The world knows the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the pragmatic civil rights leader who shepherded a nation toward racial equality.
For many, his work remains unfinished. A new generation of black leaders in the Twin Cities area has emerged to carry their message of justice forward.
From activists protesting for more police accountability to spoken-word artists offering healing words, these young thinkers and doers are at the forefront of new conversations about race.
“I think that the [civil rights] movement had a very clear, tangible set of goals,” said Jobi Adams, co-founder of activist group Black Liberation Project. “For us, it seems a little less tangible and clear because we are looking to dismantle white supremacy and the systems that hold it.”
Those who want to effect change face a challenging landscape. In Minnesota, there are gaping racial disparities in education and economic security. And there’s ongoing concern about fairness in policing. Last year’s fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police relit a fire in Adams.
“Jamar Clark made the nationwide struggle personal,” he said.
As folks celebrate King’s legacy, a sampling of local influencers share their perspectives on their roles, leadership in general and their views on the trials facing African-Americans in Minnesota.
The people interviewed for this story are just a handful who are making their voices heard. Some eschew even the concept of leadership and hierarchy. In their words (edited for clarity and length), they describe what drives them to push ahead.
Chaun Webster, 31
Co-owner and co-founder of Ancestry Books, a north Minneapolis pop-up bookstore that focuses on “re-centering the narratives of indigenous authors and authors of color.”
What is a leader?
I struggle at times with how I want to think about that role or its relationship to people. I tend to not want to think of that in a hierarchical way. … And so I don’t know that I accept the traditional binary of leader and follower. I don’t know. I think that at the end of the day, the sort of impact that I want to make is one where I really see the value in everyday people being able to assess the world around them in meaningful ways and imagine a new world.
How would you define success in your work?
I think in many ways [success is] creating the kind of space that creates other spaces. … To me, I think success is to be able to believe in the [future] Nikki Giovannis who are in north Minneapolis right now who are not being seen as such. … I think to me it is about not foreclosing possibilities that Nikki Giovanni or Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler or June Jordan could be coming up from north Minneapolis.
Shawntera Hardy, 37
Deputy chief of staff in the office of Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith; founder of PolicyGrounds Consulting; co-founder of Civic Eagle.
Which leaders do you look up to?
In my space of policy starting from the first [black] congresswoman, Ms. Shirley Chisholm. … Locally, Josie Johnson has led the way in the community. … But I will say for me in terms of aspiration, my mother. She does not have a high school diploma, but something inside of her made her commit herself to all of her kids going to school. For me, having that is so important.
Share an issue facing the black community.
There’s this proverb that as an urban planner I learned about a community’s tipping point: “If you don’t listen to the whispers of a community, you’ll look up and all you can hear is the screams.” In the black community, there are issues of disinvestment, poverty, lack of education, obesity, chronic disease, mental health. … But I’ll reframe that to say that these are not “black issues.” They are just persistent in the black community.
Brittany Lynch, 24
Spoken word artist; director of operations for Soul Tools Entertainment; radio host for KFAI; TV talk show host; curator for Feel Good Revolution, recurring spoken word/music event.
How would you define “the movement”?
I would say there’s an awakening happening across the nation right now, really across the world. I am especially thrilled on what I’m seeing within the black community across the world where we are no longer accepting oppression and we’re waking up and realizing that not only do our lives matter, not only do we deserve equality, but we deserve to have sweet, beautiful, fruitful lives. We deserve to have our own spaces. We deserve to speak up when we see something unjust.
Share an issue facing the black community.
We don’t address mental health issues. Within a lot of black communities, it’s not something that we talk about. It’s not something we acknowledge that’s real. We don’t acknowledge our pain and our trauma. Our issues are supposed to be kept quiet. … I think we shy away from our negative experiences because we think that they make us weak when in reality those are the things that mold us.
Jason Sole, 37
Criminal justice educator at Metropolitan State University and Hamline University; Minneapolis NAACP criminal justice reform chair; consultant; author of “From Prison to Ph.D.”
How has your self-identity affected the work you do?
Having self-identity is critical. I don’t believe you can know where you’re going until you know who you are. … The fact that I have a male privilege over my female counterparts. Recognizing that even though I’m a black man, I’m still strong. I remember Jack Johnson. I remember people like the [Black] Panthers. They had a clear vision of what we needed to do.
What challenges do you face as a leader?
I think the challenge is whether I’m doing too much or not doing enough. I think that’s what I really struggle with. … Really balancing work with family, with my activism; trying to find that balance. … I think I’ve been prepared to handle what’s happening. Throughout my life, I’ve faced trauma. I’ve faced adversity. I went through some of the toughest moments, and I made it out OK.
Jobi Adams, 21
Co-founder of Black Liberation Project, started by Twin Cities activists who met during protests in Ferguson, Mo. It hosts demonstrations and engages with local black young people.
Define a pivotal moment during your life that drove you to do social justice or equity work.
I got arrested in St. Louis, and that experience was so horrible and so traumatizing. It was really late at night and most of us were college-age young people from out of town and we were doing a sit-in at this gas station at 1 in the morning. They had armored vehicles and the police, there were hundreds of them in riot gear. … They were so mean to us and they were trying so hard to break us mentally. … In that moment I was radicalized so much.
What is a misconception of “the movement”?
A big one is that people think that we just want to be angry. That we want to be angry and we want to destroy stuff and we want to hate white people and things like that, and that’s not what we want at all. And it’s not like we are out here for revenge. We’ve been pushed to this point, and, ultimately, I want justice, not revenge.
Lena K. Gardner, 33
Organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis; director of membership and fundraising at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Define success in your work.
For me, a bigger win is going to be this consciousness change that I can feel is happening within “the movement” and outside of it. I guess ultimately it’s like what the founders of Black Lives Matter say, “When black people get free, we all get free.” That’s the ultimate success, right? That might be a little bit too dreamy, but that would be it.
What is the difference between young leaders now and the “old guard” of leaders?
I think the “old guard” had a lot of trust in institutions and organizations to create change. I think the young folks, we don’t have that same amount of trust or investment in established organizations. In fact, there’s a lot of distrust. We are picking up the pieces of things that fell through the cracks. … I think a lot of elders “get it” and they are supportive of us. … What is Common’s song? “They marched with the torch, we gon’ run with it now.”