Closing the Opportunity Gap with Sondra Samuels, Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ)

Sep 11, 2017, 06:00 AM

The Northside Achievement Zone exists to permanently close the opportunity gap and end multi-generational poverty in North Minneapolis. Sondra Samuels grew up in New Jersey. At an early age, she moved schools from Newark, where 52% of the population is African American, to Scotch Plains, NJ, where African Americans make up 11% of the population. As she integrated the new school, she said she “knew what it was like that nobody had an expectation that I was going to succeed.” As a teen, she experienced the death of several young African American men. Sondra explained, “They were being murdered by other young African American men. Remember, I’m living in the suburbs, and I’m experiencing young black males being disproportionately murdered by other young black males.” She was not sure what was causing this violence, but she knew what it was not. “What I did not believe was that it was a black problem. What about my community? What factors led to the black-on-black violence? That was always an issue for me, the violence, and specifically the black-on-black violence.” As an adult, Sondra worked for the Ford Motor Company. Her work brought her to the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Sondra and her husband moved to North Minneapolis. “We wanted to be part of the solution. And we wanted to understand why what was happening, was happening.” Sondra eventually left her corporate role. She explains, “I didn’t feel like what I was doing in corporate was going to help me find a solution to this.” She joined the Peace Corps in Africa. “It helped me reconnect with who I am as a woman of African origin.” When Sondra returned home from the Peace Corps, her husband launched a nonprofit, The PEACE Foundation. PEACE is an acronym for Public Engagement for Community Empowerment. The purpose of the PEACE Foundation was to end local violence. “We didn’t have the answer,” Sondra says. “And we would have been arrogant to assume that we did. But what we did know was that, if we stood in the problem long enough, the answers would come.” After participating in the PEACE Foundation for several years, Sondra says that it became clear that “Violence is not the problem, but a symptom of a deeper problem. And that was the opportunity gap.” To close that gap, Sondra founded the Northside Achievement Zone, or NAZ. The Northside Achievement Zone is a collaborative effort of 40 organizations that have aligned their work to serve more than 1,000 families and 2,200 children in northern Minneapolis. Their goal is to end multi-generational poverty using education and whole family support. These organizations work together providing family support, health services, housing, and education programs. The Northside Achievement Zone is the backbone of all these organizations and acts as the responsible entity to facilitate sharing of data and management of staff. According to Sondra, “One of the important things that we do is share what we are learning.” This allows for faster growth in organizations throughout the collaborative as they can learn from efforts of others. While this ultimate entity handles the collaborative efforts, it allows each nonprofit to focus on its missions and the communities that it serves. The Northside Achievement Zone breaks down silos. They focus on the connectivity between organizations serving the north side of Minneapolis. The group is based in north Minneapolis where there are concentrated areas of poverty. This area is plagued by lack of resources in housing and public transportation. There is an above average prevalence of violence which can be attributed to the lackluster economy. The North Size Achievement Zone focuses on improving school performance. “A real concentration of light needs to be focused here,” Sondra says. The Northside Achievement Zone is working in schools and with schools and seeing amazing outcomes. Students who participate in Northside Achievement Zone programs have higher reading proficiency. Participants in NAZ ea...