The African American Leadership Forum or AALF (pronounced “Alf”) as it’s known, is a thought or idea that we as African American people can be better together than we can apart.

Let’s break it down.   The name, African American Leadership Forum, suggests several things.   First, and foremost, it not only suggests, but proclaims that it’s about African Americans.  So, we start there.  Does one have to be African American to be a part of AALF?  “No,” and “Yes.”  No, a person doesn’t have to be an African American physically; but, Yes, a person does have to be African American in thought, purpose and mission.

All of us, who have lived long enough, know that there are many people who have the skin pigmentation of an African American, but carry the mental baggage of a totally different, and at times hostile, thought or purpose towards the African American community.  We’ve seen that drama played out over and over again throughout the centuries since Africans were brought to the shores of the Americas.   On the other hand, we have brothers and sisters of a lighter hew or different ethnicity, who are as committed to the struggle and uplift of African American people as anyone.   So, again, it’s about the thought or idea that counts – not necessarily the color or ethnicity.

The word Leadership is, perhaps, the most controversial or, might I say, misunderstood part of the name of the AALF.   Who are these self-appointed and so-called “Leaders” is often the question.   Who elected AALF as leaders? Yes, indeed, who are these leaders; and, who appointed or elected them?   The answer is that these “Leaders” are you – and me.  They’re anyone who takes individual ownership and claims that they want to be a Leader – not a Leader because they want to be seen as a big man or big woman by others.  Not a leader because they want some individual recognition for “helping others;”  No, not that kind of a leader; but rather, a “Leader” for the community of our people.  As Reverend Alfred Babington-Johnson proclaims, the African American leadership is really about “community.”   It’s about us as a people, striving to improve, striving to be better.   So, if you see yourself as a “Leader” in that thought or idea, then hop on board.   As far as I’m concerned, you don’t even have to be a part of the AALF membership, to be a part of AALF, the thought or idea.  If you’re out there doing your thing to help improve the conditions of our people, then you’re a part of the thought or idea that AALF is about.

Finally, as the last word in the name “Forum” suggests, it is a place where African American leadership gather or come together to first get to know each other; and, then to share thoughts and ideas on how we, as a community, can be better.   As Professor Mahmoud El Kati tells us, “It is not a physical place where we come together first, but rather, a mental and psychological place where we come together.”  Once we’ve come together psychologically to decide that we’re better off acting together than acting on our own, then we come together physically.

The Forum is a place where we come together to get to know each other in community; to interact, and share ideas about how we as a people can do better.   Since 2009, AALF has held 9 such convening’s, or “Forums” as they’re known, bringing together leaders in our community to get to know each other.  People who have participated, whose names you might recognize include, Al McFarlane of Insight News, Kelvin Quarles of KMOJ Radio, Tracy Williams Dillard, of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Spokesman Recorder, Senators Jeff Hayden and Bobbie Joe Champion, Peter Hayden, CEO of Turning Point, Inc., Toni Carter, Ramsey County Commissioner, Melvin Carter, III, former St. Paul City Council Member, and Paul Williams, former Deputy Mayor of St. Paul.  The list of names goes on and on.

Since 2009, AALF has brought together more than 1000 African Americans in business and philanthropy, government and politics, faith and religion, and community action – many of whom did not know each other before these Forums took place.  In bringing people together, we have found, in the words of Kim Nelson, Vice President of External Affairs at General Mills, Inc. “We have everything we need to be a better community – a better people.  Now, all we need is organization and alignment.”  And, that is the work of AALF – to organize and align ourselves around the issues that matter most to us.

At our most recent Forum, on February 21, 2015, we brought together some of the most dynamic leaders in our community at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs to talk about Crafting a United Urban Agenda.  Those leaders included U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison; Harvest Network of Schools Founder and CEO, Eric Mahmoud; Minnesota Senator Jeff Hayden; the aforementioned Kim Nelson; and, Pastor of New Salem Baptist Church, Reverend Jerry McAfee.  In addition to these fabulous speakers, workshops were conducted around Education by Minnesota Representative Rena Moran and Dr. Sylvia Bartley, Senior Global Marketing Manager of Medtronic, Inc.;  around Health & Wellness by Northpoint CEO Stella Whitney-West, and Open Cities Board Chair Eugene Nichols;  around Economic Development by Senator Bobby Joe Champion, Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, and Ramsey County Workforce Development Manger Nerita Hughes; and, around Criminal Justice by Metropolitan State University Adjunct Professor Jason Sole, and Take Action’s Justice 4All Director Justin Terrell.  The Sounds of Blackness provided the musical/cultural backdrop for the Forum.   You can go online to www.aalf.us to see the dynamic highlights of this Forum gathering.

The theme of the Forum was Crafting a United Urban Agenda.  As Dr. Josie Johnson pointed out, “When you say ‘Urban,’ you’re talking about ‘Us,’ aren’t you!”   Yes, Dr. Josie, we’re talking about us.   And, more specifically, what we’re talking about are those issues on which we can all agree.  For too long, our community has split and fallen-out about those things on which we can’t agree.  We’re always going to have our own individual agendas on which we cannot find consensus or agreement.   That’s not what we’re working on here.   As Reverend Jerry McAfee stated, “What we’re trying to do in Crafting a United Urban Agenda is to find those things on which we can agree.”

For example, we most assuredly can all agree that our children should receive a high quality education, and should be ready for kindergarten by the age of 5;  our children should be able to read at grade level by the 3rd grade; our children should be proficient in math by the 5th grade; and, our children should graduate from high school on time, ready to find their place in the world.   Surely, we can all agree that we need to reduce heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in the African American community – all of which contribute to African Americans dying long before the general population.  And, we can all agree that they highest black/white employment gap for African Americans in the entire United States needs to be closed right here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  So, you see, there are a lot of things around which we can find agreement.

The question then becomes, “How do we get there?”  At the AALF Forum on February 21, 2015,  Congressman Keith Ellison told us that we need 3M:  1)  Message; 2)  Money; and 3) Mobilization.  We have the message.   We want a society that works equally well for everyone.  In order to do that we need to improve educational, economic and health outcomes for the African American community.   The issue of money is more problematic.  As reported in Black Enterprise, a recent study by the Nielson Companies showed that in 2015 the African American community in the United States has $1.1 Trillion – yes Trillion with a “T” – in buying power.  This buying power would make African Americans in the United States the 15th wealthiest country in the world, if we were a country.

Bringing it closer to home, in Minnesota, Dr. Bruce Corrie, Professor of Economics at Concordia University in St. .Paul, has estimated that ethnic communities in Minnesota have $12.2 Billion dollars in buying power – that’s African American, Latino, Asian and Native American communities; and, according to the Council on Black Minnesotans, people of African descent have $3 Billion in buying power.   So, the conclusion that can be reached is that we have the Money.  Now, how we choose to spend our money is another issue.   Do we choose to invest in ourselves as a community by supporting African American organizations and businesses that are improving the lives of African Americans.  Or do we fritter away our dollars on frivolities like fancy cars, jewelry, and partying.  Congressman Ellison posited that even those of modest means could contribute $50 a month or $600 a year if we gave up “Hot Cheeto’s and Orange Pop!!”

Applying the 3rd M – Mobilizing – we have proven that we can mobilize if need be, and when necessary.   Movements like Black Lives Matter have proven that we can mobilize.  And, although voter turnout was down in the most recent mid-term elections, turnout in north Minneapolis was higher.  As Congressman Ellison has said, “Black folks will turn out to vote, if there is something to vote for.”  Community leaders like Spike Moss, Reverend Jerry McAfee, Nathaniel Khaliq, Nikki McComb, and Justin Terrell have proven that we can mobilize our community when necessary.  We have the 3M’s – Message, Money, and Mobilizing.  Now, all we need to do is to get to work to make it happen – that’s the work of the African American Leadership Forum.  It’s you and it’s me!