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A speaker at a recent rally for reparations held by the Black Civic Network. Photo courtesy of WCCO

Every last Sunday of the month, around 30 people gather in Minnesota’s Twin Cities to partake in the Black Civic Network’s community dinners. Over a shared meal, the network leads discussions about policies and issues that impact Black families in the state, like elections, reparations and child protection services.

Nick Muhammad founded the organization in 2017 with a mission to serve Black communities’ political and economic interests after feeling that Twin Cities organizations left them out. Part of its agenda will be support of a bill to shield Black families from having children taken into foster care in a state with alarmingly high disproportionality in its child welfare system.

The goal of the network is to foster intergenerational collaboration and “to create an organization filled with young people who can go to the Capitol, go into City Hall, go into these county meetings and be able to — not only advocate — but be on the ground level of creating policy,” said Thomas Barry, the network’s program director. “This is tedious work, but [founder Muhammad] saw it as a need.”

“We’re working to undo the systemic racist policies that have created very horrible conditions for Black families to thrive and survive or even collectively operate,” Muhammad said.

Placing an emphasis on civic engagement, the Black Civic Network organizes voter registration events in the community and initiates conversations about candidates and policies on the ballot.

Placing an emphasis on civic engagement, the Black Civic Network organizes voter registration events in the community and initiates conversations about candidates and policies on the ballot.

“Our goal is not to facilitate whether the Democrats are right or whether the Republicans are right. Our job is to facilitate getting it right for the people. We don’t do left, right or Green Party or what have you. We’re just for the people,” Barry said.

Reparations are also a major issue on the organization’s platform. The network has hosted town halls about reparations, and in July, the network organized and rallied at the State Capitol, demanding a reparation plan be put in place for American Descendants of Slavery.

“We have spearheaded the reparations movement in the state to get more proactive about overall systemic changes in order to change the conditions that underlie most of these disparities,” Muhammad said. “We’re looking at a history that’s been largely ignored and a group of people who have not been historically treated fairly.”

“When you look at the disparities in the county and state levels, and even on the city levels, you always see that African Americans are at the bottom of the statistics and the data that’s being driven,” Barry said.

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For example, Minnesota ranks third in the country in child well-being based on the composite of data used in the annual Kids Count report. But state statistics also show that Black children are three times more likely to be removed from their homes than white children. They are also more likely to be placed with strangers instead of other relatives.

Because of this, the African American Family Preservation and Child Welfare Disproportionality Act is at the center of the network’s family agenda. The bill, introduced by Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members Rep. Rena Moran and Sen. Jeff Hayden, was first introduced in December 2018 to “promote the stability and security of African American and other disproportionately represented children and families by establishing minimum standards to prevent arbitrary and unnecessary removal of African American and other disproportionately represented children from their families.”

The law includes several key provisions aimed at making it harder to remove children from the homes of non-white parents. Child welfare systems would need to make what the bill refers to as “customized efforts” to serve those families intact, or find and support relatives to assist in cases. The state would also have to hire six disproportionality specialists and begin a new cultural competency training program.

The Black Civic Network has been working in tandem with Kelis Houston, a child welfare consultant who helped write the bill, to pass the act into law. Together, they have been talking to legislators, conducting surveys, holding community forums and press conferences, as well as reaching out to families so their voices can be heard, Houston said.

Though the bill was introduced two years ago, it has never made it to the floor for a vote in past legislative sessions. The African American Family Preservation Act would mean pushing back on the traditional approach of child protection in the state by changing the standards of how child protection should work based on race.

When the bill is reintroduced in the upcoming legislative session, Barry said he anticipates things will be different.

[dc]“I[/dc] think that people are now waking up to the fact that taking a shortfall is no longer acceptable, because we see what happens when shortfalls exist. So, we can’t sweep this under the rug,” Barry said, referring to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop in May. “I think in 2021, we will see the African American Family Preservation Act become the law in the state of Minnesota.”

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Farrah Mina
The Imprint

Farrah Mina is an Emma Bowen Fellow and summer reporting intern for The Imprint. She is a journalism and global studies student at the University of Minnesota where she reports for her campus newspaper.

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.