Kim Eslinger

David Tinjum

Ryan Ojard
Staff Photographer

Claudia Kittock
Columnist / Non-Profits
Email Claudia...

Merle Minda
Small Business Columnist
Email Merle...

Michael Rainville Jr.
History Columnist
Email Michael...

Brianna Ojard

Meg Forney

Doug Verdier

Mill City Times is a not-for-profit community service.  We do not sell advertising on this site.

Cultural Cornerstones
Search Mill City
Recent News
Front Page Archives

Friends of the Mill District: Building Community by Connecting With and Supporting our Neighbors

Article by Claudia Kittock

I have spent the past several months writing about many of the wonderful nonprofit organizations in Minneapolis. It has been a genuine pleasure, and a source of great pride to discover the hearts of the people in our city. I will continue to do that work, but today’s article is about something much more personal, a neighborhood charity that I helped found, Friends of the Mill District.

In late 2015, a group of friends, Chad DiDonato, Ken Searl, David Tinjum, and me, Claudia Kittock, began a conversation about the Mill District that continues. We shared a vision for our neighborhood that includes every single resident and decided to start a 501©3 to do the work that needs to be done. In January of 2016, we filed papers with the IRS and began our work. Our mission is to “ community in the Mill District by connecting, convening, and supporting our neighbors.” The history of our neighborhood is very short. Fewer than 300 people lived in the Mill District in the early 1990s, but in a short time we have grown to be close to 5000 residents. It seemed obvious to the founders of the Friends of the Mill District that this was a neighborhood without a sense of community, but one looking for an identity.

The socio-economic divide in our neighborhood is striking. While the mean income is $78,000, we know that 25% of our neighbors live below the poverty line. An integral part of the very existence of the Friends is to include all of our neighbors, which involves an almost constant outreach to our neighbors in poverty. No event sponsored by us has a charge. The choir, yoga, an evening of throwing bean bags in the park, Winterfest, and any future events are done free of charge. We are resolved to be an example of inclusiveness.

Subsequent to the Board being founded, Chad relocated to Nashville and Cynthia Froid joined Ken Searl, David Tinjum and Claudia Kittock to comprise the four members of the Friends of the Mill District Board. We are all volunteers and contributors. Three of us are residents in the Mill District, and the fourth owns a business here. No one is paid for the work they do for the charity. Our work is done because there is a need.

In the summer of 2016, the Friends started a yoga class in Gold Medal Park. The yoga class is held every Saturday morning from Memorial Day through Labor Day and averages 29 attendees. The first session of 2017 was held on May 27, and will continue through September 2. We were also lucky enough to find a group of yoga instructors who volunteer their time and talents to help us make this a free event.

“I was hesitant to participate since I only
knew one person. Nevertheless, I had the courage
to show up at the first rehearsal. The first gift
was the energy the choir leader exuded as we
started practicing. Suddenly, I was transported
to the beauty of singing unknown but beautiful
songs. By the time I was walking back home, my
mood was so positive and my brain thinking
process was in a creative mood..."

The Friends of the Mill District Singers began on a run. A group of neighbors formed a running group and invited residents from Emanuel Housing to be part of that group at its inception. During one of these runs, a friend brought up music and asked the question, “Why isn’t there more music in the know, like a choir?” The simple answer to that question was, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” When I asked a MacPhail Center for Music employee the same question, she promised to do some research. Within a week, she suggested MacPhail might be willing to help us set up a pilot project to find out if we could make a choir a reality and offered us JD Steele as the director.

We started singing in the fall of 2015, and now have a roster of 161 singers. We are averaging close to 50 singers/rehearsal. Rehearsals are held in neighborhood venues. We have been lucky enough to sing at the Guthrie, MacPhail, the American Academy of Neurology, and the Mill City Museum. All space is donated and we continue to be grateful to our neighbors.

We have sung at the Capri Theater, Holidazzle, the MacPhail Music Matters Luncheon, at a Twins game (singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ during the 7th inning stretch), before a performance of ‘A Christmas Carol' at the Guthrie, at the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence, at Songs from the Street, and we caroled for the first ever Winterfest in the Mill District. These are but a few of the things we have done in the past 18 months, and on June 10th are scheduled to sing at the Loring Park Music Fest.

Scenes and singing from the first annual Winterfest in the Mill District

As Rosa Miller commented, “I was hesitant to participate since I only knew one person. Nevertheless, I had the courage to show up at the first rehearsal. The first gift was the energy the choir leader exuded as we started practicing. Suddenly, I was transported to the beauty of singing unknown but beautiful songs. By the time I was walking back home, my mood was so positive and my brain thinking process was in a creative mood. Besides a renewed confidence in my singing, my capacity that I would improve my vocal chords, etc., I very much enjoy the sense of connecting and community building among the members. New friendships, new interests, being able to pursue my love of music, performing across the city and with other choirs are gifts that have came so unexpectedly as a result of accepting a neighbor’s invitation.”

We have another project that will begin later this summer. In a joint effort with the Guthrie, YouthLink and MacPhail, we will sponsor an acting class for young people. It follows the same model as the choir. We are inviting young people from YouthLink who are experiencing homelessness, and then extending the invitation to young people in our community. The class will be free and taught by acting teachers from the Guthrie. It will happen over 3 weeks in July or August (stay tuned for the starting date) and will culminate in a performance at the Guthrie. We are incredibly excited about this project and hope to have enough success to be able to turn this into an ongoing effort.

A strong, healthy community can only be built together. We are stronger together, and bringing all of us together requires effort. The Friends of the Mill District are willing and anxious to continue to do this work. Your help and support is critical to the work we do. How can you help and support the work being done?

1. Sing with the Friends of the Mill District Singers. No talent is needed, just an interest in singing with a group of neighbors.

2. Grab a mat or a towel and meet under the huge orange sculpture in Gold Medal Park on any or every Saturday at 9:00am this summer.

3. Friend us on Facebook. All activities are posted there.

4. We are funded by contributions. Our only expenses are to pay the salary of JD Steele who directs our choir, and to pay the salaries of the Guthrie acting teachers. All other work is done by the Board. We rely on the generosity of our neighbors to be able to pay the salaries. Any contribution is tax deductible and can be made out to Friends of the Mill District and sent to Claudia Kittock at 215 10th Avenue S, Unit 613, Minneapolis, MN, 55415.

For any and all questions, please contact Claudia Kittock at We are stronger together!

- - -

Editor's Note:

Listen to Claudia's recent interview on KFAI:

« St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center and Lock and Dam Tours Start June 11 | Main | Scenes from the May 27 Mill City Farmers Market »