Alicia Smith poses for a portrait at North Commons park in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

As a teenager growing up in the 1990s, Alicia D. Smith would head to a park near her home in North Minneapolis after school and play basketball against girls from other schools. Despite the fierce competition, everyone hung out afterwards to gobble up hot dogs her mom grilled.

Smith learned how to build healthy, competitive relationships at those parks (North Commons, Farview, Harrison). The generation before her, she added, reminisces about meeting up with friends from other schools at Minneapolis parks, where some learned how to sew and cook through park programs. 

“It was a neutral space for everyone in the community,” she said. “The one location where everyone could be.” 

Smith, 40, who is Black, was elected to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board last November. After the election, the 9-person board’s makeup went from three people of color to one. As an at-large park board commissioner, she said she wants to restore faith in the park system, create programming that brings all kids together, and make the parks accessible and attractive to people who have been left out in the past. Smith began her four-year term on the park board in January.

I only know how to exist in this body, but I do think it’s really interesting to elect an all-white board in these times. It’s a little bit of a shock because of where we are with our racial reckoning in this city.

“I only know how to exist in this body, but I do think it’s really interesting to elect an all-white board in these times,” Smith said. “It’s a little bit of a shock because of where we are with our racial reckoning in this city.”

The Park Board is a natural fit for Smith, who also serves as executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Association. The Corcoran neighborhood is located south of Lake Street and west of Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis, and is among the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Smith described her role with the association as “mini-mayor without the pay or responsibility.” She banded with other Black women to distribute food and supplies outside of Minneapolis police’s Third Precinct when thousands of protesters took to the streets in 2020 to decry the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody. The police building, which was later set ablaze, is located a few blocks from the Corcoran neighborhood.

Smith and her two children, ages 13 and 8, use the parks on a daily basis. Her sons play flag football and basketball (she sometimes coaches). They also hang out, swim, ride bikes, or ride hoverboards.

As a park commissioner, Smith wants to ensure that today’s kids can experience the parks in the same way that she and generations before her did. That means making sure programming is free or low-cost, she said, and that the park board is engaging the ideas of people who haven’t felt at home in the parks before. 

Sahan Journal recently spoke to Smith about her goals, her thoughts on preventing drownings like recent tragedies, and the role of the parks in helping people experiencing homelessness. The park board oversees 6,817 acres of land with 180 parks, 102 miles of walking and biking paths, 49 recreation centers, and seven golf courses. It oversees a budget of $128 million. The system has been ranked the top municipal park organization in the nation six times in the past decade. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What have the first couple of months on the job been like for you?

It’s been enlightening. It’s been fun. I’m still learning some intimate details about policies and resolutions and the broader spectrum of being on the board and how that intersects with how to create change in an authentic way to build parks for all.

We say that—“parks for all”—but not a lot of people really mean it. They mean it until something they’ve been used to is compromised. People don’t really mean “for all” when it impacts them. 

Staying true to that moniker of what that means is sometimes challenging.

To put more icing on the cake, I’m a Black woman and the only Black woman on the board. So that makes it even more exciting and it keeps me on my toes. I’m always looking through the lens I see, but my colleagues may not see that. My normal stance is, it’s not my job to educate you. But I need to work alongside these other eight people, and I need them to be efficient at their jobs, so I may need to educate my colleagues.

You were one of several people of color running for Park Board, so did you anticipate that you might be the only person of color elected?

I did not. I was quite shocked. I don’t think I realized it until an L.A. Times reporter called me and said, “Hey, how’s it feel being the only Black woman on the board?” I said, “What?! Shut up!” 

And he said, “Yeah, you’re the only person of color on the board.” So he brought it to my attention. 

Alicia Smith competed for Edison High School, but shot hoops at North Commons after school. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

How do you feel about that? 

I feel fine. I only know how to exist in this body, but I do think it’s really interesting to elect an all-white board in these times. It’s a little bit of a shock because of where we are with our racial reckoning in this city. That’s part of the reason why I didn’t think that this would be the case.

It’s an honor and a privilege. But it certainly comes with heavy responsibility, because of how I present in my body and because of what I know, and historic events that have transpired and how supremacy works as a system and perpetuates certain things.

It’s hard for people to let go of certain things, because they did it like this when their dad or grandpa was around. And [my response is], well, four generations ago my great-great grandpa was a slave. 

So how do you engage people who haven’t always interacted with the parks?

In communities where we know that people have historically not been engaged, how are we intentionally engaging them? I might hang out at the grocery store, or sometimes I’m going to be in a park. I expect us to figure out how to engage the communities that we have not previously been engaged with, because the same voices are being heard, the same people have time to go to meetings, email, call in.

Are these programs truly reflective of what people really want? I love basketball and volleyball, but two blocks from our [Corcoran Neighborhood Organization] office is an apartment complex filled with Somali families. They like basketball, but they prefer soccer. They play soccer on the baseball fields at Corcoran. [As ED of Corcoran] I wrote a grant to get temporary soccer goals that can be rolled up and put away. 

Are we meeting the needs of everyone? Are there other sports or activities we should offer? With Ramadan coming up and our park hours … are we serving food there? It may be that we need to tweak how we program things. 

Which park projects are you looking forward to most? 

I’m super excited about what’s coming down the pike for North Commons. I’ve played on every piece of equipment there and at the water park, so I’m excited for that. And I’m excited for the overlook and riverfront access, the possibilities of what’s to come. 

In 2020, 6-year-old Isaac Childress III drowned near Boom Island. Last summer, 12-year-old Mubashir Hussein Aden drowned at North Commons Park and 10-year-old Hussane Abdi Ali drowned at Lake Nokomis. What can be done to prevent more?

[Black and Asian Minnesotans are twice as likely to drown as white Minnesotans], and that should be alarming to anyone who has control over bodies of water where young people have access. How do we eliminate that disparity as a whole? That’s not just a parks problem; it’s an all-of-us problem.

I think that we forget that kids are amazing and fearless, so water is attracting. Even as an adult, I think we really need to look at it from the standpoint of how many young people can we give swimming lessons to?

Swimming lessons should be as accessible as a bag of chips. … Our only indoor pool is in East Phillips. So are we creating innovative partnerships with Ys, Boys and Girls Clubs? 

I think [new] signs certainly would help. But not everyone reads. We should explore what that looks like on the river and lakes ensuring that the signs are easy to read or even depict pictures showing no swimming. 

Swimming lessons should be as accessible as a bag of chips.

Should encampments for people experiencing homelessness exist in the parks?

My position is the same as when I was campaigning: I don’t think encampments are meant to be in our parks. I don’t think they’re safe, and I don’t think they create a feeling of welcomeness either for the unhoused people or people visiting the parks.

But we can be a service—a bridge—for some of those resources, because we have so many buildings. I caught a lot of flack for this, but if it’s 8 o’clock [in the morning] during the school year, why couldn’t we open parks to provide resources? That’s the most human thing we could do. People still feel like that’s not a parks function, but I believe we can and we should. Homelessness is a problem of all of ours.

One thing I’ve found out: People are very focused on the things they’re focused on. Some people say the parks should only focus on the parks. I don’t know how that works. I’m raising children here, and my friends are raising children here. If we don’t act as a bridge to other problems, we’re also complicit in the problem. 

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...