Paul Williams MLK Weekend Speech
Thank you, Alanna, for that kind introduction. And greetings to all of you who have taken the time to engage with me this morning. I am humbled and honored to be part of this Social Justice series. Equally important, I am humbled and grateful for Westminster’s long history with our organization—Project for Pride in Living.
Westminster has been a supporter of PPL for literally decades— over 30 years. Equally important, the people of Westminster— folks like Tracy Godfrey, Jim & Carmen Campbell, Bill and Susan Sands, and former board members Sue Perkins and Rocky Rockenstein-- have shared their wisdom and talents with PPL, helping our organization grow and prosper over many, many years. It is a relationship with deep roots. Westminster has made a difference in the lives of literally thousands of the folks who have come through our doors at PPL.
And I want to thank Tim Hart-Anderson and the staff here at Westminster for their stewardship of this incredible community asset. Your reach and impact are broad.
I have to admit that I was a bit intimidated by the challenge of speaking on the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend. I always have such lofty expectations of King Day speakers. So, it’s a bit daunting to actually be at the podium. But I got comfortable when Alanna shared that the purpose today was to really share more about our journey at PPL and the principles behind our work. That’s a task that I think I can handle.
MLK Day is historically a big day in my house. In my family, it was always a working holiday. I’d often start with the 7AM General Mills breakfast, then march over in St. Paul, stick around for the Holiday Commission program, then eventually make my way over to Mom’s house for “MLK stew”. “MLK Stew” wasn’t just a meal with the family. It was a gathering of community—a feast and a gathering for reflection and dialogue, with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” starting promptly at 7:00 sharp, followed by “O Freedom” and eventually a raucous debate about the state of race relations among family, friends and even strangers who came to gather. We lost my Mom, a giant in community work, in 2018, and COVID has taken its toll in recent years. I miss those gatherings and am grateful to be part of the table you all have set here today.
I always like to share a bit about who I am and where I come from as context for the work I do. My roots are in St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood. I come from a strong Black family of professionals—lawyers, professors, business people, social workers, community leaders. My Grandfather was one of only a handful of Black Dentists in St. Paul starting in the 1930’s.
The Williams, Oden and Benner families were, and are, proud, strong and active people. Their work to build community institutions like the Hallie Q Brown Community Center, the St. Paul Urban Coalition, Model Cities Health Center and the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center was pivotal in creating a sense of connectedness and possibility in those communities. That family, like many families of color, also struggled with addiction, unemployment, mental illness, and homelessness over the years.
And, of course, the arrival of I-94 and the devastating impact that had, economically, and on the fragile community bonds that did exist were profound. My father was the oldest of 10. A Family Court Referee, he committed his life to helping others work through some of their most difficult challenges.
My mother’s family literally lived just a stone’s throw away from Rondo—on the other side of University Avenue in Frogtown. The Dittberner family had its roots in the German catholic farm country of Southwestern MN, with a heavy dose of labor union activism and stubborn resilience. The 7 kids in that family would go on to be educators and leaders in community activism and social justice throughout this community. My mother spent the bulk of her career singing and working with Bi-Racial children experiencing trauma.
My mother and father were gifted with angelic voices, which is how they came together in what was then a largely frowned upon inter-racial marriage. Their commitment to music, to justice, to community is certainly what brought me to my life’s vocation of community building.
My task today is to talk a bit about the work of this incredible organization I have the honor of leading—Project for Pride in Living. PPL is a community development organization that builds affordable housing and provides skill-building and career pathways for adults and young people. PPL owns and manages about 1600 units of affordable housing—3500 folks live with us every day. We provide career training for several thousand folks every year and work with about 120 students in alternative high school settings. The vast majority of our residents, participants and students come from communities of color and have minimal household income.
To say that we are living in transformational times these days is an understatement. The multiple pandemics we have endured in the last 3 years—A COVID virus that is still with us, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, the riots and racial unrest, political turmoil, insurrection and a shifting economy have all conspired to wreak havoc on the lives of the poor, particularly folks from Brown, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities.
That havoc has only compounded the decades of discrimination, disinvestment, and economic isolation that Dr. King fought against. The results are, in fact, predictable.
I want to take a moment to reflect on these past three years. And what we saw on the ground, in the neighborhoods, and how that relates to the headwinds we face today.
The folks closest to our multiple pandemics—front line workers, many of whom were low- and moderate-income folks of color, were greatly impacted by these pandemics. They were the first to lose their jobs. It also turns out that they were the very same workers we depended on as essential workers – in grocery stores, in health care, and in close proximity to this vicious virus.
If the virus didn’t strike them down, it may have taken family or friends, while robbing them of the wages they needed for rent, food, and healthcare.
While the narrative was that we were “all in this together,” we also know that the virus disproportionately harmed people of color. We saw disparities in severe illness and death rates, with Native Americans experiencing the highest rates as a proportion of Minnesota’s population, only to be closely followed by Black, Latino, and Asian community members. We also know, for example, this has meant that BIPOC folks have spent significantly more time on unemployment insurance during the pandemic.
Compound all of this with the summer of 2020. The murder of George Floyd laid bare systemic inequities that many of us thought we had solved but… in reality, never left. The unrest was both shattering, and predictable.
Fear, isolation, and frustration stemming from the months of lock-down mixed with years of resentment and anger building from persistent inequities. And then that anger was unleashed on the very community assets we in community development had spent decades to build. It was hard to watch. It was hard to navigate.
At PPL, we spent weeks boarding windows on our buildings. Our people were in the heart of the very neighborhoods most impacted by the riots. We had children who spent horrifying days watching the devastation of buildings burning—right outside their windows. For myself, personally, I watched my life’s work—on Lake St., on University Ave., in North Minneapolis, go up in flames—real and virtual.
I ask myself – was this unexpected? In my city? In this region? Unfortunately, it was simmering. All it needed was a spark.
When the smoke cleared, and we saw the work that needed to be done, we adopted a phrase at PPL: “How we rebuild…is as important…as what we rebuild.”
“How we rebuild…is AS important…as what we rebuild.”
At PPL, we have posited that the buildings burned because they were symbols of the broken system. If people don’t have a sense of connection to the neighborhood or a sense of belonging within a community, or owning the place—even psychologically, but more important economically, there are real consequences and costs. And I would argue that the physical costs—rebuilding buildings, putting new windows on—are only a fraction of the hidden costs we incur in our failure to engage and maximize the capacity of those disenfranchised communities.
The rebuilding effort must be connected to human capital investment and economic opportunities that build assets and wealth. It must also be intentional in building capacity within communities of color. By capacity, I mean the institutions, the capability, the resources, the muscle to design and drive their own future. These are critical components of any healthy community and must be embedded in all our efforts.
It's ironic that after all these years, we’re still fighting some of these same battles. Dr. King was fighting for some of those same things—for Black families and communities, for Sanitation workers, and for all lower income people.
At PPL that fight focuses on a couple of core areas—housing and jobs. We know that housing and jobs are foundational to stabilizing families and stabilizing neighborhoods. It’s core to who we are at PPL. It’s how our founder, Joe Selvaggio, began 50 years ago in the summer of 1972. But we also know that without connection to the people, our efforts will fall short.
“How we rebuild is as important as what we rebuild.”
For us at PPL, we have begun operating around a set of core principles that drive “How” we do that work.
First, Place matters. We know what it feels like to be in a place that is vibrant, thriving and safe—places that foster a good quality of life. This community is home to many such places. In many of our core city neighborhoods, however, we have failed to deliver that same sense of vibrancy and stability. While much work has been done to improve some of our core neighborhoods, we have neither gone deep enough nor sustained that investment over time, leaving communities that are unsafe and unstable.
The current surge in crime is a good example. The notion that this is only impacting downtown or certain neighborhoods is patently false. From our perspective, we need to be investing in a wide range of preventative and community-based safety solutions as well as rethinking policing strategy, including more policing in some cases. [We talked to over 100 residents after the riots—they said they wanted more police protection, and different police protection]. Instability at the neighborhood level has an impact on the entire community.
Any region is only as strong as its core, as its least advantaged neighborhoods. The belief that you can buy your way out of the problem, or regulate it within its boundaries, is a fool’s errand.
We need to get away from well-intentioned efforts that create siloed programs without addressing the broader physical environment, and its safety. Most importantly, those efforts need to be led by those communities themselves. At PPL, our housing and employment work, is now wrapped inside of community building and safety work.
We need to pay attention to the neighborhood, the place— rebuilding it in a way that heals and connects our communities. The North Side of Minneapolis or the East Side of St. Paul, like the Bronx in New York or Overtown in Miami, ought to be places of opportunity, rather than places of disconnection and disillusionment.
Second, Voice matters. We need to listen better before acting. Not act first and then wonder why we’re not seeing the change we seek – in education, in health outcomes, in business, in home ownership. Some of our best work at PPL comes not from a particular training skill or program, but rather in helping folks rediscover their voice—their sense of self agency, their confidence, their sense of “pride in living.” Graduates from our programs telling us “I knew I had it in me.”
Voice and confidence go together, and listening is a building block of both.
Our community seems to have ignored the voices of the very people we have been trying to help. That’s been a pattern for decades, but the last three years have only reinforced that in my mind. As a region, and as a country, we’ve been walking on our communities of color, delivering what we think they need, diagnosing their problems and “fixing” them-- In many cases, with good intentions. Instead, we need to be walking alongside communities, asking people what they want their future to look like, and investing with them for the long run. This is the heart of racial equity.
There’s a saying in neighborhood development work: “If it’s about us, but not with us, it’s not for us.”
Third, Dignity in work matters. Economic opportunity is a crucial pillar of any household. We see plenty of folks coming to PPL who are already employed, in one, two, even three jobs. What they’re chasing is a stable career—dignity in a career that’s growing with opportunity and possibilities of contributing. Not just contributing to their personal wealth but to the intergenerational wealth that builds communities.
Part of our role at PPL is to match these workers with industries that pay a living wage and have opportunities for career growth. Health care, Banking and finance, IT, and the trades are all examples. We have believed for every one of our 50 years that the discipline and opportunity of work creates a sense of pride, a sense of possibility, and the opportunity for growth and self- reliance. That’s who Joe Selvaggio was and that’s at the heart of PPL’s mission.
Fourth, Stable Housing matters. The pandemics reminded us that quality and affordable housing is central to so many elements of everyday life. We saw that housing isn’t just a roof, it’s a floor. It’s foundational. For example:
Turns out that Housing is health care…. If you didn’t have stable housing these last 3 years, you were in danger of catching this virus and dying.
Housing is education….look how many of us were educating our children from home? I, myself, had two college-aged, young adults learning from my home. That was both beautiful and occasionally terrifying!
Housing is childcare….housing has always been childcare, but we have seen just how essential a stable home has been to raising young children. The last few years have been a heavy lift for those working parents who, all of a sudden, also become their own childcare providers and de facto teachers. Turn the calendar to 2023 and the child care sector still hasn’t recovered from the pandemics. This remains critical to our economic recovery.
And, Housing is employment & training….all of us in the training fields have shifted our delivery platform to virtual learning. You couldn’t keep up with your training if you didn’t have a stable place to be. A spare bedroom, a dining room, your kitchen table, or a basement…
Without stable housing, there is no healthcare, no continuing education, no upskilled workforce, and no childcare.
Minnesota has been experiencing an affordable housing shortage for decades, especially for those with extremely low incomes.
Over 65% of these renters are cost-burdened in their housing and would need an annual income of over $45,000 to afford fair market rent. 25% of all Minnesota households are cost burdened. That’s an incredible figure! In Minnesota, this translates into the need for over 100,000 units of affordable housing to fill the gap between existing units and what families can afford to pay.
That lack of affordable housing has a direct correlation to homelessness. The encampments we have seen in the last few years have not appeared by coincidence. And if we look at who is living in those encampments, we see almost entirely Black and brown people. Stable affordable housing is both the preventive measure and the answer to pervasive homelessness.
Again, our belief at PPL is that housing and job skills are two cornerstones of economic stability. And our belief is that those cornerstones must be rooted in racial equity.
Our commitment to racial equity, as I noted earlier, requires a holistic approach that is inclusive of people of color, influenced by leaders of color, and one that benefits BIPOC communities.
That’s a reality that is increasingly pressing, particularly if we look at the changing demographics of this community.
Demographers have been telling us for years that Minnesota’s workforce, for example, is becoming increasingly brown. They have been telling us that:
Even if we maximize immigration and continue to draw folks from surrounding states; and even if we hold on to all of our young people, our Gen Zers; We will increasingly need to look at our growing young populations of color, particularly in core cities, as a centerpiece of our workforce.
This has everything to do with the region’s and the state’s competitiveness.
I gotta tell ya…I’m done talking about this as a moral issue— simply as “the right thing to do.” This is an economic issue—we need to build our own pipeline of talent—and that talent exists right here under our noses. They are resourceful, smart, technologically savvy, and they look different.
At PPL, our training and education work is shifting to a focus on skills and pathways that lead to career growth. We’re focusing on cultural competence with our employer partners and the ability of our participants to adapt to diverse cultures themselves. That is essential to success in the workplace.
So, let me repeat, How we rebuild is as important as what we rebuild.
I believe, as Dr. King did, that we have the ability to transform. I believe that we have the resources, the supply chain of talent, and the will to adapt. It’s all right here. The wisdom is in the room.
We see these stories of change and transformation every day at PPL.
There’s the story of a young Mexican immigrant named Yanet. She came to Minneapolis with the hope of a stable career, only to lose her parents and be faced with caring for her 11-year-old sister. She has just recently graduated from a PPL career readiness program and has started that career as an office specialist for Hennepin County. She is an asset to this community and part of the solution to our challenges.
Or the story of Na-quita. Living with housing instability and the violence of her neighborhood, she wished to be the owner of her own home and her own future. She worked with PPL’s financial coaches in our home ownership program, and today, she is a homeowner. Black homeownership is an essential part of building Black wealth and self-determination in this community. In 2022, PPL helped over 100 BIPOC households become homeowners, opening up a pathway to over $30 Million in equity for those households. Naquita is an asset to this community and part of the solution.
And there’s the story of James. He was overworked and underemployed as a custodian and security guard, knowing he could do better to support his family. He found our employment training program for building technicians, and today he is not only a county maintenance engineer, he’s relied on his new skills to re-hab and re-sell dilapidated houses. James is an asset to this community and is part of the solution.
And at the neighborhood level, we’re seeing stories of transformation as well:
Out of the rubble on Lake Street, we’ve partnered with Wells Fargo to rebuild at the site of their bank branch that was destroyed during the unrest in 2020. We engaged a community partner rooted in the neighborhood – the Cultural Wellness Center – to help area residents re-envision and re-imagine what is possible at the site. As a result, we’re rebuilding the Wells Fargo branch into affordable housing and a new bank. We’re creating spaces for local BIPOC businesses because local entrepreneurs wanted affordable spaces to buy and own as well as the training and knowledge to establish and run their own businesses. Now we’re creating connection and creating wealth, things that create bonds that cannot be burned down.
In the Native American community, PPL has partnered with the American Indian Community Development Corporation to build one, two, and now three wings of the Anishinabe housing campus. A residential and supportive housing center for Native Americans experiencing homelessness—right across the street from the former encampment that was called the Wall of Forgotten Natives. Building the capacity, the strength of our Native partners has been central to that effort. These are capable, strategic organizations that can begin to address their communities’ needs from within.
We are seeing numerous other examples including the incredible work of the Northside Achievement Zone, and exciting new efforts to ramp up Black homeownership. In Brooklyn Center, PPL is partnering with a Black church to build housing with commercial space that creates stability and community wealth and, early last year, we partnered with Minnesota’s biggest banks in the opening of Minnesota’s First Black-owned bank—First Independence Bank out of Detroit. PPL is but one of many partners beginning to operate in these transformational ways.
How we rebuild is as important as what we rebuild…
I truly believe that we know what works in this community. The bigger question is do we have the will to take it to scale and invest in a sustainable way?
I think so. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen creative problem solving and innovation in this last couple of years that is truly promising. And I am energized by the way racial equity is being placed at the center of some very good work.
In fact, the headlines are finally telling that story. We’ve seen reports that Minnesota’s Black household income has jumped by 43% over the last five years, compared to 18% for white households. Much of that credit goes to newly-trained workers hired into new careers by employers reaching out to BIPOC communities.
We’re also seeing some promising growth in Black entrepreneurship and lending to Black businesses. Still a long ways to go, but movement and progress is key. We hadn’t seen that progress for quite some time.
I am also energized by the genuine outpouring of support and interest since the murder of George Floyd—particularly from our white, majority communities. We need to harness that energy, we need to speak truth, we need to listen, we need to peel back and understand the layers of privilege and subsidy that in fact drive everyday life and outcomes in our community.
At PPL we firmly believe that change starts from within and really does begin at home. The racial equity journey at PPL was begun several years ago, focusing on our own culture and understanding of difference. It is a regular part of our cross-organizational dialogue and learning, peeling back the layers of privilege and understanding how we interact with each other and with community. Our belief is that we need to “walk the walk” before we go out and “talk the talk.” We also believe that major change starts with small victories. We have to model the changes and the behaviors we seek. We can do that by “owning our faith” to paraphrase Matthew Skinner, who I know you all have connected with. How we embody our beliefs does affect the ways we navigate the world every day.
And that isn’t just a solo journey. I was struck by Krista Tippet’s question to you all: “Who will we be for each other?” This work is community work—it is collective work that can only be done with one another. Dr King once said “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now!”
So, I would challenge all of us to ask ourselves this question. How do you show up as a partner with the community? Is it to do something for the community or with them?
How we rebuild is as important as what we rebuild…
I am hopeful today. The solutions are here. As I said, the wisdom is in the room.
Thank you so much for your attention and your invitation to grace this stage.