Glen Gunderson

November 18, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 54th 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 & 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 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 A Conversation on Race. I hope you enjoy Part 3 of my talk with Sondra Samuels. (You can read part 1 here and part 2 here)

Glen: What other ways are you working to inspire change?


Sondra: My husband and I, and another gentleman, have brought a lawsuit  because the city has on the ballot a question, yes or no.

Editor's note: The ballot read, "Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to strike and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety which could include licensed peace officers (police officers), if necessary, with administrative authority to be consistent with other city departments to fulfill its responsibilities for public safety?" During the early November election, Minneapolis voters rejected the proposal the replace the city's police department.

Sondra: The structure would be the same as other city departments, but the average citizen doesn't know what that means. And the group that was able to get that on the ballot and also went back to court to get removed the explanation of what that means that was going to be with the ballot is Yes 4 Minneapolis, a political action committee. They're getting most of their money outside of Minneapolis, so we are a national experiment. People are looking at Minneapolis and saying, "What are they going to do there?" And in this national experiment, Black people are the human sacrifice. Let's make no mistake about that. And by the way, the language we're fighting is that short language, and what it doesn't do is talk about the effects of that. That needs to be clear for citizens, because I want a new department of public safety. Don't you?


Glen: Yes. Yes and...


Sondra: So what it doesn't say is that this new department of public safety would have to be up by December 2. That’s 30 days, from when the vote is taken. And if we were to say, "Yes," there's 30 days for the police department to be dismantled and for us to move to a new department of public safety. The promise our councilperson made over a year ago that we would have a series of community meetings and the community would decide what this new department looked like never happened.

So there's no plan, 30 days to enact, we would remove the police chief. There would be a commissioner of public safety that a chief could report to. But the role of police chief would go away. Our current African-American police chief, Medaria Arradondo, is homegrown, south Minneapolis, with a really strong vision for the equity that could be in the department and the peacemaking, would be gone.

And this department would no longer just report to the mayor, which is what happens right now. But they would report to 13 council people and the mayor. So he or she would have 14 bosses, who carry equal weight. And the chief made a statement recently that any public safety leader under that arrangement would find it wholly unbearable.

What do you think that means? Have you ever had a loved one say, "That action you're about to take would be wholly unbearable." That means, "I'm out." And the funding mechanism that is right now outlined in our charter will go away as well. And so that people need to be clear about that. They need to be clear, and then vote yes or vote no. Then our city gets to decide.

Twenty-two thousand people said they wanted it on the ballot. That is how we are run, in a democratic society. It's on the ballot. Now let's inform our populace, and then let them make a well-informed decision.

It's white folks, who really want to do the right thing, and young people who feel like we've got to do something different. Like I get that. I get the emotionality around it. And what I think they're not seeing — and the truth I want to keep sharing is — at a time when we are on track to exceed the highest level of murders in the city's history this year, what do they think is going to happen in the next year, as they finally put together a department of public safety “that could include peace officers, if necessary?”

I'll tell you what's going to happen. More children who look like me are going to get shot in the head, and they're going to be killed. In fact, I recently debated a younger African-American gentleman. And when this issue came up, he said, "Oh, North Minneapolis has always had violence." And he lives in North Minneapolis, too. So does that mean it's OK? Cause let me tell you something, Glen. Here's where race comes in: If 10-year-old, 9-year-old and 6-year-old white kids were being shot in the head, 3-year-old baby shot in the hand, 3-month-old baby getting shards of glass in their bodies because windows have been shot out?

If all of that... Oh, I didn't even talk about the carjackings, or the high-speed doughnuts happening at intersections, where our kids are being killed because of gang warfare. Oh, the gang warfare is crazy! It's cray-cray. It's off the chain, and there's retaliation back and forth.

So many white folks who don’t live in North Minneapolis but in different parts of Minneapolis that are more well-heeled support this, they want to be allies, and they feel really terrible about what happened to George Floyd and what happened to Daunte Wright — they are outraged — as we all should be! But there is no outrage for our babies dying in North Minneapolis due to community violence. The demand for their justice is not happening.

And I just know that we live in a world that really is gray. It's not black and white. It is both. And the older you get, or the more experience you have, the wiser you get, the more you understand that I might feel like I want to do this, but what are the consequences?

And the way we protect each other is that we bring balance. We come to the middle. We get in the middle, and we demand reform, and we demand to have enough officers to protect our kids!

I'm really close to the kids in my neighborhood, and we hear gunshots regularly. Like I've never heard gunshots like we do (right now). And we were on my deck, having like a block club meeting one night, cause it's been so crazy. We've heard and witnessed young men being killed at a gas station around the corner from us. But on my deck, we heard gunshots ring out really close to us. So her dad and Don my husband went to go see what was happening, and the neighbors's 10-year-old daughter lost it. And I'm hugging her, and her mother's hugging her, we are all hugging each other, and I say, "Zelda, its OK. We're going to protect you."

Here I am, an adult in the community, been here for 24 years. And it was the first time that I was lying. I was lying! I don't know how to protect her. I don't know how to protect Joey and Francis, who live right there. I don't know how to protect my neighbor, Aubrey, who lives right there. I don't know how to do that. I can't say, "It's going to be all right." I used to be able to say that. But I can't say that. 

And more of them are going to be killed. More of them, if this ballot passes, if people say yes. And more of our neighbors are going to move, more businesses are going to shut down. And by the way, you know what businesses are hurting most? Black and brown businesses. Black and brown business owners at George Floyd Square actually wrote an Op-Ed, and they were begging that George Floyd Square be opened back up so that their businesses could thrive. 

And so this is about race. It is about race, and it is about how we keep each other safe. And again, I want to stress I understand people who say, "Get rid of the police." I do. But what I don't understand is them not seeing the unintended consequences of that action.


Glen: Thank you so much for that impassioned insight. What is something that I can do, as a white male? And what about the YMCA?


Sondra: Glen, as a white male, who is standing shoulder-to-shoulder in this work, I think about my four Rs. One is relationships. It's all about relationships. In relationships we are hurt. In relationships, we're also healed. And so Glen, you leaning into relationships across differences, with your Black brothers and sisters. A friend of mine just died. She was white and in her 80s, a writer at the Loft. At her memorial were bikers, a couple of Black folks, a lot of people who have written books, young and old. But everybody said if Mary decided you were going to be her friend, you were going to be her friend. And white folks need to do more deciding that Black and brown people are going to be their friends.

And you know what Mary did? We met at an event, and she said, "I just love what you do. Would you come over for dinner?" I mean, who says no? And that spawned a 25-year relationship. And here's the other thing in relationship: Glen, you have a role to play with other white people that I can't play. They're going to say stuff to you that they're not going to say to me. I'm going to assume you have family members that make your heart race, when they say some of the things that they say. And so with those people, when you're engaged in these kinds of conversations around race, around the ballot question, around masking or unmasking, you name it, we have got to listen to understand, Glen. You know when your buttons get pushed, when your heart starts palpitating, and not listen to reload. 

Andrea Walsh (President and CEO of HealthPartners) shared an example with me about this. She was talking to a friend who was an anti-vaxxer and was upset that Health Partners said everybody has to be vaccinated. She didn't want to lose this friend, and they were having a conversation about it, and she really listened to the friend and why the friend said she didn't want to be vaccinated. And there are legitimate reasons. We might not agree with them, but anybody's reason, that's their reason. And so Andrea held it, and she listened. She didn't reload. 

You know how we do. We're just like really ready to reload. You're not listening. You just think of what you're going to say next, so you can go tell your other friends, "He said this, and then I said that." So the other friend can say, "You told him!" 

We have to lose that. That's high school stuff. We need to listen to understand, not reloading, and then sharing your own experience. And here's the clincher: Not with the goal of converting the other person.

I went to Phillipe Cunningham, who is leading the City Council's defund strategy, and I said, "I want to meet, I want to talk. I don't understand totally where you're coming from, but I know you, and I know you're a great guy."

And the one rule is that we don't try to convert each other. You tell me where you're coming from, I'll tell you my experience, and if we leave changed great, but that's not the goal. The goal is to be in relationship and to listen to each other, and to inform. We all make our own decisions and change our own minds. No one can force that on us. It is our decision.

And by the way, Andrea said that person called her some days later and said, "I've decided to get vaccinated." We have to let people decide on their own. So even though I'm passionate about the ballot question, and not eradicating but reforming the police, my goal is not to convert the city of Minneapolis. My goal is to inform as many members of the city of Minneapolis, around what's happening in my neighborhood, to our children, and then they will decide.

Then the other one is reading history. If white folks just knew a little something about the history, nobody would say we're not a racist country. It is that we don't know history, and we don't know how not only the personal ideals that we've had, but how it shaped our policies. And when you start reading some stuff, you're like, "Wow, this is amazing." So Isabel Wilkerson's book, Caste, I tell everybody, "You got to read that." I'm not done with it. I don't know my history. I don't! I went to the same schools white people went to. 

And then how we talk about getting kids ready for K. I know the Y has their hand on influencing parents and small children. Mine is getting them ready for kindness, by helping them to understand difference, and understand race. Ibram Kendi wrote a book called Antiracist Baby. It's a children's book, and we can talk about kindness within the construct of difference and bring up race, and help our kids, not burden them. Anytime we want to share values, we start from the time they're little. 

I have a friend of mine named Keeya. 

Hi, Glen. How are you? My superpower is kindness.

And by the way, kids talk to me so much more when I'm talking to them with Keeya than they do when it's just Sondra. And Keeya is Setswana, and it means garden flower. And what I talk to kids about is that, God made a garden with all these different kinds of flowers, and they're tall and short, and lush and not, and beautiful colors, and it's all good. But getting to the kids, getting them ready for kindness, and making race a part of that. 

And then the last R is reform. Really understanding, from the Y's perspective, and then I know there are things that you're passionate about that are beyond the Y. And you understand what policies are racist, within those areas of concern, because I guarantee you they are there. Whether you talk about the environment, climate health, education, housing, I can find you some racist policy. And then be about as an organization, but also personally, really working to reform those policies and create new systems where people in this garden, are all sitting at the table. 


Glen: That's great. And I really like the "Ready for Kindness," as we think about ready for K, and all the work we do with early learning. It's brilliant! And I really appreciate the lessons throughout this conversation. 

You're such a special leader for our community, and we need your voice to be even more present and more broadly broadcast. But what gives you hope?


Sondra: So one thing that gives me hope is the parents and children and staff, and everybody at NAZ. I have a lot of neighbors who moved, and they moved because of their children, and I understand that. Like we got to understand people, right? And listen to understand, and not just reload and see where we agree and say it. But anyway, the parents and the children who are like, "This is my community," and they're still getting up every day and going to work, going to school. We had kids who stayed in summer programming; I don't know if I would've kept my kids in some of our summer programming in North Minneapolis. I got to tell you the truth. But they're coming together, banding together, and I tell you that the thing I know is that we have been in a worse place, as a people. I'm talking about as a country, right?

This is not the worst it's been in our history. And I think about the men and women who stood and faced the challenges of their time, and then passed the baton to us. And I have she-roes and heroes, and I'm steeped in my faith. 

Hope might not be a a strategy, but it is a superpower.

And you can only bring about change, if you believe in change. You can only move forward, if you have hope. You and I are the descendants of people who were hopeful that tomorrow would be different. And so we have the honor of doing that right now, together. The other thing that gives me hope is how much the covers have been pulled back on our individuality, and the fact that we're not mutually independent. That something that starts in another country can't impact us here, that we are all so mutually interdependent, and it is a beautiful thing.

And I feel like, just like in our personal lives, I am who I am because of the challenges I've overcome, not because of the successes. The challenges that I overcame helped create the successes. And that's the same thing that happens in terms of our body politic, and so I'm hopeful, Glen, around us our generation.

I'm going to close with this: Did you see Hamilton?


Glen: Oh, I've seen it twice, and I've listened to the music a million times. Our family is crazy Hamilton nuts. We have heard everything they have ever recorded. Lin-Manuel Miranda is brilliant!


Sondra: I think about "Dear Theodosia," and I feel like that's us. That's really what we need to say to our children. So, of course, it's Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. They are nemeses, and they're singing about their own children, in this new country, this new experiment. We can't even compare, in terms of the history of a country. It's so short, we're so new. 

But what they said is:

You will come of age with our young nation
We'll bleed and fight for you
We'll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you
And you'll blow us all away
Someday, someday

And that is the promise that we have got to make and live for our children. 


Learn more about Sondra Samuels by clicking here. Look for a new "A Conversation on Race" next week.