A Conversation With: Sondra Samuels

In your essay, “Community Leadership in a Time of Crisis and Trauma,” you write about the challenges of simultaneously leading transformation in a time of crisis while also leading through the crisis itself. Please say more, as a leader and as a developer of community power, about what you can do to make sure your community not only survives but grows stronger.

Telling the story is really important. We want to be honest about the emergency we’re in and the backdrop of violence, and not try to pretend that everything’s all right. I find it important to articulate our context to all of the stakeholders who don’t live in our community, so I constantly talk about the challenges we face. If we’re about to start a meeting with funders or board members and I know a teacher was murdered in the Northside the night before, we don’t get on with the meeting until we recognize a life has been lost. It’s a great challenge to not become numb to the violence, and it happens so often I sometimes wonder if our board members will get fatigued, but I give them updates regularly.

Talking about the context is also an opportunity to articulate clearly the racial disparities that exist, and to enroll more people to help eliminate them. Here’s an example. I keep talking about the murder of George Floyd in the context of why [Northside Achievement Zone] exists:  He was murdered in a heinous way, but it was just the tip of the iceberg of structural racism that exists in our community. Below the waterline are all of the structural underpinnings of racism that [NAZ has] been trying to eradicate for the past decade: disparities in education, income, health, wealth, incarceration, and housing. This moment is an opportunity to talk about all of that and to say it is terrible and egregious—that this city has its knee on the necks of Black people in so many other ways. It’s a chance to say, if you now believe us about George Floyd’s murder, can you also believe us about other types of racism so we can get on with the business of dismantling the structures that have caused these major gaps in racial equity that Minneapolis is known for? I tell them this is their opportunity to lean all-in.

Issues can be very polarizing during times of crisis. How do you continue to lead, and remain effective, when your community is very divided?

This is something I’m really grappling with. We have an opportunity to grow in terms of what it means to authentically lead in such polarizing times. I’m not saying I’ve done it well, but I’m learning and I think I’ve gotten better. 

Our city is polarized around the police. Many young people want to abolish them, while the baby boomers either don’t want to get rid of them or want to have both a new department with more accountability and transparency and also enough cops so our kids are not getting shot in the head. There’s also some racial stratification: About 75% of Black residents are against reducing the number of police, compared with 51% of White folks. My position is, you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. The bathwater might be putrid, but if you throw it out you end up with a dead baby, when you were just trying to change the water.

“There is an art, when we have become polarized, to listening and not reloading, to avoiding the trap of ‘othering’ people who have different points of view….And if they do come over to your perspective, never say ‘I told you so.’ You need to join people when they come to the party.”

I try to listen to other points of view and really hear the other person’s concerns. There’s an art to catching ourselves when we have become polarized—to listening and not reloading, to avoiding the trap of “othering” people who have different points of view. Often, we think we can change people, but we really can’t. People change themselves. You can give them information, but they have agency to weigh it and either agree with you or not. You have to allow people that agency—and, if they do come over to your perspective, never, ever say “I told you so.” You need to join people when they come to the party and just say, “I’m glad you’re here.”

The other side of polarization is the impact a leader’s positions can have on their organization’s funding and influence. NAZ receives a certain amount of base funding from the state every year, and people are afraid that taking unpopular policy positions that, in effect, call out structural racism could cause us to lose funding. For example, I am standing for a proposed educational equality bill [see essay], and I’ve been told I should think about backing off my support for it if I want to keep state funding. I’ve even been steered away from meeting with legislators on other bills because of my support for the educational equality bill.

For leaders of comprehensive approaches and collective impact at the community level, this is the difficulty: You have to be winsome and diplomatic and strategic, and you rose to your position because people thought you were a great leader. But then you’re compromised by your allies’ fears of reprisal. I feel it might be important for some of us to go down—to lose funding—if necessary, but to keep standing our ground against structural racism. Because the future of children doesn’t look pretty if we don’t.

During a crisis, when individuals and communities have very immediate practical needs and are often experiencing renewed trauma, how do you stay on track with longer-term efforts to lead systems change?

We have spent the last decade going deeper and wider on what works. I think there are opportunities to advance what works to scale, to do it for more families and with more partners, to expand into physical health and high-school-through-college supports, to focus not just on programs but also advance toward population-level impact. But when you look at the short term, we face a constant barrage of violence and trauma. Our kids are drenched in it. Just last Monday in the Northside, there was an apparently unprovoked shooting of a woman, four bullets in her chest and face. Over the weekend, a man drove into another car containing a woman and child, ran away, shot a bystander who chased him, and carjacked another car to get away. And we still don’t know what the long-term effects will be of the violence and unrest after the murder of George Floyd.

At the same time, the COVID-related learning loss for children, the economic loss for families, and the impact on programs is very real. For some of our early childhood centers, it will take a couple of years just to regain their previous levels of enrollment. The CEO of our leading wellness partner says he is losing therapists left and right. Our state learning assessment wasn’t given in 2020, and this year only a fraction of kids took it. White middle-class kids didn’t lose much ground, but low-income Black and Brown kids, who were already behind, did. So we are not even close to going “back to normal.”

Part of our plan for systems change is to expand our influence across the city and state. We’re part of statewide coalitions, partnerships, and local coalitions fighting for educational equality. That’s very important, but our secret weapon has always been our most vocal parents. So, a key strategy is to develop more parents and scholars who can advocate for themselves and our community.

That’s the “people power” you talk about in your essay, right?

Right. A policy maker might be able to write me off, because they see me as a sort of peer. But they don’t see parents that way. Parents are heard differently, with more respect for what they’re saying.

It’s not just at the city level, either. The Education Partnerships Coalition that NAZ belongs to [see essay] participated in a statewide (virtual) Day on the Hill, and parents from all of our different EPC cities met with their legislators and the lieutenant governor so they were hearing the same voice and message across the state. The parents led this. Parents are meeting now, on a statewide level, to talk about their own training and what they want to be involved in. They started an initiative called No Data About Us Without Us, to make sure they have a say in what gets measured in communities of color across the state. We want to go deeper in that effort, because we know it works.

What more is needed now in the fields of policy advocacy, philanthropy, and civic leadership to amplify and expand community leadership/people power?

We need policies to eradicate inequities. We can have all the great programs in world, but if policies and systems don’t change we will still have racial inequities and multigenerational poverty. We cannot program our way out of our most pressing issues. That’s why I stuck my neck out about the policing initiative. Is doing that going to piss off the teacher’s union? Is a democratic state leader going to be angry? Probably. But we have to have that air game happening.

“We can have all the great programs in the world, but if policies and systems don’t change we will still have racial inequities and multigenerational poverty. We cannot program our way out of our most pressing issues.”

We need policymakers who will look at places where there is entrenched, systemic injustice and address the racial and socioeconomic disparities. There are people in both parties who, because of their constituents, don’t move on these issues and get offended when you try to have a candid conversation about what needs to happen.

We need policies that create opportunities for jobs, housing, education. We need a multi-year policy strategy to address COVID-related learning loss, just to even get back to where we were before the pandemic. And we need to get more Black teachers, especially males, into classrooms.

We need to invest in places. It has been said that there are some places that lift children out of poverty and others that trap them there. Historically, our children and families have been trapped, and it has everything to do with policy. Dollars should disproportionately be going to places where the most injustice has been happening and where outcomes are the worst for children and families.

We need more organizations like ours to receive base funding from the state. Our Greater Minnesota partners are still reliant on discretionary funding that they have to seek every year. There should be a statewide commitment to supporting placed-based communities that are struggling with inequities, working collaboratively across the state.

“We need to invest in places…We need philanthropy to have staying power…And backbone organizations like NAZ don’t need to get bigger to scale up, [we] need to get more effective and strategic at coalescing the work that’s already happening and helping it go deeper for the common good.”

We need philanthropy to have staying power. Individuals and foundations have been really good about stepping up in reaction to the triple threat of the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and the civil rest that ensued. A number of philanthropic organizations leaned into a lot of BIPOC-led organizations. They’re asking what we need and how they can help. Now, the test is for them not to stop. The philanthropic community tends to respond with a laser focus when some big seismic thing happens, and then they tire of it. What doesn’t happen is a sustained focus on eradicating racial inequities across our country and in communities. This battle will be decades long, and they have to be in it for the long haul.

We need to codify in our systems how we work with each other, how resources flow, who gets a seat at the table. For funders, it’s not enough to just write a check. And when you’re a backbone organization like NAZ, you don’t need to get bigger to scale up, you need to get more effective and strategic at coalescing the work that’s already happening and helping it go deeper for the common good.

Has your personal approach to leadership been affected by the past 18 months of trauma in North Minneapolis and nationally, and has that changed how you think about community leadership in any way?

Every year I watch Boycott, the movie about the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott. For 381 days, the organizers got people to stay off the buses in protest against racial segregation. And I cry, because those people were willing to be steadfast for the common good—not just their individual good—while their homes were being bombed, while the average Joe and Sarah were losing their jobs, while they were being jailed.

I thought, these people went through some serious shit for us. While they were in the midst of it, did they say to themselves, ”I know the impact of my decision to sacrifice is going to have ripple effects into the future?” In the moment of getting their homes bombed, I don’t think they did. But they didn’t let fear eclipse what was just and right and for the common good.

I get asked to run for office all the time but of course I won’t. My focus is completely on NAZ. I do worry though that we won’t get the folks we need to run for office. Right now, decent and truly passionate people who really want to work for the common good are deciding not to go into public service because of the personal harassment they get from people who oppose their views. People came after me personally, and also after NAZ, when I was vocal about the policing issue and changing the authority of the office of the mayor. I even received emails using the N word and saying some terrible things. There was also an article written recently about a personal tragedy I was a part of. After they printed it, they blasted it on social media every day. They called my board of directors at their work places, they called and harassed my staff. Then they started on social media, saying people should go after my funders. It became clear to me that no matter the intimidation, we still need to stand up for what we believe is right and just. Leaders are supposed to magnify issues and be a voice for people who will never be heard otherwise. I am not going to allow my fear of what they might do stop me. This is the only way that lasting change that uplifts communities has ever happened.