• Katy Nelson

Phyllis Wheatley Community Center Wins Community Builder Award at Minne Inno Fire Awards

It has been two years since Executive Director Suzanne Fuller Burks arrived to Phyllis Wheatley Community Center determined to raise the nearly century-old institution in the Minneapolis African American community out of a decades-long rut and restore it to its former position as one of the preeminent Black organizations in North Minneapolis serving the needs of the people in our community.

Members of the Wheatley eSports Club learn to create video games at North Community High School in May. The program is part of the DigitalTechWorks Academy of Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.


Under Burks' leadership, PWCC has been transformed from a forgotten organization that had been all but relegated to Minneapolis' Northside history into a thriving organization that is, once again, working to provide a myriad of services that improve the lives of people in our community by creating pathways for them to discover their strengths and take control of their futures.


Now, her efforts, along with those of a new leadership team, are paying off for PWCC and for Minneapolis' Northside community. The Business Journals took notice last week, when Burks and PWCC were awarded with the 2022 Minne Inno Blazer Awards' Community Builder designation at the annual Fire Awards!


In May 2022, 50 Fire Awards finalists were chosen from a pool of community-nominated contenders for contributions to the community, like social impact initiatives, growth, product launches, and pivots during the COVID-19 pandemic. Blazer winners were chosen for their creativity and innovation in finding ways to give back.


To say that PWCC has pivoted over the past two years is an understatement. Though our organization has been working to advance African American opportunity and equity in Minneapolis for 98 years (!), it has not been immune to the ups and downs faced by any nonprofit organization. Before Burks took the lead in June of 2020, the agency was struggling - perhaps more than it ever had.


PWCC's financial situation was dire, and its community connections and support network had dwindled over the first 20 years of the century. The very people we exist to help thought that the organization had ceased to exist. Keeping it alive was our outstanding Mary T. Wellcome (MTW) Child Development Center and a small amount of funding from Hennepin County that allowed us to continue our HOPE Programs, which focus on anger management and intimate partner violence, as well as the support of a few very generous donors.


Upon arrival, the first line of business for Burks was to get the lights in our facility turned back on and to invest in a new heating and cooling system for our (very uncomfortable) facility. And there was COVID-19, at its peak, disrupting the entire American workforce and forcing everyone to adapt, quickly and constantly, to the demands of the pandemic and the safety protocols that came with it. This was no small feat, but priority #1 was to make sure that MTW stayed open for the families who rely on us so parents could continue to go to work and provide for their children. Most of these families were and still are frontline workers.


One by one, the initial operational challenges were met. At the same time, Burks and her team were working hard to identify funders and supporters for a huge expansion of programming that would realign the agency with its original purpose of creating opportunities that address the need for economic and racial equity in Minneapolis.


Now, the results of that work can be seen in a host of new programs designed to arm people with the skills necessary to procure quality, sustainable employment that stabilizes finances and breaks the poverty cycle — training adults to work in the tech industry; diverting kids from going down the wrong paths and inspiring them to hope for better; preparing the youngest children in our community for success in school and beyond; teaching teens programming skills that will benefit them in the long term; and providing immediate assistance for people in crisis.


This Fall, PWCC will begin the process of raising funds to revitalize our Camp Katharine Parsons, an idyllic place where kids from our community can go to discover a life outside the urban area and get a sense of the possibilities that exist for them in the world.


Helping to fund these initiatives and bring peace to the North side are dozens of foundations, corporate charitable funds, and individuals, whose belief in our mission and our ability to use their gifts in the most impactful ways is incredibly strong.


And so, in just two years, with a great deal of passion for PWCC's mission, a deep sense of caring for our neighbors, and a firm commitment to lifting up the community, Burks and PWCC are here, meeting needs and learning from our community where other gaps exist, working to create and expand programming to benefit the maximum number of individuals and families possible. A pivot we have made, and we are excited to continue to show our city what we do next.

We feel honored to be recognized as the 2022 Community Builder and have plans to Re(Imagine) Community and the ways in which we can do even more for our community and our city in future years. Stay tuned!

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