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Archive | June, 2015

River of Goods 3

River of Goods, Terrybears helping to renew neighborhood

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Two businesses share site with urban farm and community garden

Reporting and Photos by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN

River of Goods 1Photo left: Twenty-five years ago, Terry and Margie Commerford began selling teddy bears and brass items out of their truck in the Twin Cities. Today they’re established in the Midway area with two thriving businesses, and they’re helping renew the neighborhood.

When Terry and Margie Commerford considered where they wanted to locate their businesses, they knew one thing.

They wanted to be where people live.

Their companies, River of Goods and Terrybears Urns and Memorials, had been housed in a commercial area in a suburb at one time, but they didn’t like it.

“We made a choice to be in a neighborhood instead of an industrial park,” observed Terry.
In Jan. 2015, they marked three years at their 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. facility.

Over the past 25 years, they had rented warehouse and office spaces throughout the Twin Cities, including the Midway area, and were ready to own, recalled Commerford, who lives in South Minneapolis. Their realtor connected them with the St. Paul Port Authority, which was working to revitalize the property.

According to Terry, it had been a swamp, then a dump. Then it was filled in. A bowling alley was built. The seven acres became crime-ridden, and the Port Authority stepped in. They cleaned it up and sold it to the Commerfords for $1.

Stipulations of the agreement are that they employ at least 60 and hire from the neighborhood.
“I really believe in urban renewal,” commented Terry.

River of Good 2In addition to housing their two businesses, the property is home to the Our Village Community Garden on the southeast and Stone’s Throw Urban Farm on the west.

Photo right: In addition to housing the two businesses (River of Goods and Terrybear Urns and Memorials) owned by Terry and Margie Commerford at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte., there is a community garden and urban farm on site.

“It’s nice to have the community here,” Terry remarked. “I truly enjoy the neighborhood.”

Using land for more than lawns
“This plot is an example of taking advantage of land that would otherwise just be lawn,” stated Sarah Garton of Stone’s Throw. “It supports a local business. It would otherwise just be a chore for someone else.”

River of Goods 3Photo left: Sarah Garton of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm harvests red oak leaf lettuce from the 1-acre plot at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. “This plot is an example of taking advantage of land that would otherwise just be lawn,” stated Garton.

Stone’s Throw expanded this year, and now uses about one acre. In all, they farm two and a half acres at 14 different lots through South Minneapolis and Frogtown. A wide variety of fresh greens, heirloom tomatoes, and herbs are grown and sold through CSA shares and farmers markets. It’s a for-profit farm that also engages in community work, according to Garton, which makes it different from many other farms.

Terry pointed out that another benefit to having the building at 946 W. Pierce Butler Rte. is the increased efficiencies they get from combining two businesses in one building.

River of Goods supplies local gift and floral shops with unique decorating products and light fixtures. They serve catalog buyers, retail shops, corporate buyers, TV shopping networks and more.

Terrybear Urns and Memorials designs and provides handcrafted, affordable cremation urns. Customers include distributors, funeral homes, families and pet owners.

They were like cowboys
In some ways, Terry and Margie are a long way from where they began.

“We started selling stuffed animals out of trucks on street corners,” recalled Terry.

When they began importing brass items from Korea and India, they continued hawking items on the streets. “We had this weird combination of brass giftware and stuffed animals,” said Terry.

They decided to move into the Eden Prairie Mall, and then opened a brass store in Burnsville. What followed was 15 years where they opened and closed about 400 retail stores. During one holiday season, they set up and took down 22 stores. Malls liked them because they helped fill space and looked permanent, noted Terry.

They had two stores that were the exception: the Tiffany Collection Store at the Mall of America and the River of Goods store at Hwy. 280 and Como.

In time, they had to make a choice to continue in retail or become wholesalers.

They opted to focus on being wholesalers.

For Terry, managing a workforce that was constantly turning over wasn’t what he wanted to do. He prefers to build a team and nurture a stable workforce.

They also decided to hire someone else to serve as CEO and president 13 years ago.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever done because it brought a lot of discipline and professionalism to the business,” Terry said. “We were like cowboys running around opening businesses and working on street corners.”

Today, Lavina Lau is the CEO of both River of Goods and Terrybears (which split into separate businesses about 15 years ago). Margie is the on-air talent for Shop NBC. Terry is the sourcing specialist and frequently travels to India and China, where they have 15 full-time employees.
“I’ve got 2 million miles on Delta alone,” Terry observed.

“I love it because I love it”
He has fun doing his work, and greatly enjoys the various facets of his job. “I love it because I love it,” Terry explained.

He especially enjoys traveling to work with vendors in India, some of whom he has worked with for 25 years.

He also appreciates the design component of his work.

Recently, they moved the manufacturing of their lily lamps from a facility in China to one inIndia that can produce a higher quality product at a lower cost. “Now the customer will end up with items at a lesser price, and they will be delighted,” said Terry.

“I love delighting a customer with an item that is the best in its class.”

Downton Abbey Lane
In January 2015, River of Goods launched a new line at the Atlantic Gift Show, one based on lighting found in the PBS television series Downton Abbey.

The line includes 25 original designs, including decorative floor and table lamps, wall sconces, accent lamps, pendants, and chandeliers. There are one-of-a-kind and hand-crafted stained glass, crystal pendants and chandeliers, elaborate shades with tassels and fringe, and ornate bases.

“Everyone kept saying we have lamps that look like Downton Abbey,” explained Terry. So they reached out to the show and embarked on a one-year process to create lighting fixtures that closely resemble those on the show.

“They’ve been really good to work with,” observed Terry. “It opened a lot of doors for us.”
He pointed out that their number one concern when it comes to lights is always that they are safe. Next come good designs and pricing that fits.

“We don’t carry lamps you’ll find in the big box stores,” said Terry.

As wholesalers, they primarily sell direct to businesses, but individuals can purchase some of their items on their website: www.riverofgoods.com/.

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TU Dance 149

TU Dance: A smorgasbord of summer classes in their new expanded space

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Feature and Photos by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

TU Dance 149Photo right: McCall Atkinson, Sophia McLaughlin, Keenan Schember and Maia Fernandez outside the entrance to TU Dance Center.

Tucked behind the Subway Restaurant at 2121 University Ave. W. is a brick industrial building that formerly housed a cabinet factory. For the past five years, the repurposed space has been home to one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved dance companies: TU Dance.

TU Dance is named for its founders: Toni Pierce-Sands, who grew up in the Como Park and Summit-University neighborhoods, and her husband, Uri Sands from Miami, FL.

Pierce-Sands was a young stand-out at Minnesota Dance Theatre, where she and her sister Kristi were two of a handful of dancers of color in the 1970’s. “That experience, plus living in Minnesota at a time when it was much more homogeneous than it is now,” she said, “really made me long for racial diversity.”

TU Dance 023Photo left: Students in the pre-professional program take a variety of classical ballet, modern, West African, repertory and workshop classes.

Pierce-Sands packed her bags and moved to NYC in the early 80’s, where she saw a rainbow of faces in the dance world. She joined the Alvin Ailey Company, the unquestioned premier, multi-racial, modern dance company in the country. After two years, Pierce-Sands moved to Europe and became a lead dancer with troupes in Cologne, Germany and Paris, France.

Returning to Ailey’s company in the early 90’s, she met Uri Sands: a gifted dancer and choreographer.They eventually married and on a visit home to St. Paul years later, Sands said,

“We should really think about building our lives here.”

“I realized New York was my heart home,” she reflected, “but St. Paul was my family home.”
Once here, the pair became, as Pierce-Sands noted, “two patrons of the arts.” She taught at the University of Minnesota, and they gave themselves a couple of years to envision what it was they could bring to the dance community that wasn’t here already.

“We went to see so many dance performances during that time,” Pierce-Sands said. “What was clear after the first one was that there were very few dancers of color on stage, and very few people of color in the audience.” Pierce-Sands continued, “The Twin Cities had grown so much racially in the years we’d been gone, but it wasn’t being emulated on the dance stage – at least not enough for us.”

That was about to change.

TU Dance 005In little more than ten years, TU Dance has become a cornerstone of the Twin Cities dance community. With a full fall and spring performance schedule each year, the company brings a vibrant, highly trained and multi-racial company onto the venerable stages of the Ordway, O’Shaughnessy and Southern Theatres, among others.

“We always knew we would have a company and a dance center, we just weren’t sure which would come first, Pierce-Sands said.

Photo right: Destiny Anderson, 16, has been a student at TU Dance Center for the past two years. She came with no classical training, but with a love for movement and a serious hip hop practice. Destiny has been accepted into Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Summer Intensive, a rigorous ballet program  in New York City.

Once their 12 member company was established, Toni and Uri went about the business of starting their school. They rented several spaces but until Board member Leif Ericson found this location, there wasn’t a sense that they were home yet.

Phase I of their 2010 building renovation gave TU Dance a grand first-floor studio and other accommodations. With generous funding from the McKnight Foundation, construction is nearly finished on Phase II. A gracious second-floor studio with rooftop views, two new bathrooms, a sitting area, and gleaming office spaces will be ready in time for their expanded summer schedule.

TU Dance 072Photo left: Camille Horstmann, a 17-year-old dance student at the St. Paul Conservatory, also studies at TU Dance Center six days/week. Recovering from an ankle injury, she came to class to observe even when she couldn’t participate. Camille has been accepted into this year’s Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive.

Alongside regular classes, TU Dance will be offering a smorgasbord experience called Summer Dance Intensives beginning July 6 through Aug. 22.  Special child and teen programming for new dancers introduces students to the joys of movement. The classes will help develop confidence around body awareness, coordination, balance, flexibility, and musicality. And they’re fun! For experienced dancers through age 23, there will be modern, ballet, African and repertory classes offered at the pre-professional level. Check out the website at www.tudance.org/summer for more information.

Observation Week is through June 13 at TU Dance, when children and adults can visit classes to get a sense for what they’re all about. Financial aid is available, and no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Dance apparel (there is a dress code) is provided through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

The name Pierce-Sands and Sands chose for their dance center is something one doesn’t come across every day: a triple entendre. TU is their combined signature, the “T” and the “U” from their first names. It’s a play on words and an invitation to dance. Lastly, the word tu, in French, is the familiar or personal form of the pronoun you.

The invitation to dance is extended to all members of the community, as is the invitation to enjoy watching dance as a performance art.

“We see ourselves as ambassadors of dance,” Pierce-Sands concluded, “and we love the idea of welcoming new people in.”

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CHAT slider

Center for Hmong Arts and Talent: Summer events to CHAT about

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Feature and Photo by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

CHATPhoto left: CHAT Executive Director Fres Thao.

“The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) has the distinction of being the first and only Hmong arts organization ever established,” according to executive director Fres Thao. Located in the Sunrise Market Building at 995 University Ave. W.,  the 2nd floor CHAT studio is a place where Hmong youth can come to create art and find community.

The Hmong are a distinct ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Laos. They began arriving in Minnesota in 1975 as refugees from the devastation of the Vietnam War. With some 66,000 Hmong having settled here, the Twin Cities is now home to the largest urban Hmong population in the country.

Thao, an eloquent spoken-word artist, explained the history of CHAT.

The organization began as Pom Siab Hmoob Theatre, which translates as Peering into the Heart. Between 1991-97, the company wrote, produced and performed five successful plays. In 1998, organizers decided to expand beyond theatre to better serve the Hmong arts community. Pom Siab Hmoob had been the first Hmong theatre group in the world. Traditionally the Hmong specialize in poetry, dance, woodwind instruments and textile arts; theatre has only recently become part of their cultural expression.

The mission of CHAT is for youth to live, learn and create art with a purpose. That means making a platform for traditional arts but also diving into new ways of making art and new ways of thinking. Thao said, “Everything we do here is Hmong-inspired, infused with leadership development and an emphasis on community building for our youth.”

On June 9, CHAT launched their summer season of Open Studio from 4-7pm. This weekly get-together is facilitated by the Youth Leadership Group (YLG), but, “all teens and older are welcome and you don’t need to be Hmong,” said Thao. There will be karaoke, movies, and opportunities for performance. CHAT supports many ways of venturing into the world of art and creative expression. They provide guidance and support in the areas of visual arts, theatre, literary arts, dance, music, fashion design, mixed media and more. “There are three questions that figure into every conversation here,” said Thao. “Who are we, where have we been and where are we going?”

The YLG is open to youth ages 14 to 20 years old. It got its start in 2008 and this year has 15 members, according to senior member Zena Lee, a student at St. Paul College who also loves singing. YLG is for youth interested in developing leadership and community organizing skills through service-learning projects and theatre arts. At the end of the program, YLG members write and perform a play in collaboration with the Asian American theatre company Mu Performing Arts.

“I moved to St. Paul from Wisconsin when I was 14,” Lee said. “The Hmong community is so big here, and YLG gave me a place to belong. The counselors are always saying things like, ‘we’re all family’, and it really does help to know there’s a place where you can go and where you’re understood.”

There are some 300,000 Hmong living in the USA. According to Thao, the annual Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival at Como Park’s McMurray Field is the most anticipated Hmong event of the year.  CHAT is one of the community partners who will make this event happen July 4 and 5. This year’s celebration is expected to draw more than 40,000 people over its two-day run.  Neighbors should be prepared for a busy weekend. Thao suggested, “Rather than being irritated by the crowds and the unfamiliar sights and sounds, please consider them your invitation to join us for a new cultural experience.”

The cost of admission is $5 for the whole day. There will be competitions of soccer and volleyball, Hmong artists from across the country selling their work, and food booths overflowing with papaya salad and sizzling Hmong sausages, among other things.

One of the three stages will be dedicated to performing arts and managed by the YLG, with Hmong music and entertainment for youth. YLG alumni Wong Thao, a hip-hop dancer, serves as sound tech for the CHAT performance stage. “It’s volunteering for these kinds of community events that have made my experience with CHAT most meaningful,” Thao said. ”I’ve been exposed to so many different people and organizations, and it feels satisfying to work as a group and give back to the community—Hmong and otherwise.”

Because parking and traffic have been challenging in the past during the festival, look up the location of parking lots with shuttle service, take the bus, ride your bike or walk to the event.
On the night of July 4 from 9pm-1am, Bedlam Theatre in downtown St. Paul is hosting the CHAT Adults’ Freedom Fest Concert. The performers haven’t been finalized yet but, according to Thao,

“They’ll represent the multi-cultural talent of the Twin Cities and be well worth staying up for.”
Visit the CHAT website at www.aboutchat.org to learn more about their leadership development and art opportunities for Hmong youth in the community.

To better understand the contributions the Hmong have made in the last 40 years, be sure to visit the Minnesota History Center’s exhibit “We are Hmong Minnesota/Peb Yog Hmoob Minnesota,” which runs through November 29.

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River-School-0032 slider

Local school ranked best IB high school in Minnesota

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Article and Photos by JILL BOOGREN

River-School-0032Photo right: sign in front of Great River School

Great River School in the Como-Midway neighborhood earned top marks from U.S. News & World Report this May when it received a Gold Medal Award and was ranked Minnesota’s #1 high school. It’s a high honor for a small, public charter school in the heart of a big city.
“It’s a very fun time here at the school,” said Lucy Suits, communication and outreach manager for the school and parent of a student enrolled there. “It’s an opportunity to show what’s working.”

The ranking was based on math and reading test scores and college readiness, which factored in the percentage of students taking college-readiness tests and how well they did. Evaluated against other International Baccalaureate (IB) schools (see “2015 Best High Schools in Minnesota,” pg. 5), Great River School outperformed the rest.

While staff appreciate the recognition, they are quick to point out that these scores don’t define who they are as a school.

River-School-0018Photo left: Head of school, Sam O’Brien

“The award doesn’t measure all the things we do to support students,” said Head of School Sam O’Brien. “It’s a conventional validation of how our students are doing.”

And by all accounts this is an unconventional school. Tucked among office buildings along Energy Park Drive, Great River School is a public Montessori school, one of three in the state serving high school students, according to the USA Montessori Census. It opened 11 years ago serving grades 7-12 and has since added grades 1-6.
Here there are guides, not teachers, and a head of school, not a principal. Students are taught in mixed grade levels. Recess is 45 minutes long, and the school is designed to allow students to move freely. There are no desks, only tables and chairs, accessible outdoor spaces, and a kitchen where students can cook for each other.

“You don’t see a school designed to take tests,” said O’Brien. They operate under a deep belief in the students and their opportunity to learn and grow. It’s their notion that all students have dignity, and it is the job of staff to support it.

“Every student has the potential to do whatever work they want to do,” said O’Brien. If a student is interested in something but finds the course work challenging, he explained, the message is “you just need to work at this,” not “it’s not in your capacity.”

Students at work
River-School-0005Photo right: (left to right) Great River School students Elena Biggs (7th grade), Gabi Vazquez-Thorpe (7th grade), and Anna Himango (8th grade) sort spices for their upcoming 100-mile bike trip in Wisconsin.

Outside during recess on a cloudy Friday morning, elementary-age students play together on a small hill. Another student digs in the mulch, while another is engrossed in a Harry Potter book.
Inside a large, adjacent building called the West Campus, a rock band rehearses while middle-grade students prepare for an upcoming 100-mile bike trip in Wisconsin. Seventh graders Elena Biggs and Gabi Vazquez-Thorpe, and Eighth Grader Anna Himango, organize spices for cooking.

Students are arranged into different crews for cooking and cleanup on the trip, Biggs explained. Himango said they take a lot of trips during the school year. “It makes our school special,” she added. Depending on grade level, students may spend time in Horton Park or the Como Woodlands. Or they may visit a farm, go camping or canoeing, or take part in an archeological dig.

“There are more options than a lot of schools,” said Biggs. “It feels like more of a community.”
All of this is very intentional. At Great River School, social development is considered just as important as academics. At recess and on these exploratory trips, students are learning how to live with, and help, one another.

River-School-0047Photo left: Andres Badillo Moorman, 12th grade, pitches in at Great River School.

Outside the school’s front entrance, high school students shoot hoops and play Frisbee (the school has an Ultimate Frisbee team) while Senior Andres Badillo Moorman digs dandelions out of a plant bed.

“I learn best at this school,” he said. “They do a lot of hands-on things. Service, for one.” On Wednesday afternoons, he explained, students are given time to develop their CAS (Creative, Activity, and Service) work. It’s part of the core of the IB Diploma and may involve anything from tending a garden to learning to play the violin. Badillo Moorman enjoys reading with the elementary students.

“We can help a lot of the kids,” he said. After graduation Badillo Moorman hopes to either get a five-year apprenticeship at an electrician program or try for an associate’s degree.
Cooperation is highly valued over competition at the school. Students have a lot of responsibilities but are given a lot of freedom to make choices about how to do their work. Unlike at many IB schools, everyone at Great River participates in the IB program; they’re all in it together.

The aim, according to O’Brien, is to develop executive thinkers in cooperative, creative, supportive academic systems—making them the problem solvers of tomorrow. They’re in the business of building character, community, human dignity— not usually the first things that come to mind when thinking of standardized tests.

It’s more important, suggested O’Brien, to “trust in students’ capacity to succeed, not measure their ability to succeed.”

There are hints beyond conventional indicators that students are succeeding at the school: the student exhibiting confidence in a subject matter that was previously out of reach; the graduates reporting a smooth transition to college; the alumnus serving on the school’s Board. Still, when 83% of students take at least one IB test—a number that far exceeds the rate for other ranked schools in the state—you know something is working.

River-School-0022Photo right: Teresa Hichens-Olson (left), a Bush Fellow and parent of both a current student and an alumnus of the school, and Lucy Suits, the school’s  communication manager and parent of a student at the school.

“It’s really a validation of how powerful the students are,” said Teresa Hichens-Olson, a Bush Fellow and parent of both a current student and an alumnus of the school. “If you remove fences and boundaries, the bars aren’t there. They see beyond the bars.”

A painting on the surface of the front parking lot, student-conceived and -stenciled, perhaps says it best: “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

Great River School (1326 Energy Park Dr.) is a tuition-free, public charter school that serves grades 1-12. It is a Montessori IB school, with no requirement to have been in a Montessori program to enroll there. Students are selected by lottery. The school also hosts summer camps, open to everyone ages 4-14. You can contact them by phone, 651-305-2780, or by email at www.greatriverschool.org

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