Barack Obama, nationally and internationally, and Keith Ellison, locally, nationally and internationally are quintessential “Black” leaders – Black leaders who have not forgotten where they came from. Black leaders who rely on the heritage of hundreds of thousands of Black folks that literally gave their lives, so that they would have the opportunity to lead our people and our nation. Literally hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Black folks worldwide look upon Barack Obama and Keith Ellison as their leaders. In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of Black folks proudly display Barack and Michelle Obama’s pictures on their mantel places and throughout their homes. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is known internationally in such faraway places as the Sudan and Saudi Arabia, as the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress; and, oh by the way, he is Black. While Obama and Ellison are, indeed, Black leaders, it just so happens that other ethnicities think quite highly of him as well.
Locally, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are rife with Black leaders who are getting big results. Eric Mahmoud, CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools, is Beating the Odds, by providing outstanding educational achievement for 1300 Black children every year. His organization also has more than 200 employees. Sondra Samuels, CEO or the Northside Achievement Zone, is providing positive economic, educational, and family outcomes for more than 700 families and over 1700 children. Chanda Smith-Baker, CEO of Pillsbury United Communities, heads an organization that serves 25,000 families annually, employs over 180 people, and manages an annual budget in excess of $8 million dollars.
At the state level, Senators Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion, Representative Rena Moran, Commissioner Toni Carter, are looked upon by Black folks as leaders. They represent thousands of people, Black, White, Red, Yellow and Brown alike in Minneapolis and St. Paul. All of them have been elected for multiple terms, because they are getting results for their constituents.
In the economic arena, Richard Copeland, Founder and Board Chair, and Ravi Norman, CEO, of Thor Construction, operate the largest Black owned company in Minnesota, and one of the largest Black-owned construction companies in the entire country, and they employ hundreds of people annually. Kim Nelson is Senior Vice President of External Affairs at General Mills, Inc., and Dr. Sylvia Bartley is Senior Global Marketing Manager for Medtronic, Inc. – both international corporations. Both are considered leaders in the Black community. Gary Cunningham, Metropolitan Council member, and CEO of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, provides business consulting and entrepreneurial development to Black and other minority owned businesses. In the philanthropic arena, Black leaders like Kim Price, Laysha Ward, Jacob Gayle, head major corporate foundations that fund major initiatives in the Twin Cities Black community.
In the judicial arena, Black judges like Michael Davis, Pamela Alexander, Tanya Bransford, James Clark, and Ed Wilson have provided more than 100 years of accumulated leadership on the bench. In the faith arena, Pastor Billy Russell serves as the head of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, while at the same time leading Friendship Academy for the Arts, a high performing K-8 public school. Rev. Jerry McAfee serves as the President of the Minneapolis Chapter of the NAACP, while pastoring New Salem Baptist Church. Pastor Paul Slack heads an organization called ISAIAH that is working to eliminate place-based and race-based health inequities to ensure all Minnesotans have an opportunity for good health, and to ensure that economic opportunities are evenly distributed.
This year, the African American Leadership Forum began the Josie R. Johnson Leadership Academy (JRJLA). Funded by the Bush Foundation and The Minneapolis Foundation, and named after the first Black regent of the University of Minnesota, the JRJLA is developing the next generation of leaders for the Black community. JRJLA Fellows include two PhD’s, three PhD candidates, five Master’s Degrees, two book authors, two community organizers, and a video producer. One Fellow was the first Black person in the 146 year history of Augsburg College to be student body president; and, also served as president of the Pan African Student Union. Also among these Fellows is a former gang leader, drug dealer and two-time felon, who is now in the final semester of his PhD. In the Black community we not only accept those who have followed the straight and narrow; but, those who have fallen off, but gotten back on the straight path.
But, all of these examples overshadow the fact that every day there are Black faith, business and philanthropic, government and political, and community leaders who are making a difference in the lives of the Black community. Perhaps the needle isn’t moving as fast or as much as we would like, but they’re out there trying.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the little girl and the star fish that goes something like this: Thousands of star fish had washed-up on the shore, with no chance for survival; when a little girl came upon them and started throwing them back into the sea one-by-one. When told by an on-looker that there was no way she could make a difference for all of them, she replied, “but at least I made a difference for the ones I threw back!” This is the work of Black leaders!