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‘Minnesotans are good, kind people’: Jonathan Capehart and the 2020 Facing Race Awards celebrate anti-racism activists’ work

This year’s honorees — Valerie Castile, Leslie Redmond, Resmaa Menakem and Alex Miles  — will be accepting their awards virtually.

This year’s Facing Race Awards honorees include Valerie Castile.
This year’s Facing Race Awards honorees include Valerie Castile.
Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation

Last year’s Facing Race Awards ceremony was a festive occasion, held in the Intercontinental St. Paul Riverfront Hotel complete with a live band, food and drink, live speeches from the recipients, and a pre-reception mingling hour that found some of the state’s best thought leaders comparing notes on their work around anti-racism.

This year’s ceremony — the first since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police in May — will be unlike any since the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation launched the Facing Race awards in 2007. Because of the global pandemic, the ceremony will be held Sunday (7 p.m.) via TPT, with this year’s awardees — Valerie Castile (CEO and president, the Philando Castile Relief Foundation), Leslie Redmond (president, NAACP Minneapolis), Resmaa Menakem (author, healer, therapist), and Alex Miles (founder, the Racial Justice Club) — accepting their awards virtually.

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“It’s bittersweet; you can’t say anything other than that because of the way this all came about, with his murder and all,” said Castile, whose son Philando Castile, was killed at the hands of the St. Anthony Police in 2016. “Me, personally, I don’t [seek recognition], I’m just doing things in honor of my son and [lifting up] things that were near and dear to his heart. Trying to keep that going, and keeping his legacy alive; just doing these things to make it feel like he’s still here. He paid for kids’ lunches at school, and he was a big help to his mama and sister; he was about family and community and the children he served every day. He was really big on that, and we’ve just wanted to add to that — all of those wonderful qualities that he displayed before his untimely death.”

Sunday’s awards show will be hosted by Jonathan Capehart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post and MSNBC contributor who graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, and who regularly gets back to Minnesota with his North Dakota-born husband, Nick Schmit.

“I was asked to do this long before George Floyd, and what happened in Minneapolis,” said Capehart. “It was important for me to do it because of my connection to Minnesota, and [because of] what the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation does. But in the aftermath of George Floyd, it just seemed the timing could not have been more fortuitous in terms of what the foundation does, who the awardees are, and the message that I wanted to say.

Leslie Redmond
Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation
Leslie Redmond
“To watch what was happening in Minneapolis, from here in Washington, given my connection to the state and my love for Minneapolis in particular, it was tough to watch. But what gave me hope was the reaction of the community. And not just the reaction of the community, but then the reaction of the nation and the world. All eyes were on Minneapolis, and Minneapolis showed the country and the world what they stood for.

“Down at Carleton I spent not a lot of time in Minneapolis, but enough to have a feel for the city, and an affection for the city. I never lived in the city, but to watch a city that I got to know and care about and by extension, knowing who the people were who were taking to the streets — you know, unlike other demonstrations that we’ve seen over time — I felt a connection to what was happening there and a familiarity with the area watching it from afar. I have that strong Minnesota, strong Minneapolis connection, but then it gets even more personal because once again, I was watching people react and respond to the killing of a Black man.”

Like most of the world, Capehart gleaned a lot of information in the short amount of time that George Floyd’s killing was broadcast from 38th and Chicago in south Minneapolis.

Resmaa Menakem
Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation
Resmaa Menakem
“I have seen maybe a grand total of 10 seconds of the eight minutes and 46 seconds of the video of the killing of George Floyd,” he said. “I can’t watch it. But the fact that people on the street in Minneapolis stopped, tried their best, tried to help him, filmed it, recorded it — which is probably the most important thing that was done in terms of trying to trying to help him — they could not physically help him, but that video did more to help the situation in terms of showing people what happened to George Floyd, what happens to Black men more often than people care to think about, or know what happens to Black people overall when they get into tussles with law enforcement. … And for me, as a Black man watching what happened to George Floyd, it just made my blood run cold.

“That could have been me. I don’t for a moment kid myself and think that, you know, because I work at the Washington Post or because I live in Washington, that I could not find myself in that situation one day. That’s what made what happened to George Floyd so personal, and what happened to Breonna Taylor. And what happened to Ahmaud Arbery so personal.

“I mean the one thing that I learned in my total of five years in Minnesota is that Minnesotans are good, kind people. And also they are, by and large, fair. That was the mindset I had as I watched, not the video of George Floyd’s murder, but of reading the newspaper accounts and seeing some video of the people who were on the sidewalks, the people who were yelling at the police officers, trying to tell them, ‘He can’t breathe, why won’t you help him?’

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“That did not did not surprise me. That was not something that I found out of the ordinary. It’s something that whenever there’s an injustice, or flagrant unfairness, that Minnesotans will turn and say ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ And so that’s why I’m not surprised about what happened on that corner, 38th and Chicago. In the moment, people were protesting trying to save his life. And then, after, more people came out and in death, were ignited to say, ‘This is not who we are, not as Minneapolitans, and not as Minnesotans, and damn for sure not as Americans.’

Alex Miles
Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation
Alex Miles
“Also, because Minnesota is an overwhelmingly white state, that sends a signal to the country as well, that this was not something that was just happening to the Black community, [but] that this was something that was happening to Minneapolis, and to Minnesota, and people took a look around in their own communities and decided, ‘Enough is enough. We’re going to march in solidarity with the folks in Minneapolis and also shine a light on the bad things in our own backyard and push for change.”

One of way of doing that is to listen to the wisdom of people like this year’s Facing Race awardees.

REUTERS/Bria Webb
Jonathan Capehart
“Each of them is doing something to help the community, but also further understanding and strengthening the bonds between people, crossing whatever lines there are, whether it’s gender, race, socio-economic, gender identity, sexual orientation,” said Capehart. “Everything that happened in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd only serves to shine an even brighter spotlight on the work that they’re doing, and also on the work that the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation is doing to help those organizations meet their goals to help them help their communities.”

Sunday’s awards show will be the 14th edition of the Facing Race Awards. Past recipients include professor Mahmoud El-Kati, civil rights leader Josie Johnson, professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, and St. Paul Council Member Dai Thao. The awards’ stated mission is “a way to honor those in our community who challenge absent and harmful narratives on race, build solutions that unite, instead of divide, and push for justice and equity.” In 2020, that mission has never been more important.

“I love the fact that we’re being recognized for the work that we’re doing, which we don’t consider it work, but that’s what it’s called,” said Valerie Castile. “We really, really appreciate the recognition, and we’re just so grateful that we’re all being recognized. It’s all about solving problems, not creating problems.

“In reality, I don’t know much about the Facing Race Award, but the words in general, what they mean to me is facing these difficult issues. No one really wants to talk about it, but it is painful to know that there are people who don’t like you just because of the color of your skin, when you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. We need to try to come to a common ground, try to figure out what that is in terms of what happened, and how we can move forward in a positive way where we all can see the light.”