A life of purpose. A road of obstacles. A woman at the center of it who is picking up and storing the lessons learned along the way. And it’s those lessons and life experiences that she will carry with her to the halls of the city where she is working hard to represent her community.
I met Kristel Porter five years ago at a community garden meeting in the Northside Library. I listened to her knowledge around policy, community engagement, and barriers for disinvested neighborhoods, particularly Black and marginalized neighborhoods. She was passionate, resourceful and committed. I was impressed then and even now five years later, she hasn’t faltered. Now Kristel is running for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 5. I knew I wanted to hear more about her story and her decision to move from community organizer to public servant.
Kirstel is a bright light, high energy, deeply caring, and generous with her smiles and hugs. It is easy to take that genuine lightness and dismiss it as simple optimism and positivity. That shallow kind of assumption that gets thrown around when folks want to ignore the harsh realities of homelesssness, exploitation, disinvestment, abuse, and corruption.
But Kristel’s smiles are forged from a life of grit, determination, and unyielding hope. I don’t think many know how hard she has fought for her respected position in her community, or the challenges she faced to own her own home, the gut wrenching decisions she has made in order to take care of her children while on her own.
It is far too easy for most to dismiss the intelligence of a woman when she is charismatic and charming, and even easier to dismiss a woman if she is Black. Kristel, who is Black and Indeginous, has often felt like folks don’t really know her. They don’t know the road she has traveled to get to where she is today. So this was an opportunity for her to share her story, from her own perspective, in her own words.
Having left home at 14, pregnant, with no family to fall back on, Kristel found herself homeless and at the mercy and kindness of the community. A child raising a child. When you are supposed to have the stability of a home and adults in your life to help you navigate through adolescence and young adulthood, but you find yourself alone and responsible for another human. An infant who depends on you. That kind of isolation will put steel in your backbone. Single motherhood without support will demand you to be resourceful, determined, and strong.
I asked Kristel about this early time in her life:
There was a time when I lost everything. I built my life, working three jobs as a single mom. I was working for Minneapolis Public Schools, working at the corner store as a cook, and working for community Ed. I was OK. I never saw my kids because I was working the whole time, but I had an apartment. A roof over their heads. We were OK. I have always carried myself with purpose. Even when I was broken down, I still held my head high.
After quite a few years of living on my own, having two young daughters then, I got married but it lasted just six months. My husband turned out to be very abusive. I came close to losing my life. I knew I had to leave him and that meant starting all over again. I watched my mother stay with my father who was also abusive. To this day she still makes excuses for his behavior and I knew I couldn’t do that to my daughters. I had to be strong for them and myself.
A year after I left him, I started dating another guy and it turned bad. I found myself working at a fast food place to rebuild again after I left him. I’m always starting over, but it means I’m never down and out for long. Even after all that, I still held my head high. I was still positive. I eventually went to college but still needed income, so I would work, go to school, and take care of my kids all while living out of a car until I could afford a roof over our head. But I knew I didn’t just want a shelter for us, but I knew I could purchase a duplex, create income and be able to help shelter someone else.
Where does your sense of purpose come from?
When I was little, I was left alone a lot, so I would find a senior or a grandparent to hang out with. I apparently was already looking for a role model who would speak wisdom to me. I would learn from the elders. It gave me an opportunity to hear from them how they felt about me. From a very young age, I was told I had a calling on my life. I never forgot those words from these grandparents, these elders. It made me feel seen. My life was so shitty at the time. I was alone, young, neglected, and these folks saw me, and saw something in me. It made me think there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I have chased that light my whole life. I trusted them because I knew they loved me and cared about me. Living with that kind of purpose has allowed me to break generational trauma. It was also where I learned who I could trust and how to build that trust with my children.
You speak about abuse so casually, but I know it’s not easy. Was there community around you when you needed to get out?
No, there wasn’t. I made a great group of friends after that, but before that, it was just me and my daughters. I left home when I was 14 and so I was a child with children. I had just gotten married 6 months before I left him, so everyone thought we were doing great. No one knew I was suffering. He was physically abusive before we got married. I knew in my gut I shouldn’t have even walked down the aisle. It’s amazing how much pressure you are under when the whole community is supporting you. They want you to be happy and you don’t want to disappoint them.
I got caught in the trap of trying to convince everyone that our love was real and then when they were happy for us, they wanted to see us together. I didn’t want to disappoint them or myself. I went through with the wedding because I had so much invested. I had a close friend who I confided in. She told my mother, who then came to me telling me not to go through with it. I was so deeply offended that she would come to me asking me not to go through with it while she had stayed for decades with an abusive husband. She wanted me to risk what she was not able to risk. To this day, she will still make excuses for my abusive father. I couldn’t listen to her because I didn’t trust her or respect her.
Now with my daughters, if they were in an abusive relationship and I found out, I would go straight to them and tell them we were leaving and they would go with me. They would go with me because I have protected them and they trust me.
You hold a lot in your spirit, do you have grounding practices and what are they? Or connection practices?
I meditate every single night before I go to bed. I stretch and then mediate. Full body stretch to get the blood flowing. Trauma and stress tighten me up. I am always thinking about and holding all the problems and how to solve them. And I take it very seriously when folks bring me the struggles they are facing. I deal with a lot of anxiety because I take on a lot of the stress of the community. I want to relate to the people, but because I do that, I carry a lot of stress in my shoulders and hips. I stretch to open myself back up, and then I meditate. Otherwise I wouldn’t sleep.
The people I am running against, they don’t have the same stresses I do. I am not saying mine are worse, they are just different and I have some real hurdles. I am a landlord, I run my own non profit, I am running for office, I am a mother, and I coach gymnastics for three high schools.
I spend most of my campaigning time between midnight and 3am. Until I am in office, then I can let some of these other things go.
There seems to be a culture right now that blames the city council for everything that’s wrong. If elected, all that anger will be coming down on you.
That’s ok. That is what I am signing up for. Sometimes people need someone to scream at and point the finger at. If people are ignored, and they aren’t responded to, that’s where the problems come in. I wanna be that person that people call and say, “She will figure it out.”
There is a difference though, right? There is someone who will listen and then someone who will do something about it.
I am already that person, but I want to be that council person who is deeply connected to the community. I don’t think we have seen that in a long time. I want to be accessible in a way that if folks call or send an email or show up, they will get an answer. People don’t want to be ignored. It may not be a big deal for some, but for the person struggling, it’s a huge deal. If you have reached out to everyone and the council is your last result, and they don’t respond, then what?
My plan is to hire a really strong team. I want to work with extremely responsive and energetic folks who know how to write policy, have a big heart, and will prioritize constitutions. Taking care of folks is a major priority of mine.
You have worked and volunteered quite a bit here. Is something propelling you forward and when will you know it was achieved?
The vibration of the planet is really low right now. Folks are worn down, lacking hope, frustrated. I see it all because for as long as I can remember, I just want to make people smile. I would commit to seeing how many folks I could get to smile back at me.
People used to call me the roller girl. I would be rollerblading throughout north Minneapolis. I would smile at everyone and they would wave back. My goal in life was to wave at everybody. I want people to feel that they are worth something. That they are seen. They have worth. I want them to take that smile and wave and pass it along to the next person. I feel my purpose on this earth is to raise the vibration on this planet. To spread happiness and a little bit of joy. If I can make someone smile that is having a hard day, but there was relief for a moment and they can draw back on it, then that’s good.
So at the City Council level it’s a balance of the manifestation of the short term energy pulse with long term joy. If a policy is created that removes barriers and breaks open access, then there is more joy in people’s lives.
There will be some serious decisions to be made in the city council. I am not all about fun and happiness and only having a good time. It is because of my deep love for my community that every decision I have to make, I will hold my community first and foremost in that decision making.
**Part of our interview was interrupted multiple times due to community folks walking down the street, or driving by. Every time someone crossed our paths, Kristel had laser vision to engage with them. Say hi. Remember their name. Ask them follow up questions to what they had discussed at a previous moment in time. No matter what we were discussing, connecting to her neighbors was all that mattered to her. Listening back to our interview, held outside her home in the yard, the recording is littered with kids playing, cars speeding, folks talking, elders laughing, police sirens, and Kristel engaging in it all.**
How do you plan on engaging and incorporating the community in your decision making?
By being transparent. Lots of folks are online and on social media now, especially since COVID. It’s very much how we stay connected. I have a lot of experience throwing a lot of events with people. I pop up on the street corner to engage folks. Whenever anything comes up that impacts my community, indirectly or directly, I want to ensure I run that by them. I will go live on FB, post it in different areas, but also pop up in the community, where I live, hold forums on random corners. North Minneapolis is very different from the rest of the city. It only took 2300 votes to get our last council person elected. That’s not even one neighborhood. We need folks engaged and activated in the decisions and process.
What happens when you have folks on both sides of hard issues. How do you represent everyone?
You have to sift through who holds the agenda and who are the constituents. When you get folks out here getting paid to represent an issue, it’s not coming from the community. You have to be honest about who the players are, who is getting paid, who is from the neighborhood. It is deeply problematic to have outsiders coming in and pushing an agenda. We can’t have that. We need to build by the community for the community.
What brought you to the decision to run for City Council?
I guess I have always considered myself a fixer. I have found low hanging fruit to help my community. First I was a block club leader. Then I thought, maybe I should get on my neighborhood association board. I joined NRRC and served as secretary. I went from that to being ED of a neighborhood association. I noticed a lot of board members don’t show up, and I noticed that the staff of neighborhood groups are really the ones who got shit done. There was more I could do in that position. I was also out with the community a lot more as staff, hearing and seeing what the concerns were. I could apply for grants, programs, and advocate for what the community needed. But I also realized that I could work with the community, but at the end of the day, the power lies with the City Council. Even when we all stood together, we didn’t have the power. I am tired of being at city hall watching hundreds of people speaking for something or standing against abuse, and the council still votes in a way that they were coached in by their staff. I have a problem with that. The majority of staff in city hall don’t even live in Minneapolis. It shouldn’t be their voices we are centering.
This is the next step for me. I have been preparing for this role for years and I am ready to serve my community in this way.
Having dealt with partner abuse, teenage pregnancy, living in a car with her children experiencing homelessness, single motherhood, racism, colorism, sexism, and police brutality Kristel has a tool box of life experiences that connects with some of the most vulnerable members of the community. AND below is a collection of her paid and volunteer work with the community she was born into and has called home her whole life.
Kristel Porter’s Life’s Work and Investment in the Community
- Sojourner Truth Academy; served as Vice Chair
- Lucy Craft Laney Site Council
- Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC); served as Secretary
- Currently appointed member of the Hennepin County Bicycle Advisory Committee
- Currently sits on two working boards for up and coming Community Development Corporations (CDC) which work with community to develop for the community
- Current Gymnastic coach for North Community High School, Patrick Henry, and Edison High School creating a first ever Gymnastic program for all three schools.
- Soccer coach for Minneapolis parks for the past 16 years. Currently coaching at Farview
- Started Clean City youth employing over 20 youth every summer. Program was designed to teach students to be mindful about waste, taking them on field trips to the Recycle Facility, Water Treatment Center, Organics Recycle Plan, and the Mississippi Watershed. Program also included clean ups throughout community including upwards of over 1000 storm water drains.
- The United Black Legislative Agenda; Co Founded and organized with Al Flowers; working with Jeff Hassan of the African American Leadership Forum and Steve Belton with the Urban league. to secure $70 million for the Black communities in MN after Jamar Clark was shot and killed by the police
- Sat on the Northside Neighborhood Council (NNC) elevating the work of Neighborhood Orgs by increasing Neighborhood funding and equitable policies which brought many of the Northside Neighborhoods together
- Planted 3000 trees in North in 2020 through MN Renewable Now and The family of Trees
- Secured 150 Northside households to switch to renewable energy between 2019 – 2021
- Got 70 Northside households energy efficient upgrades in 2020
- Raised $750,000 to secure Solar panels on 24 properties on the Northside at no cost to property owners
- Led the North Minneapolis Liter Be Gone Initiative
- Organized and managed the Cleveland Community Garden securing funding and staff to support the work. Hosted multiple workshops, clean ups and building projects.
- Served as a Career Counselor for Employment Action Center and North Point Health and Wellness Center in North Minneapolis. This included working with over 300 families to secure employment, housing, and childcare.
- Facilitated the North Point Jobs Club which is a resume workshop
- Worked in Minneapolis Public Schools as a special education assistant for over 5 years
- Worked for US Senator Al Frankin as a constituent services intern
- Executive Director for the Cleveland Neighborhood Association (CNA)
- Founder and current ED for MN Renewable Now
Community Building Initiatives
- Started the cycle sisters program which engages women in North to bike and build relationships while also supporting local business
- Organized and hosted the North housing fair for over 1500 residents and over 60 vendors – many Northside residents were able to become homeowners to the access created by this event
- Hosted almost dozen first homebuyer classes which produced over 100 new homeowners
- Organized and hosted Live on the Drive concert series which brought out over 6000 per year becoming a community staple
- Organized and hosted a community Egg hunt every year for the children in the neighborhood
- Organized Holiday caroling