Mar 26, 2024 40 min read

Building an Inclusive Economy

Image of guest, Tawanna Black, and quote: " You have to change the mindset in order to change the narrative."

Episode 61, 53 min listen

Today's guest is Tawanna Black, founder of the Center for Economic Inclusion. Tawanna makes a clear and compelling case for community leaders to work together with a focus on building a thriving, growing economy that works for everyone in their community. Tawanna also shares how her team has worked directly with communities to help inform, guide, and facilitate that kind of broad cross-sector collaboration. You'll hear her describe how their work gives businesses and governments the tools to do drastically different work, get drastically different results, and do so in shared accountability. If you feel your community could benefit from this kind of cross-sector collaboration, this episode is for you. 

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Learn more about the Center for Economic Inclusion.

Tawanna mentioned the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. You can learn more about their work HERE.

Tawanna also referenced the six conditions of systems change. That is described in more detail at the FSG website and in the document The Water of Systems Change written by John Kania Mark Kramer Peter Senge

Tawanna also discussed Racial Equity Impact Notes (REIN). You can learn more about that at the Center for Economic Inclusion site, but also at the Minnesota Government site.


Tawanna A. Black is an award-winning architect of racially inclusive and equitable talent, supply chain, philanthropy and marketing strategies that yield transformational results for businesses, their consumers, and the communities they work in. For more than 20 years, she has earned the trust of executives by mobilizing teams to create and execute strategies that benefit diverse workers, consumers, and business owners and drive growth and fiscal health.

As Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Economic Inclusion (the Center), Ms. Black is on a mission to fuel racially inclusive and equitable regional economic growth in cities across the country. She has unlocked the formula for responsible corporate action to build shared economic growth while increasing consumer, shareholder, and investor trust and loyalty. The Center’s proprietary, industry-leading employer assessment, index, and tools help businesses identify the impact of policies, investments and actions on employee productivity, business growth, and community impact. Their stakeholder engagement, change management consultation and coaching place inclusion, anti-racism and belonging in the center in to drive measurable financial return and economic competitiveness for the cities and regions where they operate. Each year, Ms. Black and her team offer services to more than 50 businesses and government agencies and educate over 12,000 leaders.

Since founding the Center in 2017, Ms. Black has expanded the services, revenue and employee-base annually, and today leads a team of 32 with an annual budget of $7 million. She has become a nationally recognized thought-leader, elevating the economic imperative for corporate action to close racial wealth gaps and build shared prosperity. FSG, Minnesota Timberwolves, 3M, and businesses across the country turned to her for strategies to respond to the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. She offered unwavering guidance to disrupt systemic racism. Ms. Black developed innovative strategies to transform employment and job creation among African American men and has developed partnerships to invest in Black-owned businesses and scale entrepreneurship in growth sectors to meet the corporate demand for achieving ambitious supplier diversity goals anchored in regional inclusive economic growth and competitiveness. Today, executives at US Bank, Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, Xcel Energy, and CentraCare trust her team to develop and advise on their business strategies.

Ms. Black’s is a graduate of Washburn University and holds a Bachelor of Public Administration degree. Her accomplishments and civic leadership have been recognized with many awards and commendations. Highlights include Twin Cities Business Magazine’s Person of the Year (2022); Twin Cities Business Magazine’s Nonprofit Community Impact Award (2021); Twin Cities Business Magazine’s 100 People to Know (2021, 2020, 2017); Washburn University Alumni Fellow (2018); City of Minneapolis History Maker (2021); Minneapolis- St. Paul Business Journal’s Women in Business Award Winner (2017); and Living Cities’ America’s Top 25 Disruptive Leaders Closing Racial Opportunity Gaps (2016).

Ms. Black has served and led on over 35 boards. Today, she serves her wisdom to: McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility’s Advisory Council; Minnesota Tech Association Board of Directors; Washburn University Alumni Foundation Board of Trustees; U.S. Bank’s Access Advisory Board and the Minnesota Council of Churches Board.

Ms. Black lives in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro with her husband Eric and children Traviata and Christian.



Ame Sanders  00:11

If you've followed our State of Inclusion podcast for a while, or maybe you've subscribed to our newsletter, The Inclusive Community, then you know that we've previously touched on the theme of equity and inclusion at the intersection of business and community. This episode brings that theme front and center.  

My guest, Tawanna Black, from the Center for Economic Inclusion, makes a clear and compelling case for all community leaders to lock arms around the table in solidarity with a focus on building a thriving, growing economy that works for everyone in their community. Still, she goes beyond just making a case for this type of work. Tawanna actually shares how her team has worked in communities across Minnesota and beyond to help inform, guide, and facilitate broad cross-sector collaboration. You'll hear her describe how their work aims to get at the "hot roots" of inequity. If you feel your community could benefit from this kind of cross-sector collaboration, this episode is for you. 

Before we start, a small aside. Our guests freely share their stories with us. So, we make the podcast, our newsletter, and related content free as well. However, if you would like to support us in growing our work and help to offset production costs, you can find a link to our Support Us page in the show notes. We're happy that you found us, grateful that you listened, and we would be thankful for your support. So today, we're happy to welcome Tawanna Black. Tawanna is the founder and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion. Welcome Tawanna.

Tawanna Black  02:22

Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be able to have this conversation with you. 

-About The Center for Economic Inclusion

Ame Sanders  02:25

Well, I'm really interested in learning about your organization and your work. So, could you start by introducing our audience to the mission and the work of the Center for Economic Inclusion? Maybe you could tell us what an inclusive economy looks like to you? 

Tawanna Black  02:32

Sure. Great question. So, the Center for Economic Inclusion was founded in St. Paul by me just over six years ago. Our mission is about building racial wealth, equity, and building regional economies that work for everyone. We define that as really getting to an inclusive regional economy. Our work day-to-day involves working with employers in both the public sector--local governments-- and the private sector, typically companies that are about mid-cap size or larger, and giving them the tools, the data, the information, and resources. But also helping them create a culture of shared accountability with Black and brown workers and business owners in their supply chain that can really help them not only address racial wealth gaps, wage gaps, employment gaps, and spending gaps that are in their communities but also help them really think critically about how closing those gaps not only does work but also propels racial wealth equity. 

 We look at that in terms of the extent to which all people, particularly Black and brown people, experience economic mobility, shared prosperity, and the ability to really write their own story for what their communities look like in ways that also mean that they can depend on the economy. They can predict the ups and downs of that economy and how they're positioned to build multi-generational wealth, freedom, and justice.

 -About Tawanna

Ame Sanders  04:00

That's a big job that you guys have. So, can you tell us a little bit about how you decided to found this organization and what led you to this work?

Tawanna Black  04:09

Sure. Great question. So, my career has been really diverse. I've worked in every sector, state government, local governments. I've worked in the nonprofit sector in a number of different states and disciplines. I've worked for a large corporation. And I've also owned my own business. I should add philanthropy as well. So, I co-led a partnership of several corporate family, community foundations, doing place-based work. My sweet spot is in bringing people together across lines of different sectors, ages, genders, and locations to be able to do work that is bigger than any of us can do by ourselves. To do that in a pretty rapid form. 

But I was brought to this work while doing place-based philanthropy in North Minneapolis with funders who had a deep commitment to ensuring that this neighborhood, like many neighborhoods across the country that had been left out of our region's economic prosperity, to be more included. The businesses I was working with, in some of that work, we're owning the fact that they knew this wasn't just by happenstance that Black neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods in this community had been left out of our economic prosperity. They knew that there were connections between economics and crime and the experience of poverty. The connections between economics and our children's education and how well children are supported and matriculating through school. They also realized they had some ownership in that. That for a long time, while they may had been very active charitably, they have not been equally as active in ensuring that their workplaces were free of bias, free of discrimination, and free of racism. That their way of purchasing from Black-owned businesses was intentionally equitable and inclusive.  

So, I saw that interest from businesses increasing more and more back in 2016. And yet, in contrast, I also saw that regional efforts to attract business, to attract talent, to attract young professionals were often in conflict with really being able to build equitable neighborhoods and communities. So, we tended to just spotlight jump in on equity, but then pull back out when the next shiny object or shiny attraction came.  

So, my interest in this work was really about ensuring that because so many people work so hard on the symptoms of racism every day--our education systems, housing, jobs, you name it --that we can find ways to get at the roots while we're working on symptoms. Symptoms don't go away, but in the meantime, we've got to get to the root of why is it that we value talent differently when it comes in different races. And are we okay paying differently for instance? If we can get to that root, we can really attach that to public and private sectors who have an outsized opportunity to impact our economy, then really start to see some rapid scale. 

-Why This Approach and Lens

Ame Sanders  07:00

So, I talk to people a lot of times who are working in their communities, so more in the public sector, or who are at nonprofits. Then, of course, we know there are a lot of companies that are doing this work. I don't often talk to people or have the opportunity to talk to people like yourself, who are working at the intersection between both public and private organizations. So, maybe you can talk a little bit about why you chose that lens and how you see those organizations interacting together to build a more inclusive economy. 

Tawanna Black  07:34

That's an excellent question. I think part of my "why" for focusing on both sectors is they're complementary but need one another. So, often in the private sector in business, we think about what we call social problems and think about government. You know, government has a responsibility for that. We don't want to pay for what the government should be doing, whether that is they should be training people. They should have unemployment services that help people move up the economic ladder, help them get the training that they need, et cetera. So often, there's this rhetoric of aren't they stopping for that? Our mayor should be investing in neighborhoods more and ensuring that the land gets revitalized and that we solve for crime. On down the line. And then government leaders are often saying, "Well, what is business doing? What do they need?" 

We have a strong desire in almost every community across the country to attract great corporations, to keep corporations. To do that, we have to be sure that they have access to the talent that they need in order to grow their bottom lines and continue to produce goods and services. That they have access to their customers and the ability to move products in and out rapidly and efficiently. And that it's a good place, right? Because if it's a good place that talent wants to be here, they'll continue to thrive. 

So, I found in my work a need for both, and dollars-wise, while both have significant budgets, the private sector has got a lot of dollars, whether we're talking about their charity, their spending, with small businesses. The talent impact of revenue that goes out the door in wages. Huge impact. The government does as well. So, I really felt like we needed both. Often, in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy in communities, we invite business to the table, we invite government to the table, but without a lot of clarity about why. What's the value that this sector is going to add? If we don't get crystal clear on that, our chances are we have partnerships where government is showing up, but they're playing more like a business, or they're playing more like a foundation. Business is showing up, but it's acting a lot like a social endeavor. It's not bringing its full lens. And I felt like if we could have business come to the table and truly bring its full strength. 

The language we used when we launched was "be in your lane but maxed out in your lane." So, if your lane is, I am an employer at the end of the day, great. Bring all the knowledge and expertise you have about how your labor trends can inform our ability to build racial wealth, equity, and prosperity. What do you know from your hiring? Who you're attracting? Through your leadership, who you work with, your board down to your workforce. That can help us think differently. 

If you're going to stop--a good example is driverless cars. At that time, lots of folks were focused on driverless cars are coming and driverless transportation. So, we shouldn't be focused on training more people to become drivers, right? And yet, our CDL programs in our nonprofits for workforce development were very successful in attracting people of color, particularly African Americans. But those nonprofits and workforce providers are often not in the room with businesses who are looking out about 10 years ahead and saying, here's what automation is going to do. Here's how we're going to augment the economy and the workforce now. Because if they were in those rooms, they'd say, "Oh, great. Not that we just get rid of the training altogether, but how do I make sure the people who I've helped get a commercial driver's license and then become truck drivers, but they're getting additional skills so that they're ready, when that pivot happens, to still be active in our economy and leverage the talent they have in a different way?" 

When we're in siloed rooms, we just don't get that. So, I really felt that was important to bring the strength of business in not just as a member on letterhead, but really as a lever for our economy, but particularly our economy and communities of color in ways that we just haven't done and to do so similarly with government. 

 -Example in Ramsey County

Ame Sanders  11:12

So maybe you can talk about an example where you see that working really well right now in some of the organizations that you work with or support?

Tawanna Black  11:21

Absolutely, great question. So, a couple of ways. I start with government. So, in Ramsey County, several years ago, our office is located in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is in Ramsey County. Early on in our lifecycle, the St. Paul Foundation came to us to utilize funds that they had received toward workforce development and really provide some services to employers in helping them really get clear on why it is a struggle to be able to attract a diverse workforce, to keep that workforce, or to advance that workforce up the economic ladder. 

So, we began some work of building out toolkits and resources for employers of convening employers and doing so again, with government, with the private sector, with nonprofits, with philanthropy with the community. Through that work, we've been able to grow and sustain that in a couple of ways. One is Ramsey County came to the table and said, "We need help with our long-term vision for economic competitiveness and racial equity and inclusion. And we want them to go hand in hand instead of separate." 

So, the center was hired as one of the lead consultants to be able to develop a comprehensive plan for economic competitiveness and inclusion for Ramsey County that touched everything from workforce development, job training, housing, economic development, land use planning, and transportation. Really looked at the entire economy and Ramsey County's responsibility, but also the responsibility of local government. So local cities and towns inside Ramsey County and businesses said, "Here's the way that corporations can play a role." So, we've got one master plan instead of 10. Our ability to get a multiplier effect to significantly accelerate our results and pull levers that benefit the entire economy. 

So, that plan has been adapted for probably two and a half years or so. We did the work through the pandemic. Now, because of that, not only is Ramsey County making great traction in their housing allocations and resources, their economic and workforce development, but so are those local governments and communities. Not only the city of St. Paul, but many of the also, smaller first and second-ring suburbs that are in that community are able to work together to say, here's a master vision for the county. Here's my piece of that. 

Similarly, as COVID occurred and entered our market and the federal government started deploying resources, we were able to say let's align those resources. So, CARES Act dollars for instance. Let's help the county deploy those dollars to organizations who are doing the work they need them to do to achieve this plan. So, it's not at the side of the plan, but right in the heart of that plan. Let's complement that as we deploy resources for PEP, but then noticed wait, we need other business development resources for small businesses in our community. Particularly owned by our Black and brown communities. Being able to be very targeted, because we already have the data in the plan. So, then as corporations came along, and said, "Well, we want to increase our spending too. We want to increase our giving to those businesses. Our grants and our loans." Everyone operating from one kind of comprehensive set of data means we can accelerate progress and not be tripping over one another with your program my program and also not compete with the community about where they can tap in to be able to get resources. 

From that, we've seen that lots of opportunities continued. We've done cohorts for employers who are small and mid-sized and who don't have the DEI department. Some don't even have HR departments. So, we're able to, in partnership with Ramsey County, offer education on racial equity. How to measure their performance against a set of standards that we work with corporations on, but now we're able to bring that down to that midsize business, who's really growing and has an opportunity to impact racial equity. 

Then, also use our investments at the center. We invest in Black and Latino women-owned businesses as well. So, using those investments to be able to come full circle and say now here are businesses who can enter your supply chain. Oh, by the way, they're also going to create jobs as they get more contracts. So, seeing those jobs come into the marketplace as well makes it really that full lifecycle of economic inclusion. I know I covered a lot so feel free to dig in.

-How Does a Community Typically Start?

Ame Sanders  15:22

I was gonna say there's a ton to unpack there. The first thing I would say that seems kind of daunting to me when I think about bringing that whole community together. Who typically invites you or your organization to the table? In Ramsey how did that happen? Was it the Economic Development team? The Chamber of Commerce? Who was it? 

Tawanna Black  15:42

Great question. So, in Ramsey County's case, the first person was a county commissioner who reached out who knew our work and said, "I think we could use your help here." And then shared that idea a little more deeply with the Economic Development Department. To your point about it being daunting, this was in our earliest couple of years. So, there were moments where we felt like, "Whoa, can we really take this on?" But by being able to really work in solidarity with one another, we can bring other partners and consultants to the table and also help really work inside Ramsey County.  

So, the project didn't live outside with us, but it was living in their hands. We were facilitating that. I think that's really critical with this type of work is making sure that we're building the capacity of organizations to continue it for its lifecycle. In other communities, that looks different, though. There are some studies where it is a foundation who's called on us and said, "We're thinking about launching a regional economic competitiveness and inclusion plan." Or, "We're thinking about can we start a center like yours? Can you come in and help us really bring the community together, talk through the dynamics of talent and history and going forward and really help us chart a course?" 

Sometimes, it's a Chamber of Commerce who says, "We're really well positioned to bring the business community along, and we have relationships with government, but maybe they're not as strong as we want them to be. So, can you come in and help us really shape that?" Or maybe it's the community side, but they're not as healthy in their relationships, and so we come in, and we want to help build their capacity, identify the right role for those types of organizations, chambers, or economic development organizations, or racial and economic justice organizations because no one organization can really own this amount of work. 

 -What Kind of Preparation?

Ame Sanders  17:23

Yeah, because that's obvious. I think the dilemma for me is also that it's difficult to find a community where all of those players share this same level of commitment to inclusion and equity and understand the benefit to the broader community. So, one of the questions I have in listening to you talk about Ramsey and how progressive that was is, did you guys do what I would call "Groundwork" in the community to prepare the community for this work?

Tawanna Black  17:56

Excellent question and point. Yes. Yes, is the answer in a couple of ways. When I was designing the Center for Economic Inclusion initially, it wasn't the idea to create a center or even an organization. It was the idea that said we got to do something drastically different. We have to get business and government the capacity and tools that they need to do drastically different work and get drastically different results. And to do so in accountability. So, they're not often their own police, but in doing so in accountability with communities of color. 

When we finished the design plan, we spent time looking at many masterplan efforts, many coalition building efforts that had taken place in our history as a region for 10 years, and said, "What went well? What didn't?" So that we know when we get it, right, this is what it looks like. This is what a 10 looks like. When we fail, here's what it looks like. We also examined what does it feel like, look like, experience, when leaders if you will--executives of corporations, foundations, government--think they got it right only for us to find out, "Oh, wait a minute, that thing I put in place actually did more harm than good." So, that we can really also understand what did the relationship need to be between entities? How do you build capacity in organizations that might have thought, "Oh, I'm good. Just go fix them." That's the beauty of having an effort that's really multisector is that I totally designed that way and then went out. 

I spent about a month out doing one-on-ones with leaders. Early on, you'd find that business leaders would say, "Yes, we definitely need this. Because you got to go fix that mayor. You got to go fix that governor. You got to go solve it for them." Meeting with governors and elected officials, they would say similarly about business, "This is wonderful. Please do this. Because I need you to go fix them. They can't keep doing XYZ." I knew we were ready to start the deeper engagement when those meetings turned to, "Tawanna, this is wonderful, but don't leave me out. I've got to be a part of this. Here's my dirty laundry in this space that I need help washing out, and I want to do it in collective action with other people." Then I knew, okay, we've shifted from pointing fingers to opening up our arms to be arm and arm. We call it like locked in arm in arm at the center. It's elbow to elbow at a table. 

So, it took that. But then we went to community. Because, frankly, it's rare that a nonprofit opens that's not a membership association or a chamber who says my focus is corporations and government. To then build the community trust, that people knew us as individuals, knew me as an individual, but didn't know like "Okay, wait a minute. What's this model?" Where you're not just gonna provide direct service to people who need jobs or to businesses who are trying to open. 

So, we went out and shared the vision. Here's where we think we can go. Give us feedback on not only is this the right vision? Are we walking in the right lane? You don't want to duplicate or be redundant, but we want work that's going to accelerate the wonderful work that's occurring in our communities. We heard like, "Yes, this is the right plan." Then we asked, "How can we support you? What roles should an organization like this play for community-based organizations, for workforce development, employer service organizations, and on down the line? What role should we play?" 

We heard six key roles with things like being a bridge builder, being an amplifier, being an accelerator and got definitions for that. So, we've held true to those definitions. Continued a lot of community engagement--focus groups, interviews--over the years. We survey a lot. Everything we do is data-informed so that the community's voice continues to inform are we on track or are we off track? That it's not simply a qualitative assessment, but it really is that qualitative assessment as well.

-Their Data Approach

Ame Sanders  21:38

So, thank you for helping to see how that worked. Because I think understanding a little bit more under the hood helps us understand how you were able to accomplish or the county was able to accomplish what they've accomplished. I want to just touch on something that you just mentioned. So, it doesn't take long when you look at your website, or research you guys at all, to realize that data is part of your DNA. You just said it just a second ago. Can you talk about that data and your data approach so you can just bring us into that world with you a little bit?

Tawanna Black  22:12

Absolutely. When I was starting the center, we were a region and I found regions like this across the country who paid a lot of attention to national reports. Reports that would say we're the best of the best for general residents, but we're the worst of the worst for African Americans. We're the worst of the worst for communities of color on a myriad of different indicators. From housing and homeownership, housing affordability, employment access, wage equity for certain groups, and other areas of focus. Yet, what I heard back from people was that it became navel-gazing and that navel-gazing was depressing. Meaning that we were spending so much time looking down at the report but not knowing, "Oh, my goodness, what on earth do we do?" that the reports weren't telling us anything. 

So, people said, "We love that national outfits like Brookings and McKinsey and others study our region. We love that they bring solutions in the reports that they write. We don't always get those broken down to okay, but what do you do on day one? That sounds great, or day 400. But what about day one?" What does that look like, and how do you make that so crystal clear and meaningful that a person doesn't hear it and say what you've said earlier? Like, "Oh, my gosh, like, that's a whole lot. I don't think we can even do that. Like, let's just go back to admiring the problem." 

So, from the beginning, we set out to be really intentional about helping leaders say when you see a report that comes out, if a national report comes out, yes, it's important. Here's the one indicator to focus on. Here's what you do by focusing on it. Here's what that means to focus on it. Here's how to talk about that inside your organization. From there, we added on additional tools to be able to help people. Our first set was our indicators for an inclusive regional economy. We engaged a broad cross-section of our community, data experts, community experts, and others in saying what indicators would help any given leader know where to focus on every day and know that when you pull one lever, it can have impacts on other areas. So, that we weren't simply I'm a college president, and I'm thinking about my graduation rates, my loss rates, right? Those things, but that I'm also tying that to how many businesses hired my white students as full staff after graduation versus my students of color into internship. That's a key variable that tells a different story than simply looking at my graduation rate. 

So, we brought community into those discussions to help say not only how do we produce the indicators, but what's the context within those indicators so that by the time we produced the second online platform version of those, we had a wide array of leaders who were helping to inform them. We have an association of CFOs here, who brought us in very early on and said, "We're going to make your events our member gathering place because we realize that CFOs have a major role to play and how the business moves and often we get called in way too late. So, we want to engross ourselves in racial equity work so we know how to be better partners to our HR teams and to our finance and procurement team." That's huge. We had people who were in communities who said, "I got a solution to this, and I need help being able to elevate it to the banking community for instance, when we looked at our mortgage approval rates for middle-income borrowers, as well as the loans that were going into various communities of color." 

So, by having that data, we invited people to put their own fingerprints on our blueprint. Then we moved to say, now we've got to go deeper. We've got to disaggregate deeper. We initially disaggregated by race and place and income. We came back and said, let's make sure ethnicity is very clear because sometimes the just category of Black or the category of Asian can mask disparity and harm us from being able to really get to the root of solutions that are going to propel people up that economic ladder. So, by disaggregating way deeper, we invited organizations and people who have an experience that can help inform the practices that our organizations take, our corporations and governments take, and our state demographer takes to be able to help align the way that we make sure we don't leave any communities invisible either but are really intentional about representing all of the communities of color in Minnesota. And now other regions too.

-Reaching Out Beyond Minnesota

Ame Sanders  25:28

Yeah, that's what I was gonna go to next, which is, you're based in Minnesota and your organization was born out of a regional approach for Minnesota. But obviously, you're working beyond that now. So, maybe you can talk a little bit about how you're branching out? Because my audience is national. So, maybe you can talk about how you're branching out across the country beyond Minnesota? 

Tawanna Black  26:50

Absolutely. I think it's been a part of our story for a couple of years that we wanted to explore other regions who have a need for our work and what we can do to help them. For as long as the center's existed, we've done spotlight help so flying out to give a talk or to help facilitate a regional group, but then flying back in. We heard more and more desire from organizations and communities and leaders and had a funder who heard me speak and said, "I think this should be scaled. How can we invest in you?" Then, a second, who did the same. 

So, over the last year, we've expanded into a number of cities across the country, from Ohio to New Orleans, from Virginia back to Minnesota, to be able to fund, support, and build capacity within the anchor organization. So, we've identified an anchor in each one of the communities where we're operating. Again, many are chambers and economic development organizations. The Urban League is a racial and economic justice organization. Our job is really to partner with them. They're building their understanding of how race and economics intersect, how racism and economic exclusion intersect, and to help them build solutions and offer solutions to their business community and local elected leaders in government organizations who can then use those together to create a shared prosperity vision for the community and to measure that so that they can continue to grow it and adapt it. 

So, our work looks a little bit different in each market, really depending on the needs and assets that exist in those communities. But a couple of pieces are core to each one. That is our racial equity, dividends index, and now indices, that we use to be able to support businesses and local governments in assessing how effective their efforts to address racism within their talent (leadership, recruitment, retention, advancement within their organizations), procurement, their supply chain, philanthropy (how they're investing in various communities), their public policy efforts (how they may be investing in various local or state or federal government elected candidates), as well as in their own marketplace. 

So, the products and services that they offer and how those show up in different communities. We use these indices in most sectors to really help businesses identify where they are to have a regional picture by having multiple businesses or governments take this so we can see, here's how our region is functioning. Then help create some standards for what does this look like together to move the needle so that I'm not counting on the company to my left or my right to get it all done, and then I come in with a small piece. In fact, they're counting on me to be a leader out there in this work. By working at a regional level, we're able to help those organizations also facilitate collective change by making sure that the voices of the community are also central.

-Alignment and Getting at the Hot Roots

Ame Sanders  29:40

When you go into a community since you're going now into so many different communities, when you go into a community, when you find that not the whole community is aligned around this--maybe you find a city is more progressive than another city or perhaps more than the county, or perhaps there are some less enthusiastic partners if you will. Does that happen when you go in and how do you tackle that?  

Tawanna Black  30:07

Well, I think you just defined every city in America. We find that there's no community where everyone is aligned. Even if the institutions are fully aligned, we're human beings who sit in these leadership seats and represent those institutions. So, sometimes you have a community coalition or a board or a group of partners, and in theory, they're aligned. On principle, though, there are many disagreements that have to be wrestled through. So, we use a couple of methods to do that. We think there's really nothing better than giving people the space so that that comes out. Because so often, we believe a big part of why our country is where it is, is that in communities and cities and regions, we've used big, broad language and colloquialisms, "regional inclusive economic growth." Well, I think I support that, but what exactly does that mean? Does that mean I'm supporting you in doing something really big? Or does that mean I have to do something, too? And what is that something? 

So, we think it's important to get people in rooms where they can really dig into what we call the "hot roots." We use results-based accountability. It's a process of helping people understand the issue we're talking about might be unemployment, for instance. It might be that we've got too large of an unemployment gap, and therefore, our vacancies at our corporations and businesses are too high. And we have a disparate unemployment rate. But even within that, we have to peel back the layers and ask why several times. 

We'd advise at least five times to say but why is that? Is that because people don't like the jobs that are available? Is that because people aren't trained for the jobs that are available? Is that because the companies who are doing the most hiring are not on bus lines, are not on mass transit lines and those businesses are located opposite of where our available workforce is located? Is it that the marketing isn't overriding the reputation? Often, employers forget that they don't just have a view and a reputation of people of different communities or neighborhoods or races of people. Those communities also have views and reputations about those companies. So, that may mean that sometimes a company says we're committed, we're all in, and we've opened our doors. But nobody comes and knocks on that door to come in because they've got their own perceptions about whether or not they're welcome. 

So, for us, it's really important that we convene and give space to really ask ourselves, "What are the hot roots of our issues?" so we don't start solving them at the symptom level. That is important. Those things have to be. but if we're going to do really deep antiracist work, and we're going to do it together, and we want to create outcomes that are good for a couple of generations, then we got to get to the hot roots and say, "Now can we solve for that?" Sometimes the hot root is about policy. It's one of those levers in systems change. Sometimes, it's that we all thought that was the policy, but it's actually just a practice we've adopted for so long that it's become the spoken policy, but it's really not. So, it's as simple as changing behavior, only that's not simple. 

Other times, it's about our relationships. Science tells us all that we flock toward people who are like us. So, if we have surface-level relationships across geography, sector, race, etc., but we don't have deep relationships that allow us to push through those moments that try our trust, that cause us to dig our heels in, then we won't also get to that. So, we dig into the relationships, which connect us to power, which connects us to our knowledge and resource flows, and how information is flowing from one direction to another or if it's flowing equitably in all directions. Then, consider our mindsets and beliefs, what we have about one another, and different communities and populations.

As we design for each of those levers, those six conditions of systems change, and we can really get to a plan that everyone can see themselves in. But we can't rush that process. Often, we want to because the pain point or the opportunity point is so big that we go, "Let's just solve this! It's wonderful we're all in a room. We've never all been here before. We just need to do the thing." But, we find that those types of efforts don't often sustain transformative change.

-Using Narrative and Place-Based Learning 

Ame Sanders  34:21

Wow, that is a wonderful new term for me: hot roots. I love that. It's so evocative in terms of the challenges that we face. So, thank you for digging into that a bit. All right, so we just talked a lot about data. We know data is important. But I mean, even CEOs who are driven largely by data, there is not only data. It's about stories and narratives as well. You touched on that some in the discussion we just had. So, can you talk a little bit about how you guys use stories, narratives, and place-based learning to advance this work as well? 

Tawanna Black  35:01

Absolutely. One of the things that our communities asked for the loudest and the most frequent when the center opened in 2017-18 was for narrative change. Recognizing that for so long, we've been saying that we're solving racism while actually trying to fix Black and brown people. What we heard back was if we're really gonna get to an economy that works for everyone, if we're really going to get to a place where we can not only close gaps but build prosperity at the same time the region's economy is moving, then we have to change those mindsets. 

First, people said to change the narratives, but what we know is you have to change the mindset in order to change the narrative. But we start by what we elevate. So, it means a hard scrub--we don't always get this right as a small or scale-up organization--but a hard scrub of our own narratives. Simple things like, did we characterize that as a gap, or did we characterize that as an opportunity to focus? Have we come in to talk about solving this for "those" people, as though solutions don't already exist in that community? And as though the problem doesn't exist on both sides of the equation, right? So, we have to think about how we characterize things. 

Thinking about how resources and decision making flow as well as been important for us. Then also, how we celebrate the wins. How we lift up success stories and make them really concrete so that people can see this is work that should be measured. It can be measured, and when we measure it, it can transform the way that we work. We do that a few ways.  

But one simple way that I would highlight, you talked about the indices earlier. So, when we created those, we wanted to be sure it didn't become a carrot used to trick people in, but also that it didn't become such a big carrot that we were hitting people over the head if they didn't get it right. So, we've worked really hard on that narrative to be sure that it's about the fact that no company has this perfectly right. All of us are on some continuum. So, it's about understanding what's that trajectory that you want to work toward? How do we work toward that together? So, if your score is 10 points higher than the next company, you can be proud of that. But until you get to 100, there's still work to do. So, let's not revel in that too long. 

I'm really proud of the companies who we work with and our clients because they all come with that spirit of this isn't about winning something. This is about helping win for everyone. We also elevate the stories of the business owners we invest in. So, we do forgivable loans for businesses in our communities that range from 25,000-$400,000. The businesses we invested in last year have created jobs that pay over $33 an hour. So, it's really critical for us that when we talk about that, we don't just label them small businesses because, well, the SBA's definition of that is actually quite broad. Most businesses in America are small businesses. We know when we say that word attached to Black or attached to Latina, other images come to mind. 

So, it's important that we simply talk about businesses. That we talk about firms. That we talk about the fact that they are employers. They create businesses, and that if we invest and do business with those businesses, they'll create even more jobs in our economy. So, there's a role to play. So, that simple piece is not twisting the narrative. It's simply saying, what are some other facts that we should be leading with that take us from being about "Oh, let's give those businesses a handout" in ways that a person might hear as, "Oh, well, who do I have to take that money from to give it to them?" To saying, "Actually, this is about investing in our economy. We happen to be investing by investing in this business owner who's gonna give us a multiple of our return on investment."

-State Level Work and Racial Equity Impact Notes 

Ame Sanders  38:49

I want to pivot now and ask you about something that's a little bit different. So, we've talked about businesses, and we've talked about the public sector, in communities and counties regionally. But I know that you've done work at the state level too. 

Tawanna Black  39:05

So, at the Center for Economic Inclusion, we have a robust public policy platform focused on local cities and helping them with ordinances that advance racial equity and inclusive economic growth to state policy. One of the things that was consistent in feedback in our interviews and focus groups, and community outreach was asleep for a common bar for racial equity policies across our state. We've had a prior governor and a current governor who are very much committed to racial equity and inclusion, and that often means deploying dollars and cents to organizations focused on racial equity. 

Yet, we've seen greater challenges with institutionalizing the practice of investing in Black-led institutions, Asian-led institutions, and Latino-led institutions and having a bar that accounts for what has our history been. How has wealth been extracted out of those communities and organizations? What are we now tasking organizations that are equipped to do that work but are also overcoming the decades of us deploying resources to large organizations--often white-led or white-institutionalized organizations--that didn't get us to the results? So, we recognize a need to really create some standards around this. There's a report on our website,, that really covers the research we did in partnership with a broad coalition of organizations and leaders to understand what racial equity impact notes, like a fiscal note, could look like for Minnesota, for other states to consider, that would really help all departments, all policymakers understand how to better measure.  

Really, to have a framework so that any policy you're bringing--if you're bringing a bonding policy through, for instance, that you'd run it through a rubric before moving it forward to understand if it is going to exacerbate disparities? Or is this going to narrow those disparities? And how will we know that so that we also have a strong measurement framework for evaluation? In our state, we have been pushing that up a big hill. I think the idea resonates a lot. Our initial bills for this really focused on getting Minnesota's legislature to adapt to the racial equity impact note across the entire state. What we learned from doing that initial push was and lobbying for that was that we should really pull back and focus on one department or area. So, economics is our focus. We're doing that. 

In other states, they focused on criminal justice or education first, based on their own needs. So, we're optimistic. We've seen some traction from policymakers who have created comparable bills, and we hope that this can be a year our legislature really adopts a true commitment to standardized measurement of their own policies, such that we see that then translated into departments.

Ame Sanders  41:52

 Do you see local governments doing something similar to this in some of the communities that you work with? 

Tawanna Black  42:00

Absolutely. For many years, I credit the work of GARE, the Government Alliance on Racial Equity, has done really strong work, as have some local organizations, the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability here in our own community worked really hard and diligently and in a racial equity rubric for local governments. That has been particularly valuable. 

I'll give you an example of why this is important. In our community, a new soccer stadium was built as well as a new rapid transit line several years ago, with the hope and the promise of economic prosperity that would not displace current residents, many of whom are residents of color, lower-income residents, but will create economic opportunity for those residents. The idea and concept of having a public policy at a state and regional level that allowed for a new rapid transit line to come through that neighborhood at the same time we're investing directly in having a new stadium that's used for events and different sports. Both are important but had some adverse impacts as well. 

The state policies for building that line had adverse impacts around procurement. If we're intentional about our policies, we can have rubrics that help us assess that not only by saying yes or no, but how do we know that? What do we know, for instance, in that case, about the businesses we want to engage in our building of this line and what payment cycles they need to be operating on? If we know that we've been operating on paying people in about 90-120 days and that the average small business needs to be paid in 15-30 days, then we'll be intentional about saying there could be adverse impacts here. 

So, let's make our bill language as intentional as we possibly can. Let's adjust policy. Let's give dollars for the time and space, and technology infrastructure that our departments will need to adjust those dollars and their payment terms. Just as a side example. So, we see great potential for this, but also that comes from learning from the local governments who have worked really hard in many cases to put in those types of--they're more of an assessment than an audit in a local government, but still really help leaders take proactive action when they see that they're going to have some challenges to overcome.

-Are Communities Pulling Back from Equity Work?

Ame Sanders  44:12

So, thank you for sharing that because I think it's important that our local communities think about this as well. Obviously, some of the states are, but as you said, that can be very difficult in some states. I know, like my state, for example, it would be pretty difficult in South Carolina. So, I want to pivot again and ask you a question about your own organization. So, I've noticed that you guys recently announced a layoff for your staff. How do you see that in the context of what's happening today? Do you feel like there is a retrenchment, a pullback, a loss of focus on the work of inclusion and equity and how do you see that?

Tawanna Black  44:54

I think across our country, perhaps even our globe, we began the effort of dialoguing more deeply about racial equity and inclusion, our roles and responsibilities by sector in 2020 following George Floyd's murder in our community. I don't think we moved to a place of truly reckoning. Reckoning means counting the cost. I think it is required, at my organization, we believe it is required not simply to fulfill the commitments made in 2020 or to keep them up or continue but simply to live up to our promise of truly understanding that all people do have opportunity within their veins. Do have capacity within their veins. Do have talent within their veins, that is not disparate based on race. 

The investments and the opportunities we've provided are very much disparate based on race. We can't solve that without doing that reckoning and counting the cost. Because if we fail to do that, we'll create programs and strategies that barely deliver on the amount of intentionality that's required. So, as a Black woman creating the first organization in the country focused on corporations and government to build racial wealth equity, I'd be kidding if I said I didn't know that I was going to be climbing a steep hill. And that everyone who said, "Yes, I love this," wasn't going to really follow through.

I think where our pain points come are when our judgment of decisions or our judgment of allocations or where we spend our tax is not also rooted in that data. Of not just where's the present state, but what state have we been existing in that has brought us to this point, so that we understand what it will take to undo racism? 

At our year anniversary, we have people saying, "Oh, my gosh, you haven't fixed it yet. You haven't solved for it yet." And they were serious. They had already been calling board members and others for most of the year like, "She hasn't fixed it yet." It was very personal for people. It was not just the Center hadn't, but like she, that founder who built up our hope, hasn't solved for this yet. Which told me clearly, "Oh, Lord. You don't actually understand what we're doing." 

In what world would any organization with as much money in the world be able to solve for hundreds of years of institutionalized and systemic racism? It's not possible. The opportunity to reset and help people see that what we do is give others the tools to not only take antiracist action every day but to measure that action in shared accountability. Not separate from, but with Black and brown workers and business owners to try better differently when it doesn't work and to grow and scale those things that do work. To do so, again, in solidarity. That's the work that we do. 

So, do I see people pulling back? In some places. I see businesses who are removing their language that was deeply and explicitly about racial equity and changing it back to disadvantaged people and things like that. I see, in some cases, companies who are being intentional about writing the details down behind the scenes so that that work doesn't get lost when they change what appears on the outside world. 

In other cases, I don't see that at all, and I see people who are relieved that they have that option. What I'm more interested in keeping my eyes on are those people who know that if it's on us, it's on us. So, we've got to be able to do this together. We have to be conscious of what it's like for an organization like mine to fight racism while experiencing racism every single day of the week. What is the support? Not just that word. Some days I hate that word. But what is the investment of time, talent, resources, and solidarity, wearing the t-shirt of this work when we're not in the room? What is that going to be required? What's gonna be required in those lanes that really helps ensure it's not about the Center being around for a long time or the work but really, that the work we do is embedded into the DNA of so many people that they won't let it drop?

Ame Sanders  49:09

Tawanna, I loved what you said about realizing that it's on us and that we have to do this together. I think that's probably a good place for us to stop today because I think it's maybe the most important thing for us to think about is that it is on us. We have to do this together. And as you said, find it embedded in our communities in a way that it continues to live. So, I just want to thank you so much for your time today and for being willing to talk with me.  

Tawanna Black  49:39

Thank you. 

-Summary and Conclusion 

Ame Sanders  49:44

When Tawanna agreed to join me on the podcast, I was so excited about the opportunity to talk with her. Her perspective and frame of cross-sector community leaders working together to build a thriving, growing economy that works for everyone is somewhat unique and quite powerful. Especially when it is she described, is built around mutually beneficial and aligned goals, informed by common disaggregated data, and underpinned by shared accountability. 

Tawanna also admonished us all as leaders to "be in your lane, but max out in your lane." Her comments remind us that building an inclusive and equitable community requires an ecosystem mindset. It requires understanding the local map actors, their roles or lanes, and the assets and talents that each uniquely brings that will help propel this work forward. It also requires mastering the practice of coalition work as we come together around shared initiatives and shared objectives. 

Tawanna also reminded us of something we've heard before in many other discussions. She reminded us that this work of equity and inclusion requires a reckoning with past harms and counting the costs. Even as we know, some of those costs are still accruing. Tawanna told us that if we fail to do that reckoning and accounting, "we'll create programs and strategies that barely deliver on the amount of intentionality that's required." Let me say that again: “barely deliver on the amount of intentionality that's required.” Maybe it was just me, but it felt like with those words, Tawanna was asking each of us to examine the scale of our own intentionality as we approach this work and asking us if we have taken time to really reckon with our own community's unique past and its related costs. 

Tawanna was also pretty clear-eyed about the timeline for this work. It isn't something to sustain for just a year or two or three, but to build for decades and beyond. So, she wasn't particularly concerned when I asked her about those who may be pulling back from this work of equity and inclusion or maybe scrubbing the language of their work to make it more palatable. 

Tawanna told us her team remains focused on those who "know that if it's on us, it's on us." Then they're making sure that the work of economic inclusion is embedded into the DNA of, as she said, “so many people, they won't be able to let it drop.” That right there is some wisdom and at the same time, a big challenge to us all. 

If there are any communities out there who would like to learn more about the work Tawanna and her team are doing at the Center for Economic Inclusion, or maybe you could use their data or their assistance in your own community, reach out and let them know how they can help. As always, links will be in the show notes.


Guest: Tawanna Black

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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