As pioneers pass, new generation of African-American leaders quietly steps up

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2014 - 4:24 PM
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Sondra Samuels of the Northside Achievement Zone.

Photo: Richard Sennott,

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Among the hundreds of people who packed Minnesota civil rights giant Matthew Little’s funeral Saturday were scores of members of the two generations of community leaders who have followed him.

Little’s death on Jan. 26 at age 92, while a blow to the state’s African-American community, didn’t leave it lacking for leaders. But like the challenges, the nature of leadership has changed dramatically.

Instead of a galvanizing central figure, African-Americans in the Twin Cities now have a diverse, flourishing community of activists that crosses generations, geography, class and professions.

“It’s a time of extraordinary potential,” said Kim Nelson, a senior vice president at General Mills who now leads that company’s foundation. But leaders also must confront a range of problems that in many ways are more intractable than those Little attacked in the 1950s and ’60s.

The seven-county metro area ranks No. 1 nationally for disparities in poverty, employment and homeownership among all minorities. It’s fourth in per-capita income disparities between whites and minorities.

Black residents of the area are six times as likely to live in poverty as whites. Per-capita income among all minorities is $18,078; for whites, it’s $37,493. And minorities are only half as likely to own their own homes.

In schools, the achievement gap persists, vividly illustrated by a low graduation rate for black teenagers. And in prisons, inmates are disproportionately black men.

“You name it, we’re at the bottom,” said University of St. Thomas School of Law Prof. Nekima Levy-Pounds, who leads the school’s Community Justice Project. “Because [African-Americans] are just 5 percent of the population, it’s easy to ignore the circumstances.”

The need to address such disparities will only grow in importance. In 1990, minorities made up just 9 percent of the seven-county metro area’s population.

That percentage now has more than doubled and is expected to hit 43 percent by 2040, according to the Metropolitan Council.

‘We can solve the problem’

When Little arrived in the Twin Cities after serving in World War II and launched his fight against racist hiring practices in the Minneapolis Fire Department, African-Americans were largely on the outside of power, looking in. The struggle for full rights would take several decades.

The picture has changed radically. Today, African-Americans of influence include U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Minneapolis schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson; Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter; state Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion, both DFL-Minneapolis; state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, and Carolyn Smallwood, head of the early-childhood organization Way to Grow.

Notable gaps remain. Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils and the Hennepin County Board currently have no African-American members, and Hayden, Champion and Moran stand out in a largely white 201-member Legislature.

Still, “we’ve come a long way,” said Gary Cunningham, vice president of programs at the Northwest Area Foundation. “Some of us have made it.”

That means that today, “we don’t need to wait for someone to come solve the problem — we can solve the problem,” Nelson said.

Coalitions lead the way

For today’s challenges, the tools of the past — protest, civil disobedience and drawing the focus of media to injustices — are far less effective.

“Before, life was simple. It was, ‘You can’t. No. You have to live over there,’ ” Ellison said. “Even though there was no Jim Crow segregation here, there were things you couldn’t do.”

Now, “the opportunities for sociopolitical advancement have opened up,” Ellison said. “So you have more ways to offer leadership, and they don’t offer leadership only to African-American people but to the community. ... There’s no single recognizable leader who gets to weigh in on everything.”

Among the coalitions at work in the Twin Cities is the African-American Leadership Forum, which has brought together leaders from all fields to get at the persistent gaps.

And in north Minneapolis, a multimillion-dollar, multiyear public and privately funded effort to end poverty called the Northside Achievement Zone is underway. It’s using federal money to try to lift more than 550 North Side families out of poverty by improving their children’s educational opportunities from cradle to college.

In the corporate world, many programs now exist to train younger members of the community to take seats on corporate and philanthropic boards, Cunningham said. He readily rattled off a list of young African-Americans leading organizations working on housing, transit and jobs.

“They’re going to take these issues in a whole different direction than the civil rights generation,” he said.

Shawntera Hardy, a former St. Paul city planner who is now director of transportation at Fresh Energy in St. Paul, said it can be more difficult to get people fired up in Minnesota because of its more reserved culture and because problems aren’t as overt as they were in her native Youngstown, Ohio.

“The fight is not as universal,” she said. “You have individuals who have the education and skills needed to be in the upper echelon.”

‘All hands on deck’

With more opportunity and more avenues, there’s a sense that change could come on many fronts.

“Anybody can shout, but it takes a real leader to execute. I see that happening more and more, and it’s heartening,” said Sondra Samuels, president of the Northside Achievement Zone.

“What’s changed is the African-American community is looking at the issues and saying, ‘All hands on deck.’ ”

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson





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  • Matthew Little

  • U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison

  • Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson

  • Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter

  • THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

    Despite the progress that people of color have made in Minnesota, the numbers show they also face many challenges. Black residents (includes immigrants) of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area:

    • Are six times as likely to live in poverty than whites.

    • Have a much lower per-capita income. For people of color, it’s $18,078; for white residents, it’s $37,493.

    • Are half as likely to own their own homes.

    the difference 50 years will bring

    1990: Minority population of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area was 9 percent.

    2040: Minority population of the area is expected to be 43 percent.

    Source: Metropolitan Council

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