Glen Gunderson

October 1, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the eighth in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

George Floyd’s murder in my hometown of Minneapolis once again shined the spotlight on the problems of race in our community. In the weeks that followed, calls for social justice have reverberated around the world. In my time at the Y, I have come to understand and recognize — on a far deeper level — my many privileges as a white man. But my self-reflection and education is constant, and I feel compelled to utilize this medium to interview equity leaders. These leaders have served as mentors, teammates and dear friends. Each has allowed me to see a different perspective on systemic racism through their lived experience. As I seek to understand, my hope is that these talks will help humanize the issues and, in some small way, help lead us toward efforts to make a better way for all.

My fifth guest is Chanda Smith Baker, the senior vice president of impact at the Minneapolis Foundation. With over two decades of experience working in, for and with underestimated communities, Chanda is a proud North Minneapolis native and resident.

Before coming to the Minneapolis Foundation, she worked 17 years at the Pillsbury United Communities in various leadership roles, including President and CEO from 2011 to 2017. Among her many endeavors, she relaunched North News and the opening of North Market, a full-service grocery store in North Minneapolis. She’s earned numerous awards, including Minnesota Business Magazines’ Real Power 50 (2018) and Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal Women in Business Honoree (2017).

A mother of five, Chanda is widely respected in our community and beyond. In Part 2 of our conversation (you can read part 1 here), we’ll focus on her experiences and insights around race in her professional life.

Glen: You powerfully shared your passion for North Minneapolis and your pain after the murder of George Floyd. How have your experiences influenced your work?


Chanda: I think about the Zora Neale Hurston quote, ‘There are years that ask questions and years that answer.’ We’re in this year of questioning. Like, ‘What is happening with 2020?’ I knew that there was racial tension. We are hearing that a lot more about race, racism and justice than what I have heard in any of my three years at the Minneapolis Foundation. The conversation on race has split open post George Floyd; people that maybe would have been hesitant to ask the question feel more comfortable asking questions about race, because it's so front and center.

And I think that work is different.

We're in a relationship business, but I’m observing conversation evolve from, ‘Where should I put my money?’ To, ‘Let’s talk about the issues,’ and that is amazing. It's moving beyond the surface. It's evolving our work, while we were already along a path of looking at our strategic direction. We were asking questions like, 'What type of learning do we need to do for us to truly be in this conversation in a credible way?’

It's challenging, right? There are people in our community that are raising questions about everything, especially our institutions. I’m in a foundation that was founded in 1915. That’s the year my grandma was born. So how do we stay relevant? How do we think about how we're in the work, how we've contributed, and how we can continue to contribute in ways that advance all of us?

I think that those conversations evolve us in our thinking more than it has, even though I think our work — especially with our grantmaking — has been very much about how do we look at racial inequities and disparities.

I lead a podcast, ‘Conversations with Chanda,’ and we encourage conversations that happen outside of the communities that we're comfortable with. It can’t just be me, at the end of the day, going to my Black women supporters and say, ‘Guess what I dealt with today? How about you?’ And they're like, ‘Yep, thanks,’ then we vent out, we power up and then we equip ourselves to go back into other spaces. That is well for me, as an individual, but it doesn't support moving community and institutions, unless we figure out how to do this.


Glen: That makes a lot of sense. In terms of the institutions, the Y is no different. We’re wrestling with the very same thing. We're trying to get very clear and overt about our desire to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive organization. And I thought we were further along, but as everything has unfolded, I realized we have as much work to do as any other organization. That seems ironic, right? Because here we are, focused on serving all of our neighbors and friends and families, yet we have a history of systems and challenges of a 175-year-old organization. So I would love your perspective on what the Y can do more effectively to do the right things and advance human dignity for all?


Chanda: In terms of language, I would say do what feels right for your organization. Think about what’s important and where you are trying to land more than being able to fully defend your positioning on your language. Having your definitions really clear, making sure that your team, your staff, your board, and your community knows what it is that you're trying to accomplish.

What I would be concerned about is, don't take a hold of the language of the moment. Make sure the language feels authentic because if it’s not, people won't believe. 


Glen: What would you like to see the Y doing or being, as it manifests its value to community?


Chanda: Let me back into that conversation a little bit. You started with the thought that the Y was further along, and I think that is the challenge of most of our institutions, that we believe in the aspiration and then we ignore the reality.

I am pretty much a believer that brown and Black staff across our institutions and businesses have been the canary. With police murdering brown and Black people, if it wasn’t on video, would we still be in a place where people wouldn't believe that? Think about how many conversations brown and Black staff have in institutions that go ignored, or they're seen as being interpersonal challenges. They're not aligned with what they're aspiring to do and how they're living it out every day in interactions.

Simply put, listening cannot be an external exercise. It has to be internal! There has to be a way because no matter what table you sit at, if the culture is not safe — if it's not psychologically safe and you’re worried about your job —you're only going to get a percentage of the truth.

As it relates to the Y, the Y is a place for family, right?  It's the place that I grew up in on the North Side, on Broadway. And it's a place where my oldest kids started tee-ball and in basketball clinics, and their gymnastics fundamentals. I think the Y is ahead of many facilities, in terms of accessibility. But, I also have experienced the Y trying to figure out what it needs to be on the North Side. I've experienced the schools trying to figure out what it needs to be for the North Side. I've experienced businesses trying to figure out what it needs to be for the North Side.

Oftentimes, we see the community by the disparity and not by the opportunity. There's so many people (in North Minneapolis) that drive out to amenities that could be right here. Like, let's test this, let's try this, let's do that.


Glen: Those are some great suggestions! What would you suggest to me, a middle-aged white dude, as a leader in these times?


Chanda: My answer would be consistent with how you should lead at all times. That is, being humble and listening to your team and your community to be successful. Understand the condition of now, but have an ability to envision a future. I think that as you get into who you are, as a white, middle-aged male leader, that there's a recognition of the pain and what that represents for many people. And, I believe it's important to unpack that feeling like a personal attack to a recognition of the historical context and the moment that we're sitting in. 

An ability to really listen will feed into your ability to create a safe culture in a safe space. You almost can't talk about the moment without talking about what has happened, and if you personalize it and you defend it, in any sort of way, or your feeling guilty about it.

It's an interesting leadership challenge, of both commanding and not knowing, right? And, it's not easy, at all! I mean, I have a completely different challenge of, ‘How can I raise issues around equity without being the angry Black woman who only cares about equity.’

So I have to balance it differently.


Glen: You mentioned being Black and a woman. How has that impacted you in your profession?


Chanda: One thing I will say is that, after becoming the CEO at Pillsbury United Communities, I experienced more overt racism than I ever had coming up through the organization. I was either minimized or underestimated and, in some cases, flat out spoken to in a way that was unbelievable. It was one of the hardest things for me to grapple with because I think that people broadly believe that as you move up, that goes away and it simply does not. 

I remember one of our key partners, and I brought a team member to the table, and the conversation would be directed to her. I would ask a question, and (the partner) would look at her — a younger, white woman — and respond. 

It would happen so routinely, that I would often stand up during meetings and stand behind my chair as a way to visually encourage them to interact with me, as the CEO of the organization.

Or someone would say, ‘I want to speak with the CEO.’ And I’d say, ‘I'm the CEO.’ And they're like, ‘Oh, so you're the CEO?’ It's like the little, not little things that, honestly, if I had to go and explain it to someone else, they would justify it. ‘Well, maybe they didn't mean that. Maybe it was because of whatever.’ And I would say, ‘I know what my experience is.’ 

That's the hardest thing, when you are taking that in all day, every day, and you're in a place that you are looking for support, but it's difficult to get support when you need it from someone who doesn't share that experience.

People will also ask me, ‘How did you make it out of North Minneapolis? You sound educated, you sound so articulate.’ I’m like, ‘Nope. I didn't make it out of the neighborhood. There's a lot of people like me. I'm not exceptional.’

I've had to learn how to pivot the assumptions. How do I pivot and correct assumptions and still not embarrass that person so much that I can no longer interact with them in an effective way? 

I've had conversations with my team and said, ‘Look, there's a different expectation and a different lens on Black leadership. And so, as a result of working for me, you have it too, right? You have to take on some burden, or additional responsibilities, or just different considerations that you wouldn't have to if I wasn't Black. And so you comparing why things aren't fair is not useful.’ 

So yes, I have to explain things differently. 

That’s why I don’t see change anytime soon. Because I think that many organizations are looking at how they're showing up externally. And what I care about the most is how are you showing up internally? You have people right here who you can learn from and grow from. Don't leapfrog them and think that somehow you're going to be able to legitimately go into the community and interface with people, when you're not honoring the diversity and the people in your organization. I think that when we figure that out within our institutions, we will be better stewards externally. It's when you internalize it, you have accountability, when you kind of reckon with your own self, you're ready to reckon with other things.


Glen: Chanda, thank you. Thank you very much for sharing your stories, experiences and wisdom. I learned so much, and I am grateful to you. All the best in your continued good works.


To learn more about Chanda Smith Baker, visit her bio by clicking here.