88 episodes

A journal exploring the history and culture of Minnesota communities. Inform these stories: mprnews.org/nsj

North Star Journey MPR News

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A journal exploring the history and culture of Minnesota communities. Inform these stories: mprnews.org/nsj

    For 25 years, program has created brotherhood for Black high school seniors

    For 25 years, program has created brotherhood for Black high school seniors

    For Will Walker III, a Breck High School senior, the Rites of Passage program taught him lessons in time management and allowed him to learn more about his African American heritage.

    “To be initiated it’s kind of a beautiful thing to realize you’re part of a legacy now,” said Walker, one of the program’s nine initiates.

    Over the past 25 years, the program has grown a community of Black men who support each other in career, business and personal goals and often come back as mentors to the younger initiates.

    “Being within that community, knowing that you're meeting what other men have faced and gone through the same process, it creates a brotherhood and is something that I hope lasts me for a lifetime,” said Walker.

    Earlier this month, the program’s first class since COVID celebrated completing the program.  During their six months, the young initiates build a relationship with their mentor, attend career-building workshops and present a business proposal at the end of the program.

    The program is led by the Minneapolis Chapter of Jack and Jill of America. Since 1998, over 300 young Black men from high schools in the Twin Cities area have completed it.

    “It's been rooted in African American tradition, with the African culture, the voyage to manhood that we really instill,” said Jennifer Harris, president of the Minneapolis Chapter of Jack and Jill.

    Rites of Passage is a part of the nonprofit’s mission to invest in Black youth and nurture them into the next generation of leaders in America. Harris said it was started by two women who had a vision to start young African American men in high school in a process of philanthropic giving.

    Some of the program’s mentors, like Scott Allen Morris, have remained involved for nearly a decade. He says the beauty of the program is that it’s about young Black men and the investment in their lives.

    “How many opportunities do young Black men have in Minnesota to come together in a safe space?” said Morris. “They're all in a learning space. To be able to come together, be vulnerable and share, grow and be challenged. That's rare. It's rare for Minnesota, that's for sure.”

    The program has raised over $200,000 in funds to local community nonprofits since 1998. This year, the nine initiates chose to donate their money to Sanneh Foundation, a St. Paul organization that provides free sports camps and academic programs to low-income youth.

    Boys of Hope Raising positive role models in Minnesota

    • 4 min
    Inequality even in death: Mankato project finds racial covenants in a cemetery and beyond

    Inequality even in death: Mankato project finds racial covenants in a cemetery and beyond

    Overlooking the Blue Earth River, Woodland Hills Memorial Park Cemetery sits on a secluded hilltop with the city of Mankato spread below.

    It's a quiet green space, but one Minnesota State University, Mankato associate professor Jill Cooley says has a troubled history.

    “Racial discrimination doesn’t make any logical sense in any case,” Cooley said. “But a cemetery makes less logical sense than anywhere else. 

    Cooley and her students found Woodland Hills Memorial Park, formerly Grand View Memorial Park when founded in 1938, has a racial covenant prohibiting nonwhite people from being buried in specific plots within the cemetery. The covenant now has no legal standing following a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

    This was a result of a four-year research project by MSU Mankato called “Mapping Mankato Project,” which was inspired by Mapping Prejudice in the Twin Cities.  It explored how segregation contributed to how Mankato’s neighborhoods formed and how it impacted generational wealth for marginalized communities. 

    Enlisting the help of Mankato East High School students, together they read and analyzed deeds, documented covenants and mapped the affected properties. There were covenants found on properties in seven neighborhoods around Mankato. 

    Organizers hope to expand the research to surrounding communities such as North Mankato and St. Peter in Nicollet County in the future. 

    ‘The system is rigged’
    As part of the race, ethnicity and civil rights class, Mankato East High School teacher Tim Meegan connected with the Mapping Mankato Project and got his students involved. 

    Through the class, students worked directly with property deeds and helped with analyzing them for racial or restrictive covenants. Some were based on class, prohibiting apartments from being built in certain neighborhoods. Others targeted religious communities.

    It was a first-hand look at how prevalent housing discrimination was even in Mankato, leading to how some neighborhoods were formed. 

    “The reason you see disparities is because of racism,” Meegan said. “Racism that goes back centuries, and is hard-baked into American society. The restrictive covenant is just one little piece that shows kids how the system is rigged, and has been rigged to benefit certain groups of people and to oppress other groups of people.”

    For Mankato East High School senior Grace Engen, the project hit close to home — literally. She learned her house off of Glenwood Avenue had a racial covenant.

    “And it was like, ‘This is real, and this is where I am right now. This is a part of my everyday life,’” Engen said. “You can kind of see it, actually. My whole street is all older white people who have owned these houses for a very long time and passed them down. It’s all our town and it opens up a view of why certain parts of Mankato are racialized.”

    In Ramsey County New map highlights home deeds with racist language

    Rochester Confronts its segregated housing history, Mayo founders' role

    One lawn sign at a time Minneapolis effort aims to counter racist housing deeds

    It also painted a complex picture of history, highlighting how racial segregation existed in the north and wasn’t limited to just the southern part of the country during the Jim Crow era. Senior Brinley Ketter, who is Black, said it was surreal to physically see the covenants with racial slurs and discriminatory language that targeted different groups.

    “It was a way to shut down color in the community,” Ketter said. “A way of putting white power into the collective of the community, as a way of building their power instead of ours. And, that really just wasn’t right to me.”

    Meegan believed it was important for stereotypes to be broken, and for his students to understand discrimination. He said housing is the number one way middle

    • 3 min
    Minnesota's former education leader aims to give kids a healthier planet

    Minnesota's former education leader aims to give kids a healthier planet

    Minnesota’s Brenda Cassellius grew up in public housing in Minneapolis and she considers that her greatest asset.

    “I grew up in poverty but there was never a poverty of love,” she said, stressing that it’s possible to get out of poverty and chart your own path. “It instilled in me to give back.” 

    Cassellius has given back to communities by spending decades working in education.

    She was the first African American woman in Minnesota history to serve as the commissioner of education, under Gov. Mark Dayton.

    She was later the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and was a leader in bringing a climate plan that makes schools in the district more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. 

    Now Cassellius is back in Minnesota and she recently started her position as the executive director of Fresh Energy, a nonprofit aimed at transitioning our state to clean energy. 

    She also mentors women of color who are school district superintendents and leaders of large organizations. 

    Also, hear from our listeners who called in to talk about their personal stories of growing up from humble beginnings and later overcoming a path of obstacles.


    Brenda Cassellius is the new executive director of Fresh Energy, a non-profit aimed at transitioning Minnesota to clean energy. She formerly worked for three decades in public education, including as Minnesota’s education commissioner and as superintendent for Boston Public Schools.

    Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS. 

    Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.   

    • 46 min
    Wells Academy founder creates spaces for Indigenous workers

    Wells Academy founder creates spaces for Indigenous workers

    About 60 years ago, a young man who grew up poor on the Red Lake Reservation revolutionized snowmobile design. While working at Polaris, Andy Wells — then just 20 years old — came up with a design to move the engine from the back of the sled to the front.

    “It just made sense,” he said

    Polaris immortalized Wells’ achievement by naming the snowmobile after him — the Lil Andy.  

    He could have had a big career with the company. Polaris management encouraged Wells to go back to school and return when he was finished.

    But Wells had other plans.  

    He left, first to become a teacher for a couple of decades, and then to start his own multimillion dollar business. Later Wells combined his two biggest passions — engineering and helping others — to create a free apprenticeship program for anyone who's Indigenous. 

    Making a difference 
    Before joining Wells Academy in Bemidji, Red Laker Lisa Butcher lost her job. Today she's operating one of the most sophisticated precision machines in the world that is worth millions and making high-end components. She's been with the program about a year.   

    “I have a love for learning and whenever I can prove myself to do something better than what I even thought I could do I'm there, I'm doing it, this has just been the perfect job for me,” Butcher said. “I needed something to support my family and it did that.” 

    Beltrami County in northwest Minnesota is the second poorest county in the state. It’s county seat — Bemidji — sits between three reservations. Growing up on Red Lake, Wells said he had help when he was young. 

    “That's why I was able to go forward. Some of them didn't. And some of them had failed in the public systems. And they needed a second chance, I realized that I had the ability to maybe help at least a few of them,” he said. 

    Wells Technology focused on making tools. By 2008, it had outgrown its humble two-stall garage where it started, to include 32 employees and $54 million in revenue. But early on, Wells noticed a growing problem. 

    “We were getting a lot of applicants coming to our door, looking for work. And they really weren't qualified. They had dropped out of high school, and they didn't have any industrial skills,” Wells said. “A lot of them didn't even have transportation, they were riding with a friend or someone they knew. And it was a really difficult challenge.”

    Wells called them “employment-challenged applicants” and felt the hiring process was unfair to them. 

    “In a competitive world, they had been turned down by other possible opportunities. And I kept feeling that maybe I could do something if I could see desire. And if I could see that they were trustworthy. Maybe I could do something about it,” Wells recalled. “And I began teaching them one by one.”

    Word gets out
    Wells’ mission worked — really well. Initially the company was only able to train one or two people a year, and Wells says it was expensive. But word got out.  

    “Other corporations liked what we were doing. And they said they would be willing to actually give us a small grant,” he said. “It was something that we had to do. We were training only one or two a year and with the help from some of the other corporations we were able to double that.”  

    He used the money to create the nonprofit Wells Academy and soon began training up to five workers a year. He said it works for everyone, including the financial supporters. “They can help humanity plus get some future employees,” he said. “So, we're trying to be a model.”

    Opening in Red Lake 
    And then things went one step further: In November 2020, after years of dialogue with Red Lake Nation, Wells Academy opened an apprenticeship program on the reservation at the Oshkiimaajitahdah community center in Redby. Wells supplied the equipment needed to increase accessibility for those living on the reservation.  

    The center's executive director, Jerry

    • 4 min
    J.D. Steele: Spreading joy and soul through song

    J.D. Steele: Spreading joy and soul through song

    J.D. Steele doesn’t just walk onto a stage. He bursts on with a mic, full of energy and ready to belt into song. Usually he gets his audience to sing along or at least clap and sway in their seat.

    Steele is the oldest sibling in the Minnesota gospel group The Steeles. And he’s been making music and spreading soul and joy for 40 years in Minnesota.

    Steele toured with “The Gospel at Colonus” with actor Morgan Freeman and when it landed on Broadway in 1988. He collaborated with Prince during the 90s. He’s produced, performed and recorded multiple Steeles albums and worked with artists like George Clinton, Mavis Staples, Kim Carnes, Fine Young Cannibals and The Sounds of Blackness.

    MPR News host Angela Davis talks with J.D. Steele about his life work making music his and current projects, directing community choirs and inspiring the next generation to sing with soul.

    Useful resources
    Want to sing with one of the community choirs directed by J.D. Steele? They are free to participate in, don’t require auditions and rehearse together once a week for 90 minutes during the fall, winter and spring. Click to find more information about:

    The Mill City Singers.

    The MacPhail Community Youth Choir.

    The Capri Glee! Adult Community Choir.


    J.D. Steele is a singer, songwriter, arranger, producer and choir director known for his work with Prince, as part of the J.D. Steele Singers in “The Gospel at Colonus,” in musical theatre and as a member of the Twin Cities-based vocal group The Steeles.

    Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS. 

    Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

    • 46 min
    'It feels awesome': Heather Boyd makes history as first woman and first Anishinaabe to lead Grand Portage National Monument 

    'It feels awesome': Heather Boyd makes history as first woman and first Anishinaabe to lead Grand Portage National Monument 

    A few miles from the Canada border, Heather Boyd walks the grassy trail of the national monument’s Ojibwe Village. She passes the soaring pointed timber of the palisade fence that encircles the recreated historic depot, what was once the famed 18th-century cultural crossroads of the Grand Portage Anishinaabe and the fur trade.

    Boyd then stops in the field where the National Monument hosts the annual Rendezvous Days event. Thousands of visitors flock to the remote site every August for music, camping, reenactments and craft workshops. 

    “This is the encampment area,” Boyd says. “It’s wild to see tent upon tent here.” 

    She looks up at the nearby western hills, the site of the Grand Portage Band’s annual powwow, also in August.

    “I’m really looking forward to blending the two events a bit more, the powwow and the Rendezvous here” Boyd says. “Well, it’s celebrating both cultures, right? So, being able to encourage not only visitors here, but encourage them to go up to the powwow, too, and have that experience.”

    Boyd is the new superintendent of the Grand Portage National Monument. She is the first woman and first Anishinaabe person to hold the National Park Service position since the monument was established in 1958. The Anishinaabe have occupied the land since “time immemorial,” as the monument’s signage points out.

    Today, Boyd is wearing a pin given to her by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the tribe that has been co-managing the site with the park service for decades. She is also wearing a traditional Native ribbon skirt, striped in red, white and black.  

    “The ribbon skirt represents resiliency and identity and is just empowering as a woman,” Boyd says, “and a woman in a management position — that I'm the first Anishinaabe and the first woman to ever lead here.” 

    Many say her appointment is a historic moment in the co-stewardship of the monument, which is within the boundaries of the of the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. The Grand Portage Band donated the land to the federal government.

    “I understand living in a tribal community,” says Boyd, who is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from Bayfield, Wis. “I think that’s one of the things they saw in me.”

    Less than half a mile up the road, April McCormick sits in the timber building that houses the Grand Portage Reservation Tribal Council, the partner in co-management with the National Park Service. McCormick is the Tribal Council secretary treasurer.

    “We're really trying to have our leadership be reflective of who we are,” McCormick says.   

    McCormick says Boyd is a good fit because of her 14-year tenure as an administrative officer for Isle Royale National Park, the Michigan island site in Lake Superior, which is part of the Anishinaabe ancestral homelands. It’s less than 40 miles from Grand Portage and on a clear day, you can see it from Boyd’s new office.

    McCormick adds that even though Boyd is from a different Anishinaabe band, she is one of them and the community has welcomed her.

    “She has a deep understanding of tribal government and protocol,” McCormick says. “And also, just understanding the value of our culture, and traditions, and how we're telling our story for national parks. Whose worldview, whose lenses are we using?”

    Citing the efforts of the Grand Portage Band, McCormick points to the growing number of Native women working at the national monument. She says the current chief of interpretation Anna Deschampe is the first Grand Portage Band member to fill the position, within the division of interpretation and education. Boyd will work with Deschampe to refine the storytelling at the national monument, from signage and exhibitions to reenactments and workshops. 

    The National Park Service announced Boyd’s appointment last summer. She’s only recently relocated from Michigan. The choice to wear the ribbon skirt regul

    • 4 min

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