Jeffrey Bissoy: 'I want to make sure I'm here for my community'

Jeffrey Bissoy photo
Jeffrey Bissoy is a former producer at MPR News and a frequent contributor to The Current. (Evan Frost | MPR)
Jeffrey Bissoy interview on the Morning Show
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Morning Show host, Jill Riley, got on the phone to connect with Jeffrey Bissoy, a former MPR News producer and fellow with American Public Media reports, a contributor at The Current, freelance writer at the Sahan Journal, and founder of an app called Plugged.

The two discussed Bissoy's experiences growing up as a black man in the Twin Cities, as well as the impact his app, Plugged, could potentially have on black communities nationwide.

JILL RILEY: Jeffrey, how are you doing today?

JEFFREY BISSOY: I'm doing very well. Thank you so much for having me, Jill.

Jeffrey, you grew up in the Twin Cities, but I know that you're calling me from Mexico City.

I am. Things in Mexico City are fairly calm. I mean, we're in pretty peak COVID hours, but as it pertains to worldwide, we've been seeing a lot of protests and folks standing up in solidarity after the killing of George Floyd. Just last night, I was actually at a vigil, kind of documenting the vigil of George Floyd here in Mexico City at the U.S. Embassy. There were a couple hundred people there, a lot of young students from the University here that were leading the movement, a lot of Americans that do live here, so a lot of expats, like myself, were present. It was really a rainbow coalition of allies and individuals that came out to honor George Floyd's life.

You're co-founder of Plugged. What is the app all about? How did you come up with the idea with your co-founder?

Plugged is a media and tech organization based in the Twin Cities and focused on trying to help with the visibility, profitability, and connectivity of black businesses, black creatives, and also helping them connect with consumers of all kinds. This idea was birthed out of conversations with my co-founder dating back to last summer, when we would routinely catch up with each other. On [that] particular day, we were talking about our experiences growing up as black men in the Twin Cities. I grew up on the east side of St. Paul, just off of East 7th, and he grew up a little bit outside of the cities, in Eagan. We kept talking about how, depending on where you grew up in the Twin Cities, that dictated your experience and how you interacted with or gained information about our black community.

You would sometimes hear super last-minute, or you would hear about it after an event would happen, like, "Oh, there was this cookout last weekend" [and you'd say], "Oh, word. Nobody told me about it. Nobody documented this." Or, you know, there's an event this Tuesday, and it's Tuesday, and it's 4 p.m., and the event starts at 5:30 p.m., and you hadn't planned for it, because you hadn't heard about it. We need to find a way to have a platform that allows us to keep our communities informed about things going on, our black communities informed about what's going on in their communities, as far as events, opportunities and resources, and funding. We're doing this both as a website and as an app that we're developing.

One of the goals for Plugged right now is not only to be able to launch here, in the Twin Cities, but we're hoping to launch the app, once it's ready to go live, across the United States as well. We believe that the black experience in the Midwest, particularly in the Twin Cities, is so unique that if we can get something that works, and mobilizes the community, and it can be very helpful for the community, then it can lead itself to be very successful and impactful in other areas of the country as well.

Can you speak to more of your experience growing up on the East Side of Saint Paul, because I know that you have a piece that you're working on for The Current.

I do. I do. I must say that I was born in Cameroon — in central Africa, just east of Nigeria. I moved to the Twin Cities — Minneapolis, initially — when I was five years old. I grew up in Minnesota. Minnesota is my home. Back in those days, there were a lot of things going on on the East Side. It was very segregated in comparison to the rest of St. Paul, like the Highland communities and the Como areas. I always became super aware of how folks would treat me when I'd be walking around on the streets or when I'd be invited to play basketball over at Groveland, for instance. I'd be able to meet some individuals over there who were like, "Man, he's really well spoken." The comment that comes right after that is, "Where are you from?" because people were astonished that I'd speak so well, because they already had a certain perceived notion of what black people were like. When I would then tell folks I was born in Cameroon, [they'd say] "Ahh… You're African."

I used to have this depiction of what growing up in the Twin Cities was like. You're walking through downtown, coming up on the East Side on East 7th. St. Paul is literally separated by the huge hill that leads up to Grand and Summit, where a lot of the upper middle class, and upper class of Minnesota lives in, at least on this side of the town. When you come down that hill, one of the very first things that you see, and now this place is under construction, was the Dorothy Day Center. You would have a bunch of homeless individuals, a lot of them African American or black. That would be the first thing you would see, and I would always be struck, as someone that was capable of being invited to cross these streets and go through these hills, by the juxtaposition of these two different realities. For me, a young black man growing up, it was just a reminder that things are not only separate, but they're also unequal. When I look at this current fight that we're talking about, for injustice, and talking about police brutality, and how we can either dismantle it or potentially reform it, if that is even possible, I think a lot about those experiences, and how race plays and comes up in different ways in which we live and inhabit.

Tents in downtown St. Paul
Tents were set up near the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul nightly during the summer months. (Hart VanDenburg | MPR News File Photo)

That's been a lot of my experience, and is one of the many driving factors for why I've been working on Plugged, and want to make sure I'm here for my community. A lot of folks have started to ask themselves, "How can I be involved?" My team of about 10 is sitting together and trying to put together a list of where folks can donate [and] where folks can volunteer, spend their time. That way you have a one place, neat area where you can routinely come back and check to see how you can help out.

Another thing that we're currently doing — we're going to be kickstarting our blog, which is named "Views from the Revolution." I have a piece that I'm working on for Plugged called "Watching Your City Burn from Abroad." I'm really just trying to get a wide perspective of individuals that have been impacted, and are currently thinking [about] and observing this historical moment that we're currently living.

We talked about your experience growing up on the East side of Saint Paul, but I also know that you spent time in South Minneapolis.

You know, I lived several blocks away from where George Floyd was murdered. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, I lived on 24th [Ave.] and Chicago [Ave.]. When I was eight years old, I had a neighbor who was murdered by two police officers right in the apartment below. My mom was a witness to it, and she had to testify in court on behalf of the family. That was a very traumatizing experience for her, because here she was, an African immigrant that had just moved to the country three or four years prior. Being with my mom during that time and experiencing that, and experiencing the family and how they were impacted, it really shaped me.

I hope that in this piece I write, "Watching Your City Burn from Abroad," I hope that I'll be able to tackle those issues and really write about how I've been thinking through it, how it's impacted me, and how I've really been called to action, no matter how far I am.

External Link

Plugged app

Plugged app - Twitter

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