Glen Gunderson

March 11, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 27th 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 2 of my conversation with Tawanna Black. (You can read part 1 here)

Glen: You were speaking on vulnerability, and I think you're spot on! If you think about leaders going into the pandemic and into the murder of George Floyd and then coming out, I actually think this notion of vulnerability was always on the list of really important attributes of a strong leader, with people that you are supposed to be leading.

I think it's been exacerbated by everything that we've experienced that leaders into the future will only thrive and only be effective if they are actually really comfortable with their fallibilities, comfortable with their shortcomings, and being able to honestly say that those folks that they surround themselves with are better than them in the key areas that they must be. So I love your championing vulnerability for our leaders, and I think it's going to be paramount and even more important going forward.

I'm curious, where were you when George Floyd was murdered and what, if anything, changed in you after that tragedy last year?


Tawanna: The thing is, we as African-Americans don't have the shock that others do that this could happen in Minnesota. It's another thing for it to happen in Minneapolis.

Am I in utter disbelief? On one hand, no. On the other, as a mother raising young children who not naive but are relatively sheltered, I'm in utter disbelief. What in the world? At the Center for Economic Inclusion, we have a strong principal of wellness, and we invest in our employees' wellness, not just healthcare but the mind, body and spirit. We insist that the team do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves. We invest our time and our dollars.

In particular, when there are moments of racial crisis in our communities, we pause in those moments, and we encourage our employees to just do what you need to do. Not PTO, but just what you need to do to take care of you.

And yet when George Floyd was killed, there were no moments of self-care. It was just nonstop work around the clock. There were so many days I didn't leave this office, except to walk across the hall to change clothes and be ready for the next news cycle.

And not being from here, not having family here, my family was watching, of course, like everyone in America, but they're seeing their sister, their niece, on national news. Because of COVID, I'm also not seeing them, and so there was this moment of, "Hey, are you okay? What's happening in your city?"

It's one thing to do this work and then another to recognize that your family finally has a reckoning about what you do for a living — it's one of those things we all joke about, "Does my family actually know what I do?"

I received messages like, "Hey, are you safe? It doesn't look like you're safe there." This led to my own reckoning. Do I feel safe? Am I safe? Is my family safe? I do feel safe in my community. But am I safe from my police department? These are ongoing open questions. And data tells us no.

Again, not that these questions are new, but to be answering them in that moment on television, in addition to questions about the economics and companies who, frankly, were not all very interested in this work the week before, and then suddenly are very interested. For example, recruitment of chief diversity officers and other corporate diversity and inclusion roles were down 60 percent from March to June 2020, more than double the decrease in other job postings, and yet following George Floyd's murder, those postings and hirings have doubled.

This is the dissonance that causes us to be leading work that helps corporations adopt antiracist practices; maintaining my own optimism, hope and resiliency needed to do this work; be a partner, supporter and a coach for people; and yet still hold people accountable even while we're all hurting and aching in the work. It's a lot.


Glen: It is a lot. Pre-COVID and pre-pandemic, my teenage son would always ask me, "Well, what'd you do today, Dad?" And I would say, "Oh, I just had a bunch of fun meetings." But like you said, do they really know what you're up to, and the burden you're carrying and the impact that you're trying to have?

Now, he's watched the reality through the pandemic of, "It doesn't seem like you're having a whole lot of fun meetings, Dad." He's seen me kind of roll out of this home office just spent, right? In some ways, I think about it as the price we have to pay to close these gaps. I mean, you said 273 and 274 out of 275. I mean, that's unacceptable. We just have to be unrelenting, and unrelenting is exhausting.

So where do you get your fuel, Tawanna? Where is that reservoir coming from?


Tawanna: This is my calling. When I had the germ of the idea to launch the Center, I was almost out of my reservoir. I loved the work, and I had fun in the work that I was doing. I typically have a three-year limit for jobs; that's been my average tenure.

So when I stayed past that point at the Northside Funders Group, I was at that point of, "Okay, I'm itching, Lord. What am I supposed to do?"

I took the month of December to read, "What Happens When Women Say Yes to God," and to dedicate myself to 30 Days of Yes, with a determination that I would be clear on God's path for me, and a way to marry my ministry and my vocation. I came out of that month with full clarity about what I needed to do.

This is my calling. It's not a job. It's big some days, daunting others. But because I'm really clear that it is exactly what I am called to be doing, it keeps me grounded on the hardest of days and the best of days.


Glen: Such an interesting take. I mean, many of us spend a long time searching for that calling. And when you land on it — as much as I've been exhausted — it doesn't feel like work. It feels like exactly what you're supposed to be doing, doing what God's called us to do. So that's very encouraging to hear.

On a different tangent, how has racism showed up in the Twin Cities for you? Is there any experience that stands out for you, or maybe for one of your children, anything you'd be willing to share?


Tawanna: Have you seen the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" There's a line in the movie that goes, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three, one-thousand..." When I think about how much I love my children, I think of that line.

My children are eight and nine years old. My daughter's first glimpse at overt racism was when she was just about three. During parent-teacher conferences in a very good preschool, and her teacher said, "I really like her, but I just have to tell myself she's from New York." And my husband and I said, "Why? She was born in Maple Grove."

The teacher said, "Well, because she's just so assertive, and I find myself being so upset and threatened by it. So in order to not be so upset with her every day, I just tell myself she's from New York so I can handle it."


Glen: Amazing... 


Tawanna: My son was four and attending preschool, when he had his first experience with blatant racism. We thought having him at the school my daughter was going to would be good. They could both be there as she started first grade.

The school called one day and said they were suspending him, and I needed to pick him up right away. The principal told us she didn't know why. I thought, "Well, that's odd, and you don't know why? That's huge."

By nature, my son is very calm. I drive to this school, thinking my son must have mauled a child, if a four-year-old is being kicked out of school.

By nature, my son is very calm. I drive to this school, thinking my son must have mauled a child, if a four-year-old is being kicked out of school.

I was like, "Excuse me? I would assume if you called me to come drive across town, in the middle of the day, my son should be in so much trouble that he should be sobbing outside your office."

I find out that when it was time to come in from recess that morning, my son and another boy did not stop playing to line up. They were asked again, and they didn't comply. She told my son to sit on the ground, and he sat on the ground. And when she said to get up, he kept sitting, and she said, "If you don't get up, I'm going to kick you out of school." He's four, and he didn't know what that meant. So she suspended him from school.

After all this, I find out my son was actually being sent to the principal's office on a weekly basis and no one had bothered to tell me. The principal acknowledged that she knew it was racism, but she didn't know what to do.

The week prior to that incident, Stanford had released a study on proving the impact of early education teachers who had an innate fear of young Black boys and the likelihood of interpreting students' behavior differently based on race. I sent it to the school and transferred my son promptly before I went to jail!

I land in the space of thinking, "Wow, these are my babies, and I'm privileged. Really privileged." So if this happens to me, what happens to the children of people who no one thinks to call? What happens to the children, like my son, who don't know at four years old to tell an adult that they are being mistreated simply because they are African American? What do they begin to believe about themselves? What choices do they begin to make because of what they begin to believe in silence?

And then for me personally, doing this work, the mission of the organization I created isn't just to help businesses and policy makers but also to create systems for shared accountability for leaders and businesses to ensure they actually do the things to dismantle racism within their institutions and institutionalize equity and inclusion that they say they want to do.

At the same time, what are the consequences for leaders who look like me, who dare to create organizations or initiatives that drive for and demand accountability, and who dare to not play by the rules of fitting into historically white-led institutions? Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian leaders who create their own paths and dare to actually just say, "I want you to follow through and do what you said you were willing to do to create racial equity, inclusion and belonging.”

And in doing so, while covert, the retaliation is real and still rooted in racism, and it results in isolation, wealth extraction and power extraction. And it’s the story of Black women like me all across America.

As a region, we need to stay focused on and close the disparities that are disproportionately hurting children and people of color. It impacts our entire community. Public- and private-sector leaders play a critical role in dismantling racism and building an inclusive regional economy. We cannot accomplish it without their leadership driving change inside their organizations and spheres of influence. We also can’t accomplish it without solutions from Black-led organizations and businesses.

This requires everyone to stop passing the buck and assigning blame, turning a blind eye to the root causes of racism. Too many people are making decisions every day that are rooted in racism and a devaluation of Black and brown people and until those mental models are dismantled, we are kidding ourselves about systemic change. 

Dismantling racism impacts all of us. Our economy depends on it. We’re approaching a tipping point. The community is demanding accountability and systems change, louder and louder.

How will we answer?

The fabric of our community is built on trust and relationships. More and more leaders must wake up and realize the power of what’s possible when we dismantle the racism that impedes our ability to build trust across lines of race, and then begin to take responsibility for building deeper relationships that fuel new results across lines of race in our neighborhoods, workplaces, places of worship and community. I believe that each one of us are capable of it, but it requires a level of accountability and self-assessment, tied to asking ourselves, "What did I do today to make my world more anti-racist? How can I measure those actions? How would the next generation judge my actions?"  


Glen: What gives you hope?


Tawanna: That's a great question. My hope comes from three sources: My faith, the urgency and demand for change I see in children, and people who recognize their source of power and maximize it in the places and spaces where they are called to have the greatest impact possible.


Glen: I really appreciate your leadership. Thank you very much.


To learn more about Tawanna Black, click here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race” next week.