Glen Gunderson

March 4, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 26th 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.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet what we all witnessed at the Capitol on January 6 is yet another sobering reminder of how far the United States has to go, how deep and great our divide is.

Then came the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, and Kamala Harris as our nation's first female, Black and Indian American vice president. Any transfer of power brings the prospect of hope, new thinking and innovation, a fresh perspective. 

But no one illustrated all of that better than Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate. She is a shining example of this burgeoning potential of the young people we serve at the Y and their ability to bring about change. To be able to talk to our neighbors, respect our differences, and see the humanness and wholeness of one another. There was so much brilliance in Amanda's Inaugural Poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," but these lines in particular resonate with me and our mission at the Y:

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us

The YMCA of the North will continue its efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders who will be a part of the solution.

My 15th guest is Tawanna Black, the founder and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion, the "nation's first organization exclusively dedicated to creating inclusive regional economies by equipping public and private sector employers to dismantle institutional racism and build shared accountability for inclusive economic growth." She highly regarded locally and nationally as an influencer, implementer and thought-leader around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), working with organizations in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. Before her current position, Tawanna was executive director of the Northside Funders Group, a collaborative comprised of 20 corporate, community and private foundations, and public-sector investors committed to catalyze racial and economic equity in North Minneapolis. And before that, she worked with Cox Communications, in Omaha, Nebraska, where she served as an advisor to the senior management team.

I hope you will enjoy Part 1 of my conversation with Tawanna Black.

Glen: Thank you for joining me! My first question is, tell me about where you have come from?


Tawanna: That's a great question and an interesting way of asking that question. I think I come from places of hope and opportunity. But from a geography perspective, I come from Kansas and Iowa and Nebraska before coming to Minnesota.

From a sector perspective, I come from all sectors! I come from people who believed in me and believed that I could do anything and that has birthed who I am and everything that I do. At the same time, I come from having been blessed with the opportunity to do some really creative and fun and hard but very big work. And that inspires in me a drive to believe in what's possible, to push for what's possible, and not settle for anything less than full economic possibilities for everyone!


Glen: You mentioned people who believed in you. Can you tell me who were one of those early people who planted that seed in you?


Tawanna: The thing is — and this speaks a lot to the work I do — I'm from a small town in Kansas, a town of about 12,000 people, on the border of Kansas and Oklahoma, a town that is not very racially diverse, a place where very often I was the only African-American young girl in most of the things that I did. And I did everything from dance to basketball, gymnastics, debate, forensics, violin — you name it. I did it every day of the week. 

My mother died when I was a baby, and my grandparents adopted me before I was two. That meant I was raised by older people and surrounded by older people, but literally everyone in my town invested in me.

And when I say everyone... Glen, you and I are Facebook friends, and when you read my posts, you see my third-grade teacher still comment on my Facebook wall! Many of them are not African-American, by any means; they were my nurses and doctors, and they still comment on my Facebook page. 

I haven't been home in 18 months and, even outside of COVID, I don't get home frequently. But my community invested in me, and everybody there can tell you where I went to college.

If you just drove through and said my name, people would be able to tell you my story. Because it was a community of people who invested in me. And not because they didn't see race, but because they saw something in me beyond my race.

I spoke at my community's Martin Luther King Jr. event just a couple of years ago and took on racism in my community pretty hard. So, there's something about that, having a group of people who did invest in me.

Now, I'll say there are pieces that are about socioeconomics, coming from a family in a small town of means that means something, right? So there are economics in there. I'm not saying it was like that for every kid who looks like me, by any means.

But there is something about having been surrounded by an entire community who said, "This kid is going to succeed, and we're all going to pour into the dreams that she has." And so, as I shared those dreams, people all put their hands and fingerprints in those dreams and helped to make them happen. 


Glen: How did the Center for Economic Inclusion come to be, and what are your ultimate dreams for it?


Tawanna: You mentioned the word “germ” earlier, and I am married to a chemical engineer who ran germ plants at one point for Cargill, so I happen to know what that is. My mind instantly went to thinking of “idea” as the germ of a piece of corn. [Tawanna laughs.]

I remember the moment that I had the idea for the Center. I was in the Hennepin County Government Center, having just left a meeting with partners. I go downstairs, extremely frustrated that we were having the same conversation, over and over, with just a new name. We were not really going to change anything for people, particularly African-American people in north Minneapolis.

And, this wasn't about Hennepin County. It was about partners, companies, foundations, and community members continuing to shuffle different seats and conversations, but not really being in a position to shift power, to shift resources, to shift results, and knowing that, in 10 years, we would have all done a lot of work, but we were not going to change anything.

I was with one of my funders and best thought partners, and I said to him, "I'm done. It's time to do things very differently, and we need a different structure that is not any of this, and I'm ready to build it."

And he said, "It's about time! Let's do it. But if we build it, you have to commit to running it for at least three years. I was waiting for you to get there. I knew you had it brewing, but let's get there."

And at that point, I wasn't even sure it was about opening an organization. I knew it was about a new structure.

Here, the business community shows up, but often wearing their philanthropy hat. They say, "Here's our foundation, and we're going to contribute money and attend meetings," or, "Here's our diversity and inclusion hat, and our diversity officer is going to attend meetings." 

They never bring the heft of the business — the business units and market impacts — so those critical conversations never happen. The business was over here and philanthropy over there; the two never met. You cannot close racial wealth gaps that way.

So, I took a group of 11 local leaders to Chicago to look at work that had taken place there, across sectors.

I also commissioned Brookings Institution and McKinsey to study places and spaces across the country to determine if anybody was doing this work smarter or differently? Specifically, with those market levers and centering racial equity. Centering Black, Indigenous, people of color in the work, not just having people at the table and not just representation, in ways that moved the economy.

Both organizations found a few examples we could highlight or study, but nothing definitive or groundbreaking, and certainly no one entity that was driving the state of regional racial and economic equity and inclusion to close wealth gaps.

So we set out to build it. I gathered folks who I knew were smart and committed to also study and codify what had worked here because you have to know your ethos. What causes people to take drastic, meaningful and sustained action, and where do people run into walls and stop working?

First, we conducted a regional audit. We pulled the best examples of multi-sector, sustained action and investment over about 15 to 20 years that had occurred in the Twin Cities in housing, transportation, economic development and jobs.

Next, we asked more questions. What were those tenets that made those things work? Where had big work taken place? What made it happen? What were those engines and drivers, and how do we replicate it?

We also wanted to learn what we should prevent from happening again. For example, regionally, we're responsive to what the Feds tell us to do, but struggle to lead the work on our own. Another example is when a national foundation invests, say, $5 million, in a collaborative effort, we all do our parts, but not necessarily if we had to do it ourselves. 

Basically, that was the impetus. And today, the dream is still about ensuring we get to a place in our community of true racial equity that's measured by the extent to which people who look like me — who look in any shade of brown — have true economic opportunity.

Ultimately, this puts Black, Indigenous and people of color in a position of agency and power. It eliminates the dependency on somebody else's terms and definition of what it means to thrive.

In Minnesota and across the nation, the data shows us that by every measure, people of color continue to experience disproportional disparities. True, Minnesota’s economic recovery from the last recession was faster and stronger compared to most states. When we look deeper at the 10 years of recovery and disaggregate that data, Minneapolis and St. Paul ranked 272 and 273 out of 274 cities in the country for racial inclusion in that recovery. Why? Because we had made no effort to be sure that we were truly racially inclusive, despite lots of talk. Part of our work through the Center is to be sure we don't repeat those mistakes. 

We can only do that by focusing on power, in addition to inclusion. It can't just be tables. It can't just be people having seats at tables.

It can't be just grant-making. We have to address the root and conduct a root-cause analysis. We have to challenge that mindset that says, "You're welcome, but you're not equal to." We have to address the root cause at the same time that we shake up the power dynamics within our communities.

To catalyze the shifts, we identify who is sitting in seats of power and influence and has control of access and resources. We lead our work and conversations in real and direct ways that many people are not used to or comfortable with. And at the same time, we help people get comfortable. 


Glen: Wow. That's really powerful. I'm curious as you think about activating that vision and dream, what would you like to see the YMCA do? I mean, how can we play a part? And I'm really excited, frankly, about how we might partner to add value for your mission as we go forward. Also, what about me as a leader? Like what advice would you have for me and trying to advance this work for the better betterment of community?


Tawanna: I love that question. Glen, I've been thinking about this discussion for quite some time, since we agreed to do this. And the YMCA holds a special place in the hearts of my godparents, who have been really active in another state and nationally.

So, I have that history and those memories in my childhood, from watching them lead, and the power of creating spaces for convening and communing, in all sorts of ways.

What is the magic? Is it the outdoor faculties that allow people to convene and commune? Or it is the work that Hedy Lemar Walls (Chief Social Responsibility Officer of the YMCA of the North) is able to engage in? Is it the people working out and the ways they cross paths with one another each visit, or it is the childcare? There are so many different places and spaces to access and enjoy, and each one doubles down on our values as human beings.

I think about those spaces and places as powerful opportunities to live and exhibit the Y’s mission. The folks who serve on your board and community boards are so committed in ways that not every nonprofit is blessed with. And right now, in this time, they really have an opportunity to step it up and lead in new ways — to live the mission and values a little bit deeper.

Take action affinity networks. How do those boards become action affinity networks within themselves, so that they live those values? So that when a member comes through the door — individuals, parents, children — they not only see but feel the mission and values every single visit. 

How does this become so deep within our bones that it is just what we do? This is the YMCA's opportunity. There are so many different people from different communities intersecting every day. They’ve signed up for something that is so core, so essential to being human. It is the very essence of the work.


Glen: And then what advice would you have for me, as a leader? Point me in a direction that can make a bigger difference.


Tawanna: Vulnerability. There is, in this moment, an interesting teetering happening, where we were all desperate for the end of 2020, waiting for the moment when change would occur. 

In this time and space, we have been given a gift to sit and stay in this moment — whatever the moment brings — and to be vulnerable enough to share the highs and the lows, to share the places where we've gotten it right, and where we've gotten it wrong, and to help encourage other leaders do the same. To not be so protected by our teams and our executives and our consultants, that the real world can't get close enough to us to ask or see how we got through that moment of crisis.

We do it when it comes to sales problems or hiring challenges. But when it comes to race, we're hesitant. Like, "Oh my gosh, I can't. I can't let that out. I just need somebody to get it cleaned up, and then, let's just make sure it disappears.”

We cannot address racism until we get comfortable enough being uncomfortable and then, vulnerable enough to share the experience of the pain, trial and triumph more widely, not only with our peers.

As a practitioner, I used to encourage white men to share their learning journeys with their peers, and Black women to share their journeys with their peers. 

Today, I say ‘Yes, and...” We also have to share across lines of difference, because the level of distrust is so high and heightened right now that in order to get to real equity, inclusion and belonging, it's going to require more of that in places and spaces where we often cannot even see we need to share it or identify the moment to share.

Leadership requires the full vulnerability of sharing, sharing some more, and then sharing some more. We have to get to a real and deep place of relating to one another and building relationships that just do not exist enough here.

So, to the point of our conversation earlier about Minnesota and the dissonance that leaves people believing, "We're progressive, and that equals equitable and inclusive…"

No, not true. We have to journey to true relating to one another and experience and move through the discomfort that will come with it, at times. 

This is the only way we can move forward to racial equity and inclusion. 

[Tawanna laughs] I'm an introvert! I'm such an introvert. I don't like people in my space. I can't stand talking on the phone. So, in this land of COVID, I have millennials on my team who insist on FaceTime all the time. I'm like, "Lord, have mercy. What in the world!"

But, right now, this is what is necessary and it is a level of vulnerability needed in order for leaders to truly lead in this space. I have got to get over my FaceTime hump, right? [Tawanna laughs.]

We've got to share this racial equity and inclusion journey broadly enough that other people can come in it and build enough trust that we can then go on the journey together.


To learn more about Tawanna Black, click here. Look for Part 2 of our “ A Conversation on Race” with Tawanna next week.