Governor promises swift action following Black Economic Summit

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

< Governor Mark Dayton, center, at the Economic Summit with State Representatives Bobby Champion (l) and Jeff Hayden

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Kenya McKnight

-Photos by Charles Hallman

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton told African American leaders last week that he would “move swiftly” to begin addressing the disparities in employment, housing and criminal justice currently facing Black Minnesotans. “I promise that we will move forward, and we will move forward together,” Dayton pledged at the March 30 Black Economic Summit at University of Minnesota Research and Outreach Center (UROC) in North Minneapolis.

He said that he and his administration “would work quickly, and respond in writing” by this Friday, April 8. After hearing the governor’s promise, State Representative Jeff Hayden (D-Minneapolis) admitted, “I don’t know any person who is in that position that would guarantee those kinds of results.”

“I was happy that he did come,” noted Rev. Jerry McAfee. During a similar meeting held last summer at the Minneapolis Urban League, located across the street from UROC, McAfee had personally invited Dayton to do something that other governors haven’t done during their time in office — meet with Blacks on the North Side.

The two-hour-plus meeting attended by more than 400 people could easily have been a “preaching to the choir” experience: “Black people are acutely aware of their conditions, and have been so for many years,” Council on Black Minnesotans Policy Analyst Roger Banks bluntly told the overflow crowd. He asserted that the conditions facing Blacks in the state are “getting worse” and resulting in “a depreciation of the status of Blacks in Minnesota.”

Rather than telling Black people what they already know, the summit was a listening session for Dayton and several members of his administration, including Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, who was also in attendance at last week’s summit.

“Some of us have probably looked at these issues before this meeting,” noted Lindsey. “The governor is committed to making Minnesota as great a state as it possibly can be, and that includes creating opportunities for all its citizens.”

Having Dayton show up impressed McAfee; having several of his key cabinet members there as well impressed him even more. “They need to hear from the people. They write stuff and do stuff that affect us, and they don’t even see our face,” said the longtime New Salem Baptist Church pastor.

The first-term Minnesota governor stood at the front of the room throughout the meeting last week and took notes as he heard presentations and recommendations from several individuals scheduled to speak to him and the audience.

St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds briefly discussed a “2-to-1” income disparity between Minnesota Blacks and Whites, and suggested a targeted jobs bill to address an “unemployment crisis” in economically disadvantaged areas such as the North Side. “They seem to be receptive of the points that were expressed,” she noted afterwards.

Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce President Leah Hargett claimed that Black-owned firms are the largest growing businesses in Minnesota, but too many have limited access to the capital required to sustain growth. She suggested that State officials should “nurture entrepreneurial energy” for Black-owned small businesses.

Dr. Tim Childs, president-owner of TLC Wafer Precision, pointed out that North Minneapolis, where his firm is based, has been “systemically neglected,” and the current economic climate “is not conductive for us [as small businesses] to provide jobs in Minnesota.”

THOR Construction’s Ravi Norman told Dayton that any large bonding and stadium construction bills must clearly spell out full workforce inclusion.

Although many left last week’s economic summit impressed with Dayton, who stayed to shake hands for several minutes afterwards, some still question whether a serious follow-up effort will result.

Northside Economic Opportunity Network Program Officer Kenya McKnight was among several community folk who spoke to Gov. Dayton during the audience participation period. “He is only one person,” she said afterwards, “and we are dealing with a mentality and a culture that has not been as welcoming. It is going to take more than him listening. It’s going to consist of us actively being engaged at the State Capitol.”

Childs said that he sees the anticipated report this week from Dayton only as a “first-run response so that he can show the community that he heard [them].” He prefers to see if the governor “will back it up and really do things for the community that also would be beneficial to the state.”

“Giving me a recommendation in nine days is a great start, but it’s not the answer to what we need,” said McKnight, adding that any further action by Dayton and his various administrators should be done with community input.

“I like to see a commitment to maybe putting together a group of business leaders within our community throughout the Metro [area], and not just the North side, to work with these departments and the [state] government to really establish relationships and solutions to addressing this problem,” McKnight said.

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