From zero to change in three years

By Brian Martucci

Three years ago, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change was barely on the Minnesota nonprofit world’s radar. According to the Star Tribune, the group had “a single employee working in a drab office, little name recognition and an even smaller budget.”

NOC moved to Minneapolis’s struggling Northside following the 2011 tornado that devastated parts of the neighborhood. It quickly established credibility in the area, using a sizable recovery grant to hire local cleanup workers. But its budget remained minuscule, its visibility minimal.

In 2013, executive director Anthony Newby took over, set ambitious fundraising goals, moved NOC to a modern office on the Northside’s West Broadway commercial corridor, and resolved to move the needle on the issues that matter most to its underserved, largely minority constituents.

“Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, but the narrative is changing as we make racial equity the center of gravity," says Anthony Shields, deputy field director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.

Today, NOC is clearly ascendant. The group’s recent political wins include highlighting the Northside’s dearth of bus shelters relative to other parts of the city; driving the conversation around Minneapolis’s new mandatory sick leave policy (the fate of a complimentary minimum wage drive remains unclear); pressuring the Minnesota Twins to change their controversial concessions staffing policies; compelling Governor Dayton to directly and publicly address Minnesota’s persistent racial achievement gap; and convincing Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to visit the Northside.

NOC has taken political risks, too. The group doesn’t try to hide its past association with ACORN, a progressive political group that’s highly unpopular with political conservatives. In the past few years, NOC has worked or appeared at rallies with members of the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. And, in 2014, NOC played an unwitting part in #pointergate, a racially charged political controversy that started with a dubious KSTP report about Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ gang ties. When the story drew national attention (and scorn), Newby saw a rare chance to highlight NOC’s good works on a much larger stage.

Now, NOC has more than 20 employees working out of its West Broadway office. Its budget is far larger than when Newby took over in 2013. It has nearly 2,000 “sustaining” dues-payers, along with a much larger cohort of occasional contributors.

“We're lifting up voices that have historically not been heard to hold elected officials accountable on jobs, clean energy, education, workers' rights, criminal justice, and voting rights,” says Shields. “We're organizing for investment directly in Black and brown communities that have been neglected, and divestment from systems that oppress us. We're shifting power and building momentum, and winning."

And, perhaps even more importantly, the people NOC exists to serve – and who serve it – feel like NOC actually makes a difference. The Strib quotes NOC co-canvas director Shonda Jones, a former Target Field temp worker who worked for NOC on the Twins labor issue:

“[NOC] means that somebody that looks like me, somebody that dresses like me can make a difference. It means that north Minneapolis is not going to fall off the face of the earth. As long as NOC’s here, north Minneapolis is going to be OK.”