Proud of the North Minneapolis community that raised him, Kawaskii thinks of the work that needs to be done to make MSP a place where everyone can get ahead.
Photo: Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN
Photo credit: Uzoma Obasi
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve lived in Minneapolis-Saint Paul most of my life. My mother is from New Jersey and my father is from Memphis, TN. I was born in Memphis and then we moved here when I was a toddler. I grew up in North Minneapolis and I’ve been living in Saint Paul for five or six years. I’m the Director of Finance at Media Bridge Advertising.
Why did your parents move to MSP?
My mother moved here in the 80s from New Jersey because drugs and HIV/AIDS were hitting her area. She came here with one of her older sisters to get away. My father came here in the 70s from Memphis for work, like any Great Migration of Blacks from the South who were moving to Chicago, Detroit or any other Northern city.
What are your favorite things about life in MSP?
I love that you can go to different parts of the city and see different cultures. In South Minneapolis, on Riverside Ave, is the biggest Somali population in the U.S. I love that about the city. You will be very surprised how big our Hmong and Somali populations are. People don’t know that.
How could MSP improve?
Housing. I’ve never seen so much poverty and homelessness. 10 or even 5 years ago, I didn’t see as much homelessness in the city, especially compared to other cities. I’m not saying that we were great, because I don’t believe any homelessness should exist. But driving around today, I’ve observed so much homelessness. I ask myself this question all the time: what can I personally do to help unfortunate people? I can give somebody 10 bucks or 100 bucks, but that’s not going to help them not be homeless any more. So, I’m still thinking of ways we can make MSP a better place for everyone to live.
I think more affordable housing should be built, rather than these large condos and fancy apartments that people live in. I’m not saying there should be none of those. But when I go downtown, it is not the same place as when I grew up. Instead of all those condos, I think some room should be left for affordable housing. I give people crap all the time about calling what used to be known as the Warehouse District, the North Loop. It was the Warehouse District when I was growing up, I’m not sure where the North Loop came from.
Property value has skyrocketed. My friends who are moving back or trying to buy homes don’t have enough equity from homes they owned for 15 years to afford something new. It’s just outrageous.
How are you able to find community in MSP?
I love giving back to my community. I love to volunteer in the neighborhood where I grew up. I was a volunteer for three years for AchieveMpls and as a grad coach working with young boys and girls who were struggling in their senior year. I found that very self-enduring for me, but also for them. I was one of those kids. I didn’t struggle too much in high school, but I lived in those neighborhoods. I grew up in that community, it made me the man that I am today, and I’m very proud of who I am, and I’m very proud of my community.
Broadly, what is community, right? Am I cool with my neighbors? We speak when we pass by one another. I have a really great neighbor who is so funny. We’re totally opposite politically – nowhere near the same – but this dude is the greatest neighbor you could have. So, we try to keep our conversations as far as away from politics as possible, even though we know each other’s views.
Other than that, for me, it’s often hard to feel a sense of community in MSP. I feel like the only time we try to push community is when tragic things happen. A community proactively makes changes every single day, instead of being retroactive. That’s what a community is. Unfortunately, there’ve been Black men and boys who have lost their lives to white police officers and other white men in the city, and it’s great that people are coming together and making small changes, but some of this stuff should be eliminated before it even happens. My sense of community is people working together as a city on one common goal and being proactive in that goal.
Do you think MSP holds good career opportunities?
I think this is a great place to live and to work. Whether you are in nonprofit, corporate or government fields, there are a lot of opportunities. It is a very competitive market as well. We’ve grown a lot, we have big Fortune 500 companies here and people come here from all over the world for work.
On the other hand, I work in finance and accounting, and as a Black man I don’t feel I’ve had the same opportunities that white individuals may have had. That can be for a number of reasons. A lot of my peers probably had internships at the Big Four accounting firms. I didn’t. I played sports in college. When it came to looking for a job, I felt I was behind compared to my white friends in school. They had more of a career path, for example, because some had parents that already worked in the corporate world.
When I worked for one of the bigger companies in MSP, they were getting their talent mostly from the Big Four accounting firms. And those individuals probably went to big schools, so only the Black and Brown people who happened to go to those schools will have a chance at the Big Four accounting firms. I challenged the leadership about where we were recruiting from. If we’re looking for diversity, we have to look at other schools. We have to look at Historically Black Colleges and schools with more diversity – and that’s how you funnel more Black and Brown people into bigger corporations.
How did the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed impact you?
My colleagues and my extended family who are not Black have been out on the streets protesting or visiting the place where George Floyd was murdered. So, I definitely see more activity but like I said before, we need to be more proactive, instead of reactive. I think this has woken up a lot of white and non-Black people in Minneapolis to what is actually going on here. I think technology has helped, because now we can actually see something like this when it happens, rather than someone changing the narrative when it’s only written down.
It’s been great that people that I know have been more aware or trying to understand what it is like to be a Black man or a Brown person living in this area. I had run-ins with law enforcement as an adult and as a teenager. And none of those have been great. I remember an incident that happened when I was 22-23. My friends and I had just graduated, and some were in their Master’s programs. We were going out on a normal night and there was a shooting on the other side of the block. We were getting into a car that fit the description of what someone said was the shooters’. We were taken out of the car by guns and placed in the back of a police car.
We were in South Minneapolis – 36th and Oakland – five blocks from where George Floyd was murdered. The police kept us in a car with no explanation. It was a July night, it was hot and they turned off the AC, just making us suffer for no reason for an hour even though they didn’t find anything on us. There was nothing to find. This stuff happens every single day, but we just don’t hear about it or see it on TV. This stuff happens every single day to young Black boys in this city.
What advice would you give to someone considering a move to MSP?
Come with open eyes. Be open to different neighborhoods. This is a way to slow down gentrification. Even if you work in a corporate office downtown, this might not be the best place to live. Look at the city as a whole, find what interests you and move into that neighborhood. Explore places outside of your norm. If you live in the North Loop or Warehouse District, go experience North Minneapolis. We have restaurants over there as well. Those businesses should not only be supported by people who live in that neighborhood. This is a very multicultural city. In Saint Paul, if you go down University Ave, you see so many different restaurants that you can explore. Don’t only go to the fancy restaurant that your colleague recommended.
What is your call to action to somebody reading this?
Support the city, be open minded and definitely don’t allow anyone to be racially profiled in front of your eyes. Speak up. We need everyone to speak up, not just the people who are being racially profiled or segregated based on where they live or based on their economic status. Speak up for the people that don’t have a big enough voice or if their voices are not being heard.