An artist, author and Mayor Chris Coleman walked into a room full of members of the St. Paul business community.
No, this isn’t a set up for a joke. The discussion this week was the opposite: an emotional dive into the hurdles facing children and young adults of color in America.
Artist Titus Kaphar, whose work called “The Jerome Project” focuses on mug shots of men named Jerome, and Jeff Hobbs, whose story of his college roommate’s death, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” is a New York Times bestseller, discussed race with a group of about 60 community members.
Coleman was asked to connect policy efforts with Hobbs and Kaphar’s stories of black men who ended up in jail, or in Peace’s case, dead.
“In almost every room I’m in, race is now a topic,” Coleman told the group. The mayor previously worked as a public defender and said he met men who were trapped by the circumstances they grew up in.
The event Wednesday evening was timely. It occurred on the same day St. Paul teachers held demonstrations related to contract negotiations. They are pushing for more support staff in schools, particularly counselors who can help kids in crisis, including many children of color.
“We haven’t made progress in the big issues that are going to meet our students’ needs and reduce racial inequities,” Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, told the Star Tribune this week.
Kaphar, who went to Yale, said he was failing in high school and needed to find art to succeed.
“I wouldn’t have ever found any intelligence if I hadn’t had that as a vehicle,” he said, noting that other kids never find their passion. Having a mentor is critical, he said.
When Coleman was in school, he said he wasn’t a great student but had teachers who believed in him and there was an expectation he would succeed. That needs to exist for students today and there should be a way to draw out their talent, whether it is art or science, he said.
Outside of school, white kids in Minnesota often have connections to internships and jobs that many children of color do not have, Coleman said.
“Particularly in Minnesota we have built up this network of support, but it’s very insulated and isolated,” he said. Coleman urged business owners to participate in St. Paul’s Right Track program that provides internships to youth.
The event was organized by RBC Wealth Management. John Taft, the company’s CEO, said from a business perspective it’s critical to discuss and address disparities to ensure there will be a qualified workforce in the future.
The number of people of color in the Twin Cities is projected to grow rapidly over the next 25 years, said Michael Langley, CEO of the economic development nonprofit Greater MSP.
“No one will be successful in our region if we don’t address this issue,” Langley said.