Alexis Hayes: Building community connections

In Conversation with Mai’a Williams, with hand drawn digital painting art by StuffStudio

In April, I sat down in Acoustic Cafe with the curator, artist, and changemaker, Alexis Hayes. She is 26 years old and has lived in Winona her whole life. She recently curated the Women & Non-Binary Art Show at No Name Bar for Women’s History Month. We talked about what it means to make Winona a place that feels like home and not just a place where you live – a place where you take care of your mental health and the people you love.

This interview with her is edited for clarity and brevity.

Hi! How would you introduce yourself?

My name is Alexis Hayes. I am 26 years old.

How long have you lived in Winona?

My whole life.

What do you see as your vision for how you’d like to see Winona and the changes you’d like to see in it? And how does your work fit into that vision?

Mostly I’d like to see a stronger sense of community.

I’ve lived in Winona for my whole life and haven’t really felt a sense of community for the majority of my time here – outside of my family and friends. I’m trying to seek community out, cultivate it for myself and hopefully assist other people who are trying to find community as well. I want Winona to be a place where people can rely on their community. I am focusing on building stronger bonds. Winona is home to a lot of different people. I don’t want it to be a place where only the needs of those who are privileged are tended to, I want it to be a place where marginalized folks are tended to, because this is our home too and it should feel like a home to us.

It sounds to me like you are talking about shifting Winona from a place where you just live, to a place where you can call home. What other kinds of community bonding projects have you worked on?

My mom is the founder of Our Voices, so I’ve been helping with that. She founded the group in 2017 and they plan a lot of events around Black History Month and Juneteenth. It’s a group for Black and Brown teens, so it’s about showcasing their voices, their talents.

In May of 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by the police, I was talking with some friends and we were talking about how we were angry about police violence and had been angry a long time and we wanted to figure out what we could do. At that moment all we could think about was planning a march in Windom Park. Combined with Covid and the quarantine – I saw that people needed a sense of community now more than ever. That was when I met quite a few people who were also angry, also fed up, trying to figure out what the next steps were. That was when I met people who helped me cultivate a sense of community and I have kind of been going from there.

I, along with friends, attempted to start an organization to start to address police violence, and what we could do to help people in the community. It didn’t work out, because we jumped into it too quickly without having the proper tools and knowledge to do it. Since then, I’ve stepped back, because I realize I still have to learn.

I collaborate with organizations, but I’ve taken a step back and focused on where my strengths lie, which is to organize events to build community connections.

As of right now, I am just trying to see what other people are doing in the community, listening, and figure out what I don’t know. I have a collection of books. I started reading Women, Race and Class (by Angela Davis), I also read Mutual Aid by Dean Spade. I work with other organizations when I can actually help, but other than that I am watching, listening and learning the best I can – and also taking walks.

What are some of the obstacles and challenges you face in making connections in the community?

The biggest obstacles for me have been my lack of structure and my lack of tools. I have a tendency to feel strongly about something, so I just jump in and then I realize that I don’t know what I am actually doing. And then it causes burnout and that causes me to not do anything for a while, which also doesn’t help anybody else and doesn't help me either. That is why I realize I have to take a step back so that when I try to (find solutions) I actually know what I am doing.

Where do you get those tools and strategies from?

For one, getting more involved with my mom’s group, Our Voices, figuring out how to create safe spaces for people where we can get to know one another, cry and laugh together. When it comes to police violence and addressing that – you can’t just jump in and not know anything. That is why I’m reading books like Mutual Aid and figuring out what the community needs and how the community can help each other. 

And I'm trying to figure out what I can learn more about abolition. I recognize that reform doesn’t work. Giving cops body cams and more training doesn’t work. Because it never has. Abolition – we have never tried and it seems as though it would work, but I can’t really be helpful until I know what I am doing and how to help.

What have you learned from working with your mother in Our Voices?

She works tirelessly and selflessly. She opens up her home to these kids. She gives them what they need, within her means, and she feeds them. If I don’t know how to help someone, I give them food. I feel like I do a fraction of what she does and I get so burnt out. I don’t know how she does what she does. I think I’ve learned how to care for people from my mom. The yearning to create spaces for people to just be with each other, try to create that sense of community.

How would you describe Winona?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer. I’ve lived here my whole life, but I feel like I am still trying to get to know the town. I don’t know if it is because I haven’t felt included or if I excluded myself or if it is a combination. It feels really white - not just that it is, but you feel it. All I’d really be able to tell people is try some Bloedow’s doughnuts, stop at Zesto’s. That is why, especially in the past few years, I’ve been seeking out community. I’m still getting to know Winona.

If I arrived today, as a person of color, where would you suggest I go to start looking for community?

No Name Bar is a good place to go. I like coming to Acoustic Cafe, it’s a place I’ve been coming to since I was a kid. Community Not Cages and Residents Organizing Against Racism are two organizations that are working to address issues in the community. I am still trying to do my own work so that I can show up as best I can for different groups. Just seeking out organizations like this that are trying to address structural issues in the community and building bridges, things that can make Winona feel like more of a home.

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Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.