Even with an African American in its top office, our nation still hasn’t figured out how to have a real conversation about race. Most of us would rather dance around this uncomfortable subject than jump into a full-blown discussion of how America continually fails to live up to its principles. Though our Declaration of Independence promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the sad reality is that if you are a young person of color, you are more likely to be unemployed, incarcerated, or murdered during your lifetime.
But across the country, a generation of young leaders of color is working at the local level to address the problems of structural racism. Building on the energy generated by Barack Obama’s campaign and election, members of Generation Y—the “Millennial Generation”—are finding ways to address America’s complicated history on their own terms.
Practice Makes Perfect
My generation—kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s—became the battleground on which America fought to free itself of its racial contradictions. The civil rights movement knocked open the doors for equality. Our generation is practicing how to make that promise a reality. There is no generation better prepared to take on the challenges of the day. For most of our lives we’ve been having the tough conversations.
Of course, tackling race head-on hasn’t been easy. I still have scars from my experiences of getting called “nigger” on athletic fields and school buses. But like so many from my generation, I gained from those traumatic incidents the tools to express my humanity, even in the face of continued oppression.
Long before Obama entered the national conversation, civic-minded young people were making their presence felt in the halls of power. Some of these folks, like founding member of the National Hip Hop Political Convention and green real-estate developer Baye Adofo-Wilson, have used art and creativity to change desolate communities. As the executive director of Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District, Adofo-Wilson is transforming a low-income neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, into an arts and cultural district.
Others, like Minneapolis’ Nimco Ahmed, have challenged the status quo by making sure that people from disenfranchised communities are involved in the civic process. A young leader in the local Somali community, she makes sure her community turns out to vote.
And when people told Pittsburgh’s Chester Thrower he couldn’t get financing for his weatherization company, he didn’t give up. A former cocaine dealer, Thrower was inspired by hearing Van Jones talk about the green economy. He got past numerous obstacles, including lacking the resources to pay for training; has completed several green certification programs; and is currently working with state agencies to secure funding for his business. “When I was in the streets, I never thought I would be working with the state of Pennsylvania—well, except only as an inmate,” says Thrower, who hopes one day to provide jobs for other young African Americans who have been shut out of the system. “Trust me, change is possible.”
You might not see these stories in the mainstream news, but we are having a transformative impact on our communities. Most importantly, we’re not waiting for anybody to give us permission to lead.
From Opposition to Proposition
Thrower’s case is admittedly unusual. Far too often, youth of color from inner cities aren’t able to overcome the obstacles facing them. But a group of us in Wisconsin hopes to break down the roadblocks preventing people of color from being stakeholders in society. We believe that young people of color have to be involved in all aspects of civic life if society is to become healthier and more productive.
In early 2009, a group of African Americans affiliated with my organization, the League of Young Voters Education Fund, began holding weekly roundtable meetings in Milwaukee with community residents who were interested in greening their neighborhoods. These precocious Millennials sent invitations to a diverse group of elected officials, traditional environmental activists, tradesmen, labor leaders, and local artists to come and discuss Milwaukee’s future. Most of those invited were older than the conveners. Energized by the potential promised by the Obama election, we brought together people who never even thought of working with each other.
At first the attendees were skeptical because they weren’t really sure if these young folks were serious. But after several meetings, naysayers started to become believers. The meetings were professional, focused on outcomes, and democratic. The skills learned while organizing young people came in handy with our older constituents.
Many of these discussions focused on the ways that racial discrimination, both individual and institutional, continues to shape Milwaukee’s economic climate. In a city where nearly 50 percent of all African American men are unemployed, these tough conversations uncovered how truly disenfranchised people of color feel. “We spent a lot of time talking about how black tradesmen have been treated unfairly,” says Wesley Carter, who helped organize the meetings. “People are mad, and they don’t feel like anyone is listening to them.”
But rather than dwelling on the historic problems caused by racism, the young facilitators pushed participants to believe that they could collectively come up with solutions for the community’s woes. They asked the group to talk about the ways that traditional, racialized, winner-take-all politics have gotten in the way of moving the city forward. The group realized that continuing on that path would make it impossible to build a green economy that would both save the environment and improve Milwaukee’s unemployment rate.
No longer focused on an oppositional agenda, nearly a year after the roundtable discussions started, this collection of community residents has transformed into a diverse alliance called the Making Milwaukee Green Coalition (MMGC). Today the group is tracking stimulus spending, teaching area residents about the green lifestyle, and helping small businesses write green business plans. Most importantly, the MMGC is building bridges into whiter, more affluent parts of the city and state.
Recently, when city officials began discussing privatizing this majority-minority city’s water, leaders of the MMGC helped organize a diverse, citywide coalition called Keep Public Our Water (KPOW) to protect the public trust. After weeks of heated debate on talk radio shows and nightly news, city officials agreed that they would not pursue the neoliberal policy.
Jayme Montgomery-Baker, MMGC’s lead facilitator (and my wife), chaired KPOW’s steering committee and facilitated the coalition’s meetings. “If it weren’t for the Making Milwaukee Green [Coalition] I don’t think my community would have been involved in that fight,” says Montgomery-Baker, who recently won an award for her work with KPOW.
MMGC is looking for more ways to involve young African Americans in green careers. This won’t be easy given the historic obstacles facing the segregated city. But the young leaders are looking for bridges over the traditional problems. “The only way Milwaukee can get better is when we all work together,” says Carter. “We don’t know what that looks like yet, but we are going to figure it out.”