Can MN lead the nation in disparities reduction?

Kevin Lindsey
Submitted photo Kevin Lindsey

Humanities Center CEO Lindsey says that’s doable

“To the extent that people can control their narrative, they have a better chance of controlling their destiny,” said Kevin Lindsey, the Minnesota Humanities Center’s newly hired CEO. “I think that sometimes gets overlooked in the realm of social justice.”

 Helping people use their voices to “identify issues of concern, identify strategies and solutions to problems or ‘opportunities,’” is what he said attracted him to the nonprofit. “That’s really critical, and the humanities can play a role in that.”

Defining humanities as “the study of how people process and document the human experience,” the Center is one of 56 state humanities councils across the country, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 “What we seek to do is create a just society that is connected, curious and compassionate,” said Lindsey. “We also seek to create space for people who have not had a place at the table to have their voices heard — either in the public or in the public policy arena.”

It’s a pretty lofty goal given Minnesota’s glaring disparities. While known overall as being one of the best states to live, bike and work in, it’s also known as one of the worst states for Blacks and other people of color with respect to income, homeownership, education, and other critical facts of life.

“We’re trying to reduce disparities and impact educational achievement and outcomes,” said Lindsey.

Admittedly, while the Center has been around for half a century, many Minnesotans still have no clue what it does or how it works. “The Humanities Center, to some degree, is not on folks’ radar,” said Lindsey.  

Part of his goal, he said, “is to raise its visibility and then also ensure that we are authentically participating with people and that we are truly collaborating with them to help them shape their narrative.”

Over the next month, Lindsey will be hosting a series of community engagement sessions to help raise awareness of the Center and its work. Its current efforts are varied and wide-reaching, ranging from grant-giving and programming to civic engagement and culturally based programming. 

Many of those initiatives impact curriculum diversity across the state, including an educator’s institute and anthologies that highlight traditionally absent or marginalized writers.

Lindsey referred to Blues Vision, a collection of stories by African American authors released in 2015, and a Somali youth anthology set to be released this fall.

The Center has also facilitated extensive work with Minnesota’s Indigenous people, including the traveling “We Are Water MN” exhibit, which focuses on the impact of the state’s waterways from recreation, job development and health.

In addition, the Center is now exploring the impact of change in St. Paul and other areas through an African American lens. “We’re looking at being intentional on highlighting and amplifying some of the stories and giving more of a complete history and a more complete understanding of place,” Lindsey explained.

An example is a recent partnership with Rondo Avenue, Inc. and local publishing house In Black Ink to develop a series of children’s books highlighting the historic St. Paul neighborhood. “That shapes the narrative of how people see African Americans within the state of Minnesota. And it’s something in which people [who live here] are controlling the narrative, as opposed to having someone else tell their story.”

Beyond its own programming, the Center provides micro-grants of up to $2,000 to individuals and community groups to create humanities-related projects, including the Humanities Innovation Lab, as well as other funding opportunities via Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment.

With that, Lindsey said, MHC is looking to be “very proposal-friendly to the community.” This includes limiting the red tape in the application process, even allowing individuals to leave voice and video submissions. 

Pulling from his previous work as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Lindsey is also seeking to build bridges between the community and policymakers. “People who are impacted by policy, they often have the best ideas,” he said.

“They have the most knowledge about how the policies impact them. They really should be co-creating policy.”

He applauded efforts at the State and legislative levels, including Gov. Tim Walz’s “One Minnesota” and legislation spearheaded by Rep. Rena Moran and Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion. These efforts address equal pay disparities; maternity accommodations; banning the box, which bars private employers from asking applicants about their criminal history; and expungement laws, which allow people to petition the court for expungement of criminal records.

Lindsey hopes MHC can be involved with helping to bring even more people to the table. “We want to be the example across the country on how to be inclusive in that process,” he said.

“How do we leverage activities, and how do we build a coalition of the willing to actually be the coalition of the doing? If we get to that point, then we’re making progress, and then Minnesota earns the recognition of being that leader.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Lindsey, “but I think if we bring some intentionality to that work, we can be the ‘North Star’ among other states.”