“Within our DNA [we] are a people who I think were created to transform not just the African American community but the American community” was among the opening statements from Sondra Samuels of Northside Achievement Zone as emcee of the Fifth Annual African American Leadership Forum. The forum was held on Monday, June 27 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Over 200 people were in attendance to listen and participate in the forum’s purpose: “[to] gain commitment from individuals and organizations to activate the Blueprint for Action.” Minnesota State Reps. Jeff Hayden, Bobby Joe Champion, Rena Moran, and Sen. John Harrington spoke briefly as a part of the program. One of the forum’s founding members, Gary Cunningham, gave a brief history of how the forum began. He credits community members, all present at the forum, for starting the conversations that birthed the forum: Katie Sample, Josie Johnson and Mahmoud El-Kati.
Trista Harris, also a longtime member of the forum, gave an update on the forum’s accomplishments including its current 550 participants, replications of the forum across the nation, alternative teacher licensing, and the forum’s current involvement with Twin Cities transit development.
“There are decisions that are happening now that are going to impact the next 50 years of development in the Twin Cities,” Harris said. “African American Leadership Forum members are around that table making sure that the African American community is not forgotten in that process.”
The afternoon continued with an impressive group of speakers, both local and national, from the African American community.
Professor john powell (he spells his name with lowercase letters), executive director of Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, impressed the audience by stressing the importance of taking action to advance the mission of equity. “The task is basically not just saving our community, but saving America from itself,” he said.
He introduced the idea of opportunity structures — systems that create equal access to opportunity for everyone — in place of past and current societal structures where race plays a major role in who has access to opportunity. Access to grocery stores, public transportation and in neighborhoods with increasing home values and effective schools are all elements of a successful structure. A well-developed structure has a greater impact on whether individuals become productive members of society than either household income or family structure.
Several research studies of the past decade correlate poverty with lower IQs. Children who live in conditions of extreme poverty between the ages of 0-7 have IQs that are on average seven points lower than children who don’t. “If we ignore a child for the first six years, the child will need special attention to catch up,” powell said.
Though Minnesota has one of the longest life expectancies in the U.S., when looking specifically at American Africans life expectancy is shorter. powell credits Minnesota’s longtime history of investing in public infrastructure — parks, schools and health care — with residents living a longer life. However, over the years as the state became more diverse the willingness to invest in infrastructure dwindled.
Though its mission to democracy contradicts inequitable systems, since its inception the U.S. has structured access to opportunities that intentionally works well for some but not others. powell talked about how the book The Race Between Education and Technology by Michael Rizzo describes how the United States began educating women, becoming the first modern industrial country to do so.
“[The U.S.] was playing with close to a full deck,” powell said of this action, by spreading access to education and skills to a larger number of citizens. “Today half the children who start kindergarten are children of color. Children of color are the women of the 21st century… That’s why I say the job is to save America. Because if we don’t make America work for everyone, eventually it won’t work for anyone.”
Angela Glover Blackwell
Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, which works to support economic and social equity for communities of color, was also speaker at the event. She named three major challenges the nation must address. The first is maintaining a vast and stable middle class.
“It is the middle class that causes this country to stand out from others. You take any poor country that you can think of and what makes it poor is not the absence of rich people, it’s the absence of a middle class. What you have in that poor country is rich people and poor people. We are moving in that direction.”
The second challenge is climate change. “People may have stopped talking about climate change, but the climate is still changing. And if we don’t figure out how, as a nation, to really model what it is we are going to do moving forward, the world is going to suffer.”
The third challenge is creating a stable 21st-century global economy. “We’re coming out of this recession in fits and starts,” Blackwell says. “We’ve got to figure out what it is we are going to make, what kind of workforce we are going to bring to it. That is a huge challenge.
“Those three challenges combined with one reality and that is the changing demographics of the nation.” Blackwell continued. She stressed how quickly we are becoming a nation of people of color, stating that currently the majority of babies that are being born in the U.S. today are children of color and by 2040 the majority of people in the U.S will be people of color.
In the past, she said, we have approached equity as being the moral and right thing to do. Now, “Equity is the superior growth model for the nation,” she said. “Only by achieving equity do we deal with all of the challenges that we have.”
Our charge as people of color when we join the process — whether as a school board member, city council member or part of a planning committee — is to address problems fundamentally, she said. “You come to that table as the most important leader in the room… So that when this problem gets solved, it’s solved. And you don’t have to solve it for a few and then come back and try to figure out how to solve it for a few more. You’ve solved it right on.”
She described how the sloping cutouts in the sidewalk were created to give those using wheelchairs the ability to better maneuver in our communities. “Those cutouts made real the promise of participation with people with disabilities. But how many of you have been pushing a baby carriage around town and then so happen be to be able to go right through that cutout…When we solve the problems for those who are most vulnerable, we solve them for everybody. When we solve them for those who are most privileged, we solve them for those who are most privileged.”
Revisiting the purpose and goals
In the agenda were three goals necessary to achieving the forum’s purpose. The first, “deepen cross-sector and cross-generational engagement of emerging and veteran leaders, formal and information leaders, new and past forum participants, policy makers, and policy influencers,” was achieved through high visibility of legislators and recognition of both new and longtime members.
A panel discussion led by Kelly Karen Ariwoola of the Minneapolis Foundation included Eric Mahmoud of Seed Academy, Shá Cage of Minnesota Spoken Word Association, Katie Sample of African American Academy for Accelerated Learning, and Miiko Taylor, a recent graduate of South High School. They discussed the challenges to having cross-generational conversations and how to effectively address them.
The second goal, “stretching our thinking to add momentum in implanting the Blueprint for Action,” was fulfilled through the combination of speakers.
The third goal, to determine high-impact actions in the Blueprint for Action, did not seem to be met. A draft of this blueprint was presented in a 14-page glossy format that was very quickly reviewed by two of the forum’s steering committee members during the last half hour of the forum.
Many in attendance may have been hard pressed to determine what exactly the possible actions were. It may have been better to present the information-packed document for later reading after the event.
Both powell and Blackwell mentioned that the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. did not make progress without “foot soldiers.” A great number of people committed themselves because of personal experiences, such as the Black sanitation workers of Memphis, TN for whom King worked to get equal pay and treatment and the Black citizens of Montgomery, AL, who started the 1955 boycott against the city’s public transportation.
The names of over 500 forum participants were listed in a document presented at the event. An overwhelming majority of the names were listed above a nonprofit or business entity. Though this link does not necessarily mean employment, it does raise the question of whether the forum is inclusive of those who are unemployed, those who are homeless or have experienced foreclosure. Is the forum representative of the majority of African Americans who are currently being negatively affected by the systems the forum seeks to change, or of a minority of those who have succeed in spite of them?
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader response to firstname.lastname@example.org.