“The last few years, the park has been good,” Ken Strobel of the Stevens Square Community Organization Safety Team said about Stevens Square Park. “Things have quieted down.” Park Police have lessened their patrols of the area. And the need for consistent community engagement has died down.
A few years ago, the same could not be said.
When residents who lived around Stevens Square Park noticed a group of young men routinely hanging around the park, drinking and arguing throughout the day, they started to feel uncomfortable utilizing the park at the same time.
“For a while we were having a lot of people coming there, drinking, hanging out. I'm talking like thirty, forty people,” Ken Strobel of Stevens Square Community Organization Safety Team said. “And they were just kind of disrupting things.”
But how to address the problem became a challenge. Some residents called the police when fights broke out. Paramedics had to come out from time to time. Other residents didn’t want to call the police. Those residents would film the police interacting with the park users, telling them they didn’t have to leave the park.
It was 2021, the height of the pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd and subsequent civil unrest wasn’t far removed from people’s memories. Public spaces, like parks, were at a premium as safe areas to socialize as people navigated COVID-19.
“We weren’t like, ‘those are bad people, you need to make them go away,” Strobel said about the large gathering of people at the park. “We're like, ‘Okay, what can we do? How can we help these people? How can we help, you know, without traumatizing or terrorizing these people? Are there any community groups you can reach out to?”
Although a few years removed, this story of how a Park & Rec community group worked with nearby residents and struggling community members is one example of how culturally relevant, non-violent approaches to conflict can result in lasting change.
The data show the lasting change, too. In 2022, 911 calls to Stevens Square Park dropped significantly. According to Park & Rec Board data, there were 116 emergency calls made to Stevens Square Park in 2021. In 2022, there were 37.
Abdirahman Mukhtar, with the Park & Rec Board’s Community Connections and Violence Prevention department, worked with Stevens Square residents like Strobel and the people gathering at the park, to find a solution to the dissonance.
Mukhtar brought the StreetReach team with him. The team is a part of the Park & Rec Board’s Community Connections and Violence Prevention department and engages directly with people in the Minneapolis Parks system.
“We don’t mind having that uncomfortable conversation,” Mukhtar said. “We don’t mind telling them, look, this is affecting other people. This is a public space.” StreeReach team members were at Stevens Square Park consistently and stayed at the park longer than their conversations with park goers.
StreetReach workers wear orange shirts with the StreetReach logo so they are easily identifiable. Maureen Wells, a longtime Stevens Square resident, would look for the orange shirts to know it was a safe time to come around the park in 2021.
“They were amazing,” Wells said of the StreetReach workers. Wells said she hadn’t felt safe enough to go to the park for a few years. And while, to her, the StreetReach team didn’t take care of the whole problem, she felt safe enough to walk her dog around the park again.
Starting with the difficult conversations
The StreetReach team took a community-engagement approach to talking with the people who were being disruptive in Stevens Square.
“[The StreetReach team] wouldn't just yell at them and say go away or anything like that, but they would just be there,” Strobel recounted.
The StreetReach team used a few strategies to engage with the park users. StreetReach members would talk directly with the people who were being disruptive, host conversations in the park with coffee and Somali tea, and hold big events in the park. The goal was to activate the space.
Through the five coffee and tea conversations held in the park, people shared the hardships that they were experiencing, and many people needed culturally-specific resources. The Community Connections and Violence Prevention department connected with Somali community and agency representatives, local imams, housing resources, and people who could help navigate how to get vital records replaced, like identification cards.
“We decided to start the day in a positive way,” Mukhtar said. “Bring coffee, and you know, have conversations with them. Because the challenge was by the time we get a phone call, or when we show up at five o'clock, three o'clock, four, they're already drunk.”
Mukhtar said those conversations were the most engaged sessions the team has had.
“Some of them wanted to get into recovery. It was tough, because they didn't have someone who was pushing them in, supporting them to make that happen,” Mukhtar said.
Bringing together multiple communities
In 2021, Community Connections staff worked with community partners to hold two events in Stevens Square Park, a performance of “Seussical the Musical” and a basketball and BBQ gathering.
The events weren’t planned to exclude the young men gathering in the park.
“It was both the neighborhood organization’s approach and the [StreetReach] approach, that if they wanted to participate, they could,” Strobel said.
Mukhtar has a lot of personal experience working with young people and building relationships. Enough to know that when the K-12 programming stops, the need for young adult programming ramps up.
The basketball and BBQ event created a safe space for young adults to get free food, listen to music, and shoot some hoops.
“Everyone loves food and music,” Mukhtar said.
Mukhtar says one of the biggest challenges is creating a safe space for everyone to enjoy the park. So the event also included a magician for the younger kids.
“Once you create that space, everyone wants to enjoy that green space,” Mukhtar said.
Mukhtar attributes the success of the StreetReach and Community Connection program to its focus on the human connection.
“Even when you talk to them, still, whether they’re unhoused or unsheltered, or they're drunk or dealing with mental illness, you have to always be mindful of how you treat people,” Mukhtar said. “And I think the main reason we're very successful is really focusing on that human connection and being mindful.”
Mukhtar said he would like to see communities bring back that human connection themselves.
“I think everyone's minding their business. When you do that, then you normalize some behaviors,” Mukhtar said. “Because you're not even acknowledging the person and saying hello, it becomes a challenge for you to talk to them or address that issue when it's not a positive or something that you're okay with.”
The collective community engagement that the Community Connections team does with park events works towards bringing the congregated groups together.
StreetReach started in 2014 as a partnership with the City of Minneapolis Public Health Department. The original program was part of the gang prevention initiative working with young people between the ages of 11 -17 years old. The program has expanded since then and is no longer affiliated with the City of Minneapolis.