Duluth remembers Loaves and Fishes leader, activist

Community members gathered in Leif Erickson Park on Sunday to honor Donna Howard, founder of Olive Branch house.

A group of people march down a path into Leif Erickson Park.
Friends, family and community members marched from the Loaves and Fishes Olive Branch house Sunday in memory of Donna Howard.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Community members celebrated the life and mourned the death of community organizer and activist Donna Howard at Leif Erickson Park on Sunday.

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Donna Howard

Howard was best known for her work with Loaves and Fishes, a Catholic Worker Movement-based shelter for people experiencing homelessness, and for her work in nonviolent protest as a peace activist. She died July 31 after a battle with an illness.

The event Sunday started with a parade filled with music from the Olive Branch, a house Howard started on Jefferson Street in the early 1990s that offers short-term housing and hospitality to women and families experiencing homelessness.

Around 50-60 people marched from the Olive Branch to Leif Erickson Park for a celebration of Howard's life around noon. As they marched, people carried banners from past protests or causes they support and sang songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved."

At the park, the ceremony began with a meditation that Howard was known to repeat to herself at the start of each day.


Community members gather in a park.
Community members gathered in Leif Erickson Park on Sunday to remember the life of Donna Howard.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

"Donna would begin each morning with an intentional opening of her heart to the day and to gratitude," said celebrant leader Charlotte Frantz. "I invite you to repeat after me: 'I open my heart to this day and to all it brings. I open my eyes to the goodness of this day. I open my hands to be of service this day. I begin this day with gratitude.'"

Howard's niece, Martha Sawyer, shared stories about growing up with her well-known activist aunt and how she helped Sawyer on her life's journey. She had a close relationship with her aunt and remembers playing pranks on each other as she grew up. After Sawyer didn't make it into the Peace Corps, she called her aunt and asked what she should do.

Julie Morgan, left, and Donna Howard talk with others, including Dr. Charlie Moore, right, during a Duluth-to-Rania Friendship Exchange Project meeting in 2014 at Peace United Church of Christ. The group discussed building a relationship with Rania, Iraq, as well as the logistics of taking a trip there.
Amanda Hansmeyer / File / Duluth News Tribune

"She quickly reassured me I didn't want to work for the government anyway and that if I was looking to do good work, I was always welcome in Duluth," Sawyer said. "The Olive Branch had just launched as part of Loves and Fishes and the community was looking for help. We lived and worked together from 1993 to 1995. It was an incredible time for me to watch Donna relate to people and listen to them during those years."

Kate Young, another speaker at the ceremony, met Howard through her work with Loaves and Fishes. She started as a resident of the Olive Branch and later went on to work for the organization.

"Donna had a powerful community. I still continue to be shocked by the number of folks I've met that have homes in Donna's heart," Young said. "It was a ripple effect of radical kindness and Donna was an important guide."

Howard had a reach outside of Duluth as well. Nelsie Yang, St. Paul's youngest and first Hmong American woman elected as a council member, shared how Howard and her friend, Julie, sponsored her parents as refugees from Laos in the 1980s.

"And when I think about the opportunities that I have now to be an elected official, to me, it was not possible, it wouldn't have been possible without Donna," Yang said. "It's not possible without people who care about making sure that we have equity that we bring people together across race, class, gender and age.

"She showed me what a community looked like, what it looked like to actually care for each other and have compassion as human beings."


A woman and man hold lit candles
Donna Howard and Bob Grytdahl laugh during the 8th Annual Celebration of Community Peacemakers in 2003 as presenter Scott Lyons, a retired police chief, jokes about the dangers of civil disobedience. Howard and Grytdahl were recognized at First United Methodist Church as winners of the Steve Rolland Adult Peacemaker Award.
Ingrid Young / File / Duluth News Tribune

Barb Kass shared stories from Howard's days protesting against the U.S. Navy's extremely low frequency transmitter, a first-strike nuclear communications project in Wisconsin. Howard damaged three transmitters at the site in the mid-1990s. She was acquitted on charges of sabotage, but found guilty of criminal damage to property and served three years in prison.

Donna Howard returned from Guatemala after spending three weeks there providing protective accompaniment to Claudia Samayoa, a human rights worker who was receiving death threats.

"After she completed her prison term, Donna joined the Nonviolent Peaceforce. She said at the time: 'I've spent the past few years destroying things on behalf of peace. I want to build something on behalf of peace. And she did," Kass said. "She embodied what the Peaceforce was about and traveled to Sri Lanka and Guatemala to work in field missions."

A proclamation declaring Sunday "Donna Howard Day" in Duluth was read by Loaves and Fishes Director Joel Kilgour on behalf of Mayor Emily Larson's office.

"We all know that Donna was also a little mischievous. I can imagine, right now, the look that Donna would be giving me, knowing I was about to read this proclamation: very disappointed and wanting to flee the room," Kilgour said. "So I'm glad that I can today return some of her mischief."

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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