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Breathing new life into community center

February 1, 2010

“The Center for Democracy and Citizenship will have a big opportunity to breathe life into the [Baker] center and transform it into a community learning center, where civic, cultural, and environmental work will take place,” says Derek Johnson, director of West Side Initiatives for the center. Johnson was interviewed by Mary Diedrick Hansen for an article in the February edition of  the St. Paul Voice. The full text of Hansen’s article is below.

Jane Addams School for Democracy at Baker Community Center

Participants in the Jane Addams School for Democracy at Baker Community Center.

New management, new plans for Baker Community Center

As of January, the City of St. Paul, prompted by city budget cuts, has stepped away from full management of the Baker Community and Recreation Center located at 209 Page St. on the West Side. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship (CDC) has eagerly stepped in as co-manager and expects to take over full management next year.

Baker is one of St. Paul’s many community centers offering athletics, education and other activities for all ages. Although it currently houses a variety of programs, the City would like to see a significant increase in its use by the surrounding community.

Enter the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, a nonprofit organization operating out of Augsburg College whose mission is to strengthen neighborhoods and increase citizens’ participation in community affairs. The CDC believes that a healthy democracy requires everyone’s participation, and that everyone has something to contribute. Their work is centered on the mission of getting people of all ages working together for the common good.

The CDC is a co-founder and lead partner of the Jane Addams School for Democracy. The group also helped organize—and remains partners with– the Neighborhood Learning Community network on the West Side.

The CDC has been renting office space at Baker for six years. As the new manager, Derek Johnson of CDC West Side Initiatives, said, “the CDC will have a big opportunity to breathe life into the (Baker) center and transform it into a community learning center, where civic, cultural, and environmental work will take place.”

The CDC is organizing a neighborhood advisory committee to bring a broader community perspective into the process of reviving the under-used center into a thriving community centerpiece.

The advisory committee will commit to a year of monthly meetings that will convene in February. Their aim will be to identify possible users and renters, to serve as correspondents to community circles reporting on proposed changes at the community center and collecting feedback from the community.

Johnson reported that as of September, the Jane Addams School had relocated its classrooms from Humboldt High School to Baker. The school had wanted its own space since the program was formed in 1996 by residents of St. Paul’s West Side, staff at the Neighborhood House and students and faculty from the College of St. Catherine and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Work at Jane Addams includes preparing immigrants for the citizenship test, literacy learning, computer skills, conversation, social action and collaborative projects.

Although the folks at Jane Addams expressed gratitude for Humboldt High School’s hospitality, Johnson said the school’s varying needs for space sometimes had them relocating within the school. They also had to have someone unlock the doors for them and a paid Humboldt staff member nearby when the Jane Addams School was operating.

Now, on Monday and Wednesday evenings, 120 immigrants gather at Baker for learning sessions. The Spanish speakers take over a large room on the upper floor, the East Africans are in a smaller conference room, and the Hmong have a space in the lower atrium.

“The community center entryway is marvelous for Jane Addams,” said Johnson. “It allows students to roam around outside their classrooms and mingle with each other, or study. It’s more inviting and provides a sense of place and ownership.”

Ramsey Action Program, a social services agency, and Head Start, a program that promotes school readiness, use lower level classrooms Mondays through Thursdays. After school, from 2 to 6:30 p.m., “Rec Check” students from the adjoining Cherokee Heights Elementary School gather in a large youth activity room until their parents come to pick them up.

But, Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Fridays are still pretty quiet at Baker, Johnson said. The CDC would like that to change in order to fulfill their mission of getting children, youth and adults from the many ethnic and racial backgrounds who live within walking distance to use the center regularly. Johnson said they hope to do this by adding a computer lab with 5 or 6 computers and a photo and video lab. They want to establish more community events, and design spaces to get more people involved even if it’s just coming in to chat over coffee.

Johnson wonders what effect the closing of Roosevelt Elementary School will have on the community. Where will the Early Childhood Family Education program relocate? Would they consider Baker?

He would like to get more teens and senior citizens involved, and establish a senior center of sorts.

“We should develop a synergy with Cherokee Heights school, which is connected through a long hallway; possibly use the greenhouse that is attached to Cherokee and with all the land surrounding the community center possibly starting a community garden,” said Johnson.

“The more opportunity for civic education and participation in the community, the better,” he added.

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