‘I fought to make change’
When you find someone who has seen nearly seven decades of social change, it’s probably a good idea to sit back and listen to them tell of their experiences. Such is the case with 68-year-old Dianne Binns.
Binns is the current president of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) St. Paul chapter. She has done it all, seen it all, and still fights for what she believes in each day.
“I’ve [grown] up in [racism] my whole life,” she said. “I remember having the colored bathrooms and water fountains that were dirty, walking five miles to school when there was one right up the road, because it was an all-White school.
“We only went to school until the 8th grade,” she said in of her young life in Arkansas. “We went to school in the winter, spring, and a month in the summer, because we had to work the fields.”
“I always had a passion for civil rights,” she said. “I remember Martin Luther King and going to the sit-in they were having for the garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The garbage driver crushed a few of the workers. King and the community were outraged.”
She moved to Minnesota in 1967 and saw opportunity where other people did not. She was married at 13, had five children with her husband, and divorced him after six years. She first obtained her G.E.D, then attended the University of Minnesota where she obtained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in sociology.
In 1989, she got involved with organizing around issues related to welfare recipients. “It was the first organization I became involved with. It was around the fact that folks on welfare did not have IDs or bank accounts.”
It was then that she met Katie McWatt, a St. Paul activist who has a street named in her honor right around the corner from the Martin Luther King Center in St Paul. “What impressed me was when she ran for city council [even though she didn’t win]. When she jumped in that ditch to fight for jobs for African Americans, that really impressed me.”
They also fought for fair housing for people on welfare. “We had a news conference and everything,” Binns said with obvious pleasure. “We kind of took off how Black Lives Matter did. Mothers on welfare from the community took a stand against the banks that cashed our checks who treated us like we were less than. We changed that.”
Over a six-year period at Stillwater prison she worked as a social worker, prison guard, and case manager. “I fought to make change for the better of the inmates and people of color who worked there. I didn’t like being a guard, but I liked working with the inmates.”
She provided the inmates with soul food dinners and gave them extra help after hours. In appreciation of her work for them, the inmates gave her a clock as a gift.
Since she was able to vote at age 18, Binns has not missed participating in one election. “My grandmother always said you have to be on your toes all the time and become knowledgeable about issues that will affect you, because while you’re sleep, someone is always plotting your ill will.”
She became intrigued by the NAACP when she was young. Since 1992, she has served in nearly every position of the NAACP, including treasurer, secretary, and vice president.
“We can regulate laws, but not people’s hearts,” said Binns. “Donald Trump getting elected lets me know we haven’t accomplished as much as I thought we had. No matter how many marches we have after the fact, he is still the president for the next four years.”
With Obama, she was happy with the election. It was her mother who warned her of the ill will that would be held towards him after the inauguration: “We are going to catch hell, watch these White folks,” she said, repeating her mother’s words.
She is currently working on collaborating with criminal justice professionals for a program called LEGIT to be offered in the high schools that would allow students to know their rights when they encounter police, and also teach them about their history and background.
“We can never forget our past,” Binns said. “It’s going to determine what we do with our future. The Jewish people will never let you forget their Holocaust; we will not let people forget ours, either. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go before we see the equality.”
Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.