Pohlad Foundation and Cultural Wellness Center launch three-year pilot
On March 3, the Cultural Wellness Center (CWC) and the Pohlad Family Foundation announced the seven people invited to join the Black Legacy and Leadership Enrichment Initiative. A first-of-its-kind community-designed effort, the initiative’s goal is to give Black activists resources and support to recharge themselves, so they can better serve the community.
The seven activists selected will each receive an unrestricted grant of $55,000 for their own self-care and revitalization. The seven inaugural awardees, called “initiates,” include Melvin Giles, DejaJoelle, Farji Shaheer, Anura Si-Asar, Corenia Smith, Princess Titus, and Antonio Williams.
“Investing in leadership and legacy from our cultural perspective is about building up people to be a source of strength for the community,” said Elder Atum Azzahir, the founder and executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center. “These seven leaders represent the community’s process of rejuvenation and sense of resiliency, themes this particular model incorporated from the start as we welcomed community leaders to apply for this novel initiative.”
Melvin Giles, a veteran peace and diversity educator and activist, co-leads Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, a St. Paul network of community gardens and backyard gardeners that promotes reconciliation, healing, and social justice. For 36 years, Giles has cultivated community while creating greater access to nutritious foods and greenspace for residents in neighborhoods affected by institutional racism.
A healing artist, DejaJoelle founded Body Prayers that uses dance, arts, culture, spirituality, and revolutionary love practices to guide Black people to social, economic, and emotional liberation. For the past 12 years she has been sharing her journey and healing techniques, exploring traditional and innovative ways to promote collective care.
A mental health and violence intervention professional, Farji Shaheer meets with gunshot survivors at the hospital almost immediately, hoping to quell fear, anxiety, despair and retaliation as part of Next Step, a program he co-founded. For more than 20 years, he’s been guiding young Black men toward a healthy, violence-free lifestyle.
An experienced educator who promotes African cultural heritage across his work, Anura Si-Asar is the co-founder of Imhotep Science Academy, a K-12 STEM program for students of African heritage, and Papyrus Publishing, a grassroots publishing company that produces inspiring narratives of African people. He has been a community leader for 37 years.
For the past six years, Corenia Smith has been a strategist and leader in issue advocacy, community organizing, and ballot initiative campaigns focused on reproductive justice, violence prevention, and community wellness. Smith has been recognized for building strategic partnerships and coalitions to mobilize communities to inform laws and vote for change.
Over the last 28 years, Princess Titus has been an educator, organizer, and co-founder of Appetite for Change and Standard Edition Women. At AFC, Titus promotes healthy eating, gardening, youth development, and community engagement to build health, wealth, and social change. At SEW she guides families through trauma-induced transitions, creating an accountable, compassionate and healing space.
Incarcerated for 14 years, Antonio Williams found meaning in mentoring other Black men and organizing them to stand up for their rights, including leading a prison strike that got results. Now he offers personal and leadership development, healing opportunities, and political education to fight for legislation like restoring voting rights.
In December 2022, the CWC and the Pohlad Foundation invited local Black leaders, healers, artists, and agents of change to participate in the inaugural effort. In all, 160 people applied for consideration, and the selection committee invited 60 people to participate in group interviews. With support from a circle of elders, the candidate screeners recommended people from among those interviewed and then determined the final seven initiates in a consensus decision.
“Only together can we create a more just Twin Cities, and through this initiative we are investing in our community’s cultural fabric to do just that,” said Susan Bass Roberts, vice president and executive director of the Pohlad Family Foundation. “Centering wellness in Black activism is a unique approach and one we hope others will model to sustain the energy and focus needed for systemic change.”
The seven initiates will participate in a yearlong journey of self-study to connect their work with their cultural calling through activities that include retreats, elder coaching, group reflection with other cohort members, and other opportunities for learning and discussion. In addition to the $55,000, there is also $15,000 for initiates to allocate to specific responsibility-bridging activities as they take care of themselves so they may better serve the community.
In the summer of 2020, the foundation announced it would disburse $25 million to racial justice efforts. As part of this work, the Pohlad Foundation established a Racial Justice Grants Committee to set strategic direction and make funding recommendations.
The committee, which includes community leaders, foundation board members, and Pohlad Companies employees, recognized the perpetual and compounding exhaustion experienced by Black leaders and conceptualized the Black Legacy and Leadership Enrichment Initiative. For several months, the CWC, the foundation, and community members worked together to co-design the initiative with the goal of creating a program by and for the Black community. The three-year pilot will include seven people each year, for a total of 21 awardees.
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