With an introduction by Andrea Jenkins

The Lucky Among Us

“There was never a time when they were unprincipled, unnerved, uneven—even during the war in 1868 they never wavered from their commitment”

—Andrea Jenkins, excerpt from The Lucky Among Us

Having completed a master’s degree in community economic development and having served for 12 years as a city council policy aide for two Minneapolis City Council Members, has led me to the understanding that in order to “build” community one must first have deep, broad, and sincere relationships. This is the key to building healthy and strong communities. Communities can be geographical, as in neighborhood organizations, or they may be affinity groups such as the LGBT community. Whatever the community though, intentional relationships are the main ingredient to hold the disparate bricks together.

The ten community builders represented here have accomplished just that. Through authentic listening, broad engagement, and dedicated service they exemplify what it means to be a true community leader. One common trait they all possess is that they are doers. They show up and speak out; they educate others and connect people to opportunities. They are able to do this because they have spent years developing relationships and their voices are respected. They understand that their age does not limit their ability to engage; in fact it is quite the opposite. Because of their age and experience they recognize that solutions to common problems lie in the wisdom of community, and we must build together to get to those solutions. We honor these individuals not for their age but for their commitment to caring about the people who make up their respective communities. One does not engage in community building for one’s own benefit, but for the benefit of all those around them.



Individuals working to make their communities stronger by volunteering, organizing, or serving in public office.


Sylvia Allen


An unstoppable community force

At nearly 80, Sylvia Allen still runs the integrated marketing, sponsorship, and events production business she founded nearly 40 years ago. Most people would consider that enough. Not Sylvia. She also runs the Butler Building, a historic opera house in Aitkin that she purchased and completely restored to its original grandeur. And dozens of community events, ranging from Aitkin’s weekly Farmers’ Market to its annual Harvest Moon Brew Fest. And Sylvia’s Children, a nonprofit she founded to improve the lives of a 1,000+ children in Uganda. Instead of slowing down, Sylvia has “doubled down,” spending almost every hour of every day making her community—and our world—a better place.


Marvin Roger Anderson

St. Paul

Keeping a community’s stories alive

At 76, Marvin Roger Anderson’s vitality, creativity, and community spirit are an inspiration for everyone he meets. Nowhere is this truer than in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood where Marvin is the co-founder of Rondo Avenue Inc. and the brains behind Rondo Days, a festival that celebrates the best and brightest of the African-American community’s stories, achievements, and culture. And while others might be content to rest on their laurels, Marvin’s not. He’s now leading a new effort to design and construct the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, a community space for contemplation, education, and inspiration. At the corner of Fisk Street and Old Rondo Avenue, the plaza will feature interactive displays and kiosks that tell the history of how neighbors worked together to rebuild their community.


Bev Bales


Lighting the way to better lives

Sixteen-year Douglas County Commissioner Bev Bales, 79, is a true community leader. Whether serving as a “forceful voice” on the Douglas County Hospital board, launching the Yellow Ribbon program to support local military members and their families or leading her county to a first-place victory in the National Association of Counties’ “Change a Light” energy efficiency contest, Bev is a tireless advocate for her community. Each cause and organization she supports, including the county’s four senior centers, feels it gets her undivided attention. Bev also has a gift for making people feel special. For over 40 years, she has called a local radio station five days a week to send birthday and anniversary greetings to more than 1,300 residents in Douglas County.


Dr. Rose Wan-Mui Chu

Little Canada

Improving the quality of education for urban learners and students of color

Fifty-five-year-old Dr. Rose Wan-Mui Chu left her career as an engineer to dedicate her professional life to the tireless pursuit of education equity and excellence, starting as a classroom teacher. Now a faculty member at the Metropolitan State University’ School of Urban Education, Rose has provided tremendous leadership to a teacher preparation program to increase the number of teachers of color and better prepare all teachers to ensure quality education to urban learners. Her leadership extends to her long history of community service, which includes the Dragon Festival (co-founder) and former Asian American Renaissance (board chair). Currently she is a founding board vice chair of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, a new initiative to harness the power of Minnesota’s emerging and experienced Asian American leaders.


Arlene El Amin


Standing strong for all Muslims

Twenty years ago, Arlene El Amin, now 70, shifted the trajectory of her life—and that of many others—by leaving behind her business career to join Masjid An Nur mosque in North Minneapolis. Although Minnesota has 62 different mosques and Islamic organizations, Arlene is the only African-American woman running one. No wonder she’s become a beacon of light and hope for young girls and women from all cultures. She’s also a beacon of light and hope for our entire community, thanks to Day of Dignity, a Muslim festival that includes free food, clothes, haircuts, health checkups, legal advice, and substance abuse counseling, as well as entertainment for people of all ages. The festival is just one way Arlene is helping to build a bridge to a more inclusive community, a goal she also works toward by serving on the national board of the Council on American Islamic Relations.


Linda Krug


Giving back to strengthen our state’s judicial infrastructure

Following an outstanding career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth where she served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Linda Krug could have embraced retirement. Instead, she dove headfirst into a second career of extraordinary community service, serving on the Duluth City Council and the Governor’s Commission on Judicial Selection. A “non-lawyer at large” member of the commission, 58-year-old Linda reviews every application for all of Minnesota’s District Court openings, vets and interviews semi-finalists, and makes recommendations to the governor. In the process, she travels approximately 5,000 miles a year. Her only compensation is the pride that comes from knowing she and the commission have helped fill more than 110 judicial appointments with an emphasis on qualified women and people of color.


Philip McNairy

Red Wing

Community that extends far beyond the walls

When 79-year old Phil McNairy arrived in Red Wing in 1993 as rector of Christ Episcopal Church, he set to work transforming the century-old building from a members-only place of prayer to a lively community center. He then extended the church’s reach by bringing its services to parks and other community places. Satisfied that his church was well-positioned to meet the needs of both members and residents, Phil then set about strengthening Red Wing. He joined the local Rotary Club and signed up to organize the River City Days Parade. He also joined the board of Red Wing Area Seniors and chaired the organization’s fundraising efforts for a new building. Now, as president of the Red Wing Sister Cities Commission, member of the local YMCA Foundation, and member of the MNSE Tech College Foundation , he is working hard to ensure everyone in Red Wing, including the city’s growing Hispanic population, feels welcome.



Dr. Kusum Saxena


Contributing gracefully and agelessly

Dr. Kusum Saxena, 83, is a community builder known for her willingness to talk about tough issues, including one of our society’s most taboo: death. As the first female foreign-born physician to serve as a staff physician in the Saint Paul-Ramsey Hospital (now Regions) emergency room and an Honoring Choices Minnesota multicultural advisory board member and community ambassador, Dr. Kusum Saxena is well-positioned to do so. Her message is simple: age shapes and perfects who you are as a person, and NOW is the time to talk to your loved ones about advance care planning and end-of-life decision-making. In addition to being a leader in Minnesota’s medical community, Dr. Kusum Saxena is a leader in the state’s Hindu community, having co-founded the Hindu Society of Minnesota in 1977. She is also a role model for girls and women of all cultures and backgrounds, including those in her native India.


Wyman (Wy) Spano

St. Paul

Taking care of one another through politics

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s a good thing that Wy Spano, 78, never put much stock in that idiom, preferring instead to embrace the Latin proverb, “You are never too old to learn.” Wy also believes you are never too old to teach, which is why, at 64, he and his wife, Marcia Avner*, launched a master’s program in Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. They moved to Metropolitan State University in 2014 and are now starting their 23rd cohort, with more than 200 graduates from this one-a-kind program. Nearly 90% of those graduates are working in nonprofit, labor, legislative, or governmental arenas. For Wy, that’s the best possible outcome. The program’s motto is, “politics is how we care for each other,” and most of their grads are using political knowledge to make lives better for all.

*Marcia Avner served on the ten-member selection committee but was assigned the nonprofit category and did not play a role in selecting Wy as an honoree.


Verna Toenyan

Cannon Falls

Small-town advocate, big-time accomplishments

Verna Toenyan, 68, is a rural champion, fighting tirelessly to bring change and innovation to Minnesota’s small towns. Over the past few years, she mobilized volunteers and community members to lead the charge on one key initiative: public transportation. Thanks to these efforts, Todd County residents no longer have to rely on volunteers to get to church, the grocery store, or doctor appointments. Instead, they now enjoy access to affordable door-to-door bus service. Another key initiative Verna is rallying the community around: a nearly half-million-dollar grant from South Country Health Alliance to makeover the woefully out-of-date senior nutrition kitchen where thousands of meals are prepared each month in an effort to care for the area’s elderly, many of whom are both poor and frail.

This is the fifth of a five-part series celebrating the inaugural 50 Over 50 recognizing Minnesotans over the age of fifty who have made significant contributions and achievements in their communities.

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AARP Minnesota works every day to challenge outdated beliefs and spark new solutions. Pollen and AARP Minnesota came together to recognize and celebrate the possibilities and contributions that come with age.




Andrea Jenkins
Andrea Jenkins, educator, poet, artist, and activist, works as the Oral Historian for Transgender Oral History Project for the University of Minnesota. She is the author of three books: “Tributaries: Poems Celebrating Black History” and “Pieces of A Scream”, and her latest title, “The T is Not Silent: New and Selected”, Purple Lioness Productions, 2015. Andrea has received many fellowships and awards, including a Bush Fellowship, the Many Voices Fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center, The Cultural Community Leadership Institute Fellowship through Intermedia Arts, and a Givens Foundation Fellowship for Black Writers. Her work has been collected in several anthologies including “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota” MHSP, 2016, “Blues Vision: African American Writing in Minnesota, MHSP, 2016. In 2015 Andrea was named Grand Marshall of the Twin Cities Pride Parade.
James O'Brien
James O'Brien is an illustrator and designer, creating conceptual, decorative, art and design for editorial, corporate, and publishing clients.