Community Engagement at the Neighborhood Level: Lyndale Neighborhood Association

The Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA) is a diverse, community-driven organization located in the heart of Minneapolis. LNA brings community members together to work on common issues and opportunities to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live, work, and play in a safe, vibrant, and sustainable community.

LNA leadership has always been committed to community engagement. Neighborhood associations, said Executive Director Mark Hinds, should be a vehicle for shaping the neighborhood in whatever way community members want to shape it. “That’s deep in our roots as an organization,” Hinds said.

Yet this commitment presents a unique challenge for LNA, since the Lyndale neighborhood is home to three large populations of distinct monolingual residents. One of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, nearly half of Lyndale community members are immigrants and refugees, primarily from Latin America and Somalia.  Staff had to figure out how to deeply engage community members who spoke only Spanish or Somali, alongside those who spoke only English. Even more challenging, the organization had to figure out how to bridge relationships across these racial, culture, and linguistic backgrounds.

LNA saw these very real dynamics not as a problem, but as an opportunity. “We weren’t fulfilling our potential as an organization because we weren’t engaging all of our community members,” Hinds said. “We had to find a way to engage cultural communities.”

It starts with the women

Staff noticed a trend that the most consistent participants in LNA events were Latina and Somali women. Despite their interest, the women weren’t getting involved more deeply in LNA. In both cultures, the women were the gateway to the entire family, but many of them came from a place of isolation, even in their own families or cultural communities. Because of cultural norms, a mixed-gender setting didn’t allow the women to powerfully claim leadership roles in neighborhood projects. Staff decided to create a space for women from these cultural communities to develop deeper relationships among themselves.

LNA developed the Women’s Leadership Program to work with cohorts of Latina and Somali/East African women to build the deeper relationships, networks, and skills the neighborhood needed. The nine-month program encourages women to find ways to connect more with their own identities, to build relationships with other women from their communities, and to claim their collective power to shape the neighborhood and the greater city.

The program is designed to advance a broad view of what it means to be connected to self and to community. “The women are able to discuss for the first time who they are and what it means to be a Latina or a Somali woman,” said LNA Lead Community Organizer Jennifer Arnold. “It’s a good space for women to be in.”

Once individuals develop their confidence and the group has built trust, the cohort transitions to learning about neighborhood and citywide systems change. Cohort sessions include knowledge, skill, and relationship-building opportunities on how to navigate city and county systems, understand the role of neighborhood within the city structure, build power, and analyze the root causes of injustice in the women’s daily lives. “That opens up possibilities,” Arnold said. “It helps people feel confident. It positions them to see that if they want to change something, they can go do it.”

In the final three months of the program, the women join together to work on a community project. The projects vary widely: one cohort secured a new city trash can on a street riddled with litter, another came together to ensure Spanish language instruction was not eliminated at a local elementary school, and a third developed an ongoing Lyndale program called the Club de Niños (Kids Club). LNA and its leaders were honored as one of the finalists for the Neighborhood of the Year award from Neighborhoods USA for the creation of the Club de Niños.

Layers of benefits

The Women’s Leadership Program has many layers of benefits. Having more multicultural leadership benefits LNA, and it has changed the way the organization works.  Several women have gone on to find employment in the United States for the first time, both at LNA and in other community organizations. Two program graduates who are primary Spanish speakers now sit on the organization’s board of directors. In addition, LNA recently hired two Somali program graduates as part-time employees. The organization has seen a significant increase in immigrant community members getting involved in the organization’s work and attending monthly neighborhood meetings. Women, in particular, regularly tell LNA staff that the leadership program has helped them to feel a part of the Lyndale community, that their ideas are listened to, and that they have value.

Program graduate Maria Montes said that her understanding of her own power and her ability to build partnerships has changed her outlook on life. “[The program] helped me learn to live in harmony with others, with the Lyndale neighborhood as a whole, to express myself, to not be scared and to know that the little that I have expressed they have taken seriously,” she said. “I used to feel defeated before I began and thought things just don’t change. But they do. And I learned that we can do important things together as a community, as a neighborhood.”