This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
Cassandra Holmes got involved in environmental justice organizing after her 16-year-old son, Trinidad Flores, died in 2013 upon suddenly developing dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that scientists have found to be associated with exposure to air pollution.
A member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Holmes was born and raised in Little Earth of United Tribes, a 9.4-acre, 212-unit Housing and Urban Development subsidized housing complex in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the country’s only Native American preference Section 8 community.
Founded in 1973, Little Earth provides support services for its nearly 1,000 residents—who represent 38 different Tribal affiliations—designed to help eliminate systemic barriers and address challenges many Indigenous communities face. It’s located in East Phillips, a neighborhood that has long been home to many heavy industry tenants and the so-called “arsenic triangle,” an area resulting from ongoing ground contamination by a chemical manufacturer over a 25-year period. Today, East Phillips residents—70 percent of whom identify as people of color—have some of the highest levels of asthma, heart disease, and other pollution-related ailments in the state of Minnesota.
Holmes serves as the director of the East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) and a board member of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI), two organizations fighting environmental racism in the area. Now, she’s also at the center of a high-profile effort to bring fresh, local food to the neighborhood.
In May, East Phillips residents struck a historic deal with the city to purchase a 7.6-acre site to develop a community-owned indoor urban farm, affordable housing complex, and gathering space. After nearly a decade of activism, they blocked the city’s highly contested plan to develop a former Roof Depot warehouse into a public works campus.
Now, they’ve been given the opportunity to transform the site into a thriving community hub. The activists have raised $3.7 million and have been promised funds from the state to complete the sale in 2024. But hurdles still remain. EPNI will oversee the renovation and buildout process, which will cost an estimated $22 million to $25 million with the first phase expected to be completed by summer 2025. In addition to a solar-powered high-tech indoor urban farm, the vision includes housing units, cultural markets, community gathering spaces, job training sites, and more.
Civil Eats spoke with Holmes recently about the long fight that led to this historic deal, the impact the urban farm will have on the Little Earth community, and EPNI’s vision for a healthier, more equitable future.
Civil Eats: What does this historic deal mean for the East Phillips neighborhood?
Cassandra Holmes: For East Phillips, we’ve been fighting a lot of things that aren’t good for us and winning. Although this one took longer, I knew the right thing was going to happen eventually. But I think for all of Minneapolis, the United States, and even the world—because we have a lot of people from other countries supporting us—it’s such a big deal because it shows that good things can happen when a community stands up together for their right to very basic human needs, like less pollution.
We are going to right generations of wrong. We know it isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s a good start. Down the line, the hope is that it really changes the dynamic of the community, especially for Little Earth residents. This is a big deal because, as Native people, we just don’t have equal access to things like home ownership and business ownership. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will change the dynamic for generations to come.
Why is this particularly important for the Little Earth community?
Growing up in Little Earth, I didn’t realize I lived in this environment where people were dying. We just thought, “That’s what happens; that’s the way of life.” But losing a child to a heart condition he wasn’t born with, having a best friend lose a child to a heart condition she wasn’t born with, and having some of the younger kids pass away from asthma and diabetes was a big eye-opener.
Even though we consider ourselves elders at 55 years old because of our shorter life expectancy, I didn’t realize just how detrimental our environment was until I got into this fight. Now that our eyes are wide open, we’re realizing as a community that we need to fight for our kids and our future.
Can you say more about how the pain of losing your son acted as a catalyst?
When my son first got sick, nobody knew what it was. It took a long time for the doctors to diagnose him, and when they did, they couldn’t believe he was walking and talking. His heart function was at 12 percent, and he needed a heart transplant. We just didn’t understand, because nobody else in our family had been that sick. My kid—who didn’t drink, who didn’t do drugs, who was very active in sports and in his community—just got sick one day. Two years later, he died.
It was just a really hard time. I don’t use drugs, but I remember thinking that I could just drink the pain away. It was our community and our traditions that kept me sober, because I still had to be his mom and help him on his journey. But I kept asking questions, like, “Where did his heart condition come from?” The doctors told me, “He could have touched something that got into his system and attacked his heart. It could be the environment he grew up in. It could be hereditary.” They just didn’t have the answers.
Then, when my best friend’s daughter died, that opened up my eyes. She thought she had congestion, so she went to the emergency room. She stayed overnight because they wanted to run some tests, but she never came back. The doctors said she had a heart condition, but we were like, “From what?” and they couldn’t answer our questions. It made me wonder, “What the hell is going on?” They both grew up in Little Earth. That’s when I start noticing all the sick people in our community and started asking questions.
Then a young boy got run over right up the block from Little Earth and died. Finally, we said, “We’re fed up. We don’t want [the city of Minneapolis] to have a sandbox where they bring in more vehicles and train their employees on diesel-run equipment, and that gets filtered out into our community. We have to do something.”
We don’t want anyone else to know the pain of burying a child. We always have to bury our loved ones, but a child is something else. For Indigenous folks, you don’t live for yourself—you live for your family and your community. As a people, that’s what’s engrained in us. The next generation isn’t going to have a perfect life, but we can still do something to make it better.
What was it like fighting the city’s development plans for the Roof Depot site?
It wasn’t a fight at first; it was the city holding a meeting about the Roof Depot site, which they had bought unbeknownst to us. We had a few community members who saw the building was not in use and had ideas for doing something positive with it. But the city didn’t let Little Earth residents know they bought it—none of our 212 units received a flyer or anything in the mail. My aunt Jolene was the interim director for the Little Earth Residents Association at the time, and she demanded the city host a meeting at Little Earth.
The city had this idea that they would take two people from each community—two Natives, two Blacks, two Hispanics, and so on—to put together this Guidelines Advisory Committee. I signed up for the committee and was chosen. As we were sitting in those meetings, we realized that the city already had their agenda set and it was just putting on a show so they could say they invited the community to provide ideas. But really, it was just dotmocracy; they gave us stickers and asked us to mark which of their ideas we liked.
“Green jobs, green education, food for cheap or free year-round—why would anybody fight that?”
During one of those meetings, former state representative Karen Clark, who is a resident of East Phillips, was in the peanut gallery. The facilitator was talking about the Clark-Berglund Environmental Justice Law, because we kept bringing it up. Karen interjected and said, “What you’re saying is not right; I know because I wrote that law with [former state senator] Linda Berglin.”
I don’t know if he got embarrassed, but the facilitator went charging after her. Everyone was in shock. Karen said she didn’t feel welcome or safe, so she left. I remember thinking, “If my representative and the elders in this community don’t feel welcome or safe, I’m leaving, too. But I’m not giving up my seat.” So, everybody decided to walk out except for two people.
That’s when the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute was born. It wasn’t easy. Even though I knew it was going to work out, there were times where it was lonely and scary. There were times when dealing with the city and politicians was so negative it made me throw up afterward. But I realized that I’ve felt worse—like I did after losing my son—and survived, so I could survive that, too.
Can you talk more about the Little Earth Urban Farm?
In 2017, in the process of all these meetings, Karen Clark secured $319,000 in funding from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to be split up among the community. Little Earth got a portion of that, and we were trying to figure out how to use it. I was on the Little Earth board at the time and reminded people that the whole point of our fight was to stop the city from creating more pollution in our neighborhood.
At the same time, Aunt Jolene was having issues with some of our youth skipping school. She hosted a meeting to learn why, and they said, “We don’t have nice clothes or nice shoes. We’re tired of being made fun of all the time.”
So, we decided to hire the kids to work on the Little Earth Farm for the summer. We also hired elders to work with the kids and tell them stories about the plants and the foods—just connecting them with our youth. Their parents would help out sometimes, too. The deal was that the kids’ money would go into a savings account, then volunteers would take them shopping to buy clothes before the school year started. We were also teaching them budgeting at the same time.
The first summer, we had about 25 kids who worked on the farm and learned a lot. For example, there were kids who at first didn’t know what a radish was, but by the end of the summer, radishes were their favorite thing to eat because they had grown them. And on the first day of school, here were these kids bright and early waiting for the school bus. [The farming program] has been so successful and has gotten bigger and better every year. I think we have 60 to 75 kids working now, and the farm is really beautiful.
And that right there is what we need. Instead of these kids skipping school or selling weed or stealing money to buy nice clothes, they worked on something that actually helps the community. They’re proud of making their own money and buying their own clothes. Green jobs, green education, food for cheap or free year-round—why would anybody fight that? That’s the small version of what we want to see happen.
What is the vision for the indoor urban farm, housing complex, and community hub?
The vision is to create a bigger version of what we’ve done in our smaller communities. We also envision a coffee shop, a bike shop since we’re just off a biking greenway, a commercial kitchen, a space for people to sell their crafts, and more. There will also be housing, because we have a lot of relatives who are unsheltered.
But just having this community space where we can build generational wealth—an opportunity we haven’t had before—will totally change the dynamic because we will actually have ownership in something. We will actually have a say in something. We will have a safe place to go. Above all, the most important thing is that we stopped an entity from continuing to hurt us; we stopped that pollution. Now, starting to work on our community is step two.
What meaningful impact do you hope this development has on future generations?
My hope is that East Phillips and Little Earth residents know that they have a voice and that they can have more than just what they’re given. I hope future generations will be better to themselves and their neighbors. They’ll have this opportunity to work with food and with the soil and to provide for their community. They’ll have power, faith, and ownership in something.
When you hear about Little Earth, it’s only when there’s a shooting or an overdose. We’re not always seen in the best light, but we have a lot of really great community members. I’m hoping there will be a different storyline in the future—talking about how successful this has been, how we have won awards, how this ownership has really paid off, maybe resulting in more homeowners than renters. There will still be negatives, but we won’t only have stories of violence and people dying. I see it as a real positive.
An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She has interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, Andrew Zimmern, and chef Sean Sherman, and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Andscape, and more.