Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

Posts about Society

Mental Health: A Bipartisan Success Story

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 28, 2010 - 9:41 PM

Mental Health: A Bipartisan Success Story

 “The mental health services delivery system needs dramatic reform. The system is fragmented and in disarray—not from lack of commitment and skill of those who deliver care, but from underlying structural, financial, and organizational problems.”

-- President’s New Freedom Commission
One day in 1977 my Aunt Sharon called me and asked me to come down to Hennepin County Medical Center. My Uncle Moe had had a complete mental breakdown and was hospitalized. This was my first encounter with the mental health system and one that I will never forget.
It was certainly tragic at the time: here was somebody that had an abundance of intellect who had developed the community gardens in South Minneapolis in the early 1970s and later went on to build a co-op grocery store in the same community several years later. Moe was certainly considered a community leader and today if you can walk or ride under the Fourth Avenue Bridge on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, there will you find a sculpture of my Uncle Moe on the wall along with other community leaders that have been memorialized for their work to make this city and the world a better place.
He and my Aunt Sharon were the people that taught me how to read and write, who got me interested in making a difference for others. When I had run away from home and lived on the streets for a while, he was the one that found me and provided a safe and stable place through my adolescent years.
There I was - 19 years old with my Aunt Sharon having to face a difficult choice of committing my uncle to the Anoka Regional Treatment Center. Up until that point in my life I had never had to deal with any real issues related to mental illness. In the community where I lived, people with mental health issues were always hidden or joked about. People with mental illness were "crazy". As if mental illness was a personal character defect, it was something you didn’t talk about too much for fear it could happen to you. The myths and stereotypes, the stigma and shame associated with mental illness remains with us today.
Mental illness is an issue that crosses all racial, economic and political lines. Mental illness is something that we can all relate to through our own personal stories. According to Wikipedia, "The recognition and understanding of mental health conditions has changed over time and across cultures, and there are still variations in the definition, assessment, and classification of mental disorders, although standard guideline criteria are widely accepted. Over a third of people in most countries report meeting criteria for the major categories at some point in their lives."
Many families and individuals are touched by and deal with the very real challenges in seeking treatment and arranging care for loved ones with mental illness. The systems of support and treatment for people with mental illness back in 1974 were confusing and difficult to navigate. And in many cases the mental health system remains so today.
According to a report prepared for Minnesota Blue Cross Blue Shield, "Mental illness has a profound effect in our community. The U. S. Surgeon General’s report estimates that 28 percent of the nation’s adults and 21 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a mental health or chemical dependency disorder. Using national trends as a rough indicator of Minnesota’s experience, this means that over one million Minnesota adults and 140,000 Minnesota children have a mental health or chemical dependency disorder."
It is funny how life works. In 2003, under the leadership of former Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services Kevin Goodno, I was asked to co-chair with Kevin a public/private partnership called the Minnesota Mental Health Action Group (MMHAG) to address some of the significant issues and dysfunctions of the Minnesota mental health system. 
MMHAG was a broad-based coalition of consumers, advocacy organizations, mental health professionals, hospitals, clinics, labor, health plans, local government agencies and officials, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Health. MMHAG had a vision to create a comprehensive mental health system that is accessible and responsive to consumers, guided by clear goals and outcomes, and grounded in public/private partnerships
At the time I was Board Chair of the Citizens League and CEO of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center which has a large mental health center in North Minneapolis. Given my family history and the significant challenges faced in attempting to integrate mental and physical health at Northpoint, this was opportunity I could not pass up.
When I first got involved in this project, I was told by Sean Kershaw, the President of the Citizens League, that this was a six month commitment and it should not be too difficult. Four years later, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. After much effort and with the input of thousands of citizens, mental health professionals and families impacted by mental health, MMHAG’s efforts resulted in the 2007 enactment of the most comprehensive package of mental health system improvements and funding increases that have occurred since the original enactment of the state’s mental health acts in the 1980’s. (Go to to review some of MMHAG's accomplishments)
About two years ago, at the invitation of Minnesota Senator Linda Berglin, I had the opportunity to present the accomplishments of MMHAG at a national conference on mental health. I was very surprised to see how far we have come in comparison to other states. I was taken aback to see how far we have yet to go to ensure that all people with mental illness can live without stigma and have access to quality affordable mental and physical health services.
My contribution to this effort was very small compared to those of people like Kevin Goodno, Michael Scandrett, Sue Abderholden, Glenn Andis, Mary Braddock, Ron Brand, Theresa Carufel, Gail Dorfman, Kris Flaten, Paul Goering, Peggy Heglund, Joel Hetler, Kathy Knight, Mark Kuppe, Steve Lepkinski,Cal Ludeman, Maureen Marrin, Mark McAfee, Sandra Meicher, Kathy Mock, Roberta Opheim, Carolyn Pare, Patricia M. Siebert, Jonathan Uecker, Denny Ulmer, and Donna Zimmerman as well as countless others. I was honored that I could play a small part in this work that had such personal meaning in my life.
The Minnesota Mental Health Action Group was a successful bipartisan effort to address some fundamental issues with the mental health system in our state. It demonstrated that we can work together across the political divide to create a better system for people and families who live with mental illness.
However, the Minnesota mental health system is not fixed by any means. As I write this, thousands of our fellow citizens with mental health issues may be forced to go without any health insurance at all because of the looming cuts to General Assistance Medical Care. Many are single men without the type of family support that my Uncle Moe had; many who will lose their insurance are our poorest citizens making less than $8000 a year.
Minnesota, we can do better!
Through a long recovery period and medications my Uncle Moe was able to resume the life he loved making a difference for others working for the Minneapolis Urban League. Several years later in the 1980s, before his death, he was instrumental in creating a community celebration called Family Day in North Minneapolis which is still held every year to reinforce and honor the value and the importance of families in creating a sustainable community.
My Uncle Moe is a testament to the thousands of people living with mental illness who have made and continue to make significant contributions to our community.
For more information on mental health and what you can do to address the stigma contact: The National Alliance on Mental Illness at

Who’s your Daddy?

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 21, 2010 - 10:59 AM


The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
I got quite a few of comments on my post last week focusing on reframing of African-American History Month. Thank you all for your positive feedback and encouragement.
Several readers inquired about my journey to find my father and his family. Many of you wanted to know more about this experience. To answer this question I have updated a relevant portion of a chapter I developed several years ago for a book entitled Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America.
Who’s your Daddy?
The quest to know where I came from and the people I was connected to began one summer afternoon when I got a call from a great uncle on my mother’s side of the family who is in his late 80s. Uncle Otis indicated he wanted to stop by my house and that he had something to give to me. I was totally surprised because it was highly unusual for Uncle Otis to ask out of the blue to stop by. I didn’t really know what to expect.
When he arrived at my house a short time later (yes, he was still driving at age 89), he carried a long scroll of paper and what looked like some really old photographs. We hugged and without sitting down, my uncle Otis started talking about our family history. It felt like a prepared speech, each word of the narrative rehearsed and memorized in the tradition of an oral history. He then presented me with the scroll he held as if he were performing a ceremony of grave seriousness and importance. My Uncle Otis was letting me know in no uncertain terms that he was passing down these sacred family heirlooms to my trust and care for the next generation.
He told me that the photographs were of my great-grandmother and grandfather (on my mother's side of the family). He then provided me with a list of all of my relatives from around the country with their addresses and phone numbers. I listened as I unrolled the scroll onto my dining room table. There lay before me a very finely crafted, hand drawn family tree which depicted my great-grandparents, grandparents, and their siblings, all the way to me and my own siblings. It was like the torch had been passed of some unidentified responsibility onto me.
Several days later as I looked at my family tree it dawned on me that there was nothing connecting me with my father’s side of my family; that place on the family tree where my father was supposed to be was empty like a void, something unknown, even scary. It was on that day that I began my quest to find my father.  
As I stated in last week’s post, I never knew my father, or anything about him. As both a child and an adult, whenever I would ask my mother about him, she would close up and refuse to talk. My grandmother would tell stories about my father when I was young. I could tell by her stories that she liked my father; I learned his first name, where he worked in Minneapolis, and some of his accomplishments from my grandmother.  These clues buried in my memory proved helpful in my journey to find my father. Through them I learned that my father lived in Minneapolis until 1972 and that he had another family. I later learned through a friend of a friend of my father’s that he had moved to Jackson, Mississippi three decades ago. I thought that he was probably dead. He was born in 1922, and few African American men live to be 80. 
After following many false trails and dead ends, I found what I thought were his current his phone number and address. I wrote him a letter and introduced myself, I told him what I knew about him, and asked if he was indeed my father. 
A week later he called me. “Yes,” he said, “I believe I’m your dad. I had an affair with your mother for about a year back in the 1950s. But when we broke up I didn’t know she was pregnant. We never ran into each other after we split, and she never told me a kid was involved.” 
I said to this man, whose first name was Robert, “I’d like to come and see you.”  At first he hesitated, because he had a wife and ten other kids, all of whom he’d surely have to tell about me. But after we talked for an hour or so, he agreed to meet.
Two months later I drove to Jackson, Mississippi, and he and his wife Lillian came to my hotel. At first Robert and I sat there for a long time, looking at each other. Both of us thought we didn’t look much alike. “Your nose seems big. What size shoe do you wear?” Still, it didn’t take long before the three of us were exchanging stories, filling one another in, and laughing together. We soon found ourselves revisiting our separate pasts through one another. We talked for seven hours, finally calling it a night at 3 a.m.
Before I left Jackson, Robert and I took a DNA test, to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that I was in fact his son. The results took several days to arrive and I had already returned to Minneapolis when Robert called and said, “Looks like you’re in the family.”
Meeting my Dad and Lillian provided some wonderful closure for me. I now knew, quite literally, who I was. Yet I felt another door opening at the same time. It was a quest fulfilled—my own personal version of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, the hero’s journey of separation, initiation and return that culminates in personal transformation and ends back home with family.
A few days after I learned the test results, I got a call from my new sister Della. “I’m so happy to have a new brother,” she said. She was coming up to Minneapolis for a wedding and wanted to meet me. We agreed to have lunch at the Mall of America.
When I arrived at the restaurant, it was nothing less than a grand homecoming. Unbeknownst to me, my new sister had invited several other local relatives—even my new niece and nephew. Our lunch became a celebration, welcoming me to the family. 
I also discovered that the neighborhood man I saw walking my dog every morning was also my brother. For the past few years he had lived only four blocks away.
 I’ve now met or talked with most of my new siblings, and every one of them has been wonderful: enthusiastic, delighted to meet me, and as welcoming as a sister or brother can be. And every one of them has told me, “Gary, we’re so glad to get to know you. We want you to be part of us.”
At age 47, I was restored to my family.
Many of us look outside ourselves to acknowledge and celebrate our history. What we fail to recognize is that our history is within us. We each are carrying on a legacy of what came before us. How our authentic story is told is up to us. We are all on a hero’s journey no matter our race or nationalities.
I invite you to share your own stories in the comments.


Ordinary Heroes

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 14, 2010 - 8:02 PM

 "Almost as color defined vision itself, race shapes the cultural eye -- what we do and do not notice, the reach of empathy and the alignment of response. This subliminal force recommends care in choosing a point of view for a history grounded race."

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954 - 63
Taylor Branch, 1988
Ordinary Heroes
Last week I had the opportunity to watch Faces of America, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the local PBS television station. It is a fascinating program where Gates uses the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans. If you have the opportunity to check it out please do so. It is “off the hook.”
Inspired by Faces of America, and given the fact that February is African-American History Month, I thought that I would take this opportunity to reframe the typical African-American History Month conversation for just a moment. When we think about African-American history most often we focus on and celebrate the accomplishments of well-known African-American leaders in our history. Those individuals through their heroic efforts have had a significant impact on all our lives. While these individuals certainly deserve acclaim and accolades, so often we fail to recognize and pay homage to the everyday and ordinary people who sacrificed much for each of us to be here.
As I pondered how my ancestors have made a difference for me, I found it somewhat difficult to think about the lives of those that come before me, knowing the struggles that they endured were so much more difficult than the life that I lead today. I also had to think about the enduring legacies that African-Americans live with day-to-day. In so many ways, the legacy of slavery is still with us today.
As background, slavery for life was legal within the United States from 1654 until 1865. Twelve million Africans were shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to the United States. The slave population in the United States had grown to four million by the 1860 Census.
Slavery was a brutal system throughout the United States, and it was particularly brutal in Mississippi where my people are from on my father's side of the family. According to David J. Libby in his book Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720 – 1835, “Some Mississippi slaves resisted this grim oppression and rebelled by flight, work slowdowns, arson, and conspiracies. In 1835 a slave conspiracy in Madison County provoked such draconian response among local slave holders that planters throughout the state redoubled the iron locks on the system. Race relations in the state remained radicalized for many generations to follow.”
A few years ago, my son and I had the opportunity to travel to my family reunion in Jackson, Mississippi. This was a special family reunion for me and my son because it was the first time we had met many of the relatives on my father's side of the family. You see, I never knew my father, or anything about him growing up. It was not until I was 47 years old that I found my father and his family. This reunion was not only powerful because I met my father’s family for the first time; it was also transformational. It was there, for the first time, I really understood what it meant to be a descendent of slaves.
Being raised in Minnesota, I would hear my grandparents talk about slavery. I had read a quite a few books and taken courses on the "Peculiar Institution" of slavery, I had also watched Roots on TV with millions of other Americans in the 1980s, but I really only had an abstract view of slavery. It was somehow remote and distant from me. Slavery was part of my history, surely, but not a part of who I was in my day to day existence.
That was all about to change as we gathered on the bus that hot summer day in Jackson to be transported back in space and time to the small town of Bolton. As we drove the short way down the highway towards Bolton, the cotton fields stretched on as far as the eye could see. I thought of the struggles and the back breaking toil of human beings picking cotton. I thought about the generations of African-Americans who were owned as property by other human beings and had no rights or ability to make choices about their lives.
Bolton, like many other southern small-towns, was a sleepy little village of mostly African Americans who were friendly and polite and made you feel welcome. We stopped at a little church called Chapel Hill and we all piled out of the bus - over 100 of us of, all ages and generations. Once we were settled in the pews, my father walked up to the front of the altar and led us in prayer and then began to recite a few great stories from the Bible. My father is known for being a great storyteller and is invited to local churches throughout Mississippi to do so. It was certainly a real treat.
After he finished storytelling, he provided a historical reference about what this place of Bolton and the church we were sitting in represented to our family. He said that while this is a relatively new church, it on the foundation of the church that was here when he was a child and a sharecropper on this land. He talked about his father Daniel who was a local minister, sharecropper, community leader and street lawyer for many of the African American residents of Bolton and surrounding communities. He talked about my great-grandfather, who was a slave on the same land in Mississippi and his name was Papa (pronounced Pa-pay). He was known throughout the community as a good man. Sometime later, I asked my father what he meant by Papa been a good man. He said, “Papa was somebody that was known to help out the community in times of need, someone who would go out of his way for others and someone who would fight against injustice in the face of overwhelming odds.” My heart swelled with pride and emotion.
After we finished in the church we walked around the back of the church to a small cemetery where my ancestors are buried. Only a few had tombstones; most were marked by a tree or a rock. My dad or another relative would point to a spot and let us know who was buried there. My son and I wept along with all of my new relatives. Standing with the sun beating down on the cotton fields, in the cemetery where my people were slaves, I finally was able to connect the dots and understand the power and the sacrifice my ancestors made for me to be here today. I also understood on that day the significant debt that I owed to be worthy of this legacy.
I am the fourth generation of my family out of slavery. That history and that suffering is a part of who I am. It is not something that I want or need to forget and just move on, as some would suggest. It is something that drives me to ensure that all people, regardless of their race, culture, sexual orientation or religion, have equal access and opportunity in this country. It motivates me to ensure that the next generations of African-American children are better off than the present generation. It is a motivation that justice and equality matter as fundamental principle of human rights and dignity.
This African-American History Month let us honor those ordinary ancestors who did extraordinary things to ensure that each of us can make a difference for others. This is the great burden we carry regardless of our racial heritage for the next generation. Let each of us recognize that our ordinary acts can become extraordinary deeds.


Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 7, 2010 - 9:26 PM


I’ve always been a big fan of Garrison Keillor and his fictitious town of Lake Wobegon. According to Wikipedia, “The characterization of the fictional [Lake Wobegon], where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,’ has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. The Lake Wobegon effect, where all or nearly all of a group claim to be above average, has been observed among drivers, CEOs, stock market analysts, college students, parents, and state education officials, among others.”

In some ways, Minnesotans emulate the Lake Wobegon effect, in that many consider themselves to be a little better than average. In national surveys, our kids historically have performed better in school and Minnesota generally ranks higher in health and quality of life indicators. Until recently, Minnesota had fared better economically in recessions than the national average.  It must be noted that these better than average outcomes are consistently lower for people of color and American Indians.   
The recession we are currently in, however, seems to have a leveling effect on all of us in the midst of a jobless economic recovery, high unemployment, and the continued home foreclosure crisis. It is a grim picture even for us stalwart Minnesotans who are used to “toughing it out.”
Many Minnesota families today are struggling to make ends meet – regardless of their race, creed, color, or whether they live in rural, reservation or urban communities. The theory that all boats rise and fall together with the tide of the economy seems to be true. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The fact of the matter is we are all in the same boat.”
In September 2009, the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul released the results of a survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners, which polled 400 adult Minnesota residents. This survey asked a series of questions about how families and individuals are faring in these tough economic times.
According to the survey, more than 60 percent of Minnesotans, when asked about the economic struggles within their homes and communities, indicate that they have cut back on their spending because of the recession. About one-quarter of Minnesotans say they or a family member living with them have lost a job in the past 12 months. More than one-third (41%) say they have had their work hours cut. More than one in four families (27%) have had problems paying for basic necessities, and 51 percent of Minnesotans have cut down the amount of money they are spending on food and have cut back on their retirement savings. Hard times indeed!
Two-thirds of Minnesotans see more people struggling today than they did a year ago. Minnesotans also believe people are struggling because of circumstances beyond their control. Only 22 percent say it’s due to poor individual choices. In other words, the discussion about poverty that Minnesotans are having in their living rooms and kitchens has shifted. It is no longer about those “other people”; those “other people” are us.
Minnesotans are worried, but somewhat hopeful. More than 74 percent of Minnesotans say they are worried that their local economy may get worse in the coming year; however, almost 60 percent of Minnesotans feel optimistic that the national economy will turn around.
Minnesotans are also hopeful that they can address issues of people struggling in their community and are willing to roll up their sleeves to do something about it. Upwards of 80 percent are very optimistic that the number of people struggling locally could be reduced within their communities. Moreover, 80 percent also indicate that they are willing to volunteer for an organization in their community to help their neighbors who are struggling.
One of the significant findings in this survey is that even though times are tough, more than 55 percent of Minnesotans say they would be willing to pay $50 more in taxes if it went to local programs to help people struggling in their community.
According to the survey, “Minnesotans have clear priorities when it comes to what they say would make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet. A vast majority of the public (94%) says local elected officials have a great deal or some responsibility in keeping and attracting good-paying jobs. Eight-two percent say this should be a top or high priority. Three of four Minnesotans (76%) say that local elected officials should have some or a great deal of responsibility in making sure that there is a safety net for homeowners and renters so they do not lose their homes.”
More than 75 percent of Minnesotans state that they think about how well a candidate for office would help those struggling to make ends meet as they cast their ballot. Almost half of Minnesotans (47%) indicate that helping people to make end meet is a top priority.
Many of us are very grateful for the commitment and the dedication of all public officials, regardless of their political affiliation. We know that they are facing very difficult and challenging decisions.
Through hard work and sacrifice, Minnesota has ranked better than average on many indicators. Our quality of life has been better because we’ve lived by our values and have sought long-term solutions that ensure adequate investment in education, infrastructure, health, environment and community. While we have many issues, including health and social disparities, we have rarely sacrificed the underlying values that make Minnesota a great place to live and work.
With the Legislature currently back in session, grappling with a $1.2 billion deficit in this biennium (2010-11) and a projected $5.4 billion deficit for the next biennium (2012-13), there are no easy answers. I believe, as many Minnesotans do, that we need to move beyond the partisan deadlock and focus on innovative solutions. Sacrifices will have to come from all corners. Minnesotans have indicated that the primary goal must be not to harm the already fragile quality of life for working and low-income people who are struggling to make ends meet. It is important that our policy leaders really listen to what Minnesotans are saying and what Minnesotans expect from our elected officials as they deliberate on how to balance the state’s budget shortfalls.
Now, more than ever, we need to invest in Minnesota and its people.

Does Leadership Matter?

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 1, 2010 - 11:55 AM

Does Leadership Matter?

“When we teach, write about, and mode the exercise of leadership, we inevitably support or challenge people’s conceptions of themselves, their roles, and most importantly their ideas about how social systems make progress on problems. Leadership is a normative concept because implicit in people’s notions of leadership are images of a social contract. Imagine the differences in behavior when people operate with the idea that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ versus ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problems’.”

- Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald A. Heifetz 2003

I received a number of e-mails about my last blog, "Our Children in Crisis". Many people were very encouraging and I thank all of you for your feedback. A colleague working in philanthropy asked an important question, “Where are the ‘concerted and courageous’ solutions going to come from? Who is going to carry that torch?” These are important questions.

The answer is a call to action for African-Americans to put aside our individual and personal differences and to work towards collective transformational solutions. It is in this way that we can build the coalitions and alliances necessary to create a better future for all people in our community. There is a need for common agendas among African-American leaders and within the African-American community as a whole. Without this common agenda it will be impossible for us to forge concerted and courageous solutions. The issue of low income African-Americans living in ghettoized concentrated poverty will not be not be addressed using old thinking, methods or ways of doing business which may have worked in the past.

Historically, the African-American community, through much sacrifice, has played a vital role in helping this country live up to its highest democratic values and principles. We are at another critical juncture, as we grapple in the mires of a deep recession and unending state budget deficits. We should each ask ourselves, did Dr. King die so that half of us would ‘make it,’ and half of us perish? Will we have the courage to resist balancing the state budget on the poorest of the poor? Leadership, particularly African American leadership, sits at the heart of these questions.

According to Simon J. Buckingham, “wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional approach in which problems are defined, analyzed and solved in sequential steps. The main reason for this is that there is no clear problem definition of wicked problems.” In the African American community, systemic intergenerational poverty has persisted despite a plethora of nonprofit organizations and social services, and decades of programmatic responses. There are no easy answers and people of goodwill have been working for many years to try to address some of these “wicked” problems within inner-city urban America. However, the problems persist and in fact have become deeper and more embedded into the fabric of our community.

Further complicating the leadership question in the African American community is who is considered a leader. There are many individuals who hold positional power or might appear on the list of Ebony magazine’s selection of the 100 most Influential Blacks that are counted as African-American leaders, but many do not exercise leadership in or for the African-American community. In the past, it was assumed that if you are a black elected official your base of support came primarily from the African-American community; today as we have moved from the Era Civil Rights to The Age of Obama, we can no longer make this assumption. In their seminal work, Bibliography of African-American Leadership, Ronald W. Walters and Cedric Johnson state, "There is no era in which black leaders or their organizations did not play a central role in the advancement of the black community, although as indicated in our study, it is also clear that the because whites have access to the monopoly of power, they had exercised far more leadership of the black community than blacks themselves."

In working in cities across the country, I have witnessed fragmentation and polarization within local African America communities and their leadership. Some of the fragmentation and polarization is due to differences in philosophy and approach; some of these differences are exacerbated by competition for limited resources. Part of the fragmentation is also based on egos and power relationships of old guard leaders vs. new emerging leaders. The fragmentation and polarization is a continued impediment to advancing a united agenda to improve the conditions of low income African American people.

In fact, these issues have become so explosive that in many situations African-Americans with different philosophical approaches are physically intimidated, harassed and castigated by individuals with no legitimate constituencies in the African-American community, other than they happen to be African-American themselves. It then becomes impossible to hold a civil dialogue or seek common ground among different approaches. Many of these individuals spend their time treating other African-American people as enemies, but have very limited track records of making a difference for the community in which they purport to reside. Unless bridges can be built to move from transactional zero sum relationships to transformation solutions, many low income African-Americans will remain in a prisoners dilemma trapped in the vicissitudes of poverty.

The role of religious leaders is a critical component of leadership within the black community, historically and currently. This is true whether one focuses on African-American leadership that developed out of slavery, the civil rights movement, the black power movement, or on the present day issues of racial profiling and disparities.

At the same time, there has been a significant rise of African Americans who have moved into the middle class over the past two decades. Unlike prior decades, African Americans now hold prominent positions in nonprofit organizations, government, arts, business, education and philanthropy. This is certainly an opportunity to be seized by combining the historic leadership of the clergy with the emerging leaders in government, business and the nonprofit sector. This could be a potent force in building bridges toward a common agenda within the African-American community.

In a powerful and prescient essay entitled “The Future of the Race”, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornell West identify areas where common agreement among African-American leaders may be forged, "Not to demand that each member of the black community accept individual responsibility for her or his behavior -- whether that behavior assumes the form of black on black homicide, violation by gang members against the sanctity of the church, unprotected sexual activity, gangster rap lyrics, misogyny and homophobia -- is to function merely as an ethnic cheerleaders selling wolf tickets from the campus or the suburbs, rather than saying the difficult things that may be unpopular with our fellows. Being a leader does not necessarily mean being loved: loving one's community means daring to risk estrangement and alienation from that very community, in the short run in order to break the cycle of poverty, despair and hopelessness that we are in, over the long run. For what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of our country, and the African-American people."

This is the call for leadership for the African American community – to find leaders from all our sources of strength who are able and willing to lead on community issues among all people, with a message of responsibility and civility whether it’s popular or not.

Our Children in Crisis

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: January 25, 2010 - 7:30 PM


Our Children in Crisis
“Deutsh (1967) and Ward (1982) in contemplating the education of disadvantaged children imply that ‘disadvantaged’ is not a homogeneous group. That is, within each group are great variations. This view is significant because it communicates that some black men as adolescents learn to be high achievers in an environment more challenging than most children face. Consequently, it reminds us that black mainstream is not a tangle of pathology. Rather it demonstrates a source for strength and resilience that is deeply rooted and viable against incredible odds."
 Successful African-American Men from Childhood to Adulthood
Sandra Taylor Griffin, Ph.D., 2000
Education is one of the key passports of social and class mobility for a majority of African Americans. In his classic work, A Theory of Justice, the late Harvard Professor and philosopher John Rawls eloquently elucidates why education is a critical component of social mobility when he states, "the value of education should not be assessed solely in terms of economic efficiency and social welfare. Equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy in the culture of his society and take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth."
My experience as a poor child growing up was one of continuous housing instability and school mobility; I attended four elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools in Minneapolis.
Patterns of housing segregation, housing instability and school mobility are still prevalent today for many poor inner city homeless or semi-homeless children. These factors have a significant impact on students’ academic achievement and exacerbate the achievement gap. Mobility and housing instability are not the only issues impacting student achievement, however. Child readiness, teacher preparation and curriculum, parent involvement, discipline, and reading and writing proficiency are salient issues for African-American students in urban communities.
Even with my chaotic home life, I did well in school in my early years. I was always interested in learning and had a few great teachers who really took an interest in me and my education. In my early adolescence, when I was 12 years old, the transition from boyhood to manhood was a very confusing time for me, as it is for most young men. I was having an identity crisis. In the nomenclature of psychology, “identity crises are periods of emotional and mental distress that can lead to significant alteration in worldview in a short period of time in a person’s life. The crisis can lead to changes in their peer associations, political beliefs, or engagement in risk taking behavior. The challenges of an identity crisis are an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to demonstrate resilience.”1
As a young black boy, things that I felt in my life regarding racial pride and social justice were incongruent with the images that were being painted for me on TV and in the media. I would watch movies like Tarzan, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Holiday Inn on TV and would see people who looked like me represented as savages, servants or worse. Questions of who I was and what I wanted to be or what I thought I could be in this society were continuously present.
I also began to understand that race mattered in the world.  It was in my early formative adolescent years that I began to understand that ,“Racism is omnipresent, though often subtle: it is channeled through multiple levels of context...It is inclusive not only of discriminatory behavior, but also of structural power relationships, political ideologies, and institutionalized practices, all of which can be normative, albeit unacknowledged, components of society. There are various and salient ways racism impacts lives, not only by disadvantaging people of color, but also by privileging White people.”1
When I was thirteen, I ran away from home and lived on the street for a few months. This was one of the best things that had happened to me up until then. Soon after, I moved in with my uncle Moe and his family and this environment provided me with the stability I craved and the home schooling I needed.
In the mid 1970s, on the heels of the civil rights and Black Power movements, there was a great deal of support for education within the African-American community.  Many African Americans were beginning to fill prominent roles in education in Minneapolis, including Richard Green, the first African-American Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools; Harry Davis, the first African-American Chair of the Minneapolis School Board; and a host of dedicated administrators such as Bill McMoore, Marvin Trammel, Mel West, Joyce Jackson and others. These trailblazers were critically important for many African-American students in Minneapolis, including me. They pointed, by example, at what was possible and opened the doors of educational access and opportunity for many of us at that time.
Under their leadership, I was able to participate in many opportunities that expanded my world view including the Urban Journalism Workshop, the National Close Up program, the Central High School debate team and serving as an editorial writer for the high school newspaper. These experiences were invaluable to my growth and development.
The cultural and community expectation was that you would and could achieve academically. This type of civic-centered focus on education served as a protective factor against the stereotype threat many African-American young adolescents face in today’s academic settings.2
Much has changed in the intervening years. There were a number of convergent factors which have had a cumulative impact on the social and human capital development within low income urban African-Americans communities. Some of these factors include:  the flight of middle class African-Americans and Whites from low income urban areas which has significantly increased the concentration of poverty; the loss of a once vibrant family structure in low income African American communities, exacerbated by the legacy of national welfare policy; the dislocation of economic opportunity afforded to the early generation through manufacturing jobs; and continued patterns of structural discrimination in housing, access to credit and employment opportunities.
 We have created, as so aptly stated in the 9-11 Commission report, “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable or steady employment—a sure prescription for social turbulence.3" 
The logical choice, some have argued, for many disadvantaged young African-Americans with bleak futures and very few economic opportunities is to turn to activity marked by violence and the lure of more lucrative payoffs.4
In America:5
Among men, blacks (28.5%) are about six times more likely than whites (4.4%) to be admitted to prison during their life. Among women, 3.6% of blacks and 0.5% of whites will enter prison at least once.
Homicide is now one of the leading causes of death for African American men. And the data on homicides indicate that, more often than not, the perpetrator in these homicides is also African American. In fact, an examination of the data on all violent crimes (rape, homicide, assault) demonstrates that violent crimes are primarily intraracial; in other words, both the victim and the offender are of the same race
For every increase of 1% in the level of black male unemployment, the homicide rate increases by 1.28 per 100,000.
There are more African American men in prison (1 million) than in college (less than 500,000). In contrast, with only 600,000 white men in prison and 3.5 million in college, there are 5.8 times as many white men in college as in prison.
Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal Justice supervision on any given day -- either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.
In Minnesota:
Minnesota already has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between black and white students. (StarTribune , 2008)
Black students in Minnesota are being suspended at a rate about six times that of white students. (StarTribune, 2008)
In Minneapolis, despite laudable efforts by the Minneapolis Public Schools in the 2008-09 school year: 6
Only 34% of African-American students pass the 10th grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments II (MCA II) reading proficiency test compared to 89% for Caucasian students.
Only 8% of African-American students passed the 11th grade MCA II math proficiency test compared to 59% for Caucasian children.
Only 12% of 10th Grade African students are predicted to score at least 21 on their ACT college entrance examinations and thus will be considered “college ready”.
These types of results for African-American children are repeated throughout the country in most urban areas with some variation.  If this pattern is allowed to continue it will have long-term and far-reaching consequences for the future of the African American community, but also for the general population of Minnesota.
If there is a case to be made for a state of emergency, this is it!
If we are going to make progress we need the political will to begin rebuilding the leadership and civic infrastructure within the African American community. We need to set clear measureable objectives, holding the system and each other accountable for results. The consequences for failure are clear.
The schools can’t do it alone, the police can’t do it alone, communities can’t do it alone and sometime the parents can’t do it alone either. The solutions will have to be a concerted and courageous effort led by the African American community in equal partnership with government, nonprofits and the private sector.

1.    Understanding Vulnerability and Resilience from a Normative Developmental Perspective : Implications for Racially and Ethnically Diverse Youth, Margaret Beale Spencer, et al. Chapter 16  P. 636, 643-Developmental Psychopathology: Theory and Methods Volume 1 edited by Dante Cicchetti and Donald J. Cohen, 2006
2.    Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group  (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. 
3.     The 9-11 Commission Report Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government Edition, April 24, 2007 P. 54
5.    PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA, Bruce Western.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006



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