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Westminster Presbyterian Church forum explores opportunities and barriers for building Black wealth

A Minneapolis-based panel analyzes the Minnesota landscape, which holds truths for people across the nation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Nina Hill via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Two of Minneapolis’ business and community leaders explored efforts to break down barriers and create opportunities for building Black wealth in Minnesota during a Town Talks forum offered by Westminster Presbyterian Church through its Westminster Town Hall Forum last week.

Watch the 75-minute forum here beginning at the 20:40 mark.

The guests were Tawanna Black, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Economic Inclusion, and Marcus Owens, a social entrepreneur, corporate and nonprofit leader. Tane Danger, director of the Westminster Town Hall Forum, moderated the discussion, put on in part by WILD, the Wanton Injustice Legal Detail, which seeks to create Twin Cities communities free of anti-Black racism and all forms of racism.

At the Center for Economic Inclusion, “we believe it’s important for people to write their own stories about economic mobility,” Black said. Jobs, housing, transportation and other considerations “all go into thinking about how the economy works. Our children and our children’s children benefit from the decisions we make today.”

Tawanna Black

The Center for Economic Inclusion has created a Racial Equity Dividends Index for both the private and public sectors. About 50 businesses employing more than 200,000 Minnesotans and 23 local governments serving more than 3 million Minnesotans have participated in their respective index since 2022. “The standards help local businesses take different actions,” Black said.

Owens said building wealth “is a big concept,” since it can include home ownership, health, safe neighborhoods and more. “Folks see it as a journey, not a destination,” Owens said, and “networks are a component. People can connect you to places you aren’t connected to, and the criminal justice system can prevent you from getting the job or the housing you deserve.”

“Wealth,” Owens said, “is more than the acquisition of financial assets.”

Why, Danger asked panelists, does the wealth gap between people of color and white people persist?

“If I don’t believe you are equal to me, I might get by with paying you less,” Black said. “If I don’t believe you deserve a loan, I may not give you one.” The reality, Black said, is, “the system is working exactly how it was designed.”

“We do see a number of leaders and companies saying, ‘we’ve got to change this around,’ but it’s a slow turn,” Black said. “We have to be more aggressive with our efforts.”

Marcus Owens

“I am looking for opportunities to create social impact, and we look to use the same strategies businesses would use” Owens said. In under-resourced North Minneapolis, entrepreneurs “are trying to serve their community, and small business became a refuge for community members. They do things to make a profit, but they’re also thinking about what else they can do, and they do that as a collective with other people. It’s more than just money.”

“We see programs designed to spur economic growth, and in reality, that’s how Black Americans have operated from day one,” Black said. “As slavery was abolished, the first they to do was create Black businesses. That early mindset is still in our DNA. It’s what we learned from our ancestors about creating community — all those things that segregation forced us to learn early.”

In the public sector, civic engagement is tied to economic opportunity, Owens said.

“You’ve got to think about these relationships well in advance, and you’ve got to find the organizations engaging the community daily,” Owens said.

Development often occurs in non-BIPOC neighborhoods “on a much faster track,” Black said. When an idea for development doesn’t work in neighborhoods populated mainly by people of color, “we say the community never wanted it. They did,” she said. “They just wanted it better.”

“When you have a relationship and trust,” Owens said, “the risk factor goes away.”

When Danger pointed out recent statistics showing wage and employment gaps between white people and people of color narrowing slightly, Black said that “context is everything.”

“Just in the last three years, the family sustainable wage in Minneapolis moved from $22 per hour to $29. We have to look at how far behind people are getting to that $29,” Black said.

“One economic downturn and all this can be erased,” Owens said. While many job offerings require potential applicants to have earned a bachelor’s degree, “the job duties don’t require it.”

“A skills-first approach can create potential pathways,” he said.

‘We will not undo hundreds of years of systemic racism during Black History Month’ — Tawanna Black

Statewide, 11% of African Americans work in home healthcare roles, jobs that traditionally pay relatively low wages but often demand enormous physical effort. “We’ve had numerous workforce development efforts, but we find sadly that 11% are stuck,” Black said. “That’s too many people in our state.”

Tane Danger

Danger asked about what young people will need to hear in order to overcome “the belief gap.”

“I’ve worked with a lot of organizations that work with youth. Youth tell them what they need,” Owens said. “We leave youth out of conversations about things that are happening to them.”

“I think our youth need the truth, to understand Black history and America’s history,” Black said. She was in a fifth-grade classroom recently where a student asked, “if Black lives matter, why were we put into slavery?”

“It led to a lot of other important questions,” Black said. “We can’t afford not to tell the truth to our children.”

Building Black wealth involves investing in system change and protecting progress, Owens said. “Use your mind and your position to ensure we aren’t going backward, but going forward,” he said.

Black added it’s helpful to “learn the things you don’t know. Ask questions that may feel weird, like those fifth graders did.”

“Take daily action,” she added. “We will not undo hundreds of years of systemic racism during Black History Month.”

And “invest, invest, invest — your time, talent, dollars and influence,” Black said. “People need to hear from folks who look like you to say, ‘this matters to me.’”

“We have to be demanding in demanding equity,” Black said.

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