Council on Black Minnesotans announces ‘aggressive’ agenda during its ‘Day on the Hill’

Director laments tepid support from Black legislators 

The Black population in Minnesota has increased by at least six times since the

Edward McDonald (l) and Jeff Hayden
Edward McDonald (l) and Jeff Hayden

Council on Black Minnesotans (COBM) was founded in 1980. The COBM’s primary mission is to advise the governor and the state legislature “on statutes or rules necessary to ensure that Black people have access to benefits and services provided to people in this state,” according to the preamble to its charter that was passed out during its annual “Day on the Hill” event last week.

Executive Director Edward McDonald talked January 15 with more than 30 “lobbyists” at Christ Lutheran Church, located across the street from the capitol building, who gathered there after visiting lawmakers. He said that it’s even more important that the state legislative body hear “the furious cry” from Black Minnesotans to seriously address the various disparities in the state.

He pointed out that the 2015 state legislature is deciding how to allocate “$40 billion,” of which he estimates about $200 million could go toward the 2015 COBM legislative proposals, which include establishing grants to create more jobs, creating a housing initiative for more Black homeowners, and creating “urban agriculture development zones.”

“The Council’s agenda is pretty aggressive this year,” McDonald emphasized.

“We talk a lot about disparities, but rarely does it turn into action,” noted University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds. “We’re tired of business as usual.”

The COBM also is proposing “organization expansion legislation” to open satellite offices in Rochester, Duluth, Mankato and St. Cloud. “The African heritage population has expanded [statewide] — 25 percent of that [population] is our new immigrants,” explained McDonald.

However, McDonald warned during the gathering that there is pushback from some legislators, including “those who say they represent your community.” When later asked if this includes the state’s only three Black legislators — Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul), and Senators Bobby Joe Champion and Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) — McDonald told the MSR, “I know that in the past [Moran, Champion and Hayden] have stated they had some issues with the Council. But it’s a new day, a new council board, and a new executive director, and even new office space. We’re doing what we are supposed to do.”

State House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen told the MSR that the Council can “be an important voice” in advocating for eliminating disparities.

“We are getting a lot of support over there from legislators,” said McDonald. “I am just surprised that we are not getting the support from our Black legislators.”

The MSR asked Sen. Hayden to comment on McDonald’s assessment. “We are 100 percent in support of the Council,” said the senator. On the COBM expansion bill, “First of all, Mr. McDonald has never presented the bill formally to us,” responded Hayden. “He apparently went to Sen. [Sandy] Pappas [to] have her author the bill.

“Let me be clear,” Hayden continued. “There ought to be a Council for Black Minnesotans, but we do believe there needs to be accountability, [the need to] have direction and focus.” But he warned, “I would never want to expand something if I wasn’t sure they were getting the job done today.”

Earlier, Hayden told the audience that the Senate is actively discussing several key bills, including providing free tuition for community college students and a pre-K bill that would provide free programs for preschool children. “There are a whole host of bills,” he pointed out.

Hayden told the MSR that the free community college tuition bill “is a fantastic opportunity for our kids not to be saddled with debt if they have to end up in the community college system. I think early childhood education is paramount. I do think we really need to take a deeper look at our school systems and figure out what are the challenges and why are our kids not being prepared right.

“I do think we need to put a hefty investment in making sure that our economic development plan…starts to create wealth in our community. Lastly, I am worried about the gentrification of our communities, and how are we going to stay in our core cities and live in really good housing”

Minnesota “has a tarnished image,” stated St. Paul NAACP President Jeffry Martin. “We used to be the land of prosperity. Now we’re the land of disparities.”

Martin told the MSR that he wants the state legislature “to put us [Blacks] in the forefront, instead of being added on” in their decision making. “We want the legislature to fight not only for African Americans but for Minnesotans in general, to make us a state of equality.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.