Don Samuels on Black History Month
Interview with Don Samuels by Phil Bolsta
Watch Don Samuels' interview:
Welcome, Don. Thank you for joining us today.
Great to be here, Phil.
Don Samuels, who spent 13 years as a corporate executive and another 13 years as an entrepreneur, is CEO of MicroGrants, which spurs economic self-sufficiency by giving business and career grants to low-income people of potential through the partner agencies that train them.
He’s co-founded a number of organizations dedicated to education and community peacebuilding, including the Northside Achievement Zone, which has transformed educational outcomes for 1,000 families and 2,300 children in Minneapolis; and Hope Collaborative, which identified the top-performing urban schools across the nation in low-income communities of color.
February is Black History Month, which is the theme of this issue of Catalyst. Don, why is there a need for black history?
It's really a need for an honest American history, and the black life in America for 400 years has been at times brutal and inhumane, and then oppressive and then unfair and unequal, and so that still flies in the face of America's self-concept and in the face of a positive history of our country. Those details have been left out pretty much of the history books, and so it leads to a disorientation for all American citizens who find themselves strangers among each other across race, because the contemporary generation is always wondering, "Who are those people? Where do they come from?" It leads to an untenable present and an unacceptable future. We must deal with America as a whole, the good and the bad, and the black and the white, so that we can have a better present and a more hopeful future.
Has that situation been changing? Is that history being written?
Yes, gradually. I wouldn't say the history much has been rewritten in terms of formal history, but certainly in the press, in the movies, in the culture, things are improving, and certainly in law. But somehow or other, the history books have a tougher time adapting. That has some to do with the self-replication of academia and the inflexibility of the publishing industry and all of that. The consciousness has been raised, the formal history has not been improved as much.
Is there progress being made though in that area? Should we expect more accurate history in academia and history books going forward?
You know, I suspect that when the millennial generation comes into leadership, there will be a shift there. I don't anticipate it in the next 10 years, 20, to change much. I think that the folks that are leading history, actually, formal history, don't really know it. The teachers who are in schools now preparing the next generation were not taught about the black story in American history, or America’s interaction with its black people. So they're not teaching it. Then the folks who are teaching the teachers weren't taught it. So it's going to take that consciousness raising, this generation that is being fused with cultural and legal infusions of reality to come into the leadership of academia, come of age.
I would think the internet is helping in that regard, giving voice to the voiceless and allowing access to people who may not have been able to publish their thoughts and views and histories before.
Very, very good insight, Phil. The internet is in a way the TV of the Civil Rights Movement and the books of the slavery era and drawings, in that the books were published, like 12 Years a Slave, during slavery. That had a big impact in Europe on the abolition of slavery. And, of course, books written by people like [Frederick Douglass] and others became bestsellers in their day, and that was the leading edge of the communication industry. And then, of course, television and photographs became big and a part of the actual ending of Jim Crow, because televisions went down south and filmed people putting racism to the test, being willing to insert themselves into places they were not allowed, being willing to ask for the right to do things they were not allowed to do. And then putting the system's reaction to the test. And proving out for the general America and the world to see how brutal a reaction that system could pose that was going to be now visible and public, which used to be private and individual.
One poor guy sits at the front of the bus and didn't get up fast enough and he might be killed. Someone tries to vote and they get lynched. The camera shows up too late for that. Or it never shows up. But when everybody decided, "We're going to do this as a movement," and the cameras then can come and actually film it, they can actually telegraph the event, cameras show up and wow, America is seen for the first time happening full scale what used to happen to countless individuals in countless private situations. And now we have the Internet doing the same thing. Everybody has a camera.
Young African American men used to complain individually from time to time about their treatment. Everybody could say, "Well, look at him." Or, "He has these issues,” or “He had a record,” or “The cops said that he was cursing at them or that he tried to get their gun." So you could dismiss those individual incidents. They wouldn't even rise up to the level of full observation. But then technology comes into play and captures things in real time, and publishes them in real time, and people are appalled that this is what the reality has been. "You mean, this is how it's been?"
People are shocked. African Americans, for instance, and for the most part, are not shocked because they all have family members. All have moms and dads give their sons “the talk” about how to act around the police, so there's no shock there. That was not American history, that was African American reality. So not only is African American history being taught by the internet, African American reality is being taught, which now creates a new African American history.
A vigil for a slain neighbor. Don would gather a list of names to provide dinner for the grieving family each day for a month. Also, attendees would write a paragraph to the mayor, the council, and the police chief, about how the murder impacted them.
That's great. Even with all this technology, white America remains largely ignorant of the black experience, the daily microaggressions, and what it's like. Why should white people and other minorities know black history better?
Well, I think, first of all, we are all human beings. We all occupy the same space, and we are all Americans. Once we begin to embrace that as a reality, that we are all the same, we're all in this together, this is all our common space, our destinies are, as Martin Luther King said, "We're tied up and woven in a single garment of destiny." That where one part of the body goes, all the rest of the body eventually follows. It's a physical and a political reality. Once we really begin to understand that, then we will get interested. For instance, in our state in Minnesota, which was a very white state, is becoming a majority minority very slowly over the next few decades. The minority community is growing through immigration, and in migration from other states at a rapid pace.
Well, now we had the most educated community at one point. In fact, our older generation, our Baby Boomers, and so on, are the most educated in the country. But when your minority population is growing, all the corporations that you were able to attract when we were the most educated state, all of the singularity of vision and that homogeneity enhances is going to be challenged by the new diversity. If African Americans continue to perform poorly in school and their numbers grow, Hispanics continue to perform as African Americans and Hispanics are among the worst performers, the gap between whites and African Americans and Hispanics, is second or first highest in the nation in our state, which was fine when it was a small minority of people. But now that the numbers are getting significant, you can see how that would threaten the economy, threaten the workforce, and so the business community is beginning to get involved. That's where their interest lies.
The military integrated very early because they realized they needed bodies, and they needed an army that was pretty much working together. The military led integration. Now the business community is realizing that they need minds and bodies, and they need people to work as teams. And so they are concerning themselves into this whole equity issue in our state, and I think, nationally, to say we can't, as a nation, survive if we are inequitable in our education and we are producing people who are going to become drones rather than productive members of our society. The average person who is not in business or in the military might have that illusion for a while, but I think that the leading edge of our activities that require cooperation, collaboration as a nation, as an economy, are beginning to pull the rest of the country along, and hopefully, people begin to see a deeper moral purpose for collaboration and equality, and not leave it to war and commerce to inspire the best in us.
That is now encouraging because the demographics are changing, no matter whether some people like it or not.
We can't compete with homogenous communities like the Western Europeans and the Asian communities, countries. They have all the benefits of solidarity, which is based on ethnicity. America has a great and outstanding opportunity to create another kind of solidarity based on common humanity, and become a leader in the world, a philosophical and sociological leader in the world, which is becoming increasingly small.
Well said. I would think that black history conflicts with so-called American history because American history is incomplete, often through deliberate omission.
Right. And that is a painful part of trying to incorporate the missing components of that American history, because people build their self-concept around their education, their identity, around their history and historical and social education. And once people begin to form identity around information, it becomes a real threat to try to change that. Because when you try to change information that's tied to identity, the ego experiences it as an actual lethal threat. So, you have your body, you can die, we all know that. And if there's a threat to your body, a human being is... the most intense aspects of your agility and skills come into play. Your intuition kicks in. It's all about survival.
There's another kind of death. It's cultural death. The death of your identity. You wake up one morning, you don't know who you are. That would be a death. It would be ghastly. And there's another kind of desperation that kicks in when that is threatened. And if I threaten to take away your name, to take away your family, to take away your country and leave you open, you would become a very desperate person. You would experience that as a potential death. So, that's what we are threatening to do when we are taking away the flavor of American history, we're taking away the flavor of the identity of white Americans. And that's experienced as a desperate situation. So, it's going to take a lot of love on the part of those of us who are doing the education, a lot of patience. And that's why Martin Luther King's work was so brilliant, because he was bringing America into an awareness of itself as an act of love, and to a point that he was willing to die for that or in that process and in service of that. So then his memory, which is tied then to information that he brought, leaves a residue of humaneness that people can absorb, that they could not absorb from an angry person because then it would be really experienced as a death, a real threat to the ego.
Don giving a tour of a revitalized drug node, with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Senator Amy Klobuchar.
To explore that further, how can black history be healing not just for the black community, but for everyone?
Yeah. To a certain degree, it has to be... we have to talk about what health is to some degree, mental health, psychological health, is to have a realistic appraisal of the world and yourself. Otherwise, you become delusional and unable to function in relationships in a healthy and productive way. So, the problem for white America is that there's... being an American and being white carries with it so much delusion about the self vis-à-vis other people. There's a sense of superiority, which is not necessarily cognitive. It might be very intuitive that you look at someone and you just have this sense that, "I'm better, my life will be better. Their life is okay to be not as good." So, there's this delusion, that when that person comes in contact with a person of another race, the sparks fly. As soon as they let their guards down, the sparks fly.
And I can tell you as someone who came to the United States in 1970 and pretty much in every office I worked, I was the first black person at that level. So, I was walking into the work of integration from a minority status. I was constantly adapting to make it workable for everybody. I was doing the work. Now, my white counterparts would tell you that they were doing the work, right? But when you're the only one out of 50 people or 200 people in an office, you're doing the work. It's pretty much a white culture. So, black professionals have had to adapt to this over and over again.
So for instance, it is almost impossible to calculate the adaptability of Barack Obama to be in the White House, right? The work he did and the strength of his character to function at that level in the space that a black person has never been before, and having all the relationships that that means. Really, the fact that his grandparents were white has everything to do with, his mom and his grandparents, with his success. Because he had a deeply intuitive sense of how to interact with white people who, as he said of his mo… said some things that just drove him crazy 'cause they were basically... his grandmother, they were basically racist. And he had to hold onto her humanity. And so he was able to walk into that role and function at a level because of all the work he did as a child and as a young man in adaptation.
For white people to become really world leaders in a country that seeks actually to lead the world, that is diverse, we must develop those skills. Otherwise, we will continue to be bulls in china shops, having foreign policies that are counterproductive and that have long tales of revenge, anger, retribution, that come back to bite us year after year. And that goes for all of Europe, that as Europe continues to try to lead the world. And as a white child continues to strive to become a leader in what will become a diverse workplace, a diverse company, a diverse nonprofit, a diverse community, political base. They will have to become adaptable human beings who have no delusions of superiority, are able to build teams of equals, and to nurture the identity of other people while being conscious of their own.
That is why this is so important. If our children are going to become leaders in a diverse country, in diverse communities, if America is going to become truly a functional leader, an effective leader in the global community, then we have to start to develop these adaptabilities and do away with these delusions.
Yes. Wow, very insightful. Now Don, you're an ordained minister. Let's get into the subject of divinity. In your view, what role does God play in each side of the racial divide?
Well, the thing about it is that God plays the same role in each side, 'cause God is the same. God is always pulling us towards sanity. And so you might be far left and he's pulling you towards sanity. You might be far right and he's pulling you towards sanity. You might be far right; he's not pulling you to the left. And you might be far left; he's not pulling you to the right. He's pulling you to sanity. And I'm using the male adjective there, my apologies. Pronoun, I'm sorry. I think God is, first of all, God is one. God is one. And God is the one god of the one humanity. So the beautiful thing is that Martin Luther King could call white racists his sick, white brothers. And that is very important.
He understood, based on his theology, that these were in fact his brothers. But he understood that they saw him as the other, inferior. So he called them his sick, white brothers. And if you have a sick brother, you still have a brother. And in fact, many white friends of mine have racist parents and uncles and aunts and sometimes siblings. And when I go to talk to them, they're still talking... They're saying, "I talked to my brother the other day and I can't believe the guy," that kind of a thing. So they're still talking. They're still family. They still went to Thanksgiving, they had a big kind of little tension there, but you're not going to break that family up except in a few cases. There's this sense that the kinship is deeper than the philosophy. And it is because they understand that they belong to one family. The Browns. The Willamses. And in my case, the Samuelses. And I experienced the same thing with my siblings, and we talk about our dad and some of the unevolved aspects of my dad's worldview that we are moving beyond.
But he's still our dad. He caused some pain in some of my siblings. Some of my siblings have long-term permanent impacts from my dad's immature worldview. But we still love him. We honor him, but we always are conscious of these things. When Martin Luther King said, "My sick white brothers," we have to really think about that. He understood that we are one family. And we are one family because of our faith. It's our faith that informs that, that we are all God's children. As he said, "Black men, white men, Protestants and Jews and Catholics and men and women." We're all one family. So that's the beauty of theology, to inform, educate, and transform our self-concept, to widen our sense of family. As Jesus said, when his family was brought, seems like either outside of this house that he was in or in another room, and they said, "Hey, your mom and your brothers are here." And he said, "Who's my mom? Who's my brothers? Anyone who does the will of my Father."
Okay. So, what's that now? What's the value of family? This is highly threatening. Again, I talked about the whole threat to the ego, of changing perceptions. That was huge to say to a group of Jewish community that's big on family that the folks in this room are equal in importance to my family and I'm going to finish up here before I go see them. Christians can begin to dismantle those experiences. I was thinking about the beauty of Christianity, being born in a Roman Empire, which had diverse peoples, and they were all inside the Roman Empire. There were roads that were built to connect those communities. And there were soldiers and governors, etc. that were dispersed among all of these communities to govern them in the Roman way.
And then you had the Jews who themselves were scattered people. And, in fact, on the day of Pentecost when they all came back together, there were Jews from all over the world who came home to celebrate. So, you had the fantastic dual opportunity of an inclusive empire and a dispersed people who are carrying in them this new idea for the world. And they're coming and going. It's a beautiful thing. And we in America have not really embraced that aspect of Christianity, or even in the modern world. We have in fact re-colonized or reparochialized Christianity and made it European, made it American, made it white, and not learned the elegant lessons that were created out of the... probably you could call them the accidents of that era of the birth of Christianity, so that they were dealing directly with these knotty issues.
"Oh, the Greek widows are complaining, because they're saying that they're not getting enough of the provisions." And Peter is being urged to go, has this urge, you can call it an urge if you want to be more secular, or that God told him to go talk to this Roman guy about the faith and he's saying, "I'm not going." And then he gets his vision of all of creation before him and God saying it's all clean. And, of course, Paul's experience with circumcision and these people become Christians, should they become circumcised? All those issues are being dealt with, they're right there for us to see. But we've developed blindness around that because we have been blinded by our cultural screens. So we don't see certain things, even in the Bible. But they're there, they're elegant. And they inform the God that is behind it all, that sees no difference in people. No difference.
Don co-founded the PEACE Foundation (Public Engagement and Community Empowerment) to address violence by leading the community into strategic engagement of homicide and violence. Here he is at PEACE Foundation days — one of the organization’s summer street parties — with twins from the neighborhood.
As you talked, I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw's quote, "The only thing wrong with Christianity is that nobody's ever tried it."
Right, yeah. And in fact, Gandhi said something like that, that Christianity was just a beautiful religion but nobody practices it.
Speaking of which, along the same lines, Megyn Kelly said on Fox News that Jesus was white. Has anyone ever told you that God was white or that God favors white people? And what would your response be to that?
Well, the incredible thing is first of all, if Jesus were indeed white, he would be serving black people. If Jesus were indeed the son of God, he would be serving broken human beings. If in fact he was perfect, he would be serving the imperfect people. It's an argument or worldview that destroys itself. Because it was in fact his preferability, his greatness, his omnipotence, his indisputable virtue that he gave away that made him Jesus the Christ. He gave it all up, condescended, made himself of no reputation as the Bible said, and even to dying — dying both as his ego and dying as his body.
And so to hold him up and say he was a Jew, or he was white, or he was a good guy, he's for the good guys. He's for the Christians, even. Of which there were none when he was alive. It's such a self-defeating argument, that if you stand in front of a God on some judgment day and tell him that that was your reason for making your mistakes of being exclusive, you will have condemned yourself to hell.
Speaking of this, what's been the role of the church in black history?
Yeah. The church is probably the worst of all organizations, because even in the deepest south, you had black slaves and white slave owners, and on Sunday the white slave owner would go to a place where the black slave was never allowed, and that was at a church. And if there was ever a church where there was... they would be in the back or in the balcony. So, the church became... and then in our modern time, you might meet a black person at work. You might meet a black person on the bus. You might even sit next to a black person in public transportation, or they might be on your work team. You might be a police officer and you hug black people all the time, as you wrestle them to the ground. But on Sunday mornings, you walk away from all of that, those hugs, that sitting next to, that intimacy, that collaboration, and you can breathe a sigh of relief and have your ego as a Polish Catholic, as a German Lutheran, as a black, former sons and daughters of slaves. You can lay all of that integration away and breathe a sigh of relief and sing the hymns that your great-grandparents wrote, and let them wash over you in a kind of cultural baptism, and you get reborn in your identity.
And your ego is strengthened. And you get refurbished to go back out again and deal with that unpleasant hard work of integration. That's what the church has become, a regressive force. It's always been. Against God's will for the oneness of the human community. And it's unfortunate.
So then how can religion or a theological worldview, and the practices and behaviors that flow from that worldview, dismantle divisiveness and heal the racial divide?
Yeah. And it goes back to the whole concept of dualism, which is the worldview as we might've talked about the last time. You're born and you learn, "That's my mom, this is me." It takes a while, but you figure it out. We're not one. That's mom, and then that's dad, and that's mom. And then that's parents and that's children. Now, you try to deal with this. You go out into the world and it's all a mishmash. Everything's kind of interesting, but your mind can't even deal with it. You're still trying to figure out what happens inside those four walls. You go outside and the buses are passing, the planes overhead, and you're not even trying to figure it out. All you know is that's not you. This is me, that's something else.
And then as you grow, you understand, "Okay, this is my family. That's other families." Kids, they come over and have a sleepover, but they're going back, right? And then you learn that wow, it's a big world, and eventually learn there's race difference. And all the time, of course, again, you're going to church and you're learning about, "Oh, this is us. We’re Christians, or our kind of Christians, our faith, and it’s the right and the best," and then that's them. So, that dualism, that informs us to discriminate for our human intelligence, that we can count, "One, two, three," because those three things are different.
That's usually important for our functionality as human beings, to have cognitive appraisal of the world and to function as a human being in a way that you can discriminate between things and make decisions, calculate and etc. But there's a deeper self that really is what faith should be addressing, the deeper self. Not reinforcing your dualism, this and that, him and her, us and them. But bringing people to a deeper understanding of humanity that we are all God's children, we are all one, that the stuff we see here is simply incidental, that there's something ancient in us that precedes humanity, that precedes the world. There's something connected to the eternal that will survive and go into, again, eternity. And that something is a divine, the divine aspects of our being. It is not the ego. It is a true self.
So, if faith begins to be informed by this or if our preachers begin to be informed by this and if this kind of understanding begins to be infused into religion, and into our mainline religions, denominations, then we will begin to form the new generation or the new kind of human being that was intended from the very beginning by Jesus when you see how he lived his life, the story he told, the Good Samaritan. If we begin to understand that, then we will begin to preach and teach in non-dual ways about a singular God who is a part of every human being, as a branch is to a vine, and that we are... if you pull one part off, it withers and dies. And if you separate yourself from the tree of humanity, you spiritually wither and die. You keep your looks, yeah, you still have leaves, but they're going to dry up very quickly.
So, all of these analogies... one body can't say to the ear, "I have no need of you." A tree and a vine. All of those analogies were being used 2,000 years ago. Can you imagine that? To inform humanity. That's the good news. But it all came down to sets of beliefs and theological positions. But it's time now for the world and the non-religious community, I will call it, non-religious, not non-spiritual. The non-religious community. People like Eckhart Tolle… and are bringing in that language to the secular community. So the secular community now has a chance of becoming truly spiritual, more so than the religious community. 'Cause spirituality is just that, it's transcendent of the material.
Don with President Barack Obama.
So, if you're talking about something in the quality of humanity that transcends the material, that informs the material, to which the material then becomes a servant, then that's what the modern spiritual leaders are talking about. And if the church can be humble enough to hear that coming from the outside and to be informed by it, this oneness... which is what I think guys like Richard Rohr are doing. They're bringing in that thinking. They're awakening to the reality of the oneness of humanity and the intentionality of faith to create that reality among human beings of religion. If the church begins to... it has to totally get out of that lane, though. We're in the wrong lane. We're in the dualistic lane. "That's mom. That's dad. That's him. That's me. That's them. That's us."
So, Christians just pick up that mantle. "We're Christians, they're not. We've saved, they're not. We're Lutherans, they're Catholics. We're going to heaven, they're going to hell. We're white, they're black." Wow, that's a big one. So if the religious community can begin to put race, or put that framework of understanding of humanity, and integrate it into the conversation of race, we will create an epiphany that will wake up something in our society. We'll wake up our true selves. And transformation can be very quick after that. It's going to take that groundwork of people who understand this to keep telling the story of the oneness of human beings, the oneness of God the creator, the oneness of the created and the creation. It's a beautiful thing. And the great thing about it is that when we have that in our minds as Jesus did, then our egos are dead. Our egos get dead.
So, we're no longer defensive. We're no longer desperate to hold on to our whiteness, or our blackness, or our American-ness. This desperation to... and fear that comes with it. The fear of loss that you can hear resonating in our current political leadership: "We're going to lose our identity.” So we have to shore up our defining walls or defining boundaries, both physical and psychological. When we being to lose that in our understanding of the largeness of God, then we lose that fear. And in losing that fear, we can survive the misunderstanding that comes with speaking that idea. So that when our family members or our religious and denominational peers, when our fellow Americans, when our fellow black people, when our fellow white people misunderstand and misconstrue what we're saying when we speak in this new weird way, and they feel like, "You're taking away our identity. You're trying to dilute who we are. Who are we going to be when we are no longer this?"
So that when they come at you because now you have become an enemy that's threatening the solidarity of who we are, then that loss of fear comes into play. See? You can actually walk into the debt you have to pay for that, because you don't have the fear anymore. Your ego's already dead. And that's why Martin Luther King at his last speech spoke about the bomb-sniffing dogs that came to the plane as he was on his way to Memphis. And he said, "I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the Promised Land." That's what he was talking about, that land where that insight is now embraced and we understand our common humanity, and our egos have died. That ego of white, middle class, American, father, daughter. Those things that we hold onto and if you try to take it away, your life is in danger. When that dies, as it died for Jesus when he said, "Who are my brothers?" When that dies and the fear dissipates, that's what Martin Luther King saw in that mountaintop, and he looked across and saw the Promised Land, that's what he saw.
So then he said, "So now I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." That's how he ended the speech. It's a beautiful thing. He saw that vision. And now he said, "I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing anyone." Isn't that beautiful? And then he died. And his death became a catalyst for our nation's consciousness to be changed. So, that's available to all of us, to become that bearer of the insight to the religious community, to the world. And it would be a beautiful thing if our faith communities would once again venture into the world of oneness, understanding of our common humanity. Let go of our heady parochial small selves, and embrace the larger self that is ultimately defined by the eternal omnipotent.
That would be a beautiful thing and that will be a beautiful day when that comes.
Yeah. Martin Luther King saw it. He said, "I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen it." And I see it.
That's beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today, Don. And thank you for the meaningful and life-changing work you do in the world.
Thank you, Phil. It's a pleasure to be in the world at this time doing what I'm doing.
Click here to read Don Samuels' previous article in Catalyst:
Don Samuels spent 27 years in the toy industry as an R&D executive and an independent inventor/designer. An ordained minister, Don evolved from community leader to become a 3-term Minneapolis council member and a Minneapolis School Board member. He also served as chair of the Public Safety Committee and on the Zoning and Community Development Committees.
Don is CEO of MicroGrants, which spurs economic self-sufficiency by giving business and career grants to low-income people of potential through the partner agencies that train them.
Don co-founded the PEACE Foundation in 2003 to address community violence; it now does business as the Northside Achievement Zone, transforming educational outcomes for 1,000 families and 2,300 children. He also co-founded Hope Collaborative, which identified the top-performing urban schools across the nation in low-income communities of color. Over a 2-year period, the collaborative hosted and presented 10 of these school’s leaders to the Minneapolis community.
Don now serves on the board of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Luther Seminary, Twin Cities Rise, Alafia Place, Rock ‘n Read, and Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board. He is a recent graduate of The Living School.
Don is married to Sondra Hollinger Samuels. They live in the Jordan Neighborhood of North Minneapolis with the youngest of their three daughters. Another daughter is in college, and their adult daughter and son live in New York City.