Black leaders launch effort to close Minnesota's racial disparities

A crowd of people kneel in the street.
Demonstrators kneel seconds during the Black 4th march throughout downtown Minneapolis on July 4, 2020. Thousands of people took part in the mostly silent march to call attention to racial inequities. Leaders in Minnesota’s Black community are launching a new effort to address disparities.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

More than 80 organizations in Minnesota’s Black community announced a new effort Wednesday to address racial inequities that have defied repeated efforts to repair. 

Black Minnesotans and other people of color have lagged the majority white population in areas including educational achievement, employment and income, health care, housing and public safety. In many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has made problems worse. 

That’s why a new approach is needed, said Marcus Owens, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum. The new initiative, with the working title of the Alliance of Alliances, will rely on a strategy called Black-Centered Design, which ensures that solutions for the Black community are created by the Black community, Owens said.

“We want to focus on the assets of the community and harness those assets to solve the problem,” said Owens. “So, to do that we start with the experience. We talk to the community and listen to them.”

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Person holding a sign that reads "Justice for George Floyd."
Patrick "Paccmane" Williams holds up a fist as he attends the Black 4th march with his children Ava and Jovan on July 4, 2020.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Owens has been working with other leaders to outline an approach for addressing equity in several subject areas over the next 10 years. The alliance has already raised more than $3 million from the private sector toward a $4 million goal to get the project off the ground.

Owens said he also wants state lawmakers and other public officials to get involved.

“Local, state and federal are going to have to play a major role in being a part of the alliance, in the work of the alliance. This just can’t just be done through philanthropy or through the business community,” Owens said. “But we do need our legislators to remove the barriers and also create a pathway for investment.” 

Dozens of bills introduced at the Minnesota Legislature this year are trying to address various aspects of racial inequities. There's even a massive spending proposal in the House aimed at ending systemic racism.

"This is the bitter fruit of 400 years of systemic and institutionalized racism,” said Ken Charles, of the African American professionals’ fraternal organization Omicron Boulé, of the issues facing the group.

Person holds a sign saying "All lives can't matter until black lives do"
Lin Rose marches with her daughter Nikki Rose on June 19, 2020, at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, Minn., during the Northern March for George Floyd and to celebrate Juneteenth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2020

What is new, Charles said, is that people are now more willing to get involved and address the problems after George Floyd was killed last year.

“The killing of George Floyd was a call to action,” Charles said. “It’s something that none of us will ever forget. It’s a call to us to take personal responsibility for making sure that there’s sustainable change in our community so this never happens again.”

The group of community-problem-solvers known as the Itasca Project, and the regional economic development entity known as Greater MSP are also partnering organizations in the initiative.

The alliance plans to make regular reports in the coming months and years on its progress toward meeting equity goals. They say the effort will need more financial support — but that now is the time to think big. 

Peter Frosch, CEO of Greater MSP, said the persistence of the disparities shows that Minnesota has a problem in advancing racial equity and that a shift is needed from managing disparities to investments in equity to make real change.

“Approaching the work in a fundamentally different way in order to have different actions at a different scale with different people, so we actually get a different result,” Frosch said. 

Editor's note (March 24, 2021): MPR President Duchesne Drew is a board member of the African American Leadership Forum. This story has also been updated to clarify the number of organizations involved the effort.