When Gov. Tim Pawlenty called to make a public apology to North Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels for excluding him from a recent crime summit, he invited Samuels to join him on his weekly radio show. Samuels, in turn, invited the governor to join him in his neighborhood, where they could talk candidly about the complexities of the city’s public safety issues.
They met at Bean Scene, the coffeehouse restaurant at Broadway and Penn Avenue in North Minnepaolis. Both, Samuels said in an exclusive interview with Insight News, looked for a breakthrough: a way to grapple with the intractable issues of crime, poverty, joblessness, and justice for residents of Minneapolis.
Samuels reflected on the radio conversation that led to the Bean Scene summit.
“On the radio he wanted to start broadly and asked ‘what’s going on over there in Minneapolis?’ I started with the small, however, and said what happened in St. Paul is that I was excluded from an important meeting at the Governor’s mansion, and that my exclusion was an incidental expression of the larger reality of exclusion and abandonment my community suffers. Abuse causes anger. Neglect and abandonment cause outrage,” Samuels said.
“A lot of our young people have been abused, and many have been neglected and abandoned by government, by our community, by our school system, and in some very tragic cases, even by their families. That abandonment results in rage that plays itself out on the street. So my community is looking at my exclusion and experiencing outrage that again, their representative has been locked out of the process that is seeking to address problems in their own community,” he said.
Samuels said Governor Pawlenty told him he would like to see things change, but he doesn’t know what and how to make the change. “My goal is to lure him into a more intimate engagement with the problems of our community,” Samuels said.
“The leadership in state government is frustrated that if they make a commitment and not be able to solve the problem, they will be a failure and be seen to be incompetent. I want to change that,” he said.
“We didn’t create the problems we are trying to fix. These problems didn’t just spring up in our generation. They go back to Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers who allowed a system of slavery, whose legacy we are dealing with today. So let’s not take on total responsibility to where we feel that if we don’t solve all the problems, we have failed,” he said.
“But, let us try to address the problems. And if we fail, at least we tried. Once we get to that we will be beginning to solve the problems,” he added.
“My job is to seduce the leadership. The mayor wants to engage. His speech last week in North Minneapolis, focusing on jobs, economic development and quality of life, is a demonstration of that. We have to say it and do it. I want the state’s leadership to have the same kind of emphasis,” Samuels said.
The Bean Scene meeting, he said, “is not the culmination of our relationship, but the beginning. I invited him and his wife to have dinner with me and my wife, Sondra. I want him to hear my heart and use our relationship as an entree to the community.”
State and federal leadership has abdicated their responsibility to address problems of the city. The cities can’t solve the problem alone, he said.
“Whenever I talk to politicians, they ask what three things you would do to address this problem or that. But it is not that simple.
“We need the governor’s creativity, not just my creativity. What we need is a commitment that he will find resources, that he will take risks, that he will make sacrifices. We need more than a program or two. Yes, we need more officers, but it is more important that he support the $3.9 million youth jobs bill in the Senate. He said he would look at the bill. I said we can’t just have a hammer. We need a hammer and a gift. People have to have a choice. Yes we need more police. Yes we need firm law enforcement. But also we need jobs. You can’t come to the community with just cops. It’s not fair. It’s mean spirited,” he said.
“We need job providers and job trainers with a different relationship with a workforce that is generationally and chronically unemployed,” he said.
“If you are person of color or poor, you understand that life isn’t fair. You know that there is not an even playing field. You know life is not predictable and that your existence is vulnerable. So you develop a personal philosophy that is flexible, tolerant and that accommodates inconsistencies. You can love the country and hate its injustices. You have a tolerance for ambiguities and inconsistencies,” he said.
“If you are white, you grow up knowing that if you go to school and work hard you will succeed. Nobody will spring injustice on you. You have a philosophy formed by the rewards of unbroken values. Then you face the reality of other people and you apply your experience, telling them ‘If only you did this or that, you’d be better off, or, things would be better for you.’
“But our reality is so frighteningly complex. It is a Third World experience that is shocking to people who grew up in privileged, stable and predictable circumstances. They have a natural instinct to retreat into a simple version of reality and pound it in as a solution to your complex reality,” he said
“Governor Pawlenty is in that kind of space,” Samuels said.
“My role as a seducer and challenger of power is to get them to embrace a complex reality. Governor Pawlenty did say ‘this seems so unsolvable.’ That means there is an opening.
“It means he understands the limitations of his interpretation of our reality and that some of the solutions don’t work here. That is an opening. We have to seize the moment and propose a partnership to figure this out together. We can’t let him walk away. We have to bring him in for the long term. We can’t write him off.
“We need a bigger opening. We need allies in all parties and at all levels.
“If he is a law and order guy, I need to make him understand that I am a law and order guy. But I am more complicated than that. So I acknowledge him and his values as important, and as one part of a set of my values. He has to feel that I am open to his point of view. That he might have an opportunity to get his message out to the Northside,” Samuels said.
“They want to feel that they are not written off. I told the governor ‘I am not writing you off. You are part of the solution. We will give you credit.’
“I grew up in a black community. I spent most of my adult life in a Black community. The areas of American life that were predominantly white were a huge learning curve for me. Whether in my predominately white college, or in corporate life, I had to learn all the little social cues,” Samuels said.
“So why would it be any different for someone coming the other way, to deal with the black community? Why wouldn’t there be a huge learning experience? And why wouldn’t you surround yourself with people from that community who can teach you, like I had to do when I was moving toward the white community?”