Part 3 in 4 part series

“My question has to do with opportunities, said Bishop Richard Howell.  “What does this project mean for jobs and business opportunities for our communities?”

“A large highway project coming through carries with it hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in infrastructure, said Chris Hoberg, who manages community engagement for the project.

 “A portion of the work happens before we enter construction and that has to do with decision-making, designing, and outreach.  Working with Stairstep, for example, gives us new ways to engage with the community and be intentional the way that we ought to be intentional,” Hoberg said.

The exchange was part of a rich virtual Town Hall Meeting last month.

Stairstep Foundation CEO Alfred Babington-Johnson and Conversations with Al McFarlane moderator, Al McFarlane co-hosted the Town Hall and introduced an initiative to support Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) efforts to broaden engagement around the project for African American and African immigrant residents who may be impacted by improvement considerations.

Forum participants included: Reverend Dr. Francis Tabla, senior pastor Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park, Bishop Richard Howell, the Diocesan Bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and Pastor of Shiloh Temple Church in North Minneapolis, Reverend Cyreta Oduniyi, a pastoral leader at Liberty Church in North Minneapolis and Superintendent McKinley Moore, pastor of Jehovah Jireh Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn Park.

Babington said the panelists were part of an august team of church leaders whose churches and members are situated in or live and work along the Hwy 254/I94 Corridor in Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and North Minneapolis.

“We have assembled a leadership team of distinguished folks in the community who are partnering with us. The team includes Reverend Steven Cole, pastor of Christ Triumphant Outreach Church in Brooklyn Park, which is a congregation made up of Minnesotans who are originally from West Africa. The Reverend Ezra Fagge is pastor of Unity Temple Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn Center. Reverend Rozenia Fuller, is pastor of Good News Baptist Church in North Minneapolis. Reverend Jerry McAfee is represented on our team by Fortent Holly. Reverend McAfee is pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in North Minneapolis. Reverend Harding Smith, pastor of the Spiritual Church of God in Robbinsdale, is also originally from West Africa. The Reverend Gaither-Robinson, is pastor of Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist church in North Minneapolis.” Babington said.

Hoberg said, “Engagement is an ever changing thing. What we're trying to do is be intentional about reaching the African and African-American communities and others as well.

“We want to make sure that we get a good cross section of the community and what the community's concerns and values are, so that we can bring that into our decision-making. Being intentional about reaching out to communities that exist along these corridors is just something that we need to be doing,” he said.

“We are trying to define the problems that exist on the corridor that we're looking to fix. That's the first step. And then we move to what are things that we could build that could address those problems or improve those problems.

“There are different combinations of all the different things that we've come up with that could address those issues. Now, what are the impacts? Impacts extend from wetlands to historic properties, to social economics and all manner of things that we can measure in terms of impacts or benefits to a project.

“So, when we talk about environmental justice and social and economic impacts, I think it's making sure that we're cognizant of the communities that we exist in, we're being intentional in our outreach and making sure folks are informed.

“We understand what Decision A might mean for a marginalized community versus, a broader community, versus Decision B,” Hoberg said.

John Tompkins, multimodal planning director for MnDOT’s Metro District, said, “When we talk about equity and environmental justice, those issues came from somewhere. They evolved through the lack of communication, lack of education, the lack of desire to provide information. One reason why I wanted to get involved with this project is because, at least in my mind, no community should be underserved and underrepresented. So, on this project and all projects that MnDOT takes on, we want to change that. We want to say this community is informed. This community is educated on the process. This is how this community is impacted. And this is what they are saying. We can't change everything, but we at least we can hear every voice.

Project Manager Jerome Adams said, “There are going to be some tough decisions to be made or the next three years, and this is why public engagement is important because there are pros and cons to doing a project. Again, the project is both on I94 from Fourth Street North up to 694, and then on 252 from 694 to 610. And in a way, even though it's one project, those are two very different segments. So, we did do previous studies in 2018 and 2016, and they came up with an alternative.

“I want to emphasize that we have not decided on the alternative, and we're going to embark on a three-year process to look at alternatives again, but in those previous recommendations they advised of getting rid of the signals on 252 and replacing them with interchanges,” he said.

“When that happens, someone's house is going to get demolished in those alternatives. And so, that's an example of an impact. Now, we don't take demolishing someone's house lightly, and again, it gets back to reminding ourselves why we're here.

“We're here because people are literally dying on 252, and we want to see if we can prevent that. It may mean that someone's house gets demolished. Now, you asked about environmental justice and racial justice.

 (Pull quoted highlighted text)“In the United States and the State of Minnesota, there has been a history of demolishing a Black person's home in order to save a white person's home. We need to make very clear that we're not going to do that on this project, that we're not going to target the Bipoc community and say, ‘We're going to build this project at your expense.’ We need to build an equitable project that does not follow past injustices,” Adams said.

“I can tell you what does not allay fears, and that is if I just sat here and said, ‘trust me’. But that does not work. So, how can I demonstrate in good faith, what we're doing versus just saying, trust me.

“And again, we haven't predetermined an alternative. There are many different places you can put interchanges on 252 and many different things you can do with 94 as far as lanes, Adams said. “We will look at that, and make sure we're showing that to the public, showing the benefits and negative impacts of each one. And hopefully together, we get to a place where we say, ‘This is the project we want to build.’"

Returning to Bishop Howell’s question about jobs and business opportunity, Hoberg said, “We are mindful of who is doing the work in project development. If there are firms, groups or individuals in the communities, we want to be aware of that and see if there are opportunities to work with them.

“Once we get to a construction project, we want to come up with a well thought out plan of how to do a couple of things: work with the labor unions that plug into that workforce need to offer training, get people plugged into the trades that can work in highway heavy construction. And, identify resources available that we can plug into to make training and jobs more accessible to folks? And from a timing perspective, when should we be working with the unions to develop these trainings and offer these trainings? Because it doesn't make any sense for anyone to get out of concrete finishing school at the end of October when no one's going to be pouring concrete for another six months. So, part of what we're doing is trying to be mindful of what are the labor needs going to be, what resources do we have available to connect people, to training and job opportunities in highway heavy so that they could have the opportunity to work on a project.

Next week, part 4 of the 4 part series.

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