Of leadership, hopes and expectations

  • Article by: Denise Johnson
  • January 18, 2009 - 7:42 AM
With America poised to inaugurate its first African-American president this week, we checked in with a group of community leaders about the status of black executives. The Star Tribune Editorial Board invited several recently installed African-American nonprofit directors to discuss issues of leadership, the presidential campaign and their expectations of soon-to-be president Barack Obama. Each has been in his or her current job for under one year, and all have had leadership experience either in corporate, government or nonprofit organizations. The panel included:

Pamela G. Alexander, president, Council on Crime and Justice

Morris Goodwin Jr. , chief administrative director, Amherst H. Wilder Foundation

Clarence Hightower, executive director, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties

Trista Harris, executive director, Headwaters Foundation for Justice

Linda B. Keene, chief executive officer, Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys

Editorial writers Lori Sturdevant and Denise Johnson facilitated the discussion and edited the following excerpts from the conversation.


Keene: When companies were growing, Minneapolis was very progressive in terms of African-American corporate leaders. That has changed as companies have downsized. At one time Minneapolis had the fourth-largest number of black corporate executives in the U.S. When I was getting into corporate executive management, I benefited from white, male mentors. Back then, giving opportunity to anyone who was different was perceived as taking a risk. At the same time, I was not a threat to my mentors; they never feared that I would take their jobs. As corporations flattened, interest in taking risks eroded. And many companies have not been good at creating the pipeline to bring other people of color along. As the corporate numbers have declined, more of us have moved into nonprofit leadership.

Hightower: In the late '80s early '90s, there were lots of blacks in prominent positions at the same time -- the mayor, Vikings coach, police chief, superintendents. I'm not sure we'll ever see that again.

Alexander: When I was on the bench [as a Hennepin county judge], there were seven or eight black judges in Hennepin county. Now it is down to two since I left. When I was appointed, we had a governor who wanted to reflect the people here on the bench. And at the U of M law school, they have fewer African-Americans than when I was there years ago; I see those doors of opportunity closing.

Goodwin: I think the notion of broadening diversity is important; you are not just talking about people of color. Now it can include just about everybody -- senior citizens, English learners, the disabled.

Harris: I'm wondering when we'll stop talking black leaders and look at leaders. All of the people around this table are talented and deserving. We don't lead organizations that are primarily black or that serve only blacks.


Harris: I'm 32 and have always worked in nonprofits. The pipeline issue has always been a big deal. Earlier generations developed leadership skills in the civil-rights movement that they took to corporate America.

Harris (continued): Now Gen X and Y come along, and it's frustrating -- especially in the nonprofit world, where many organizations are so flat or so small that it's hard to build a pipeline. So some are creating their own opportunities, starting organizations or working in a different format. They are using social networking and technology in new ways. And their comfort with diversity is amazing -- they grew up in integrated schools and can work in integrated environments in ways that weren't possible in the past.

Keene: That's something our society doesn't do very well -- put people's time and talents to good use -- whether it's young people or retired baby boomers. How do we take advantage of all the talent? With all the problems we have right now, we need all hands on deck. ... Early in the campaign, Barack Obama's age made a difference. It was hard for many older black people to understand how he could win -- that's why he didn't get the majority of their support at first. Their life experience didn't include winning an election on the Internet.

Goodwin: But [civil-rights leader] John Lewis' endorsement helped change that.

Alexander: Many of the older generation doesn't understand the Internet age. I certainly didn't get it until I asked my children.

Hightower: Part of it is age; part is economics and income. For years, people in our community didn't have computers or access to them. The access is better now, but it is still an issue.


Hightower: I'm concerned that black people are going to say: We have a black president; now everything is going to get better by osmosis. I worry about that.

Keene: We have to frame issues of race and diversity differently. Before, people could not get through the door. Now, we have to talk about issues of class, education. Some problems are purely racial, but others are about social class. In my generation, almost everyone I knew overachieved their parents. Now, people are more likely to be trapped in the classes in which they were born.

Alexander: I disagree with part of that; race matters. Obama was attacked by the KKK and others based on race, which would not have happened if he was white. Regardless of how much money we have, someone will still follow us through Macy's.

Keene: Race affects all of us, but it disproportionately affects the poor. Solutions for your [middle-class] child vs. your [low-income] client's child could be very different because of where they start.


Hightower: One thing he has done already is to reintroduce the issue of poverty into the national agenda. It's been absent from the conversation for too long. We at the Urban League did one of the first studies on blacks in Minnesota in 2004 -- then updated it in 2007. Both times we found that blacks are doing worse than whites on poverty and every other indicator. Over those years the gap didn't get wider, but there are still big differences.

Alexander: That [poverty piece] is important. Joe Biden was one of the authors of the Second Chance Act, so I'm happy he's VP. The act helps ex-offenders get connected with jobs, housing, et cetera. Research shows that if they have jobs and other support, they won't be as poor, won't commit more crimes.

Seeing Obama, especially, encourages people of color to try. In the population I work with, some have said they don't have any excuses anymore. They look at how many times Obama was told no, but he just kept going.

Harris: Obama's election makes people think of diversity as a competitive advantage. A diverse group of people at the table gives you better answers. Obama's has had the experiences the nation needs to get through tough times. Some call it a cabinet of enemies. But he really gets the point of having people to disagree with you; it prevents having everyone nod their heads as you are doing the dumbest thing ever. I'm impressed with the website, where he's encouraging Americans to share ideas and organize.


Goodwin: The president's number one priority must be to turn the economy around. He should focus on stimulative domestic policy and redeclare the moral equivalent of a war on poverty -- get some of those new green and technology jobs to the communities most in need. The economy must grow, so there will be greater ability to give, to invest, to endow. Without that, a lot of us will be forced into reducing services or postponing innovations.

Harris: A lot of people see the economic issues as a zero-sum game, but it is not. Seven-hundred million for bailout, and a ton of money went to the Obama campaign. The money is there -- it is how we choose to use it.

Goodwin: There is $8 trillion of liquidity sitting on individual, institutional and corporate balance sheets that is not invested and looking for a place to go. Some of that should be applied to using venture capital on social issues.

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