Can the new ‘Black agenda’ move the community forward?
By Charles Hallman
There was nothing new revealed last week during the Council on Black Minnesotans (COBM) Lobby Day at the State Capitol presenting their Black agenda to this year’s Minnesota Legislature. Billed as “Black Minnesotans Helping Move Minnesota Forward,” around 50 people listened on March 19 at the Capitol Rotunda to over 20 scheduled speakers before many of them visited legislators’ offices.
“The last two years there was a collective group that sat on this African American lobby day, and this place was filled,” noted Rev. Jerry McAfee, who added that the COBM “didn’t reach out to anybody else. If this is about Black Minnesotans, why are you leaving Black folk out?”
Although McAfee didn’t blame the council’s new executive director, Edward McDonald, for the seemingly solo effort in planning last week’s event, the longtime pastor nonetheless added, “Some of the people around him on the council knew about it, and they should’ve said, ‘We will be stronger if we put everybody in together.’”
McDonald was hired and assumed the COBM executive duties last October.
“Whether we like them [organizations that represent Blacks] or don’t like them, every African American group should have been a part of this, and there should have been meetings prior to this so that there could [be] one agenda. But that did not take place,” said McAfee.
“We can either continue to complain about what didn’t happen and what’s not going to happen, or we can put ourselves in a position to make a difference,” responded Mary Anderson, who disagreed with McAfee in her defense of the event. “I would say that the council has been doing a lot of things over the summer…and the invitation was put out there. I know that there has been some transitioning on the council.”
“There have been things in the past that the council has not been doing — not coming together as a board and not engaging with the community,” said COBM Board Chair Patwin Lawrence to the MSR during the event. “But all that has changed under my leadership.”
Lawrence earlier told the sparse crowd that after his group held a “listening tour” last summer in several Minnesota cities, five general themes were compiled: human rights and civil rights, fair housing, employment, health and education disparities. This will be the “Black agenda” presented to this year’s state legislature, he noted.
“The [DFL-controlled] legislature really don’t need to pay any attention [to Minnesota Blacks], and the reason they don’t need to pay any attention is because we give them our vote without any demands,” argued McAfee, who added that state lawmakers “take care of everyone else’s needs but ours. What are they doing for African Americans? Not a damn thing, because we are not in their minds and hearts. We give them our votes without asking for anything.”
Before and during last week’s COBM event, the MSR asked several Blacks if they feel it is time for new voices and perhaps a new message as well from Black Minnesotans.
St. Paul Deputy Human Rights Director Readus Fletcher answered, “I don’t know if it is the same voices, [but] the message is the same.”
“We as African Americans and as Black Minnesotans need to establish a new agenda,” believes Rev. Billy Russell, pastor of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. “I think it is time for new voices to be heard.”
“We have a new minority population here in Minnesota that is growing — a larger growing Somali population, and a large growing Hmong and Latino population, and a large growing Black population that doesn’t look the same as it did before,” said James Burroughs, Minneapolis Public Schools diversity and equity director.
“We always need more voices,” believes Minneapolis School Board Member Kim Ellison. “We can’t keep saying the same thing. We don’t need to talk about what the problems are. We know what the problems are. We studied it, and we know what the solutions are. We need to start moving forward.”
“I took off time to come [to Lobby Day],” said Tonya Draughn of St. Paul’s L.I.F.T. to End Poverty. “I am more interested in how we promote ourselves and getting us better so that we can deliver for our younger generation.” She added that any discussion on issues that concern state Blacks “must be up-to-date and make sure it stays fresh in [the legislators’] heads.”
Mrs. LaVenva Vann and a group of Blacks from Duluth “came to speak to our legislators about education,” adding that the issues that confront state Blacks aren’t being fully addressed by the lawmakers.
“I think while it is the same old song sung by some of the same old people,” observed Zion Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Brian Herron, “this is important, but the problem is [that] it can’t be a one-time thing and it just can’t be speeches.”
McAfee said Black Minnesotans must hold DFLers more accountable. “If we don’t hold them accountable, it’s going to get worse,” he predicted. “We have allowed the DFL to come into our community, and at worst [they] splintered it. We have the haves and the have-nots.
“They talk about the GOP, and they are not much of an option, but the DFL is dogging us out. What’s the plan that the DFL has for us? Absolutely nothing.
“We need voices — period,” McAfee argued. “We are the only community I know that thinks we need [something] new and something was wrong with the old. You need the new, the old, and the in-between to join together. You use all voices that have integrity and can fight for the rights of our people.”
African Development Center Director Hussein Samatar told the MSR as he left the Capitol that Black Minnesotans, especially with a DFL majority in both legislative houses and a DFL governor, must demand more from state lawmakers. “The question is now how specific you can get to move the agenda of the community,” he stated, “especially when there are documented disparities.”
“I do believe that we have to continue to breathe new life into the message,” said Herron,” and bring up new folk who are creative — maybe sometimes younger — who have some great ideas. There have to be action behind the words.”
“It’s not just about the council, or even about the legislature, but it’s about individual community members taking action,” said Lawrence.
“I just wanted to come and support this effort, and any effort where our community is standing up and saying, ‘We are not going to be ignored anymore,’” said Herron. “I plan to be back here on April 4 with ISAIAH (a faith-based nonprofit organization working towards racial and economic equity). At that time, we will be meeting with legislators. The disparities are too great across the board in our community, and we can’t sit back and keep allowing that to happen.”
See the reporter’s notebooks with additional information and analysis on this story at the MSR website, www.spokesman-recorder.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]