@16: Sondra Samuels' tough past guides her promising future

Top: Sondra Samuels leads an ambitious effort by more than two dozen community organizations to reduce poverty and raise education levels in a large chunk of North Minneapolis. Bottom: Anthony Meek, a cousin of Samuels, was killed while delivering collard greens to his mother. Samuels always carries his boyhood photo and card from his funeral.
Photo By: Submitted
Here is a friend who was alive yesterday and is dead today. And the only thing different is he was a boy and he was black. Everything should stop. Why are we still going to school? Why are adults still going to work? We need to stop and figure this thing out. Why are we acting like this is normal?

As the President and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), Sondra Samuels leads a partnership of 24 community organizations and nine schools that work together toward a single goal — to prepare low-income North Minneapolis children to graduate from high school and be ready for college.

Samuels is 47. She and her husband, Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, have three daughters, ages 12, 14 and 21. They live in North Minneapolis with a dog, a cat and a guinea pig.

ThreeSixty reporter Dami Gilbert interviewed Sondra about her life growing up in Newark and Scotch Plains, N.J. during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Why did you develop the Northside Achievement Zone?

It was a community effort. I get to be in this leadership role, but the community decided to start it. About three and a half years ago, about 50 Northside leaders got together. We were from violence prevention organizations and health and education groups, and we heard about the Harlem Children’s Zone. We thought about it and the question got called — “Could you do something like that here?”

What’s the Harlem Children’s Zone?

The Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City has a place-based strategy for ending poverty for children, using education. The zone in North Minneapolis is an 18-by-13 square block radius.

Why did the organizations decide to come together?

Individually our programs weren’t doing enough to change the trajectory for low-income children of color on the north side. We were all sitting there with huge non-profit budgets, and 70 percent of the kids in that area of the zone are poor. The majority are in single parent households. A disproportionate share of the youth are involved with the juvenile justice system. The community has a disproportionate share of violence. The mobility rate is about 25 percent a year for kids in school. In one school, 50 percent of the kids who started in September were no longer there in May-June the next year.

You know, Dr. Phil says, “Is that working for you?” We were like, “No, it’s not.” We said it would hurt nothing for us to come together and create one system of support for families. In 2011, because of the work we did together, we received the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhood award for our work, which was $28 million over a five-year period.

How are you motivating and helping teenagers?

At the center of the zone, and everything we do, is families with children zero to 18. We’re doing a real holistic approach, so we have out-of-school programs that are academically focused, particularly for students who are grade levels behind where they should be.

For African American students in Minneapolis, we have a 36 percent, four-year graduation rate. You don’t build a community on that. Statewide, compared to all of the states in the country, we have the second lowest four-year graduation rate for African Americans. The only other state that is more egregious than us is Nevada.

We look at what is needed for youth all along the continuum – getting a solid education, doing whatever it takes to make sure that they are at grade level and on a college trajectory. Every youth in the zone will have an academic navigator, somebody who is just focused on them and partnering with them, their schools, their parents. “What do you need?” “Is Dawn at grade level?” “No, then what does Dawn need to be at grade level?”

Where are you from?

I grew up in Newark, N.J. until I was 8 and then I moved to a little suburb of Newark called Scotch Plains.

As soon as fair housing legislation got passed in 1970, you couldn’t redline (discriminate to keep certain racial or ethnic groups out of a neighborhood) African Americans from living in any community. As soon as that happened, there was a big exodus of black middle class and upper class families from Newark – mine being one of them. There was definitely a brain drain in community and role models, so it felt like whoever could, left. So I think that’s when you started seeing the precipitous decline. But they’re making a comeback. They have this incredible mayor – Cory Booker. Some of the best schools are in Newark now, but it still has a way to go.

How were you raised?

Middle class family. Mom and dad were there. Mom was an executive assistant. Dad was a longshoreman. It was just me and my sister who is almost two years older. Big, close-knit families on both sides, a lot of cousins. A lot of going down south in the summer to be with my grandmother and aunts and uncles — all summer. I lost boyfriends off of that.

What was it like growing up?

I was in an African American community until we moved. My grocer was black. The barbershop guy was black. My teachers were black. All the students were black.

When we moved to the suburbs, there were few blacks in the town. Because it was the middle of the year (when we moved), my mother would still drive us back to Newark to finish up the school year. I remember telling the kids — I live in this big house and there’s grass everywhere and trees and there’s this brook at the end of the street. And they were like, “Oh, yeah. Right.” The thing I regretted most was that I wouldn’t be there to see their faces when they knew that I was telling the truth.

How was Scotch Plains different?

Being a minority was a real culture shift for me. In Newark, there had always been expectations that I would do well – I mean, why not? But there were low expectations when I got to Scotch Plains, in a largely white neighborhood. Over the years, the block got increasingly black because white neighbors moved when black people moved on the block.

When I was going into the new school, the teachers said to my mother, “Newark is not like Scotch Plains. We think that they have an inadequate educational system. We want to hold your daughter back and have her repeat the third grade.”

My mother said, “So you’re going to make this assumption before you test them, to see whether they are prepared for the grade they’re going into.” She said no way. “You give them whatever test you need to give them. If they cannot pass an objective assessment, I agree.”

My sister was the type who got straight A’s without looking at a book. I was not. I remember I knew that the white teachers expected that I wouldn’t do well. There was this wood chair – the kind where the chair’s connected to half a desk. I remember sitting there in the middle of the room and everyone was like trees, they were so big. Hovering over everything was this expectation that I would fail. With this you-better-not-fail-look on my mother.

My sister – she passed with flying colors. I was close — which didn’t help. So now I went from this system where I never thought about being black to this system where every day I thought about it. I wondered if I lacked the intellectual stamina to do the work. Once you start doubting yourself it’s a hard hole to crawl out of.

What did you do as a teen growing up?

I played basketball, and especially when I turned 16, I began to rap because rapping was really taking off. I was in this girl clique called the PD Ladies — which stood for Positively Devastating — and I wrote some incredible raps. In fact, there’s one that I still do for audiences every once in awhile, and my girls just love it. They know it. They do it. They have all the same inflections. And I kind of think about it – I could have been a serious rap star if I had focused on it. It was happening in New York then.

The other thing that started happening at that time was gangs. There were these guys we would hang out with from time to time, who were also from Scotch Plains. They were called the Playboys. We’d hang out from time to time.

The Playboys started getting into fights with other groups from neighboring towns. The fights before then were fistfights, but right around when I was 16, you started hearing and seeing more knives and then ultimately guns.

One guy who hung out with the Playboys was named Butch. Butch was not in the gang. Butch’s dad was a police officer. In fact, some would even call Butch kind of nerdy. The worst thing he would do was slap girls in the chest, because our little bosoms were growing and our chests were tender. So he loved to “BAM,” hit you right in the chest. Right before Butch got murdered, I remember chasing him. I was gonna kill him for slapping me in the chest.

I remember it was a party I didn’t go to. The Playboys were there. I know some of my friends were there. Butch was there – but he never was involved in anything. He didn’t fight. He didn’t do anything. And a rival gang was shooting at the Playboys and shot Butch. And Butch got murdered that day. So that was the first time it happened.

That was a very catalyzing event in my life, because I remember it felt like the response was inappropriate. Here is a friend who was alive yesterday and is dead today. And the only thing different is he was a boy and he was black. Everything should stop. Why are we still going to school? Why are adults still going to work? We need to stop and figure this thing out. Why are we acting like this is normal?

From then, a string of African American young men – relatives, cousins – have been murdered. In fact, when I turned 43, I got a call on New Year’s Day that one of my cousins in Delaware was bringing my aunt collard greens to cook for New Year’s Day and got shot.

Anthony was in his early 30s. He worked the night shift as a lot attendant. He was a father, just a great guy. He did T’ai Chi in the park. He was a poet, he was a great writer, very Afrocentric, the type who wanted to pontificate about everything, about the motherland and so on.

In fact, I have a picture of Anthony I’m going to show you since we’re talking about him. (She takes from her billfold worn snapshots of Butch and Anthony that she always carries with her.) And here’s another cousin of mine. (She shows another photo). Kevin was murdered by an 11-year-old. Kevin was selling weed, and I’d always talk to him about getting out of that life. The little kid was trying to rob him.

How did that affect you?

This is why I do what I do. I spent my whole life from the time I was 16 asking questions of America. Why black boys? Why does it happen so often? Why are we okay with it? Why are we acting like it’s normal? What can be done about it? Is this a black problem? Or is this an American problem? How do we solve it? Does anybody care?

Our questions actually lay a path for us. Especially if you commit yourself to having them answered. Or walking with them. Some things you never will know. But in pursuit of trying to figure it out you get this path for you. That’s ultimately what led me to here.

My organization used to be called the PEACE Foundation before it became NAZ. And the whole reason it existed was to end local violence. In terms of public policy, we got youth violence declared as a public health issue, not just as a criminal justice issue.

Right now, our country is in a full-out debate on gun laws, right? It’s everywhere you look. The President has taken it up. Why has it been taken up? Because I’ve been fighting this thing for 20 years. It’s become something we’re ready to take on because 20 little children were murdered and they were white. And while that is egregious, we have been having slow massacres in our inner cities for a long time.

(Recently) there was a big hearing at the Capitol on sensible gun laws. One of the schools that we’re partnering with has a boys’ academy called Best Academy. And the school leader brought 100 black boys to the Capitol. They all had on suits and ties and held up signs. To me, they were Kevin, they were Anthony. They were Butch. They can raise their voices and say, “Stop it. I want to be an engineer. I want to be a doctor. I’m not the thug you have in your mind.”

What are some other things you remember from high school?

I felt so disconnected. If you ask me if there’s a teacher I remember, I can’t. I can’t tell you of any blatantly racist experience, but I can tell you that it was like we were invisible. It didn’t matter that we were there. Didn’t matter if we weren’t. The only teacher who stands out for me is my third grade teacher, who was white, Mrs. Dunn. My nickname was Sandy, and she was like, “Sandy, you can do it” and “Sandy, you’re so wonderful.” It felt like she was just pumping me up every day. But boy, did I work. And I felt that it mattered that I was there. After Mrs. Dunn, I can’t give you a teacher’s name. That was third grade. So I wasn’t having a love affair with high school.

What bothered you most?

It was invisibility. Just feeling like the adults didn’t care if I was there or not. And there was no expectation. You know, I have a masters degree. Nobody talked to me about college.

Was it because you were black?

At the time, I wouldn’t have looked at it like that. At the time, it was like – adults just don’t care. Cause there was nothing blatant. But I said, what’s different about me? And I did become hyper-aware about race because now I was in the minority.

What are some things in high school that helped you become you who are today?

One thing I did have was belief from my family and my parents that I was going to go to college and I was going to be successful. So that’s why we’re working with parents today. If you have some parents who say, “Yes, you will pass that test,” something causes you to pass that test.

And I had this faith that God was there. Didn’t go to church. I wasn’t in Bible study. But I just had this faith that there was someone bigger than me. So as I asked those questions about why, why, why, I trusted that God would guide me to the answer.

What was one thing you would change about your high school years?

It would be that Butch wouldn’t have died, and there would have been more coming together. I was in junior high when “Roots” (a TV mini-series based on the popular novel by Alex Haley) came out, and that was a dramatic time watching it and not having any way to voice what we were experiencing. The next day of school, you could have cut the tension with a knife. I had a fight that day which I started with a white student. Twenty years later, I apologized.

What was one of the most difficult challenges you faced in high school?

Finding my voice. I had feelings and thoughts about things but I didn’t know how to say them. The irony is that I do so much public speaking now. If you would have asked me to speak in front of two people back then I would have died. My voice then would have cracked and I would be so nervous that I would forget what I was saying.

Why do you believe so much in education?

We believe that violence is not a problem. It’s a symptom of a problem. When you get to the actual problem, the symptoms go away. I really believe that when you give a child hope for their future, they will believe there are great things for them to do. That usually involves a college education. They don’t easily pick up a gun because they got a pen.


This marks the third installment of ThreeSixty’s “@16” series, where our teen writers interview Minnesota newsmakers and difference makers about life as a 16-year-old high school student. Who should we talk to next? E-mail thomas.rozwadowski@stthomas.edu with your suggestions.