Just up the street from the boarded-up Chicago Lake Liquors in south Minneapolis, four teens plant herbs and flowers.
It’s a hot afternoon on July 23, and they’re using an empty plot of land a couple blocks west of Midtown Global Market, at the corner of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue.
Two lots north, they’ve also placed potted flowers throughout the charred bones of a burnt-out section of Chicago Avenue, where buildings used to stand. Now, the heaps of rubble almost look like a sculpture garden, where red, purple, and pink sprout out of a collapsed beam.
“We’ve provided four paid jobs for these youth, and we want more kids,” says Mary Claire Francois, an 18-year-old nursing student at St. Catherine University.
Two months after Francois launched a GoFundMe campaign, she has now raised more than $21,000. She’s hoping to raise more as part of a sponsored nonprofit she launched weeks into fundraising, called The Real Minneapolis.
Its mission is to serve the south Minneapolis community where she grew up and still lives. In the beginning, that meant providing for George Floyd’s memorial site. Now, Francois and the rest of her four-person team are paying the teens, all people of color, $14.50 an hour to tend the plants over the course of 60 hours this summer.
“We want to be able to support more people and provide them with an opportunity and a job,” Francois says, “to do something that they can carry with them the rest of their lives.”
GoFundMe to Garden
Francois’ “George Floyd Intersection of Hope” campaign kicked off on GoFundMe in late May with a goal of $1,000. She thought she’d provide water and other basic needs at Floyd’s memorial site, which is nine blocks from where she lives.
But as she met people on cleanup outings across the city, and watched non-perishables, hygiene supplies, and other donations pile up at her neighborhood community center, she realized money could work longer-term.
“These people need so much more than granola bars and just seeing people walking around and cleaning up their street,” she says.
In early June, the GoFundMe bankrolled hand-sanitizing stations, tables, tents, port-a-potties, security, medics, and other needs at the intersection. Francois partnered with neighbor Valerie Quintana, the 51-year-old owner of Bright Spot Sober Living, and Quintana’s friend Maggie Peltoniemi, 45, who lives in the Whittier neighborhood and runs a cleaning company.
By the end of that month, they had launched a website for The Real Minneapolis and spent about $13,000, mostly on the memorial site. Marni Lewis-Harvey, 46, a local marketing and brand manager who has a history of activism in south Minneapolis, she says, helped with the logo, website, Facebook page, and marketing materials.
They also partnered with local farmers to set up a free produce market outside the Phelps Recreation Center, a block south of the intersection. Food went fast, donations slowed down, and Francois started to feel frustrated.
“I was angry that all these large corporations had stepped in and donated to some big organization, but the community that I live in—and the community that I’ve been working day and night to help—hasn’t seen any of that money,” she says.
A Note to R.T. Rybak
Fired up, she wrote an email to former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak. Today, Rybak is CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, a nonprofit worth hundreds of millions that invests in charitable projects throughout the metro.
“It was a late-night letter that I was kind of just not really focused on,” she says.
But Rybak responded.
He gave the Real Minneapolis a small donation to work with the four teens, Quintana says. The Graves Foundation, a community-building nonprofit based nearby, offered the land as part of a long-term strategy to “activate” the corner with neighbors’ input, according to the foundation. And gardening supplies came donated from Home Depot.
Francois and Quintana plan for the teens to cook using what they grow—basil in a dish with mozzarella and tomatoes, for example. “That’s an actionable skill you need for the rest of your life,” Quintana says.
They have more plans, which would require greater financial support, including a mentorship program and swimming lessons for Black youth in the Twin Cities. Quintana says The Real Minneapolis intends to partner with a professional photographer on a free series of photography classes, too. The August 7 pilot shoot for the project, called “Black Men Raising Hope,” is to feature Black men with their children, as captured by eight or 10 BIPOC students in south Minneapolis, Quintana says.
The day before the garden’s opening on July 24, Francois plugged a garden hose into the corner fire hydrant, with permission from the city to tap Minneapolis water. She couldn’t have predicted this summer. But she says it’s something she needs to do.
“I have had the privilege to be educated,” she tells me. “Because I have a white mom, and she really pushed for us to be in private schools, I’ve been private school educated my whole life.” Francois is biracial—her father is a Black immigrant from Saint Lucia—and she says that was the starting point for her GoFundMe.
“I’ve had the opportunity to educate myself, and now I’m using that, because I have the skin color of other black people out here,” she says. “That’s really what continues to drive me. How can I help people who look like me, who haven’t had as nice of an opportunity in life as I have been blessed with?”
To learn more about The Real Minneapolis, click here.