When Cultures Combine: The LinkingLeaders Partnership

 

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

(l–r) ThaoMee Xiong, Shanaya Dungey, Nikki Pieratos, and Irma Márquez Trapero. Photo Sarah Whiting

Ten years ago, Nikki Pieratos was helping to establish the Northern Eagle Federal Credit Union to serve the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in her northern Minnesota hometown of Tower. She also spent over two years on the board at NDN Collective, a Native organization engaged in regenerative community development. After hundreds of years of not having access to the systems of capital, she wondered, is the transactional nature of banking actually the answer to a community’s ability to thrive? How do you decolonize the loan process?

Now the executive director of Tiwahe Foundation, which invests in the education and economic independence of Native Minnesotans, among other things, Pieratos is in a position to co-create a new approach to doing business. Generating wealth is not just about capital. “Indigenous prosperity is relationships,” she says. “Sometimes it is financial. Sometimes it is offering resources to each other. Sometimes it is building each other up, putting others on to opportunities.”

Tiwahe (ti-wah-hay) means “family” in the Dakota language. As one of the Foundation’s grantees put it, prosperity is about “having a relative wherever you go.”

Turning community into relationships, not transactions, is why Tiwahe is part of LinkingLeaders, which brings together the networks of organizations representing Indigenous, Black, Asian American, and Latine cultural communities. The partnership is designed to strengthen connections, leadership, and solidarity to advance racial justice and equity in Minnesota. The group started six years ago and currently consists of four women leaders.

Each of the four organizations in the partnership offers a leadership development program. “That’s the common thread bringing the four of us together,” Pieratos says. “Between us, 20,000 different leaders in Minnesota have gone through programs in relationship with at least one of our organizations.”

As someone who has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, she adds, “I’ve had privilege and opportunities because of where I went to school. One thing we talk about is: how do we create that social capital?”

That is not the equivalent of being assimilated into western culture. “Rather, what kind of networks do our people need? How do those networks need to be nourished?” Pieratos says. “A leader isn’t the title, or a pyramid structure. It’s concentric circles of family. We want leaders who are empathetic, who are accessible, who are lifelong learners and willing to listen.”

Creating a More Collective Identity

One of the reasons LinkingLeaders started in 2017 was that data showed there would be a massive racial demographic change in Minnesota. Community leaders began thinking about how to ensure that a pipeline of people of color would be ready to fill leadership opportunities as others retired.

“As the demographics of our communities change, and as we develop this multiracial identity, and our communities are merging, it’s important to have a broader understanding of our shared history — even though we’re still quite segregated in Minnesota,” says ThaoMee Xiong, executive director of the Council of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), one of the LinkingLeaders partners.

She says the school system, especially in eastern Saint Paul, is increasingly diverse with African Americans, Latine, Southeast Asians, and a growing East African community. “Racial tensions exist because students don’t understand each other’s history,” Xiong says. “Something as basic as our smell — of curry, or garlic and ginger — can make students a target [of bullying].”

With more than 11 Asian American cultures in Minnesota, even collective identity among Asians is hard won. Xiong did not start identifying herself as an Asian American until she went to college and began to understand the significance of solidarity, she says. “I used to call myself Hmong, or refugee. I never even said Asian. I grew up in Wisconsin, where there were two Vietnamese families and everyone else who was Asian was Hmong, so I had a very strong cultural identity before I went to college.”

The term Asian American developed because of a movement to fight racial injustice. “Even though we understand the nuances between our different ethnic and linguistic cultures, the general outsider doesn’t, and perceives us as a monolith of being Asian,” Xiong says. “In our leadership support programs, we have an educational component about why the term ‘Asian American’ is important, and how it evolved.”

The Black community is going through a similar experience, with the influx of new populations from Africa. As chief operating officer for the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), Shanaya Dungey, another LinkingLeaders participant, supports a “think-and-do” organization whose mission is to advance policies and solutions that end racism and systemic inequities for Black Minnesotans. For example, AALF worked with a coalition to pass 2023 legislation that restored voting rights to 55,000 Minnesotans.

Dungey says, “The questions I ask daily are: What is it like for our team to work for an all-Black organization that is Black founded and Black led? What type of culture do we need to build internally to empower our leaders to work with the community to solve problems that are over 400 years old?”

Solidarity is integral to each LinkingLeaders organization, Dungey indicates. “To make the big systems change we seek to make in Minnesota for the Black community, we need support from allies across all communities.” She adds:

“How can one marginalized group truly have a win in racial equity without ensuring we are moving everyone forward? Yes, each of our communities can have wins in silos, but when we work together, that’s when we begin to repair some of the harm that systemic racism has done and begin to move the needle.”

As the only non-executive director in the LinkingLeaders partnership, Dungey says she brings a different perspective to the group. “CEOs are visionaries and dreamers. I ask very different questions,” she says. “As someone with a background in operationalizing and risk mitigation, I tend to focus on how we are going to make traction, what implications our actions will have, and how we can get results.”

Improving the Ecosystem of Access

The fourth member of the partnership, Irma Márquez Trapero, centers solidarity in the work of LatinoLEAD. “We are building internal and external infrastructures to ensure our networks connect and support the Minnesota ecosystem of leaders of color,” she says. CAAL and LatinoLEAD were part of a coalition that helped to pass the ethnic studies curriculum legislation in 2023.

When Márquez Trapero was nine, her family immigrated from Mexico to Saint James in southwestern Minnesota. Her family has had mixed status over time, including undocumented residents and youth in the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) system. She grew up seeing the impact of discrepancies in her family; her mother paid state and federal taxes but could not access services available to other taxpayers.

One value of LinkingLeaders to her, Márquez Trapero says, is that it gives an opportunity to showcase the history of struggles of so many communities in Minnesota, while reducing competition. “We’re all experiencing issues from a system not made by us,” she says.

Growing up seeing a divide for many years in Saint James between the white and Latine communities — “it was rare for both to interact” — Márquez Trapero was part of a youth council whose mission was to unite communities in the town. She did similar work at Gustavus Adolphus college in Saint Peter, as a member of the Diversity Leadership Council.

After she became executive director of LatinoLEAD and a member of LinkingLeaders, she says, “It felt like home.”

Being Culturally Aware

Xiong says the diverse relationships of LinkingLeaders are partly about learning about other cultures. “I once told Nikki that Asian Americans are invisible — no one believes that we face discrimination. Nikki said, ‘We’re beyond invisible. We’re not even acknowledged. Our entire history in the U.S. has been about the decimation of our people.’ I cannot even imagine what that feels like.

“After that, my husband, my kids, and I started watching documentaries about the Native community,” Xiong continues. “What we learned in school is that Native folks are primitive, didn’t get along with European colonists, and decided to isolate themselves. But their homes were taken from them by the military. Our history has been taught to make us believe that it was justified to take their land and isolate these nations.”

Xiong grew up in Laos, went to Catholic school in Wisconsin, and went to an American college, graduate school, and law school, “so I have been socialized by all those institutions, to be very European-centric, to be very capitalist. I’m trying to fight these societal norms, but I was trained by systems that profit from structures of inequity.”

Xiong points out that leadership for a multiracial society requires an ongoing practice. “You have to say, ‘Who am I excluding from this conversation? Who do I need to include?’ I have to practice it all the time,” she says. “Just because you’re a person of color doesn’t mean you’re going to get racial equity correct. Sometimes you learn the right way by making a ton of mistakes. We have to give ourselves grace as we pave this new way of operating.”

Read our coverage of the ethnic studies debate.