Glen Gunderson

November 11, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 53rd 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.

Following the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright by local police officers, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice in our community and beyond 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 and 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 HealthPartners 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 2 of my talk with Sondra Samuels. (You can read part 1 here)

Glen: You have such an indomitable spirit. You're such a dynamic leader. I would love for you to share how has racism showed up for you personally? Is there an experience or something that has happened to you within what is now your hometown you'd be willing to share?


Sondra: Early on, I used to do diversity consulting for a firm here, for about a decade, and traveled all around the country. I was a facilitator, and we always facilitated in mixed race and gender pairs. If you were a woman, you facilitated with a man. If you were Black, you facilitated with someone white because, at the end of the day, that's what this is all about — modeling what it looked like to work well across differences. It's about how we relate to each other, and how we are in relationships, and whether we are committed to the beloved community. Anyway, organizations would send their diversity officers to sometimes kick our wheels and test whether or not they wanted us to come in and actually facilitate a series of sessions. Sometimes the participants would be senior executives, or managers, or rank and file employees. But a guy came to view myself and my partner facilitating a program, and I remember when we were done because we really wanted this contract. My partner and I high-fived each other, "OK, you nailed it!" "No, you nailed it!"

Then the two owners of the firm I worked for were women, and I remember them a few days later calling me. This was going to be a huge contract, and this was a women-owned firm, few million dollars. So this was going to take us to the next level. They said, "We have a challenge. The executive that came to view you and Joseph felt like you definitely have the skills, but that you probably culturally wouldn't fit with their executives." And I was like, "What do you mean?" And they said, "It's your hair," Cause I had my hair in larger dreadlocks than I do now, but my hair was nice. I shouldn't even have to say that. And by the way, a law passed in California that organizations could no longer discriminate against Black women based on our hair.

But anyway, so (the owners) said they were struggling a little bit because they were clear that the contract would have made a huge difference, but it went against everything we stood for as an organization. And how did I feel and what did I want to happen, kind of thing. And so we walked away from that project, but it was a real shock to me.

Now the thing that I want to put on you is, the man from the other company was a Black guy. There is something called internalized racism. He was projecting and thinking about his all-white executive team, and if they would be comfortable with my hair. And Ibram Kendi, who's written a lot of books around how to be anti-racist, talks about how none of us are exempt from judging people based on race. Cause we were all brought up in a country where it was like, "If your Black get back, if you're brown stick around, and if you're white you're right."

For the first half of the 20th century, we had the brown bag test if you wanted to get in some of the more elite, "Negroes only" clubs in New Jersey and New York. If you were darker then a brown paper bag, you couldn't get in. And I get so shocked when white people say that racism doesn't exist. It's like, "Where'd that come from in me? Where did that come from in that (Black man at the company)?"

But we all drink the same water, and we all breathe the same air. And this country has been founded in racism. And certainly today, Glen, the thing that I experienced the most is, there are so many great people who are policymakers and politicians, and yet the policies that would help Black and brown children the most, we can't get them passed. Can't get them passed. So what I've understood is that I can really like you, and your policies are racist.

Why do you think we have disparities? We have the worst disparities in home ownership, in wealth and in health and education, than almost any other state. And do we just think we just have this group of Black folks that are a little more cray-cray than in other states? Or is there something uniquely happening here that we could have such great people — and I mean that; I'm not doing this tongue-in-cheek — who keep passing the same laws that actually do not help, but harm Black, low-income children and families.

So that's the thing that I see most Glen, and I want to call it out. And I always run this risk because I run a nonprofit, I get public funding, I want to work with all levels of government so I run this risk of offending folks.

And by the way, Republicans and Democrats are equal offenders. It shows up differently for Dems. But I'm in there, too, right? We all are. But we have woefully failed Black children academically in this state. So either we have a unique group of kids who just cannot learn because they're doing better in other states, or there's something happening here. The last MCAs that were done for Minneapolis Public Schools, only 22 percent of Black children could read at grade level and 80 percent of white, and then all other racial groups of kids were in the middle there. So we don't have a child problem, we have an adult problem. And when I talk about the achievement gap, I'm saying that teachers, parents, officials and community leaders like me, we do a great job of teaching white kids to read and do math, and we do a piss poor job of educating Black and brown children. It's not them. It is us.

So I really support the passage of the Page Amendment. Justice (Alan) Page and Neel Kashkari (President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis) have put language together for us to change the state constitution and what it says about education. Right now, it's only about a paragraph long. The federal government tried to try to stay silent on education and let states come up with their own laws. That's why we were slaves for 250 years because it was like, "Let the states decide," but the state can't decide. Like right now. Don't trust the City Council to do that. Well, I'll talk more about that in a minute.

But other states have done it, and they've done it successfully and they see the achievement of adults, in terms of their ability to educate Black and brown kids. Again, it's about us. We should get measured. So the language would change from all kids deserve an adequate education and funded by taxation, to all children — and we mean all — will receive a quality education, based on agreed upon standards. And they are clear that teachers are the experts. The educational system are the experts. Parents are the experts. That we would need to come up with what those standards are. But at least if that was the language. The constitution is our moral guide. That's why I love our Constitution of the United States, cause it doesn't get better than, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union..." and all the guarantees. And every generation can go back to it and say, "But we're not doing that." And then laws get passed, amendments get passed. That's the same spirit of changing our state constitution in an area where we have failed, and we continue to fail and see these ginormous disparities with Black and brown kids.

But we have said no. The first group to come out against it was the teacher's union. And I am not a teacher union hater. I am the baby of a union. I keep saying I sucked on the nipple of the union. My father was a longshoreman. We would've never been able to become middle class, and I saw him get protected. There is a place for it. But when it starts protecting the rights of the adults over the children, then you have a problem.

So the union came out against the amendment right away. Other unions then followed, and they came out because they walk lockstep together. The bill does have some bipartisan support, so I just want to put that out there. We absolutely do. But not enough to get it passed. And so Dems are saying, "No," in part because the teacher's union is against it, and they are uncomfortable with how the new standards of quality would be assessed. They have also stated, like the Republicans, that change should be legislated, not litigated, because they fear changing the Constitution would open the state up to lawsuits.


Glen: Yeah, and that quality expectation, the way that amendment is crafted also allows for a more broad-based funding schema, I think too, and a check and balance around accountability, on the basis of delivering that quality.

I've spent a little bit of time with Justice Page and Neel learning about it. I personally have great support for the idea. It's unfortunate that we get so factionalized, we get so politically divisive. But the essence of that message is, "We have to educate our young people more effectively, and that means all." And yet we continue to get in our own way politically. 

I'd like to come back to this political dynamic around defund and abolish. Would you add more on that? 


Sondra: So I understand people who want to abolish the police. I understand the sentiment, I understand the emotion to defund the police. I'm a Black woman! I'm married to a Black man! I have black children! I have a Black son! I live in a predominantly African-American community!

I know the stories. Of course, I have that feeling, that guttural, "Let's just scrap it."

I would also say that about education too, by the way. Except we're not going to do that now, are we? We understand what the implications would be for the majority of children if we were to say, "Education has never worked for Black and brown children. It's egregious, let's scrap it. All the teachers are terrible."

We would never do that!

Those of us who are reform-minded understand that we have to do 'both/and.' And that's the same thing we're talking about policing, that we must demand radical transformation of the police force, and a sufficiently staffed department to protect our children and our neighbors in addition to non-policing supports such as mental health, addiction counseling and social workers. Because what's happening right now, Glen, is that because of all of the venom towards police officers, which is in part understandable. Except every police officer is not (Derek) Chauvin, OK? I just want to go to the top of the IDS building and say, "We got some bad apples. I don't know what profession doesn't." And, yes, we have to radically transform the system of policing and public safety. We can do both. We must do both!

Let's get behind our first African-American police chief, who already has been trying to institute some really radical reform efforts within the department, the largest is the department getting a much more diverse recruit class. He's already started that. I'm seeing women with hijabs, who are on the force. But anyway, that's just one example. Let's get behind the chief on radical reform, and let's have a sufficient number of police officers, so that we can keep our babies safe. Because what's happening right now, the argument is that this is a racial argument, that the move to defund is because all Black lives matter. That unarmed Black men and women don't want to be killed. That has to stop! So then if all Black lives matter, shouldn't they matter no matter who the perpetrator is? So one Minneapolis police officer was involved in one tragic death of a Black man this year. The preponderance of murders and shootings of an unarmed Black person were due to community violence, which is reaching historic levels in our city this year. We have had 61 homicides. We've had 435 people shot, year to date, as of August 30. That's up 125 percent from 2019. Of the 435, 84 percent are Black, 82 percent are male, and close to 50 percent are 26 years old down to zero. And, of course, we had Ladavionne Garrett, Jr., the 10-year-old shot in the head here in North Minneapolis, in the car with his father. Ladavionne is still fighting for his life. We don't know what quality of life he'll have, but we're praying a miracle happens. We had 9-year-old Trinity Ottoson-Smith, who was jumping on a trampoline just one block from my house. She got shot in the head, and she's now dead. And then you had 6-year-old Aniya Allen, who was riding in the vehicle with her mother to get a Happy Meal. She was shot in the head.

We're really close with her grandfather, and he has been fighting for safety on our streets and working with our people for a long time. But close to 50 percent of all the shootings have happened here, in the North side, in my neighborhood. So with the decrease — and we've had a constant decrease of police — many cops have retired, or left due to PTSD and just an overall challenging environment, in addition to the City Council defunding them after pledging to do so.

They've added some money back because they see how cray cray things are. We are down over 200 police officers right now, on any given night, in my community. North side has about 67,000 residents, and we might have four or five active police officers on duty. And what about their ability to rebuild trust in the community? The City Council stripped away bike cops. We no longer have Police Activities League. We no longer have police liaisons, who are under the police department; they've been removed to the office of violence prevention, which, by the way, I think is really important that every single thing is not just the police, but we have community members who are also engaged. 

But we are being completely decimated and murdered by community-on-community violence, and there just aren't enough police to prevent it or respond to the violence. And talk about investigate... What the City Council wants is just a militarized force. "Don't go make friends with the community. Let us do that. If it's a real violent interaction, we'll send you out for that."

Doesn't work. Again, I understand the emotion, but I don't understand the logic.


Learn more about Sondra Samuels by clicking here. Look for Part 3 of our “A Conversation on Race" with Sondra next week.