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University of Minnesota

More than just kicks

November 4, 2010

Don Samuels with Hmong youth.

Hmong youth showed up en masse—and in uniform—for a meeting that included Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels.

Photo: Jay Clark

U center uses soccer to engage underrepresented communities

By Rick Moore

For more than a century, baseball has been considered “America’s pastime,” and Americans have inflated its relative importance by staging an annual event—the World Series—in which only North American teams compete.

In reality, soccer is far and away the leading pastime for much of the world, and it’s becoming more and more prevalent in many pockets of the Twin Cities and beyond.

The Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing (MCNO) recognizes that, and it’s using soccer as a means to connect with communities in North Minneapolis and help them address issues of concern.

The center, a part of the U’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), was founded nearly two decades ago. It provides training and support for organizations doing grassroots, issue-based organizing with a focus on “place-based” organizing, according to operations director Margaret Kaplan.

“A lot of our work—and I think this is consistent with the philosophy of CURA as a whole—is driven by community identified needs and issues and concerns,” she says.

Connecting with the Hmong on the North Side

MCNO program director Jay Clark knew that a lot of Hmong and Latino youth in North Minneapolis loved soccer, so he helped organize five youth teams at Farview Park in the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation fall soccer league.

Clark was aware that some Hmong students had concerns about their schools, but knew that their families weren’t likely to come to traditional community meetings in which language might be a barrier.

“We started a soccer program to listen to what was going on in their schools, and we ended up taking on a whole series of school issues that they identified,” Clark says. “And it was at soccer that they identified them.”

Another concern—which has led to an ongoing project—grew out of a chance encounter, when Clark noticed a group of young adults loitering in front of one of his soccer player’s homes; they turned out to be a gang setting up shop in the neighborhood. The family wanted to speak with a Hmong police officer, but as the days passed, no one arrived. So Clark and MCNO decided to find out where the Hmong police in town worked.

“We found out that most of the Hmong police officers are where the Hmong don’t live, and the two Hmong police officers who are up here (in North Minneapolis) are both on the midnight shift, so they can’t talk to people when they’re actually awake,” Clark says. “So we’ve been mounting a campaign to get a Hmong police officer assigned to the day shift.”

One day after soccer, three teams of kids—still in uniform—and a few dozen parents met to convince two Minneapolis city council members of the need for a Hmong police officer on the day shift. They then garnered 1,000 signed postcards to make the pitch to Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Along the way, U students have provided research into the issue, and one helped produce a map showing the demographics of Hmong citizens and police officers across Minneapolis.

And the dialogue all began because the U sought to find common ground in the community—in this case, the grass-challenged soccer fields of Minneapolis.

“They love to play soccer,” says MCNO community organizer Yia Yang. “Soccer allows us to connect with families and to hear them out, and to really build a relationship with these kids.”

“This is a way that people in communities can identify their own issues and work with MCNO and other programs within CURA to be part of that process of solving the big issues and concerns,” adds Kaplan. “This is a way where the University is relevant for a large number of people who might not otherwise think the University is a really relevant place in their lives.”

For more information on the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing, visit MCNO.

Learn more about the U's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at CURA.