The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage prepares for a new legislative session

Dr. Nerita Hughes, CMAH chair
Submitted photo

Black advocacy at the State level

If you’re African American and you are concerned about being able to wear your hair in whatever style you prefer, the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage (CMAH) has you covered. 

They have been pushing forward a bill called the CROWN Act, which seeks an end to hair discrimination on the basis of racial preferences. If this passes, it will become illegal for employers to discriminate against employees simply for having Black hairstyles.

This act is far from the only thing on the council’s plate. CMAH is also pushing for the African American Family Preservation Act, which seeks to reform racial disparities in the MN foster care system. 

Additionally, they are looking into legislation to encourage diversity in the state’s public education system, advising legislators to route funding to African heritage communities, and working to push forward police accountability measures. They have also looked into the effects and challenges of COVID-19 on the Black community.

In the past they have advised lawmakers on specific challenges within the African American community. This includes working in corrections, lending support to a bill that ended juvenile life-without-release sentencing within the state, and advocating for getting George Floyd’s case out of the county attorney’s hands and into the attorney general’s.

The council works mostly behind the scenes. CMAH is different from other councils in that it does not seek to start or support programs necessarily, but instead is solely focused on advising and encouraging the governor and other legislators to lend their support to bills that are in the best interest of the African and African American communities.

They also advise legislators on how to ensure the community has access to public resources and services. This limited purview means that CMAH is technically only accountable to the governor. But Dr. Nerita Hughes, council chair, believes that they are also accountable to their “stakeholders,” meaning those in the Black community.

In the past, CMAH was known as the Council for Black Minnesotans. This was changed to accommodate the state’s growing African immigrant population. The council was established in 1980, and its mission, according to a State audit conducted in 2002, is “to provide all individuals of African descent with equal access to state services and programs and to relate the needs of these individuals to the Legislature.” The council is one of three such “ethnic counsels,” the others being Latinx and Asian and Pacific Islanders. 

“When I first took over as chair of the board,” said Dr. Hughes, “the one thing that I did do is I changed how our agenda and how our meetings were [conducted]. And what we started to do was we started to invite special guests. 

“What we did is we invited the commissioners of the various State agencies to come in and share what they’re doing. How they’re impacting African heritage.” She added that the council also invites State agencies to the meetings in order to share what they are doing well to support those of African heritage, and what they need help with. 

CMAH has a budget this year of about $544,000, which goes mostly towards salaries, according to the council chair. A 2020 MN government report estimates that the council advises on matters impacting roughly 541,116 people of African heritage, about 8% of the state’s total population.

The council has attempted in the past to raise awareness of themselves in the communities they serve. “We were trying to show up in either places or in spaces where there were going to be events or anything that we would want to hear from our community members,” said Dr. Hughes.

She specifically mentioned Juneteenth gatherings and hosting a “Day on the Hill” for those of African heritage. Unfortunately, these have not happened in two years due to the pandemic. But CMAH has tried to adapt.

“We get a series around having what we would call subject matter experts to come in and talk about health care, come in and talk about economic development, come in and talk about education as well and the impact that it’s had on our African heritage or Black folks in the workforce,” explained Dr. Hughes.

The council chair is looking forward to this upcoming legislative session. While CMAH is not necessarily looking to push forward new bills, Dr. Hughes at least is optimistic that those they are working on currently will pass. These include the CROWN Act as well as the African American Family Preservation Act, as well as certain police reforms such as ending qualified immunity and pretextual traffic stops.