As St. Paul’s Truce Center expands locations, founder spreads anti-violence message

As St. Paul’s Truce Center expands locations, founder spreads anti-violence message

Step inside the new Truce Center in St. Paul and you’ll see framed photos on the walls — there’s Sadeya Hall, 16, Kacey Feiner, 22, and Andre Crenshaw, 17 — and more whose lives were cut short by gun violence over the years.

The wording above their pictures — “Don’t Make It On This Wall” — is Miki Lewis-Frost’s purpose.

He aims to persuade people who are having conflicts or disagreements to come into one of his Truce Centers.

“I try to sit everyone down and see if we can work it out with words before it ends up turning into that wall,” Lewis-Frost said, motioning toward the photos of homicide victims, which includes people he knew.

As communities in the Twin Cities continue to grapple with shootings, Lewis-Frost is among the people working to find solutions on the front end.

A SAFE PLACE TO GO

Lewis-Frost started the 8218/Truce Center in December 2019 at Lexington Parkway and Selby Avenue. He’s slated to open a second location in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood July 1, along with holding the grand opening of the African-American Truce Museum at the Maplewood Mall on the same date.

After years of organizing free back-to-school haircuts, along with backpack and coat giveaways, Lewis-Frost said he wanted to do more by giving kids a safe place to go.

At the original Lexington Parkway location, youth have been coming in after school, getting snacks and playing video games. Lewis-Frost and volunteers provide mentoring and teach conflict resolution, along with talking to them about depression and suicide prevention. The first part of the center’s name (8218) refers to the age group — 8 to 18 — that they mentor.

“We’re trying to educate them about becoming our future leaders and not making the mistakes that a lot of us have made,” Lewis-Frost said.

STEPPING INTO THE LINE OF FIRE

Before the coronavirus pandemic, 10 to 20 kids would spend time at the Truce Center at 175 N. Lexington Parkway on any given day after school, Lewis-Frost said. They had to close for a time during pandemic restrictions and they’ve been getting busier again since reopening.

In addition to providing leadership classes and job training, the Truce Center is a place where Lewis-Frost and volunteers help with conflict resolution.

“A lot of the kids don’t necessarily want to be involved with the beefs that they’re having,” Lewis-Frost said. “It’s just that they don’t have anybody to help mediate their differences and get away from them, so that’s what I’m here to do.”

Lewis-Frost also takes his work to the streets. He was out recently, talking to a man in his 20s. Someone who had a gang-related dispute with the man showed up, and they both pulled guns. Lewis-Frost stepped between them, telling them they would have to shoot him before they could hurt each other.

“That was enough to get them to put the guns down, and I said: ‘Let me talk to you. Let’s figure this out,’” he said.

He said faith has always been part of his life.

“I don’t fear what someone would do to me because I trust that my higher power is putting me where he wants me at that moment,” he said.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher met Lewis-Frost when he was a 15-year-old at Highland Park Senior High School and Fletcher was a St. Paul police sergeant who was coaching a basketball outreach program designed to keep kids out of trouble.

Now, Fletcher said he sees the Truce Center as “the missing piece that law enforcement keeps trying to do,” but with Lewis-Frost’s community connections, he’s “in a better spot in life to actually de-escalate these conflicts and help the gang arguments dissipate.”

FROM PRISON TO FINDING HIS PATH

A mural depicts Miki Lewis-Frost comforting a young person who has been shot as a mother cries at the Truce Center on Payne Avenue in St. Paul Thursday, June 17, 2021. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Lewis-Frost, 49, talks about his own story, so “kids see they can get away from that life and what it takes.”

Growing up in St. Paul’s Midway area, Lewis-Frost describes a good childhood. His mother and father worked hard to provide for their family, and he said it was a time when “the village” helped to raise kids.

During his late teenage years, Lewis-Frost said he started getting into trouble. When he was 18, he was at a house party when other people started arguing, someone fired a gun, and he was shot in the lower back.

He recovered and set his sights on college. “I didn’t want my mother to see me dead on the streets one day. I wanted to better myself.”

Lewis-Frost started studying psychology and chemical-dependency counseling at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he played on the basketball team as a point guard.

Soon after, while Lewis-Frost said he was trying to make money to stay in college, he was charged with drug possession and sentenced to more than a year in prison. When he got out, he worked odd jobs and obtained his car dealership license. He’s been selling cars for more than 15 years.

More recently, Lewis-Frost has taken courses and received certificates in the neuroscience of mental illness and other related studies.

EXPANDING TRUCE CENTER’S REACH

Lewis-Frost said he knows the 8218/Truce Center is preventing violence, but how do you prove how many shootings didn’t happen because of their work? He said that’s made it difficult to secure funding, though the Truce Center has received small grants, including $10,000 from the sheriff’s office last year.

Sydney Latimer, owner of Girl in Ties Design and the Victoria Theater Arts Center community coordinator, obtained a grant for a youth film program and is recruiting five young people from the Truce Center to be part of the project.

Otherwise, Lewis-Frost said, he funds his nonprofit organization himself and with donations from individuals.

Lewis-Frost said the need for their work isn’t letting up, and he decided to open the new locations at 973 Payne Ave. in St. Paul and the Maplewood Mall to reach more young people.

There had been 85 people wounded in shootings in St. Paul this year as of Thursday and 10 people fatally shot. During the same period last year, 72 people were injured and 12 were killed in St. Paul shootings.

State Rep. John Thompson, who represents St. Paul’s East Side, introduced a bill this year that would allocate $2 million in grants for each of the next two fiscal years for youth and family anti-violence outreach with a focus on African-American and immigrant communities. It could provide funding for programs like the Truce Center, Thompson said, but the bill hasn’t moved forward.

“We can’t wait, and I don’t want to play politics with kids’ lives this summer,” said Thompson, who said he’ll volunteer at the Truce Center’s Payne Avenue location. “… We’ve already tried arresting our way out of this problem, but we have not invested in the programming that’s going to make a difference.”

A MESSAGE AS THEY LEAVE

Miki Lewis-Frost points to the word “Think” above the door inside the Truce Center. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Hanging on the walls of the Truce Center on Payne Avenue are artifacts and pictures Lewis-Frost uses to educate young people about African-American history, along with photos of Black leaders.

“We don’t need another rapper here on the East Side, we don’t need another basketball player — we need lawyers and doctors; we need some plumbers,” Thompson said. “We need culturally intelligent mental health providers, teachers.”

There’s also a large mural inside the center, painted by Latimer and based on Lewis-Frost’s descriptions. It shows a young person bleeding in the street as Lewis-Frost holds him. A weeping mother stands nearby.

“Miki’s vision that he really needs to get across to these kids is the reality of street violence and what it’s doing to our communities,” Latimer said.

A long road stretches behind the young man in the mural to represent the different choices people can make, Latimer said. A billboard painted in the background bears the message, “Another Day. Another Chance.”

Before people leave the center and head to the street, the last thing Lewis-Frost wants them to see is the word he had painted above the door — “Think.”

“I hope that kids will read this as they walk out the door and maybe do it,” he said.


FYI

More information about the 8218/Truce Center, including how to donate, can be found online at 8218trucecenter.org.

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