Years before JaNaé Bates became the public face of Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group that sought to replace the Police Department, she was a Fulbright scholar in Scotland, watching news coverage of protests that erupted after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
Bates, a minister, was a student of theology then. But even overseas, she was moved to activism.
She returned to her native Cleveland after another police killing, that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and began working with the families of victims of police violence. She landed in Minneapolis in 2016 and spent five years advocating at the State Capitol for criminal justice reform.
Bates is just one of the many Black women that have been at the helm of the social justice movement in the Twin Cities for years — whether through protesting police brutality, launching violence prevention initiatives or changing policy. Though their individual efforts are not always widely acknowledged, the Black women interviewed by the Star Tribune view their work as both bigger than themselves and yet personal. For that reason, their efforts endure.
"Because of the history of this country, of this state, of the Cities, oftentimes issues around criminal justice in general and the problems we see with it offer proximity with both Blackness and poverty and gender," Bates said. "And women are at the [intersection] of all of those."
To Bates, the intersection is a complicated place to be.
"It's been a disservice to lean on us as these superheroes and the backbones, but it is a reality that we tend to have an immense amount of care for the community," she said.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network, said, "many of us as Black women who have made the decision to do this work have done this out of necessity and seeing the harms that have been done on our communities.
"Some have done this work in conjunction with their spouses, and others have had to carry this load as single mothers, and it's a huge level of responsibility that goes into this work that is often undervalued and underrecognized."
"We're out here fighting, but we're also entrepreneurs, we're ministers. We're also aunties and parents, and students and educators."
While Bates was discovering her passion for criminal justice reform in Scotland, Chauntyll Allen, founder of Black Lives Matter St. Paul, was awakening to a new part of her own identity.
Allen didn't think of herself as a community organizer until about 2015, when she attended training led by the local nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. She then went to a national Black Lives Matter convention in Ohio. Those events marked the beginning of her formal organizing career, but it wasn't all new to her.
"I had always organized — I just didn't know what I was doing," she said. "I was always gathering voices and leveraging political power."
The daughter of a pastor and a former Urban League Twin Cities employee, Allen calls herself a "fourth-generation Rondo kid," nodding to her family's roots in the historically Black St. Paul neighborhood. In her youth, she rallied friends around issues like diversity in education.
After years spent coaching basketball and teaching for St. Paul Public Schools, she was elected to the school board in January 2020 — a role she sees as essential to transforming public safety.
"In order to get where we're going, it takes a collective responsibility," she said. "I have to hold myself accountable to responding to conflict in a way that doesn't cause violence or harm. … Even as a business owner in the community, it's your responsibility to employ people and pay them at a wage so that they're not getting criminalized."
"Even as a school board member, it is my responsibility to shape policy," she added.
Retired Minneapolis police sergeant Lisa Clemons has been a staunch supporter of the current chief, Medaria Arradondo, the department's first Black leader, but said she endured racist taunts and worse during her career with the MPD, which ended in the 1990s. She believes having more women in uniform would help change the department's culture.
"Women are natural de-escalators," Clemons said. "Who is it who gets between the kids who are fighting in the house? It's always going to be the mother."
Clemons, who went on to form the street outreach group A Mother's Love after her retirement from MPD, said that while Black women "have naturally been leaders," they have often taken a back seat to Black men. And yet, she said, their goals are the same.
"I don't care if you're fighting for police reform, I don't care if you're fighting for community reform, at the end of the day, either reform is for saving Black lives," Clemons said.
When the women who work for A Mother's Love visit crime scenes, they are treated with respect, she said. "I think they recognize us as mother, as aunt, as grandmother, as sister."
The director of Minneapolis' Office of Violence Prevention, Sasha Cotton, said her identity as a mother, Black woman and Latina born and raised in the Twin Cities is what compels her to do her work.
"I have spent my entire career working in community safety, public safety, with a real focus on trying to make systems better for the least of those who are served, which is often Black and brown people," she said. "I don't think that that's by accident. I look at my Black son and my Black grandson and my Black cousins and my Latino cousins and I know that some of them have been impacted by our criminal justice system. And I don't want to see any of them be negatively impacted by systems because those systems aren't working at their best."
Cotton doesn't consider her work to be political. Regardless of what party is in office, she said, her team has a responsibility to promote opportunities for safety from a non-law enforcement perspective.
Julianne Leerssen often collaborates with Cotton's office as the city's Promise Zone director. A lawyer by trade and former nonprofit director, she never imagined that her career would include liaising between the Police Department and the community, but she has always wanted to make a difference in north Minneapolis.
When she considers why, she thinks of her childhood there. "I was raised to be a person who cared about and fought for justice and fairness, equity," she said. "We were the house that had the Thanksgiving dinner that everybody came to if they didn't have a place to go."
She said she grew up understanding that certain communities have continually been left behind. Her calling is to find partners interested in improving them.
Community and environmental justice organizer Roxxanne O'Brien had a similar understanding after accompanying her friends to court in her adolescence. Seeing how they were treated, she decided to advocate for people she felt were wronged by police violence or systemic racism.
"I started to see that lawyers and judges and some of the people in there weren't really listening," she said.
Still, she doesn't feel like an advocate. "I just feel like a Black woman who's been going through a lot. I just feel like a person in the community," she said.
Some interviewees pointed to what they saw as a double standard against Black women working on criminal justice issues at City Hall: Their work was publicly lauded, but they are rarely taken seriously behind closed doors.
Jen White remembers now-Council Member Andrea Jenkins describing what she called the "Black secretary system" when the two of them were working as policy aides years ago.
"Where we get the most responsibility and stuff put in our laps, where we get the least amount of support, the least amount of pay, and we just do it," recalls White, who was Mayor Jacob Frey's policy aide on public safety before moving to the Office of Violence Prevention. "But people look to us because of the way that we move and because of our roles."
Navigating the racial politics of City Hall can be tricky, she said, even when dealing with well-intentioned white colleagues. White said she finds it exhausting, as a Black woman, to have to bear the expectations of speaking on behalf of her community while having to continuously advocate for equity.
"They keep asking us to do the heavy-lifting on fixing these systems of inequity, but we didn't build them. We can just tell you how it affects us," she said.
"The work is enormous and it's exhausting, and it's emotional, because it's so personal," she said. "I could be doing something less stressful and making so much more money. But ... we do the work for our boys."