Dave Ellis didn’t have to step out of his house to learn his first searing lesson in racial injustice. When he was 7, his father died in his arms from complications of a stroke. The ambulance wouldn’t cross to their side of town to save him. Ellis, 68, moved to the Twin Cities in 1974, where he worked for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and United Way before founding Dave Ellis Consulting, which promotes training and meaningful conversations around race, equity and childhood trauma. He heads to New Jersey later this month to become executive director for New Jersey’s Office of Resilience. In this wrenching moment for our city, he encourages us to continue to have productive conversations.
Q: This now feels like a wholly inadequate opener, but how are you?
A: It’s a fascinating question and one of the most powerful. I’ve been getting text messages and phone calls from around the world. It’s kind of like Sept. 11. That was in the news for so long, brought up so many times. But this is the first time in my life when “angry black man” applies to me. I think I’ve been angry for a long time but this is the first time it’s started to bubble out. Anger is not a bad thing as long as you use the anger constructively by trying to help people and by asking, “What are the next steps?” But overall, any day I wake up is a good day. I get to participate and try to do good in the world.
Q: An imperfect world, to be sure. You learned that at any early age.
A: My father’s death had a dramatic impact on me. I grew up in southern Illinois, which is as much a part of the south as Mississippi or Alabama. I remember going home for my college’s athletics Hall of Fame and I went into places where they still referred to me as “boy,” with a smile on their face. I had my kids with me and some of my grandkids. I’ve never really raised my voice. I’d rather walk away. Some people see that as a weakness, but I see that as a strength. I didn’t let someone force me into something, I’m still in control.
Q: Did your mother influence your decision to walk away?
A: Growing up, we didn’t have “the talk.” We had a conversation that went on my entire time being raised. My mother told me how I would or would not communicate with authority. My mom taught me in her very strict way that it was, “Yes, sir, yes, ma’am.” To this day, I say that to people even younger than me. I don’t want my decision to put me in a position of not knowing if I’ll get to come home tonight.
Q: You moved here with wife Loretta, a Minnesota native, first living in the suburbs before moving to north Minneapolis to raise your five kids. Culture shock?
A: I remember the first time I did a diversity training here and I asked, “How many of you have taught your kids not to run?” No one raised a hand. They looked at me like, “What?” Privilege is about never having to think about something. Part of what I do for a living is try to help people see what trauma looks like in a life; being able to tell my story helps to make it not so secret.
Q: You’re a big proponent of sharing stories to break down barriers.
A: The shortest distance between two people is a story. I have been in rooms with out-and-out racists and we’ve been able to hold a conversation because we found our commonalities. One man told me, “We actually agree on some things. We both want good schools and our neighborhoods not to be crime ridden. We differ on how we get there.”
Q: What is a respectful question I might ask of someone, knowing full well my privilege?
A: It’s a touchy subject but it doesn’t have to be that deep. Something as simple as, “How are you?” It requires an open heart and an open mind and the ability to recognize that other people are not imitations of you. A quote attributed to Anais Nin says, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” That’s stuck with me for a long time.
Q: What has gone through your mind over the past few weeks?
A: When it actually comes, there’s not a sigh of relief that you’re right. People kept talking and talking over the years; the community has been promised multiple things and they never happened. This time, folks are saying — not just in Minneapolis or Minnesota or the U.S. — hear our human cry. When you watch what happened with Philando [Castile] and George Floyd … with the advent of video and Facebook and cellphones, the world is a different place.
Q: Some elected officials propose disbanding the police force. How would that look to you?
A: I don’t know what it would look like but I’d first ask, “What do you want for an outcome?” Protect and serve would be a good place to start. I want people, regardless of who you are and where you live, to feel like you’re not being over-policed. When we train police officers and give them a gun, do we screen for trauma first? Once we get triggered, the rest of our brain goes offline. We go to base instinct. How do we make sure that law enforcement is absolutely prepared, which includes a lot of stuff around mental health and diversity training. You can’t help anyone deal with their stuff until you’ve dealt with your own.
Q: What does real change look like?
A: I can go outside and meet people I can talk to. We’ve pulled back into our bunkers and COVID hasn’t helped. We’re not designed to be alone. We’re designed to be in relationship. My hope is that we become a kinder society, a forgiving society. If I can forgive, I can begin to move forward.