This is a speech I gave at the closing of the program for the Duluth Branch of the NAACP’s 2024 Freedom Fund Dinner, which introduced the community to its new endowment fund: Ignite Empower Transform.

Good evening. I serve in multiple capacities with the Duluth Branch of the NAACP. I also am on the board for our new endowment fund which you have just learned about. It is my honor to close out this part of our program and help transition to the concert – featuring Duluth’s own, The Gemstones, and Nurd-D – coming up from the Twin Cities.

But before we get to that part of the festivities, I was asked to share a few thoughts.

First of all, I want to express gratitude on behalf of the NAACP Executive Board. Thanks to all of you for attending and your generosity. We especially want to thank our sponsors who kick started our efforts to make this evening a success.

Thanks also to our keynote, The Conscious Lee, for educating and elevating us. Connecting the rhythm and the blues. We are so glad you journeyed north to be here to bring some discomfort.

Thanks to our committee who put in hours and hours organizing this event, particularly to Amanda Lindquist and Danny Frank who were the co-chairs. This evening required many volunteers, but it couldn’t have happened without their organization skills and prodding. So, let’s give it up for them.

Now, I want to reflect for a moment or two on this new endowment fund that we are starting tonight.

Ignite. Empower. Transform.

Those three words make me think of my colleague, mentor, and friend, Xavier Bell. I had the great privilege of working with X for almost a decade on a variety of projects, but most significantly on Race Awareness Workshops, or as he called them, RAW.

X passed in 2019, but in the time that this cowboy-boot wearing, 49er backing, unapologetically Black man lived in the Northland, he did so much to inspire, empower, and transform. He was the founder of Family Freedom Center – which is carried on by others now, including his son, Jacob Bell who is the executive director.

But I want to share something a little more personal about X. For RAW workshops, he and I worked closely on their development. He was an incredible entrepreneur and salesman, and his first idea for RAW was to develop a set of workshops that we could pull off the shelf and deliver. Ones that would educate those involved and also bring in funds for the Family Freedom Center.

Great idea in theory, but it never worked out that way in practice. Instead, part of the RAW brand became spending hours and hours customizing the experience to fit the needs of the organization we were working with. Very little just came off the shelf without adaptation.

What was a frequent occurrence was that X and I would be in a meeting and he would be inspired to promise some new idea that we had never done before. When we walked out of the pitch, he would turn to me and say, “Now, how are we going to make it happen?”

Other times, I wouldn’t even be in the room when he made these promises, and when he reported back to me, I would channel my best Gary Coleman – because we were close enough to age for the reference, and say to him, “What you talkin’ bout, Willis?”

Early on, this was hard for me to roll with the challenges X put on my to-do list, but eventually, I learned an important lesson that I think is relevant related to the NAACP and its new endowment.

As a white person growing up in this culture, leadership was always what was elevated as the goal. But working with X helped me to develop another skill: followership. Something that has proved even more important for me. I maybe didn’t always agree with X’s proposals, but I learned to trust that I maybe couldn’t see around some of the corners that X could because of the experiences he had and I didn’t.

I lift this up to all of you in this room as we seek to Ignite, empower, and transform.

For those of you are in the African heritage community, use your unique experiences to provide leadership and take advantage of this fund to support you. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever fail, as Adrienne Payne shared in a beautiful poem at this year’s MLK rally.

“Will you fall?
Yes, you will.
Will you fail?
Will you be humbled?
Yea, that part, too.
But the power is getting up
Fighting harder,
Dreaming bigger,
Believing more. “

IET will support you in as you fight, dream, and believe.

For those of you who are white in this room, I encourage of us to hone our followership skills. To help Duluth foster more BIPOC leadership, and for us to learn to trust that this change chan transform our communities in ways that are truly an improvement for all of us.

Because transform, we must.

X used to say, when he was getting serious about something, that it is time to be “for real, for real.” And so I want to spend a moment here being for real, for real.

First of all, as Conscious Lee challenged us, we have to face hard truths. It is true that Duluth has the first branch of the NAACP in the state. It is also true that it was in Response to the lynchings of Clayton Jackson and McGhies.

But I want to bring it to today in a personal way. My dad died on January 27 of pancreatic cancer. I grieve his passing, and yet I am so grateful to have had him in Duluth for the past 10 years and I got to be his son for 54 years.

X didn’t make it to 85 and Jacob and his siblings didn’t get as many days with their dad as I did with mine.

The Gemstones, the band you will hear next, was fronted by Afrogeode – Diona Johnson – and she passed away all too early and unexpectedly.

While there may be some individual factors in these untimely deaths, we can’t deny the role that racism and white supremacy play in the shortening of Black lives in the Northland.

For real, for real.

So as we transition to music that can both ignite our spirits and empower us with energy, let us be sure to leave here committed to carry on until the necessary transformation of our communities comes to pass.

Again, I thank you for your presence here tonight, thank you for an ongoing commitment to work with the NAACP and other BIPOC leadership that will bring about a Northland that truly feels like home for all of us.

Have a good rest of your night.