VIEW: Black Joy, Politics, and Equity

Roosevelt Mansfield Photography

In my hometown of Ford Heights where most people were poor and definitely surviving on limited income, we had joy. I believe we had joy because we were expected to be happy with what was given to us by state systems, sanctions, and policy. I was born and raised in what was once deemed the poorest town in America. I have seen destitution through a lens that I prayed my children would not have to — drug addiction, gang wars, and generations of poverty. With my own eyes I have seen it all.

After spending nearly two decades working in government, I decided to run for public office. I believed I could contribute to effective and good policy and that I had the lived experience necessary for holding others accountable to do the same. For me, it was not about the negotiation of power — it was about how to collaboratively ensure all voices were at the table. I knew that if I wanted to make a difference I had to get closer to the issues.Closer than what might feel comfortable.

I committed to securing a voice at the table for marginalized communities. I launched my campaign two months before the COVID-19 pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest and national protesting of police brutality.

I secured major endorsements from organizations, leaders, and unions across the state. I believed the election was about everything we hoped for, the things we dreamed about and collectively wanted for our children, our future leaders.

I had navigated systems of poverty and oppression to become a business owner, author, community advocate, and 18-year employee of Hennepin County government. I had labored in various departments of the county in which I was ready to lead as a commissioner. I had the experience necessary to advocate for better policies.  We now also were fighting a global pandemic, in crisis mode, and we knew it would get worse.

I knew that if fully optimized, the Board of Commissioners had the power to reduce disparities in ways we had never seen.

As diligently as I and my campaign team worked to win my race, and as close as we came, it was not enough. If I had won, it would have made me the first woman and the first Black woman to win the District 1 seat, which represents the cities around Brooklyn Park. I lost my race by a mere 1.5 percent margin.

I was left wondering what my next steps would be. Would I run again? Was running for office a way for me to understand and engage in politics from the inside? What had my decision to run been about?

A few weeks after the race, I rode past a sign that read “Black Joy Lives Here.” It stopped my breath.

For the first time, I wanted to take my “Black Lives Matter” sign down and swap it out with something else. Not because I no longer believed that sentiment — I wholeheartedly did. BUT, that sign made me believe that if more people could conceive of the fact that Black people deserved all the things that others wanted and deserved we could somehow end racism.

If we could simply prove to more people that we have the ability to be happy, and that the laughter of our children brings us joy, it might shift minds.

Imagination allows us to create distinct visual images that identify a destination, even if we do not know how we will get there.

Just as white mothers want to see their white children happy and successful, so do Black mothers. Just as white fathers imagine their sons as attorneys and judges, Black parents want that same right.

I know, as someone who was once poor and who is now living comfortably in an upper middle-class-income family, that the target you can reach is the vision your mind conceives.

I wonder if every leader in Minnesota imagines a state in which every child graduates on time, has a stable roof over their head and can become a homeowner, is not expected to end up in jail because of the color of their skin, and has an authentic opportunity for upward mobility.

I wonder if every leader in Minnesota knows how things need to change in order for that to happen.

After my race ended, I knew that I had to do more.

I needed to be closer to the work of racial equity. That is why I accepted the role as Director of Inclusive Growth at the Center for Economic Inclusion. I now lead the Center’s efforts to create broad measurable accountability among public, local, regional, and statewide leaders and policy makers.

I help to equip leaders and agencies with the knowledge, tools, and resources to close racial wealth gaps. The work involves accelerating inclusive economic competitiveness with racially equitable workforce, land-use, economic development, housing, transportation, and policies and investments that enhance infrastructure.

This is my heart’s passion. I believe I landed where I am supposed to be in this season of my life.

So many things have begun to make sense to me. Regardless of the outcome of my political race, my role is to work toward racial equity in Minnesota. I know that the disparities in our state are among the worst in the country.

We need rapid economic recovery. That can only happen when each of us envision and enact a world in which every child has the ability to produce powerful and positive outcomes. We need effective policies that change lives, communities, and generations. 

It is in this moment that we must test our disdain for racism and its hold on age-old policies that prevent wealth building, home ownership, and the opportunity to build a life that sustains one’s family.

We must endeavor to be just as blatant, just as determined, and just as effective in fighting for racial equity as those who violently tore through our nation’s capital in January.

Leaders, community organizations, and elected officials must make bold moves, encourage one another to have greater moral fortitude, and challenge policies, politics, and business as usual.  

It might be easier for some to think that this is about shifting the way we think about racism and racial equity. But how then do we ensure that every child has the same opportunity to be successful and to find joy?

This is the time to be relentless: critically assessing what is being done and what needs to be done. This needs to happen at every level of government and in every organization.

People who are homeless, underemployed or unemployed, and lack food security are not interested in sitting at our tables. They will not be until they know we are serious about enacting with them effective policies that drastically change the landscape of their lives.

Closing the racial equity gap in Minnesota will not only prepare a new and necessary workforce, but it will lead to significant economic and social gains for our state and our families.

The first step is to recognize that struggling individuals, families, and communities cannot do this alone and in secret. Nor can we let some policy makers continue to decide that these struggles are acceptable.

The solution for saving Minnesota’s future, and for preparing our region for rapid recovery post-pandemic, is immediate execution of transformative policy and procedure.

Only then can we all envision in the depths of our souls what Black joy looks like and feels like.