Parks are for Kids

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

MPRB Shows Commitment to Youth with New Programs and Increased Funding.

On a Wednesday evening, 6 Minneapolis teenagers met at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s headquarters for their biweekly meeting. These teens are helping the park board conduct engagement with the greater community, they’re providing input and expertise to the park board commissioners and staff, and they are even learning to analyze the data they’ve collected. For many of the teens, it’s their first job. So not only are they building skills, they’re also learning about budgeting their own income, and helping their families. 

“I’ve had never had a job before,” says 16-year-old Araya Pettiford-Jenkins. “Me being able to buy something for myself is better than my parents having to buy me and everything.” 

The job is a step up for 15-year-old Isabela Nelson, who previously worked as a volunteer for Three Rivers Park District. “It was kind of similar to this, but we only met like, once a month, and we were just volunteers. I think it makes a difference to get paid because I’m more motivated, and we deserve to be paid for work.” 

Zoe Holloman, one of the Youth Design Team’s supervisors, says paying the youth is a way to make the program accessible. “We can’t just be like, ‘Oh, youth should want to do this just because just because you care. That’s something that gets told to like communities of color, and other marginalized groups a lot like, ‘you should just do this for free because don’t you want the voice of your community?’ It’s like, come on, it’s labor. We deserve to be paid.” 

Not only that, but the youth are providing an essential perspective into the park board’s comprehensive plan. “I feel like with things like global warming and the environmental problems right now it’s more on the youth and the teenagers because we’re the younger generation,” says 16-year old Youth Design Team member Isabella White-Mendez. “We have to deal with this stuff. We can through the comprehensive plan, give input that can go into the policies, which will help the parks. 

Photo of the Youth Design Team touring the Water Works site with MPRB Planning staff.

The Youth Design Team is just one of the youth programs at MPRB that have been prioritized with MPRB’s 2020 budget. Approved at the end of last year, the budget demonstrates an investment in youth, particularly youth from marginalized communities. Youth funding increasing by close to a million to a million and a quarter dollars from last year. The budget, of $126.2 million, includes $400,000 for additional youth jobs, close to $900,000 for three new media labs, $120,000 for a new child care center in Near North, and almost $25,000 for a new youth council. 

The shift toward prioritizing youth had already started in 2017 with an increase in recreation center part-time staff, but overall investment in youth was far behind what it was in 2001, when MPRB had 20 more full-time employees and 26.32 more part-time employees in Rec Centers.

In September, a staff report called “Closing the Gap: Investing in Youth,” was released which called for an additional $2 million in funding for youth funding annually to close the gap for youth programing. 

According to Brad Board, who stepped down from his tenure as the board chair in Dec. 2019, but remains a commissioner, the move toward prioritizing youth started last March during a board retreat. “Our primary goal was increasing services to underserved youth,” he said. 

Part of the increase is going toward 120 new jobs for youth. “My goal would be to employ every kid that wants a job in Minneapolis,” said Commissioner Londel French. “I think we’ve fallen behind on that. It’s been a priority of mine since I was elected.” 

French says he was a youth worker, between the ages of 12-16. “I know how it is with these kids that are trying to apply for jobs,” he said.  “By April all the jobs are gone. What are we going to do all summer? That doesn’t have to happen. We have the money and we have places and things to do.” 

According to French, the jobs include the Conservation Corps jobs, internships within headquarters, and recreation center jobs working the front desk. “It runs the gambit,” French said. “Depending on what kids want to do, there are different opportunities for them.” 

In addition to the youth jobs, the park board is also planning three new ideation centers, where youth will learn digital literacy, design, audio engineering, art, music, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). The multimedia labs will be a space youth can produce video games, write articles, learn design skills, and more, with adults that will be staffed to help youth using the equipment. “We want to give kids another alternative besides sports,” French said. “We have urban nerds. We haven’t done enough to support those guys. We gotta do a better job bringing those kids into the park.” 

The target date for the centers to open is the end of Nov. 2020, according to the budget. The budget also included the development of a pilot free Rec Plus program, which provides school-age childcare for children in grades K-6 at a yet to be determined site in Near North Minneapolis. 

Finally, the park board is investing in the Walt Dziedzic Innovation Fund, named after the late park board commissioner and city council member. The fund provides micro-grants to nonprofits that work with underserved youth. Initially, nearly $100,000 in funding was earmarked for the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, with the intent it would be used to support the many Somali youth and families in that area. 

The move was a response to an incident at Minnehaha Park in 2018. Four Somali youth were detained by park police, and sued the park board, eventually settling for $170,000 in Jan. 2020. 

“We went to those communities and asked, ‘What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?’” French said. “Parents and communities members said, ‘We want more programming for kids.’”

However, at the final meeting of the year, the board voted to make the micro-grants available to nonprofits serving underserved youth all across the city. 

“I just want to say I am personally disappointed that the park board didn’t fulfill commitment to that community,” French said. 

The park board’s initial budget planned for increasing youth programming without making cuts, but that budget was rejected by the Mayor for not representing inflation, according to Bourn. 

“The City had a bumper year,” Bourn said, referring to the city’s increased budget, “And the park board’s portion of funding has shrunk under his watch.” 

In order to make the push toward its goal toward closing the gap in youth programing, the park board made cuts in other areas.

One big cut was for the park police, which saw a $205,958 drop in its operating budget, resulting in one park police officer position being eliminated. 

French credits Superintendent Al Bangoura for making the budget work. “He did a pretty good job of cutting the fat,” French said. “Our job is to push him to do the things that we’ve asked him for.” 

The budget also trims the number of consultants in the budget.  According to French, those were mostly temporary positions.The park board also cut an archivist position and 3 forestry positions, which were all administrative positions, including one new position and the other two vacant or temporarily filled. 

Meanwhile, adult fees have increased, including recreation sport fees and permits for weddings and dog licenses, and they also pulled money from the Enterprise fund, which goes toward golf courses, concessions, and ice arenas. 

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