Mural project brought Black voices to a shuttered State Street

Mural project brought Black voices to a shuttered State Street

This story was produced by Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization that focuses on government integrity and quality of life issues in Wisconsin. 

On May 31, the day after violence first broke out on State Street in Madison during demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a transformation began.

Businesses up and down Madison’s defining corridor shuttered. Plywood sheets covered windows — some preemptively and some to cover windows already smashed by looters.

“It looked kind of dead before the murals,” said Amira Caire, a 22-year-old Madisonian and one of over a hundred artists who lent their time, talent and paint to an effort to decorate the barren spaces with colorful messages of pride, perseverance, anger, justice and unity.

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Danielle Mielke, 19 (left), and Amira Caire, 22, worked on a mural at the University Bookstore in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 9, 2020. The mural depicts Tony Robinson, a Black teenager who was shot and killed by a member of the Madison Police Department in 2015. Mielke said the mural is a way to shed light on Robinson’s death and show people how community members felt in its aftermath. “We wish we weren’t painting Tony’s face up here.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Artist Duowan Rimson, 35, of Madison works on his mural outside the Overture Center in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Rimson said that his goal with the mural was to force white passersby to put themselves in the shoes of the police officer and understand how the police view Black people and Black children. “I’ve been wanting to do a mural since it started,” Rimson said of the recent movement to decorate State Street with public art. “It’s a good way to express not only our talent but our goals and messages. It’s not all about looting and rioting, that’s literally the tip of the surface.” Rimson expressed his frustration with how the mural projects have been carried out in some places. “I see some murals that don’t have anything to do with the cause. That’s exactly what Black people mean about us being overshadowed, about things being taken from us.” Asked about what change he hoped would come from the current movement, Rimson said, “I don’t know what change necessarily would come. But in order to change we need to gain understanding. These murals are helping the people who don’t want to go out and do the research. They’re eye openers . . . We’re not saying let us get away with murder. But we’ve been compliant and done everything, and we still get killed.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Activist Lilada Gee (left) and artist Cassandra Marzette pose in front of their mural-in-progress on the Overture Center on State Street in downtown Madison, Wis. on June 11, 2020. Marzette and Gee were commissioned by the city for a number of murals throughout the downtown area.

The mural project began on May 31, when both the mayor and Common Council president contacted Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf to request a “rapid response” art program for the shuttered storefronts. Working with her program’s community cultural partners, Wolf reached out to artists who had worked with the city before. In the following days, as more businesses covered their windows, the Arts Program posted an open call for artists interested in participating in the project.

The mural project was funded through another program, Arts in Public Places Looking Forward, which had been established just a few weeks earlier to support artists who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Madison Arts Program also prioritized artists who had been affected by racial violence and injustice, Wolf said.

Over the ensuing two weeks, more than 100 murals were painted as commissions from the city. Many more works of graffiti and other public art appeared in spaces not used by officially commissioned artists. Nearly all of the pieces focused on support for the Black Lives Matter movement or called for an end to police misconduct.

“I feel that the symbolic language of visual culture can reach people,” Wolf said. “We have to reach people on many different levels to help them understand the devastating effect that racism has had on this country.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Mishelle McKnight (second from left) poses with her nephews Ethan (left) and Eton Wesley (right) and her daughter Bada Scates on Lake Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. McKnight’s daughter attends O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison, which reserved a space for students to paint murals in the wake of recent protests against police misconduct and racial injustice. McKnight said she wanted to help students actively participate in the current moment, saying that, “the change that we need to see is going to be for our children.” McKnight said that both her son and the father of her children have been subject to violent policing in the past. Asked what change she would like to see, McKnight said, “treat Blacks the same as you do anybody else. Treat people like human beings.”

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Shiloah Coley, 21, looks at a reference photo of Aiyana Mo’Ney Stanley Jones as she paints a mural outside the Overture Center in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Stanley was seven years old when she was shot and killed in a police raid in Detroit, Mich., in 2010. Coley used Stanley and the likenesses of other young Black people killed by police as the inspiration for the figures in her murals. Coley, originally from the suburbs of Chicago, is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied public art and the criminalization of graffiti and other forms of artistic expression. “I’ve always believed in the arts as a super transformative thing,” she said. “I wanted [this mural] to be two Black teenagers with a confrontational gaze. People need to reckon with Black people in this space and taking up space in Madison.”

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Yani Thoronka, a sophomore at Madison East High School, works on a mural outside the Overture Center in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. The mural was designed by the Madison-based youth leadership organization Drum Power, of which Thoronka is a member. “Everything that’s happening takes a really big mental and physical toll on you,” Thoronka said. “We want to empower Black people during this time.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Richie Morales, 39, paints a mural on the Overture Center on State Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Morales, born in Guatemala, has lived in Madison for two years. “America is a great continent,” Morales said. “But it needs to create a balance of power, of money, of natural resources. I want to unify America.” Morales also spoke about the value of art during social movements. “I think art can change lives. Art is essential. Sadly, sometimes art stays outside of the light because there aren’t a lot of profits in it.”

Wolf said the city officially ended the mural project on June 14. State Street businesses have since begun to unboard, taking down the murals from their windows and doors.

It is not yet clear what will happen to the artwork after it is removed. The decision lies with individual businesses and property owners about when to reopen their storefronts. Wolf said that Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, which works to coordinate and support many downtown businesses, was keeping some of the murals in storage while a plan is formulated. The city is currently collecting input through an online poll and conversations with artists to decide how to move forward. Options being considered include temporary exhibitions, auctions, or donating the works.

“I can’t speak for everyone else’s work, but I do hope they aren’t simply archived and forgotten,” said Simone Lawrence, a local artist whose portraits of Malcolm X and Colin Kaepernick have recently been taken down from the Driftless Studio windows near the top of State Street. “I’d like to see an exhibition. Even more ideally, I’d like to see them sold and the proceeds go to Black-owned organizations and/or directly to the artist.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Chris Lewis, 23, paints over a mural on Shortstack Eatery in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Lewis said that the city government, which commissioned many of the murals, wanted to replace the existing piece with a more ambitious one. “I’m covering up this shit,” Lewis said. “The city wanted us to. They wanted something bigger, something excellent.” Lewis, who has worked with his mother, local activist Lilada Gee, and a small group of community members to paint a number of murals on State Street, said that the public art projects were exciting to be a part of. “It’s been really eye opening. It feels good to get out here and be among the people, it’s a whole art community. I’m not even really an artist, but it’s been a fun experience.” But Lewis also worried about whether the murals reflected a deeper shift in tone and thinking about issues surrounding Black lives and police brutality. “I think it’s something that’s pretty to look at. They turned something bad into something good. Which kind of pisses me off. I think in part they’re covering it — you’ve put a bandaid over a wound. For some people it’s genuine, but for most, nah. Some businesses feel like they have to let it happen because other people are out here doing it.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Owen Gwynne, 54, of Madison paints a mural recreating a work by DarRen Morris, a Wisconsin man sentenced to life in prison at 17 in 1995. Gwynne was invited to help paint the mural by Phil Salamone and Judy Adrian, Madison natives who Morris has developed relationships with from prison. Salamone and Adrian wanted to include Morris’ art on State Street to broaden the conversation around policing to cover the entire criminal justice system. The mural is a recreation of a work by the artist DarRen Morris, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1995. Adrian, who helped Morris to write his book “In Warm Blood,” introduced Morris to Salamone, a Madison-based artist who organized the mural as a way to broaded the ongoing conversation about policing to the entire criminal justice system. “I wanted to contribute, but I didn’t want it to be about me. DarRen represents something that people arent talking about. There are higher arrest rates, longer sentences, higher recitivism for African Americans,” Salamone said. “Paint is the strongest voice I got.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Shahaney Williams (left), 14, and Yasmine Clendening, 12, paint a mural on Lake Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. Both Williams and Clendening are students at O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison, and painted on space reserved for them and their classmates by O’Keefe art teacher Kati Walsh. “I thought it was important to show that some people actually care,” Williams said, speaking of the murals as an alternative to participating in the protests for young people. “Some people want to participate but they’re too afraid to walk with [protesters], because of the tear gas and rubber bullets.”

Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Arielle Edmonds (second from right), 31, walked up State Street in Madison, Wis., with her four children to look at the murals on June 9, 2020. “I wanted to show my kids what’s going on so they can be aware of what’s going on in their community.”

8 Ways to Make Virtual Church Engaging

8 Ways to Make Virtual Church Engaging

Pastoring During a Pandemic | Bishop TD Jakes Bishop Paul Morton Bishop Joseph Walker and More.
Video Courtesy of King Jives

With some safety measures in place, 70% of churches are holding in-person services, eschewing virtual services until the pandemic is under control. Unfortunately, there are more than a few churches that are having in-person services without personal protections in place, avoiding masks and social distancing altogether. But if churches do adhere to the CDC Considerations for Communities of Faith, there’s a lot of cleaning, disinfecting, ventilating, social distancing, mask-wearing, messaging, refraining from singing, temperature-taking, monitoring, and educating that needs to happen. With that in mind, even with best CDC practices in place, is it really safe?

Bishop Joseph W. Walker, III, Senior Leader of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, doesn’t think so. His 33,000+ member congregation will stay virtual until there is a vaccine. He is asking that other faith leaders do the same. And for those who don’t believe virtual church is a viable long-term solution, he offers eight ways to make virtual church engaging.

1) Don’t Be Tied to a Building.

Our expressions of worship and what we do as a church can happen even without the building. My understanding of 2000 years of church history proves that the church was meant to be without walls. Our work really happens outside the four walls. To reinforce this idea that there’s a necessity of needing a building to validate our experience as Christians is preposterous to me. I think that we have to reimagine what our role responsibilities are in the community. You can do that without being in a building.

2) Creatively Find Community in a Virtual Space 

In a crisis, folks either crack or they create. The beauty of being a Christian for me and understanding God’s creative power is that God created something out of nothing. This is an opportunity for us to think through ways to have community in the virtual space.

In our ministry, we are doing some things like virtual connects, where social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Community is still strong in those spaces — very, very strong. That hour in traffic to come to sit at an administrative meeting at six o’clock in the evening before we go home? Now we can actually go home, have dinner with our kids, do a Zoom, and already be home when it’s done. It’s the same thing. You have to look at these things differently now and think about a post-quarantine post-COVID reality in terms of what the church looks like. 

3) Look for the Low Hanging Fruit 

Connect with folks who are doing virtual church well and find out the best practices. We’ve made ourselves available as a resource for thousands of churches around the country. 

Facebook is free. Zoom is free. Esther Stories are free. There’s a variety of different platforms that folks can get on and create these kinds of opportunities. The other day, I had a call to all the single folks in my church who were home by themselves. I wanted to encourage them and give them some strategies on how to navigate that space being by themselves. We had 300. It’s the capacity for Zoom, and it sold out. It was free, but it was maxed out in 24 hours.

4) Change it Up

I change it up. For instance, our Mt. Zion Nashville app is free and you can access video on demand. There’s all the Bible studies I’ve done all year going back as far back as you should want. Also, the notes for the Bible studies are there as well. So anytime you want to watch, it’s like Netflix. You can go in there and join it.

There are times at which I may deal with the book of Isaiah. But then, for instance, now, we have a series called Life Plan, helping people think through purpose and strategies for your next vision assignment. So, it just fluctuates between biblical literacy and practical life application. I think people need a compass to navigate the space in terms of thinking about what their next career path is going to be. What does God’s Word say about faith and stepping out in those spaces? And so that’s what I’m hearing and moving into.

5) Be Forward-Thinking

We’ve done a lot of training on the front end. We were very blessed with the fact that Mt. Zion Church was seven years ahead of a lot of African American congregations in technology. A lot of my colleagues around the country will tell you that because they were the ones who were reaching out to me saying, “Man, how’d you do that?” We established Mt. Zion Anywhere,  as a virtual space because we saw this trend coming. And many churches began to see that in the physical building, people were not packing them in like they used to. But yet when you got home and realized the level of engagement in terms of giving was going up or still consistent, you realize that there’s a shift. People find it easier — rather than just come to Bible study at seven o’clock at night, I’ll just go home, get my kids fed, get in the bed, and watch Bible study. I’m already home. The convenience, right? So, you’re really selling time if you will.

6) Lead and Be Innovative

Anytime you walk into a new space like that, there is always some small pushback. Not pushback so much from Mt. Zion Church as much as from other folks in the community. We were trying to figure it out. You got one leader who actually said, “I’m not going to stream, man, because people are not going to come to church. They are going to have an option.” 

Let’s be very clear if you really think about it. In-branch banking — six, seven years ago, the banks were clear. Nobody’s coming into the branch anymore. We need to make sure we do everything right here. You can check everything on your phone. The educational system, same thing, right? You guys can go and pay tuition from your phone. See where I’m going? The church needs to lead this and be innovative enough. When you build your church on a revival-less model through your charisma, then right now, you’re struggling because there’s nobody to preach to. Nobody to say, “Man.” When you build your church on infrastructure, strategy, and technology, it sustains you in seasons like this because it becomes a normal way of existing.

Our choir has done a variety of Zoom choirs with the soloist in the middle. We’ve had guest artists to sing their particular songs with our choir surrounding them. We’ve had different camera shots of people singing from home. We’ve had our folks who dance in ministry do their dances in homes. When you see it in real-time, it’s an amazing thing. So yeah, again, it goes to just being innovative and say, “This is possible. You really can do this.” It’s just how far do you want to take it?

7) Be Present in the Community and the Giving Will Come 

I think the fundamental response to giving is tied to a ministry that is doing the work. When people see you engage in the community, see you feeding 10,000 families in the city, see you constantly meeting these folks, they give. They believe in the work you’ve done. And we’ve onboarded new folks in our church who are giving, and people are joining. I’m doing new member fellowships every month. People are joining our church from everywhere now. They are giving. They’re engaged because they believe in the mission. And I think that those who are active givers are going to continue to give. Those who are looking for an excuse not to give, that’s just the way it goes.

8) Stay Connected

We do the virtual connects. Every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. and every Thursday at 9:30 p.m., members have a chance to talk to their pastor like I’m talking to you. Ask questions. They come on. We have virtual villages — singles, married, men and women. Those are great communities where people are engaging and sharing stories, encouraging. Every Saturday night at 10 o’clock, our youth have a place to go and hang out with each other. So we’ve developed all these different communities in the virtual space that make the church still feel connected. Do we miss being with each other? Of course. Can’t wait to get back? Can’t wait. But at this point, we’re just making the best of this situation and keeping people safe.


7 Misconceptions About People Who Go to Seminary

7 Misconceptions About People Who Go to Seminary

Video Courtesy of Janiece Renee

The school year is about to go into full swing, which means that many are back to studying and showing themselves approved in the academic sense. Among that group are thousands of first-time and returning seminarians, people from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t just bound to be pastors, fill pulpits, and preach. But all of this is unbeknownst because most people have only known seminaries and theology schools to be the training ground for the future pastors and spiritual leaders of America. Today we will tackle some of the misconceptions that follow the seminarian. This list is by no means exhaustive but it will help shed some light on the fact that seminarians are not just holier than thou students. So without further ado, here are seven things that seminarians aren’t.

Seminarians Aren’t:


Maybe there are a few saints roaming the halls of your local seminary—doubtful considering the criteria for sainthood–but for the most part seminaries are full of everyday people who struggle with sin and salvation–especially when they are sitting in a class called “Sin and Salvation.” Their prayers don’t get to God any faster. They don’t walk around quoting the Bible—well not all of them and sometimes it’s necessary to quote and memorize scripture if you are about to walk into the Old or New Testament exam. They may not always be compelled to acts of charity and service—because the reality is their schedules might not permit for it. They are not always nice…Long story short, if there was a process for canonization available during a seminarian’s time in school, not many would make it. Blame it on the seminary or the seminarian, either way, saints are few and far between.

Prayer Warriors

It is not uncommon for someone to step into seminary and step out of the prayer closet, this happens for a variety of reasons not limited to the fact that seminarian schedules are  hectic. Between coursework, internships/residency, work, family, and life, prayer can become the last thing on anyone’s mind. I say this from firsthand experience, as someone who came to seminary as a fervent and frequent pray-er, and left as a periodic pray-er because my schedule and the rigor of my courses made prayer difficult–and lest I be remiss what I learned brought my previous understanding of the spiritual of discipline into question. To this latter point, the other thing about prayer in seminary is the practice is sometimes challenged by what is learned in class. How does one pray when they think about predestination, triple pre-destination, providence, reign of God, and all of those other big theological concepts? Why pray if everything was preordained at the beginning of creation? Does prayer change God or does it change us? Prayer can be complicated in seminary both theoretically and practically speaking.

Pastors in Training

It used to be that people came to seminary because they were called to pastor a church or go into another ministerial capacity but now only 4 in 10 MDiv—Master of Divinity—students plan to go into pastoral ministry full-time. More are considering a bi-vocational path and many more aren’t considering ministry, in the traditional sense, at all. Hundreds of thousands of people go to seminary as part of vocational discernment and then discover that they want to be professors, lawyers, marriage and family therapist and counselors, non-profit leaders, hospital or corporate business chaplains, and more. Or they just want to learn and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they took the seminary detour. And lest I be remiss, because I’ve spent some time around such people, some may want to reconsider who they heard calling them to pastoral ministry. Not all seminarians should be pastors and not all seminarians want to be pastors.

Saved…or even Christian

During my time in seminary I discovered that “saved” was not a term many people liked. This went for both students and faculty. The term reminded people of some factions of conservative Christianity whose primary goal is to save people and condemn the rest to hell. “Saved” language seemed exclusive and didn’t allow for a more open understanding of what life in the faith is. My Systematic Theology professor helped open some of us up to a different understanding of the term encouraging us to reflect on being “saved from something and saved for something.” But semantics aside, a popular misconception is that everyone who goes to seminary is “saved” in the same sense. Not to say that people don’t share a common salvific experience but they don’t use the same language—and sometimes not the same narrative of “coming to Christ”—to speak of the experience. It doesn’t make them any less “saved” as it may be popular known and constructed in Christian circles, there is just a difference in how people articulate their understanding of salvation personally and communally. Furthermore, not all seminarians are Christians. In a survey done by the Association of Theological Schools of 7,075 students across 174 schools, 0.5% were Buddhist, 0.2% were Muslim, 0.8% were Muslim and 4.5% were other. These may be small percentages but they still represent the fact that theology schools across the country are not just full of Christians but people from other traditions as well.

All White Men

According to the same survey referenced above, seminaries aren’t full of white men. In fact, African Americans are the second largest enrolled group representing 16.9% of enrolled persons in MDiv programs with Asian students right behind them at 10.2%. The existence and thriving of historically black theological institutes such as the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio also attests to the racial diversity present in theological institutions. In terms of gender diversity, women account for 34.7% of MDiv students, and, as we have bore witness to, they are also part of the burgeoning population of women preachers, spiritual leaders and leaders in the workforce in general.

Sane, Naïve, Sure, Ready…:

I posed the question of what seminarians aren’t to my fellow seminarians past and present and the responses were many and varied. Among those responses were one-word answers such as “Sane. Naïve. Sure. Ready.” There is a measure of truth to all of these. Practically speaking, the sanity level of some people is questioned when they leave a secure career, significant others, or a hometown to pursue a theological education that will, at one point or another, drain them of everything. Yet very few seminarians are naïve about the space they have walked into, recognizing that it is going to require much of them—and possibly “steal their Jesus” as the urban legends in seminary goes. Surety and readiness are also part of the seminarian’s struggle because answering a “call” to go to seminary doesn’t mean that the called individual is sure or ready for any particular role in ministry or elsewhere. But, that is the beauty of the seminary space, that individuals who answer and engage themselves in the work of theological education are also in a space to continue to discern their call and find surety and readiness.

Just Seminarians:

One respondent to my question pointed out that seminarians aren’t just seminarians. Of this she said, “…because many of our fellow students were scientists, authors, talent agents, and business professionals, in addition to being parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.” Among some of my classmates were doctors still on call, pilots, business owners, and writers just to name a few. This was in addition to the pastors and preachers who were serving congregations and traveling out of state to preach every Sunday only to get back home late Sunday night and tackle hundreds of pages of reading and dozens of pages of writing. And, lest I be remiss, there are the seminarians who are also parents—single, married, committed partnership, or other—whose other major task, aside from being a student, is raising a child or family and attending to their needs almost as much as they must attend to the seminary work.

In conclusion, while there are many things seminarians, or better put after this article, “people who attend seminary” aren’t, the argument can also be made that they are all of these things. And yet we know that they are more than can be lumped into these seven categories. They are saints and sinners, prayer warriors and prayer cowards, pastors in training and people still discerning, mostly white men and a rainbow of cultures, insane, sane, unsure, sure, ready, unprepared, etc. The moral of the story is that people who choose to go to seminary can’t be lumped into simple categories, aren’t easily defined, and do live lives similar to most everyday people. They are people who choose to make a theological institution their home for one or more years, and may use that education as a launching pad for their life in ministry or a point of departure for other endeavors, but that decision doesn’t make them unlike anyone else outside of a seminary context. Long story short—too late—people who go to seminary aren’t any one thing you think they are.

Will your gift really make room for you?

Will your gift really make room for you?

Video Courtesy of THE BEAT by Allen Parr

I am firm believer that we serve a just God. His love for us extends far beyond what we could ever imagine, and as a result of His grace, we are blessed with gifts and the opportunity to reach our full potential regardless of who we are and where we come from.

Proverbs 18:16 tells us, “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.”

I am intrigued by words. According to the Webster dictionary, the word “room” means “an extent of space occupied by or sufficient or available for something.” If a gift is capable of making room for you, that means it has the capacity to provide or provoke exactly what is needed in order to reach our full potential in a variety of areas, including career, family, and finances.

I am very blessed to have people with radical faith in my life. They have stepped out on faith and utilized the gifts that God has given them and are now living very successful lives.

I know single parents that were blessed with gifts in the hair, makeup and fashion industries. They invested in that gift and are now able to support their lives and live out their dreams, because that gift has created financial success.

I know others with a gift of music. They have never gone to music school or received formal training but they will give graduates of The Juilliard School a run for their money when they sing a note or play an instrument because their musical gift is a gift from God.

I, too, have a testimony of what God will do if you utilize the gifts He has given you. Sixteen years ago, God told me that He gave me a gift to write, and He wanted me to write because that was His desire for my life. I took that revelation and never looked back. Then, one day God surprised me with an opportunity to write for Urban Faith and share my gift with the world. It is a great honor to do so and I am grateful and honor Him for this opportunity.

But, how do you know if what you possess is a gift that God has given you? And, furthermore, how do you activate your gift to make room for you? Very simple. It is not limited to the listed points below, but they are a great start:

Believe God

God will always show you ideas and gifts inside of you that are way bigger than you. They are often bigger than what you could have ever dreamed of or expected, and that is great because it means you will need Him to bring them to pass. All you have to do is trust and believe God and what He has for you.

Plan and execute

Planning involves writing the vision and execution involves the how-to. You cannot wake up and expect your gift to magically make room for you. You need a plan. Do your research and find out who has been successful in utilizing the same gifts you have. Then, exercise patience and pray when planning and executing, because your timing is not God’s timing. Seek Him first and He will lead you.

Be willing to learn and be taught

Having a great idea and executing it is great, but to manage success and stability when your gift makes provision for you, you have to have a mindset of learning. Be open to seeking counsel, asking those who are skilled and successful in the area your gifts lie, and listening to their advice. People have sabotaged success and major breakthroughs because they were not willing to listen. Successful people listen.

Be your greatest cheerleader

If you wait for others to believe in you more than you believe in yourself, you will be waiting for a long time. Insecurity is a road block to success. If you do not believe you have a gift, then you will go on with life and never take a real chance on yourself. If you struggle with fear, I challenge you to ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen if I really gave myself a chance?”

It’s time to look within, step out in faith, and let your gift make room for you. You only live once. What is there to lose?


Emerging from Desperate Circumstances

Emerging from Desperate Circumstances

Minneapolis teacher Alexis Mann

This article originally appeared on

Alexis Mann’s life story is a case study in beating the odds. She grew up poor, dropped out of school, had a baby at 16, and ran away from home.

“I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face,” said Mann, who went on to graduate from high school and college and earn her master’s degree in special education.

Today, she teaches at Harrison Education Center, a Minneapolis high school for students with emotional and behavioral challenges, many of whom have experienced trauma. Mann’s story of emerging from desperate circumstances and thriving “provides students with hope, and helps them not give up on themselves.”

Her job can be challenging in the best of times. The work is even more demanding now, in light of the coronavirus, which has forced classes online, and the recent police killing of George Floyd, which happened just a few miles from the high school. In recent weeks, Mann has had to facilitate some difficult conversations, like when her 8-year-old grandson asked her if what happened to Floyd was going to happen to him.

“We say we don’t don’t know,” she said, “that we hope not.”

Mann spoke recently with Chalkbeat.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Minneapolis has garnered international attention in recent weeks, following the police killing there of George Floyd and the protest movement that followed. How are your students processing the tragedy?

Most or all of my students have had encounters with the police. Many of them are on probation, and some have served time. They have a genuine lack of trust with the so-called criminal justice system. This is a time when students are asking themselves: What are my priorities? What are my needs? And for some of them school has not been a priority right now. With the protests, they are wanting to be part of that and showing up in large numbers to have their voices heard.

The biggest takeaway for them is to rise up and use their voices, to practice their civic participation and to vote, and to show up in spaces where policies are being made and decisions are affecting them. We do a lot of community engagement work in class; I take them to the state capitol to teach them about the power of their voices and the importance of fighting for equal protection, as is promised under the law.

Were you surprised by what happened to George Floyd?

What took me by surprise was the grim smirk on [the officer’s] face. He had this look like so what. It reminds me of how teachers sometimes treat their students, knowing that they’ll be protected regardless of job performance. Some teachers create a racist environment, a hostile learning environment, where some students get preferential treatment and others are over-punished. If Johnny asks to go to the bathroom, fine; if Tyrone asks, they don’t believe him.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it impacts your work today.

I grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, a historically black community of St. Paul. When I was in elementary school, my parents bused us out to St. Anthony Park, which was a primarily white school. I remember Miss Buttler, the only black teacher in the school. I always hoped I would be lucky enough to be assigned to her classroom, but I got another teacher. Looking back, having teachers who I did not connect with caused me to lose interest in school.

I started high school in a suburb outside of Atlanta. I skipped class, refused to do my work, flunked, and ran away — back to Minnesota. I decided that my only way out was to become a teen mom, and three months after my daughter was born I struck out on my own at the age of 16, and I never looked back. I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face. Ultimately, I graduated from Central High School in St. Paul with my class in 1993, and went on to college and graduate school.

My story gives me a heightened ability to relate to my students and puts me in a place where I can be more considerate of their needs. I did not grow up with opportunities for success readily available, but through all that — what I encountered coming out of poverty — I’m able to provide students with a blueprint.

What’s one thing you’ve read that’s helped you become a better educator?

“Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them” by Dr. Ross W. Greene. The author does a really eloquent job categorizing [challenging] behaviors as being the result of either a lagging skill or an unmet need, rather than disobedience or disrespect.

In recent months, you’ve been teaching your classes remotely and also facilitating at-home learning for your children and grandchildren. What advice would you give to parents who are trying to help their own children during the pandemic?

Try to keep your kids on a consistent schedule, and make sure they are going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time. Create a distance learning space (or spaces) where your kids can focus and work quietly. It may also be a good idea to establish agreements with your children. For example, no pajamas in the distance learning space or no video games during the distance learning day. Lastly, create incentives for meeting milestones that you establish.

Speaking of advice, what’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?

My dad once told me, “The ones who know the most say the least, so hear more than you say and think before you speak.” Being a good listener is paramount to establishing respect, building rapport, and cultivating healthy relationships, which has been extremely helpful in building strong connections with my students and preventing and de-escalating behaviors.

What gives you hope at this moment?

Distance learning is giving our students access to learning 21st-century technology skills that they were not getting before, and they will need these skills to compete in the future job market. I hope that we can continue to provide distance learning as an option for students who are uncomfortable in the classroom environment, or who skip school because of safety reasons, or who need to earn extra credit to graduate. I support using distance learning to create more equitable access to education and technology skills.

Widow of Mother Emanuel pastor: ‘Much prayer is needed’

Widow of Mother Emanuel pastor: ‘Much prayer is needed’

Jennifer Pinckney had hoped to be in Bible study on the evening of June 17, 2015.

But her six-year-old daughter had other plans.

The two were in the senior pastor’s office at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on the night that Dylann Roof opened fire during the church’s Wednesday night Bible study, killing nine people. Among the victims was Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and Jennifer’s husband.

She and her daughter heard the shots, barricaded the door and hid under a desk in a secretary’s office, according to her testimony during the penalty phase of Roof’s trial.

“Be quiet. Don’t say anything,” she told her daughter. The two survived.

Roof was eventually sentenced to death.

In the years since the attack at Emanuel AME, Pinckney has worked hard to pick up the pieces and to give her daughters a sense of a normal life. She was recently in Atlanta, where her daughters were taking part in a dance competition, and sat down for an interview with RNS.

It has been five years since the tragic events of the Charleston shooting. Can you take us back to the day it happened and what you experienced?

In the beginning, you’re in denial. You don’t always register when things happen. Especially as traumatic as the Charleston shooting. You just kind of think to yourself, “Did this happen to me?”

To be honest, at first, I was a little in denial that it really happened at all. I can tell you that I immediately went into mom mode to protect and be there for my two girls, which was and still is my first priority. I can remember getting home that night and seeing police cars everywhere in our yard and allowing my girls to briefly look out the window as I tried to explain to them the reality of what had happened.

Jennifer Pinckney, widow of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, speaks during a Feb. 9, 2016, event at Duke University on the violence that targeted Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy of Megan Mendenhall, Duke University

How are you and the kids doing?

We have our good and bad days. We are living in Columbia, S.C. I’m adjusting to being a single parent, and the girls are doing well in school and enjoying participating in dance competitions, which they have been involved in since they were little girls.

When did it become real to you that your husband was gone?

Because he traveled a lot it was easy for me to think that he would be coming home, so at first, it was like he was gone on a trip. It wasn’t until they brought his car home that it became real to me. I can remember sitting in his car and crying. That’s when it became real for me. There have been other moments, but I can remember that one vividly.

Are there any other emotions that you had to deal with after your husband was murdered?

There are just different little things I went through, like when I’d go into his closet, the bedroom, the bathroom, I never moved his pajamas that he had left out. Even when I’m looking at my girls, sometimes I can see him in them.

There has been so much said about your husband, who was he to you?

Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer Pinckney, top right, sits with her daughters, Eliana, right, and Malana, left in pink sweater, during services honoring the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, on June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., at the College of Charleston TD Arena. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

There are many people who think they knew him, but they don’t, which is one of the hardest things that I have to deal with.

Clementa was so relatable to whoever he would meet. He was a tall man, so when he would talk to the girls, he would kneel down to their level to speak to them. He was a calm man. Even when he served in the state Senate, his colleagues would say he would hear both sides and would remain calm in listening. One of his favorite sayings was “Have you thought about it this way?” He was truly an attentive man. As busy as he was, Sunday was our time as a family. He would intentionally block that time off for us even after preaching on Sundays.

What type of pastor was he?

I can still remember his sermons. In fact, after his death, I went back and listened to some of them. Although I was in the room when he preached them, listening to them again ministered to me. His sermons felt like he was ministering to me from his grave.

His sermons have ministered to me through some tough moments in my life.

A lot has changed in America the last three years; what are your thoughts?

(Deep Breath) Yeah, a lot has changed, which is why I think much prayer is needed.

What is your life like today?

After the incident took place there were lots of people around, and the phone was constantly ringing, then after a while, everything just stops and people move on. I’m a mom first, and raising my two girls is my first priority in life. I want to make sure that I do that role well.

How do you raise two girls, whose father was killed because of a hate crime?

You know, I try to teach them just because someone may not like you, you have to go beyond that. You’re always going to run into difficult situations and different kinds of people, and you have to get beyond that person’s ignorance.

What would you like for people to remember about your husband?

That he loved God, he loved and respected everyone. It’s also important to note that no matter how busy he got, the girls and I came first. He would always take time for us. Clementa would hear everyone’s point of view. Many of his colleagues called him one of the most peaceful people that they knew.

Do you sometimes ask yourself why this didn’t happen to someone else?

I don’t because it shouldn’t happen to anyone else.

How have you handled the pressure of being in the public eye?

Before the tragedy, most people didn’t even really recognize me. When the tragedy happened and the media started coming around and started coming to my house, I had to go into protection mode to make sure that my girls were cared for.

I’m a mother first.