By Jamal Denman
On Thursday, June 28, the Minnesota Humanities Center in St. Paul held the second in its “Lunch and Learn” series, an event that provides — along with a delicious lunch — opportunity for people to hear and engage with the stories of community leaders. Each Lunch and Learn is connected to a specific Humanities Center program.
June’s event was tied to the program Firsts: Minnesota’s African American Groundbreakers, a documentary highlighting the achievements and challenges of six Minnesotans who were the first African Americans to represent a variety of fields and positions. It featured former Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who is one of the interview subjects, and award-winning author Alexs Pate, who is the host, writer and producer of the Firsts program.
The purpose of the event was for Pate and Sayles Belton to share accounts of their personal journeys and “discuss the impetus behind the documentary and consider the role of these influential individuals in Minnesota’s history.” Although the documentary was discussed, the core of the conversation focused on influence, effecting change, and creating a better future for young people.
The tone of the conversation was set by David O’Fallon, president and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, who introduced Pate and Sayles Belton. O’Fallon mentioned that his granddaughter will be 80 years old in the year 2090 and wondered what kind of world we are creating for her generation.
Pate, in the role of moderator probing the former mayor to share her story and insight, concisely described how the accomplishments of people like Sayles Belton impact society as a whole. “This country has a history, and this history tells us constantly what we are not supposed to be doing. And yet people stand up to that system all the time and break through and move forward. And [as a result] the whole world moves forward; the communities that they represent, the cities, the states, and the country, we all move forward.”
After describing the Firsts documentary and how it came to be, Pate asked Sayles Belton to share her thoughts about what they discussed in the interview for the documentary. “The thing that I would like to emphasize,” she said, “is that my election to the position of mayor was really one that I think the broader community owns — and particularly the community of women, and I mean all women.
“So it wasn’t just women in Minneapolis or St. Paul, which is my hometown, but it was really across the state of Minnesota; and it was also women across the entire United States,” proclaimed Sayles Belton.
When looking back at past records, letters, and volunteer lists, she is reminded of how women of all colors and from different parts of the country had made significant contributions to all aspects of her campaign. “When I think about my life’s work, one of the cornerstones of it is giving empowerment to women.”
The ultimate goal of Sayles Belton and the core of her election team, a small group of women she referred to as “the masterminds behind the mayoral election,” was not just to get the first African American woman elected. “The intent was not just to get a woman elected the mayor of the city of Minneapolis; it was really a stepping stone to doing more things… If I am the only [African American female] person that is ever elected the mayor of the city of Minneapolis, we will not have achieved our goal and objective,” Sayles Belton stressed.
She believes that preparing women to participate in the formation of public policies is an important part of creating equity among men and women in society. She also believes that having more women in public office will help instill confidence in future generations.
Sayles Belton acknowledged the significance of her family, church and neighborhood in nurturing her and gave them a lot of credit for her election. She expressed how important she felt it was to show and prove that African Americans are capable of representing the masses, especially since during her campaign she occasionally encountered people who questioned her ability to represent them because they were not African American.
“It was really good to be able to get this victory [in the mayoral election] and say, yeah, African Americans, we know how to roll; we know how to get things done!”
Sayles Belton advises anyone who has a vision and a goal they aspire to accomplish to “have a good solid plan [and] stay the course. There are going to be distracters; there’ll be lots of barriers that just kind of come up just because life’s not always easy, but you just have to stay the course.” She also suggests finding a balance between work and family, believing that making time for family is extremely important.
Having spent time early in her career working in corrections, Sayles Belton said she learned a valuable lesson that was the foundation of her commitment to public service: “If we invest in children at a young age when problems first are identified, we can prevent crime and a life of destruction for the individual.
“And if we don’t — if we continue as politicians [and] community leaders to condone putting bad names on social problems or any other kinds of problems — we are doomed to waste resources and waste lives…
“If you looked at my agenda around public safety, around education, around economic development, about personal responsibility and self sufficiency, it was all about getting rid of the Band-Aid approaches and getting to the core of the problem. That saves taxpayers money. That gives you the will to carry on and invest in it. That gives everybody the ability to be able to tap into their own human potential and give back and contribute to the community. I’m still very passionate about that.”
Sayles Belton encourages everyone to get involved and do something about the issues they are concerned with, and not wait for someone else to do it. “Everybody in this room and every other room I’ve been in gives a hoot about kids, but what are they doing?
“They want to point to teachers in the classroom and say, ‘You fix it.’ They want to point to the principal and say, ‘It’s your responsibility.’ They want to point to somebody else and say, ‘It’s your job. It’s your job, Mother, your job, Dad. Those are your kids, those are not mine.’ [But] they are ours.
“They are our children; they are our future; they are our legacy. And we just need to turn that dial up and no more excuses.” She advised everyone in the audience to relay that message whenever the opportunity arises.
Sayles Belton believes, in large part due to the influence of her grandfather, that you do not need any certain qualifications or belong to a certain income bracket to make a difference. “You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be wealthy, you don’t have to do a lot; you just have to care,” she offered.
“I think every young person — regardless of their circumstances — needs a mentor. All kids need access to a mentor, a caring adult, somebody who is really going to have their back,” said Sayles Belton. She believes that the resources are out there, and it is up to community leaders and other caring adults to ensure that the connections are made.
“I think this conversation could be beneficial to a lot of other places,” said Pate as the event concluded, “because people don’t get this perspective that often.” He suggested taking it “on the road” and sharing the conversation with people in various communities.
Firsts: Minnesota’s African American Groundbreakers was co-produced by the Council on Black Minnesotans, the St. Paul Neighborhood Network, and the Minnesota Humanities Center.
Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.