Before I leave the Alliance, I just have to say…
After 24 years at the organization, Russ Adams will leave his position as Executive Director on October 25. In this post he reflects on the past successes — and future prospects — of our collective work together.
Photo by Andres Perez
Since September 2018, when Associate Director Maura Brown and I began planning for my departure from the Alliance, my mind has been filled with warm remembrances and my heart with deep gratitude. Over the past year, the transition process has left me with equal feelings of satisfaction for the pathways we’ve traveled together and anticipation and excitement for where we’re headed.
When the Alliance was founded in 1994, there was virtually no racial equity analysis in the work, and very little consideration of the power of narrative. My mentors at that time, Niel Ritchie and Frank Hornstein, taught me that “land use is a social justice issue,” and governmental agencies needed to be more accountable to the community. Coming together in coalition, we cultivated the power to compel that accountability and begin to change the conversation around urban growth and regional development issues. That meant accountability internally, as well.
From 2002 to 2004, the Alliance started the ongoing work to become an organization that works from an explicit racial equity lens in everything we do. I remember the words of board leaders like Allan Malkis, who worked tirelessly with us in this process, emphasizing that: This work is going to take us into places where we will feel very uncomfortable, but we have to be willing to go there if we want to learn and change. On a personal level, I’ve been privileged to learn and be challenged by visionary and tireless organizers like Metric Giles, Mel Reeves and Caty Royce, who have pressed me and the Alliance to be radically accountable to those most impacted by injustice and actively counter white supremacy.
As my departure has come in the midst of an organizational milestone, I’ve had the pleasure of reflecting on our 25 Wins for 25 Years. To be honest, there are far more than 25, but, for me, three immediately come to mind. With the leadership of Louis King from Summit OIC and the Alliance’s Maura Brown, HIRE Minnesota built a powerful coalition of more than 70 groups that changed statewide policy and has put hundreds of millions of dollars in the pockets of highly skilled workers of color in the construction trades. Through the Stops for Us campaign, community-based groups in St. Paul fought for and secured three additional stops along the Central Corridor Light Rail project to ensure communities of color weren’t bypassed by the massive infrastructure investment. And with the Equitable Development Principles and Scorecard, leaders from West St. Paul to the Northwest suburbs have adapted this transformative resource to fundamentally shift development processes and projects to center the voices, values and needs of local community members.
In recollecting on those wins, I’ve marveled at the organizing expertise in our communities. I’ve watched Kenya McKnight call out white folks for “equity-splaining” to Northsiders regarding transit improvements in her neighborhood and been awed at the skills of Asad Aliweyd who regularly mobilizes the Somali community to rally for affordable housing in the suburbs. I’ve admired the ability of Minnesota’s greatest policy wonk, Jim Erkel, to work directly with community leaders, to share ideas for improving our transit systems with folks like Harry Maddox, or to co-design the GIS maps that became iconic symbols of several key coalition campaigns. And, for more than a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to recruit and be part of massive ‘Minnesota Delegations” at the national PolicyLink Equity Summits, connecting with equity leaders from across the country.
As I step away after 24 years, I couldn’t be more confident in or excited about the future of the Alliance. Our staff is producing incredible communications materials and innovative tools; hosting profound community-centered conversations that attract hundreds of participants; building powerful coalitions; and carrying forward an inclusive regional equity agenda to advance some of the most important policy innovations in a generation. They are building a coalition organizing model and infrastructure that is welcoming of new narratives and especially fresh eyes – helping to propel a new generation of leaders who will carry the fight for racial, environmental, social and economic justice into an urgent time of transformation for our region and our planet.
Several of our current staff have been with the Alliance for years, advancing in leadership from a coalition representative to board member to staff. With my departure, Owen Duckworth, our Director of Organizing and Policy, will take on additional staff leadership, alongside Maura Brown and our new Executive Director, Joo Hee Pomplun. Owen is the consummate coalition organizer, a thoughtful advocate who inspires others to take action. And I can’t even begin to thank Maura for walking the path of advocacy and justice organizing with me for the past 19 years, so I’ll just say to her: the first round is always going to be on me!
I couldn’t be more excited for our new Executive Director. Joo Hee has been with the Alliance for seven years as a member representative, board member and staff. She brings a strong economic opportunity and health equity focus to the Alliance, and is a leader who is fierce and sharp witted, strategic and inclusive, caring and considerate of others, and deeply accountable to our partners. I know Joo Hee and her colleagues are going to do great things and take the Alliance to new heights.
So what’s next for me? Well, in all my time at the Alliance, I never took an extended sabbatical. As I was contemplating my executive transition, I promised myself that I would take the time to travel to different parts of the globe that intrigue and inspire me. So my immediate plan is to explore, observe and relax in places that can teach us a thing or two about livability, resilience and culturally centered urbanism. There are places on this planet that are adapting to new and challenging climate realities, and I’d like to learn about them in the months ahead. Then I’ll be back, renewed and refreshed to continue to work for a more just world!
Let’s stay in touch! I’m generally available to chat and strategize over coffee or tea. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-964-1647.