As executive director for the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, Justin Terrell heads a venerated 38-year-old organization undergoing a period of transition.
He stepped on board this past December amidst a sea change of directors and staff vacancies. “I believe [I’m] the fourth director in the past five years,” he said. “There were issues. I can’t really speak to it, [because] I respect all my predecessors. Black folks are way too hard on each other when it comes to politics.”
Right now, he’s intent on redirecting the organization’s focus and direction. “It’s a long-term strategy – a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “People have done what they could to get us where we are,” he said. “My job is to take us forward. What I’m doing now is just righting the ship.”
The Council was first created in 1980 as the Council on Black Minnesotans to advise the governor and state legislature on issues concerning African Americans, along with other councils representing other communities of color. In 2015, it was renamed to ensure full, effective participation of the broader population in developing the policies and procedures of Minnesota state government.
First come the fundamentals: The Council is now hiring new staff and building relationships with legislators. “For the first time in a while, we have two legislators of color,” noted Terrell. “Senator Peter Hayden joins us this year. Representative Rena Moran has been here the past couple years. So, now we need [two] Republican members. That’s a top priority.”
Since President Trump, the word “Republican” has taken on worse connotations for Black Americans than usual. However, Terrell clarifies, “We’re a State agency, nonpartisan. Our job is to advise all 201 legislators and Governor Dayton [and] make sure the community knows they have a voice at the Capitol. I talk to Republicans a lot to make sure they know what’s going on in our community. We’ve been able to work well with both parties this year.”
Also on his agenda is reevaluating policy. “What I’d like to do is open the door to the community, figure out what Black-led organizations are working on policy that matters to the community, [and determine] how to support that at the Capitol.”
He’s also broadening the Council’s focus to capitalize on their strength in numbers. “I’m not just talking about Minneapolis and St. Paul, but across the state – St. Cloud, Rochester – to build relationships where we see growth in [the Black population].”
His latest foray into community groundwork was at a July 12 public forum addressing increased community concern over Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) violence in Black neighborhoods – most pointedly the June 23 shooting death of Thurman Blevins, Jr.
“I’m always going to make sure those in power, especially White folks in power, hear from my people.”
The Council joined Minnesota MAD DADS, Liberty Church, Justice Leadership Solutions and ReCAST Minneapolis at Webber Park to host the meeting. It did not go smoothly, however, mainly in response to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BCA) presence. The ensuing uproar called a halt to proceedings.
“Some community members didn’t want to hear that conversation,” explained Terrell. “They’re upset about another Black [person] dead in the street. I’m upset about that. We decided to end the meeting,” he said.
“We asked the [media] cameras to leave, and everybody who was upset left along with the cameras. Some of us were able to sit down after that and evaluate what went on.”
Pursuant to which he did hands-on follow-up: “I had meetings in the neighborhood with folks who wanted to keep talking, meeting with [them] individually.”
Much of the uproar was due to the fact that MPD body cam footage from Blevin’s shooting has yet to see the light of day. And, the longer the delay, the stronger speculation grows that the BCA and MPD have something to hide.
“After listening to community, I might have ideas on how the BCA can proceed,” said Terrell. Among them is creating a timeline for releasing the footage at the center of this controversy.
“We would like them to release [that footage]. In other cities, they clarify in law. In Chicago, it’s a 60-day standard, but recently, they’ve released tapes 12 days after the shooting. In Minnesota, the statutes are so blurry [they give] the BCA more ways to say ‘No’. I would like to clarify statutes that say, ‘Yes, there needs to be some structure in state law instead of damaging trust relationships that are already bad.’
“We’d like to see a transparent process. After the Jamar Clark case, we already know there’s a lack of trust in the BCA. Honestly, it’s good the meeting got full charged and people got angry. Drew Evans of the BCA got to see what Black pain looks like.”
But, it doesn’t faze Terrell that he caught flak for the BCA being in attendance. “That’s my job,” he explained. “The people in power who make decisions about our community…[the Council’s] job is to make sure our community is connected to those places of power.
“People can be mad at me for bringing the superintendent to the neighborhood. I’m always going to make sure those in power, especially White folks in power, hear from my people. Whether I have to bring them to get yelled out or people want to come to the Capitol and meet with them. Work collaboratively toward a real solution. I’m not tripping about that meeting. It was a good meeting.”
He is clear, however, that the Black community is rightfully distrustful.
“[The BCA has] investigated 1999 officer-involved shootings in the past several years. Not a single one of those officers has gone to jail. If officers never go to prison for murdering Black people, you’re not going to have trust, and some people won’t want to hear what you have to say.”
He acknowledges the perceived double standard by which former MPD officer Mohamed Noor has been fired and faces trial for the death of a White woman, Justine Damond. “As soon as you see Black folks demanding change, they find a way for a Black officer to go down.
“It’s suspicious. The first time they established a new standard, it’s against our people.”
For more information on the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, visit https://mn.gov/cmah.