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White Minnesotans must listen now, and then work for racial justice

Our fellow Minnesotans’ lives are threatened by the very systems we have built. Black, brown and Indigenous Minnesotans told us this, but we did not hear.

My fellow white Minnesotans, we see in George Floyd’s agony and Derek Chauvin’s casual cruelty what we must see. Our fellow Minnesotans’ lives are threatened by the very systems we have built. Black, brown and Indigenous Minnesotans told us this, but we did not hear. We must now listen and act to build a new Minnesota.

Lois Quam
Lois Quam
This is not just about the Twin Cities. The 1920s Duluth lynching of three Black men and the 1862 Mankato mass execution of 38 Indigenous people, the largest U.S. execution, paved the road to today. Currently, Rochester’s poverty gap between Blacks and whites is larger than any other American city of similar size. In Rice County, where my parents live, the vast majority of people infected with COVID-19 are persons of color in a county that is overwhelmingly white.

I’m from southwest Minnesota. I moved to the Twin Cities for college and stayed to work and raise a family. My hometown, Marshall, as Ahmed Yusef noted in his book “Somalis in Minnesota,” is the first Minnesota town that offered good jobs and schools to Somali families.

As a Norwegian Lutheran, I have benefited from everything Minnesota offers. Marshall High School gave me the foundation to study at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship and Governor Rudy Perpich appointed me to chair the state commission that led to MinnesotaCare the week I had my first child. I served in a senior position at a Fortune 500 company working on Medicare and Medicaid and in a top Obama administration global health position. Today my work as a global nonprofit CEO takes me more often to west Africa than western Minnesota. And in quiet moments at night, wherever I am, my mind goes to the prairies of Lyon County.

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My three sons are St. Paul Central High School graduates and I know that a police traffic stop will not cost their life as it did their fellow Central graduate Philando Castile. I have never feared that my sons will call for me under a police officer’s knee.

I saw the inequities, but I didn’t see them well enough

Like many white Minnesotans, I saw these inequities, but I didn’t see them well enough. My love for what is exceptional about Minnesota blinded me. I thank young Minnesotans for their relentless leadership in protest that forces clarity and action. Every Minnesotan should have every opportunity that has been afforded to me, my sons and other white Minnesotans.

To witness Holy Trinity Lutheran Church surrounded by fires and yet providing first aid, food and refuge shows how Minnesota Lutherans statewide can support communities of color. On Lake Street and University Avenue, Minnesotans set the tone for America by responding to the protests with work gloves, brooms and mutual aid.

This spirit of hard work and generosity now must become action in daily life, at work, and in legislation so that Minnesota is for all of us. A young Black protester interviewed by WCCO’s Mike Max at Bobby and Steve’s Auto World pointed out in the midst of protests about racial inequities that he and the white National Guard citizen-soldier next to him both had families they wanted to go home to. The pandemic shows us that we can act quickly to save each other’s lives.

We need conversations — and action

In 2014, I married again, and my husband is an American Muslim. This wonderful personal event gave me new perspective.

We can understand each other even though our lives and our histories are different. Dr. Ayaz Virji, a Dawson physician, and the Rev. Mandy France, a rural Minnesota Lutheran pastor, launched “Love They Neighbor” conversations so Christians and Muslims could get to know each other. This listening is to each other not just to the loudest voice or the angriest voice. A statewide conversation between every race and religion, urban and rural, of every income and age is essential.

And conversations need to lead to actions to change our schools, companies, criminal justice and health care systems so Black, brown and Indigenous Minnesotans have the same opportunities that white Minnesotans have.

Minnesotans, we have a choice. We can be the byword for racial injustice, or we can show this country how to be a more perfect union. It is now up to us.

Lois Quam grew up in Marshall, Minnesota, and lives now in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul.  

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