This year’s Voices United forum participants were asked to give their opinions on two final issues to help provide direction for next year’s Voice United Law and Civil Rights Forum–as well as express the opinions that didn’t fit neatly into this year’s conversation. Final questions included:
• While the forum illustrated that there are many issues that need to be addressed on the legal/civil rights front, they all seem, to some degree to be interconnected. Like a knot, if you begin to pick at part of it, as you make progress, the rest of it starts to loosen. Going with the knot analogy, where would you begin picking? In other words, what is the single most important issue, in your view, that needs to be addressed first and with a united voice because it has the potential to have the most positive effect on all other issues? Why? And how would you address that issue? (It seems that most, if not all of you, might say education. If that is your answer, please be as concrete as possible about solutions and the actions you believe could change the course we’re on right now.)
• There was a thread of debate throughout the forum about not having the right people at the table, of not having all groups represented. So who is your dream team? Who would you include from the Hmong, Native American and GLBT communities? What mainstream leaders–politicians, state agency directors, corporate executives, etc.–would you invite? What other media outlets would you want to cover the forum? What would your agenda be? And what would you hope to achieve for outcomes?
During the Forum, Andriel Dees made an astute observation: “ … [the issues of race and poverty] cannot be separated. They just cannot. We are deep into a significant class divide that fuels education inequities, overrepresentation of communities of color in the criminal justice system and workplace and classroom discrimination. We have to [address race and poverty] together.”
As you will see from the Forum participants’ responses to these final questions, Dees foreshadowed the idea that economic stability is perhaps the ultimate protective measure against legal and civil rights injustices. The responses have been included here in their entirety, and in the participants’ own words, in the hope that they will inspire our communities to be vigilant in our awareness of the civil rights issues that need to be addressed and both thoughtful and decisive in our response to them.
While it is true that education is the single most equalizer in our society, we must ensure that the same educational opportunities are afforded to all. We know that resources and commitments make all the difference in the world. Most often, the education system in urban communities also reflects disinvestment in our school programs, teachers and buildings. As a result, children in low-income neighborhoods have limited access to the arts, gifted programs, extra-curricular activities, etc. Parents voice concerns that their children’s teachers are not motivating them to learn, excel in their studies and move on to a college education. School buildings in our poorest of neighborhoods have suffered years of neglect. As parents, we must become more involved in formulating solutions by attending teacher conferences, communicating with school officials and becoming more invested in the process.
Our Native American brothers and sisters have lived in Minnesota for centuries with little diversity to turn to. Over the past 15 years or so, Minnesota has experienced a change in our demographics from all corners of the world: the Congo, Somalia, Ecuador, northern regions of Laos, Colombia, China, etc. While it is very important to note that one person does not speak for the entire community, inclusion of these communities in dialogs promotes understanding and awareness of each other. (I’m uncomfortable identifying a Dream Team for a number of reasons. Leaders from the various communities can be identified from within their own community.)
One of the things that was discussed, and agreed upon by most, is the deep importance of beginning–and continuing–a dialog between Latinos and African-Americans. There are some small, but powerful groups in the U.S. that are trying to pit us against one another. The sponsors of the meeting showed real leadership in convening the discussion.
In terms of the priorities, I would put employment first, then education. If a person doesn’t have a way to take care of him/herself and the family, the other areas take a back seat. We see this in the charges that are filed at the department–most of the charges are filed in the Employment area–which indicates to me the acquisition of a job, as well as how a person is treated when they get there, continues to very important.
Education comes in second–a close second for folks who have a job. I know that many on the panel spoke about needing a focus in higher education, particular as it relates to cultural competency and moving young people into the workforce in possession of a sense of fairness and justice, but I think the focus should be on early childhood education. For many this is not as “sexy” because the payoff is in the distance, but our children need to be properly prepared to learn so that they can reap the benefits during their entire educational experience, not just in the final few years.
Other people at the table…there are wonderful, learned people in every area we discussed. Many of them in our own communities, but for employment I would look to labor unions, contractors’ association, large employers– particularly in health care and technology–house and senate jobs committees and Chambers of Commerce. For education I would look to the Department of Education, along with ECE and K-12 administrators and house and senate education committees. Because the two are so intertwined, I think it’s important to have employment expertise at a forum that discusses education and vice versa.
Media … I think it would be wonderful if not only public television and community cable were involved, but somehow we should have town hall simulcasts of these forums on network television during prime time. I know this is wishful thinking, but a few weeks ago, I saw a great show on the issues facing rap music with Nelly, TI and others. I believe it was on BET. The issue was important enough that someone sponsored it. I think the same should be done for other issues facing our community.
Empowering, nurturing, and supporting our youths to become upwardly mobile will have the greatest impact on the future of communities of color and our society as a whole. So often, our youths are portrayed in such a negative light by the media, at times despised by the mainstream, and are the victims of low expectation. As a result, a disproportionate number of our youths become involved in the juvenile justice system and drop out of school at alarming rates. Having a criminal record and no high school diploma is a recipe for entrapment of our youths into a perpetual cycle of crippling poverty and incarceration. So often, we talk about the problem facing our youths, but rarely do we make sustained attempts to rescue our youths by investing in their futures. In Minnesota, in particular, we are aware that after school programs and extra curricular activities decrease the likelihood of criminal justice involvement amongst children, yet every few years, the budgetary priorities for such initiatives seem to be shrinking. Meanwhile, the ability of law enforcement and corrections to hire more officers seems to be increasing. We, as a society, must shift our focus from penalizing and incarcerating our children, to investing in their success and offering comprehensive support throughout every stage of their development.
This effort will take the collaboration and cooperation of parents, the faith community, the business community, local and state government, and institutions of higher learning. Between these stakeholders, there is enough intellectual and financial capital to change the course of the future for poor children of color. At this stage, there is no room for excuses–only sustained action–if we are truly serious about resolving these issues.
From my perspective, I would prefer to have five or ten solid people, irrespective of racial or ethnic background who were serious about addressing these issues and willing to take a stand, than to have fifty or a hundred folks who are simply looking for publicity, public recognition or an opportunity to gain a political foothold on a hot button issue. The bottom line is that we should all be able to work together to discuss and resolve the issues impacting our community, but all too often hidden agendas and egos get in the way of that. As a result, all of our communities suffer.
With respect to the single most important issue that needs to be addressed in the Latino community I would nominate the necessity for educational improvement at all levels–primary, secondary and postsecondary–and in all sectors of our state. Latino educators can provide us with valuable insights in the education, retention and graduation of Latino students from schools, colleges and universities.
My suggestion is that we focus and encourage current Latino programs that are empowering Latinos toward self-improvement and leadership capacities. That is, to first learn to be leaders of themselves and their own destiny and then to lead others to self-sufficiency and a commitment on empowering other Latinos. Latino professional could mentor and recruit Latino youth to be attorneys, doctors, teachers or business executives, etc.
This approach would unite us all in a join effort to undertake a long-term vision of an overall I improvement of the Latino community.
I like the knot analogy and would agree that education is one of the key strands. However, I believe this thread is woven around not only education of our children, but also education of those in power and education of the public at large.
First of all, we need to improve the education of children of color, particularly new immigrants. This means that we cannot put up road blocks to prevent such education. For example, if immigrant parents of children born in the U.S.–and by definition those children are therefore U.S. citizens–are fearful of potential government action to be taken against them, including deportation, they may not register their children for school, and therefore result in those children falling behind. This is not just an issue for Hispanic immigrants as many new immigrants from all over the world come to the U.S. to escape prosecution or poor conditions in their country, and often are mistrustful of government. Many others came here legally but their visas and passports have expired or they are seeking asylum but are mired in the bureaucracy we have. I should note that no one disagrees that the system we have now is broken, but rather disagree as to what a repaired or new system should look like.
Second, we need to educate those in power and dispel commonly held misperceptions. That means this message needs to get to those in power in the state, including the Governor’s Office and the Minnesota Legislator. As someone mentioned at the forum, if we just talk to each other about this, nothing will ever get done.
Third, we need to educate the community at large as to who are these undocumented aliens, what are the proposals to fix the system that everyone agrees is broken (e.g., the DREAM Act), and how this can benefit the entire state in the short and long term. For many, we need to develop the business case for it by reaching their heads, hearts and minds (e.g., it will be a logistical nightmare to try to deport 12 million undocumented aliens; separating undocumented parents from their children is not consistent with American family values nor can our economy handle deporting 12 million workers essential for our businesses).
As to the second question, I think we need the Native American, GLBT, Asian-Pacific Islander and Jewish community leaders at the discussion table as well. And if we are talking legal issues, we should have the Minnesota State Bar Association there along with the Ramsey and Hennepin County Bars. And the institutions that deal with these issues will need to be considered as well. At this time I believe these are the major stakeholders on these issues.
In my mind, I think we should be clear as to our message and what action items we believe that should be undertaken prior to determining what the means of communication and target audience will be. That being said, one obvious audience includes some of the politicians I mention above, as well as the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis as a starting point.
There is so much more that can be said, but I hope this helps provide a starting point.
The single most important issue is long term livable employment as employment is to a family what roots are to a tree. In a few years those roots will not only be in your yard, but will spread throughout your yard, wrap around pipes and even cross the street. The roots allow the tree to remain strong for generations and this is why you often see a tree cut down to ground level, but not dug up. The reason for this is the roots are too deep in the ground and to dig them up would cause major damage to the community. The same holds true when the roots of employment are not deeply rooted in the community. From the roots of employment comes education, health care and a most of all, a reduction in crime as poverty gives birth to the majority of crime in the City of Saint Paul and the City of Minneapolis. An accelerated approach by public and private sector to work together to address issues of unemployment as well as underemployment.
The so-called “thread” came from me as I was concerned with the forum being more inclusive by having representatives from the Native American and Asian communities. This is not about a so-called “dream team,” but about having a full conversation about the issues of prejudice, racism and discrimination in the four communities of color. When you don’t have the four communities of color at the table, the “thread” holding our communities together and that prevents us from working together can be easily broken. For example, conversation that there was a stronger link between the African American and Chicano/Latino communities than the Asian and Native American communities, which is not true. The Native American and African American communities have the strongest bond between the four communities of color because of slavery and the number of slaves that were saved by Native American. This is why so many African Americans have Native American features and can track their families back to tribes in America.