Pancakes, history and politics served at Urban League Black History celebration

Wintana Melekin (Chris Juhn/MSR News)

Founded in 1926 with the mission to link people of African descent and other people of color to opportunities that result in economic success and prosperity and effectively advocate for policies that eradicate racial disparities, the Urban League, located at 2100 Plymouth Ave. in North Minneapolis, celebrated Black History Month with an early morning pancake breakfast on Saturday, February 25.

This year marks the third annual pancake breakfast for the Urban League. The event, free and open to the public, featured trivia questions with prizes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. t-shirts and coupons to Red Lobster for the winners.

It also featured performances by youth Asia Land, who sang the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and a spoken word poetry performance by October. There was also a panel discussion that included former Minneapolis police officer Anthijuan Beeks, Minneapolis School Board member Kim Ellison, political representative James Trice, and Miss Black Minnesota Ambassador Cearah Hamilton.

The event was moderated by Roosevelt George, who runs a foster home. He addressed an issue that has been considered controversial in the Black community: the use of the “N-word.” While he himself doesn’t use it as a term of endearment, he knows others who do.

“I have teenage boys in my home,” explained George. “I have taught them over the years why they shouldn’t use the word. A lot of them are adults now and, believe it or not, they stopped using it on their own.”

Roosevelt George (Chris Juhn/MSR News)

George then encouraged the audience to stop using the word. “You use the N-word because you have been told it’s okay, it’s a term of endearment.” He then asked the children in the audience, “Do you like the N-word, and how often do you use it? It’s horrific to me and has painful history behind it. If you could, after this day, do not use it anymore.

“People died so that you and I can do what we are doing right now,” George continued. “You can get on the bus and go straight to the front seat with no problem. Back in the day, they could not do that. Rosa Parks did something about it and paid a price by being arrested.

“Think about the people who have bled and suffered for you, people who [were] lynched and hung in trees,” said George. “Our women were referred to as wenches. People were auctioned off. Read about strange fruit. My point is, when we use the N-word, it is a slap in the face, and a middle finger to the people who have suffered for us.”

Minneapolis Urban League President Steven Belton presented the history of the Urban League: “We are a 90-year-old civil rights organization, fighting for the just cause in fighting for African Americans. The Urban League is in the business of helping people and transforming lives, providing job opportunities, wealth accumulation, college readiness and education.

Steve Belton (Chris Juhn/MSR News)

“We are here to help you help yourself,” continued Belton. “But we are also a voice for people who are powerless. We want to make a difference in this community.”

The guest speaker was Wintana Melekin, civil and public engagement director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC). “I came to this country as an African immigrant from Sudan when I was three years old,” said Melekin. She recalled her previous job before working with NOC, which was in the healthcare field. She credits what happened with Trayvon Martin for helping her realize her true calling.

Melekin and her family came into the country through the help of a nonprofit, and the information they provided her father he shared with the rest of the family.

“On his first day in America [the nonprofit] says to my dad, ‘Don’t live near Black people. Don’t talk to them, don’t engage with them,’” recalled Melekin. “They intentionally create this methodology to African immigrants that their needs to be a social divide. That’s why you see so many Africans with anti-Blackness built into us.”

As Melekin grew older she realized the flaw in this methodology. “Police officers are going to beat up Malcolm and Mohammed. I began to organize from that ideology.”

“[Before NOC] I worked for Health Partners for 10 years,” she said. “A friend of mine made a Facebook event for us to meet up and talk about the killing of Trayvon. We only expected about 20 of us [to show up]… The event had over 7,000 people and ended up being one of the biggest rallies at the U of M.

“A few weeks later I just quit my job and became a full time organizer,” continued Melekin. “It was at that point [that] I realized I didn’t want to just work in corporate America.”

Melekin was active in efforts against Voter ID suppression, and she remembers wanting to know more about it. “I kept seeing these advertisements on TV with a Republican and a Democrat saying how if Voter ID passes, it would be bad for veterans and homeless people. They never did specify the impact on the Black community.”

She showed up at NOC every single day door-knocking, canvassing, and organizing people. “We weren’t getting any community resources at the time and had a one-person staff. When the results came out, North Minneapolis had the highest percentage of people voting no for the bill at 82 percent.

“Because of our efforts, the bill did not pass,” said Melekin. “In Wisconsin, 400,000 people could not vote because the bill passed.”

(Chris Juhn/MSR News)

Melekin stuck with NOC despite getting paid below living wage, hardly any staff, and a $15,000 budget. NOC now has a team of staff who organize around issues of criminal justice, environmental justice, and police brutality. Melekin also started working with the United Black Legislative Agenda, a partnership with various Black organizations.

After Melekin spoke, the panel invited questions from the audience regarding the community and how to effectively address police brutality. One person in the audience addressed a question to Beeks: “As a former police officer, what efforts do you see for bridging the gap between the community and the police department?”

Beeks explained that three years prior to retiring from the police force in 2015, he started a program called Face to Face. “It started as an organization that did empowerment speaking. The department needs to do a better job of community relations and…hiring people of color to help police these inner cities.

“Our communities need to stand up and police ourselves,” said Beeks. “The police can’t do it alone, and neither can the community.”

 

The Urban League is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5 pm. For questions on services they provide, contact their office at 612-302-3100.

Ivan B. Phifer welcomes readers’ responses to iphifer@spokesman-recorder.com.

 

Updated 3/2/2017