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On Building Community Through Gritty Conversations: An Interview with Chanda Smith Baker

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Chanda Smith Baker, senior vice president of community impact at the Minneapolis Foundation.  Baker oversees the Foundation’s grantmaking programs, strategies for community initiatives and partnerships, and hosts Conversations with Chanda, a podcast and live event series focused on race, equity, and justice.

Please tell us about the Minneapolis Foundation and its core mission.

The Minneapolis Foundation was founded in 1915. Today, we are a $900M foundation and invest approximately $70M annually in programs, services, and opportunities that strengthen communities. We live out our mission by focusing our investments on community-driven solutions. We partner with our donors to help them support their passions and learn about critical issues impacting our community.  

What do you do at the Foundation?

I help inform our impact strategy and lead the grants-making team.  I am largely responsible for our community partnerships. We also offer the community the opportunity to attend convenings on issues of local and national concern. In addition to making grants, our goal is to make a difference in our community. We often say that we use our cash and our cache.

Why did you enter the nonprofit sector and is it a good sector for Black women? 

I’d say that Black women are good for the sector.  Because of our lived experiences, we bring a perspective and approach that is needed in the social sector. 

I cannot speak for all Black women, but the nonprofit sector has been good for me. I am able to connect who I am through what I do.  There is no “othering” in this work, for me. Even if I have not personally faced an issue that I am trying to solve, I know others who have. For example, if we are talking about evictions in the community, I know people who have been evicted.  I bring my knowledge and experience to every issue we face and every decision I make. 

The nonprofit sector can also be tough for Black women. I experience micro and macro aggressions, as we all do. I spend time proving I am more than a neighborhood girl who understands the community’s problems. I am an expert. I’ve run complex organizations and have several academic degrees. I’ve interacted with all-male and all-white boards and been the only Black person in the room. Even with my achievements, I still deal with issues of marginalization in the workplace

Is there a specific program or area of support that you are particularly excited about right now?

We have funded traditional areas of economic development and civic engagement and that has been terrific.  I am personally interested in reducing violence in the community and in criminal justice reform.  We are focusing on this area, and it energizes me.  Others at the Foundation and in the Minneapolis community are joining us on the journey and I am excited about that. 

Listening to your podcast, Conversations with Chanda is a beautiful experience. I heard your conversation with Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park 5, called From Pain to Positivity.  It was amazing.  Other folks you’ve spoken with include Valerie Jarrett and Valerie Castile, Philando Castile’s mother. You are a good host! Tell us why you are doing the podcast. 

I did not go into the job at the Minneapolis Foundation to do a podcast.  My CEO encouraged me to do it.  He wanted me to be out there having conversations in the community. I said, “If I do this, I want to talk about gritty issues.” Van Jones was my first interview for the podcast. He was great! 

The podcast has been a way to elevate issues related to the human experience.  It is aligned with who I am and has been an absolute inspiration for me and my work.  I am not bothered by differences or people who have different views.  I’ve been told that I ask questions in a way that allows people to hear new views and receive new information. That’s an honor and a responsibility that I am choosing to lean into right now.  

Your podcast seems to have the support of both corporations and nonprofits. 

I have been surprised by the range of people who listen to the podcast. It’s a new way for people to hear each other and connect to our organization.  

As issues of race and equity become more pronounced, we are seeing corporations interested in participating in this type of work.    

You also had a podcast that featured a conversation with Valerie Castile, Philando Castile’s mother and law enforcement called, Grieving Out Loud. Can you talk about that episode?

I have gotten to know  Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie. She is the epitome of strength in trying times. She is working to improve the community and police interactions and doing what she can to prevent more deadly police encounters. Valerie has had to live her grief out loud in public. At the same time, she is incredibly funny and insightful. As a mother myself, this was the hardest podcast for me to do. 

What was the effect of the Castile murder on the Black community? 

It hurt. Philando was compliant and we could see the full interaction play out on video. You simply cannot rationalize his murder. In some ways, it took the blinders off and demonstrated the risk all Black people face when they are stopped by police. Philando was polite. He followed all the rules. And, still, his outcome was fatal. 

Now, when you talk to your kids about the police, you have to accept that even compliance doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.  And the fact that the officer who killed Castile is not in jail, adds another layer to our trauma and disbelief.  It’s like, here we go again. When will people value our lives and when will this not be allowed? 

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes? 

I am all about Auntie Maxine right now, and her relentless pursuit of justice. As one gets older in the work, younger people tend to say move out of the way. Nobody says that to her!  She’s over 80 and my kids know who she is. From “reclaiming my time” to “impeach him”, her testimony has become part of our cultural discourse. It is awesome to see her in action. 

I also can’t say enough about Stacey Abrams. I am trying to get her to come to one of my live events. She is brilliant and fearless about calling out corruption, be it through voter suppression or any other issue. 

Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up and it’s February 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

We have our first Black female governors and it is phenomenal. We are also more forgiving of ourselves and each other.  

We have representation at every level in every sector.  We are CEOs of corporations, boards, and nonprofits, and we are getting our due respect.  Our talent and expertise are honored and recognized. 

To learn more, check out Conversations with Chanda.

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