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Despite her family's deep roots in St. Paul, Monica Bravo lived in many homes and attended a bunch of schools growing up. It's no wonder she works to help West Side families avoid insecurity.

The roots of the area's housing and economic troubles can be traced to the eviction of hundreds of families from the West Side Flats in the 1960s. For more than 100 years, the flood-prone neighborhood was home to immigrant families — until it was bulldozed for an industrial park. The industrial park was later scaled back when the city began flood control work. Hundreds of market rate apartments now are being built.

Bravo and others are studying that displacement and reaching out to the families who lost their homes. Along the way, Bravo seeks to use community activism to find a way to repair past wrongs.

Q: What prompted your start as a champion for the West Side?

A: There was just a large gang fight that broke out in front of our house, and it was a very difficult day. At the end of that fight, all our neighbors were calling each other, and I ended up walking out and kind of intervening with the law enforcement when they finally came. And finally, when the sirens came, everybody dispersed. But there were no arrests. There were no inquiries. It was almost like a message like, you know, "You guys could probably kill yourselves down here and we're not coming to help you."

And when I saw the officer, I was really upset. In that moment, I think I saw a lot of things come together and I approached him, and he said, "You know, you're right. You need to call my shift sergeant. We've been here, we've been watching from a distance about two blocks away, but it was too dangerous for us to enter in. So we couldn't ride in without backup." It grew. I mean, it escalated, it felt like it was turning into riot. It was really bad.

Q: When was this?

A: Maybe 2005, or 2004. Anyhow, in that moment, I ended up having an interaction with the head of that gang. And we had an interaction where I was publicly threatened and I just said, "I don't know who you are. I live here and my children live here and go someplace else with this." Later, I find out he's an informant.

I had a neighbor ask me, "Do you want to do something about this?" Well, we started knocking on doors, and we had flyers and we had probably about 45-something neighbors show up. What we wanted to do was just to have some accountability with law enforcement because we had been calling 911, and nobody came. We learned what it is to have collective power. We as a neighborhood just began to take on all kinds of things.

And I entered into a world that was very different — the world of organizing for systems change.

Q: When did you begin leading WSCO?

A: I accepted the role in 2016 as an interim, and then just kept that role and then moved into director. At the time, there were two full-time staff. This work on the Flats is filling me right now. It's the impetus of everything in our neighborhood now.

Q: You're studying how hundreds of families were displaced from the West Side Flats?

A: Yes. The neighborhood that was there, and the environmental harms that happened after the industrial park, the way that the residents were discarded. Do you think that those people will ever trust government again? Do you think they're gonna vote? There are generations that are apathetic.

Q: What is the goal of your work to connect with those families? What do you want to see happen there?

A: I think that the folks who are closest to the pain are closest to the answers. We're one of the 17 planning councils in the city and we operate through organizing. And I think that we can garner investments that are so desperately needed — education opportunities, recreational opportunities. I believe that there may be opportunities for legacy families to have generational wealth through a fund for housing.

Whether it's the Port Authority, or the city of St. Paul, we want them to look at the environmental harms that happened and how do we repair those? What are the ways in which we're going to conduct business so that the neighborhood benefits not just the developer, right? If there's industry in the flats, how's that employing the young people of this area? And then I think about entrepreneurship and small local businesses and all the things that we had.

Q: What are the next steps?

A: We're wrapping up our research and that will be done the end of June. And we'll be having a public reveal, probably the second week of July. And we are pulling together a coalition of residents to pursue what are the priorities.