Lesson Learned: The Necessary Power of an Outside Strategy

By Vina Kay and Jake Virden

The question on the table had to do with how to define appointments and representation of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Calhoun-Harriet Master Plan. There was some agreement that the CAC process would be better with more voices from underrepresented communities involved in the planning. How could the MPRB authentically build the relationships necessary to invite that participation?

As consultants from Voices for Racial Justice and Hope Community, we were offering some strategies that involved communicating among political appointers (including City Council members and Parks Commissioners) to coordinate appointments, allowing staff input in the appointment process, and engaging with us and other partners as community organizations with strong community relationships.

Then we offered an additional suggestion, one that grew out of conversations with our community partners: making it part of the CAC charge to address the renaming of Lake Calhoun, named after vice president and outspoken supporter of slavery John C. Calhoun. For a few seconds, the room was filled with awkward silence.

One commissioner said that would make it impossible to support the CAC composition we had been discussing. A high level staff person said that it was important to consider, but how could we best offer the space for that conversation. Another commissioner thought it should absolutely be part of the defined process. There were practical questions, like whether the MPRB could do anything about the name in the context of the Master Plan.

In all of the back and forth, one thing was clear. We were no longer talking about the CAC composition and appointment process. We were talking about a larger, historically charged issue.

A few weeks later, nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at their church in South Carolina. Among the wounds this violent act opened up was the symbolism in South Carolina and other southern states of the Confederate flag. Leaders of all political affiliations are now calling for Confederate flags to be taken down as public symbols, recognizing how very alive and real racial hatred remains in our country.

And the movement to rename Lake Calhoun, which has been simmering for years, woke up again. But this time, the movement grew from grassroots communities, from people with a stake in the issue because they enjoy the lake but not the contradiction. It grew from the outside, not from inside around a large board table. Now the conversation about a name change is alive and growing – because of that community drive.

So we have learned a lesson in our work to develop an inside-outside strategy. Sometimes the right strategy is an outside one.

As people working and organizing with communities of color in Minneapolis, we know that we need a name change for Lake Calhoun. But we also want so much more. We need a deeper conversation about how our country’s historic system of slavery still impacts us today. We want to challenge the racism that continues to ground so many public decisions and practices. We want to see the name change as part of a larger commitment to address inequities in our parks system and in other spaces. The growing community demand has the possibility of delivering the name change and more.

Had the drive for renaming Lake Calhoun come from that inside table, we might have gained a more immediate win and the satisfaction among leaders of doing something big. But we would have lost something greater. We would have lost the chance to engage in deep truth telling by the voices of communities most impacted by our legacy of racism – a process that can be transformative and affect how we collectively confront our history rather than deny its real impact on our lives. We would have lost the opportunity to grow something with deeper roots in the rich soil of a community-led process.

The outside strategy that is quickly emerging also belongs to many, rather than a few. This core principle of organizing – of the power of many coming together for change – has always fueled the most revolutionary and transformative movements. Of course, the eventual partnership of elected leaders will be necessary. But when those leaders answer to the demands of the people, we are all better for it.

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