Long-time community worker Russel Balenger has been named to replace City Council Member Dai Thao, who left Saint Paul in August to serve as director of a faith-based social justice organization in Sarasota, Fla.
Balenger will represent Ward 1, an area that has been called the “heart of Saint Paul” in terms of both geography and composition. He will serve as council member of the most racially and economically diverse ward in the city until the end of 2023.
“I saw Dao Thai was resigning and moving to Florida, and there were some things I had talked about with him previously,” Balenger said. “I really wanted to get some work done, so I decided to put my hat in the ring.”
Balenger, who co-founded the Circle of Peace Movement (TCOPM) his wife, Sarah, over 12 years ago, said his family had suggested he might start slowing down. “I didn’t feel like slowing down, so I just decided to give it a go and here I am.”
TCOPM was organized as a community response to increasing violence. The Balengers gathered affected families to sit share a meal and talk with one another. The effort has continued to grow over the years, drawing in participants nationally and internationally to talk with one another about resolving issues, big and small.
“Every person is given an opportunity to be heard, and every participant has an equal voice in decision making,” said Balenger.
He said he “absolutely” will also continue with TCOPM. “It’s a rare opportunity to hear what folks are caring about, what’s worrying them, what’s frightening them, and what’s making them feel good.”
As a council member, Balenger sees TCOPM as having an ear to the ground to hear what’s going on. “I have a lot of young people in the group now, and they let me know what is going on and how they are being treated,” Balenger explained. He said he recently attended a meeting at Wilder that a lot of young people put together to discuss their concerns about going back to school, their treatment by teachers and how they felt about education.
Balenger said TCOPM also has a mentoring program working with youth and their families who are negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. “I feel strongly that we need jobs for these youth and their families. I know people say there are jobs everywhere you look, but people need access to good education, employment and recreation,” Balenger stated.
He cited some of the changes he would like to see occur. “We have a swimming pool on Lexington that is too expensive for them to swim in,” he noted. “Minnesota is number one in disproportionate minority contact with our criminal justice system, and has been for the last 20 years I have been paying attention. Even though Black boys are three percent of the population, juvenile detention centers are full of them.” Balenger said it speaks to a greater problem, and lots of kids think being in trouble is part of growing up. “It’s not,” he stated.
Balenger said the situation has been like that as long as he has had his eye on it. “There has not been improvement or changes; it has gotten even worse.“ He said he rarely sees a White youth in juvenile detention.
Besides working with youth, Balenger said there is a lot he would like to focus on while he is on the council, a position that will last until the end of 2023. “I am very concerned about crime and justice and what is happening with our water and air,” he noted. “I am concerned about climate and I am learning a lot about rent control and housing creation. I want to make sure everybody is able to afford a place to live.”
Balenger emphasized that he has a lot to learn, but he said there are great people on the council that have been so helpful, gracious and welcoming. “I think we’re going to be a great team,” he said.
His past connections with the community include being vice president of Amicus, a Minnesota non-profit organization with over 43 years of experience in building positive and constructive relationships between offenders, volunteers, and the community. He also worked with Urban League, an organization that advocates for equity, justice and power for African descendants.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with the community,” Balenger said.
Seeing recreation centers remain open for longer hours and not closing a couple hours after school ends is a goal for Balenger. “We need to take kids off the streets and keep them further away from negative influences that drive them to negative behavior. What I see on the news is so negative when it comes to non-White kids,” he said. “It’s important that we have more success stories being told.”
Balenger spent his first years in the Rondo community in a 16-room house built on two lots. “It was a middle-class neighborhood,” he said. But like about 900 other Black areas in the 1950s and 1960s, the houses were torn down to make way for a freeway. Balenger’s family left their house, having to split up until they found other housing, which was difficult. “Neighborhoods wouldn’t sell to Black families,” Balenger said. His family ended up moving four blocks away to a White community. “It was quite a change,” he noted.
He said he has made it a practice in his life to look at every knock as a boost.
Balenger has spent much of his time advocating for change and support for his neighborhood. As a council member, he will be able to do that for many of his city’s neighborhoods. “It’s quite an opportunity,” he said.
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