22 Champions of Change in Minnesota

A deeper look at artists, leaders, farmers, and more fighting for equity, progress, and community
Houston White, Amáda Márquez Simula, Amira Adawe, Yao Yaj, Taylor Ngiri Seaberg
Clockwise, from left: Houston White, Amáda Márquez Simula, Amira Adawe, Yao Yaj, Taylor Ngiri Seaberg

Tintypes by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/BLKK HAND

Recording protest music, photographing immigrant entrepreneurs, sowing seeds of truth and reconciliation: These are a few ways Minnesotans reacted to an intense year. They’re transplants, they’re born-and-bred. They’re veterans, they’re upstarts. They see injustice through the prisms of George Floyd, of COVID-19—of Minnesota itself. And they’re looking well beyond 2020 in order to make change.

Taylor Ngiri - Musician & Organizer
Taylor Ngiri Seaberg – Musician & Organizer

Tintype by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/Blkk Hand

Taylor Ngiri Seaberg

Musician & Organizer

Taylor Ngiri Seaberg showed up for their community in 2020 in a big way—mixing social justice, community building, and art making. After the last concert with their band the Black Velvet Punks in March, the world turning upside down spurred both reflection and innovation. They made a “quaranzine,” produced virtual programming, and led an outdoor socially distant concert at George Floyd Square in the wake of the Minneapolis uprising. They produced and performed on an album based on the concert called The Art of the Revolution, which is expected to come out in February. Funded by a Red Bull Arts microgrant for protest photography, Ngiri Seaberg recently moved to Chicago. Minnesota ties remain in the form of creative projects and political organizing work with BIPOC, queer, trans youth as part of the Minnesota Youth Collective—which formed a union this past November.

Read the full interview with Taylor Ngiri Seaberg here.

“If we are going to protest in the street and throw a show, we’re going to be really safe about it and try to adapt as best as we can. It was the first time I was seeing and experiencing a lot of community coming together for each other. Not just from people in my Black community, but people from other BIPOC communities, and white people, as well, working in tandem.” –Taylor Ngiri Seaberg

Curator, Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery
Tina Burnside – Curator, Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery

Provided

Tina Burnside

Curator, Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery

Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery (MAAHMG) co-founder and curator Tina Burnside is a local leader in teaching and preserving Black history. Since MAAHMG—Minnesota’s first museum dedicated to Black and African American history—opened in 2018, it has presented 12 informative and engaging exhibitions, which Burnside says is “a major accomplishment for an organization that is entirely run by dedicated volunteers.” In August of 2020, Burnside helped lead the creation of a Black Lives Matter mural featuring 16 artists on Plymouth Avenue in front of MAAHMG. The museum’s mission has been the same from the start: to present “a more inclusive and expansive view of history because Black history is American history, and Black voices need to be heard,” Burnside says.

Vie Boheme

Performance Artist & Yoga Instructor

Before COVID-19 hit, Vie Boheme’s singing, dance, and theater career was taking off. She was set to present her one-woman solo show, Centerplay, at the Guthrie Theater in the spring. Then, by adapting, Boheme and her art prevailed. Along with a socially distant Cowles Center performance, the Jungle Theater hosted a radio play version of Centerplay. Next, she wrote and starred in a beautiful film about the resilience and strength of Black women called Curious Moon [Face]. “I wanted to create a soft space for Black women to land because we don’t really have any control over what types of imagery we take in at all,” she says. “Black women feel very warm when they see it.” She also connected with folks virtually as a yoga teacher via the Afterdark Yoga series. In 2021, the Mo Money workshop series for artists is on Boheme’s horizon.

Read the full interview with Vie Boheme here.

Peyton Scott Russell - Visual Artist & Educator
Peyton Scott Russell – Visual Artist
& Educator

Photo by Greg Thompson

Peyton Scott Russell

Visual Artist & Educator

It’s one thing to make art to move the people. It’s quite another to move the people to make art, too. Peyton Scott Russell’s gilding of Prince’s star at First Avenue, large-scale portraits of George Floyd, and new Northside mural on Penn Avenue (“My strongest to date”) are one sort of output. Through his Sprayfinger educational program, Russell, a cofounder of Juxtaposition Arts, is also sharing his graffiti gifts with BIPOC youth in Minneapolis, South Dakota, and beyond.

Yao Yaj - Executive Director, Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce
Yao Yaj – Executive Director, Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce

Tintype by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/Blkk Hand

Yao Yaj

Executive Director, Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce

“I want this on the record,” Yao Yaj says. “I’ve been wearing my mask since January!” By then, the 28-year-old St. Paul native was a month into her role as executive director of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce. (Yaj also works for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.) The new job had a six-month turnover rate, she says, and a reputation for bureaucratic ineptitude.

With a new board, Yaj began jump-starting relationships. She alerts Hmong entrepreneurs and farmers to grant deadlines, to policies that could sideline them, to organizations prime for partnership. Not even counting the pandemic, she’s put up with a lot in one year: big companies’ PR lip service to Hmong suppliers; doubts surrounding her youth; and patriarchy still under deconstruction by Hmong women in leadership.

Yaj hadn’t built the network to spread pandemic warnings by January, but as soon as it hit, “my immediate response was: make a list.” She called up Hmong restaurants and grocers. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul later tapped her online takeout resource, she says. As one of few advocates for Hmong businesses in the Twin Cities (and soon, she hopes, the whole state), “I’m grateful for the person that I just am,” Yaj says. “I think I can tolerate a lot of bullshit. That’s the reason I just keep going.”

Read the full interview with Yao Yaj here.

Kiera Fernandez

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer & Vice President of Human Resources, Target

In 2020, Target made a $10 million pledge to advance social justice and formed the Racial Equity Action and Change (REACH) committee, made up of six senior leaders, including Kiera Fernandez. In response to George Floyd’s killing, the company is working toward racial equity through listening sessions, as “a way for us to lean into the power of empathy and to stay connected during a time when so many are isolated and withdrawn,” Fernandez says. “As a company, we’re committed to helping our team members manage the impact of the events that happened this year. This means making sure that safety, wellness, and mental health are top priorities going forward.”

Read the full interview with Kiera Fernandez here.

Lor Lee - Administrative Director, Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Mayo Clinic
Lor Lee – Administrative
Director, Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Mayo Clinic

Provided

Lor Lee

Administrative Director – Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Mayo Clinic

Lor Lee works to provide tools to Mayo Clinic staff to identify and confront discrimination outside the medical center’s walls. The son of Hmong immigrants, he arrived in the U.S. when he was about 7 months old. “My parents made the ultimate sacrifice to change the trajectory of the lives of their family forever,” he says. “In all that I do, I honor their sacrifice and the lessons they’ve taught me.” His work goals are to provide high-quality, culturally appropriate care, increase the diversity of Mayo Clinic patients, improve inclusiveness of diverse employees, increase women and minority representation, and identify and eliminate health disparities. Mayo Clinic has invested $100 million over the next 10 years into recruitment, retention, equitable telehealth services, and more, and its “EverybodyIN” campaign aims to equip staff with skills to address racism inside and outside Mayo, while hosting conversations focused on race, racism, and equity.

Read the full interview with Lor Lee here.

Cecilia Stanton Adams

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America

At Allianz Life, Cecilia Stanton Adams leads strategy development for diversity and inclusion. This year, Allianz granted $2 million to Twin Cities organizations working to address inequities for people of color, seniors, and youth, as well as food shelf expansion in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. After George Floyd’s killing, Allianz hosted listening sessions for employees, too. “It was not only valuable for our employee population to be able to share and connect with each other, but it was also a learning opportunity for leadership to understand what employees are feeling and what they really need in order to feel supported during such an intense time of unrest in the community,” Adams says.

Read the full interview with Cecilia Stanton Adams here.

Houston White - Founder, HWMR & The Get Down Coffee
Houston White – Founder, HWMR & The Get Down Coffee

Tintype by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/Blkk Hand

Houston White

Founder, HWMR & The Get Down Coffee

Entrepreneur Houston White’s goals for “Black Excellence” go far beyond just a message on shirts he sells. He’s after community-level change with “culture plus capacity” ventures that go deeper than just a check and handshake to help create opportunity, stabilize neighborhoods, reduce crime, and increase home ownership. To local businesses who want to invest, his pitch goes something like this: “Y’all got the capacity, I got the culture. We can combine and really make some magic. I’m creating things that bring different people to the neighborhood—potentially to live in it. The reverberating effects of that investment are when the community starts to fix itself, instead of this perpetual motion of ‘Hey, I need $100,000 this year,’ and nothing changes.”

When the pandemic brought many 2020 plans to a halt, White used the pause to refine his portfolio. Among his current ventures: Houston White fashion lines bold and versatile enough to appear in both the reopened Lake Street Target and North Loop retailer MartinPatrick3, the HWMR barbershop functioning as a cultural hub in north Minneapolis, and a new coffee company called The Get Down formed with Dogwood Coffee.

Read the full interview with Houston White here.

“My brand’s model is human connection. Our differences make us dope. I’ve learned to be an example for what I hope for. I’ve tried to be the change, literally, my entire life. Especially as a kid, people don’t listen to you. You’ve got to start to do it. Now is a moment and folks will try. Even if they fail, fail forward. We learned, we pivoted, and we actually got it right.” –Houston White

Mauri Melander Friestleben

Principal, North High School (Minneapolis)

Mauri Melander Friestleben is a long-time educator, but lately she’s become something more—a changemaker within the walls of her school and outside of them, too. During her time as principal of Lucy Laney Elementary School in North Minneapolis, she helped to lessen the achievement gap for her students, 80% of whom lived near or below the poverty line. As the current principal of North High School, Friestleben has used her platform to raise awareness around rising violence in Minneapolis and has called for law enforcement to do a better job protecting the North Minneapolis community. “At a time when we needed you the most, we had you the least,” she wrote in an open letter to Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Police Department with two other area principals.

Qorsho Hassan

Teacher, Echo Park Elementary (Burnsville)

In late October, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Qorsho Hassan, stirred community discussion by assigning her fourth graders the picture book Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice. It wasn’t a big deal for the kids, she notes. “They’re not rigid in their thinking and imagine a world full of possibilities.”

At Echo Park Elementary, in Burnsville, Hassan is an advocate for reform in the “last in, first out” policy of laying off teachers by order of seniority, which often works against BIPOC educators. “We can’t expect BIPOC students to be interested in the field of education when they see little to no representation,” she says. Before working in Minnesota, Hassan contributed to the Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah (Community In-Between) project in Ohio, which helped young Somali Americans reclaim their own narrative from mainstream media, introducing them to a poet, a nurse, an economist, a mental health practitioner, and other Somali leaders.

Read the full interview with Qorsho Hassan here.

“As an anti-racist educator, I address larger issues like systemic racism and xenophobia because young children are ready and are aware. It’s often adults who can be hesitant, afraid, or dismissive of the need for these necessary discussions. My teaching style allows for students to lean in, ask questions or wonder, explore their own connections, and compare their perspectives to their peers’. I believe the future is bright because of my students, whose first instinct is not fear, but rather courage when faced with how to make the world a more racially just and happier place for all.” –Qorsho Hassan

Rebecca Polston

Owner, Roots Community Birth Center

As the owner of Minnesota’s first Black-owned birthing center, Rebecca Polston is providing a much-needed service for mothers who have been overlooked elsewhere. Her practice, Roots Community Birth Center, is located in Minneapolis’ Webber-Camden neighborhood. It’s the same neighborhood where Polston lived when her first child was born, and she and her husband have supported it as community organizers. Polston has been a midwife since 2011 and is the first Black certified professional midwife in the state. Though Roots serves clients from all backgrounds, it specifically addresses health inequalities and barriers Black mothers face to comprehensive birthing care. Data shows that African American babies are two times more vulnerable to death in their first years of life as white babies. By providing a welcoming space where all mothers can feel calm and cared for, Roots is proof that Minnesota’s diverse community needed an out-of-hospital birthing center like it all along.

Amira Adawe - Executive Director, The BeautyWell Project
Amira Adawe – Executive Director, The BeautyWell Project

Tintype by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/Blkk Hand

Amira Adawe

Executive Director, The Beautywell Project

When Amira Adawe learned about the toxic chemicals in skin-lightening products, while studying at the University of Minnesota, she flashed back to the damage she’d seen radiating across the skin of friends and family members back in Mogadishu, Somalia. In 2000, Adawe had moved to Minnesota, where she realized “whiteners” were still widely and secretively used among immigrant communities. She now teaches public health at the U of M and has advocated against skin lightening for about 10 years.

With a Bush Foundation grant, Adawe recently visited Dubai to interview dealers and manufacturers. “They’re still using a narrative that, if they’re dark-skinned, they’re not good enough,” she says. Their main target: low-income communities rife with colorism—whether Black, Asian, Latinx, or Middle Eastern. Discrimination against darker skin is “inherited from the colonizers,” Adawe notes, “but it’s become part of the culture.”

As founder and executive director of the Beautywell Project, Adawe successfully petitioned Amazon last summer to take down more than a dozen skin-lightening creams in egregious violation of the country’s parts-per-million mercury limit. (Some contained almost 100,000 parts of the harmful chemical; the legal allowance is 1.) As host of a no-holds-barred, deeply vulnerable radio program about skin lightening, on Minneapolis’ KALY station, Adawe has also revealed the stakes beyond physical health: the self-actualization and self-love of young people of color.

Read the full interview with Amira Adawe here.

Octavia Smith – Board President, Minnesota Freedom Fund

Provided

Octavia Smith 

Board President, Minnesota Freedom Fund 

What do you do when the hashtag #wheresthemoney is about you? In late June, the Minnesota Freedom Fund recovered from controversy after apparently underspending $35 million of public donations. By then, the fund had used just $250,000 to bail out protesters jailed after the police killing of George Floyd. Board president Octavia Smith coolly explained to NPR that her three-person team ordinarily spent $250,000 in two years, not two weeks. They weren’t used to Kamala Harris and Don Cheadle endorsing them as a social-justice go-to. Since 2016, the small nonprofit has worked to end what Smith has described as the oppressively complex and expensive money bail system, which can trap low-resource individuals without a conviction. While she was born and raised in the Bronx, Smith says Minneapolis “has become my home and the place where I seek transformative and restorative justice.” Of those Minnesotans who have worked toward change before her, she notes, “I stand on their shoulders and I’m honored to be welcomed into their space.”

Read the full interview with Octavia Smith here.

Maya Moore

Athlete & Activist

Between 2011 and 2018, Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore won four WNBA championships and established herself as one of the top women’s basketball players worldwide. Still in her prime, she took a sabbatical to advocate for criminal justice reform with the social action campaign Win With Justice. In 2020, Moore helped overturn the 50-year sentencing on charges of burglary and assault of Jonathan Irons. They were married after his release, and, together, they campaigned to get the vote out ahead of the 2020 election.

Jaida Grey Eagle - Photographer
Jaida Grey Eagle – Photographer

Provided

Jaida Grey Eagle

Photographer, Sahan Journal

Jaida Grey Eagle (Ogala Lakota) is a Report for America corps member placed at Sahan Journal, a news site covering Minnesota immigrant communities. Born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, she witnessed journalists come to the area and create “poverty porn” reports, both failing to see the beauty locals experienced and failing to trace back to the effects of colonialism. “I wanted to do photojournalism because I’m interested in telling the truth and not upholding white supremacy through my lens,” she says. Now based in the Twin Cities, she documented the perspectives of immigrant businesspeople along Lake Street in Minneapolis amid this past summer’s civil unrest. “That was a harrowing experience to hear what had happened,” she says. “Just their strength and resilience.” Additionally, she co-produced the recent Sisters Rising documentary about Native American women combating personal and systemic injustices, and contributed to Minnesota Public Radio’s ChangeMakers series for National Native American Heritage Month. Formerly a curatorial fellow at Mia, she is currently researching historical Indigenous photographers for a potential exhibition there.

Read the full interview with Jaida Grey Eagle here.

Kyndell Harkness – Editor for Diversity and Community, Star Tribune

Photo by Leila Navidi

Kyndell Harkness 

Assistant Managing Editor for Diversity and Community, Star Tribune

In her more than two decades of photojournalistic work, Kyndell Harkness has seen more of the state than many ever will. For the Star Tribune, she’s covered the Super Bowl and the Olympics; she’s stood among crowds responding to Prince’s death, to police shootings; she’s captured family farmers and visiting presidents. For five years, she’s served as president of the Minnesota News Photographer’s Association. And starting this year, she’ll serve in a new role, as assistant managing editor of diversity and community. While examining retention and recruitment for the Tribune, she’ll fight against another thing Harkness has seen more of than most: inequity in the newsroom. “The people of color—we just started talking to each other, talking about how we had to constantly educate, and how we were tired, and how that’s not fair,” she says. “And we were able to see what other newspapers around the country were doing—that everybody, at that point, was very tired. Tired of always having to stop something from going in the paper, or going online, that might set off parts of the community in ways that the person who was writing it, or the person who put that headline on it, might not have seen.”

Read the full interview with Kyndell Harkness here.

Vice President, Minneapolis City Council
Vice President, Minneapolis City Council

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis/Photo by Conrad Zbikowski

Andrea Jenkins

Vice President, Minneapolis City Council

Andrea Jenkins, the country’s first Black trans woman in public office, says she can feel the world’s weight on her shoulders. The Minneapolis city councilmember’s jurisdiction, Ward 8, abuts on ground zero: where a police officer crushed George Floyd to death last May. Soon after, CNN aired Jenkins singing “Amazing Grace” at a press conference.

Ask her how she is, and 2020 has taught Jenkins a response: “I’m choosing to be well.” Over the phone, the vice president of the Minneapolis City Council walks through an explanation, slowly: “I’m struggling, but making a conscious decision to not let the events of the world, and the national state of being and challenges that we are facing as a city, move me into a permanent state of depression.” By the end, her voice crumbles into a dry laugh.

But, since last summer, Jenkins’ voice has held a tensile strength, melding protester’s rage with councilmember’s reason. In June, she pledged, along with the council, to disband the Minneapolis Police Department—an issue still on the table. Soon after, she led the city in declaring racism a “public health emergency.” But later, she approved Mayor Jacob Frey’s request to bolster the MPD through the final months of 2020 with almost $500,000. “[Minneapolis police] are overworked,” she explains, of that decision. “That, in my mind, is a recipe for disaster.”

Simultaneously, the pandemic has “uncovered this level of intrinsic, inherent racism,” Jenkins notes. “It was clear that the coronavirus was negatively impacting Black and brown people at higher rates. … Then the murder [of George Floyd] really exasperated that feeling.” (As part of its response to COVID-19, the council has funded mental health resources, particularly for communities of color.)

Lake Street borders Ward 8 to the north, where much of the damage caused by civil unrest occurred. In November, Jenkins backed Frey’s Rebuild Resilient initiative, which put $1.2 million toward rebuilding businesses with energy efficiency in mind. “If they can lower their energy costs, then, potentially, they have more money to invest into the business, or to pay their employees, or even build wealth for themselves,” she says.

Before that, in the fall, Jenkins introduced a resolution for a truth-and-reconciliation commission. The City of Minneapolis recently included this “long-term commitment” in a plan to establish a racial-healing process and reopen the intersection where Floyd was killed, following former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial in March. Regarding that push—for Minneapolis to come to terms with its racist past and present—Jenkins says she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Read the full interview with Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins here.

Amáda Márquez Simula - Mayor, Columbia Heights
Amáda Márquez Simula – Mayor, Columbia Heights

Tintype by Carla Alexandra Rodriguez/Blkk Hand

Amáda Márquez Simula

Mayor, Columbia Heights

The days following Amáda Márquez Simula winning the Columbia Heights mayoral election this past November were intense. “I was holding my breath all week,” she recalls. “My husband and I bought a bottle of champagne, but in the excitement of watching the results come in, we forgot to open it on election night. It was hilarious, we didn’t remember the champagne until the next day.”

The victory made Márquez Simula the city’s first Latina mayor and only the second in Minnesota history. Located north of northeast Minneapolis and south of I-694, the community of about 20,000 has a charm all its own, from the historic Heights Theater to a wide range of restaurants and stores representing cultures worldwide. Columbia Heights has blossomed in recent years in part due to the progressive HeightsNEXT organization that Márquez Simula helped form. With initiatives advocating for sustainability, justice, and equality, HeightsNEXT’s accomplishments include developing the Blooming Sunshine Garden food forest and sponsoring the city’s first Pride Festival in 2019 (which received metro-wide publicity when a proclamation request was denied).

Although she had done boots on the ground work for a few campaigns before, winning this election felt different for Márquez Simula. “A lot of people said to me, ‘You already feel like our mayor. I think you should be the mayor,’” she says. “The next level of trying to create change is to help with policy.”

Read the full interview with Amáda Márquez Simula here.

Farmers for Change

Angela Dawson

President & CEO, 40 Acre Co-Op

The first national Black farmer co-op since the reconstruction era, 40 Acre seeks to fight a steep decline in Black farmers since the early 1900s. (In 1920, there were 925,710 compared to just 45,508 today.) A fourth-generation Midwestern farmer, Angela Dawson decided to begin farming full-time in 2018. When she came across systemic racism in the agricultural world, “I jumped on the phone, started doing some research, and ended up hosting weekly farm Zoom meetings to find out how other independent Black farmers were getting by,” she says. “Sadly, some of their stories of exclusion, and in some cases hostility, were more extreme than mine.” The co-op launched in 2019 to address a wealth gap for Black farmers and help socially disadvantaged farmers compete. The operation is run from a farm in northern Minnesota, but 40 Acre has members all over the Upper Midwest and Southern U.S., including Native, Indigenous, and tribal communities. Right now, the organization’s focus is the hemp industry. “Every conversation I have with a farmer where I get to witness their story—transforming from trauma to inspiration—makes me feel proud,” she says.

Janssen Hang, Hmong American Farmers Association
Janssen Hang, of the Hmong American Farmers Association, which you can donate to on the GiveMN website

Provided

Janssen Hang

Executive Director & Co-Founder, Hmong American Farmers Association

At a young age, Janssen Hang helped his family throughout the entire farming process—from growing and harvesting to selling vegetables at markets. Now, Hang leads the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) and still finds time to join his family’s stand at the downtown St. Paul Farmers Market. HAFA was founded in 2011 by Hmong American farming families to create wealth and break down community barriers to land, financing, training, research, markets, and sustainability. After almost a decade of advocacy, HAFA is on the cusp of purchasing a 155-acre farm in Dakota County where member families have been able to farm for the past six years, develop business and agricultural skills, and grow produce for the HAFA Food Hub.

Neely Snyder

Executive Director, Dream of Wild Health

Started in 1998, Dream of Wild Health (DWH) is a nonprofit dedicated to building and supporting Native and Indigenous farmers’ food sovereignty in Minnesota. Led by executive director Neely Snyder (St. Croix Ojibwe), the organization’s mission is to restore health and well-being in the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines, and lifeways. In spring of 2020, DWH expanded its farm in Hugo, about 40 minutes north of the Twin Cities, from 10 to 30 acres for distribution to their community, with several crops using heritage seeds passed down for generations. It also provides an incubator space for new Native farmers who need access to land and chances to network with local Indigenous chefs, restaurants, schools, and other markets. Looking to the future, Snyder says the organization’s goal is to support the program’s youth into adulthood. “We often say, ‘We grow seeds and we grow leaders,’” she says.

Read the full interviews with the farmers for change here.

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