Joani Essenburg, Co-founder and Executive Director

Since 1990 Joani has been a neighbor, friend and grassroots leader in the Phillips community that she and her family reside in. She has served as Executive Director of Banyan Community since 1998 when the organization formally became a non-profit.

Joani is a tireless advocate for community building around urban youth and families. Under her direction the Banyan has grown from a nonprofit start up to an effective and responsive Christian Community Development Organization that implements asset development by using neighborhood roots to transform lives. Joani has received numerous awards and recognition for her work but the best reward is seeing the people in her neighborhood thrive. Joani has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education from Covenant College in Tennessee and a Certificate of Non Profit Management from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Awards include:
Abby Award, Abbott Northwestern Hospital
Movement of Hope Award, Lutheran Social Services
Ninth Ward Leader of the Year- 2012, City of Minneapolis
Phillips Neighborhood Champion Award, City of Minneapolis
Virginia McKnight Award in Human Service, McKnight Foundation
Who ’s Who in Community Ministry Award, Bethel University

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Tim Essenburg, Co-Founder

TimTim is neither a paid staff, nor board member, but as a co-founder and visionary, he is a key member of Banyan Community.  Thanks to Tim, Banyan has our own in house researcher, who helps to inform and support community development through ideas, best practices, and information that provides basic principles of the Banyan Community Development model.

Tim is an Economic Professor at Bethel University, with primary research interests in the revitalization of central city neighborhoods and several publications.  He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Finance from Covenant College, and a PhD in Economics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Sue Riesgraf, Development Director

Sue's photo croppedSue is a development professional with experience in building strategic development teams, establishing collaborative partnerships, planning events, and managing business-to-business relationships. She has spent more than half her career working with local non-profits to advance their missions.

Strong and successful communities are fundamental to the fabric of our society. The inside out approach to the work is what attracted Sue to Banyan; developing youth, strengthening families, and creating community.  The opportunity to shape a development team and help build a permanent home for Banyan is a highlight of Sue’s work. 

She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Minnesota State University, Mankato; a Fundraising Certificate from the University of St. Thomas and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

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Nancy Alvarado, Finance & Operations Director

Nancy is a strategic executive advisor and team member that brings over 20 years of experience in finance, operations, and human resources to Banyan.  Serving as a financial consultant, by providing financial leadership and project management to her clients, as well as the Director of Finance and Administration at Washburn Center for Children, and The Bakken are a few of her related career experiences.  At Banyan, Nancy eagerly shares her faith, skills, and experience in our community.  She brings great business insight to support and further our mission. Nancy holds a Bachelor in Arts degree in Management and Spanish from College of Saint Benedict and a Master’s degree in Business Administration in Finance and Non Profit Management from the University of Minnesota.

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Dan Watson, Director of Youth, Family, and Community Programs
Dan works closely with community members, administrative team, and management team to bring about the very best youth, family, and community programs that support Banyan’s mission. Dan comes to Banyan with more than 11 years of experience in supervision, program management, evaluation, and administration. For the past seven years, Dan has been an anchor as the Director of Services at HOPE Coalition in Red Wing. MN. In addition, he brings experience working at Lutheran Social Services in Iowa providing therapeutic services for vulnerable youth. Dan holds a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Christian Theology from Atlantic Baptist Bible College (now Piedmont International University), Chester, VA.

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Katie Kirk, Secondary Program Manager

Katie croppedKatie oversees the secondary program including the middle and high school programs and the college support programs at Banyan. Katie leads a staff to balance youth accountability, social emotional stabilization, and relationship building to fruition in high school graduation and getting youth on the path to and through college.   In the time she has worked at Banyan, Katie has ensured the consistency of high quality outcomes while tripling the size of these programs and more than doubling their hours of operation.  She is directly responsible for maintaining the success of these programs, and takes pride in the 100% graduation rate of seniors she has supported since 2008. Katie holds a Bachelor of Individualized Studies (B.I.S.) in Asian American Studies, Race Relations and Psychology from the University of Minnesota.

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Demaya Walton, College and Career Counselor

Demaya brings a personal mission to provide college access to all students, especially those who may not know college is in their reach. As a first generation college and graduate student, she brings a plethora of experience and skills to Banyan. Her background includes academic advising from the U of MN, and college access with Breakthrough Twin Cities, as well as classroom experience. Demaya holds a Bachelors of Arts from St. Olaf College, Northfield, and a Master’s in Education from Hamline University, St. Paul, as well as a Financial Educator Certificate from the University of Minnesota.

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Kayla Sloane, Secondary Educator

Kayla encourages middle school youth each day at Banyan as they walk the road of adolescent development and academic success. Empowerment is Kayla’s passion for youth, families and community by developing skills and providing the support that is needed to succeed in education and life. Kayla brings a passion for social justice and cross-cultural leadership with experience from Minnesota and Nicaragua. Kayla holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Minnesota in Political Science and a minor in Global Studies.

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Leah Rapacz, AmeriCorps Promise Fellow | Secondary Educator

Leah is serving at Banyan for one year as an Americorps Promise Fellow. Leah has experience as a gymnastics coach and camp counselor in addition to her internship on a family support team to complete her Psychology degree. She has a Bachelor’s of Science Degree from Linfield College, McMinnville Oregon.


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Allison Burns, Elementary Program Manager

Allison is an elementary educator and manager that brings her passion to help kindergarten to fifth graders succeed with her experience in education and social emotional learning at Banyan.  The love of children, families, and community growing and learning together fuels Allison’s desire to teach and lead change.  Allison brings experience as a second grade teacher as well as a Huntington tutor and a substitute teacher in the local districts.  She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from University of Northwestern – Saint Paul, with a Middle School Math Endorsement.

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Shoua Moua, Elementary Educator

A first generation Hmong American, Shoua brings her passion for serving a diverse community at Banyan. She brings a depth of experiences as a music educator, substitute teacher, family liaison, and youth worker. Her well-rounded skills provide an excellent base for her work with Banyan elementary youth and families. Shoua holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Augsburg College – Minneapolis.

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Collins Nesbit, Elementary Educator

Collins passion is building positive relationships with youth that lead to a motivation to learn, building confidence in one’s ability and worth, and creating a safe space to connect to community and faith. She brings her education experience to work with Banyan youth and families in the elementary classroom. Collins has a license in secondary education and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Arts and Literature from Augsburg University, Minneapolis.

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Aidee Arocho, Lead Program Associate

Aidee joins us as a Banyan Alum to support our elementary after school program. She has been a long time asset to Banyan as staff, participant, and leader. Aidee brings enthusiasm to Banyan as she remembers when she attended Banyan as a young child and now sees herself in the Banyan kids as they see themselves in her as a role model.  Aidee is a DeLaSalle graduate and is balancing both work and school as she completes her college degree.

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Gale Cannon, Community Educator and Program Manager

Gale is by nature and by training a Family Educator.  Born in Trinidad, she brings to her work the lens of an immigrant seeking education and equality for under-served communities. Gale has experience as a family educator, community programmer, consultant, facilitator, curriculum writer, engaged parent and most important an advocate and visionary that strives for a holistic community where adults, parents and families thrive together. Her work at Banyan will be just that, to nurture and develop our community through education, connection, and leadership. Gale is currently a council appointed member of the Non Public School Council, complimenting her ten years of direct service work in school districts as a Family Engagement Specialist. Gale holds a Masters of Education degree in Family Life Education from Concordia University in St Paul, and a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Psychology from City University of New York in Jamaica, New York.

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Maricruz Arocho, Lead Family Advocate

Maricruz croppedMaricruz brings a lot of love and care to Banyan as a parent and family advocate.  She is a long-time resident of the Phillips neighborhood, a founding family of Banyan, and a key indigenous leader with extensive experience navigating issues relating to immigration, education, housing, health care, conflict mediation and parenting second generation Latino youth.

Maricruz earned her high school degree from Escuela Secundaria Federal Cuahutemoc in Axochiapan, Morelos Mexico, followed by her Executive Secretary Degree from the Instituto Fenix in Cuautla, Morelos Mexico.

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Monica Blue, Community Organizer/Family Advocate

Monica is a Banyan parent that grew up in the Phillips Neighborhood and continues to use her connection skills here at Banyan. She ensures that block club leaders are identified, trained and supported to develop a cohesive and connected block in the Light House Network as the Community Organizer. Monica is also a special friend and Family Advocate to our preschool families as she connects them to Banyan and to additional resources. Monica’s passion is to be a transformer in community.  Her role at Banyan puts her right in the center of this action – to strengthen our community and help to transform our youth and families.  Monica holds an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts from Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.

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High School Staff-Program Assistants

Year round 7-9 high school youth with long-term relationships with the Banyan are hired part-time to assist with program activities in the Elementary After School and Summer Cool Off Days programs. Our workers participate in ongoing professional mentoring and leadership development opportunities and meet regularly with supervising staff for direction and feedback regarding their performance, and participate in regular staff trainings to help develop skills in the best practices of youth development.  Workers quickly earn the trust and respect of elementary youth at Banyan because they have grown up in Banyan and serve as positive role models to the next generation of Banyan youth.

College Staff-Program Assistants

During the school year, 6-8 college students serve as Banyan staff working part-time, providing support for elementary and youth programs. Half of the staff members have grown up in the neighborhood and in Banyan, and the other half are part of the LEAD fellows program from Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Our workers provide a valuable leadership role in programs. College Staff are involved in planning and implementing Banyan’s physical education curriculum, working with our middle school youth on social-emotional competencies, and providing homework help to diverse learners. They are given the opportunity to take on significant leadership roles in programs, and serve as a tangible reminder to younger youth that college can be in their future.

Program Assistants

Rocheida Hagler is a parent and member of Banyan’s Community Council. She wears a couple of hats at Banyan – transportation for van load of kids to and from school each day and serving a hot meal to youth after school. Her encouragement and bright smile at the beginning and end of day helps our youth shine.



Nettie McHie is a parent and a community member that has been with Banyan from our beginning. Nettie now brings her expertise in culinary skills and serving to help serve our kids a hot meal each day and pick up kids from the bus stop. Nettie is a real connector that knows everyone’s name!



Victor Panora is a parent and community member that supports our Banyan youth every day. As a certified food manager he oversees our after school food program – from prep, to serving, to cleanup. In addition to these duties, Victor also does our van runs ensuring our kids get to school and Banyan on time.


Support Staff

Steve Royce, Building and Grounds Associate, brings to Banyan experience in carpentry, maintenance, and remodeling. He is an avid supporter of community and is great asset to our support staff.



Sara Johnson, Development Associate

Sara manages our donor database, assists with events, and provides grant support. She brings experience to Banyan in data analysis and management that will help us continue to grow and be responsive to donors.

Sara holds an ScD in Epidemiology & Nutrition from the Harvard School of Public Health. Her gifts and talents are a real asset to Banyan.

Receptionists:  We have an awesome team of bilingual receptionists that are community residents, trained in hospitality and ready to welcome all who enter at Banyan.

Imelda Riera






Daisy Green






Daisy Bunay





Families Trust Me!

Staff-Families-Trust-CircleI’m the first Banyan parent to be on staff. Not too long ago, I would have been one of the families getting a home visit, and now I’m knocking on door.  Families trust me because they know I’m from the neighborhood and a parent like them.

Roughly 60% of Banyan families are Spanish-speaking, so translation is a big part of my job, including helping kids translate homework. To gain a family’s trust, it helps if kids talk you up first. That way, when you meet parents, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re Maricruz.”

In a diverse neighborhood like Phillips, it’s important for people to see people of different ethnicities and languages—working together. Banyan also wanted Spanish-speaking families to see someone in leadership who looks and sounds like them. It shows Banyan believes in neighborhood roots so much they hire a parent and community member.

Maricruz Arocho, Family Advocate for Banyan