North Neighbors: Danielle Tietjen leads by learning
Longtime Folwell resident Danielle Tietjen knows how to breathe new life into stagnant spaces. From the vacant lot next to her home that she transformed into a whimsical “Story Garden” for neighborhood kids, to the Folwell Neighborhood Association, which she helped dissolve and rebirth with an outpouring of community support this year, Tietjen has shown she is unafraid of questioning the status quo and willing to do hard, collaborative work to bring about transformational change.
This month, the community activist, writer, gardener, and public speaker sat down with North News to discuss her love for her beautiful, challenging life in North Minneapolis with her husband Paul and their three kids Noah (12), Caleb (10), and Eleanor (7).
By Kenzie O’Keefe | Editor
How would you describe yourself? I’m a fierce observer of people, and I love to create space. I love to sew, and I’m a ferocious reader. Sometimes, I feel like such a mess. My kids are getting bullied at school. My husband feels ignored. We are far from the people we want to be. I have much to learn, and I’m eager to do that. I want to look back on my life and say that I lived it, and I used what I had to its fullest and completion. That I could learn what it means to sacrifice and put other people first because I believe that’s good and true to the world I want to live in. I can be kind of intense. I can be loud but also quiet. I love my alone time yet really love people.
Your and your family have lived at 35th and Humboldt Ave. N for 16 years. What brought you to North Minneapolis originally? When Paul and I got married, this was where we could afford to live. We used the money from our wedding to put a down payment on this place with our friend Jeff. We thought this would be our starter home. Between the economy crash and the tornado, we are still upside down on our mortgage and can't sell, but our hearts and life are now invested here.
Despite not really being able to leave, I get the sense that you choose to stay and lean into this place. There are stereotypes about North Minneapolis and then the news confirms them. Nothing can ever hold all the nuanced truth of this place. I fell in love with being here because it makes me uncomfortable. I’ve had to wrestle and let go and readjust my false narratives and privilege. Our house has been broken into about half a dozen times. Guns have gone off in the house next door. SWAT teams kick down doors. There are real issues, but there is a life-giving force here too.
Explain that force. I’m so thankful for this community – for the truth and knowledge I’ve gained in living here. It’s empowering to see the strength of this community and the way that we show up to fight for one another. It has profoundly impacted me. I will always choose being hopeful and looking at the positive, because if I don’t, it’s easy to get lost. I don’t want my heart to be so poisoned by bitterness that I see people as objects or projects. There are people who will discredit me because I choose to tell the positive. If I can only hold one of those things, then I’m going to choose the gift. I don’t want the toxic undercurrent of classism to slip out of my mouth because my heart has been hardened. I don’t want my children to hear that. That will stop with me. I will not pass on the tones of racism, classism, sexism because I’ve been so poisoned.
Who do you hope your children will grow up to be? Paul and I recognize we’re raising privileged children in a global world and there’s a responsibility in that. My children come to meetings with me. I explain the responsibility we have to the community in which we live. I want them to be open and unafraid and self-aware and socially conscious. I want them to be warriors for justice and workers for peace. I never want their hearts closed to hate and judgement. I want them to be honest – honest with themselves and others, honest in the way that they live life. I know they’ll be creative because they already are. I care deeply about their character. Their capacity to love is important to me. I am fiercely in love with my children and deeply in love with my husband, but my love for this community is deep too. It can be hard to hold three great loves of your life.
Who in the community inspires you? In this community, there are so many who tirelessly show up to work for North. In regards to justice work, a few come to mind. I really love the work of Marcus Kar, my fellow gardener. His heart and passion for youth, his phenomenal history and story and perspective on life. His gift of growing food and his ability to be in space and to turn it into something vibrant and living is inspiring. DeVon Nolan – she garners all of my attention when she opens her mouth. I am attuned to her. I want to absorb and learn from her. I have learned so much from Roxxane O’Brien. I don’t know how she lives with all the hard truth that she does. She teaches me to be unafraid. She teaches me to show up in space more powerfully. She is necessary. Kenya McKnight and DA Bullock inspire me too, especially on social media. Malik Holt-Shabazz from CURA is a mentor of mine. He’s a dynamic leader who leads from behind.
How did you get involved with the Folwell Neighborhood Association (FNA)? Two summers ago, I needed a flyer printed for the Story Garden. Someone told me that our neighborhood association did that, but I didn’t even know it existed. I was curious so I went to the FNA’s annual meeting. Recently I have been trying to put my body in spaces I can learn more from. Last year there were no new applicants for the board. I left, and wasn’t sure what I had gotten from being there. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into the FNA for community outreach and engagement, but I’ve lived here 16 years, and I’ve never been door-knocked or flyer-ed, and I know other people haven’t either. Soon after that, my neighbor Nancy and I ended up applying for the board together. We were told that our applications were denied because they were looking for diversity on their board. We’re both white. I completely get that; I had wanted to be on the board to work to work myself out of the position.
But you stayed involved? I kept coming to meetings and I said whether I’m on the board or not, I’m still going to be an active community member. Then they reoffered me the position a few months later. Those unwritten rules are the abusive ones. Kristel Porter, Executive Director of the Cleveland Neighborhood Association, was the one who convinced me to say yes to the offer.
How did she convince you? A big reason why I wanted to get involved is that I think the system needs to show up differently for over-burdened residents. There are so many resources out there for folks but there is a serious gap in connecting people to those resources. We need an entity that would be hyper-localized that would work for you, walk alongside you. Whatever the issue is, we know where the resources are. We can help you connect with them. In a large systems capacity and village capacity. Kristel said, "why build something different when you have a neighborhood org right here that could be that? The system is already set up." So, I said yes.
FNA now has an entirely new board. In many ways, you’ve lead the fight to re-envision it, but you wouldn’t call yourself its leader. Explain. I don’t want to be the face of something that was such a collective effort. There’s a responsibility in the privilege I carry. I know I am not the first to have a different vision for what neighborhood organizations can do or be. I’m honored that I could use my time and privilege to be able to push at this to be able to open it up.