St. Catherine University student Mary Claire Francois '23 (left) and the South Minneapolis Youth Garden (right), one of Francois' community projects with The Real Minneapolis.
Mary Claire Francois ’23, a student-athlete and rising sophomore studying pre-nursing at St. Catherine University, is exemplifying St. Kate’s values of social justice and community by effecting positive change in her South Minneapolis neighborhood.
After witnessing the destruction of parts of her community following George Floyd’s murder in late May 2020, Francois wanted to help. She started a GoFundMe page with a $1,000 goal, “to pass out waters and masks and be of support to my community.” Donations came in from around the country, and Francois collected over $21,000. She quickly realized that between these funds and her community rallying together, they could do much more. Francois and fellow South Minneapolis residents Valerie Quintana and Marni Lewis Harvey founded The Real Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization with a mission to lift up their community through a variety of socially-conscious projects. Francois reflects, “We wanted to continue to support our community and be leaders.”
The Real Minneapolis acts as an umbrella for numerous projects that support the South Minneapolis community, and many are focused on engaging youth. Hope Beyond Rubble is one such project that employs young community members to place flower installations near burnt buildings along Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. Francois says, “It helps to bring some new life and hope to the area.” Another project is the South Minneapolis Youth Garden, a vegetable and flower garden that youth workers plant and tend, which also functions as a place of solace for the community.
Francois specifically wanted to engage youth from her neighborhood to get involved in the rebuild. “These kids are our future, and that is where a lot of my passion for youth involvement in The Real Minneapolis comes from,” she says.
Through a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation, run by the former Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak who took an interest in Francois’ efforts, The Real Minneapolis is able to pay four youth from the Phelps Park Boys and Girls Club a $14.50 hourly wage. As for the founders of the organization, they volunteer their time and talents. “We are focusing on turning over any funding we receive directly to our community,” Francois says.
Francois has always loved to help people. And her mother Liz Francois ’86, a St. Kate’s alumna and nurse, inspired an interest in the medical field — so nursing felt like a natural fit. When the coaches from the St. Kate’s basketball team reached out to her while she was deciding which college to attend, “it was fate,” Francois recalls.
At St. Kate’s, she found a supportive network of like-minded classmates and faculty who want to serve their community and change the world for the better through a social justice lens. “I absolutely love being a part of the Katie community. The faculty and staff are there for the right reasons and care a lot,” says Francois. “Coming from a culturally diverse high school, transitioning to a similar college environment was one of the most important aspects I was looking for when choosing a college. St. Kate’s really fit that, with the professors and people you see around campus, it’s a breath of fresh air to see that the change is happening, and it’s happening at St. Kate’s,” she says.
As summer comes to a close and Francois looks toward returning to her studies this fall, she and her co-founders of The Real Minneapolis plan to keep their extraordinary efforts moving forward. They are expanding the scope of their projects, while continuing to focus on community needs. Francois says, “We would like to be doing something to serve the people who are living at the encampments that are popping up all over the city — whether that means feeding them lunch, providing them with essentials, or just acting as a listening ear to hear their stories.”
Running the organization and its multiple projects has taken an enormous effort on Francois’ part — she has been working 12- to 16-hour days for the last few months. “It has been completely overwhelming,” she reflects on the experience, “but the payoff of seeing my community happy and smiling is absolutely fulfilling.”
Learn more about The Real Minneapolis.