want to run for this office?
Soren Stevenson: What drives me is that I graduated from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs [at the University of Minnesota] in May of 2020. A week later, George Floyd was killed. Then, like so many others, I wasn’t going to sit by and let another murder happen without doing or saying anything. I didn’t want to let him down. Like so many others, I was out protesting, and a week in, MPD shot me in the face and I lost my left eye and sense of smell.
I was brought to this. I didn’t ask for this. I certainly feel like I’ve had to make a lot of meaning out of what happened to me, and what it means to be me. I think getting this injury in 2020 in Minneapolis really messed with me for a while. I had to figure out what I was going to do next.
I’ve come to realize that this injury is a call to action for me. I know what I know and I know what I’ve experienced. I need to stand up and do something about it. I think we all have a responsibility to bring about the kinds of changes that need to happen. I see myself as having a particular responsibility because I have experienced this.
In a way, I’m one of the lucky ones because I survived my interaction with MPD. Not everyone survives their interaction with MPD. To those that wish they could stand up and say, this isn’t right. This isn’t how you do public safety. This isn’t keeping you safe, or keeping me safe. Enough. We need safety for everyone, whether they’re in the community or interacting with police.
My profession is housing policy. I’ve been working at a non-profit that does housing co-ops. I don’t work there anymore. I was working at a building that’s on Pillsbury in the 30s [editor's note: referring to the street number]. When the owner told the residents he was going to sell the building, the owner got the residents together and got almost unanimous support for buying the building. Then, the city stepped in and put its finger on the scale so a giant corporation could buy the building as opposed to the residents.
This city keeps going out of its way to harm residents and being on the side of big corporations and officers who are not accountable to the community, or who do not have the interests of the community at heart. That’s the side that the city has regularly taken. I don’t think that’s right. I think this city needs to be a partner with residents and with everyone that lives here, so that we can have a kinder and safer Minneapolis like we all deserve. We know that we can all have that if we made the necessary changes.
Coming out of 2020, a lot of people said that there’s a mandate on the City Council to make changes and having a kinder and safer city. Current leadership hasn’t made it happen. I think we know where we can be, but current leadership isn’t taking us there.
SWV: What has surprised you about the process so far?
SS: There are a lot of details that you can only navigate if you know someone, or know someone who knows someone. I’m not someone that knows the ins-and-outs of how to run for office. It’s been surprising how not straightforward it is. Another surprising thing is how busy I am, and also how energizing it is. I think those things have surprised me most.
SWV: How do you feel about the Minneapolis Police Department?
SS: I don’t think the department is living up to what it can and should be. They have personally done me very wrong. I’m not happy about that. But it’s beyond the police department.
It’s about how the City Attorney’s office admitted that their strategy was to fight me tooth-and-nail so that I would give up and take a bad deal. It’s the fact that nobody from the city ever reached out to say, this is wrong, and this shouldn’t have happened. I know all the lawyers would say that you can never do that because it’s an admission of guilt, but this is a city full of people. People treat each other with respect.
The police department is just the ones that carry the guns. Beyond the police department not being accountable to residents, and not treating everyone including our Black and Brown and Indigenous neighbors with respect and dignity like we all deserve, other city departments don’t view their job as to be servants of people that live in Minneapolis.
SWV: What public safety policies would you pursue in office?
SS: It’s really important that we have the right responder for the right incident. When you call 911 in the middle of the night because someone is screaming on the street, it’s really important that the person that shows up is ready to deal with mental health crises or substance abuse issues. The person that shows up shouldn’t be someone that will brutalize that person.
You need to be able to trust that the person that shows up to that call is ready to keep that person safe. We can build a safer Minneapolis by getting people that are troubled the help that they need so that instead of yelling on your street, they are housed or in treatment or wherever they need to be. My biggest thing would be expanding who responds to calls.
What it does mean is that the person that shows up gets there quickly. But the person that shows up isn’t always going to be an armed officer. When an armed officer does show up, that person needs to be accountable to you, and not someone that makes you fear for your life or the life of the person you called about.
SWV: What do you think is the best way to reduce crime in the city?
SS: I think it’s getting people that are at-risk of crime, whether they’re having mental health issues, or drug issues, or adverse childhood experiences, and getting them the help they need so they aren’t yelling on the street at three in the morning or rummaging through someone’s garage. If we get them the help they need, we can help bring the burden of unsafe behavior down and deal with people that are doing wrong and know that they’re doing wrong.
SWV: You have a background in housing policy. How would you push to change the city’s housing policies?
SS: Everyone deserves a dignified place to call home. That’s my guiding star. That includes both the dignity of the place. There’s a lot that goes into dignity. It needs to be accessible from a cost standpoint. It needs to be accessible if you’re handicapped. It needs to be a place that you have control or a sense of trust in your future in.
I support a tenant opportunity to purchase policy, where if you live somewhere and the owner wants to sell it, you get a chance to buy it. People who live in the city already should have a stake in their lives and in their future right where they are right now.
SWV: How do you feel about rent control?
SS: I’m for a strong rent control.
SWV: What does that mean?
SS: Three percent cap [editor’s note: setting a maximum rent increase of 3% per year], no exceptions. I think we need to work with developers about what can make them want to develop things. I think we need to simplify their rules so that local developers and people that know how to do construction or are architects can get into development. But profit can’t come off the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our city.
I’m all about working with developers to figure out how we can build things in our city, but that can’t come at the expense of people having a dignified place to live, and part of dignity is being able to afford the place that you live.
SWV: Has looking at what has happened since St. Paul passed its rent control ordinance changed your thinking at all?
SS: It’s certainly informed me on the process and the dangers. I think the changes to the rent control policy has made it more harmful. It’s been instructive in terms of what can happen, or how the development community can react initially.
If we were to pass a rent control I would be all in on speaking with developers about how we can make housing still happen in our city. A red line for me is that it can’t come at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our city.
SWV: The state legislature is talking about putting a lot of money into transit. The city will likely get a chunk of that. How would you like to see us prioritize that money in the city?
SS: Before we started recording, we talked about how hard it is to get diagonally across the city, from the northwest to the southeast and vice versa. That’s an issue we need to look at.
In Ward 8, people are finding out they can’t get down 38th. That bus line has been diverted by George Floyd Square. That bus line also runs infrequently at peak times. I would like to see smaller buses running more frequently. Obviously, that’s not something the City Council of Minneapolis controls.
I want to see more transit, and I want to see it be something where you don’t have to plan so far in advance to make it to places on time. Transit needs to be something that you can just rely on. That’s not something you can do right now.
SWV: On the topic of George Floyd Square, the city’s been working through a listening process to figure out a long-term plan for the space. What do you think should happen there?
SS: The city is in a listening process. I have been disappointed with the lack of general conversation. I know the meetings, which they call “co-creation meetings,” have been going on. I feel that a lot of people in and around the square in the ward feel like they have not been a part of the conversation, or that a really robust conversation has not happened. I think that’s really let us down.
This place is a defining place in our city right now, whether we like it or not. We should be having a much stronger conversation about what we want out of this place or what it should look like. We need to figure out what needs to change for community members to feel like they’re ready for something new. I just don’t think that conversation has been happening to the level that it needs to happen.
SWV: Public Works was one of the big issues people identified as one they wanted us to focus our coverage on. Are there any Public Works policies you would push to change, be it snow removal policies or anything else?
SS: I’m really curious to see if we can get a study on municipal sidewalk shoveling. I’m really curious to see what that study comes up with.
I think the city should almost certainly take over the Pedestrian Priority Network. It’s about 300 miles. Our sidewalks are a public good, not a summertime luxury.
The Bancroft neighborhood has a shoveling program. They have a goal of shoveling the entire neighborhood. I’m hoping to connect with them about what they’re doing and what they’re seeing. I’m very curious to see how we can get the entire city shoveled to the level that it needs to be shoveled.
I don’t think the sidewalks are accessible in the winter to even young, fit people like myself. After a recent snow in December, I walked to the Post Office. It’s about two miles. It took three hours and I took a nap afterwards because I was exhausted from climbing over ice banks and snow banks and going around this and around that. That’s not the sign of an accessible network.
SWV: What would you do differently than Andrea Jenkins?
SS: I have a vision, and I think I share this vision with a lot of people in the ward. I think this city should be a place that’s kinder and safer. I think that’s a city that treats everyone with dignity. I think it’s a city that has a public safety department and everything that’s housed in it is keeping us safe in the ways that we need.
We aren’t getting to that place with the current leadership that we have. I think a lot of people in the ward have a vision for where we could be, but see that we aren’t on our way there. I want to take us there.
SWV: What’s something about you as a person that you think a lot of people may not know?
SS: Most people don’t know me at all! If they do know me, they know that I was shot in the face. As a kid, I lived overseas in Kyrgyzstan.
SWV: What were you doing in Kyrgyzstan?
SS: My parents were missionaries.
SWV: Any other issues we didn’t cover that you want to talk about?
SS: We didn’t really cover the fact that we’re in a climate crisis, or that we’re in a pollution crisis in certain neighborhoods. I think we need to address our environmental justice issues and the environmental crisis head on. I support the Urban Farm at East Phillips. I think that neighborhood and North Minneapolis have been burdened with pollution for a century now. I think it’s time we listen to those neighborhoods about the asthma, and the heart issues, and what industrial waste has been doing to their neighborhoods and to our planet.
I want a Minneapolis where we have healthy people on a healthy planet.