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ChangeMakers: Melvin Carter, first black mayor of St. Paul

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Melvin Carter sits for a portrait in his office.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter sits for a portrait inside of his office on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

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

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, 40, is a fourth-generation St. Paulite and the first black mayor of St. Paul. Before he was elected mayor in 2018, he served in former Gov. Mark Dayton's administration and on St. Paul City Council.

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

What does it mean to be a black Minnesotan?

First of all, I'm a human being, and what I think we all want is to be recognized as human beings. To be able to have access to the human dignity of the notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this country was founded on in the first place. 

I will say very specifically, I grew up in the African-American community in St. Paul and in the Twin Cities. And that means having the opportunity to see great institutions like Penumbra Theatre, having the ability to go to Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, the Martin Luther King Recreation Center after school. 

But then that also means for me growing up knowing what it feels like to get pulled over for driving while black. It means having heard the stories of my own family and so many other families like mine who lost their family inheritance when the freeway uprooted our old Rondo Community. 

I would say being African-American in America, and certainly being African-American in Minnesota, sort of comes with two things, it comes with this deep, proud, strong and amazing community that you inherit and get a chance to be a part of, which is incredible. It also comes with a set of challenges and a set of disparities: We know in Minnesota, and certainly still in St. Paul, we can still predict a child's expected life outcomes more accurately based on her race and her ZIP code than we can based on her work ethic.

What figures have shaped you?

Historically speaking a number of large characters. One person whose autobiography is really special to me is Nelson Mandela's.  Reading his autobiography, the way he thinks, the way he thought, the way he adapted his strategies and tactics over time has been really critical certainly on an [international] level. 

Having seen Barack Obama as president as I was launching my own political career has had an enormous effect on me as well. 

But interpersonally, hands down would be my parents — both who are pretty strong, kind of social people, who were active in the social space and making a difference in the community. My father's a retired St. Paul police officer and the founder of Save Our Sons. My mother is a former teacher and is a founder of an organization called Arts Us and is my county commissioner. 

Then I think about, you know, the impact that my wife has on me every day. And, certainly my children because the work that we do — the work that we all do — needs to be all centered around making sure that our children just have a better life than we have. 

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

I don't know that my vision for the future of African-Americans in Minnesota is all that different than my vision for the future of everyone. Our mantra is building a city that works for all of us. And that means all of us have to get an opportunity to be a part of the decision making processes that impact our lives. 

That means we need a community that tells all of our children that they're valued, they're beautiful, they're special and they have limitless potential. We need a community where we can all know that we're safe, that we're included, that we can feel hopeful about our future because this is a community that's built with our prosperity in mind. 

You know one of the things that I think we can challenge ourselves to do is to think about our diversity in a different way. When we talk about diversity in the Twin Cities too often we're talking about just the defensive strategy of trying to eliminate disparities. We, of course, want to eliminate disparities and we have a lot of work to do that, but even beyond that we have an opportunity based on the multilingualism, based on the diversity based on all the cultures and spaces that people in this community speak different languages and practice different religions and practice different cultures at home.  

We have the opportunity really in the Twin Cities metro area, and certainly in St. Paul, to go beyond thinking about how we close disparities and close the gaps, to really thinking about how we open the doors of economic prosperity and the global economy that ought to exist in a city like St. Paul.