OUR Alliance: Jabri Whirl on Moving from Methodology to Making Change

In 2019, the Alliance marks its 25th Anniversary — and a leadership transition! We know that our successes have come from coalition and community power so we’re lifting up the reflections and achievements of leaders from our network who have advanced our collective campaigns for regional equity. We want to hear from you! Share your reflections in this short survey to be recognized in our 25th Anniversary celebrations.

A HECUA intern at the Alliance in Fall 2017, Jabri Whirl already had a strong lens around social and racial justice. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, they watched the shift in community assets and interactions as they moved through different neighborhoods on their long bus rides to school. In college, they studied art not as a solely aesthetic pursuit but as an avenue for social change, and, when peers at St. Olaf received racist notes their junior year, they played a central role in a campus campaign that got national attention.

But working at the Alliance, they moved from concept to community, from methodology to making change. Providing a space they could bring their full self, they tapped into new skills — and even discovered a potential new career path.

“I came here with a strong interest in social change but wanting to understand how to make that real, how to actualize it,” they said. “At HECUA, I was learning academically about these different methodologies, but how does that actually look when you get pushback or when conflict arises? Being at the Alliance I had the opportunity to use what I knew on paper and develop skills in community engagement, specifically around housing and displacement. That’s something I only could have learned being in the room and in the work.”

For Whirl, that work was engaging with women on the East Side of St. Paul who were applying what they gained in a community leadership development process to step into their power by organizing a forum and creating a set of recommendations for stakeholders and policymakers around affordable housing and displacement in their neighborhoods.

East Side leaders 

“It was powerful to see people recognize that they could use their skills to combat the things they’re uncomfortable with,” Whirl recalls. “That made me realize, I’m not just here as an intern, but I’m actually part of this organizing experience — and an important aspect of it. I never felt that my experience or my age meant that I was not qualified to be an important voice in the room.”

It also provided the experience to illuminate a potential career path that integrated their intersecting interests. In the East Side organizing, Whirl provided visual notes from the group’s gatherings and for their senior art project they created a large sculpture reflecting on gentrification and displacement in a way that invited the viewer to engage with the art themselves. But, the community organizing in St. Paul paired with another Alliance project to review Small Area Plans in Northeast Minneapolis, revealed new ways to influence systems, not just individuals.

“I’ve always wanted to work toward social change and equity but I thought that my way was presenting disruptive perspectives through art; how to get people to think about their individual positions in it,” they recall. “But after interacting with community and seeing the way urban planners work, I thought how do I merge these two things? It sparked a true interest to go further into urban development and housing. If the same people are in those spaces, how do we change the voices there and engage with people in the right way? What’s not taught in schools and can I come in the classroom and disrupt those conversation but also learn and be critical?”

And that interest grew when they attended the national PolicyLink Equity Summit with a Minnesota cohort coordinated by the Alliance. “I still communicate with someone from Alabama because we saw similarities in our experience and the same sort of drive,” they said. “It was powerful to be able to go there and be a sponge for the things people are working on — and see the possibility for myself and change in general.”

Read more about Whirl’s experience at the Alliance and reflections on intersectionality here!

What have you learned and leveraged from the Alliance and its coalition work? Share your reflections in this short survey to be recognized in our 25th Anniversary celebrations! And don’t forget to sign up for our party on September 26!