New Karen community space opens on Arcade Street


The building at the corner of Arcade Street and Magnolia Avenue is now home to a new Karen community space called Urban Village. (Marjorie Otto photos/ Review)

One of the features of the new community gathering space is a mural depicting the migration of the Karen people from Myanmar to St. Paul.

A new community gathering space called Urban Village has opened at 1082 Arcade St.  

The space, geared toward supporting the local Karen community, fills a long-vacant building.

The Karen are an ethnic group from Myanmar, also known as Burma, who fled the country due to persecution and genocide. 

The community space opened just this spring but has already held a number of art shows and community discussions, including a budget chat with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

The creation of the space was helped along by Jesse Phenow, a friend of the Karen community. 

 

Supporting community

Phenow said he’s been involved with the Karen community for about eight years, beginning when he met his “Karen family.”

He was volunteering with a refugee resettlement program through college and met them, but his relationship grew far beyond the program. 

“We started off as complete strangers, to a strong sense of kinship,” Phenow said, adding the family took him in as an additional member. “They fully embraced me.” 

Today he lives with them — a mother, father and seven boys — in a house just a few blocks away from the Urban Village. He takes the boys on camping trips nearly every weekend. 

With this special bond, Phenow said he wanted to learn more about the Karen community so he could “stand in solidarity.”

He traveled to the Thailand/Myanmar border and spent a year learning from the Karen people who live there. He made a number of friends there and returns yearly to reconnect. 

Returning to Minnesota in 2015, Phenow said he was trying to find ways to give back to a community that had given him so much.

“This community adopted me,” he said. “The Karen community has given me more than I can give back.”

It was around that time when some of his friends, who happened to be commercial real estate investors, bought the building on the corner of Arcade Street and Magnolia Avenue and offered it up to provide space for the Karen community. 

Phenow, who is white, said he knows he’s an outsider and won’t ever be able to fully understand the Karen experience, but that he wants stand in solidarity with the community by “leveraging my resources to break down systems,” and the space seems like a way to do that.

He said he and his Karen family spent the first year “putting lots of sweat equity into it” as the space, which had been a former bar, was in disrepair. 

Once it was cleaned up, Phenow said he reached out to Karen leaders to see what they thought the community could use it for. 

“I was very intentional in having conversations with Karen leaders,” Phenow said. “I wouldn’t want to create it without the community’s consent.”

The consensus came back that a community space was needed, and the Urban Village opened soon after.

 

A place to display talents

The space is meant for the “Karen community to display how amazing it is,” Phenow said. 

Part of that is a mural painted on one of its walls. Created by Karen artists Ku Paw and Eh Soe Dwe, it depicts the migration of the Karen to Minnesota, showing their original home in Myanmar, the Thai refugee camps and their new homes in St. Paul.

For Dwe, a senior at Augsburg University, working with Paw on the mural wasn’t just about learning various painting techniques, but being involved in her community.

“He taught me a lot about the importance of using my skills and knowledge to serve my community. We all have unique gifts to share with others,” she said. 

It’s a skill Dwe said she hopes to continue on at the Urban Village. She said having an intentional space for the Karen community means a number of things to her.

“It means we have a space to go to when we want to connect with other Karen people. It means we have a place to turn to when we need support or would like to provide support. It means having a space to build relationships with one another.”

Dwe said she sees the Urban Village serving as a safe and welcoming place to build “relationships that will benefit the Karen community as a whole.” 

Some of the regular programming includes networking nights for young Karen professionals. Phenow said Urban Village and St. Paul Public Schools are also working to start a program to help Karen parents learn about the school system. He said the program most likely will be based out of Urban Village. 

Upcoming events at the space include a concert with well-known Karen artist ThaKoLo on Saturday, Oct. 5.

Following a recent art exhibit showcasing local, national and international Karen artists, Phenow said the artwork caught the eye of the mayor’s office and will now be sent to City Hall to hang on its walls.  

“My desire is that the St. Paul community comes to see and value the Karen community for the really amazing people that they really are,” he said.

For more information about Urban Village go to www.theurbanvillage.org or visit “The Urban Village” page on Facebook.

 

–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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