ISAIAH urges Dayton to eliminate state’s racial inequities

by Charles Hallman

Although the Minnesota gubernatorial race is still undecided, Mark Dayton and members of his transition team listened last Sunday as faith and community leaders stressed their concerns that racial disparities in Minnesota must be seriously addressed by the next administration.

ISAIAH, a group of 90 congregations from the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, sponsored the two-hour “Shining the Light: A Faith Gathering for Minnesota’s Future” December 5 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

“We took a risk” in assembling the event, admitted ISAIAH Executive Director Doran Schrantz. It “took very diverse perspectives, from an evangelical perspective to Roman Catholic, to Lutheran and to Baptist perspectives, to say we actually would come together and launch a partnership with the new governing administration around a set of issues that have been stuck in this state for a very long time,” she added.

“It takes a lot of hope and courage for people to take a step to do that,” Schrantz noted. Organizers expected at least 1,500 in attendance, and “not too many empty seats” were seen according to an ISAIAH spokesperson.

“It’s time for us to see one Minnesota, where we all are looked upon as being equal, and we have equal opportunity and access to education and health care,” said Rev. Billy Russell, pastor of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

The event was a culmination of a series of “house meetings” to discuss how to eliminate these persistent disparities. “We’ve engaged 210 faith communities throughout the state of Minnesota in conversations in living rooms, church basements, and all over the place, where people have talked deeply about the issues,” explained Rev. Paul Stack, ISAIAH co-chair of the Clergy and Religious Leaders Caucus.

Markeesha Zigbuo, a teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin School District and a member of Stack’s New Creation Church in Brooklyn Park, said, “I facilitated about four house meetings and met with about 30 to 40 people.

All my house meetings were predominately African Americans, who have had some of the same concerns and same issues: inequity in our healthcare system, education system, the jobs and housing.”

Before the event, Dayton spoke briefly to the MSR. “It’s very important to bring in people from all over Minnesota to become involved in making lives better for all Minnesotans,” he noted.

Then Dayton and two members of his transition team, Lee Sheehy and Cindy Jesson, sat and listened to individual testimonies. Zigbuo was among the testifiers: “My main point was to get our new administration, new governor, and the department of education to understand that we can’t wait. We need to have a serious sense of urgency when it comes to the disparities that are happening in our school systems.”

Both Sheehy and Jesson also participated in two roundtable discussions centered on public investments and education that Stack moderated.

“I was really encouraged that so many people have been prepared for this discussion,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, who was among six participants in the public investment discussion.

St. Paul Federation of Teachers Local 28 President Mary Cathryn Ricker said during the education discussion that the State Department of Education must help find more teachers of color rather than expect school districts to do this alone. Organizing Apprenticeship Project Senior Organizer Julia Freeman added that equity and excellence should be equally stressed by State education officials.

“I’m very grateful for the time and thoughts. We learned a lot,” said Sheehy afterwards. Added Jesson, “I didn’t just listen, but [also] took notes.”

Eliminating racial and economic disparities is important to “the future of Minnesota,” Dayton told the audience upon receipt of around 160 letters from ISAIAH congregations. “It is all of us together,” he said.

State Sen. John Marty was among several dignitaries who also attended Sunday’s event. He said of Dayton, “I think he has the real potential to lead, and that means you can’t duck talk about racial issues or poverty. I think we have a real chance to make a difference.”

“It’s high time that we were prepared to have such a conversation at this level, and with the participation of our governor-elect and his transition staff,” Carter said afterwards.

Sunday’s event was “a creation of a new coalition,” believes ISAIAH President Rev. Grant Stevensen, pastor of St. Matthews Lutheran Church/Spirit of Truth in St. Paul. “I think people came to this room prepared to hear this message,” he said afterwards.

When asked if he thought Dayton heard this message as well, Stevensen said, “I think he’s open to what we’re talking about. I think [his transition team members] have an open spirit about this kind of racial equity agenda [and] a healthy community agenda.”

“Based on the conversations we had with him [in September], and the one we had with him today, there are signs that he has listened to what we had to say and taken it to heart,” noted Stack of Dayton.

“This was a great beginning to the kind of community engagement we need with the Dayton administration. If we’re really going to achieve racial equity that we need, it’s going to take community investments, having measurements that are meaningful as indicators that we are closing the gap in terms of jobs and educational achievement.”

“Our job as a community is to hold them accountable to [achieving racial] equity,” said Freeman of the presumed governor-elect and his administration.

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