Chad Davis / CC BY 2.0

“Our Community Will Take Care of It”

In the wake of the George Floyd uprisings, a union of Black security workers and long-time community de-escalators in Minneapolis re-envisioned community safety through an apprenticeship. They’re already saving lives.

Story by Emily Nonko

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Days after George Floyd was brutally killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, two separate groups in the city called meetings. One — members of a local service workers union, predominantly Black security guards — wondered how they could use their expertise to be part of the conversation. Another — a group of longtime community de-escalators in North Minneapolis — wanted to formalize their work to respond to the moment.

The groups would come together to design and implement a first-of-its-kind “community safety specialist” apprenticeship. Over its year-long pilot, a cohort of 11 community members trained to address issues like mental health crises, addiction, domestic abuse and other community needs. This February, they will become the state’s first certified community safety specialists and begin working in North Minneapolis.

“This is designed, run and owned by the community,” says Gayle Smaller Sr., who has overseen the apprenticeship program for Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC). “Having that autonomy is where a lot of our ability to be successful comes from.”

Amid the 2020 uprising following the murder of George Floyd, and the 2021 police shortages from the Minneapolis Police Department due to resignations, retirements and disability leaves, the need for the program became clearer.

“North Minneapolis has been historically crime-ridden — things ramped up in the summer of 2020, and then in the summer of 2021 we were limited with police,” explains Smaller. “It forced us to come up with community solutions.”

On the day the Derek Chauvin murder trial was handed over to the jury hundreds marched through downtown Minneapolis continuing the year long protests asking for justice. (Photo by Chad Davis / CC BY 2.0)

In the early 1990s, Smaller and other North Minneapolis residents had begun community safety, de-escalation and violence interruption in the neighborhood. A Safety Committee under NRRC oversaw much of the work.

“We used ‘block club leaders,’ who would inform us what was going on the block, and worked with residents and community activists in early prevention and intervention,” Smaller says. “The work has always been in an informal capacity, utilizing volunteers.”

As NRRC thought about how to formalize its ongoing community safety work, a similar desire to act emerged within Minneapolis’ Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 26. “Our membership is about 70% immigrants and about 85% people of color in occupations that are generally low-wage and considered to be unskilled,” says union president Greg Nammacher. “For our members and our union, we’re used to fighting around questions of racial justice.”

Traditionally, private security in Minnesota requires only 12 hours of training and wages are as low as $15 an hour. “As service workers we haven’t traditionally had apprenticeships because we’re considered low-skilled,” says Nammacher. “This group took their experience as Black security officers and brought that into what a reenvisioned model of community safety can look like, from scratch.”

A clear role emerged for each group. Members of NRRC’s Safety Committee pulled from decades of experience to design a community safety curriculum, while SEIU members translated it into a formalized trade that would satisfy state licensure requirements.

Over six months, a draft curriculum emerged for an apprenticeship with 144 hours of classroom training and 2,000 hours of on-the-job mentorship, covering mediation, de-escalation, community education and organizing, restorative justice, mental health first aid and medical emergency response.

Two years ago, in January of 2021, the union submitted the proposal to the state of Minnesota, which certified it as a registered apprenticeship.

NRRC began recruiting community members in North Minneapolis, with a focus on system-impacted young men, throughout 2021 and launched the first cohort that November. Apprentices worked with mentors who also lived in the neighborhood and had experience in community safety.

Posters hanging on a street pole in Uptown Minneapolis on Oct. 3, 2021. (Photo by Chad Davis / CC BY 2.0)

An important component of the program, stressed from the start, is that it is community-owned, operated under NRRC and guided by a community advisory board.

This was of huge importance to both the SEIU security guards — whose work is usually in benefit of corporations — and North Minneapolis residents wary of the state. “The idea was that the more we have ownership, the more we’ll be safe, because our community will take care of it,” Nammacher says.

“One of the issues with receiving 90% or more of city funding to run the program is that you have to report to the city,” notes Smaller. “We wanted to make it extremely clear to the community that we don’t work for the police department.” (The program receives a mix of municipal funding, philanthropy and private donations.)

Another crucial component is that the apprenticeship offers liveable wages and benefits. (Community violence interruption work is often under-paid and under-resourced, researchers find.)

NEXT Global Security, a Black-owned local security company connected to SEIU, created a “community safety arm” to hire the community safety specialists and provide them insurance and benefits. Apprentices are paid $19.50 an hour, 40 hours a week, for the one-year training, then start at $23 an hour as community safety specialists.

Apprenticeship training kicked off alongside intensive community engagement. “The community was asking us to do a lot outside our lane, so we needed to narrow down the purpose, how we move and how we’re effective,” says Smaller. Community safety specialists, for example, are not trained to intervene in violent escalations. They also have to be aware of legal risks in getting involved with an active crime scene.

Throughout the year, the cohort found its niche in preventative, community-informed engagement and deescalation. To identify hyper-specific community needs, apprentices and mentors worked within the NRRC “zone,” made up of the Willard Hay and Near North neighborhoods of North Minneapolis, alongside designated “block club leaders” who provided additional insight.

“Because we’re actually from the neighborhood, we know people’s families and we’re not responding like a sterile or transactional government agency,” says Nick Muhammad, a mentor with the program. “It’s about getting people food, asking if they’ve slept or they’ve taken their medication, that’s where we come from before there’s a need for law intervention.”

A woman holds up a sign that reads "Disfund Disband No More Cops" outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department. (Photo by Chad Davis / CC BY 2.0)

The apprentices also trained in emergency management response and saved four lives during the pilot. “We responded to a guy who had a seizure while driving his car, we were able to get him stabilized and do CPR until the ambulance came,” Smaller says. “There was a big willingness to utilize the training to help residents.”

Apprentices are wrapping on-the-job mentorship and will become the state’s first certified community safety specialists this February.

Once certified, specialists will be assigned to a specific district, where they’ll work closely with the “block club leader” and ideally become well-known across the community as a safety resource. NRRC also plans to set up a central phone number to intake calls from community members and route them to the specialists.

To follow-through on the goal of community ownership, NRRC will explore how the program can transition to a worker-owned cooperative. NRRC received a $50,000 grant from the Co-op Innovation Awards to support the work.

“Apprentices are going through a co-op training, learning how to set up a board, how to build financial statements, how to vote,” says Smaller. “The $50,000 will support their training as well as provide seed money to help with the transition.”

While the team is considering expansion to the greater Twin Cities area, they have a tight focus on successfully implementing the program in North Minneapolis. “We’re not in a mindset to rush and expand just to say we did it — this is a process that has to have trust, integrity and love at the center of it,” Muhammad says.

“We have to be talking to the people who have the lived experience, who are going to be the most effective messengers in their neighborhood.”

All photos from Chad Davis’ series Minneapolis Uprising photo series, following the unrest and events in Minneapolis after the May 25th, 2020 murder of George Floyd. They have been used here under a Creative Commons license.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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