A welcome initiative coming together in the wake of the George Floyd killing has the power to reshape the fortunes of Black Minnesotans — to the benefit of all.
For now it's called the Alliance of Alliances, and it will be operated through the African American Leadership Forum. But behind that anodyne name lie some of the most powerful forces in the community, merging time and talent to develop long-range plans to bring racial equity to a state sorely in need.
What sets this effort apart is that it is being developed by Black leaders in business, community and social organizations. It is emerging from the Black community, rather than being developed for it by external forces. "This is bringing Black leaders together on issues important to us," said Duchesne Drew, president of Minnesota Public Radio and a member of Omicron Boulé, a top Black fraternal organization that was among the driving forces in creating the alliance.
Greg Cunningham, chief diversity officer for U.S. Bank and a member of Omicron Boulé, said that 20 years ago there was not yet the critical mass among Black professionals to provide that leadership and requisite funding. To date, an impressive nearly $4 million has been raised to fund the effort.
"We wanted to put the challenge to the business community, the philanthropic community, to support something different," Cunningham said. "Something that was Black-led, Black-centered. We're not foolish enough to say we represent the entire Black community. It's not a monolith. But that is the point of the Alliance of Alliances, to get us all working toward a common purpose — the betterment of the Black community."
Among the allies: Greater Twin Cities United Way; the Itasca Project; Greater MSP; the Minnesota Business Partnership, representing the largest corporations in the state; the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity, and a host of others.
Marcus Owens, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, will lead the project, serving as the umbrella bringing existing and future efforts together. "We need to listen, really listen to the Black community if this is to be Black-centered," Owens said. The goal, he said, is to unite efforts in areas such as education, housing, infrastructure, jobs, public safety and others to create a holistic approach to lifting the community.
We all know the areas that affect a person's life cannot be divided into neat, tidy categories: schools here, jobs there, housing elsewhere. School enrichment and remedial programs may not help the student whose parent can't get a job, or find decent, affordable housing or health care. It makes sense to address these issues in concert, listening keenly to what people say they need, and empowering them wherever possible to create their own solutions.
These are not, of course, problems that affect only the Black community. But there also is no denying that racial gaps that exist — and have existed for decades. It's present in educational achievement gaps that can hinder every other aspect of life. It's in the terrible history of redlining that for years limited where Black Minnesotans could live. And, yes, it shows up in the criminal justice system, from arrests to trials to incarceration. Floyd's death in police custody brought that home in a way that could no longer be ignored.
"That was the call to action," Cunningham said of the Floyd killing. "As a fraternity of Black men, we felt a responsibility, a call for our generation. It is a call that's bigger than any of us, that's worth the risk and our reputations and all of it."
Owens said the goal is to "make progress in a systematic, measurable way. We need to evaluate what's going on, what's needed, determine where we can make an impact, then measure that impact." The result, he said, should be more Black Minnesotans lifted out of poverty, more Black-owned businesses, better education, more stable communities. "We want a thriving economy that leaves no one behind," Owens said.
"It won't be, 'We created this job,' but we changed the system so that these jobs could be created, these businesses could take off, this housing could happen." After three years, he said, "We want to know we have a process, a system that brings community-based solutions to the center." Once developed, he said, that same community-driven, multifaceted approach could be applied to other communities in need.
Long-term commitments to address inequities, backed by resources, can help build strong communities. All Minnesotans should wish them well.