2021 Person of the Year: Tawanna Black

Guiding business toward inclusivity and racial equity
2021 Person of the Year: Tawanna Black

Many white Minnesotans in the metro like to tout their progressive values. Maybe they plant a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yards. Or maybe another proclaiming “Everyone is welcome here.” Native Minnesotans instinctively believe in our exceptionalism: Life really is better here. Why would you live anywhere else? 

But other Minnesota residents don’t see it that way. The state consistently ranks among the worst in the nation for racial economic disparities. Census data from 2018 found that the median white family income in Minneapolis was $83,000, compared with $36,000 for the median Black family—56.6% lower. 

This is not a statistical blip. This pattern has held for decades. How can that be? University of Minnesota human relations professor Samuel Myers Jr. coined a term to describe the phenomenon: the Minnesota Paradox. 

Tawanna Black had been working on racial equity issues long before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May 2020. She has seen her share of big companies making well-intentioned pledges about diversity, followed by little real action. As founder and CEO of the St. Paul-based Center for Economic Inclusion, these are the issues that she lives and breathes every day. 

She’s an outsider in the halls of power here. She’s Black. She’s a woman. She’s not even a native Minnesotan (she’s from Kansas). Maybe that’s why she’s been so effective. Black is now making a name for herself nationally. 

And the disconnect between the Minnesota mindset and its racial realities?

“When I moved here, I asked myself that very same question,” says Black. “Part of that is about the confusion between [calling yourself] ‘progressive’ versus being actually equitable and inclusive. The two are not the same. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re not the same. The data is very stark, and yet we’re wringing our hands over whether or not it’s real or what we’re going to do about it.” 

Black, 44, started the center in 2017 to reset the rules, rewire some brains, kick some people in the posterior, and build a new model to achieve racial diversity and equity. Because, she says, what we’ve been doing isn’t working. 

“For so long the focus has been on workers of color, people of color, without much accountability for the systems, for the conditions that have maintained poverty, that have maintained racism,” says Black. “We’ve been able to drive that shift in shared accountability to say that ‘We won’t solve racism until we solve racism.’ We actually have to work on that issue.” 

The center is a nonprofit but seems built like a business with several service lines: racial equity consulting, public speaking, research and public policy, and its own philanthropic work. It’s focused on the Twin Cities, but Black has an increasingly busy travel schedule to share her strategy and vision across the U.S. 

Adair Mosley, CEO and president of Minneapolis-based social service organization Pillsbury United Communities, serves on the board of the center and has high praise for Black. 

“Tawanna is a relentless, bold, and transformational leader,” says Mosley. “Equity is at the center of the work. She is passionate about eliminating the disparities that exist in our region. What comes forward in every encounter with her is her continued commitment to that calling. She’s a beacon of light, I think, to so many of us.” 

The center’s consulting work goes much deeper than having executives say, “We need to hire five BIPOC employees by the end of the year.” Ultimately, Black wants companies to start thinking differently and seeing these issues through a new lens. The center’s Employer Inclusivity Consulting Services (EICS) worked with 55 companies in 2021. 

Tawanna Black

It doesn’t make sense to put all of our focus and dollars on training workers to go into workplaces where they’re experiencing racism, or [organizations are] training people of color to start businesses where they’re not given the same opportunities and advantages as their white competitors.”

Services include organizational assessment, education and coaching for employees and leadership, strategy design and facilitated implementation, and evaluation. EICS can also provide referrals for racially diverse talent and suppliers. 

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“We have to stay focused on the actual issue. As much as we know about it and as much as it has been studied here in Minneapolis and St. Paul in particular, our wage gap is attributed to racism in the workplace,” says Black. “It doesn’t make sense to put all of our focus and dollars on training workers to go into workplaces where they’re experiencing racism, or they’re training people of color to start businesses where they’re not given the same opportunities and advantages as their white competitors.” 

The paradox of programs that help Black did not start in the trenches of racial equity work. “I was pretty conservative, being from Kansas,” she says, noting a detail that surprises many. Growing up she saw government social welfare programs as a crutch that held people back. 

Black went to college at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, to become a corporate lawyer. In her sophomore year she needed an MRI to diagnose a medical issue, but she had no insurance. She was referred to a public aid office. 

“A woman looked at me across a desk and said, ‘You’re doing everything right … so I can’t help you,’” recalls Black. “Her exact words were, ‘If you could quit school and maybe get yourself knocked up or quit your job and quit school, I could help you.’ She said those exact words, and I cried like a baby at her desk.” 

Black was working 20 hours a week at a law firm and going to school. The talk shifted how she saw the world. 

“All I knew was that I needed a $3,000 MRI to figure out what was wrong with me, and I had a woman tell me I was doing everything ‘wrong’ because I was trying to work part-time and go to school. I was a naïve 20-year-old kid,” says Black. “My professors had been trying to show me that the systems were created to keep people where they are … I didn’t know how clueless I was until that moment.” 

Black recounts the story in such detail it sounds like it could have happened just the other day, not more than two decades ago. 

“She said, ‘But I could give you food stamps.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t need food. I need an MRI,’” says Black, shaking her head in lingering disbelief. 

Her family paid for the MRI and her medical issues were resolved. But that woman on the other side of the desk had changed Black forever. 

“Since then, my eyes have really been positioned on the system and not on people,” she says. 

Black ultimately got a degree in public administration and started doing community work. In 2004, she was tapped as the first executive director of Destination Midtown, an ambitious public-private partnership to revitalize historic Omaha. Black says she worked on everything from the nuts and bolts of getting community corridors rezoned to attracting 30 businesses to the area and working with the Mutual of Omaha insurance company to remake eight acres of land on their campus into a $500 million mixed-use development. 

A stint in corporate America followed with cable giant Cox Communications, where she was the company’s first director of diversity. 

“Everything I’ve ever done is a first,” says Black. “The through line for me is about bringing people together across differences to do really transformative work.” 

Looking for a better model

Black and her family moved to Minnesota in late 2009 for her husband Eric’s career. At the time he was working for agribusiness giant Cargill. Before long, she was plugged back into community work while doing some consulting. 

She became the first executive director for the Northside Funders Group, a funding collaborative focused on North Minneapolis, where many of the residents are poor and Black. Northside Funders was born when several philanthropic groups with commitments to North Minneapolis felt their individual donations were not doing enough to drive change, and that the tenets of philanthropy could be part of the problem. So they created a group with more collective power and resources and a commitment to change the way philanthropy works. Northside makes “pooled and aligned” investments to support its mission of strengthening “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities.” It is primarily focused on two areas: education and wealth building and prosperity.

“The work of the Northside Funders Group was cutting-edge at the time—to see corporate, family, and community foundations not only align their investments and solutions, but to have formed a coalition and acknowledge that philanthropy is not only a part of the solution but also a part of the problem,” says Black. “That wasn’t being done across the country.”

Traditional philanthropy often has backed programs to address short-term needs for food, shelter, and bills; the issue is that many of those programs did little to address the underlying causes of inequity that were leaving people poor, homeless, and without jobs. Northside Funders wants to support “comprehensive community growth,” focused on entrepreneurship and small business development to address systemic racism, wealth extraction, and create platforms of wealth generation. 

Backers of Northside Funders include the McKnight Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, Wells Fargo, and Thrivent. But her work at Northside Funders also pointed the way for Black to create something new. 

“One of the things that really prompted me to leave Northside Funders Group and create the center was that you can’t transform a community in isolation or alone in one sector,” Black says. “The work has to be done really from the community up and inside its institutions and across those institutions. 

“People have to be able to live those values of racial equity, inclusion, and belonging not only at work, but at home. You have to live them in the boardroom when you’re deciding funding investments—really all day long, right? That’s really hard work and meaningful work, and it has to go not just in grant cycles or board cycles, but be continual.” 

Corporate leaders are paying attention. The center’s board includes employees of U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, Thrivent, Xcel Energy, and the Grant Thornton law firm. 

Its largest donors are mostly Fortune 500 foundations. U.S. Bank’s Foundation has endowed the center with $1.5 million since 2019. The Target Foundation awarded it $1.5 million in 2021, while New York-based JPMorgan Chase has contributed $900,000 since 2018. The McKnight Foundation also awarded the center $1 million in 2019.

“She is a committed and engaging leader, focused on bringing true rigor to addressing racial disparities in our community,” says Elliot Jaffee, U.S. Bank executive vice president, head of strategy, corporate and commercial banking, who sits on the center’s board. “Tawanna founded the center knowing this work is demanding, and yet her tenacious and engaging style and committed work ethic is generating real momentum. The center is clearly raising the standard and sophistication of problem-solving, and U. S. Bank is an enthusiastic supporter and partner.” 

An inner drive

Black is steadily busy—very busy. Beyond leading the center, she sits on numerous local and national boards, has a family, and serves as a minister at Grace Apostolic Church. 

“I think time is made for what’s important,” says Black. “Being in ministry means that faith drives everything I do.” 

The center has grown quickly and now has a staff of 25. It’s based in the Osborn370 building in downtown St. Paul, which has been a draw for many startups and entrepreneurs. Black says that the building’s energy is a perfect fit. 

“She’s such an innovative and catalytic leader,” says Mosley. “Her faith is such a guide … that often recharges and refuels her in ways that I think is unique to her leadership.”

There is no shortage of examples that much remains to be done. 

Clarence Bethea drew lots of attention as a Black startup entrepreneur in the Twin Cities with his St. Paul-based Upsie, an online warranty platform. The company raised $18.2 million in Series A financing in 2021, one of the larger startup fundraising efforts of the year in the state. 

But Bethea recently moved to Dallas, seeking a more diverse community for himself and his family. He explained a bit of his reasoning to Twin Cities BusinessStartMN magazine: “I’ve been called the N-word at startup events.”  

Shocking in “progressive” Minnesota? Not really, says Black. 

“I was not surprised at all about what Clarence experienced. I was grateful that Clarence was willing to be honest and transparent about what so many Black people experience and only talk about behind closed doors … about what so many fear they can’t speak about for fear of loss of employment or loss of contracts that feed our families,” says Black. “Because that fear is what allows racism to continue to mask the face of progressive values. It’s what allows us to think that we’re inclusive because we’re ‘progressive’ as a state, as a region, all the while exhausting the life out of Black and brown people.” 

Black is not easily discouraged. She sees her work as a mission, as a calling. 

“This isn’t about ‘those people, those other people’—this hurts all of us,” she says of the costs of racism. “We really wanted to move the region from this place where we do projects and initiatives to one where we started to challenge the region to say, ‘What does it mean to actually live the values of racial equity and inclusion?’… and hold ourselves accountable for living those values out.”

Tawanna Black on Assisting the Chronically Disadvantaged in North Minneapolis:

“The center has partnered with Black-led organizations in North Minneapolis to connect over 300 African American men to meaningful jobs paying family-sustaining wages, with employers committed to workforce equity, inclusion, and belonging via North@Work. Tony Tolliver Sr., director of strategic partnerships [at the Center for Economic Inclusion], leads this pay-for-performance network committed to delivering transformational employment training, support services, coaching, and employer placements for men who face chronic housing [issues], food insecurity, and unemployment—many of whom have completed traditional workforce training programs yet remain unemployed. 

“By investing in trusted Black-led institutions, including Al-Maa’uun, Mind the G.A.P.P., Ujamaa Place, and Summit Academy, we’re not only creating economic prosperity and opportunity for Black families, but also driving accountability for investing in the organizations who know best how to meet the needs of Black communities and the importance of addressing the systemic barriers to employment while we train men and women for work. Our investments in this model have also helped traditional workforce organizations like Emerge and Twin Cities Rise develop more racially responsive and effective workforce services as well.”

Local Work, National Notice

  • “If anyone wants to understand what it takes to achieve inclusive growth, look no further than Tawanna Black. She brings cross-sector experience, commitment to large-scale results, and relentless tenacity to get the job done. Living Cities has partnered with Tawanna in various ways over the years, and we wish every region could have as strong a leader as her.” —Joe Scantlebury, president and CEO, Living Cities, New York City
  • “Tawanna Black has cast a bold vision for a more racially equitable economy in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and she hasn’t stopped there. She has developed the tools, metrics, and platform for holding public- and private-sector leaders accountable for [their] actions. Tawanna has also brought that vision and urgency to other metro areas eager to learn and do more. We at Brookings Metro are a proud partner of the Center for Economic Inclusion, and we applaud this well-deserved recognition of Tawanna’s impact.” —Amy Liu, vice president/director of Brookings Metro, Washington, D.C.
  • “Tawanna’s commitment to fortifying and accelerating economic inclusion are not only contributing to the emergence of a new and vibrant circuitry of collaboration in the Twin Cities business community, but is also attracting the attention of municipal leaders throughout the country. Through her clarity of vision and her adroitness in building vibrant alliances across the public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors, Tawanna has sent a powerful signal at an extraordinarily opportune time that bending a region’s arc toward racial equity and inclusion is an essential precondition to long-term economic and social health, stability, and vibrancy.” —Rip Rapson, president and CEO, Kresge Foundation, Troy, Michigan