Black economic empowerment takes center stage at MLK Day event

(l-r) Portia Jackson, Anika Bowie, Keith Baker, and Dr. Deborah Mitchell
Photo by Abdi Mohamed

Community members and local and national leaders gathered last Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Amherst Wilder Foundation headquarters in St. Paul to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the federal holiday and discuss issues close to home impacting the Black community in Minnesota. 

Over 30 guest speakers and panelists were slated for the event to discuss a range of topics including the mental and physical effects of gentrification and engaging in public policy. Much of the day’s focus was on the history of the Rondo community and the economic impact of dividing the community with Interstate 94.

Food vendors and businesses lined the walkways and lobby area of the Wilder building, underlying the day’s theme of economic development and empowerment. Between panels, attendees enjoyed musical performances from Priest and The Righteous 1’s, D’Nic, Ty’Davinchi, and others. 

The event was organized by BOB Rewards Club, an organization founded by Michelle Gibson Webb in 2017, with the mission of changing the socioeconomic status of Black Americans through business partnerships, skills-building, and homeownership. The organization became a nonprofit in 2020, and provides business owners with several programs to support their businesses such as brand marketing, sales training, a virtual call center to field calls, and retail distribution services. 

Black business and homeownership

“Most of our businesses are already businesses when they’ve come to us,” Webb explained. “We do help people and strategize for the incubation of new businesses, but primarily they’ve already started a business. Our goal is to help them strategize more, to help them keep the revenue coming to make them very viable.”

With 35 years of experience in sales and marketing, Webb has pivoted in her career from working with companies such as Waste Management and AAA Motors to Black-owned businesses with the aim of providing the sales infrastructure they need to thrive. 

Webb is a resident of Minneapolis, but a Rondo native, and in organizing Saturday’s event, she put the topics of Black economics and homeownership front and center for attendees. 

Webb recalled a time when she and her peers at St. Agnes High School had to march for the right to observe MLK Day, but now laments the idea that it’s been co-opted and whitewashed from its origin of promoting civil rights and Black empowerment. 

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have a holiday,” she said. “We would march in St. Paul in the middle of the street for the right to have the holiday. It would be 20 below zero outside.”

Michelle Gibson Webb speaking from the audience
Photo by Abdi Mohamed

Black political no-shows

Although the day was full of guest speakers and panelists, there was a noticeable absence of some prominent political figures who were scheduled to participate in the panels. 

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Attorney General Keith Ellison dropped out of the event in the days prior, though they were scheduled for the event for weeks. Webb and others publicly shared their disapproval of the last-minute pullout by the mayor and attorney general. 

“Rena Moran, Keith Ellison, nor the mayor showed up, but that’s a reflection of them,” she said. “These people are really not into Black economic development, or they’re too afraid to talk about it in public.” 

Karen Wells, the mother of Amir Locke, also spoke out on the absence of Attorney General Ellison during a panel on policies regarding law enforcement. The panel was made up of local activists and former lawmakers, but also the family members of those killed by police such as Valerie Castile the mother of Philando Castile, and Toshira Garraway Allen, founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence. Wells received a question from the audience as to what she would say to Ellison if he had attended the event. 

“The question I would ask Keith Ellison if he was here in front of me, I would ask him, now that the people who look like me and my son and yourself voted you back in are you going to go back and do your job like you said you were going to do and look at all the bodycam footage regarding my son’s execution and are you going to bring charges?” she answered.  

Attorney General Ellison’s office responded to the MSR’s request for comment by stating that it never received an invitation for the law enforcement panel and did not know why the organizers included his photo in a list of speakers. However, Ellison did speak at the “Building Black Wealth” event, adding, “My interest in and activism for building Black wealth is longstanding.” 

Mayor Carter’s office told the MSR that while the mayor was unable to accommodate the event request due to a family commitment, a member of his staff joined the event to represent the city. His office also pointed to a recent announcement regarding the Inheritance Fund and the existing body of work around guaranteed income, housing affordability, and college savings accounts for children born in the city as evidence of his commitment to racial equity.

Community preservation

The last panel of the day was titled “The Future of Black Economic Development for The Native Rondo Community” and featured Keith Baker, Anika Bowie, Dr. Deborah Mitchell, and Portia Jackson. The panel discussed the viability of the land bridge project and the importance of restoring the Rondo community as an economic engine for the St. Paul Black community. 

“The land bridge, if you will, is simply a tool, a mechanism to be used in one’s interest in the community,” Baker said. As a former assistant director and manager at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Baker now leads the effort to explore the land bridge project as the executive director of ReConnect Rondo. 

“I hate to get kind of wonky, but I do get into the details a little bit,” Baker continued. “So, it’s important for us to understand why working collectively and elevating our understanding of what’s going on in the ecosystem is so critical because if we are thinking ahead, we can set conditions and position to better benefit us.”

Across the United States, several Black communities were displaced due to the U.S. interstate highway project. Black communities in cities like Syracuse, Nashville, and Miami saw their communities divided in an effort to connect the country through a web of freeways. It’s estimated that over one million people were displaced by the highway-building program. 

A full live stream of the MLKNow2023 event is available online on the BOB Rewards Club YouTube Channel

Update: This story was updated to add a response from St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

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