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ChangeMakers: James Badue-El, lifting up the locked up

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James Badue-El stands for a portrait on the Martin Olav Sabo bridge.
James Badue-El stands for a portrait on the Martin Olav Sabo bridge in Minneapolis on Monday, Jan. 28. 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

James Badue-El, 26, serves as criminal justice state chair for the Minneapolis NAACP where he works to reduce prison recidivism. 

He knows first hand the challenges convicts face. He served two years in prison for aggravated robbery and was released in 2014. 

In the fall of 2018, he organized the "I'm Proof" awards, highlighting formerly incarcerated men and women making positive changes in their lives and communities. 

He is the father of two young daughters. 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be a black Minnesotan?

By Minnesota being the second worst state in the country for [racial] disparities, I feel like I have an obligation and duty to start lifting and protecting the people that are down. 

I work with the NAACP ... to bring the humanity back to the people that is getting suppressed, to give them hope, to give them inspiration and give them a heart to start fighting for themselves. 

I don't have to be a voice for them because they've got their own voice. I haven't got to be a body for them because they've got their own body. Unless they're incarcerated then I am a body for you because you can't have your own body out here in the community, and you still need protection and security as you go through the trials and tribulations while you're incarcerated.

We are really poor. We actually don't own anything, we might own a home but we don't own the land. So there's no real equity in that and we don't understand it ... We keep being misplaced and misplaced and misplaced and I don't feel like any of that is nobody else's problem but ours. 

So with the work that I do, I just work to give us the opportunity to see ourselves in a better light to say that we are strong enough we are wise and that we are big enough. We've overcome so much so let's actually overcome even more right now.

What figures have shaped you?

Noble Drew Ali is probably the biggest one. Noble Drew Ali is [known as] the "African-American prophet." 

[Ali, born Timothy Drew, founded the  Moorish Science Temple of America, out of which the Nation of Islam grew]. 

You know to state that we're not Negroes, we're not black ... We're not none of that. We're Moorish Americans.

He talked about the importance of being a sovereign nation, that we are our own, we are ourselves. He brought in principles, where we had to respect the women that we have, we had to take care of our children. This is our duty. And to say that if you're looking, look no further than the end of your arm, the hand is right there. So that's huge to me. It's about self-preservation, sufficiency self-motivation, self-diligence.

What's your vision for the future of black people in Minnesota?

Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Economic independence and autonomy. 

I don't care about voting rights because we done voted for the Democrats, we done voted for Republicans and the 'hood is still a 'hood. And it's always been a 'hood. So I don't really care about vote winning and the aspects of any other political party other than our own values. 

So my vision for us is to start re-analyzing our values and to say what are our values, and let's have our own values.

 Correction (Feb 12, 2019): An earlier version of this story misstated James Badue-El's conviction and misquoted him. He was convicted of aggravated robbery and he said: "You know to state that we're not Negroes, we're not black ... We're not none of that. We're Moorish Americans."