More than 250 local black community and business leaders filled a ballroom at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Monday afternoon for the fifth African American Leadership Forum (AALF), which organizers describe as an unprecedented effort to eliminate racial disparities in education, employment, health and housing.

What began four years ago with nine people meeting at the St. Paul home of AALF co-chair Gary Cunningham now boasts 550 members in the Twin Cities and counterparts in Des Moines, Portland and Seattle.

The founders of the group -- corporate executives, politicians, foundation presidents -- recognized they were frequently the only African-Americans in their organizations, and felt they had an obligation to help those less fortunate.

"Walking into that room for the first time -- this is what people often say about the forum -- we feel like we've done this before," said Trista Harris, co-chair of AALF and executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice.

But Harris said the group puts its plans into action.

Last year, the forum successfully lobbied the Minneapolis school board to hire Bernadeia Johnson as superintendent, and it also supported alternative teacher certification, which was passed by the Legislature this year, to bring in more teachers of color into schools.

This year's forum focused on closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

In Minneapolis, 80 percent of white male students read at their grade level, compared to 26 percent of black male students, said state Rep. Rena Moran, a St. Paul DFLer.

Yet, all black students read at grade level at Seed Academy & Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis, said Moran, who credited its CEO and president, Eric Mahmoud.

"Folks in Minneapolis wonder if the achievement gap can really be eliminated. This absolutely explodes the myth," said Moran.

Forum speakers made repeated references to the tornado that ripped through north Minneapolis last month, emphasizing that blacks in the Twin Cities have already been living through a "tornado" of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and other ills.