Power in unity: State’s Black lawmakers join forces

(l-r) Sen. Bobby Joe Champion; Rep. Ruth Richardson; Rep. Mohamud Noor;
Rep. Hodan Hassan; Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Rena Moran

Though participating in one of the most diverse legislatures in state history, Minnesota’s Black lawmakers still face an uphill battle with both representation and systemic disparities. Even with record numbers of legislators of color, the governing body remains overwhelmingly White and out-state in its composition.

Black Minnesotans make up approximately six percent of the state’s population, while the six Black legislators in office make up less than three percent of the legislature. However, they understand the power of bridge-building and are looking to amplify their efforts with their formation of the United Black Legislative Caucus.

The four Black state representatives and two Black senators have teamed up to address criminal justice issues and economic and educational disparities between Black and White communities in Minnesota. They include three veteran lawmakers — Senators Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion (both Minneapolis) and Rep. Rena Moran (St. Paul) — and three newcomers to the State House this year — Reps. Hodan Hassan (Minneapolis), Mohamud Noor (Minneapolis), and Ruth Richardson (Mendota Heights).

“The newly formed United Black Caucus creates an opportunity for legislators to intentionally engage other policymakers, community and business leaders around issues and resolutions that will improve the lives of Blacks and Minnesotans as a whole through strategic partnerships,” said Champion in a press statement.

The Black legislators have already hit the ground running, partnering on new bills and reintroducing some from the previous legislative session. From legislation to stop the removal of Black children from their homes to a bill that would make it easier for low-income students to access driver’s education, they are crafting solutions to empower constituents and reduce racial disparities.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Courtesy of Wikipedia

Keeping Black families together

Last week, Rep. Moran and Sen. Hayden reintroduced their joint Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act at the State Capitol. The bill (S.F. 730 and H.F. 342), first introduced last session, would stop the arbitrary removal of Black children from their homes by the child protection department.

Black youth in Minnesota face alarming racial disparities across the entire child protection process — from reporting and screening to assessment and discharge. A high percentage are also getting caught up in the juvenile justice system.

“For too long we’ve failed to address the unequal treatment and poor child welfare outcomes for African American children and their families,” said Sen. Hayden. “African American children are over three times more likely than White kids to be reported to child protection, while at the same time [Black parents are] less likely to receive services that allow their children to stay in the home.”

The act would oversee the creation of an African American Child Welfare Advisory Council and an African American child wellbeing department within the Department of Human Services to provide oversight and accountability.

“All legislators, Democratic and Republican alike, should share the goal of keeping families together, and the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act will help ensure this can happen everywhere in our state,” said Rep. Moran. “There are more effective strategies we can utilize to ensure the safety of children while looking toward their long-term best interests. I’m hopeful this bill will give us a pathway to explore these.”

Educational solutions

Rep. Richardson presented two new education bills this week focused on providing suicide prevention training for Minnesota teachers and increasing access to driver’s education.

Minnesota’s youth suicide rate is higher than the national average, with suicide being the leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 17.

Under Rep. Richardson’s bipartisan Teacher Suicide Prevention Bill (H.F. 813) which was approved Tuesday, every teacher throughout the state would receive evidence-based online training on suicide prevention and how to engage students experiencing mental distress.

Rep. Richardson also presented a driver’s education bill (H.F. 987) to have school districts pay a portion of driver’s education enrollment costs for low-income students between the ages of 15 and 19. The bill would create a working group to identify access barriers for low-income students and permanent funding sources to expand course availability.

“There was a time when taking driver’s education was considered a rite of passage, and young drivers were often trained for free through the public school system. Today, a driver’s education course can cost around $400,” said Rep. Richardson.

“Driver’s license fees are one of the hidden barriers that prevent low-income students from attaining their driver’s license, and the mobility and opportunities that come with it. This bill is about equal access to education, employment, housing and services for all.”

Economic reform

Rep. Mohamud Noor testifying on behalf of cash bail reform. \\ Photo courtesy of Minnesota House Photography

Last week, Rep. Noor presented legislation (H.F. 741) to reduce the use of cash bail for misdemeanor offenses, with companion legislation authored by Sen. Champion in the Senate.

The proposed bill would allow defendants with certain misdemeanors to be released without financial conditions — unless the courts determine they are a substantial flight risk or danger to the community. Many nonviolent offenders cannot afford the 10 percent bail bonds and are forced to remain in jail, often losing their jobs and housing as a result.

“This bill is important because people who commit minor offenses should be able to continue contributing to our society through work, education, and family responsibilities,” said Noor.

“Cash bail serves essentially as a get-out-of-jail-free card that applies only to people who can afford it, while people who can’t afford it are often forced to pay unconscionable rates in bail bonds or remain in jail before they’ve been convicted of a crime.”

In addition, Rep. Hassan has co-authored several bills, including bipartisan legislation (H.F. 605) to provide low-income individuals with career education and job skills training integrated with chemical and mental health services. The bill would provide a $1.2M grant to nonprofit AVIVO over a two-year period to integrate the training with its chemical and mental health services.

“This bill is about removing barriers for Minnesotans to prosper,” said Rep. Hassan. “It gives all Minnesotans a chance to succeed and hold good-paying jobs, regardless of mental health or income status.”

Rep. Hassan’s other co-authored bills include legislation to provide funding for Minneapolis public housing renovation (H.F. 407) and another to require landlords to provide written leases for their tenants (H.F. 495).

The fate of this proposed legislation now depends on how successfully the United Black Legislative Caucus can garner support from community members and fellow legislators. Its members are confident that by acting in unison, their influence will outweigh their limited numbers. “We are going to be a force to be reckoned with,” said Sen. Hayden.

Editor’s note: The United Black Legislative Caucus will host a screening ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ Feb. 26 in honor of Black History Month. Go here for more info.