Marcus Owens

Marcus Owens

When I was a freshman in high school, I was among a group of kids from the Twin Cities area who participated in the Black Achievers program. We’d meet up at the YMCA in North Minneapolis, where adult advisors Makeda Zulu-Gillespie and the late Keith Davis mentored us.

During those long-ago sessions, they made sure we learned our history, became informed citizens, and shared our talents with the wider community. Makeda and Keith weren’t our parents. Neither was an aunt or an uncle. They were “The Village”—people who poured into us out of a sense of concern and responsibility.

The need for The Village has never felt more urgent. In the months following May 2021 when we awakened to the nightmare of George Floyd’s last moments captured on video, members of Sigma Pi Phi, the Black fraternity known locally as the Boulé, were able to cut through the fog of disbelief to take a stand for change. They looked beyond that horrific incident and peeled back the layers to reveal racial inequity and injustice that had led to that moment, as well as to other tragic outcomes in our area that never make the evening news.

For instance, in 2019 Minneapolis ranked high in standardized tests, but 50th in racial disparities among high school graduation rates.  Black families here had a median family income of about $38,000—less than half of white families’ median family income of about $85,000.

After the Boulé stepped up, it began to hear from a consortium of community, nonprofit, and business leaders that came from across racial lines. They asked what they could contribute to help heal our city. This alliance reached out to me as the head the African American Leadership Forum (AALF) to engage our team to lead the way. Through our partnership with the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity and Minnesota Business Partnership, this movement quickly attracted more than $4 million in seed funding, laying a foundation for the work.

In recent months, we’ve identified six key focus areas that could improve the quality of life for Black Minnesotans. They include public safety, housing, education, employment, economic opportunity and healthcare. The belief is that, as positive change takes hold within this community, transformation will radiate outward to everyone else, setting the stage for lasting change.

While this effort was initially launched as the Alliance of Alliances, we knew we needed a name that better signaled the intention of the movement. Working with a local company called The Brandlab, which mentors and gives opportunities to Black youth, we sought to choose a name that would hold greater meaning. Several didn’t quite work, but then we hit upon “United By Black,” and felt something stir within us.

At the same time, we wanted a name that expressed a theme of inclusion. The tagline “Powered by All” checked that box, and so we began to move forward under the new banner: United By Black, Powered By All.

In 2021, the effort to bring in The Village is called Black-Centered design. It’s a way of taking in information and aligning it with the people living the reality, whether they’re facing housing insecurity, educational achievement gaps, or attempting to scale the barriers to earn a living wage.

Even though the people we’ve invited to sit at the table represent different backgrounds and racial identities, some may question if this movement is too Black. Others may wonder if it’s Black enough. When people ask us if we expect to get push back as we center Blackness. Yes, we do. At the same time, we can’t act like race doesn’t exist or color doesn’t matter. Not if we’re to rectify the evils of yesteryear or generate workable solutions for the future.

United By Black, Powered By All is still in the first mile of what will be decade-long journey.  We’re taking the time to flesh out the six focus areas mentioned above, dig deep to understand the problems, seek out community-oriented solutions, and clarify what success will look like.

One of the flashpoints in the Black community continues to be interactions with police. We’ve housed that under the umbrella of public safety to deal with police and race relations along a broader spectrum. We want people to be safe in all the spaces they occupy, including their homes. For instance, if your family is having a crisis and you need an intervention, what is the decision tree as to where your phone call is routed and who responds, so that you get the help you need, which may not come from the police department.

There is a level of vulnerability to this process of building out United By Black, Powered By All. Understandably, Black people are slow to trust. As the Urban Institute sagely pointed out, "Throughout this country's history, the hallmarks of American democracy—opportunity, freedom and prosperity—have been largely reserved for white people through the intentional exclusion of people of color."

Often the thinking goes that if a solution works for whites, it’ll trickle down to everybody else, but that doesn’t take into consideration that communities have different needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach fails to meet people where they are.

Over the last several months, we’ve hired additional staff to lay a foundation for United By Black, Powered by All by and to build out our capacity. We’re planning a series of stakeholder meetings to ensure that we understand the need and avoid rushing in with a laundry list of assumptions.

Now we’re at a stage where we’re ready to invite partners and leaders who are willing to do things differently by centering the Black community in a way that instills a level of hope and determination. The process, methodology, and even the relationships we’re forming are fluid, growing and evolving.

The young Black Achievers that Makeda and Keith once mentored are all grown up now. We’ve become teachers, entrepreneurs, community leaders and more. The investment they made in us prepared us for this moment as we step forward to lead in this Village called Minneapolis. It reminds me of the African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Marcus Owens is Executive Director of the African American Leadership Forum, a cross-sector network of thought leaders, institutions, allies, systems and ambassadors. AALF houses United By Black, Powered By All in Minneapolis.

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