by Casey Ek
April 26 marked the Fort Road Federation’s first in-person meeting of its type since the pandemic.
The meeting, held at Summit Brewing, celebrated a year’s worth of efforts from the federation and saw the launch of the group’s cookbook, which assembled recipes, both modern and legacy from the neighborhood.
Most substantially, the meeting served as the welcoming platform for three new board members: Maria Sarabia, the newly elected first vice president; Bill McMahon, the second vice president, and Meg Duhr, an Area 1 coordinator. Sarabia will serve a one-year term while McMahon and Duhr will serve for the district council for two years.
Federation Executive Director Mary Cutrufello is excited to get to work with the new members. She said she hopes the board can make the Federation more visible than ever as they enter a new year.
“A lot of the work we will be doing is just making the Federation more recognizable to people,” Cutrufello said of the organization that serves as a collective voice for community members in the face of elected officials and other civic leaders. “We can do a lot of good in the community, but only if people know who we are and how we can help.”
We asked the new board members a few questions so the community can get to know them. Responses may have been edited for conciseness.
Tell us about yourself and why you’ve decided to take on your role with the Federation. Are you involved in any other community organizations or initiatives?
Maria is a mom, a proud Latina, a public servant and a big policy geek. She lives in the West 7th neighborhood near Palace Park with her family. She is an advocate for racial justice, economic prosperity, and better systems that serve people and communities. She hopes for a safe, healthy , and prosperous community for everyone, regardless of their background.
Maria moved to the district because she and her partner Serge wanted to raise their family in a diverse, walkable neighborhood full of vibrant local businesses and beautiful parks. You can see Maria and her family walking through different neighborhoods. They can also be spotted playing at Palace Park or the West 7th Community Center, looking for good deals at St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, or buying groceries at Cooper’s.
Maria knows how to leverage policy and structures to better serve communities and undo mistakes that have caused harm. She is driven to remove roadblocks so residents and families with children, adults, and elders can prosper. She believes public service requires: bold and authentic leadership; centering community; and systems knowledge and truth-telling.
Maria has worked for over a decade to learn the inner workings of government systems and policy-making processes. She currently serves at Ramsey County in the Social Services Department, and she recently ran for House District 65 B to serve as a state representative before being redistricted.
I have experience in a variety of settings including public service, nonprofit management, higher education, and the private sector. I worked as a city planner for the City of Minneapolis, working on a range of land use, public safety, economic development, transportation, park improvements, and other issues. I have served on the board of the Center for Neighborhoods at the University of Minnesota and on the board of the Campaign for Human Development, affiliated with the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I managed workforce development programs for HIRED, a North Minneapolis-based non-profit.
I have worked on workforce development programs in low-income communities across the U.S. while working with Enterprise Community Partners, a national community development foundation. I currently work for the State of Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. I have extensive experience in grant writing and assisting organizations with grant development.
While I have a range of experience working with larger institutions, I have found I have been most successful over the years working directly with members of the community. I look forward to working with the Federation and the greater community.
I have lived in this neighborhood (off-and-on) as a renter and a property owner since 2004. My wife and I now own a home near West 7th and St. Clair and have lived there full-time since January 2020. On just about a daily basis, you can find me walking on West 7th, getting groceries at Cooper’s or coming home from the library at the West 7th Community Center.
West 7th is my favorite neighborhood in my favorite city in the world, and I see being a board member as an opportunity to deepen my connection to this community and give back. I’ve always followed local politics and in recent years have been tuning in much more closely to the city and county-level decisions that impact our neighborhood. St. Paul’s district councils provide a wonderful entry point for residents to get involved with city governance, and I am ready to step up and lend my voice in a more meaningful way to interface with local officials and share neighborhood concerns and priorities.
My professional background over the last 12 years has been focused on ecological restoration and science communications in public sector agencies and in my current job at the U of M, I work with local government managers and community leaders to ensure that our research advances in aquatic invasive species are accessible and implementable in their work areas.
What is the most pressing issue facing the neighborhoods within your district? How can the Federation best address it?
Maria S: I am most interested in serving at a neighborhood level within the Fort Road Federation because many of our challenges and opportunities intersect with community organizing on topics like affordable housing, green space, built environment, public safety, and other areas, which contributes to our neighborhood assets. I have values in social justice and plan to address social and political determinants of health in order to support residents from all backgrounds. I aim to invest in future generations while honoring our elders. I believe the Fort Road Federation provides the opportunity to advocate for such social justice efforts.
I see our community as having an elevated voice and collective power that can help influence and leverage resources from the City of Saint Paul and the business sector. This partnership can help support the Federation Strategic Plan priorities: Land use — zoning recommendations, land use vision and priorities; Transportation; Parks and Recreation; Housing; Water Resources and Environment; Historic Preservation; and other things like family support and youth development, and promoting the arts.
Bill M: The West 7th community has experienced many positive changes in recent years. We have become home to a vibrant arts community and become a regional arts and cultural destination. We have a strong nonprofit sector, including a thriving sober community. I think it is important to find creative ways to build on this momentum. There is a tremendous opportunity to leverage the talents and energy of our residents and businesses and address the wide variety of challenges we face.
The challenges facing our community are many, including promoting business development while working on addressing the housing, mental health, and other needs of our most vulnerable residents. Effective communication is key to solving these issues.
The Federation has active committees, and I am learning about their current activities and priorities. The Zoning, Land Use, and Planning Committee, for example, appears to have a steady stream of issues, such as ongoing variance requests. I think the Federation’s approach of actively discussing these, meeting with businesses and residents, and writing thoughtful and substantive letters of support for specific policies that we believe will positively impact our community has been very important and effective.
I have a background in city planning and hope to get more involved in this committee. There are a number of other issues, such as youth, family and workforce development programs, public safety and other areas where I intend to learn more about how the Federation can identify specific community needs and work collaboratively with public, private and nonprofit organizations to advance new initiatives.
Meg D: I see three major challenges: Diversity in housing stock and by extension, our community diversity, is part of what makes West 7th vibrant, but renting or owning a home in our neighborhood is becoming increasingly out of reach for economically and racially diverse people.
The city’s management approach to invasive emerald ash borers and neglect of the non-ash trees in recent years has taken a heavy toll on the livability, enjoyment and climate resilience of our neighborhood.
I think there are major conflicts between our goals for a safe and vibrant neighborhood centered around the West 7th corridor and MnDOT’s management of our street as a state highway (with two lanes each way and a turn lane through much of it).
I think one of our greatest opportunities is that more people are recognizing what a great corner of St. Paul our area is to live, work or start a business in, and we are attracting new people to the neighborhood and new developments, venues and restaurants that add to the vibrancy of West 7th. Part of what makes our neighborhood so desirable is that we have had more success resisting gentrification and maintaining diverse housing stock, with more affordable options than other parts of St. Paul. Maintaining this will require continued advocacy from the Federation, particularly as the Riverview Corridor project takes shape because while the prospect of restoring streetcars to West 7th is very exciting, we will need to ensure that our local businesses have the support they need during construction and that our neighborhood character is maintained.
How will you work to make the Federation more visible and accessible to the community?
Maria S: More visibility requires pushing back on the status quo. As we learn new ways to engage and live amidst this pandemic, we know we must be more people-centered and reconnect as community members. Our rich diversity is an asset, and together we can explore new and multiple solutions to challenges with public safety to curb violence as a community in these harsh economic times. We also have an opportunity to beautify our neighborhood to support our collective mental health and work with local government and businesses to help meet people’s basic needs. Many of us are working and trying to make ends meet for children and families. I look forward to exploring ways to be a community and partner with policymakers and elected officials to support our families and neighborhoods.
Bill M: I think getting out and meeting our residents and businesses where they are is very important. I hope we can work together as a board to get out to community events and local gathering places such as the Clutch Brewing beer garden which is having live music four days a week is a prime opportunity to meet residents and families. Simply showing up with a table in this setting making ourselves available for conversations about our community—it’s challenges and opportunities—and providing information about the role the Federation is playing (and can play) in our community is a simple yet effective way to raise our profile and broaden our reach.
Strengthening our online and social media presence and interaction with community members and businesses is key. Perhaps adding a part-time communications and outreach contractor with social media experience would be very effective in raising our visibility and increasing participation with Federation and community activities.
Meg D: I spend a lot of time listening to the challenges, questions, and concerns community leaders have about invasive species and then work with our scientists to ensure their work is responsive to these stakeholders’ needs. Active, empathetic listening and open, transparent communications are some of the skills I use daily, and I will apply this to my work as a board member to connect with people at the grassroots level and then communicate their concerns and priorities to decision-makers.