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Our Neighborhood Connections - It All Starts With Asking a Question

Article by Claudia Kittock, Photos by Rick Kittock

A group of friends, 3 residents and 1 business owner in the Mill District, decided to form a neighborhood charity in January of 2016. The history of our neighborhood is very short. Fewer than 300 people lived in the Mill District in the early 1990s, and in a very short time we have grown to approximately 5000 residents. It seemed obvious to the founders of Friends of the Mill District that this was a neighborhood without a well-formed sense of community yet, and that became an integral part of the mission of this group, “ build community in the Mill District by connecting, convening, and supporting our neighbors.”

I always believed that connections implied people with money, so was baffled when the members of our charity urged me to use my connections. How could I? My husband and I are teachers and the idea that we have connections with people with significant money is not true. However, I have found that the connection part of our mission has been a series of epiphanies, each one more unexpected than the one before. Each of these moments has been filled with a reminder of the goodness of people and the quiet kindness of so many.

 “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.”

This story is about the first and most powerful lesson I learned and continue to learn. Listen...tell your story...ask for help...and be prepared to be stunned by the responses of the good and kind people in this community. Change can only happen person to person, and that is the essence of the work we all need to do. Connections matter. Not the connections that lead to power, but the human connections that build us all up. I am better and stronger because of the people I know and count as a friend. 

Here is the latest example:

The Friends of the Mill District Singers has been one such endeavor. It began on a run. A group of neighbors, who enjoyed running together, decided to form a neighbor running group and invited residents from Emanuel Housing to be part from the beginning. Emanuel is a 101-unit sober, supportive, permanent housing program that serves economically disadvantaged single men and women.

We discovered the commonality of running was a means to become friends. On these runs we talked about running, the neighborhood, and our diverse backgrounds. 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 and his brother, Fred, as the accompanist.

As we have grown to 151 singers on our roster, we have worked hard to be inclusive. 100 of our singers are women, 35 are people living below the poverty line, and each new session of rehearsals brings us new singers and friends. We have sung at venues as diverse as the MacPhail Music Matters Luncheon to the 7th Inning Stretch at a Minnesota Twins games. Through it all, we have found friends and community through a shared joy of singing.

How did this happen? Did you follow the connections? Friend from Emanuel - discussion with people at MacPhail - pilot funding from DMNA - donation of rehearsal space from the Guthrie, Mill City Museum, MacPhail, American Academy of Neurology and First Covenant Church -JD and Fred Steele - Friends of the Mill District Charity - community members who sing and support the choir - Emanuel Housing - Alliance Apartments - Harbor Lights - Minnesota Regional Arts Council funding - contributions from Cynthia Froid Group and American Academy of Neurology - Minnesota Twins - Holidazzle -  Park Music Festival - they just keep coming!

Yet another example of connections started in December when Linda Brandt, a singer with the Friends of the Mill City Singers, asked a friend and fellow singer from Alliance Apartments if she could come and play Christmas Carols and host a sing-a-long. She told me about the sorry state of the piano there and asked if we could do something about it.

For the past few months, I have been combing the ads on Craigslist, looking for a free piano. None seemed to fit, so I posted an ad on Within 24 hours, I had 4 people offering me a piano. The one that intrigued me was an upright grand and the owner, Suzanne Stenson O’Brien, lived near Alliance.

I shared the story with a group of singers, and at the end of the rehearsal another singer, Anne Carrier, handed me a sheet of paper. When I got home, I realized it was a check that would cover the cost of moving the piano and tuning it.

On Monday, April 3, the piano arrived. 45 minutes later the tuner brought the piano back to life, and residents were waiting to play it as we all left. Can you count the number of connections that were needed to make this happen? Linda Brandt, choir member - Susan Stenson O’Brien who donated the piano - Anne Carrier donated the money for moving the piano and tuning - Karen Johnson, manager at Alliance - Miami, Angie, Brenda, Glenda and all the other singers from Alliance - JD Steele and Fred Steele who lead us in making the music - Next where I placed the ad asking for a free piano - Claudia Kittock (me) who asked the questions - and the connections keep growing!

Here’s what I have learned about connections. Ask questions. Tell the story. People have kind hearts and an endless capacity for helping. All it takes is the willingness to talk to one another and wait for the love to show up. Doing this work has changed my life. Join me and it will change yours!

Claudia can be reached at

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