Our Voices

One Minnesota Cannot Be Colorblind

Brett Grant, Research & Policy Director

On January 9, 2019, Governor Walz signed Executive Order 19-01 into law. Executive Order 19-01 establishes the “One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.” With Executive Order 19-01, Gov. Walz affirms his commitment to create a state that works for all Minnesotans.

Executive Order 19-01 begins with the following statement: “Our State must be a leader in ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to thrive. Disparities in Minnesota, including those based on race, geography, and economic status, keep our entire state from reaching its full potential. As long as inequities impact Minnesotans’ ability to be successful, we have work to do. Our state will recognize its full potential when all Minnesotans are provided the opportunity to lead healthy, fulfilled lives. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are therefore essential core values and top priorities to achieve One Minnesota.”

Executive Order 19-01 comes at a crucial moment in history, as Minnesota still has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. WalletHub, a personal finance website based in Washington, D.C., released a recent study entitled “2019’s States with the Most Racial Progress.” In the study, “WalletHub measured the gaps between blacks and whites across 22 key indicators of equality and integration in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” The racial integration ranking measures the current integration levels of whites and blacks in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. At number 1, New Mexico was the state with the most racial integration. At number 50, Wisconsin was the state with the least racial integration. Minnesota was number 47.

Another ranking is the racial progress ranking which measures the levels of racial progress achieved over time. At number 1, Wyoming was the state with the most racial progress. Iowa was the state with the least racial progress at number 50. Minnesota was number 44. Racial progress rankings considered indicators such as “Highest and Lowest Change in Median Annual Income Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Labor-Force Participation Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Unemployment Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Homeownership Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Poverty Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Gap in % of Adults with at least a High School Diploma,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Gap in % of Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Standardized-Test Scores Gap,” “Best and Worst Change in Voter Turnout Gap (2016 Presidential Election),” and “Highest and Lowest Change in Infant-Mortality Rate Gap.”

“We’re screwing up all over the place,” writes City Pages journalist, Hannah Jones, in response to the WalletHub studies’ findings. “Sure, you may be thinking, Minnesota is struggling to address inequality. But surely we’re putting in the work to make it better, right? Unfortunately, no. There’s a ranked list for that, too – how much these gaps have narrowed over the years – and Minnesota comes in at No. 44.” Jones acknowledges, “It’s not the first time we’ve asked ourselves why we’re like this – why we can succeed by most other progressive measures and still end up letting our black residents down, one metric after another.”

Jones is right. With Executive Order 19-01, Governor Walz is asking the same question. Executive Order 19-01 uses the language of “One Minnesota” to imagine a Minnesota where “…all Minnesotans are provided the opportunity to lead healthy, fulfilled lives.” While I understand the intent of such language, it is important to remember that Minnesota in reality is made up of many different identities: racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, and sexual. It is important that Executive Order 19-01 does not attempt to make our differences invisible, or force us to assimilate our differences into a notion of “One Minnesota” that does not reflect who we truly are.

In other words, Executive Order 19-01 cannot be color blind in the effort to advance racial equity in Minnesota. On the contrary, it must embrace the fullness of who we are as human beings, and must try to find ways through public policy to place our differences at the center of all decision-making. At every step, the One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity must ask the following questions:

  • Who is most impacted and how will those specific communities be engaged in the analysis?
  • What disparity is being addressed and name the racial equity purpose of the policy, if any?
  • How would the proposed policy change the situation and explain what the proposal seeks to accomplish and assess whether the policy can achieve any identified equity goals?
  • Are there potential negative impacts and if so, how will the policy be adjusted to achieve a more equitable outcome?
  • How can the policy be sustainably successful and ensure that adequate funding, implementation strategies, and accountability mechanisms are in place?

These questions are core to a racial equity impact assessment — a tool that has been available and that only comes to life through our policy leaders applying it in their decision-making process.

Governor Walz sent a bold message to all of Minnesota that racial equity is a key priority of his administration by making his first Executive Order the creation of a One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. Minnesota has been at the bottom of racial equity for too long. It is time that Minnesota moves from thinking of itself as a “thriving progressive oasis in the middle of the Midwest,” as Hannah Jones writes, to acting like one. With authentic community engagement principles and racial equity at the core of the Governor’s One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, Minnesota might be on the path to do so.




Fayise Abrahim, Organizing & Training Director


At Voices for Racial Justice we have experienced three major evolutions of our longstanding community organizing training. In 1993 we started as the Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) responding to the need for locally based community organizing training in our state, given that many of our community members felt they had to travel nationally to grow their skills as organizers. Organizers worked with mentors throughout the training in an apprenticeship model. Overtime, the OAP model was successful at growing our local networks of grassroots organizers until training cohorts were made up of mostly people of color and Indigenous people. Despite the success, it was not enough. Our organizers of color were hitting walls naming the limitations of diversity and inclusion, and a need for real racial justice oriented movement work in the field of organizing.

In 2006, we began to shift our training modules towards racial justice, and in 2014 we became racial justice centered from the inside out by centering leadership of color on our board and staff. We renamed our organization to Voices for Racial Justice and made an intentional commitment to getting organizing tools into the hands of Indigenous folks and folks of color. Despite the intentional centering of racial justice internally and externally, we started to notice how much mainstream or common organizing approaches and strategies even amongst our communities of color were steeped in and influenced by a culture of colonization and Whiteness.

In an exchange with organizers in Hawaii, our partners in Kalihi Valley raised the question of how militaristic common organizing approaches and language are, for example “base build, target, opponent, comrade, ally, frontlines, agitate” and so on. Our partners shared with us ways of organizing within Indigenous communities in Hawaii before U.S Occupation, such as the role of women’s work in peacekeeping as essential.  We know our ancestors have resisted in many ways, some of us come from both warrior traditions and peacekeeping traditions and many more. At home in Minnesota, our organizers named both the pressure and pain of assimilation and burn out in the field of organizing, and as a remedy need to honor the various traditions we come from. In response, we began to reject the professionalization of organizing as a “field” in itself and began to embrace a village model of organizing, that many members of our community are a part of, where resistance is a way of life informed by many differing ancestral traditions and life experiences.

There is no one way to organize, and there is not one model organizer, but many ways, many peoples, many traditions and histories. This led to our third major combustion, and strategic shift integrating cultural strategy and healing justice throughout all of our work and training. Organizing, power, and healing, look and mean different things to our communities that are multicultural, multilingual and intergenerational. We do not assume one model fits all. We have now been building our organizing training from the ground up, in partnership with  elders, youth, artists, incarcerated loved ones, parents, immigrant communities and so on.


We believe we are all experts in our own experiences, and there is no one expert as we shift to a collectively influenced training toolkit inspired by many folks of color and Indigenous folks across our state. We have found creating spaces for shared learning has been key in our work for racial justice and the development of our upcoming toolkit. At Voices, shared learning looks like breaking hierarchies, collectively defining what things mean to us, and sharing the wisdom in the room. It is interactive, hands on and  reflective. It is practicing what we are learning from one another.

In our office we have a physical wall that has been converted to a movement garden. We’ve invited members of our community to add their contributions in response to what prompted our new strategic vision. Our partner and fellow community artist Ricardo Levins Morales says “The soil is more important than the seeds. Almost anything will grow in rich, nutritious soil, whereas it’s hard to get anything to grow if the soil is barren and toxic and won’t hold moisture. So the seeds are our projects, our initiatives, our institutions, that we want to build and the soil is the compost of beliefs, ideas, values, narratives that create the environment within which we are working.”

At Voices we are centering our work around tending to the soil, meaning tending to the beliefs, values, narratives and ideas that make up the culture we are in. Part of how colonization works is when one group, culture, or way of being must dominate over others. Our remedy to colonization is biodiversity, to value the diversity in knowledge, culture, language, worldviews, medicines, plants and perspectives. This is not just metaphoric. In Minnesota we have massive mono-cropping where one crop is reproduced on a mass scale to the detriment of the soil, loss of Indigenous crops and cultures. The conditions of our physical soil often reflects the toxicity of dominant worldviews, values and beliefs. And we can replicate this toxicity amongst ourselves, by policing each other due to our differences rather than honoring how that makes us stronger. As we tend to our soil, we must also tend to our worldviews, values, and narratives that make up the culture that we live in.  


Tending to the soil is an invitation to take responsibility for the culture we live in and create. It is an invitation to shift practices that are not in alignment with a healthy ecosystem.  Culture exists on many levels: personal, interpersonal, familial, collective, and institutional. There is culture we create, inherit and reject. What culture dominates is a reflection of power and who holds power. Culture shift happens when we take personal and collective responsibility for the culture we nurture. At the heart of our many cultures and worldviews we find our values.

As a multicultural team that serves a multi-cultural and intergenerational community we find our values are an interconnected web between us. In a conversation with longtime community organizers, Anishinaabe elders, and advocates Ricky DeFoe and Skip Sandman in Duluth, we are asked “what is your culture if you don’t know your values? Organizations want to talk about culture without talking about values, there is no culture without values.” Our culture and values are interlinked.

At Voices for Racial Justice we value our elders, cultural workers, and experts who carry the wisdom that influence us in how we tend to the soil of our movements. We were blessed to have Ricky DeFoe  join us at the beginning of our Duluth organizing training kick off, grounding our circle in an exchange of what values we know are sacred to us and that have been informed by the worldviews of our loving and wise ancestors.

What we value gets our attention, time and resources and what we do not value gets forgotten and eventually left behind, and what is devalued gets destroyed. At Voices for Racial Justice we are aware of how power shapes what gets valued and the culture of how things are done within institutions, from schools to government departments, from the curriculum taught to the policies passed. We are aware of how toxic worldviews create toxic cultures that lead to toxic practices and norms.

We recognize that solutions to injustices and disparities will not come from the very toxic cultures and systems that created them. Nor will mainstream models and approaches to working with communities of color and Indigenous communities that focus on deficit, what is lacking, where there is harm, and what needs “fixing” — as if the people themselves are broken. Although it is true that our communities are facing many forms of injustice and disparities we know programming that focuses on “assimilating” folks of color and Indigenous people devalues the cultures, medicines, resources, and strengths our communities already have. We draw on the strengths, culture, traditions, within our communities as sources of knowledge, creative inspiration, healing and power.

At Voices for Racial Justice we value, honor and respect the diverse worldviews, cultures, and values of people of color and Indigenous people which requires we take a proactive stance against pressures that assimilate, erase and devalue our traditions, ways of being, cultures, history, and languages. Cultural strategy and shared learning requires expansiveness to value other ways of being that are different from our own. We welcome cultural differences while leaning into sharing our collective values informing the culture of racial justice we create together.



The Evolution of Policy and Research at Voices For Racial Justice

Brett Grant, Research & Policy Director

“America makes policies but they’re not for us. Why shouldn’t we make policies that will allow us to work with our people in the Caribbean, in Central and South America, in Africa, in the Isles of the Pacific? We are an international people. Why don’t we begin to act like it?”  — L. F. Muhammad

A Vision of Racial Justice Grounded in Culture and Community

Voices For Racial Justice is committed to a vision of racial justice that honors the cultures, knowledges, and systems of governance of black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous communities. We believe that we can never grow with or communicate with people to build a collective village un­less we begin to make time to hear our languages, share our foods, learn our cul­tures, and respect our identities and ways of being in the world. This is what we mean when we say that we are committed to developing research and policy tools that are grounded in culture and community. To support this vision, our policy tools will be developed in collaboration with people from our diverse communities.

Caring for the Soil of Racial Justice Organizing

Voices For Racial Justice is grateful to local artist and organizer, Ricardo Levins Morales, who played a profoundly supportive role in inspiring us to reframe our organizing and healing processes in ways that respect the fullness of humanity in deep relationship with our ever-changing and complex political, economic, social, and ecological environments. He says,

“The soil is more important than the seeds. Almost anything will grow in rich, nutritious soil, whereas it’s hard to get anything to grow if the soil is barren and toxic and won’t hold moisture. So the seeds are our projects, our initiatives, our campaigns, our organizations, our institutions, that we want to build and the soil is the compost of beliefs, ideas, values, narratives that create the environment within which we are working.”

Among our staff, there is debate as to whether the soil is more important than the seeds, whether the seeds are more important than the soil, or whether the soil and the seeds are equally important. The beauty is that we are seeing soil and seeds as part of culture shift work that has many parts. Ricardo’s quote is open to many interpretations and creates conversational spaces for those interpretations. In caring for the soil of racial justice organizing, we work to create spaces that honor multiple perspectives and interpretations. In doing this, we learn that it is not always about being right, but about being heard. 

History and Impact of our Policy Tools over the Years

The landscape of racial equity policy making is changing in Minnesota. Today, there is some movement in government to embed racial equity in their practices and policies. Yet this wasn’t always the case. According to one of our founders, Sam Grant, “In the early 1990’s, we were struggling to begin to articulate a cross-cultural approach and culturally specific approaches to organizing. And I think part of the critique from our apprentices is that OAP [our former name Organizing Apprenticeship Project] itself wasn’t helping them navigate this difficulty.”

Grant went on to share his appreciation of OAP and how it had enough wisdom to slow down, bring in some help, and figure out a new way. As OAP looked for help in navigating the difficulty of being an organization led by people of color with an explicit commitment to racial justice organizing, they encountered the Applied Research Center (ARC), which had an explicit approach to racial justice. As a result of that relationship, OAP grew from a training center to an organization that would develop accountability strategies on racial justice through policy tools. One of the policy tools that emerged from this was the Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity. In the words of Voices for Racial Justice senior organizer, Julia Freeman, the racial equity report card “…actually held legislators accountable for the laws that they made that impacted communities of color both positively and negatively. It was very empowering…to have this moral document.”

One of the major impacts of the report card was the discursive space it created for racial equity conversations in organizing, in advocacy, in research, and in public policy. Our other policy tools which contribute to the conversation of racial equity policy making in Minnesota include the Racial Equity Legislative Agenda, the Racial Equity Impact Assessment, and the Legislative mid-session Bill Watch. Together, the goal of these tools is to help legislators make better policy decisions by helping them ask key questions pertinent to racial equity before adopting and implementing new policies. The effectiveness of our policy tools is measured by our practice of authentic community engagement. This ensures that the communities we are in relationships with feel that their voices are embedded in the policy process from the beginning.

New Directions in Policy

After 25 years of being in community, we thought it was important to hear from communities about the effectiveness of our policy tools. Over the past few months, our policy team has been working in collaboration with community partners to determine how we are going to engage with communities and legislators in this review of our policy tools. This is important because after over a decade of grading legislators, we found that while the number of racial equity champions (legislators who receive a grade of A or B in the Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity) had increased at the Legislature, racial equity in Minnesota had not. The deeper process of working in and with community to design policy tools that are rooted in our unique cultures is difficult to reflect here in this essay. Some of the questions we have grappled with in thinking about our new directions were formed during a year long process of collaborating with each other in internal visioning sessions. One question that continues to inspire us is how we came to the realization that we had to be more expansive about how we were thinking about policy and its relationship to racial justice.

One of the first things we decided to do was form a policy team. The idea informing this decision was that we wanted to share in the process of thinking what our new direction in policy would look like. We wanted to work collaboratively and we wanted to work in a way that was transformative. We did not want one person to feel as though he or she was responsible for coming up with all of our policy ideas alone. Rather, we wanted to work in a way that reflected the spirit of Our Mnisota, a place that imagines the beauty of a world where many worlds fit.

We also wanted to work in a way that was informed by popular education. We move in this work with the recognition that the answers and solutions are in our communities. Popular education is an approach that honors that. It is an approach where people engage each other as learners to critically reflect on the issues in their community and then take action to change them. We are attracted to popular education as a way to have deep conversations with community members because it is a practice that dismantles a top-down approach to knowledge and functions as an exchange among all participants.

With popular education as a way to have conversations, we invited artists, healers, community members, lobbyists, advocates, and organizers into small, intimate gatherings where we explored how to balance self-care with our work and ground a healing justice approach in policy. These gatherings are held the last Thursday of every month in the evenings from 4-6 p.m. The space is for people of color and indigenous (POCI) voices. We are creating space for voices and experiences that are not part of the culture at the Legislature and other policymaking spaces. In this way, we develop both the capacity to move into those spaces, while also creating a different vision, a different way of doing policy.

Our first gathering was held in March, 2018. Four months later, in July, we held our first public event, Our Mnisota: Growing our New Public DNA. This was based on an event held last year called Breathe and Heal after the 2017 legislative session. Both events were held as spaces for people of color who work in policy to come together and share stories of success and challenge. Healers from the People’s Movement Center and other local healers were invited to share healing practices with different groups throughout the evening.

We use the term “Mnisota” instead of the more popular term, Minnesota, to honor the original Dakota words, Mni Sota Makoce, a term that Dakota elder, Chris MatoNunpa, translates to “land where the waters reflect the clouds.” We believe that racial justice and the end of all racial disparities isn’t possible without first acknowledging the history of the land that we occupy, land which was stolen from Dakota people, people who lived here since time immemorial and were killed or forcibly expelled in order for us to live here today. As we continue to center healing justice in all of our work, gatherings such as Breathe and Heal and Growing Our New Public DNA are reflections of this new approach.

Growing Our New Public DNA was a title that was given to us by local organizer, MK Nguyen. Over fifty people gathered at the East Side Freedom Library to share in an evening of food, conversation, and healing. In a fishbowl style of conversation, we discussed ideas from Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, such as “clean pain” and “dirty pain,” and the work we have to do in our own POCI communities to address these types of pain. In the question that was asked during the discussion, dirty pain was described as the violence that travels across our bodies when we don’t give ourselves the time, place, and space to heal. Clean pain was described as the work needed to be done to clear up the clutter in our bodies, such as ego, vanity, and greed, that keeps us from being able to achieve Our Mnisota, a place where the waters truly reflect the skies. People were vulnerable. Mistakes were made. Things were said that should not have been said, but apologies were made, and as a result, we worked through difficult situations together and people said that they were free to be their whole selves. The event was magical! It gave us a glimpse of what an event designed in and with community looks, tastes, smells, sounds, and feels like.

Assessment of Policy Tools

In order to ensure that our policy tools are relevant and useful in new and innovative ways, we have begun a series of assessments. The first assessment went to all 201 state legislators at the end of the 2018 legislative session. It consisted of eight open-ended questions in which legislators were asked to write-in their responses. Hard copies of the questionnaire were delivered to state representatives in the House and to state senators in the Senate. Digital copies were also provided via email. Additionally, telephone calls were made to all legislators. Following the phone calls, digital copies of the questionnaire were mailed out at least two more times, once before the end of session, and once after session ended. In total, we received less than ten responses.

We also created an assessment for our community partners. The purpose of this assessment was to learn how our policy tools can support our partners’ understanding and leadership for racial equity in Mnisota. We are interested in creating policy tools that are culturally rooted in our communities and that are helpful in tangible ways for organizers, advocates, and lobbyists who are leading for racial justice. We will be spending the fall months deepening our understanding of our assessments through one to one conversations and small group conversations. Our goal is to begin the 2019 legislative session with a plan that is informed by our legislative and community assessments.

Research Justice

The elders said, “We get scared when people bring us thick reports that are bound together and have tabs on them…Educated people are impressed by those thick reports. So their symbols must be that. You know, they must really like to write these thick reports. Some of us say that they write their reports in too small letters because we can’t read them, and we get a headache by the time we get a little ways into it.”    — Community Based Research Focus Group Participant, Seattle

 Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ) is committed to research that honors the multiple histories, truths, and wisdom of black, brown, immigrant and indigenous communities. Given our principles of authentic community engagement, we utilize Research Justice, a framework that centers the expertise of communities of color and indigenous communities in the process of designing, gathering, and sharing stories. Research justice is based on the assumptions that the greatest impact in achieving justice is done with people who are directly affected by injustice and that our experiences must inform each phase of the research, analysis, storytelling, planning, and implementation processes.

Community-Based Participatory Action Research (CBPAR)

As a framework, research justice lends itself to a practice in which community members are equal partners in all stages of the research process. This practice is known as community-based participatory action research (CBPAR). At VRJ, our research projects, questions, focus, and analysis are informed by CBPAR.

Through dialogue with our partners, CBPAR strives to build research strategies that challenge systems, institutions, funders, and policy leaders to invest in community-based research practices that build capacity with communities of color and indigenous communities to develop solutions that serve our interests and recognize our expertise. This practice resists oppression and systemic and institutional violence by creating knowledge WITH communities rather than FOR communities. Our practice of CBPAR redefines research as a collaborative process rather than as something only produced by “experts” from academia. CBPAR envisions research as a process of knowledge creation where communities’ experiences and wisdom are central pieces of the entire research process.

Consequently, we value evidence that is reflective of multiple forms of knowledge, including experiential, spiritual, cultural, place-based, theoretical, quantitative, qualitative, interpretive, and evaluative. We also believe in a wide range of approaches to facilitating knowledge exchange, including storytelling, oral histories, interactive activities, music, poetry, visual art, community visioning, and deep relationship building. CBPAR enables us to build relationships and trust with communities in ways that cause us to constantly reflect on our own attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we do not. Yet, this is a process that requires a deep structure of accountability so that we can  learn from our partners and our mistakes.

Two of our recent CBPAR reports are the JDAI Report and the Unfit for Human Consumption Report. Both reports give concrete examples of our research values, some of the mistakes we made, lessons learned, and the powerful stories of our research teams. Both reports share the necessity of a healing justice lens in CBPAR and provide examples of the impact of hearing stories from people deeply affected by incarceration.

Our Research Values, Assumptions, and Principles

We are committed to the following values, assumptions and principles to guide our research:

  • Awareness, acceptance, and valuing of cultural differences.
  • Awareness of the range of dynamics that result from the interaction between people of different cultures.
  • Developing cultural knowledge of a particular community in collaboration with that community.
  • Ability to adapt research practices to fit the cultural context of the individual, family, or community.
  • There is no “one size fits all” way of doing research.
  • Respect for deeply held values, general worldviews, patterns of communication and interactions.
  • Sharing food is a way of being in deep relationship with others.
  • Traditional spirituality and practices are integrated into research practices.
  • Specific practices of ceremony, prayer, and ritual are valued.
  • People may convey knowledge through humor, visual art, poetry, song, stories, oral histories, and dance.
  • We value respectful disagreements of ideas
  • We value spaces that are intergenerational.
  • We value a shared sense of collective and community responsibility.
  • We value a world where many worlds fit.
  • We learn to adapt tone of voice, volume, and speech patterns to that of the highest expression of respect and grace.
  • We observe others and allow them to create the space and initiate or ask for any physical contact.

Looking into the Future

Voices for Racial Justice is on a journey to build creative approaches to grassroots policy and research that tend to the soil of our movements and that honor the culture and healing of our communities. In this effort, we are constantly asking what does grassroots policy and research look like that is life-giving, that shifts culture, that is rooted in beauty and real governance, and that bridges the divides within our communities? To answer these questions, we continue to hold spaces for communities of color and indigenous communities to share our stories and experiences. We believe that through sharing our stories we will move through our commitment to center trust-building across cultural groups in our movements.

Looking into the future, some of the transformative grassroots policy and research ideas that we are dreaming of include:

  • Community based participatory action research (CBPAR) that continues our efforts to end mass incarceration.
  • CBPAR that evaluates the implementation of legislative policies from previous years, such as Ban the Box and the Urban Agriculture Bill.
  • CBPAR that focuses on the development of cooperative economic development practices and cultural centers for black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous communities.
  • Using local civic engagement technology to deepen collaborations among partners on policy projects.
  • Working collaboratively with community partners, including youth and legislators, to ensure that all legislation passed undergoes a racial equity impact analysis.
  • Working collaboratively with community partners, including youth and legislators, to write legislation that reflects our commitments to racial justice.
  • Holding conversations about historical forms of governance in POCI communities.
  • Constant engagement and reflection with our partners to ensure that our policy and research tools are rooted in culture and healing.