New year, new faces in District 2


Marjorie Otto photos/Review • The District 2 Community Council has some new hires — Kansas Romportl will be focusing on connecting with Spanish-speaking neighbors in the district.

Ann Vang, who has lived in the neighborhood for the past six years, will be doing community organizing with Hmong neighbors and also helping manage the community gardens for the District 2 Community Council.

District 2 Community Council hires new community organizers.

 

Staffers at the District 2 Community Council, which represents neighborhoods in the northeastern corner of the East Side, are calling 2018 the “dawning of a new era.”

The organization recently hired two new staff members — Kansas Romportl and Ann Vang — to work on community outreach, specifically with Spanish- and Hmong-speaking neighbors.

District 2 staff member Lisa Theis said the need for new people was identified as the council worked on its 10-year comprehensive plan, and while collecting input from neighbors last year.

She said the organization surveyed nearly 500 neighbors and through the process found that many, including newer Spanish- and Hmong-speaking neighbors, were not aware of the community council and what purpose it served.

St. Paul consists of 17 district councils that represent different neighborhoods across the city. While the council’s borders are determined by the city, each council is an independent nonprofit that makes recommendations to the city on issues like zoning, licenses and new construction, and also advocates for the neighbors it represents in local government, like at the city and county level.

Another problem the district council found was that none of its staff knew how to speak Spanish or Hmong.

“We wanted to learn new languages, so we got two people who did,” said District 2 Community Council executive director Chuck Repke.

 

A passion for the Spanish language

Romportl, 31, grew up in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and began learning Spanish in middle school, continuing through high school. 

When she was 17, Romportl was in a bad car accident, leaving her in a coma for a month. She said when she got out of it, she basically had to relearn everything, from talking to walking. 

She said the strangest part was that before she relearned how to speak, she was able to translate Spanish. 

“It was like I was reborn physically and neurologically,” Romportl said. 

As she recovered, she finished her senior year of high school and eventually attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for Spanish studies and social services. 

Romportl said she has always loved Spanish, calling it a “beautiful language.”

After college she had a variety of jobs. She spent one year working for Americorps in Barron County, Wisconsin, teaching English to Hispanic residents, translating public health documents into Spanish and helping with prevention efforts geared towards underage substance abuse. 

She also worked with a youth mission organization in Puerto Rico for a year and taught Spanish at schools in Wisconsin and Minneapolis. She worked for Head Start in the Twin Cities as well.

In addition to connecting with Spanish neighbors in District 2, Romportl will also help witth the council’s auto theft prevention grant and with planning events in the neighborhood. 

She is also working with the Spanish-speaking congregation at Hazel Park Church to help set up events specifically for Spanish-speaking neighbors, and may help teach an English class as well.

 

Excited to meet

 new people

Vang, 19, has lived in St. Paul for her whole life, with the past six years being in the District 2 neighborhood. 

Vang is currently going to school at Metropolitan State University and is thinking of majoring in business. She has volunteered with North East Neighborhoods Development Corporation, an East Side economic development agency that is also in District 2. In addition, she works as a reading tutor and scholar coach.

Vang will be helping with the council’s community gardens and making connections with the Hmong community. 

Theis said that many of the community members who use the gardens are Hmong elders who have limited English-speaking skills, and that it was important to the council to hire someone who can speak Hmong.

Vang said she is excited to work with Hmong elders, both to connect more to the Hmong culture and because she’ll be working with community members at the other end of the age spectrum, compared to the children she is used to working with.

Specifically, Vang said one event she wants to to bring back is a local Hmong New Year celebration that used to happen in the neighborhood. 

“I just like helping and giving,” she said. 

Serving the neighborhood

Ultimately, District 2 is trying to make sure that neighbors know that the community council is there to serve them, either as advocates or as resources, and to make sure all voices and perspectives have the space to voice their concerns, Repke said. 

“We want them to know that we are seriously interested in what their needs are,” he said. “I think a part of it is just getting new neighbors to understand what a neighborhood organization does.” 

Theis added it was important to add people with non-English language skills so that the organization could connect with neighbors it hasn’t had relationships with in the past. Staffers are aware this will be a challenge, since they will be starting relationships from scratch.

Theis said she wants neighbors to know the organization is here for them, but also acknowledges that it is easier said than done. “It’s really easy to say those things, but our actions need to speak louder,” she said.

 

A year of district council changes

2018 is setting up to be a year of change for all of the East Side district councils. The other three councils — Payne-Phalen, Dayton’s Bluff and District 1 — are searching for and planning to hire new executive directors. 

Payne-Phalen has been in the search process for about two years, after former executive director Leslie McMurray left unexpectedly in the spring of 2016. Lissa Jones-Lofgren has been serving as the interim executive director during the search.

The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council is just starting the process of hiring a new executive director after Deanna Abbott-Foster, who was with the organization for six years, was let go after financial difficulties and questions about the workplace environment. 

The District 1 Community Council is also starting the process of searching for a new executive director after Betsy Leach, who had been with the organization for more than a decade, retired at the end of 2017.

 


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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