Johnathan Judd does not shy away from tough conversations.
Growing up in Raleigh, N.C., he learned to speak his mind, own what he said and work through disagreements.
He’s lived in Moorhead, where he was elected the city’s first Black mayor in 2018, since high school. And he’s found the primary communication style he’s encountered in Minnesota — restrained, passive — challenging from the start.
But since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May, Judd has been vocal about the need to talk about racism — and he's engaging his community in that conversation.
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"I think when it comes to race, people are afraid to have the conversation because they're afraid of saying the wrong thing, or they're afraid of saying 'I don't have the answers,’" he said.
"We need to embrace the fact that we don't like having tough conversations that might cause us to think internally about how we view things, because we're not about expressing our vulnerability.”
For the past month and a half, a protest movement calling for police reform has been active in Fargo, N.D. But across the Red River — and the state line — in Moorhead, protest has been largely nonexistent.
Judd joined other local leaders at a press conference after one of Fargo’s first marches after Floyd was killed. The march, on May 30, had been large and mostly peaceful during the day, but ended in tear gas and broken glass when a smaller group of protesters clashed with police.
The next morning, Judd spoke directly to protesters and the community — about the challenge of having candid conversations about race in a mostly white area.
"When you don't see yourself represented in the institutions that work for you, to care for you, to support you, you're going to have a feeling of distrust. It completely makes sense. I have lived that reality," he said. “The dilemma I have is that now I am a part of the institution.”
Judd earned a law degree at the University of North Dakota and worked as both a county prosecutor and a public defender. He's now director of equity and inclusion at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead.
Growing up, he said, his grandfather encouraged him to work hard, and told him that, as a Black man, he would always have to work harder than anyone else to prove himself. As mayor, he embraces that work ethic, but admits the responsibility of speaking out about race is stressful.
“I don't want my contact with anyone to be a negative contact that is going to adversely affect another person of color that might come after me. That's the biggest stress,” he said.
Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe has known Judd for years — and said he has always been fair, consistent and unafraid of tough conversations.
"He is a person that brings people together, not a divider. He's not going to point fingers at people and lay blame,” said Monroe. “He's going to say let's talk about something that's uncomfortable and let's make it better."
And he’s exactly right for this city in this moment, Monroe said.
"Sometimes in history some people are a leader at the right time, and he is the leader we need at this time," he said.
Judd interacted with Moorhead police for years as an attorney, and said he doesn't see systemic racism in the department. But it bothers him that many people of color fear interactions with police, and he's challenging the department to build better relationships with the community.
An added challenge is that the city’s mostly white police force doesn't reflect Moorhead’s increasingly diverse population, Monroe said. Moorhead is still 90 percent white. But the department has struggled for years to recruit and retain officers of color, to serve a city whose Black population has increased three percentage points since the last Census.
Welcoming the struggle
While Floyd’s killing sparked a call for change in communities large and small, Judd takes a long view. He wants change to be thoughtful, and said that before institutions such as the city workforce or the City Council and school board can become more diverse, the community needs to understand institutional racism — and that starts with edifying conversations.
"I welcome these conversations and I welcome the struggle with you, because I'm struggling with it, too," he said.
He's leading some of those conversations — by accepting invitations to in-person and virtual events where race is discussed.
“My hope is to tell people in greater Minnesota and in North Dakota, it's okay to have the conversations, we will take you as you are and we know that we're on this journey together.”
At a rally in Fargo’s Island Park last month, Judd spoke to the largely white crowd about what it means to support racial justice.
"Listening with humility. Being able to listen and instead of making an excuse for why that person feels that way, maybe acknowledge the fact that they might know what they're talking about,” he said, to applause.
Judd urged white residents to be vulnerable. Strike up conversations with people of color, he said — particularly people you’ve seen, but haven’t met.
"Ask questions. Create those safe spaces within our community where you can say, ‘You know what, I'm going to ask you some questions because I want to learn. And please don't judge me by the questions I ask because I just don't know,’” he said.
“The person who is the receiver of the conversation also has to have the humility to say, ‘I give you permission to ask any question you want, and I will not judge you based on the nature of your question.’"
His hope is that those uncomfortable conversations can build relationships that lead to understanding and change.
“And then let's talk about the more tangible action, then let's talk about equity, diversity and inclusion, how do we start getting more and more diversity on our city councils, on our school board.”