#098 Mar/Apr 1998

Leveling the Playing Field

In 1997, a coalition of churches, environmental groups, developers, and government officials organized a campaign to help clean up Minnesota’s 4,000 acres of brownfields, the abandoned and polluted industrial land […]

In 1997, a coalition of churches, environmental groups, developers, and government officials organized a campaign to help clean up Minnesota’s 4,000 acres of brownfields, the abandoned and polluted industrial land commonly recognized as a major barrier to inner-city job development. The coalition won a significant victory-a 7-year, $68 million commitment to brownfields cleanup. Local development authorities estimate the new funds will help reclaim 150 to 175 acres of polluted sites, produce close to 2000 livable wage jobs, leverage $58 to $68 million in private sector investment, and generate $6.2 million in additional tax revenue.

Equally significant, however, is the depth and breadth of organizing behind this victory. The St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations (SPEAC) and Interfaith Action in Minneapolis, two church-based organizations affiliated with the Gamaliel Foundation, brought 45 urban and suburban churches together around the brownfields issue. They built unusual alliances with key agencies, including the St. Paul Port Authority, which had a good record of cleaning up brownfields but had been unable to expand on its successes. “It was a unique and very effective partnership,” says Mike Strand of the Port Authority. “It was also something none of us would have imagined in our wildest dreams.”


The fight for brownfields funding in the 1997 Minnesota legislature began with a diverse group of trained community leaders grounded in local churches. Some campaign participants were veteran leaders who brought years of organizing experience to the table. Others were relatively new to organizing and brought new constituencies and resources.

Mary Gruber is a nurse and health educator and long-time community leader who serves as chairperson of SPEAC’s Metropolitan Stability task force. She and her husband, a pipefitter, live in St. Paul’s North End, a neighborhood she describes as mostly working class. In the early 1990s, Gruber worked with SPEAC on a range of issues to improve St. Paul’s school system. One day, a school social worker told Gruber she spent the first six weeks of every school year looking for shoes for kids. Poverty was undermining efforts to improve the schools.

“I made a connection,” says Gruber. “I decided that if we were going to be successful with changing and improving education for our children, there were some other, bigger things that had to be taken care of first-like bringing jobs into the city for our people.”

Another campaign leader, Art Walzer, is a relative newcomer to SPEAC/Interfaith Action leadership. A professor at the University of Minnesota, Walzer was initially reluctant to engage in an issue as complex as brownfields cleanup, but was willing to try if the campaign showed potential to yield jobs.

Gruber, Walzer, and other campaign leaders began exploring the problem of poverty and looking for ways to bring more jobs into their communities. Their search led them to State Representative Myron Orfield, a proponent of regionalism who suggested that increasing poverty and despair could be traced to regional disparities that favor the growth of affluent suburbs on the fringe of the Twin Cities metro area. Church leaders then began an exhaustive series of interviews with over 100 government and business leaders, and asked each to identify ways to level the playing field between the outer suburbs and the city. Over and over they heard the same answer-clean up the brownfields.

Framing the Issue and Crafting the Campaign

Though SPEAC and Interfaith leaders had already seen substantial support for brownfields cleanup-at least in principle-people also said the groups couldn’t win additional funding for brownfields cleanup. State and local officials responded to the request for additional funding by pointing fingers at each other. Legislators said the cities couldn’t spend cleanup money responsibly, while city officials said they needed state support.

SPEAC and Interfaith Action crafted a strategy to forge a common approach to brownfields among the diverse players. They held a series of roundtables to clarify the relationship between brownfields cleanup and regional inequities, and went into the community to build support for the campaign. Walzer spent Sundays visiting churches and presenting a slide show on brownfields. SPEAC took leaders of inner-city churches on tours of former brownfields sites, to show first-hand the kind of job development brownfields cleanup could yield. Interfaith developed skits to dramatize the relationship between brownfields, jobs, and urban decay. Campaign leaders met with newspaper editorial boards and garnered early press support. They also built allies among other community organizations, including the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, and environmental groups such as Citizens for a Better Environment and the Sierra Club.

By early 1997, when State Representative Dee Long and State Senator Randy Kelly were ready to introduce the brownfields cleanup bill, SPEAC and Interfaith had built a strong coalition of active supporters. But supporters faced numerous hurdles, including some legislators’ general skepticism about the value of investing in the core cities. At one point, the bill was endangered by opposition from rural legislators, who saw it as one more metro funding bill. SPEAC and Interfaith leaders pulled out a state map, and “cold called” city managers around the state. In the end, the committee secured support from key public officials in several outlying Minnesota towns and turned the rural legislators around.

The final bill passed with bipartisan support, though in the session’s final hours legislators killed key policy language linking funds to living-wage jobs, according to sponsor Dee Long. The leaders had also hoped for more than the $68 million allocated. Still, it was an extraordinarily strong start. “SPEAC and Interfaith Action brought real people to the legislature,” commented Representative Long, “and their message, their energy, and their passion was powerful.”

Next Steps and Campaign Lessons

The Minnesota brownfields victory is just a year old, but SPEAC, Interfaith Action, and other local organizations are poised to ensure that the money is well spent. Environmental groups such as Citizens for a Better Environment expect the new funds to be a boon for their efforts. SPEAC and Interfaith leaders and organizers are focusing their energies on ensuring that brownfields funds provide living wage jobs for local people. The two groups are exploring campaigns to link workforce development programs with the new jobs resulting from brownfields cleanup, and ways to bring urban and suburban congregations together on other regional development issues.

The SPEAC/Interfaith Action brownfields victory represents a broad, strategic local response to poverty, urban deterioration, and welfare reform, a response that shifts the focus of public attention onto regional distribution of development dollars. The victory grew out of years of organizing in congregations, developing and forging relationships between leaders in very different communities. It is changing what’s possible in the Twin Cities, and in the hearts and minds of area leaders. “What happens if you are someone like me, who hasn’t been involved in this level of politics, is that you come away with less cynicism about the process,” says Walzer. “I hate to sound like a civic cheerleader, but it’s true and it’s not what I expected. You come away thinking that this is worth your time.”


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