Neighbors: A Mother's Love brings safety to the streets
By Kenzie O'Keefe Editor | David Pierini Photographer
Since the weather has warmed and violence has heated up, a small group of mothers, brothers, and people who care have been hitting the streets trying to keep the peace. Outside North High, on W Broadway Ave., and on Hennepin Ave. downtown, they connect, they deescalate, and they offer real help—food, toiletries, prayers, and occasionally even rent money.
The members of the "A Mother’s Love Initiative," as the group calls themselves, are committed to handling and healing of some of the city’s most vulnerable people, in its most violent places. Often, they're more effective than the police at managing crisis and restoring order.
They relate to the most terrible and transformative traumas people experience in Minneapolis—and they are uniquely positioned to help because of it. “We have that walk to talk,” said Cynthia Johnson, one member of the group.
They have kids with Master’s degrees, and kids who have been locked up. They have co-parented from prison. They have been raped, committed crimes, and been addicted. They’ve lost their loved ones to gun violence. They’ve been resilient, they’ve been homeless, and they’ve felt hopeless.
This month, the group’s founder Lisa Clemons and a few of her team members—Alfred Flowers Jr. (AJ), Nona Champion, Jamar Nelson, Cynthia Johnson, and Anthoni McMorris spoke to North News about meeting people where they’re at, partnering with the police, and how to actually end gun violence.
Tell us about your group. How do you explain it to people who meet you for the first time? Lisa Clemons: A Mother’s Love was started by a diverse group of African American women to address issues that surrounded the single mother. You hear about the kids who are in trouble coming from single parent homes, predominately mothers. We felt like the mother, the black mother especially, was being ignored in the equation. We work to make sure we are reaching African American mothers and fathers, and that we were reaching our African American boys and daughters too.
What do your efforts look like, week to week?
Lisa: We do outreach. We bring resources to people who are not coming to [nonprofits]. We respond to crime scenes to assist in helping those who are traumatized. We follow up with crime victims. Once the shooting is over that doesn’t mean the trauma is over. We make sure families’ needs are met.
Nona Champion: We go to the hot spots to make sure the kids are safe, and that they don’t be fighting. If they’re fighting, we try to break it up before the cops come. We go out there, introduce ourselves, and build relationships. We go downtown and work with people who are homeless. If they need food, we give them food. If they need things for hygiene, we give them that. If they need prayer, we pray with them. Whatever they need, we try to meet their needs. We try to get kids home at a certain time. We see a lot of mothers downtown with their kids, and we try to let them know: this is not the right place to be with your kids at midnight. Some of them have nowhere to go, so they hang out downtown or ride the bus all night.
Cynthia Johnson: We also try to do events. Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas. Giving baskets. Going to the neighborhoods, just meeting the neighborhood people. Explaining who we are, what we represent, trying to show them that people care. A lot of people don’t think people care anymore. We are bringing caring and compassion back to the streets.
Jamar Nelson: We decided to get serious about addressing the violence because no one else is talking about it. We do a disservice in this community by not talking about this as black people. Without addressing the violence, how can you address anything else? The summertime is finna get hot. We had nine shootings in a 48-hour-span two weeks ago.
Alfred Flowers Jr. (AJ): It also means meeting individuals before they’re in a negative encounter. We all have an ability to speak to the kids, so we can come to them no matter what situation they’re in. If they are in their positive mode, that’s the way I want to catch them. We try to build a relationship with kids not just when they’re doing something wrong. I think that’s one of the big differences with us. A lot of groups only encounter these kids when they’re in a negative situation. We try to be a different type of mentor to these kids. We try to show them love.
Jamar: We are total de-escalation. We know a lot of these kids, and even if we don’t, they’re a part of our community, so we’re not afraid to address them. Sometimes you gotta be like mama and wag your finger in their face. If we’re killing each other, how do we be proud of each other as a community if we’re ending the lives of each other? We’ve got to seriously address gun violence. We may not eradicate it, but we have to address it.
What do you believe needs to be done to truly address it?
Lisa: One of the greatest initiatives that we have done was going door to door in the Folwell community, listening to those voices that otherwise aren’t heard. It gave an opportunity to talk to the people who you don’t see down in the City Hall chambers or aren’t on Facebook all the time but they do have concerns about what’s happening in their communities. I think door knocking in a community is one of the biggest gifts you can give a community. You give them a voice.
What did you hear when you talked to people in Folwell? Cynthia: One man said he had been staying in the community for 22 years and the worst encounters he’s had were in the last several years. He said [people] stop, park, throw trash in front of his house, and play loud music. When you come out to address people and simply speak to them, they turn the conversation into something totally different. It escalates into conflict, so they get scared to speak or say something. They don’t want to call the police because then when the police come, that makes them a target. Another woman I spoke with, she said the bullets have come through her window. She thought one of her babies was going to get hit. She said that she’s scared, but where is she to go when you have things on your background that hold you down from not being able to get something that you actually want. They have to accept what they can get, what they can afford. The lower income people, poverty, it sustains us to one nest. There is nothing wrong with staying over North because you have great people, great community. There are a lot of things over here to come out and see. But it’s the part of being scared in your own neighborhood. The mothers and fathers are scared to come out and speak to their children. Grandparents aren’t being respected anymore. Children are doing what they want to do. People are working two jobs to keep their house maintained. They can’t see what their children are doing because they’re gone all day. The children are the most important element in life right now, and they’ve lost their way. No discipline, no structure, no respect, no loyalty, no honesty. They’re living with lies. They’re screaming and they’re out here in the streets and they’re destroying the neighborhoods.
Lisa: The community members I’m talking about are diverse. This is not just white people. This is a diverse, beautiful community, and a lot of people have some things to say and they have not been afforded the arena, or the safe space, to say them.
Nona: Back when we were raised up, it took a village to raise a child. Back in the day, if our neighbors saw us doing something disrespectful, they would whoop our butt and take us home and tell our mama. We’re trying to give kids back their self-esteem—to teach them how to respect and treat people. You can’t love nobody else if you don’t love yourself.
How do you do that?
Nona: If we see kids, I might go up to them and say how are you doing? You look beautiful. How was your day today? Their mama might not ask because she’s at work. What do you want to do in life? Can we help you get a job this summer? We build a relationship.
Lisa: For about three weeks, we gave out flyers for the job fair downtown. We gave out flyers for warrant forgiveness day. We’ll go over to NorthPoint and take their supplies and resources and bring them out to the community.
Jamar: We try to partner with everybody. You can’t do it all by yourself.
AJ: When you build positive relationships with the kids, you can almost do more than a police officer. If I see my little cousin downtown I say “it’s time for you to go home,” they are going to go home. It’s real big to have these relationships. We look at kids and because of our own background we say “there’s something more to you.” We don’t judge you for where you’re at, because we’ve all had problems before.
Lisa: I am going to thank the police. When we are downtown, if we got it, they do not interfere in any way. Our goal is to deescalate it and keep them out the back of a squad car if we can. 9 times out of 10, we’ve been very successful. Inspector [Eddie] Frizell makes sure his team knows that if a Mother’s Love got it, stand down, they got it. They have been supportive of us doing the work.
What motivates you all to do this work day in and day out?
AJ: The group coming up behind me. I gotta do my part to make sure they have that light. When I had kids, that’s what changed my life.
Cynthia: I believe we should pay it back no matter what. It doesn’t matter if you got money in your pocket, give. God gave to all of us. He gave everybody life. He didn’t take nothing from no one. That’s the most important blessing we can have in our life.
Lisa: I think it’s time for the city and everyone else to acknowledge African American single mothers and to understand that we are doing the very best with very little. They cannot fix our children for us. If you save the mother, you save the child. If you save the father you save the family. If you save the family you save the community. That’s what we believe in. A lot of the toughest kids downtown, when you talk to them, they will break down and cry. They are being tough because they don’t want people messing with them.
What do you want people to know about you?
Lisa: The people you have to reach are the ones who are not coming to you. As black women, to let you in, to tell you we’re struggling, that’s just not who we are. If you bring it to me, I’ll take the help. I’ll tell you what I need. Bring it to me without letting everyone know my business. There’s a stigma on us that attaches like stench: “you’re having all them babies just to get on welfare, you’re a bad parent, your kids are failing, your son is laying in the street dead because you’re a bad parent.” That’s not the truth.
Jamar: We know that poverty and crime sometimes go hand in hand, but as a community, we gotta stop using it as a built-in excuse as to why we’re rapidly running around killing each other. We can’t accept that.