Belton felt called to the work, seeing much need for change
This year’s plan for the Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) emphasizes its health and wellness programming, Steven Belton, MUL president, told the MSR in a recent interview at the organization’s Northside headquarters. Since health disparities greatly affect the Black community, the organization’s focus in 2016 will be “to develop and enhance” its health initiatives.
It is one of several main “intersections,” along with college readiness and career development, employment and wealth accumulation. that the MUL is primarily working on in helping its constituents. Additionally, “We are looking at a partnership…in renewing our educational advocacy,” said Belton. “We will develop and sharpen our educational strategy,” which includes the possibility of either starting a charter school or being an authorizer of an existing school.
Initially named MUL interim president early last year when the previous president, Scott Gray, resigned, Belton at the time said that he would remain in the position until a permanent president was hired. He indicated then that he was not interested in the job on a permanent basis.
“The change of mind was slow and unexpected,” he said. “I never expected to fall in love with the job,” admitted the local youth minister who was named permanent MUL president at the December 16 board meeting. “The Minneapolis Urban League is an expression of ministry. Not everyone is called to do this work.”
Belton recalled former National Urban League President Marc Morial’s advice last summer that leading the organization is “a secular call to a high intensity urban ministry.” Belton, however, takes over at a time when the Urban League and other such organizations are financially challenged both locally and nationally.
The MUL, amidst mainstream media headlines, last year fought against allegations of financial mismanagement that later proved unfounded. A four-decade relationship with Minneapolis Public Schools also ended last year when MUL’s Urban League Academy, an alternative high school, closed last summer. Then last November came the Jamar Clark shooting and the three-week occupation of the Fourth Precinct station across the street from the MUL headquarters that followed.
When asked about the current state of police-community relations, Belton said, “I think the Black community in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities, and Black folk all over the state of Minnesota and in the nation, are in a wait-and-see position to see if there is going to be justice and transparency,” stated Belton. “Justice doesn’t necessarily require a specific outcome, but it requires transparency in the process, that there will be a fair and impartial investigation, and the results of that investigation will make sense.
“There is a singular community narrative” still circulating on what really happened when Clark was shot in November, Belton pointed out. “He was cuffed, restrained and escorted, and was not resisting arrest” according to that narrative. Belton added that investigators must “reconcile that narrative with whatever propaganda and competing narrative of what the police are saying. I think the situation is sensitive and volatile, depending on what happened.”
During the Clark protest, it appeared that a rift between its young leaders and the so-called “old guard” Blacks occurred as well. “I don’t see a generational divide but an informational divide,” said Belton.
“When I was 24 years old, I was distrustful of people in leadership positions and thought they were out of touch and weren’t listening. But distrust can be overcome.
“In the Black community, there is a historical distrust about any institution…and authority. We all have different functions, different roles, different gifts and different talents. There is room at the table in the struggle.”
Lessons were learned from the occupation on many sides, said Belton. “I certainly learned some things from the occupation and the events of the past two months. I am more informed in the way that I operate, and I would expect that the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, and everybody else — even the Minneapolis Police Department and the mayor — learned some things.”
Belton doesn’t agree with some critics of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges that she didn’t do much in the aftermath of the Clark shooting. “She was in this room on more than one occasion during the occupation,” recalled Belton. But he does agree that Mayor Hodges must be more out front in such crisis situations, and that another tragic situation can occur at any time, “which is a reality in the Black community.”
Belton said the mayor should use her elected position more forcefully, despite the city’s “strong council, weak mayor form of government. The real authority of the mayor’s job is the bully pulpit, to speak policy and programs.
“God forbid there will be another Jamal Clark in 2016,” continued Belton, “another unplanned circumstance that calls for community leadership and mayoral leadership. I suspect that the mayor is an introvert in her personality style, but a professional extrovert [is what] her job requires her to be, outgoing and engaged.”
Despite being halfway through her first term, “She is still new to her job,” said Belton. “I would hope that it gets better.”
Belton said that he has little or no hope that a special state legislative session that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton promoted last month to address disparities in the Black community will be called. He attributed to some state legislators who were against it “perhaps intentional ignorance, turning a blind eye or cold shoulder, or being intentionally vague.
“[These] issues that continue to simmer, the tremendous resource gaps and disparities that illustrate the differences in resources and outcomes, and also the differences in distribution of resources” in our community still must be seriously addressed, said Belton.
“Minnesota can afford to address this problem. There’s $15 million on the table to address African American disparities,” he noted on the reported state budget surplus. But he quickly pointed out that amount is “a drop in the bucket” compared to the level of need.
“We need more than money to address [the disparities]. We need a change in attitude, a change in the body politic, and a change in allocation of resources across the table.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.