Glen Gunderson

October 8, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the ninth 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 sixth guest is Jenny Miller, the Y’s program executive working with youth justice, Enough program and foster care services. She has been with our team for over 15 years, doing some of the most challenging work imaginable. She focuses on young people in the foster care system, justice system and survivors of human trafficking. Sadly, those are all areas that have grown considerably in recent years.

She also lives very close to where George Floyd was murdered. I cannot express my gratitude enough for who Jenny is, and her commitment to the Y and young people in our community. I hope you appreciate Part 1 of my conversation with Jenny Miller.

Glen: Jenny, can you share about your background and how you came to the Y?


Jenny: I was born and raised here in Minnesota, and I have a unique story in that I was placed for adoption by my biological mother when she was 14 years old. In any adoption in Minnesota, the records are sealed. But I had won the lottery when it comes to family because my mother and father are incredible! They knew that they always wanted to have a family and they are an interracial couple that was told for their entire 47 years of marriage that it wouldn't work.

My mom came from a small town in southern Minnesota, all-white, Norwegian Lutheran. When she went to the big city, she fell in love with my dad and it was an issue, right? They tried to have children and, through some traumatic experiences, weren't able to have children biologically. And so they made the decision to adopt my older sister and, about five years later, myself. They were specific on what they wanted, a biracial girl, and so they waited for a while. 

I share that back story with you because three years ago, I was connected with my biological mother and it has shaped much of the work that I do. Meeting her was an unbelievable experience, and I could take this whole hour just telling you about that!

But she had three questions for me right away. First she asked, “Do you know that you're Black?” And I kinda laugh because, of course, I know that I'm Black. So I said, “Yes, my dad is Black,” and she gasped. And then she said, “Do you have two parents?” And I said, “Yes, they just celebrated their 47-year anniversary.” 

And she burst into tears.

She was saying, "Oh my God, I can't believe they listened to me!” Those were her requests of my life, when she was 14 years old. And this represented such a powerful sense of who she is and what she wanted for my life.

And all of that has influenced me in ways that I wasn't even aware of. I didn't learn about this information until three years ago, and it was just this beautiful, organic — and continues to be — experience. But one of the questions that I had for her was, what happened?

She shared about trauma that had happened in her life and that she's a survivor. And that's how I came to be. And at that time, I was also looking at the youth that we are serving in foster care and, and seeing so many of these youth have such overlap with survivors themselves. And I didn't know if what was driving me was something internal. 

That's how I came to create our Enough program, based on everything she shared with me. I just thought, “What if she had the Enough program at the Y when she was 14? What might her life have been like?” And that has been such a motivator for how and why I do the work that I do. 


Glen: That is incredible. Thank you for sharing. Can you tell us a little bit about the Enough program?


Jenny: It originated out of a pilot program with Safe Harbor Minnesota. What I was seeing in this field is that there are so many nonprofit and social services niches. You have homelessness services, you have outreach, you have foster care, you have juvenile justice and you see people speak and spend their whole lives dedicated to serving this population but not realizing that that's all one kid. That one child intersects with all of these systems and how can we frame it in a way that centers around that youth, to provide whatever support they might need or whatever intersections they might find themselves in?

Our young people need access to caring, supportive adults. And that relationship requires at least a year to really develop so that we can support this young person on his or her journey. But in so much of our work, there's restrictions and red tape because it's all grant-funded and it's so specific for funders. And you might have a very specific population that you can serve or a very specific way that you can get access to these youth. I'd had enough of that and I wanted to give young people power back by being able to self refer, and by them being able to say, “I want to be a part of this program,” or "I need help.”

We were able to create this model and young people can self refer, and we were able to push the age up to 24 years and under. Young people aren’t fully developed by the age of 18, and we need to extend services and support those going through barriers, and they feel so alone.

And I listened to my birth mom just speak about how alone she felt. After she placed me, she ran away and came to Minneapolis. And funny enough, we ended up both being in Brooklyn Center, about a mile away from where I lived, which is nuts. 

Young people who are in the juvenile justice system and in the foster care system have greater risks of being targets for people to take advantage of them. And they have greater barriers to access adults who can love them unconditionally and can provide them those skills as they grow and develop. And what we see time and time again is that females or female identified youth that are in the juvenile justice system are in there for low-level offenses or for offenses only because of their age. So if you and I didn't show up for work today, we might lose our job, but it wouldn't impact our stability. And these girls, if they don't show up for school, or if they're running away because of a traumatic experience, they're being arrested, and then they're getting further charges and the vulnerabilities that are impacting their lives significantly increase, It's setting up a pipeline to prison, and we have to disrupt that. We can't wait to serve them when they get out.


Glen: You live in South Minneapolis. How did the murder of George Floyd make you feel and what went through your mind? 


Jenny: That was an exciting time for my family. My sister had moved back from New York, and we bought a duplex together. We live less than a mile away (from where George Floyd was murdered).

I remember that my sister called me the next day and said, “You have five minutes to pack your bag. We’re going to mom and dad’s.”

If you remember, we were just getting into a shelter-in-place with the coronavirus, and we had been distancing from our parents because they’re a little older, and I'm trying to just be safe. But I made the choice to come back to our house and be here. 

But it was just loud. It was so loud. There were constant helicopters, constant booms, like fireworks, and it just felt like you were in a battlefield.

And I had this, this juxtaposition of like, “I'm scared, and do I need to get out of here? What do I do?” I remember one night looking out the window randomly of my bedroom and seeing hundreds of people walking down my street, all in black clothing with vehicles that were quietly rolling down. And it was so terrifying. And I thought, “Do I run out and join them? Or hide?” I grabbed some tools around the house, just in case, to protect us. And that is such a weird feeling that I never thought I would be experiencing.

Then things got quieter, and you started to see these images everywhere. “Black Lives Matter,” and “Justice for George.” 

It was so beautiful, and I wish that my community could just always look like that, that it didn't take the murder of one of our community members to lead us to unite like that. 

We live in Powderhorn Park (in Minneapolis), and we would get together — hundreds of us — to talk about how we support one another and protect our community, and ensure our young people can go to bed at night and feel safe. 

I had a good friend that I went to college with, who is white. She said she wanted to go to the site together, and we had this conversation that she’d never had before. 

We talked about privilege, and white privilege, the privilege to not wear Black skin every single day and worry about what that means for you. And then it led to her being so angry about our education system and that she feels like she's stuck learning about history and how that has contributed to her silence and prejudices. And it was a cathartic moment because after many years of going to college together and being close, I was like, “This is what I've been trying to talk about for so long!” 


Glen: I’m going to shift to our goals at the Y around anti-racism. What does that mean to you? How far do we have to go?


Jenny: Well, that is a complex question. We have a long ways to go, and I say that not from a deficit base, but from a place of hope. There's a lot of pain in what I have experienced that leads me to say this is a very complex question. There are so many systems that are set up internally in our organization that are preventing us from being an anti-racist organization. What I mean by that is just a couple of weeks ago, I attended a senior leadership meeting where I got to share with you about one of the partners that we are really struggling with. One of these partners said to me, “When I see Black people, I go to the other side of the street. It just is what it is. I am racist.”

We brought all of these concerns all the way up in the department, and it was met with, “Oh, you heard it wrong. Can we take you out to lunch to explain it to you?” Then retaliatory behavior that's followed. Everything turned into we were the problem.

And it took a month for me to get the organization to make the decision to walk away from this partnership because I'm being asked how much money this program brings in. What I'm feeling on the inside is, what number do I say that would make somebody say, “Okay, no, we can't walk away from this partnership…” 

It is that experience that people of color are constantly navigating and it can feel defeating. It can feel isolating. It can feel like, “Am I crazy? Because how am I putting margin over mission? How am I putting a profit over people? And why is this so difficult to get this moving forward in an organization that is claiming they want to be an anti-racist organization?” 

And that's where it's hard. Because what you’re saying is great. But what’s happening behind the scenes does not match what you are communicating. And so there's a part of me that is over the moon excited to go on this journey with you with the equity advisory council. And then there's an apprehensive side of me that says, “Is this going to be at my expense? Is this going to move anything forward?”


We will publish Part 2 of our conversation with Jenny Miller next week. To learn more about Jenny’s programs, please click here.