Glen Gunderson

September 23, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 52nd in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.

As we pass the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.

My 24th guest is Sondra Samuels, the president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a collaborative of over 30 partner nonprofits and schools.  Along with parents, students, partners and staff, Sondra is leading a revolutionary culture shift in North Minneapolis that is focused on ending multigenerational poverty through education and family stability. The NAZ Collaborative is working to prepare low-income North Minneapolis children to graduate from high school, college and be career-ready.

Sondra, a resident of North Minneapolis for over two decades, has helped NAZ become a nationally recognized model for community and systems change. She also serves on the leadership team of Generation Next, Community Advisory Board of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute, and on the boards of Health Partners and Great MN Schools. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University in Baltimore, and an MBA from Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta.

Sondra is an inspiring and phenomenal leader and community member, which you'll clearly see in our Conversation on Race. I hope you enjoy Part 1 of my talk with Sondra Samuels.

Glen: Thank you for joining me! I am excited to learn more about you. Let's start with who you are and where have you come from?


Sondra: Where have I come from? That's funny because my daughter says she comes from outer space, and so I'm her out of space mother. But originally I am the descendant of enslaved Africans. My mom was from South Carolina, then spent part of her teenage years in North Carolina. That's where five of her remaining six siblings still live. And then my dad's from Georgia.

My parents were born in the Jim Crow South, with white and Black water fountains and inferior schools and poor jobs. My mother got chased out of the school, in Alabama, near Bombingham, and she got chased out because she wasn't from Tuskegee. And they felt like any Black students not from there were Martin Luther King Jr. cronies, and they were going to disrupt. So her professors actually smuggled her out of school. Her family was really poor, so she never actually went back.

I know this is a long answer but...


Glen: No, please go on.


Sondra: Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Sons, talks about the Great Migration and how one of the biggest migrations in our country was Black folks coming up from down South and spreading out all across the country. And so my parents got the notice, that Northern industrialists were advertising down South. My family were still sharecropping; that's the history of my family.

But my father moved up, eventually becoming a longshoreman, and my mother moved up and worked for a white family as a nanny, and then became an executive assistant over the years. The cool thing that I love is that different groups from different places in the South settled in distinct areas in the North. But Isabel Wilkerson said in her book — and I just laughed cause it was like, "That had to be my people" — that when you came up North, everybody was on their way to New York from Georgia and the Carolinas. But the first station that you stop at is Penn Station in Newark (New Jersey). So the conductor was saying, "Newark," and everybody loaded off thinking it was "New York." So I should have been born in New York, but I was born in Newark, in 1965, certainly during the heart of the Civil Rights movement. And I was born in the same hospital, Beth Israel Medical Center, as Whitney Houston and Queen Latifah.


Glen: Wow.


Sondra: I can't sing, but I can rap.


Glen: But trifecta of excellence right there. 


Sondra: Yes! And so we were there during the riots, and my mother and father talk about the before and the after.

I have lived here in North Minneapolis, along with my husband Don, for 24 years, and raised three girls and a bunch of guinea pigs and cats and dogs. The race riot here was in 1967, so that it was boiling over all over the place. And we're still boiling, aren't we? Which makes this conversation really timely.

Back to Newark, my family integrated the suburbs. So one thing we're going to talk about today is policy, right? But I spoke at this policy class at Carleton College by Zoom last year, and it was interesting cause I just felt so clever, but it was real. I mapped my life by the policies that were passed, and what opportunities opened up that shaped you sitting here with me right now, Glen. And who I am in my experiences.

I can tell you about 1968, when the Fair Housing Act passed, it was the first time it became illegal for communities to discriminate against Black and brown folks. And so we were finally able to leave Newark and move to the suburbs. We moved in like 1970. But that was kind of a brain drain out of the inner cities, with large groups of Black folks. And when Black and brown people move in, white people move out. So when my family moved to Scotch Plains, which was just a suburb of Newark, we were the only Black family. Five years later, there was only one white family left. And we've seen the same thing happen here in North Minneapolis, of course.

I have been dealing with race my whole life, but my parents from the South really wanted to shield me from all of that. I didn't find out my father marched with Martin Luther King until I was probably 30 years old.

So I grew up in Scotch Plains, and then because of that, I really wanted to attend and be in a space where it was just a whole heap of Black folks. And so I went to two historically Black colleges and universities, one for undergrad and one for grad: Morgan State in Baltimore and Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta.

It was the only all-Black graduate school in the country, part of the Atlanta University Center, with Morehouse and Spelman and Clark and so on. W.E.B. DuBois taught there. And then I moved here, to work for the Ford Motor Company in marketing. In fact, when they offered me the job in the Twin Cities, I was like, "Oh, Chicago!" I think I had seen Purple Rain. But the Twin Cities just wasn't on my radar. But I loved here, worked for Ford, and I eventually met my husband. Then I did the Peace Corps in Botswana, then I went to Philly and started the AmeriCorps program. Then when I left there, I went to seminary for a year and then Don, and I got married, and I moved back here and here we are!


Glen: What a fantastic background! I really love that journey. And can you say more about seminary and where that came from?


Sondra: My faith is really important to me, and at one point in time, I really felt like I wanted to be a minister, so I went to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. I was supposed to be there that year. But Don came to Pasadena and proposed, and so I left there after a year. He was a toy designer here, so I moved back, and then he went to seminary, and he's now an ordained minister, and I'm not. I always jokingly talk about the gender stuff, but it was what it was supposed to be.


Glen: What was your experience coming to Minneapolis?


Sondra: Coming here, I kept gravitating to North Minneapolis. But one thing you should know is, when corporate Black folks move here, we are told to stay away from North Minneapolis. That it's dangerous. And I don't know about you, but there's something called role modeling, like little Black kids need to see professional Black people. 

So when I moved here, I lived in Minnetonka, then I moved to St. Louis Park. And then eventually Don and I, with the same values around the inner city, moved to North Minneapolis. When I first moved here, we didn't have kids. So I wasn't looking at education and things of that nature for kiddos, didn't vote for people on school board and all this other stuff.

It was just like a solid place to eventually raise a family. And I heard it had great schools. What I didn't understand is, if you're white. 

When Don and I first moved to North Minneapolis, there was violence we contended with. We moved in, and I picked out a room for when we did get pregnant that would be our first child's room. And a bullet came through that room, like the next day. We didn't even know it was a bullet because we had moved from St. Paul and just weren't used to the pop kind of thing. But when we first realized it was a bullet, we said, "OK, we're in the right place." Because of our faith, and our values around being in a place. Not to fix it, but we felt like we had been prayed here. Like somebody had prayed for us to be here. People like us to join, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, with folks who were committed to the community and to each other. And so I've been doing that ever since.

I was in my 20s when I first moved here to Minnesota, then like 30 the second time. I'm 55 now, and I've watched a couple of generations of kids grow up and not thrive right from my neighborhood. 

All my girls are off at school or with plans. One didn't drop out, she stopped out. So I get that school isn't for everybody, but she has so many options because of her solid education that we wouldn't sacrifice. Anyway, living here, we saw quickly the differences in outcomes with low-income Black children in this community. We saw the isolation. Our buses didn't even go straight down west Broadway and cross over the Mississippi into more white Northeast Minneapolis. Up until about seven or eight years ago, you'd have to bus from North Minneapolis, go downtown, get a connection and come back up to get to Northeast Minneapolis. So poor schools, white folks had emptied out, there is a strong African-American middle-class, but not sizable.

We moved here like 24 years ago, Glen, and I have never, ever seen the level of violence and crime that we're experiencing right now. I always felt relatively safe. I've never worried about my children playing in the backyard or wanting to go over to my neighbor's house. It's completely different now. 

This has been a community where we know we need our neighbors, and one of the gifts — if you can see gifts in challenging times and challenging times are what always make us better — we're seeing is more great neighbors because we're all going through this. So my neighbors right here, we're tighter than we've ever been because we know we need each other, we got to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. That sense of community is so powerful.


Glen: I'm curious, what do you see as the cause and effect that is driving this violence to these levels?


Sondra: I don't have all the answers, Glen. But you had the pandemic, and you have children who are no longer in school, with distance learning happening. If you're low-income from this community, you were almost out for an entire year, different than some of my more affluent folks that I know, whose children were back in their private schools pretty early. So out of school the whole time, the food program that often fed some of our lowest income children, of course, they were no  longer getting that because transportation stopped working, and things of that nature. And just the total discombobulation of that. And then, of course, you have George Floyd's murder, which, for Black folks, was no surprise. Thank goodness for smartphones. If you're Black, you already knew. You didn't need a smartphone. If you lived in community, you saw it. But finally, people are all at home, looking at their TV, and a young African-American girl is on top of it enough to take out her phone, show us that. And for me, George Floyd's murder was the tip of the racism iceberg in Minnesota. Under the waterline, there's racism in housing, and health and income and wealth and education and incarceration. The big opportunity gaps. And, in fact, George Floyd's life follows the trajectory of many of our kids here. At once, when he was in the second grade, wanting to be a Supreme Court justice and realized that his education next to his housing project was never going to prepare him to be a Supreme Court justice. Maybe to sweep the floors in the Supreme Court, but not to sit at its highest level.

Even when he got arrested for $10 worth of marijuana, he did 10 months. So you had the murder, and then the racial angst around that. Then finally, the white community was saying, "Oh my gosh! This is real!" And so we're mad at the cops. Who wouldn't be, right?

I think everybody said, "What can we do? This can't go on." And then it felt like we just started seeing one white cop kill another unarmed kid everywhere, even in Brooklyn Center. So this anxiety around, "We have to do something, we can't allow this to happen anymore" caused our City Council more than a year ago to stand in Powderhorn Park, on a stage, and say, "Defund the police."

And of course, Don used to be on City Council, and we're both running nonprofits. But we've spent our lives, being a part and weaving this fabric of safety, and to have our council person just stand up and have a decision about us without us, which he always said is one of the reasons he ran, was unbelievable.

And so we called him up, and you got to imagine that conversation didn't go well. And the promise was, that the pathway to defunding — to re-imagine policing — would be a series of meetings, where the community would be able to talk about it. And that didn't happen.


Learn more about Sondra Samuels by clicking here. Look for Part 2 of our “A Conversation on Race" with Sondra next week.