A headline in the St. Paul Pioneer Press caught my attention recently: St. Paul police cancel Safe Summer Nights on Thursday
Safe Summer Nights is typically held each Thursday during the summer, at a different location each week. It is a weekly cookout held for the community by the police department to help build relationships between the department and the community it serves.
The reason seemed to be straight forward enough- a lack of resources and a police department stretched to the limit with their day-to-day duties, and the immense amount of time and effort it took to ensure that peaceful protests in St. Paul were safe for all involved.
St. Paul’s new police chief, Todd Axtell, could not have assumed his role at a more difficult time. Yet, we are fortunate that the person who assumed the role at this difficult time is Todd Axtell.
Smart, fair, level-headed, focused and in touch with the community he and his department are sworn to protect and serve, Axtell has managed to be a calm, firm and resolute voice at a time when our St. Paul community, and the State of Minnesota, needs one.
A recent press conference by Axtell, and our Mayor, Chris Coleman, was a case study in measured anger, sympathy, empathy, frustration and outrage at the difficult position St. Paul has been thrust into as a result of the tragic shooting death of Philando Castile.
While committed to the protection and preservation of everyone’s right to free speech and civil protest and disobedience, both Coleman and Axtell made it clear that the line had been crossed the moment dozens of protestors became rioter’s intent on causing destruction and injury to the men and women of the St. Paul Police Department.
It was that headline – and press conference — that got me to thinking about what St. Paul can be doing to better improve race relations in our City.
Frankly, to simply improve the general relations for all of us throughout our City.
Candidly, I don’t think it should be the primary role of the City of St. Paul, or government for that matter, to make us all better people and neighbors.
That is each of our individual duty, role and responsibility.
That being said, there is an entity that already exists in our community which I do believe has a moment in time to redefine its very reason and purpose for being: The St. Paul District Council.
The City of St. Paul currently allocates about $1.2 million to the City’s 17 District Councils.
Those district councils then are given a significant amount of autonomy about how they allocate and spend those dollars – as long as they comply with some broad requirements of community engagement and participation.
It seems to me that there can be no more pressing matter facing our community today than doubling down on a community conversation about race relations and how all of us can play a constructive role in bringing our community closer together.
I’m not suggesting that district councils haven’t done some of this already. Nor has the City of St. Paul been lax in its outreach. A recent story in the Christian Science Monitor shows the City’s commitment to thinking outside the box when it comes to community engagement.
What I am suggesting, is doubling down on these efforts for the remainder of this summer and that District Councils allocate the bulk of their current funds towards efforts to visibly and demonstrably bring our community together for greater dialogue and discussion.
The Safe Summer Nights initiative is one, I believe, that ought to be amped up substantially throughout our City.
Furthermore, I think the very simple thing of engaging neighbors in their streets – their neighborhoods – for nothing more than a cook-out or similar activity is exactly what St. Paul needs right now.
We need more face time and less Facebook for all of us in St. Paul. We need less writing and more talking.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be complex or difficult. No study or research is needed.
From district council corner to district council corner in St. Paul we should have a summer of solidarity – rooted in the fundamental premise that neighbors breaking bread together is the first step towards neighbors breaking the bad cycle of resentment, anger and division we have seen for far too long.
Sometimes we all make it too hard. It doesn’t have to be.
Kids of different colors playing together – and their parents talking to one another – seems to be the recipe for reconciliation that we need right now.
I know that transportation planning, recycling, bike routes and the like are important – don’t get me wrong, I don’t dismiss the value of any of those activities.
But, we are a community that is damaged and hurting. Those things can wait. They aren’t going anywhere. There will always be time to finish the study or analysis.
Right now we need to be together with one another.
In places that are safe for us to talk. To have a dialogue. To share our common beliefs, hopes and concerns about the state of our city and the future of our neighborhoods.
The St. Paul District Councils – all 17 of them – should consider pooling their existing resources and creating an aggressive and ambitious “Safe Summer Nights: A Summer of Solidarity” campaign.
It should focus on first and foremost – bringing us together in big and small ways in St. Paul.
Start with neighborhood picnics – a big one – and then ones in every single neighborhood – and more of them from now through the end of the summer.
But, it shouldn’t just be about neighborhood picnics in the neighborhoods we live in.
It should also be ones where we are invited to neighborhoods we don’t live in – and where we invite neighbors to the neighborhoods we live in.
If we want to get to know one another better – and to understand one another better – we need to literally know one another better.
No speeches. No campaigns. No slogans. Just food for families – games for kids – conversations for everyone – regardless of age – about what each of us has to do – must do – to make our City and future a better place for everyone.
That’s the agenda: Talking. With food. For people.
Then, go beyond that. Ask neighbors to take it upon themselves to keep the conversation going. Give them the resources to do that and the tools to understand what they can do to make a difference.
If a neighborhood needs money to host their own gathering of neighbors – use existing district councils and their resources to make it available. Perhaps a small grant of $100 for neighbors to begin investing in themselves to bring themselves together. To invite neighbors from neighborhoods farthest away from them to be closer to them. To buy some hot dogs and pop and fun and games.
I know it seems like it should be easy for us, as citizens of St. Paul, to just do these things on our own. But for all of the talk about St. Paul being a big small town – we have become more disconnected from one another because of social media and work and life.
This is now the time for the St. Paul District Councils to step up. To engage more directly. To fully expand its arsenal of resources at a block-by-block neighborhood level. Not to call people together for a town hall meeting or wait for a regularly scheduled Community Council meeting where there are agendas and minutes and rules of order.
But, to invest in allowing all of us – neighbor to neighbor – block-to-block – to come together. Eat a hot dog. Play a game. Greet one another with a handshake. Share our ideas. Know who lives next door to us. Who lives down the street. Across the city.
To talk. Not at each other. But to one another.