We need people like me

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April J. Graves

April J. Graves, 42, the first person of color to serve on the Brooklyn Center City Council, in her second term has stepped down to run for Mayor of Brooklyn Center.

She and three others are challenging incumbent MikeElliot.

Graves, one of five siblings, grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. She was a teen mom who paid her way through college, became a homeowner in Brooklyn Center 11 years ago, and has raised four beautiful children. 

Graves works for the Minneapolis Health Department as a Public Health Specialist in the Office of Violence Prevention and is a yoga instructor and a Reiki healer.    

Over the past 20 years, the demographics of Brooklyn Center shifted from white blue-collar to a growing population of Liberian, Latinx, Hmong and Muslim immigrant, and African American, communities. 

Graves bought her home in the midst of the foreclosure crisis. It was her parents’ success as homeowners that motivated and still inspires her, she said.

“When my parents bought their home in Rondo on Laurel and Oxford, they paid $30,000.  They eventually sold it for $300,000.  That’s the power of owning property and securing generational wealth, she said.  “As recent as five or six years ago, I was still struggling to make ends meet, was on food stamps, and getting medical assistance for health care for my family and me.”  

Graves describes the political climate of the state and the nation as intense right now and she debated for quite some time as to whether she wanted to stay in public service or focus on other things important to her.  Some had watched her successes on the City Council for the past seven years and encouraged her, saying now was the time to make the run for a higher office.  But she knew it would be a part-time position with full-time responsibilities; that it wasn’t something she could turn off and on. 

“Brooklyn Center has a real strong staff.  They are young and innovative professionals who have taken up the vision and mission of the city council.  They have done an amazing job coming up with solutions, expanding our work with the community, and continuing to re-imagine and work with the residents as well as other stakeholder groups to think about how we want our city to grow and flourish in the years ahead,” she said.

Graves has been a big advocate for small business and entrepreneurs, for more programming for youth, and was instrumental in helping to expand the summer jobs program helping young people build life skills as well as economic capacity to help them move closer to their personal and professional goals. 

She has also worked in collaboration with the Council and staff on transformational public safety after the murder of Dante Wright at the hands of Brooklyn Center police officer, Kim Potter. 

“But even before, the previous city manager and police chief, and I discussed increasing our ability to track traffic data.  We created a dashboard on our website to really have some tangible data that we could analyze.  The work is ongoing.  Hopefully, the Council can be better at integrating their work through the mayor’s implementation committee,” she said. 

“With a city government like ours that is a city manager-led/ council form of government, one must learn to lean on the staff’s expertise and have some trust in the recommendations they bring forward.  We must have consistency in our ability to implement true systemic changes and have boots on the ground to sustain the work especially when leadership is frequently changing.  The Council has implemented or re-implemented the return of first-time home buyers’ down payment assistance, as well as programs that will help people improve the upkeep and maintenance of their home.  A few years back, the governing group implemented a living wage starting with part-time workers who were not eligible for benefits.  I think that’s one of the benefits of having a city manager who isn’t politically motivated, who takes the vision of the collective council and then works to implement that vision with the directors of the different departments,” she said.

Graves said she learned a lot from outgoing, long- time councilman, Dan Ryan.  They both attended a ‘racial equity cohort’ made possible through the Minnesota League of Cities.  For nine months, they learned different things about each other.  

“We’re not going to get anywhere pointing fingers and blaming each other. That’s just going to continue to create cycles of violence, of misunderstanding, and of fear. Instead, I really want to try to build,” she said.  “Ryan was able to eventually name issues such as racism that made him uncomfortable and he appeared to embrace a moderate level of empathy for often intentional discrimination causing further disparities within communities of color and those struggling with lower incomes.” 

And over the course of time they spent on the Council, a positive relationship of mutual respect was garnered, even when they didn’t agree, an example for the relationships communities across the state and country people need to have.

In responding to the subject of mass transit, Graves says that the addition of the C-Line was beneficial in making the trips for Brooklyn Center residents easier in getting between Minneapolis and downtown, but she would like to see additional bus lines or more frequent bus connections.  “The transit center in Brooklyn Center often draws positive and negative attention.  The Council has worked with Metro Transit Police to increase their presence, and a little art has been added around that space. The elected officials have been engaged in environmental impact statements and review while MDOT continues to engage with community residents, especially around highway 252.  Concerted efforts are being made to find a balanced approach to not only create better safety, but protect the environment, the Mississippi River, and the health and well-being of the people who live in the impacted communities.”  

Graves said she does not agree with every approach the incumbent mayor has made, but believes it’s important to slow down and push more into hearing the voices of the people who should be an integral part of the process.  All agree that having deeper community engagement and making sure those voices are included as part of that process.  All agree that something needs to be done to make the location safer, she said.

There’s no question that there’s a lot of distrust in government and policing, and understandably so, Graves said.   Despite her own bad experiences with the police on many levels, Graves is proud of her nephew who is on the police force in Brooklyn Park.  “He’s a Black man and he’s trying to do what he can to both keep the community safe as well as shift some of the cultural norms around bigotry and bias that is part of the law enforcement culture and public safety systems since their inception.  Still, as we’re implementing these transformational changes in public safety, we need our police officers to be able to respond to and catch people who are committing crimes.  We also need our court systems to hold people accountable once they have been charged.  And once they are charged, I would ask how we are actually working to rehabilitate and get people ready to be released and prepared to rejoin society as productive members,” she said. 

In her platform, three topics take precedence:  Crime prevention, environmental protection and design, and trying to leverage Brooklyn Center’s diversity.

The incumbent and first Black mayor, Mike Elliott, is being challenged by Laurie Ann Moore, Leng Xiong, and Graves.  “Perhaps my approach differs from my fellow competitors in that I will stand up and call someone out when there is an injustice or misinterpretation of the facts, but I also empathize because I know lived experiences are far apart when it pertains to Black and white values, opportunities, disparities.  One should do what they feel like they have the capacity to do, but because of the lifestyle and the upbringing I’ve had, I do feel like I have that capacity.  And I also believe we need people like me to stand in those spaces, to really move as many people forward on the spectrum of change as we can,” Graves said.

What I’ve learned in working for the government as a staff person and as an elected leader is that huge transitional social changes cannot happen overnight and not with one champion either.  It happens with intention over time, listening to each other and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, and developing an understanding that can lead to viable solutions,” Graves said.

She said communities are as divided as they have ever been across the Twin Cities and the country, and tend to operate in silos instead of thinking about the big picture and reaching over the line of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  This civic and cultural anxiety is exacerbated by the state of our mental health, desperation around economics caused by COVID, as well as just a lack of having the resources and programs in place that we need to really support people that are struggling.

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