Dr. Sylvia Bartley

Dr. Sylvia Bartley 

Minnesota is known for many things. Good living, a good education system, the weather and home of iconic musicians like Prince.

For some in the Black community the Twin Cities is known as the “Tale of Two Cities.” Did you know Minneapolis/St Paul was ranked by 24/7 Wall St. as the fourth-worst city in the country for Black Americans to live in 2019? And for four consecutive years prior, was ranked the second-worst city in the country for black Americans to live? This ranking is based on the racial disparities gap between white and Black Americans for social factors like homeownership, median household income, education attainment, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and poverty. These are considered social determinants of health that are used to predict health outcomes. Your life expectancy can be estimated based on your zip code. If you live in a third-ring suburb like Edina, your life expectancy is eight years longer than if you live in North Minneapolis.

Why is that?

Edina is rich with resources and amenities that determine a good lifestyle and health. North Minneapolis and other inner cities are not. Unfortunately, some learn about the negative statistics about North Minneapolis and other inner cities and believe this is a permanent socio-economic condition for those residents. Some people experiencing hardship in such cities believe their circumstances, due to no fault of their own, will determine their fate. They believe the hype, suck up the statistics and have little or no hope in a bright future.

Every time I hear this narrative or read another negative statistic about Black communities it brings me back to my early adult years when I was a research technician in a medical school in London; my first full-time job. I was one of two Black people in the department of physiology. We both had a working-class background. Most of the academics I worked for had a private education and were white middle class. During my 13-year tenure at the medical school, I developed strong working relationships with my supervisors and other academics. We became familiar with each other’s lifestyles and differences. It was during this time that I got married, divorced, had my two children and struggled to make ends meet as a single parent on a low but steady income. I’ll never forget one of my supervisors who I worked hard to develop a respectful working relationship with (let’s call him Matthew for the sake of this article) considered me to be working class, disadvantaged and uneducated. Matthew felt this was my fate and wanted me to remain in this position for as long as I was working for him. He tried to push my buttons one day with his negative attitude towards me and then the next day he would exhibit kindness by teaching me basic principles of neurophysiology. I never understood this dichotomy. Matthew was an exceptionally smart, gifted and well-respected academic. I was in awe of his high level of intelligence. I worked hard to gain his respect, yet he messed with my head feeding me a negative narrative about myself, which I quietly fought and refused to believe. Conversely, another supervisor, my professor, saw potential in me and my thirst to learn. He encouraged me to do my Ph.D. in neurophysiology. I thought he was crazy because I too believed the narrative, I was frequently fed. I asked Matthew for advice despite the way he treated me. He advised me not to register for a Ph.D. simply because he wanted me to remain “his technician.” At that moment something inside of me stirred, causing me to straighten my back. From that moment on I stopped listening to him. I stopped believing the hype, the negative statistics, the narrative about single parents being the bane of society. From that moment on I started my journey of creating my narrative. If my professor believed in my ability, then I had to start doing the same. I created a long-term sustainable plan for my path out of scarcity to one of abundance. I began daydreaming about my graduation. I saw the smiles on my children's faces as they ran around the auditorium. The proud look on my mother's face as her smile beamed from ear to ear; how elated I would feel when the flat cap was placed on my head as I searched the crowd for my family. I felt it, smelled it to the point I believed it was not only possible but inevitable. I was determined no-one was going to write my narrative based on their prejudices or desire to keep me in my place. This was a major driving force during the four years it took me to complete my Ph.D. in neurophysiology part-time while working full time and raising my children single-handedly.

Looking back, I was not aware of visualization techniques. I instinctively practiced them. And I’m always amazed at the power created when opportunity meets self-belief, potential, and an open mind. The same applies to Minnesota. What do you think is possible if everyone turned a blind eye to the statistics, stopped believing the hype and started to believe in uninvested cities, providing opportunities and investments similar to Edina? Imagine the ripple effect created if everyone believed in their potential and took control of their power despite their circumstances. I, like many others, see a lot of potential in North Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Cedar-Riverside. These are hotbeds of untapped talent, creativity and areas full of possibilities. I’m encouraged by the emergence of young gifted Black talent e.g. entrepreneurs and residents running for and/or in public office. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, St. Paul Public School Board Member Chauntyll Allen, Anika Bowie, and Minneapolis City Councilman Jerimiah Ellison to name a few, are committed to the journey of changing the narrative for residents in the Twin Cities. They and many others believe in what’s possible. By doing so they’re creating a different more positive narrative for the cities they serve that will change the trajectory of people’s lives for the better.

As the year draws to a close and we embark upon a new decade, if you’re not already doing so, why not start empowering your future by creating your narrative and visualizing what’s possible? Once you know where you want to be and see it happening, no one person or statistic will have the power to distract you from your path and glory. I’m so grateful I defied the statistics, stopped believing the hype and co-created with the universe a narrative that was more aligned with my path and purpose. I wish the same and much more for you in 2020 and beyond.

Dr. Sylvia Bartley, a senior global director for the Medtronic Foundation, is well known for her community work in the Twin Cities and her voice on KMOJ radio. She was recently listed in Great Britain’s Powerlist 2020, of the top 100 most influential Black people in the U.K. The Powerlist included The Duchess of Sussex, Megan Markel, and actor Idris Elba. She was also named as one of Pollen Minnesota’s 2019 50 over 50.

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