Alliance Leader Q&A: Michael McDowell, WSCO Community Organizer

To the general public, Michael McDowell might be a familiar face as one of the forefront leaders of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis during the height of public demonstrations around the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. But, to local organizers, McDowell has been a force for justice on a number of issues, from equitable development for North Side residents to living wages for restaurant workers to voter engagement in the queer community.

Recently, McDowell joined the staff of Alliance member West Side Community Organization and we had the chance to talk to him about, among other things, his most important lessons learned as an organizer, one of his most powerful experiences and what can stop him in his tracks on the sidewalk.

How did you get involved in organizing?
It was an intentional one-to-one with Justin Terrell, who asked me a question I’d never been asked before and that really agitated me. He asked “What do you want to change in the world and how do you want to be a part of that change?” That really sparked for me that it’s not enough to just want things to change; you have to be engaged in making that happen. 

How did you move into that space? What got you hooked?
I was asked to perform as an artist for a Take Action event on their ban the box campaign and it made me realize that I can move people and also create a state shift with my art. I performed a piece called Change Is Gonna Come, which talked about how change is inevitable but we need to work to be part of that change and how those systems oppress and how we could be a part of shifting them. Multiple people came up to me afterwards and said how you told that story was what’s going on with my father or myself or in my community. It was the first time I saw myself in the movement. Folks at Take Action had been calling me a leader but I kept pushing it away. That was the defining moment, where I realized, “Yes, I am a leader. I can move people with my art.”

What were some of the issues and campaigns you’ve worked on over the years?
I worked at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) doing transit work, organizing riders to shape and shift transit policy. I worked at Harrison Neighborhood Association doing transit and economic development, working with small businesses to make sure they had a say in what development was coming into the community and with transit riders around the Van White station area planning. At CTUL, I was the fast food organizer, which was focused on $15 an hour, fair scheduling and paid sick days. And I was the civic engagement organizer at Outfront, doing nonpartisan voter engagement to activiate the queer community to show up to the polls.

You also played a central role in the Black Lives Matter movement here in Minneapolis.
I was an organizer and founder with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and, after a year and half away, was involved in the transition to Black Visions Collective. As part of that transition, we decided we needed to go on offense, instead of always being on defense. We recognized that the work was burning us out and it wasn’t sustainable. We know all about how Black folks are oppressed, but what we know the least about is how we get free. Afrofuturism is what birthed Black Visions Collective by asking us “What is our vision for the future?” Instead of being reactionary, what does it look like to go on the offensive with visioning and planning for that future? 

At WSCO, one of your bodies of work will be advancing and working with community to use the Equitable Development Principles & Scorecard, which is coming full circle in an interesting way for you.
In 2014, going into 2015, I was working at Harrison Neighborhood Association and there was discussion about needing some tool to make sure the community benefits from the developments coming into the neighborhood, in a deeper way than just Community Benefits Agreements. I remember being in meetings about what a scorecard could do and how it could ultimately help stop gentrification in Harrison. Now, I’m coming full circle on the West Side, where there’s a coalition formed around the scorecard and the city is getting ready to adopt it. In just my first week at WSCO, a developer reached out wanting to sit down with WSCO and said “I know there’s a scorecard and I want to make sure my development aligns with what the West Side wants.” So I’m already feeling the power of the scorecard in holding people accountable and making us the gatekeepers for development on the West Side. 

What are you most excited about in joining the staff of WSCO?
I’m excited to make all this information I get at the grasstops digestible to community. I’m also excited about organizing community to sit at these tables and be in these spaces because it can feel exclusive. I know I often feel that way. I’ll ask a question like “What is AMI?” and people will look at me. But I want to set the example to say, “It’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to not know,” and building up West Siders to take up that leadership and take up space. 

You have a lot of organizing under your belt; what’s one of the most powerful experiences you’ve had?
I’ve always been involved in the arts; that’s been recurring throughout my organizing career. So one of the most powerful experiences was shutting down the Mall of America with BLM in 2014. We had 2,000 people in the rotunda as the police had their shields up, ready to close in. I wrote a Black Lives Matter version of Jingle Bells for that action and we made the decision to sing. It completely shifted the energy. It named all the folks murdered by police around the country and brought it back to Minneapolis, highlighting that we have high profile cases here, that we have injustice here and we can’t be silent or complicit. It was a beautiful moment. Folks were crying and it disarmed the police; they didn’t know what to do. They just stayed in position. 

What are some of your lessons learned as an organizer in all these different spaces?
[Laugh] Vulnerability sucks but it’s necessary and really important for building deep, authentic relationships. I was a very guarded person because of the high-profile work I was doing [with BLM Minneapolis] but that has definitely shifted and I understand how important that is. I can’t be a martyr for the movement, just working myself to death. We can’t recreate these systems that we’re fighting. I realized it’s OK to take a break and, if I step away, the work continues. 

What’s something many people don’t know about you?
That I have a deep love for bugs. My coworker is an entomologist and ecologist and we nerd out hard about different species of bugs and where they live and how they interact with each other, and with humans. When I’m walking down the sidewalk, I’m a big fan of stopping and checking out the ants. 

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