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‘We need to see corporations, foundations, and governments step up’: A Q&A with the Center for Economic Inclusion’s Tawanna A. Black

In 2018 Black founded the center, which works to combat economic and social racism, and whose clients and partners include Ramsey County, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and the Itasca Project. She wants to speed up the pace of change.

“Corporate America Has Failed Black America” blasted the headline in the New York Times Sunday, followed by a story documenting a laundry list of corporate America’s institutional racism sins that is not exactly news to Tawanna A. Black.

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In 2018 Black founded the Center For Economic Inclusion, which works to combat economic and social racism, and whose clients and partners include Ramsey County, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and the Itasca Project. The past weekend found Black in the pages of the Washington Post (“In George Floyd’s City, Inequalities are Everywhere”) and on MSNBC, talking with Ali Velshi about the white-black/brown racial and economic disparity gaps in the wake of Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

Two days after Floyd’s death inspired worldwide protests, on May 27, Black sent an email letter to corporate leaders in Minnesota with the subject line “Call to Action to Dismantle Structural Racism & Economic Disparities in Minneapolis-St. Paul” that began:

In December 2015, CEOs Richard Davis (US Bank), David Mortenson (Mortenson), Brian Cornell (Target), Ken Powell (General Mills), Doug Baker (Ecolab), Geoff Martha (Medtronic), and Dave Kvamme (Wells Fargo) were deeply troubled by the unemployment and wage disparities between African American and White Twin Cities’ residents and by the intensifying racial divide and unrest that fueled protests at the Minneapolis Police Department’s 2nd Precinct following the Minneapolis Police officer shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed African American man, on November 12.

In response, these leaders reached out to seven African American nonprofit executive directors (I was one) and together, we established the Itasca North Minneapolis Partnership. The Partnership’s mission: develop and implement strategies to better leverage private-sector employment and economic development assets against the disparate and deepening racial and economic disparities experienced by African Americans in North Minneapolis.

Five years later, despite the creation of meaningful workforce development partnerships, ideation of procurement strategies and investment funds, and creation of an institution to sustain the work of that partnership – Center for Economic Inclusion (2017) – very little has changed in our region.

In fact, over the 10-year period of recovery since the last recession, Minneapolis-St. Paul has only closed the racial wage gap between Whites Workers and Workers of Color by $541 (Source: Brookings Metro Monitor).

Why is meaningful change so slow? A key reason: Institutional, structural racism continues, unchecked, to influence and drive the actions of leaders, which marginalizes the state’s Black and Brown residents. The ravages of COVID-19 have illuminated the inequities and where change is most needed.

I am writing today to demand a faster pace of change. With our economy in shambles, the opportunity to build an inclusive economy is now. An accelerated pace is dependent on your leadership to advance the strategies the Center is founded on to achieve economic and racial inclusion and a regional economy that works for everyone.

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Sunday evening, Black spoke with MinnPost by phone from her Minneapolis home:

MinnPost: What has been the response to your letter, and what do you hope for going forward?

Tawanna Black: “The response has been raised questions among various corporate leaders, business leaders, and financial leaders, whether it’s philanthropy, or inclusion and equity executives who wonder what’s the opportunity that they have to be able to commit to and move the needle. Others have some ideas about what they can do, but they want to know what the best method is for them to move forward individually and as a corporation, and what the best method is for them to move forward in a cohort of corporate action. Folks are looking for ideas for guidance for help, but certainly a lot of energy about wanting to make an impact.”

MP: George Floyd’s death has inspired a pivotal moment of change that feels substantial. Does it feel that way to you?   

TB: You know, I think it feels … “momentous” is a good word. It feels momentous right now, it feels heavy and painful right now. I will be honest and say, as an African-American woman who has, in some ways, been here before, it is hard to say how substantial it will be. I think certainly the world’s reaction to George Floyd’s murder is causing many of us to pause across Minneapolis, St. Paul, and across Minnesota. I think because this murder was filmed it was so graphic. It seems like it is a different time, and yet I think for black folks it’s yet to be seen in what will be so different this time.”

MP: Due to riots and looting, north Minneapolis is hurting, again. How can big business help small independent family-owned businesses there and what is the center’s role in that?

TB: I think there are a couple of big opportunities right now that we have. One is that we need to see corporations, foundations, and governments step up and help ensure that every business that was harmed over the last two weeks is back up and going and made whole. [We have philanthropic fund accounts] and to see that those funds are secured and deployed really well so that businesses can get back open is critical.

Tawanna A. Black
Tawanna A. Black

And [along with north Minneapolis], we’re just as interested in using those funds throughout Minneapolis/St. Paul because certainly there are critical black businesses and businesses owned by people of color throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul that were harmed and are hurting and working hard to get back up and going, and we all have to keep remembering that many of these businesses already were hurting, having been closed for much of the last three months prior to this, so they need the economics, they need to be able to begin generating revenue.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s important for us to think about what’s the real opportunity here while we have the attention of potential investors, while we have the attention of policymakers and corporations. In times like this when properties have been harmed, it’s an opportunity time, right? Some see it as an opportunity to come in and pitch landlords on purchasing their property, and we’re hearing that happening already in some parts of the metro. And we have a real opportunity to try to get business properties in the hands of these business owners, and buy their own businesses.

So to some extent, our message at the center is for those who are saying, “Hey, we might want to think about this opportunity as a time to really put some money behind a major effort. What should we do?” That’s one of those things we’re elevating with this thing: You grow wealth in this country through homeownership or business ownership, that’s the fastest ways to grow wealth in America.

America has robbed, often, African-Americans of both of those opportunities. So, a wave of those who are really committed to anti-racism and committed to racial equity and want to right some wrongs of our recent past, the way to do that would be to invest, not just in training programs or purchasing but, “Hey, I’m willing to invest in some things that don’t just get back to normal.” Because normal wasn’t all that great anyway. But really help us go the distance.

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MP: More than 500 shops and restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul were damaged, with rebuilding costs to the tune of $500 million. Knowing what you know about the culture itself, what is corporate Minnesota’s responsibility in the rebuild?

TB: “Responsibility” is an interesting word. I don’t know if people feel a responsibility. I do think that corporate America feels a vested interest in some accountability for ensuring that our country thrives economically, that we start to address racial harm. And I think there’s some responsibility that is felt therein, and therefore I think that when corporations call and say, “What can I do to address those two things that I do feel some responsibility for?” I think there’s some interest there.

Where I would say there’s some gap is it’s one thing to say, “‘Historically we’ve said, I’m willing to fund a job training program, I’m willing to fund a business training program, I’m willing to help entrepreneurs out to get up on their feet. But then am I willing to remove those barriers that affect my own institution that keep me from being an anti-racist purchaser of goods and services from those very businesses that I was just willing to help get up and going?” That’s the place where we exist to push — what are those things inside your own four walls that you can do to go the full distance so that we’re not in the same place economically, that we might have been before.

MP: Much like the move to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department that gets legs by the moment, change and the conversation is happening and rapidly. When you apply it to corporate Minnesota, is it possible for corporate Minnesota to react to the business call in similar fashion, with similar urgency?

TB: I do, I do. Nationally, you’re seeing a similar amount of dialogue taking place and certainly a call to action, from individuals. I just finished with a call from ABC Australia, and this is happening internationally where you have a dialogue that says, “OK corporations, you have to not just want to walk the walk and announce big dollar amounts flowing to your favorite nonprofit organization. You also have to want to make sure your dollars on the other side flow in the same direction.”

We can’t want to fund anti-racist nonprofits that are 501(c)(3), and also want to fund some of the policymakers who have the worst score from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in terms of their voting practices and how non-supportive those voting practices are, right? You have to have a conscience about your entire enterprise and historically we have not seen corporations want to have that conversation, from the way they act in the interest of their shareholders, from the way they act in the interest of communities of color.

Now we’re in this place where business is saying. “Whoa. Minneapolis Police Department, [it] is absolutely not OK that you are operating this way.” Well, CEOs, if you really believe that, then you have to believe the same thing inside your own four walls. If you believe that you can’t separate those two things, you have to turn the same cheek.

So I think what you’re going to see is communities rising up to say, economic justice and legal justice go hand in hand. And we’re not going to stop at simply wanting justice in one domain, or expecting accountability in one domain. That rise up is going to continue. Because as long as we are locked out of the ability to thrive economically, we will be locked out of power, and power is ultimately what allows police department to pursue its behavior the ways that our police departments have been pursuing them.

And while that ultimately ends up allowing us to live our lives, we lose so much, so much, every day. As a result of the power that is withheld in economics, every day as well. It just doesn’t hit the 5 o’clock news. But when you have 50 percent of black males locked out of employment, on any given day in Minnesota for decades — that’s almost as bad as the taking of a life, because it leads to the same place.”

MP: As a leading voice in Minnesota, who or what has most inspired you in your work? Meaning, yours is a singular path, and are there thinkers, artists, politicians, books, a spiritual path, etc. that you return to or that you’ve recently discovered that you’ve been informed by?

TB: Yes, absolutely: My faith grounds me in everything. My work is a calling. I am absolutely called to do this work, and so I will do it as long as God tells me to do it. That is my grounding, and I study the work and path of Shirley Chisholm, and believe that power often has to be taken. It is not given. So, Shirley Chisholm and Frederick Douglass inspire me and speak to me often.”

MP: You’ve been especially busy these last two weeks. What does your workweek look like this week?

TB: At the moment, it looks a little calmer, and for that I am grateful. I am on-boarding a couple of new team members. I am speaking to Minnesota Business Partnership to make a call to action to CEOs, working hard to raise money for the center. And I’m meeting with community because we want to constantly [represent] for the voices of indigenous and people of color in everything we do. So in a time of community, we want to be sure that we have the hearts and minds and interests of our people centered in everything that we’re advancing.”