By Vickie Evans-Nash
Former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, as featured keynote speaker at last Thursday’s 2012 Minneapolis Urban League Gala “Picking up the Torch,” offered an example of how a public project in Atlanta — not unlike Minneapolis’ new Vikings stadium — invested heavily in an economically depressed community and served as a catalyst to turn it around. The implication was clear: What was done in Atlanta could be replicated here.
Scott Gray, MUL’s president and CEO, pointed out during the May 31 event at the Minneapolis Convention Center that 2011 was not an easy year for the organization, now in its 87th year of serving the community. It dealt not only with the Northside tornado, but also a state shutdown and a lingering recession that affected funding and gave the organization reason to scale back on services, which they were fortunately able to avoid.
Yet, “Last year [we placed] 200 job seekers in living-wage jobs… We served over 1,000 people impacted by the tornado, we helped 67 families avoid foreclosure and saved their homes, and we nearly served 3,000 folks that came through the Urban League to get free tax help with our partnership with Accountability Minnesota,” Gray reported during the event.
Saying the social services net is getting too heavy for the community to support, Gray presented an Urban League vision that focused on giving a hand up rather than a handout. He proposed an Urban League that offers vocational-technical training, a place where people looking for jobs can connect with small businesses owned by people of color wanting to expand their business within the community.
“We will work to create this social enterprise academy that I’m talking about — that’s our high school. And we will look to create a social enterprise center.”
Josie Johnson, who introduced Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, member of Congress and U.N. ambassador, disclosed that Young has a personal connection with her family. Johnson’s daughter, Noreen Duffy, was a member of Young’s administrative team during the year that the Olympics were held in Atlanta. Young, also a minister, later married Duffy and her husband.
Young opened his speech by saying, “When the lady sang ‘Lift every voice and sing, ’til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty,’ it suddenly hit me — we ain’t got none,” referring to Edith Prowell-Jackson singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ earlier in the program.
“There are no harmonies to our liberty now,” young said. Although he believes people in the U.S. currently want the same things, our perspectives on how to realize those wants are in opposition.
“This is a community and this is a state that I always look to for helping to create harmony in our democracy… I’ve always felt close to this community and this state.” He said that both former Minneapolis mayor and congressperson Don Fraser and former St. Paul mayor George Latimer were role models for his political career.
Young then described a mid-1980s plan by the Music Corporation of American (MCA) to build an amphitheater in Atlanta. There was a space available on the city’s south side, but no one believed that people would come to an amphitheater there, in a predominantly Black, poor community with the city’s lowest educational levels and highest crime rates.
The contractor secured the project on the condition of using the surrounding community as part of its workforce, not only for the amphitheater’s construction, but for future projects as well. The leading contracting firms owned by people of color responded by creating a jobs training program for community members.
“We went out in the community and we found everybody that had a little military service or had been a boy scout, and we organized them into a security force [for the site],” Young explained. “We joint-ventured them with a national security company that gave them uniforms and training, but it was their company. [The workers] owned 51 percent of the company.”
Under a master concession stand that provided training, uniforms and supplies, unemployed mothers who had been receiving welfare didn’t just work the stands — they were 51 percent owners of the stands. And while a group of elderly men in the community became 51 percent owners and operators of the parking facility, younger members of the community became part owners of stands that sold T-shirts and memorabilia of acts that came to perform.
“Now, this is the middle of a poor Black community in the middle of the 1980s, still operating. MCA from California, constructing amphitheaters all across America, [said] that this was the safest, most secure project that they’d every worked with.”
Young and his administrative team spoke with the Olympic committee presenting the same type of approach: “There were 72 countries that had representation on the Olympic committee, and we found somebody in our city that was doing work with [or] who had come from 70 of those countries.”
Though they were also competing with Minneapolis, which Young says was better prepared, “We took advantage of our diversity,” asking that 40 percent of the project be done by female- and person-of-color-owned companies.
Earlier that day, Young had visited North High School and met a group of students that he said resembled “a little United Nations.” When asked where their grandparents were from, he found that over the past three generations their collective families represented approximately 150 countries, and almost half of them spoke more than one language.
“So you are talking about Minneapolis representing a diversity of cultures that’s going to give you a competitive edge in the world that we are going to have to succeed in and lead in the years and days to come,” Young said.
He suggested the audience read The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton, chairman of Gallup research, in which Gallup does research of countries around the world. According to their research, “The problems of the world no longer are democracy,” Young said. “No longer do people say that they are interested in peace or the environment. The only thing that shows up in Gallops polling of 150 countries is jobs…
“You have to find a way to expand the economic opportunity on the globe… So what you’re doing here with the Urban League…is part of the business model that you will need to survive in the future. And if we don’t train some of those kids that I saw today, my Social Security ain’t gon’ be worth a damn…
“Those are the people that are going to have to keep the economy going to make all of these long-term investments that have driven America since the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. They all required a constant infusion of energy, vitality and brain power, not from the top down but from the bottom up.
“America is about harmonizing our liberties. We’ve got to find in our time a way to make democracy and free enterprise produce for poor people like it has produced for the rich and most of the middle class.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader response to [email protected]