As Minneapolis recovers from nights of unrest following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died under the knee of a white police officer, damaged local businesses are finding help from a community with a unique skillset – theater production.
Members of the Minneapolis theater community are leveraging their love of set design, carpentry and their city to help local businesses secure their properties by patching up broken windows and doors. Many of those volunteering their time are furloughed theater workers whose summer productions were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
University Rebuild is a diverse grassroots group of Minneapolis theater members working to “clean up, repair, and protect communities in the Twin Cities,” the group says on its Facebook page.
“For anyone who has arts training, they are taught early on how to collaborate with people. And that collaboration comes with the ability to quickly organize and problem-solve,” said University Rebuild organizer Daisuke Kawachi, who pointed out the valuable stagecraft skills volunteers are now applying to their community.
“Skills on the ground that we are seeing are expert knowledge of materials – not just what tools are needed, but what types of materials are best,” Kawachi explained.
“Having the knowledge of wood, metal, stone – all different materials that make up window frames and doors, they require different materials and different screws,” he added.
Wielding power tools and plywood, University Rebuild is helping business owners secure their properties. The group has more than 100 volunteers despite starting just last week with a few phone calls from local businesses.
Kawachi said University Rebuild began when nearby businesses contacted his friend looking for wood, tools and know-how. To meet the need, Kawachi’s friend – who is respected in the world of theater tech – reached out to a familiar community.
As volunteers responded, organizers set up a Facebook group where people can sign up – and where business owners can request help.
Offline, the team of volunteers set up shop at a local theater and are using the space as their command post.
Private financial contributions and donated construction materials help University Rebuild keep their work going.
Power tools, plywood, and purpose
University Rebuild helps all businesses but prioritizes the needs of businesses of color.
“None of our actions are done out of charity,” Kawachi told CNN. “Everything we do is in solidarity with BIPOC (black, indigenous and other people of color) communities and we are taking our cues from BIPOC leaders.”
Kawachi explained that many simply don’t have the financial resources of other stores.
“A large company, like Target, will be able to recover more easily than a small black-owned business,” he said.
Impact on the ground
Kawachi estimated University Rebuild has supported more than 200 businesses. He said the number could be higher, because some requests have come on the spot while volunteers are in the field.
“We’ll go to a business and then their neighbor will say ‘come over.’”
Kawachi said the group is gearing up to help businesses take down the boards as well once ready to reopen.
How to get involved
University Rebuild doesn’t have an urgent need for supplies or donations at the moment, but Kawachi encouraged those who want to get involved in their communities to think locally and ask three questions:
“Look at your own community. Is there movement-work that is already happening that you can support?”
“Are there BIPOC businesses you can make purchases from? And are there BIPOC voices that you can amplify?”
When fear and hope collide
According to Kawachi, the business owners are both fearful and hopeful as they look to the future.
“There are a lot of people who are afraid of organized white supremacists and arson,” he said.
“People are also hopeful that something transformative can come from this moment. And I think people feel more connected to their community than they have in a while.”
But his ultimate goal, he said, is to work himself out of the role.
“My hope is that an organization like University Rebuild is no longer necessary because the needs of oppressed people have been heard and met.”