Beyond Dreaming

On Monday–Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday–people from Minneapolis and St. Paul braved sub-zero temperatures to come together to continue Dr. King’s unfinished work.

In the spirit of the holiday, marchers demanded solutions to the ongoing problem of police brutality against people of color. They called for St. Paul authorities to reopen the case of Marcus Golden, who St. Paul police fatally shot in the back of the head last year. The cops changed their stories multiple times following the incident and ultimately faced no charges.

They also called for charges against the officers who shot Jamar Clark last year in Minneapolis rather than a grand jury. No grand jury has ever indicted a cop in Minnesota.

The Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, which helped organize the march, is calling on everyone (yes, you too!) to call Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office to voice support for the second demand. His number is 612-348-2146

Sample message: “My name is ___________, (I am a resident of Hennepin County), and I want justice for Jamar Clark, who was killed by Minneapolis police. This means no grand jury. I want Officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze to be brought to trial, just like anyone else would be if they killed someone.”

You can also email Freeman’s office at

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the histories that continue to shape today’s injustices. Unfortunately, it’s more widely used to uncritically celebrate racial “progress” in America. In the [words of comedian Hari Kondabolu], “When did Martin Luther King get transformed from revolutionary civil rights leader that the FBI feared into a teddy bear that only says ‘I Have A Dream’ when you pull the string?”

Dr. King’s legacy is far deeper than the pithy quotes and dream-having that get paraded around once a year. I want to share [just one piece of it]. Skip to 1:30 for the most relevant part.

I couldn’t find a transcript for this speech anywhere online, so I did my best with the audio:

“Negroes are denied the right to vote. But not only that. This denial of the right to vote, the glaring denial of civil rights in other areas, is blocked (?) so often by the tragic abuse of police power. We’ve known the long knife of police brutality. We’ve known the shared (?) Jim Clarks of the south. We’ve known the Colonel Al Lingos of the South. They have beat us. They have bloodied our heads. They’ve used billy clubs and horses and teargas and vicious dogs to block our advance. All of these designs have been used to reduce us to a level of nobody. We are tired of this now. We must let it be known all over the world that we will not take it any longer. Now they have been slow to do anything about it. They have been slow even through the federal government, they always find ways to get over to you that it can’t be done. Still strange to us though. How millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Vietnam and our country cannot protect the rights of negroes in Selma, Alabama. So we have no alternative but to keep going. The other thing is the denial of first amendment privileges laid down in our constitution. We read these words: ‘The right of people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances shall not be abridged.’ But Alabama doesn’t believe in that right. Alabama is determined to make the first amendment of the constitution merely something written on thin paper never transformed into thick action. We have a job to do. We have a great, divine imperative facing us today. We must let the nation know and we must let the world know that it is necessary to protest this threefold evil. The problem of the denial of the right to vote, the police brutality, that we continue to face and faced in its most vicious form last Sunday.”

“Still strange to us though. How millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Vietnam and our country cannot protect the rights of negroes in Selma, Alabama.”

Still strange to us though. How billions of dollars can be spent every day to wage illegal drone war globally and our country cannot protect the rights of people of color in Detroit, Michigan. Ferguson, Missouri. Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“We are tired of this now. We must let it be known all over the world that we will not take it any longer.”

We are still tired. We must let it be known all over the world that this has been going on, and on, and on, and on. And we will not take it any longer.

“We have no alternative but to keep going.”

We have no alternative but to keep going.

Winter Retreat

The day after Christmas, my partner and I began the 17 hour drive from Minneapolis to Austin, where we’d spend the next two weeks. We spent the first half of our trip at a yogic meditation retreat, and the second half visiting friends my partner had made during his time at UT Austin.

The trip was a perfect way to start 2016 – eating tons of incredible home-cooked food, deepening my commitment to my spiritual path, meeting people and places that mean a lot to someone I love very much, and reminding myself of what’s most important in life. What more could I ask for?

I’m Dreaming of a Black Xmas

Yesterday, December 23rd, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis joined five other BLM chapters across the country in coordinated actions to put a halt to one of the busiest shopping and travel days of the year. They called it #BlackXmas.

According to a [Black Lives Matter press release], “Black Xmas is here and there will be no business as usual until we get accountability for our dead, and justice for the living. Instead of buying gifts to fuel this system, Black Xmas is a day of action to reject the degradation of Black families and communities by police, politicians, and predatory companies, and declare our inherent worth. We will disrupt business as usual until city, state, and federal budgets stop funding Black death and start funding Black futures.”

The Minneapolis action began at the Mall of America, where all but the BLM inner circle expected it would stay.

At 1:30pm, the demonstration’s scheduled start time, ushers began leading protesters out of the rotunda to the exits, directing them to get on the Light Rail back towards Minneapolis. We weren’t told where to get off the train, only that we would know when we got there.

Some people took it as an adventure, eagerly guessing among themselves where the train could be headed. Others wondered out loud whether mall security disguised as organizers had tricked them into dispersing. One white guy standing next to me complained that leaving the mall defeated the point of having a protest on such a big shopping day. I was annoyed at how quickly he assumed Black Lives Matter was acting incompetently rather than strategically.

The packed train stopped at 28th Ave, then Bloomington Central, then American Blvd. Before each stop I felt a collective rush of anticipation, then the doors would open to mostly empty platforms and we’d be on our way again. “We’re probably going downtown,” someone speculated.

We were not, in fact, going downtown.

The organizers’ ultimate goal was to move protesters from the Mall of America to the roads leading to the airport, where they would join 20 other demonstrators to block traffic. Although I was on one of the first trains leaving the mall, the cops had already arrived to keep us from exiting the Light Rail stairwell.

What do a bunch of protesters do when a line of irritated cops trap them in a stairwell? [They sing, obviously!]

ain’t no party like a stuck-in-a-stairwell party cause a stuck-in-a-stairwell party don’t stop

[until the cops move aside]

The only place we could go was back down to the Light Rail station because all other exits were blocked, so down we went.

Between 30-50 riot cops followed us down the escalator and stood between the protesters and the airport entrances. They informed us that anyone who did not board the next train out of the airport would be arrested.

When I was taking pictures while waiting for the train, one of the cops (not pictured) tried bonding with me. “Hey!” he said, smiling. “Sony A7, that’s a nice camera.” It was a baffling moment considering I was pointing my “nice camera” directly in his colleague’s face. A black person taking pictures so confrontationally would definitely have elicited a much different reaction.

After almost everyone had boarded the train and only media people and a few (calm, nonviolent) protesters remained on the platform, the cops pulled out clubs the size of yardsticks and stood at the ready. “Oh my god!” I heard people on the train gasp. “What are they doing?”

I saw the police arrest a few people before the train left, including Black Lives Matter organizer Nicque Mabrey (not pictured).

The Light Rail dropped us off one stop short of the Mall of America. I and many others decided to walk back to the mall to see if the protest had moved back to its starting point.

At least thirty cop cars and other emergency vehicles drove past us as we walked back to the Mall.

Tons of mall security guards met us outside the east entrance and told us we would be arrested if we didn’t leave mall property immediately. I put on my best Minnesota accent and asked one of the guards, “What if we aren’t part of these black matters demonstrations? I just want to get my Christmas shopping done JEEZ.

They didn’t buy it. I think my combat boots and the bandanna tied around my neck might have tipped them off.

When I finally put down my camera and checked my phone, I saw that the protests had successfully shut down part of the mall and the Light Rail, and caused major delays for both airport terminals.

Many well-intentioned people who believe they support racial justice are frustrated with that outcome. Some of you find it unfair that your life and the lives of others were temporarily put on hold in the name of this cause that you might otherwise support.

But if a few hours of nonviolent protest that delayed flights and temporarily closed stores is enough to make you care less about racial justice, you never cared that much to begin with. And if you think the protest was a disproportionate response to what black people in this country are facing, you don’t really understand what black people in this country are facing. You don’t know the daily terror of realizing your son or daughter could be shot dead while handcuffed, or playing with a toy gun, or walking down the street, with absolutely no recourse. You can’t possibly. If you did, you’d find anguished mothers and sons and wives justified in burning this whole city to the ground if that’s what they thought would get their message across.

If you’re frustrated about this protest, I only ask that you set aside your judgment and try to learn why many find this cause urgent enough to force people to stop what they’re doing and listen.

Justice 4 Jamar Unity March

On Saturday, the newly formed [Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar] held its first big action: a unity march for organizations, students, activists, concerned community members, etc. to come together and show support for the coalition’s demands, which are as follows:

Hundreds showed up to march despite below freezing temperatures, starting at the Fourth Precinct in North Minneapolis and ending at the Hennepin County Government Center downtown, with several symbolic stops along the way. At every stop in the march, speakers addressed that site’s relationship to broader systems of racism in Minneapolis.

The Southwest Journal published some of these photos [here].

Wishful thinking outside the Fourth Precinct.

Jacob Ladda leads the marchers in chants.

Police Sgt. Steve Mosey talks to a man from inside the Fourth Precinct vestibule.

Protesters including 11 year-old Taye Clinton gather at the site of Jamar Clark’s death for a moment of silence. Clinton was maced by Minneapolis police in May when peacefully protesting with the Black Liberation Project.

The crowd marches from the HERC Incinerator, where speakers talked about environmental racism in Minneapolis, towards the Juvenile Justice Center downtown. That stop represented mass incarceration as well as the youth voice in the movement for racial justice.

Protesters stop on Nicollet Mall to highlight connections between racism and corporate capitalism and to call for workers’ rights.

The almost five-mile march ends outside the Hennepin County Government Center downtown.

A woman holds a  cloth as part of a performance art piece organized by the Million Artist Movement. As Jayanthi Kyle with the Movement explains, “The red cloth represents all of the grief that we especially as African Americans and black people have to hold for the continuation of all of these deaths. Everyone put it to the earth…they put it to the sky first for the ancestors and to God, and then they put it to ground, and then they [bore] it on their shoulders, eventually leaving it on the ground.”

Teachers of Color

The Southwest Journal just published a story I wrote and photographed for them on the crucial role of teachers of color. You can read the story below or check it out on the [Southwest Journal’s website].

Tiffany Doherty loves teaching, and it shows. The wall behind her desk at Anwatin Middle School is covered with notes from grateful students.

“One of my best times in teaching,” she reflects, “was one day I was telling some story as intro to lesson. A kid looked over at the person next to them and they were like, ‘Hold on, wait, is this math?’” She laughs warmly and for a moment it’s hard to tell she’s talking about a topic that, like math, is more often discussed with stern faces and solemn tones: racial inequity in Minneapolis public schools.

Tiffany is one of very few teachers of color in Minneapolis, a district where 67 percent of the students are not white and 87 percent of teachers are, according to Dirk Tedmon, communications specialist for Minneapolis Public Schools. While the national diversity gap between students and teachers has been growing in recent years, Minneapolis’ numbers are especially stark compared to other big cities. A recent report by the Albert Shanker Institute found that across nine major US cities–Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.–white teachers make up 80 percent of the workforce on average. Despite numerous studies that show both white and non-white students benefit from having teachers of color, those numbers have been slow to budge.

With district’s renewed commitment to equity as part of its Acceleration 2020 initiative, which aims to close the achievement gap between white and non-white students by 2020, it’s time to look closer at how the diversity gap fits into the problems facing Minneapolis schools.

Understanding why so many education experts find the lack of teachers of color troubling starts with a bigger question: what gets students to learn? If you ask Dr. Corey Yeager, a teacher with the Minneapolis Office of Black Male Student Achievement, he’ll tell you that it comes down to relationships. “I can hit you over the head with all this information, but…if the relationship is the focus from the outset,” he says, leaning across the table for emphasis, “there’s nothing I can’t teach you.”

Corey, a therapist by trade who received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota, speaks with the calm authority of someone who’s been there. This is his second year teaching BLACK, short for Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge, a course through the Minneapolis Office of Black Male Student Achievement that targets the unique needs of black male students. For most kids in the program, BLACK is the first time they’ve had a teacher of their race, which has proved important for building the kinds of relationships that help students succeed.

Just a few weeks after the start of the school year, a group of students are gathered in Corey’s morning class at South High School. It’s a tutoring day, and for the most part Corey hangs back and observes as AVID tutors check with students to see what they need help with. Ishabor Makvandi (Ish, for short), one of the tutors, spends a lot of this period working through algebra with a junior at South. After just 20 minutes, the student was glowing with the satisfaction of having finally understood concepts that had eluded him for years. “Ish was speaking his language,” Corey told me, reflecting on the moment. “He said, ‘Okay your learning style is different…so let’s describe it differently.’”

It’s not just that Ish–or any other educator of color–can make ideas more accessible for non-white students. That’s the product of a longer equation: personal experience with a colorblind education system not designed for “minorities” plus firsthand insight into the student’s cultural background, multiplied by an emotional connection that’s built on those commonalities (or, at the very least, the student’s perception thereof). That is to say, educators of color may have more direct experience facing and overcoming challenges students of color encounter, and can use shared experiences and cultural codes as learning tools. That makes it easier to build a relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and understanding. “Absent that relationship,” says Corey, “[teaching] is gonna be a tougher sell.”

BLACK, however, is atypical. It was designed with a critical eye towards the many ways schools disempower black students, which means it’s set up for success in ways most classes are not. For instance, its class sizes are capped at 20, it uses curriculum specially designed by Dr. Keith Mayes, an African-American Studies professor at the University of Minnesota, and its teaching model is based on student empowerment and consciousness-raising dialogue. BLACK invites students to dig deep into the material they’re learning in other courses as well as the struggles they experience in their day-to-day lives, and to use the insight they gain to transform their worlds.

In other classrooms, teachers of color deal with many of the same obstacles white teachers face. Overstretched resources, large class sizes, and curriculums constrained by state testing requirements make it challenging for any teacher to form close bonds with students or cater to individual learning styles.

Even so, Tiffany Doherty, math teacher at Anwatin, has noticed that a lot of her white peers fight a steeper uphill battle in understanding non-white students’ perspectives and the contexts that shape them. This can make it harder to draw relevant connections between the material and students’ lives, a strategy Tiffany considers essential for keeping class engaging. Landmark research supports her approach. Students learn best when they can draw connections between past experiences and new ideas, so teachers with more insight into student’s lives have an advantage, according to education experts Dr. Ana María Villegas and Dr. Jacqueline Jordan Irvine.

Tiffany also sees misunderstandings that come from cultural differences as a major source of behavior problems at Anwatin. “We have lots of teachers who come from far out in the suburbs where they’re not used to being with African-American students, and they get here and it’s a culture shock,” she explains. “They have all this friction trying to adjust what they think is acceptable in a classroom.” That friction can lead to misunderstandings that strain relationships between teachers and students.

It’s possible that multicultural sensitivity training could help prevent misunderstandings like that for white and non-white teachers alike, who can also struggle relating to students from backgrounds different from their own. However, the few trainings the district offers aren’t mandatory and take place outside school hours, according to Kleber Ortiz-Sinchi, Social Studies District Program Facilitator for grades six through twelve.

More importantly, says Kleber, trainings don’t fix the underrepresentation of people of color in teaching positions. A lot of Kleber’s job revolves around working with teachers to help them be more culturally sensitive, but he feels that work can only go so far because students of color need role models that they can relate to. “If you never see those people in positions of power or in positions of professionalism, then you start questioning yourself. ‘Why are they not there? Well maybe because I don’t deserve to be there. Maybe because we’re not meant for that.’…That’s the message that it sends.” And, as Dr. Jacqueline Jordan Irvine’s research suggests, their absence also teaches white students that people of color don’t generally hold power.

The burden of underrepresentation can also weigh heavily on teachers of color, who may feel called to take on extra work to make up for gaps in cultural responsiveness in the classroom and at the district. Norma Alejandro-Mattson, a literacy specialist and bilingual coach with Green Park Elementary School, carries the weight of being one of the few Spanish language literacy advocates in the district. Although her expertise is in Spanish instruction, when she applied for the specialist position the interviewer only asked her questions about English literacy. She was turned down for the job, but her principal had seen Norma work and had confidence in her potential, so she took matters into her own hands and hired Norma through the school’s budget rather than the district’s.

Now at the district’s biweekly literacy specialist meetings, Norma feels like an outsider. She’s one of only three people of color at these meetings, which she estimates about fifty people attend. The alienation is palatable. “In Minneapolis, we have a lot of different bilingual programs but [the meetings] will never address that we teach more than just English.” The lack of support from the district adds a heavy burden on top of the many roles she plays at her school, which include planning and co-teaching with teachers, serving on her school’s instructional leadership team, working with students in the classroom, coordinating professional development, overseeing Reading Corps, serving on the Family Engagement Committee, providing feedback to teachers after observing them in the classroom, and working with the dual-developmental language (DDL) classes to make them more culturally responsive.

“Now that I’m in this role,” she says of her DDL work, “I can help the teachers, but when I was a teacher I didn’t have any help.”

“Is that why you wear so many hats here?” I ask.

“I think so. Yeah. Makes me a little…” Her words catch in her throat and she looks away. It’s quiet for a moment except for the sound of her crying.

“Yeah. I don’t know. Just trying my best.”

The lack of teachers of color is in some respects a vicious cycle. Corey Yeager explains that without examples of great teachers who look like them, students of color are less likely to see teaching as a realistic possibility. “The message you send to kids of color is it’s not worthy for us to get that number of teachers of color up. It’s just what it is. You can learn from anybody.” But, he quickly adds, that doesn’t mean candidates aren’t out there. “Often times folks may say we don’t have applicants of color,” Corey says. “It’d be like a football coach saying we don’t have any running backs. Well at a certain point you better recruit ‘em.”

The district has been working hard to do just that. Its main efforts have focused providing alternative pathways to licensure that make entering the profession more accessible, according to Maggie Sullivan, Executive Director of Human Capital with the district. The most notable example has been the Grow Your Own Program, which helps Minneapolis Public Schools staff to go into teaching, many of whom are people of color.

Efforts are starting to pay off. In the last hiring cycle, over 20 percent of new teachers were people of color. Nonetheless, much work remains. “We’re such a data-driven profession that if you look at the data right now you’d say…obviously we’re not doing enough,” says Kleber Ortiz-Sinchi.

The issue, however, goes deeper than role models and recruitment. As Kleber points out, people of color are under-represented in professional positions across virtually all sectors, and face a mountain of systemic hurdles that maintain that reality. 

But like Kleber, Corey is still hopeful. “We can’t ever hang our head and say, ‘Well that’s such a big system, we can’t have an effect.’ We must start somewhere.”

He thinks the school system is a great place to start.

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