St. Paul Sunrise Rotary’s 11th Annual Community Forum Provides Critical Opportunity for Community Conversation on Race
“The State of Race in Minnesota: Then and Now” Draws Record Turnout
Pictured from left are Josie Johnson, panelist, Tom Moe, moderator, Dr. Bill Green, panelist, Ellen Luepker, Forum co-chair, and Ed Marek, Forum co-chairThe St. Paul Sunrise Rotary Club’s 11th Annual Community Forum - “The State of Race in Minnesota: Then and Now” - provided a critical opportunity for Rotarians and others to discuss urgent but longstanding issues of racial conflict and inequality troubling our communities. The Forum was held on April 14, 2016 at the Town and Country Club in St. Paul, and drew almost 120 interested attendees.
Moderated by Tom Weber, host of Minnesota Public Radio News, the forum was broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio and is available on MPR’s website.
“This topic was extremely timely,” noted Cathy Quinlivan, President of the Sunrise Rotary Club. “Issues of racial justice are affecting every aspect of our society in our ability to evolve for the common good, and our panelists thoughtful presentations so illuminated this issue.”
The forum’s panelists were Dr. Josie Johnson, civil rights pioneer, and Dr. Bill Green, author and history professor, shared poignant stories based on history and their respective life experience. They explored how our nation’s history of slavery shaped our current attitudes and behavior and what solutions we need to find.
Dr. Green is the recipient of the 2016 Hognander Minnesota History award for his recent book “Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota 1865-1912.”  He shared stories of blacks’ experience with discrimination in St. Paul during the 1800’s which echo blacks’ experience with discrimination today. He talked about what young black men, friends of his son, have told him about how foreign the Minneapolis corporate world is to them - how they dare not enter downtown skyways for fear they could be suspected of illegal behavior. Using examples from his prior experience as superintendent of Minneapolis schools, he also illustrated how resistant otherwise progressive white families have been to making the changes needed to ensure equality in education for all students.
Dr. Johnson helped forum attendees to understand that America’s history of importing blacks as slaves to provide the hard labor needed to build our country meant tearing people away from their rich African cultural traditions and their families. She maintained that in order to justify dehumanizing practices, it became necessary for slave owners to develop attitudes and beliefs that blacks were less than human. Dr. Johnson noted for example that veterinarians, not physicians, treated her black ancestors on plantations. Slave owners also considered blacks deficient intellectually, unable to be educated. These unfounded attitudes about blacks’ inferiority, which she pointed out were necessary to justify slave labor needed to build our country, became “deeply etched in our minds” and we continue today to express these beliefs in subtle or overt ways.
For example, she noted that even though Republicans originally proposed the need for an Affordable Health Care Act, when a black president managed to enact it, Republicans no longer considered it valuable and immediately vowed to destroy it.
Another current example she shared was how differently one teacher helped two students struggling with the same math problem: the teacher simply gave the answer to the black student, but helped the white student discover how to solve the problem himself.
In her eloquent, warm and gracious style, Dr. Johnson noted she did not want her comments to evoke guilt. “Guilt is not helpful,” she said gently. Rather, she encouraged us to be aware of how these attitudes justifying the dehumanization of blacks in slavery became deeply etched in our minds so we can identify how they shape our feelings and behavior today.
Following the panel conversation, several members of the audience came to the podium to share their thoughts and consider solutions. Dr. Tracine Asberry, a black member of the Minneapolis School Board, called our attention to the Rotary Four Way Test questions, upon which our forum conversation was grounded. She noted her college student daughter told her she wished people’s behavior could be consistent with their promises and words.
Asberry’s comments reminded us of how important it is that we base our behavior and words on the principles in the Rotary Four Way Test - what is the truth, what is beneficial and fair to all concerned, and what will build good will and better friendships.
“The 11th Annual Community Forum was a powerful opportunity to identify how our attitudes and beliefs were shaped by history so we may begin identifying solutions,” noted Ellen Luepker, who co-chaired the Forum with Ed Marek. Both are long-time members of the St. Paul Sunrise Rotary Club. “We will continue this critical conversation about racial inequity and conflict,” added Luepker.
“We are grateful to our distinguished panelists and to the Rotary clubs of Minneapolis City of Lakes and Woodbury for their collaboration in presenting this community forum, and to our larger-than-ever audience for participating,” added Marek.
What Attendees Said About the Forum
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I learned so much,” said Alan Ruvelson, Rotary District 5960 Past Assistant Governor.
 “Each year the Community Forum is extraordinary - but the 11th Annual Community Forum will be remembered as cut above,” exclaimed Joseph Kovarik, Rotary District 5960 Governor in 2012-2013. “The Sunrise Club deserves abundant accolades for an event exquisitely conceived and elegantly executed. I applaud them for bringing two well-spoken presenters to the forum and including the talented Tom Weber as moderator. Bill Green and Josie Johnson were informed and experienced then-and-now voices about the ‘State of Race’ in Minnesota.”
According to Bill Levin, a member of the Minneapolis City of Lakes Rotary Club, “ We have been fortunate to partner with other clubs, especially Saint Paul Sunrise, to produce community forums for Rotarians.  Topics are timely and don’t shy away from controversy.  Speakers and moderators alike have been top-drawer.   In the time of sound-bites and tweets, Rotarians get a close-up opportunity to see and hear opinion leaders develop complex thought.”