The African American Leadership Forum members work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to develop a common agenda that creates a more equitable, healthy and just community.
And it all began around AALF Co-Chair Gary Cunningham’s dining room table.
Cunningham, a 1991 Bush Leadership Fellow, and a group of friends including trial attorney Jeffrey Hassan and 2005 Bush Leadership Fellow Repa Mekha, organized informal meetings at Cunningham’s home in 2007.
“[We] started asking the question, ‘What are we as African Americans going to do to actually address some of the deep problems within our community?’” explains Cunningham, CEO of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, a group that offers assistance to businesses owned and managed by entrepreneurs of color.
Problems for black Minnesotans include some of the biggest educational, employment and health disparities in the nation. Efforts to address these challenges were historically driven by white-led organizations and institutions. As a result, their approaches were largely ineffective.
“So often others with good intentions are crafting solutions for what needs to happen, and we actually don’t have an in-common agenda within the African American community,” explains Cunningham. Before it could build a cohesive agenda, AALF needed to build connections among black leaders from all backgrounds.
“There are African Americans now in all these positions of power, but we didn’t have deeper relationships to talk about how we can be helpful to each other and to be helpful to the African American community,” says Cunningham.
Jeffrey Hassan, who grew up in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood and now serves as AALF’s executive director, says the lack of relationships can be partially attributed to how scattered the black population became in the mid-20th century. As desegregation took hold in the 1960s and ’70s, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area witnessed a mass exodus of African Americans from historically black communities — including Hassan’s own Rondo neighborhood — to suburbia. Additionally, many black families moved into neighborhoods and communities that were previously considered out of bounds. These factors diluted the chances for creating any type of cohesive community agenda.
As AALF gained momentum, its all-male membership recognized that an important voice was missing — that of black women. Cunningham hired Yvonne Cheek, president of Minneapolis-based Millennium Consulting Group, to host gatherings for black female leaders in the Twin Cities. The group then developed an agenda similar to that of Cunningham’s.
“There was this feeling amongst the group of women that there was a change happening in the United States, and that the African American community had to prepare for that change,” says AALF Founding Co-Chair Trista Harris. The year was 2008, when the United States was on the cusp of electing its first African American president.
That year, the two groups merged to become a cross-sector collective of about 45 prominent men and women. By that time, AALF had already grown out of Cunningham’s home and into the Northwest Area Foundation, where he was serving as vice president and chief program officer. At last there existed an entry point to develop a common agenda that actively addresses the range of disparities in the Twin Cities — exactly what Cunningham says had been missing in the African American community.
“We have to change the opportunity structure so that everybody, no matter their race, has access to opportunity: jobs, home ownership, health — the basic things that people need in order to feel like they can participate as full citizens in our community,” says Cunningham.
Now hundreds of members strong, AALF harnesses the collective power of the African American community to solve complex social problems. Since it began, more than a dozen Bush Fellows have played key roles in its development.
The Achievement Gap
Obtaining a quality education is one of the biggest challenges facing the African American community in Minnesota, particularly in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
Although Minnesota’s white students possess some of the best test scores and graduation rates in the nation, its black students underperform on standardized tests, most notably in reading and math. In addition to low test scores, federal data over the course of 2012 and 2013 shows that Minnesota had the lowest graduation rate for black students in the nation at 58 percent — a trend that has held steady over the past few years.
For 2015 Bush Fellow Eric Mahmoud, north Minneapolis is ground zero for the educational challenges that face the black community. As President and CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools, as well as a member of AALF’s Education Work Group, Mahmoud is in the heart of these challenges day in and day out.
Now a collective of three public charter schools aimed at changing the educational landscape of north Minneapolis, Harvest Network has been under Mahmoud’s direction for the past 30 years. Together, Harvest Preparatory School, Best Academy and The Mastery School serve about 1,300 predominantly African American students, 93 percent of whom live in poverty.
Mahmoud believes if Harvest Network can make a difference in north Minneapolis, it can make a difference anywhere. In fact, Harvest Network students consistently exceed district and state averages in reading and math.
In 2013, the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color named Best Academy one of the five best schools in America. Since 2011 the Star Tribune has annually named at least one of Mahmoud’s three schools a “Beating the Odds” school, an accolade awarded to those schools with test scores exceeding state averages despite a high student population that live in poverty.
Harvest Network schools strive to close what Mahmoud calls the Five Gaps: time, leadership, teaching, preparation and most importantly, belief. “If students don’t believe in their capacity to be successful, and, equally important, if the adults working with the students don’t believe in their capacity, it’s just not going to work at all,” Mahmoud explains. “It has to be the adults believing that regardless of zip code, regardless of economic status, regardless of where students were born or the color of their skin, they have the capacity to be successful academically.”
Hassan and the AALF Education Work Group used Mahmoud’s theory and educational model in 2011 as the outline for “Crisis in our Community: Closing the Five Education Gaps.” The report draws on research from the University of Minnesota, Wilder Research and other institutions that identify the largest chasms between white and black student success.
“A Crisis in our Community” provides recommendations for closing the academic gaps in Minnesota that contribute to some of the nation’s lowest achievement rates. The AALF Education Work Group is in the process of updating the report, compiling additional research data and evidence to identify best academic practices that are making a difference across the state.
Sylvia Bartley, current AALF co-chair and a 2014 Bush Fellow, plays a large part in this effort. Bartley has held various leadership positions on AALF’s Education Work Group and is on the Board of Directors at the Harvest Network of Schools. In 2012 she was involved in Gap Closed, an AALF-sponsored symposium for Minnesota educators. It quickly filled to capacity, forcing hopeful participants onto waiting lists — signaling a sincere desire for attacking the issue head on.
AALF’S sights are now set on closing the Minnesota achievement gap by 2020, a bold objective according to Bartley.
Building Economies That Thrive
Hassan says a primary focus for AALF this year will be on the Economic Development Work Group. It aims to address pressing issues around job creation, business and home ownership, poverty rates and more.
Between 2013 and 2014, African Americans in Minnesota experienced an alarming 14 percent decrease in median income. At barely $27,000 a year, black Minnesotans earned a median salary that was less than half of white Minnesotans — adding more urgency to the Economic Development Work Group’s agenda.
The state’s African American poverty rate jumped from 33 to 38 percent in the same timeframe, and Minnesota now has the lowest rate — 25 percent — of black home ownership in the nation. Furthermore, out of 20,000 jobs in north Minneapolis, only 1,100 are held by the community’s residents.
The disparities are so significant that Minnesota ranks 51st in the nation for overall financial equality between minorities and whites — dead last after every state and the District of Columbia.
In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which include Minneapolis and Saint Paul respectively, African Americans account for 12 percent of the population. That number, however, is not reflected in the job market nor in philanthropic giving.
Hassan explains that in 2016 the forum will actively engage leaders in the public, private and philanthropic sectors in conversations that will shed light on African Americans’ underrepresentation, prioritizing the issue across all segments of the state’s economy.
Rena Moran, Minnesota House Representative and a 2013 Bush Fellow, brings an elected official’s perspective to AALF’s Board of Directors. As the only African American legislator in a body of 134, Moran recognizes the significance of her role.
“Everything is political,” she says. “We need to have a position that comes from the community about what is needed for black families. It’s that much more important for me to be attached to a community where I can bring that perspective to the House and introduce other legislators to them; that really helps expand the body’s knowledge and relationships.”
In September 2015, Moran and 13 AALF members met with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., networking with state representatives and furthering their initiative called Crafting a United Urban Agenda. That agenda, established at AALF’s February 2015 annual forum, encompasses all of AALF’s priorities within their various work groups. Crafting a United Urban Agenda is the ongoing big-picture view that intersects each sector with all the issues AALF hopes to conquer.
The Health and Wellness Quest
Over the next few years, AALF and its Health and Wellness Work Group will work to address physical and mental health issues in the black community. Rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, mortality and hypertension are much higher for African Americans, often attributed to a lack of access to health education and other resources.
AALF intends to promote healthy lifestyle choices and preventive health care measures through signature events such as Baraza: A Black Woman’s Gathering, which started in 2012. The annual conference has seen enormous growth, notes Bartley. “Black women experience the worst health disparities of all, from hypertension to obesity and more,” she explains. Hundreds of black women have experienced Baraza each year, attending workshops that focus on topics from healthier cooking techniques to exploring spirituality.
“A lot of times the African American Leadership Forum has been identified with and largely deals with professional people,” explains Executive Director Hassan. “In the case of Baraza, it crossed the economic spectrum, which is what we’re trying to do.”
In addition to events like Baraza, AALF plans to organize community surveys about culturally sensitive, trauma-informed mental health care and menthol tobacco prevention. Members of the Health and Wellness Work Group believe that healthy communities mean thriving communities. And that, according to Hassan, begins with educating people and providing them with the proper resources.
AALF’s mission has inspired other minority communities in the Twin Cities to launch their own leadership groups, and has also spread to African American communities in the Pacific Northwest and Iowa.
“We all, regardless of our race, want to see our kids do well,” explains Cunningham. “We want to have a society that works well for everyone equally, and we want to have better outcomes to create a sustainable future for ourselves and our future generations.”
AALF now serves as a central place that allows both native-born black Minnesotans as well as transplants to tap into a vital network. Tawanna Black, a 2014 Bush Fellow studying transformational leadership and pathways to civic engagement, is newer to the Twin Cities.
Black relocated to the Twin Cities in 2013 when she accepted the role of executive director of the Northside Funders Group, a collective of foundations tasked with improving the quality of life in north Minneapolis — a primarily black community that faces some of the state’s lowest academic achievement rates and most distressing workforce numbers. Black explains that there are many African Americans, including those living and working outside north Minneapolis, who have major potential to reverse such inequities.
“There are folks who sit in very influential leadership positions within companies, who may run their own businesses, who are influential in community-based and government organizations, [whose] talent and certainly their philanthropy is not fully deployed in our community,” explains Black, who represents Minnesota Blacks in Philanthropy on AALF’s Board of Directors.
AALF’s work to connect and channel the collective influence of Minnesota’s black community will have a far reaching impact on the region.
“It’s not about any one of us individually, but what we can do together,” says Black. “One plus one plus one doesn’t have to equal three. It could equal 10 if we fully leverage all of our assets.”
My Fellowship Experience
Mary K. Boyd
Where do you see AALF five to 10 years from now?
“There’s a really important place for millennials as part of that conversation, and I hope to see the Forum continue to grow and to bring those voices into the mix because those are our leaders now, and they’re our leaders in the future.”
–Trista Harris (BF’15)
“I hope to see AALF at the tip of the spear, providing leadership both in the African American community and the broader community. Since African Americans are part of a community, if you solve the problem in one part of the community, you actually solve the problem for the community in general.”
–Eric Mahmoud (BF’15)
“AALF’s work is not about programs; it’s a movement. A reclaiming. In 10 years, I’d like to see AALF as a natural way of people operating in the community.”
–Repa Mekha (BF’05)
“Minnesota could really be a leader in the nation. I really believe it, but Minnesota has got to stop hiding from the truth.”
–Mary K. Boyd (BF’86)
“I think five years from now you’ll be able to make connections on how the Twin Cities and Minnesota African American community will be improving and the role directly or indirectly that AALF and its leaders have played.”
–Daniel Bergin (BF’01)