Minnesota Soul Essence Aims to Create Community

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LGBT African-Americans to celebrate this weekend.

Minnesota Soul Essence was founded in 2002 as the result of a “need for a stronger presence of LGBT African-Americans in the Twin Cities.” In its first five years, the organization and the weekend of events held each August have seen tremendous growth and helped build a stronger LGBT African-American community. Similar events for and by the LGBT African-American community are held in major cities throughout the United States.

Joe Ward, co-founder and director of Soul Essence, said there are issues in the black community that don’t get addressed by the mainstream LGBT community. “Issues such as health care, housing, coming-out fears and just isolation from the mainstream LGBT community were all important issues that were not being addressed or exposed,” said Ward. “Soul Essence soon became a reason for many people to feel good about themselves and to know that they are in good company and not alone in their coming-out issues.”

Minnesota’s LGBT African-American community was the focus of a two-part series by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder several weeks ago in which community leaders discussed some of the challenges in organizing LGBT people within the African-American community.

Kim Coleman, a Soul Essence board member, said of the community, “I think the same thing that’s a weakness is also a strength: our unity and our togetherness… I think our structure in being together and coming out says a lot for us in that we do continue to try to support each other, and we also try to support other cultures of color. Whereas we don’t get the same thing, it’s not reciprocated by European cultures.”

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Andy Birkey :: Minnesota Soul Essence Aims to Create Community
Andrea Jenkins, a policy aide for Minneapolis’ Eighth Ward, said that the challenges in building community among LGBT African-Americans mirror the larger culture. “I think a… part of organizing within the LGBT community is part of a broader challenge for just African-Americans in general, and that is finances. Money, racism, a lack of cohesiveness in certain parts of the community; and then it’s a challenge to get support for African-American organizing around queer issues.”

Minnesota Soul Essence has grown in its five years. The first weekend of Pride events, held in August 2002, drew fewer than 50 people. Ward says that the opening ceremonies event Friday will draw 300 people and the projected attendance for this year’s events is expected to top 1,500.

While the events are focused around the LGBT African-American community, people of all backgrounds are welcome to attend. Ward says cross-cultural participation by people and organizations are a big part of what Soul Essence is trying to create. “Stigmas and barriers about the African-American community are being torn down, and a new more all inclusive community is slowly emerging,” said Ward.

Roderick Southhall told the Spokesman-Recorder that straight and LGBT white allies and straight black allies need to be proactive. “We…want to be valued. And valued doesn’t just mean invited. Valued means that I don’t have to be the one to bring up an issue. I don’t have to sit here and advocate for myself. If that means you’re kind of silent while the conversation’s going on and trying to figure out how you can be supportive, great. But too often I think they don’t help advocate for us,” said Southhall.

The events for Soul Essence this year span the weekend. On Friday, the celebration will kick off at with the opening ceremonies at 7 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis. Saturday night Soul Essence will gather at Pi, a LGBT bar in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood. A family gathering at Como Park on Sunday is open to all ages and will feature a performance from the winner of the “Soul Essence Queer Idol” contest. Activities will wrap up Monday with a “Skate Jam” at the Roller Garden in St. Louis Park.

“We have established relationships with everyone from HRC to Outfront Minnesota to the University of Minnesota,” Ward said. “Right now at last count, over 30 organizations, services, bars, and corporations support us and our mission of “Building relationships, embracing PRIDE and promoting unity for the well-being of the African-American GLBT community.”

For more information on Soul Essence and this weekend’s events, visit www.soulessenceminnesota.org.