Former NEON director welcomes the challenge
Now in its 11th year, the African American Leadership Forum (AALF) has worked to sustain “leadership you can believe in,” as the expression goes. After the usual growing pains through trial-and-error, the organization has appointed a new executive director, Marcus Owens, to help take it to its next level. In our recent talk with Owens about his new position, he shared his perception of the group’s agenda going forward and how he believes his skills can help take it where it needs to go.
Prior to joining AALF, Owens served as Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) president. Before that, he cut his teeth at Target Corporation, where he developed initiatives in finance, diversity, inclusion and human resources.
Owens didn’t just leave one job to take another – he effected a career transition in community leadership. “I left the corporate realm with the mission and purpose to develop not only myself but my community,” said Owens.
“I had a lot of different perspectives I wanted to [share with] the community. NEON gave me a tremendous opportunity to form all those experiences and provide a direction that will last for a while at the organization. This was my next step.”
Owens will be introduced to the public at AALF’s annual dinner and fundraising gala on July 26. “I’m excited,” he said of this very public opportunity to put his best foot forward. “It’s truly a chance to let this community know who I am. Hopefully, I’m not new to everybody.”
Not with his track record. At NEON, he fostered partnerships and development opportunities for entrepreneurs and swelled the operational budget by upwards of 40 percent, increasing staff by almost half.
The evening, however, is a networking golden goose for even the most powerful movers and shakers. Accordingly, he states, “I’m eager to hear from stakeholders, how they want our community to look 20, 30 years from now. There are a lot of things to be said about what’s happening today. But, more importantly, where do we want to go?”
Of the night, itself, he said, “You’re going to hear from a number of key leaders being highlighted and receiving recognition for their work.”
Passing the baton
Owens succeeds retiring director Jeffrey Hassan, both distinguished contributors to the
community. In his previous roles, Hassan created the United Urban Agenda, promoting health, education, economic development and public safety priorities. He also led the founding of the Josie R. Johnson Leadership Academy, where he convened current leaders in faith, business, nonprofits and politics to mentor future leaders.
Dr. Sylvia Bartley, AALF board chair and global director for Medtronic Philanthropy, credits Hassan with addressing a crucial issue during his tenure as director. “Jeff played a critical role in re-connecting AALF with the more senior community leaders who severed ties with AALF because of this,” she said. “[He] had connections and friendships he leveraged to re-engage folks and establish ties to the community, like the Urban Agenda series and Black legislative agenda.”
Owens realizes he’s entrusted to improve on AALF’s legacy – no small challenge. “As I think of where we’ve come from at the Forum and where we are going, we have a solid foundation. Jeff has done a fantastic job of building our reputation, [cultivating] partnerships, [and] laying groundwork for what’s ahead.”
Advancing an agenda
“The Forum is a movement, a collective making a greater impact [for] the community,” Owens notes. “My focus is the next level.
“One of the biggest things [is having] a strong infrastructure,” he said of his game plan. “What type of services, what programs we can deliver to strengthen the African American community…developing our leaders.”
Owens added that a key component is communication: “getting information out into the community in way that they’re more aware of what’s going on in our community – the problems as well as the solutions.”
On that agenda is media outreach with its myriad avenues, anchored by the group’s weekly African American Forum broadcast on KMOJ hosted by Bartley. “It’s a multifaceted approach,” said Owens.
“Technology is changing – nationally and globally. We have to find different vehicles to engage that content [and archive it] so people always have access, can see and hear from the great leaders already in our community,” he said. “And, highlighting the work being done [and] progress happening in the community.”
“Print media is a huge way to connect with the community,” he said, adding AALF will also look into other prospects, such as community cable access television stations. “We have to [explore] all those different things. However our community is accessing information, we should definitely be a part of putting content with it.”
Owens underscores an abiding priority for his administration: “to focus on gaining ground on our core values as an organization, with attention to health, education, and economic development.”
Rather than simply deciding for himself what people need to know, Owens places great value on research and going “deep into the numbers about what’s happening in our community,” he said. “In this work, there are a lot of layers to [a] problem. When you have information, you’re able to distill it down and get a clear picture of what we want to see for our future.”
That information, he said, helps them inform the community. “My approach is to have an ear to the people who have done the hard work over the last 10 years and figure out how to improve it from there. There’s great potential to go further than we’ve thought.”
The 2018 African American Leadership Forum annual dinner takes places July 26 at the JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America. The evening will feature keynote speaker Carla Harris, former President Obama’s appointee to the National Women’s Business Council; Emmy Award-winner T. Mychael Rambo; and three-time Grammy Award-winning Sounds of Blackness directed by Gary Hines. For more information, visit aalftc.org.