Eleven young activists connect on Zoom with Irreducible Grace Foundation (IGF) team members every other Sunday afternoon. These student activists listen as the IGF team members talk about how to maintain their own well-being and quell the nerves that come with leading a social movement. They discuss how to speak to officials in power and how to lead a group effectively.
“We are now working with a new cohort of young people who are activists, and they’ve been on the frontlines of the protests,” said Darlene Fry, founder and executive director of IGF.
Latrese Johnson, a 16-year-old from Highland Park High School, was one of two students hired on staff at IGF this summer. Johnson was already an activist before getting the Gold Member position on IGF staff. She was a co-founder of her middle school Black Student Union, the former president of her high school Black Student Union and part of a community activist group called Metaliberation. But after the death of 19-year-old activist Oluwatoyin Salau in June, Johnson said she was inspired to take her activism in a different direction.
“After her murder, I really wanted to dedicate most of my activism to people like me, young people like me, black girls like me,” Johnson said. “Having organizers that reflect the identities of the people we are trying to serve and represent creates a sense of community.”
Johnson pitched her idea to her mentor and IGF program director Jan Mandell, who worked with her to create a workshop specifically centered around healing of racial trauma. Students from Highland Park, Washburn and even a girl from the University of Minnesota attended Johnson’s session in August. Johnson taught a few sessions, and Mandell applied for a grant so the project can continue in the future.
“It’s never going to stop; we’re activists forever,” Johnson said. “We meet to stress the importance of needing to preserve ourselves for the future.”
According to its website, Irreducible Grace Foundation is “a youth empowerment organization that fosters trust and community between youth who have faced disparities and the institutions that have failed them.” IGF empowers students of color by providing mentoring, life skills, employment, leadership training and self-care through artistic practices. The website also said the organization reaches over 6,000 youth and adults every year.
“I’ve been intentionally using our mind-body tools and practices that we have learned in IGF to calm my body, focus my mind so I don’t get sidelined by anxiety and fear,” Mandell said.
During a global pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the Frogtown nonprofit organization adjusted to best serve the community. In-person workshops shifted to Zoom calls. Hand sanitizer was made available, masks were required in doors, and socially distanced yard meetings were held over the summer.
“It’s really hard for us as an agency because we are so hands-on,” Fry said. “We talk about trauma, about people in difficult situations. It brings up emotions. Where we used to be able to hug someone, console them and help through that, we can’t do that anymore.”
Despite the emotional challenges of distance learning, Fry said the organization remained in a good place financially. IGF received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan which allowed it to continue paying its employees through the quarantine months. According to Fry, the organization barely had to reduce employee hours.
On top of that, IGF gained a sizable program in January, right before the pandemic hit. Although the money was originally intended to support new programs, the provider allowed the organization to redirect the funds to support operating costs, including the purchase of food for families suffering economically.
“We literally had young people who had no food in their house,” Fry said. “You just don’t think that a pandemic’s going to happen. That’s typically not something we have to do, so we had to do that, as well.”
The grant funder also provided IGF with a professional videographer, allowing the organization to begin work on a video series called IGF Kids. The series, released in September, teaches healing tools to kids from kids at the organization. During the pandemic, executive coordinator Tara Reddinger-Adams was able to learn animation, creating short animation scenes for the series. According to Fry, the videos will pilot in eight St. Paul elementary schools.
“The videos really helped us because we planned to do all these workshops in person, so with the need to switch, everybody got creative,” Fry said. “The work that we do is still needed; it’s just needed in a different format.”
The video format also allowed for new outreach opportunities. Johnson said that a session was held over a Zoom call for a group in Colorado.
“Virtual meetings limit us, but in a way it also connects us to people we probably wouldn’t be able to meet with,” Johnson said.
Videography wasn’t the only change IGF went through in the past year; the organization also had the opportunity to form new partnerships during the wake of George Floyd’s death. The Midway Rise UP coalition formed when the owner of the damaged Midway Shopping Center negated leases and displaced business owners. IGF held healing circles for the tenants, some having owned their stores for over 30 years, to help them work through their emotions.
“Doing the healing circles is something that is our work and was our work, but doing it in the context of that aftermath and that community was a newer opportunity for us,” Fry said.
The organization also created videos urging people to vote in the 2020 election, by using voices of community members to talk about the importance of it. Fry said the youth are civic-minded and ready to take on the project.
“I am always humbled and inspired by the resilience of our young people,” Mandell said.
According to Fry, the effects of “pandemic fatigue” have been felt by the IGF community as COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and nationwide increase again and outside temperatures become too frigid to meet in person.
“I think the issues of racial inequality and the depths of it and not having gone through the Derek Chauvin trial… is also weighing on folks,” Fry said. “They’re doing the best they can given the situation that’s so unknown for all of us.”
Fry spoke to Mandall, the program director, about the purpose of IGF during these trying times. The conversation went back to their mission statement: Creating safe spaces and healing for youth of color. Fry started asking why this was even necessary to begin with.
“So often our young people want to help other people and not necessarily do their own self-care,” Fry said. “It’s that piece about if you continue to give out yourself without replenishing yourself, then you end up empty and then eventually the people around you will end up empty.”
Contact Irreductible Grace through its website at https://www.irgrace.org to join sessions or get involved.