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Change is Possible

A Conversation with Artika Roller

Artika Roller is the Executive Director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). In this episode, Chanda and Artika discuss how MNCASA addresses sexual violence through advocacy, prevention, racial justice, and systems change. They also explore Artika’s intentional leadership strategy and why the healing journey is essential.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:01

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:13

Good day to you and welcome to Conversations with Chanda, I have a fantastic guest that’s with us today. And Artika, I’m just going to ask you to introduce yourself to our listening audience.

Artika Roller  00:25

Oh, well, thanks for having me. It’s good to be here. My name is Artika Roller. I am currently the Executive Director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. We’re also known as MNCASA. And we are a coalition and a network of over 66 programs providing direct service to victims and survivors of sexual violence across the entire state of Minnesota. We’re one of five coalitions that provide Crime Victim Services.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:57

As we enter into this conversation, I recognize the sensitivity of it. And so I will just ask all of our listeners to just protect your your heart around this. And if you need to step away, step away, we invite you in, because it’s such an important topic, but we realize that there are many, many people that have been impacted by sexual violence. And we want to be careful about how we enter into this conversation and make sure that our listeners are well.  What led you to work in this space?

Artika Roller  01:05

It definitely is a calling. You know, I grew up, I’m from the Twin Cities, I grew up in the Rondo community in St. Paul. And it was a beautiful community rich with activists and teachers and mentors, and I grew up in this community that was really involved, I lived by the Hickman family who are long term community activists in our community. And so always engaged in how community works, how do we make things better, looked different uplift and support one another. But also, I grew up in a community that I was exposed to violence, and gender based violence, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to see that in the community. And so really knew that I wanted to do something to support community and have it work in a different way. My background was in business, and then decided, I don’t know if this is for me, I think the field of social work is what where I want to go and what I want to do. And what I found myself was that working with women and families was my jam, or was my niche, I could do this and not feel like I was othering people, but do it in a non judgmental, supportive way because I grew up and came from community. That’s how I kind of ended up here it was in this work, it was like, I could stay in business, or I can really do the work that I believe that I was called to do. And so I started with sex trafficking and exploitation, anti sex trafficking and exploitation work. I did that for many years, and then moved to the world of domestic violence, spend some time at the county doing child wellbeing and child protection work. And then about three and a half years ago, landed at MNCASA where there was a call for black women to lead. And so knew that I didn’t want to run for office. But I didn’t have the experience to do this work and lead. And so that’s how I ultimately ended up at MNCASA.

Chanda Smith Baker  03:35

Can you say more about MNCASA and sort of how it emerged because this was not something that existed years ago. As a matter of fact, we weren’t really paying attention to these issues. And so can you say a little bit more about the genesis and the origin of of this work?

Artika Roller  03:51

Yeah, so MNCASA really is embarking on it’s forty-fifth year. And so we’ve been around a little while and we really did come out of the movement around protecting women and children gender based violence, started grassroots organization, we had some community leaders that said, “hey, we need to do some work around this and provide some support for victims and survivors in a multi system level way.” So not only direct service, but also with policy and advocacy. So that macro level work as well. And so MNCASA really formed in our former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton was instrumental in the movement at that time and help was one of the founding mothers of MNCASA. And so we have a long history of community activism and then as well as advocacy in a multi-system level way.

Chanda Smith Baker  04:48

Sharon Sayles Belton, one of the founding mothers of the organization, was there a catalytic event that led to the founding what really brought the coalition together?

Artika Roller  04:57

Right, my understanding it was was just that we were bringing awareness not only to sexual assault, but intimate partner violence and the recognition that the systems weren’t working well, when there was a victim of violence. And so that’s from the first contact with maybe law enforcement, they really didn’t have protocol and if someone was receiving medical care, so and also I was outpour to provide services for victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, or under the umbrella of what we call gender based violence.

Chanda Smith Baker  05:31

What role do you believe that system law enforcement, the criminal justice system, plays in perpetuating the violence or in helping us to solve and support those victims that have been perpetrated by the violence?

Artika Roller  05:49

So a lot of times the first people that have contact with the victim and survivors will be law enforcement. And we do have law enforcement that we train, that we collaborate with, that are partners and working towards a better response to the needs of victims and survivors. And then we also have had some missteps recently, when someone has been a victim of sexual assault or violence, they might decide that they want to get a sexual assault kit and pursue criminal justice response. And we had recently in the news, we haven’t just had that response from our system that would process those kits in a timely manner. There was—in Minneapolis, they had lost about 1700 kits, or 1700 kits were found about a year ago. And then we’ve had a backlog and there was a whole exposé called The Night Justice, that Star Tribune did to really document that people are not getting the criminal justice response, or, or the legal justice response, or law enforcement wasn’t moving those cases of law. And so we are currently working with those systems to try to put together a practice protocol and responses that will result in getting kids tested and also getting services to people that need services. So it is, you know, is on the spectrum, there is some response happening. And then we have all the way on the other spectrum where there is resistance to doing what we know we should be doing within our systems to provide the responses that victims and survivors need. One of the things that we’re working on right now is revising the turnaround time for a sexual assault kit, what we’re seeing is that we have about an eight month turnaround time after someone submits to a sexual assault exam, the gold standard would be a 30-day turnaround time. Now we hear from our systems, the increase in violent crimes, the lack of staff or capacity to do those tasks has been an issue in the past. But we’re really saying and what we’re trying to push forward legislatively, is that 90 days probably should be the cap. And we’re asking for some accountability from our crime labs around having a 90-day turnaround time. And there’s definitely some system resistance to making that happen, ensuring that happen, but the system has a responsibility. We were already behind in testing kits and then to continue that backlog is not the commitment that our system made around getting these kids tested. And so we have supported, you know, additional funding and additional ask around building up their capacity to get these tests done. But now we’re asking for them to have some level of accountability in our and report out let us know what’s happening in community. And if they’re meeting the timelines that they that we’re proposing,

Chanda Smith Baker  09:07

does the resistance from the system simply look like the response of we’re short on staff? Or like, is that what resistance looks like? Or what does system resistance look like? How does that show up in your work?

Artika Roller  09:21

How it’s showing up in this particular case is that the ball keeps on moving or what they’re asking us to do changes? So for example, we what we first heard was that they didn’t have the funding, and the capacity is supported. And we said we would support your legislative asked for funding to get up to speed in order to get this test. And once we supported that, the governor wrote that amount into the budget. Then there was another move to say, “Well, hey, if we prioritize sexual assault kits, we won’t be able to test any other thing”. The only thing that we would be able to test this sex We’ll start here. What we see with this system resisting is that the reason why they can’t test changes, once we resolve one problem, then we have another problem that will get in the way of, of testing. And so we’ve been trying to work with our local lab, the BCA to figure out what would be some type of compromise. But the end result is that we have victims and survivors that have submitted to a sexual assault exam, and they’re not receiving test results within a reasonable amount of time. And again, gold standard would be 30 days, we put into our ass 90 days, this is not anything new. There’s other states that have this mandate as well. Their pushback would be that they’re not meeting their timelines, even if they have a mandate. And our response to that is, but they’re not eight months behind, with testing new kits, they might be 30 days behind, or 90 days behind. But we are falling almost last in the United States around turnaround times for testing. And you know, in Minnesota, we pride ourselves on being the best and getting things done efficiently. We are just surprised that there has just been so much resistance to making this happen. Again, we have a commitment to victims and survivors. And we need to live up to that commitment.

Chanda Smith Baker  11:29

On that particular point. If there are people that are listening in, in our state that wanted to do more on that, is there something that they should be doing should they be going to the city council to talk about that to the state like what actions can be taken.

Artika Roller  11:45

So it is a state asked, you can actually go to MNCASA website. So that would be You can look at our website under “policy” and then you can sign up for our action alerts. So we’ll be sending out an alert pretty soon, really stating how you can get in contact with your legislator and make this ask.

Chanda Smith Baker  12:09

So can we talk a little bit about the missing and murdered African American women and girls work that you’re leading? How did that come about? And what should we know about that initiative that you are working on?

Artika Roller  12:21

You know, this really actually was an initiative that was driven by Representative Ruth Richardson, who authored this bill. This work is just such an important work, we are at a critical position within our community around missing and murdered black women and girls. And nationally, there is data that says that there’s over 60,000 missing black women and girls in the United States. And black women are more likely twice likely than their white peers to be victims of homicide. And what we were hearing from community was once they identified that someone was missing, law enforcement was not responding. So we had a case here and actually Lakeisha Lee was the co chair of this committee, and her sister Brittany Clardy was murdered, I think in 2013. And when they first called law enforcement—law enforcement was saying things like, you know, she might have ran away, you know, she might be somewhere and just doesn’t want to contact you. And the family was saying that we talk several times a day, multiple times a day, we have not heard from her something is wrong, and they wouldn’t take the family’s word. The other thing that happened is that Ms. Clardy, Brittany and Lakeisha’s mother, actually wasn’t the one that tracked down her vehicle and told law enforcement that it was at the impound lot. And so she did her own investigation to find her daughter. And unfortunately, Brittany was murdered and she was found in her car. But the heart wrenching thing about that was that Ms. Clardy felt like if you would have responded when I called you the first time, there may have been a possibility that you would have found her before she died. We just hear stories like that over and over again, of not being taken serious, not knowing where the resources are. Who do you go to? If you experienced a tragedy like this, there was legislative mandate that there would be a task force to investigate what we should be doing as a system and then come up with some recommendations. And so there were victim service advocates, folks that were impacted legislators, law enforcement. So there was a whole group of folks that came together to do this work. But what was really instrumental in this, there was also an Advisory Task Force and Advisory Task Force of black women. That had been impacted, and they oversaw the project that was different is like we hit system, folks. But we also had community folks that have been impacted that informed the recommendations that came out. And then it was led by Dr. Brittany Lewis, a black woman research in action. And so we really centered the voices of black women, victims and survivors in the work that the task force that out of that task force came recommendations to our legislators that included an office of murdered and missing African American women that would help with unsolved cases that would also support families through the steps of working within the system. There was other recommendations around training, hiring, retaining and supporting Black staff, because just not hiring. But what did we do to support staff to do this work? As you mentioned, in the beginning, this is heavy work that you take home with you. So how do we support people to continue to do this work? And then there was several other recommendations that came out of the work. Right now, the recommendations were move forward. And we are looking at having a mandated legislative mandated office were murdered in this in African American women, and I’m pretty sure that it will pass. So it’s in the both of the omnibus bills, and we’re looking forward to celebrating once it passes. And there’s an opportunity for us to start working on opening the office.

Chanda Smith Baker  16:36

Such important work, there were two things that I was thinking about. One was, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, and I cannot recall where this project came from. But there’s a journalism project where you can put in your race and your age and what state you live in. And what it will do is it will tell you, so if I went missing, how many media articles are mentioned what I have. And I remember my comparison, my age, my race, my gender, compared to a young white woman was like, I would have maybe 13 news articles versus, like, 27 articles during the same period based on the statistics and the disparities that happens in media on recording when women of color go missing or when older women go missing.

Artika Roller  17:30

Yeah, I agree with that. And we see that as well. What I’ve seen, though, recently is that through social media, we’re taking that back, and we’re making sure that we’re uplifting, centering and highlighting the stories of like women and girls, we know that we understand that. And then also understand that, then we have to do that work ourselves.

Chanda Smith Baker  17:53

One of the ways in which they’re taking back so you’re just touching on the second thought that I was having, as you were talking, which is around Amber Alerts, I do see you know, someone’s 12-year-old is missing and on social media, it will get shared. But I don’t often hear the Amber Alert or there’s questions on why not have Amber Alert this community where we hear this community? Or why did it take so long? Is there work around the disparities that exist there? Or is there in fact disparity, maybe I should not make that assumption, I have thoughts, but—

Artika Roller  18:26

And in my work, that we’re seeing a disparity around those Amber Alerts. And that’s something that we’ve been calling out. And this office will actually work to ensure that people that are missing will get those Amber Alerts, they’re also be working with media to make sure that these stories are uplifted. So the office of murdered and missing African American women would have a role in making sure that our stories are elevated, and not only elevated that we bring our women and girls home.

Chanda Smith Baker  18:59

You know, in those instances, you know, I always think about the mothers, the father’s the loved ones of their relatives that are missing and just the level of worry that I cannot even imagine, right? I mean, I remember I had you know, I’ve got five kids at some point, they all ran away, whether or not it was to the yard or to the basement or around the block or whatever. But like there’s this moment of panic of like, where’s my child that I’ve experienced and like these fleeting instances, but I cannot imagine just not knowing. So as we’re listening or whether or not we have someone who is going through this so that we know like what are some things that people can do to be supportive or there’s best practices there or steps that we can ensure that they’re being treated with respect and dignity, and what would you what would you recommend?

Artika Roller  19:53

You know, I would say reach out to your advocacy organizations. I’ve been doing this work for about 20 yours and a lot of times your advocate, the advocacy organizations will have someone who knows how, and has a personal relationship with folks within different systems, or different areas of expertise that they can guide you. Also, I remember the Clardy family, and they were definitely in that situation and didn’t know where to go on what to do. And at that time, the pride program, the family partnership, actually, you know, had their communication person help them with things like talking to the media advocate, went to court with them, and help them kind of navigate through that process. And so I would say, reach out to your local crime victim service organization, and they can help you kind of navigate or at least get you started with the things that you will need to feel supportive. As a community member, I think that we let families guide us we reach out and say, I’m here if you need me or if there is anything that you would need, let me know. And I’ll help and support you. And I think that’s the best thing that we can do for families.

Chanda Smith Baker  21:09

I don’t know why this popped in my mind. But I thought about Ben Crump, right, or Al Sharpton. And then people are like, Oh, they always show up in the media, they’re always running, they’re always finding like, there’s all kinds of sides of how people resonate with the work that they do on behalf of families, you either love it or you don’t love it. But I think that one of the things that I’ve learned in my interactions with them in multiple ways has been that part of why they do that is to keep the issue in public. Because if we don’t keep raising awareness, that we don’t make progress. And so part of what you are doing is continuing to raise awareness, you know, established supporting the coalition to understand both contextually what is happening, what we can do to resolve it, how we can be better advocates and a state to support victims, and that by establishing the right steps, we can decrease the disparities in this work. And so one of the things that you’ve already mentioned around the the test kits, is that you have something that’s coming up soon that I would love for you to say a little bit more about.

Artika Roller  22:19

Yeah, so we have actually, there’s a couple of things going on. So I’ll talk about our agenda. First, few of the things that we’re still working with is around the test kits, so not only the 90 days, but we need to clean up some language around that. Right now, currently, in statute. If a victim commits to a test, it is paid by the county, we want to make sure that victims and survivors don’t have to pay for those medical exams. And we’re asking for a state based payer system around that. So victims and survivors will receive a bill. So that’s one of the things that we’re working on. The other is cleaning up some language. In current statute, if there’s submit to a test, we are saying that we will test for STI sexually transmitted infections. And we want to say not only what we test, but we will treat so victims and survivors, again, won’t be responsible for a payment around that. The last big policy agenda that we are pushing this year, is that we’re asking for an increase in crime victim services, our base increase, we have not received an increase in funding in over eight years. And so imagine going to work and you’re doing your work and you don’t receive a pay raise, or a cola in eight years. Crime Victim Services has not received an increase in eight years, although we continue to invest in public safety, their ways, and corrections and probation, and the BCA. And so we’re saying that this is part of public safety. And we need to be investing in that as a state, we already know that we can arrest our way out of things. So this is for prevention dollars, and also for supportive services for crime victims. So we’re asking for a $25 million dollar base increase. Again, it’s been eight years for biennium for two years. And so that’s, that’s our big push that we’re asking for some of our policy, public policy buffs may know that once it gets into the omnibus bill, it could get lost. And so we’re just trying to campaign to make sure that our funding asked and what we’re asking for for Victim Services doesn’t get lost in that big package of bills. But the next exciting thing that we have going on is that our annual event our annual fundraiser is happening virtually, and we have Roxane Gay, who will be our keynote speaker. And then we have a community celebrity Angela Davis, who will be moderating that conversation. So we’re so excited to have these two phenomenal women that will come to our community, a gift to our community, to talk about the work, talk about sexual violence, talk about in the ways that we can show up and really support community when—and prevent sexual violence from happening as well.

Chanda Smith Baker  25:27

I worked at the county for a little bit over a year, it was a it was like a special assignment, where we were looking at expanding respite services for families with special needs. And I was assigned for a year to write a report on that. And I mentioned it because my cubicle that I was assigned to was next to child protection. And I was not working in child protection. But I have to tell you after that year, like I don’t know what their self care looks like. But I know it has to be necessary. Because just what I sort of overheard in conversations was very, very heavy. And so this is such an important work. But I’m wondering, you know, in your career, and in your time, and especially because, you know, not unlike me, you’re from community, the weight of it takes in many different forms. And so how do you manage your care? And those that, you know, report to you? How do you think about the care that is necessary to maintain in this work?

Artika Roller  26:32

Yeah, that’s so important. And when I look at my care over the years, it definitely has changed. And I have learned how to listen to my body and what I need to care for myself. But it’s ongoing care. When I was doing direct service, and working with victims of intimate partner violence, or sex trafficking, we would do these safety plans. And then I decided, well, hey, I need a safety plan. I’m getting ready to go into this intense situation, you know, how do I take care of myself?, I’m going to, you know, be in a courtroom with someone who did harm to this community in this family. How am I going to do that, so I started preparing these safety plans for myself, and then started realizing, hey, this has to be ongoing, it has to be preventive care, because I can’t be in the situation, and then start taking care of myself, I need to take care of myself in advance in order for me to show up as my whole self in these situations. And so it changes, you know, today, I feel like I need water. There’s other days where I need movement. There’s days where I need my sister girls, where we just need to talk and have a good time. But I have an active plan that I work on consistently. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not doing one thing to care for myself, if that’s eating a salad at lunch, making a phone call listening to music, you know, staff walked in today, I have my music playing loud, I have a candle in my office if I need to light a candle for someone. So it is a consistent effort. I think last week, I seen something that ran across my social media that said, there’s not enough yoga and meditation in the world that can help me deal with all the things that I have to deal with on a daily basis. But there is enough love for myself that I can do to help me show up and be motivated and consistent in the work that I do. So it’s not one thing I have to you know, I need a vacation. How I promote that with staff is that we have frank conversations about “how are you doing?” “How are you taking care of yourself?” I when I’m approving time cards, I’m looking to see how much time people have. It’s like, “Oh, you got a lot of vacation time, what is your plan?” And then I make recommendations. “Hey, it might be slow in January”, or excuse me, not January in July. “It might be slow in July, maybe you want to take every Friday off?” “How do I help you arrange taking that time off?” The best practice for people that are in admin is having five consistent days off. You know, how do we offer that we also had Dr. Joy Lewis that came in so we could create our personal orange theory, plan around radical self care. We are doing book club with another coalition that works on intimate partner violence, their board, our board and staff. We are reading restaurants, mannequins, my grandmother’s hands and doing the workbook attached to that. So again, it’s constant revisiting over and over again, what are we doing? How are we taking care of ourselves? And then in our organization, we have to build in wellness, like how much PTO are we offering?, how many benefits are we offering? How professional does development, if people feel like they’re skilled and competent, then that’s wellness as well. So reminding folks, hey, you got professional development, Dallas, I seen this training, would you be interested in taking that, and then collectively learning together bringing again people in to train us. So it is a whole strategy that’s incorporated in how I supervise, how my staff supervises staff, our strategic plan, it has to be written into that plan. So we have measurements that we’re, I’m saying, Hey, this is what we’re what we’re doing. We’re also looking at our environment, we’re working remotely, but there’s times that we’re in space as well. So is our environment conducive to well being? There’s a lot of things that we do. And it’s again, it’s ongoing, it’s just not one thing. It is a daily practice of self care.

Chanda Smith Baker  30:59

You know, I have said, and I know my team has heard me say, and I’ve said it, you know, at conferences or whatever is that, you know, my line has been leaving no benefits behind. We talk about pay equity, we talk about a number of things. And when you look at total compensation, there are a lot of people that are leaving the benefit of vacation behind. You’re essentially giving back money, right, giving back time that really is for you and your wellness to be replenished. And we know that we don’t make our best decisions when we’re tired. When we are stressed when we have our own trauma that we actually need to step away and get to that balcony time as Ron Heifetz describes in his book Leadership on the Line, you got to get to the balcony, so that you can see from a different angle so that you can come back refreshed, and have the strategies in place that you need to sustain the next, the next burden, you know, the leg of the race. And often those of us that are in the work, we’re not just holding sort of the burden of that responsibility. But also, sometimes we become the hero in the story. And we feel like we can’t take a break. Because if I’m not there, it won’t get done. I do recommend to people to be really, really thoughtful, because the work just continues to feel, in my opinion, heavier and heavier, particularly as we get exposed to so much in so many different ways, whether it’s news, or social media, or direct stories of people that we build around, that tell us the stories of impact that they have. And we hold that. So I really appreciate sort of the intentionality and the thoughtfulness that you sort of laid out. And I think that’s the point is that self care can look however you need it to look for you, but be intentional.

Artika Roller  32:46

I would agree. And the other conversation that I’m having with staff is called ethical self care.

Chanda Smith Baker  32:52

Say more about that.

Artika Roller  32:53

A little bit about ethical self care, it’s like it is the practice of showing up your best self to do the work, especially if you’re working with people that have complex trauma. And so if I’m not taking good care of myself, I’m showing up in ways that I can’t center that person that I’m working with. I’m ethically responsible, because I’ve taken on this job to take care of myself. So I can show up the best ways that I can to do the work that I do with people that are—have experienced complex trauma. You know, as you said, you—I can’t be tired, overwhelmed, or what we call fried and crispy, and then be able to do good work with someone that really is depending on me to provide them the resources they need. So on their path and their journey of wellness. I can’t lift up my staff or others around me if I’m just not showing up in the best possible way. And that fluctuates. It’s not the same all the time. But if you’re consistent in your self-care, you can be really consistent about how you show up.

Chanda Smith Baker  34:01

You also have mentioned quite a few names. So you grew up in Rondo. I grew up on the Northside. I have family in Rondo. I have family in the North or Southside as well. But the Hickman’s you know, shout out to Kadar and Robin, you mentioned Rasma, you got Dr. Joy, Dr. Brittany was up the street from me. So we have all of these folks that are from community that have generational roots here. And often we are working in neighborhoods that are being described by being under resource and needing things but we have this emergence of so much talent that continues to see seeds that blossom and that are supporting and they’re creating infrastructure and new ways of  leading in our community that are remarkable. Thank you so much to you and all of them for what you’re contributing, but can you share what it means to sort of work where you’re from in the importance of maybe what that means to you?

Artika Roller  35:01

You know, I think that when I think of the Rondo community, there is kind of this vibration, this vibration that is about the community, it’s about the soul of that community in the foundation and our ancestors that have set that foundation and community. So for me to work within community or with people that I’ve known for many years, or grew up in community, it gives me that extra kind of foundation, that extra backbone that I need. So when I’m a small organization, working with big systems that might not that might be a little grumpy about what we’re proposing and what we’re doing, I need all of that support, I need that expertise in order to continue to say, I’m gonna take a deep breath. And I know that, you know, yesterday was hard. But those connections, give me that support that I need to move on. They’re an email, a phone call away, a conversation, a reflection on an old conversation. It’s like, Oh, that’s right, that, you know, we can do this, we can make that happen. I’ve just seen community rise up in so many different ways to make change happen. Sometimes people ask me, like, don’t you just ever feel like nothing will change? And it’s like, no, I come from a community that I know that change is possible. I’ve seen that on a regular basis, and up close and alive. So I know that change can happen. Is it hard? Yeah. But it’s not impossible.

Chanda Smith Baker  36:43

Let’s go down that thread, because I am often in conversations of like, when are we ever gonna see change, when are we going to see impact, like, we just keep pumping money, and we’re not seeing it, I come from the opposite end of like, I see something that I find hopeful and inspiring every day. And I think it depends on how you’re looking at change. If you’re looking at it from a population level. I mean, it could feel like a lot. I think when you’re looking at it by family, by individual, by community, when you’re looking at young people you used to work with that are now leading in things, and you know the investments that you made, or that were made in them and their development, whether that was in the neighborhood center, or in the school or the church or on that football field, basketball, music, all of that stuff, right? The trip to DC that we all pitched in to get them to. What would you say about how you identify what is impactful?

Artika Roller  37:41

So it’s all of the things it’s the big system change. It is like we got that—we have that bill pass like there is funding coming from people who really need funding. And then it’s the small things like you said, this week, I’m celebrating like two people who have really been struggling to get jobs and receive jobs. It’s like we’re celebrating that, we’re celebrating that we were able to influence if it’s a letter of recommendation, or if it’s, you know, if it’s employment at our organization, we’re celebrating those things. So it is those small, individual things that we see as well. I really believe it’s all of that. It’s just not the big wins, because they don’t happen all the time. But it’s those little wins, that people are successful, and they’re working towards their healing journey, whatever that may be.

Chanda Smith Baker  38:30

Do you think that we like we as a sector do a good job at communicating our impact?

Artika Roller  38:37

Oh, that’s a good question. Because there is a fine line in communicating impact and exploiting folks’ story. And so we have to really show up in ways where we are sharing a narrative and telling a story in a way that’s not harmful. That’s conscious. So do we do a good job at that? Sometimes we do. And and other times, I think that we might be part harming folks in the way that we’re using their stories as well. For an example, we’ve done the traditional fundraisers that you have people come and share their stories, which is hard. And I know that people want  that impact. They want the heart string tug. And so how do we do that? But then also, even when we’re having people testify, we want someone impact that has been impacted. And we’re asking them to testify in front of legislators that don’t look like them, that don’t come from communities that they come from, may not have had the experience. But we want that person to tell that story. Because we know that traditionally, that’s how we get bills passed. And so I think that there is a balance and we’re always checking ourselves around our values as an organization. And if we can do the work without having someone tell their stories in ways that could we add to the harm to them, then we’ll do that. We also know that sometimes telling stories is a person’s healing journey, as well. And so there is a delicate balance of, you know, telling the story and not causing harm in the way that we’re doing that.

Chanda Smith Baker  40:22

Do you have this conversation at the governance level?

Artika Roller  40:25

Yes, we definitely do.

Chanda Smith Baker  40:28

And what does that look like? Has there been a-has because there’s such different roles that we have, right, between board and staff, and community, and folks that have been impacted?

Artika Roller  40:38

I’m smiling about that, because I remember a board member, and we have the conversation. And I just remember that person circling back again, like trying to use another angle. And it’s like, we can’t do that. Like, we can’t tell our stories in that way. But this is a way that we can tell the story, this would be appropriate for us to share in this way. And so there has been but I think that right now, for me, personally, my board understands that. And we have board members that don’t want to do additional harm to folks, but it has been ongoing conversation around how we do fundraising. And we’re a little different, we don’t do direct service. We’re doing this broader thing of we’re asking people to invest and system change, and prevention work, which is concepts that are a little bit harder for folks to grasp and understand, versus having someone that has been directly impacted and has received services we’re bringing in programs, for instance, with COVID, like our organization was instrumental with getting our shelters like PPE, where we couldn’t get PPE. And so having programs come in and talk about those type of things. But the fundraising around that is a little bit more challenging, versus someone who’s doing direct service.

Chanda Smith Baker  41:58

So you know, systems work is a lot less predictable, like you know, what you’re trying to change. But there’s a lot of factors that depend on whether or not that bill moves forward, it takes more time to actually see the outcome and the impact sometimes of systems work, versus the way that we have traditionally described impact has been we help so many households get so many things at—you know, and we work so many hours is that sort of what you’re saying?

Artika Roller  42:25

Yes, that’s correct.

Chanda Smith Baker  42:26

There is a clear path when you’re serving in direct service, but systems change where the timelines are less predictable.

Artika Roller  42:34

Timelines are less predictable. And I think the stories that we’re telling are different stories, versus the traditional way that we tell stories to raise funds. So we could have a survivor come in and tell her story and say, if you change this law, I wouldn’t have experienced this. Like, if you change this law, my court case would have not taken two years, because my chip was returned within 30 or 90 days, instead of eight months. So we could have people tell stories in that way. But do we want you know, is that aligned with our values, as an organization for someone to come and share such an intimate story with, you know, someone who would be interested in donating money?

Chanda Smith Baker  43:21

You mentioned COVID, that was certainly not an easy period for anyone. For some, it was very challenging as like lost ones. And rest those souls in that pandemic, but you were leading an organization and leading organizations are not easy. So we’ve talked about the work, we talked about what you do, the heaviness of that, well, how has leading the organization changed, if at all, since we’ve experienced the pandemic in 2020?

Artika Roller  43:50

One of the things that changed is that we’re working remotely. And that wasn’t necessarily an option, or we considered it to be as effective. So seeing that change, but hiring folks, if it’s called the reducing staff virtually or online, those are challenges. Onboarding someone is challenging, supervising someone that may be having some challenges in their life virtually. There was a way that we had to bring humanity virtually, you know, how do you connect people? How do you connect with people? When I came in, I think I was in my position for just three months, and then COVID hit and I thought I knew who I was as a leader. And I came into this organization, and it changed everything. Like I would have never thought about hiring or supervising virtually, we got to do that in person. We need to have some contact and so it really upped my skills in how to be intentional. I still give that person the same attention. I try not to be answering emails, working on other things, but making direct eye contact and being plugged in as much as possible, also administratively is like we were constantly rethinking how we work like approving things, DocuSign, all of those things to make sure that you’re meeting with compliance, as well. I think the last piece I would say about my leadership, you know, again, I agree, it has just really been hard and devastating for staff. But growing that capacity for folks that were struggling, that were taking care of children, that were homeschooling, that needed to show up for work, and then caring for themselves or others that had COVID. We also had an election at that time, and the murder of George Floyd. And so really centering and uplifting like Who are we as an organization? What do we value? Our race equity work, we needed to not just say it, but be about it and do it in very different ways. I say, I’ve grown as a leader, and my capacity to kind of navigate challenging times and things that I would have never have had to exercise that muscle, if we weren’t experiencing a COVID. And also the murder of George Floyd,

Chanda Smith Baker  46:16

George Floyd, we’re coming up on the third year, which is pretty unbelievable. It feels like in some some days that it was just yesterday, it feels so immediate and so present. I don’t assume that it’s impacted everyone in the way it’s impacted me, how did that impact you?

Artika Roller  46:34

You know, I lived a couple blocks away from George Floyd square. And so it impacted me but I also had staff that lived in those neighborhoods that were impacted by the riots that were happening. And I’m a mother, and a wife of, you know, adults, a mother of two adult-like men, and then also the wife and partner of a black male. And so it was, it was devastating to my family personally, and then also to the folks that we’re working with in my organization. How it’s impacted me, it really has been kind of this catalyst of, we’re not, we’re not doing enough, we’re not showing up in the right ways. And how do we right size that, and then there was the event that occurred, and then there was the murder that occurred, then there was the response to the community response to that murder, there was the trials, and then there was the outcome of the trials as well. And so every step of the way, it was really emotionally—it was really emotional to have to work and to show up in spaces where I was being personally impacted. And so sometimes I would be on zoom with systems because we’re also working with systems. So we had conversations with our staff about do we continue to do this work the way that we’re doing it? Do we do this work at all? Is this a priority, and we really came up with a couple of agreements around that is that we need to be showing up as advocates within those spaces, we don’t have the I’m gonna say privilege of stepping away from those tables, because change is gonna happen, regardless if we’re there or not. So we need to be at those tables, making sure that change is happening in the right way. But we will not show up in ways or places that were disrespected, not listened to, and not hurt. We’re not going to do that. So there was a lot of work that we had to do around.

Chanda Smith Baker  48:48

Yeah, I guess, you know, I always like to remind folks, there’s like doing the work. And then there’s like the leaders of the organizations, right, and that you’re leading while you’re also going through the same thing. And often folks are like, you don’t understand you’re like, oh, like maybe if you only knew how much I understood are like, Oh, I just can’t act always like I’m in the same feeling because I have so much responsibility. And I, you know, I just want to continue to sort of share the story of the organizational leaders and that, especially when you don’t have a lot of distance from the issue, right, that you’re right in community. You lived right there. You’re going through it. I’m sure you heard the noise, the helicopters, gas cans.

Artika Roller  49:30

Yeah. And you know, when there’s snipers on the roofs of the buildings that you live in, and there was this time or this space where I just had to show up vulnerable. I was in a system meeting, you know, a night where we were up all night because there were thoughts that there were people riding in the neighborhood trying to do harm to folks and so part of a community watch, and I had to say in that meeting, “I’m not okay today. I’m here. But I’m not okay today. And this is how it’s impacting me and be okay with that.” Because sometimes we are expected to show up and just stuff everything. And it was like, that wasn’t the day I could do it.

Chanda Smith Baker  49:32


Artika Roller  49:32

And just had to put that out in space. And I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m not asking for you to stop the meeting so we can talk about what I’m going through. What—all I’m saying to you is that I’m here, and I’m present, but I might not be fully activated in what’s going on here. And maybe next week, or next month, I’ll show up in a different way. But today, this is how I’m showing up.

Chanda Smith Baker  50:39

Yeah, I mean, I had a full-house breakdown in one of our zoom meetings. And we had a staff that presented, it was right around this time period. But my mother was also ill, and headed into hospice. And I had been just holding all of it. And for whatever reason, the staff shared her story. And then I was next on the agenda. And I just started sobbing and like, I don’t really do that, right. And so I mean, I surprised myself, I couldn’t get it together. I didn’t want nobody asking me nothing. I just wanted to lay down. I appreciate you checking on me. It’s all the things, I can’t even articulate it. But I do think and what I appreciated about this conversation is that, you know, sometimes when you’re going through it, you don’t recognize the need for self care. And I think that’s why if you’re intentional and have it as a practice, and you’re doing something every day, it probably won’t pile up, hopefully in the way that it did for me that that particular week.

Artika Roller  51:35

Yeah. And I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. But I agree with you, I usually I tell some folks in my life is like, if I was drowning, I probably wouldn’t know it right away. Because I’d be talking myself out of it. Like, I’m okay. I can get to the other side. It’s all right. I’ll make it. And I think I do that to myself when I show up to work. And then I get into a meeting. It’s like, No, you’re not okay, you probably shouldn’t have called them today. You need to rest. There’s a lot going on. But I but I do a lot of, you know, talking myself into, like, you can show up, you can do it.

Chanda Smith Baker  52:12

I’d like to just shed a little light on what’s happening underneath the face of the makeup and the appearances because I think it’s important for us to be transparent in leadership where it becomes hard. And that in that transparency, hopefully we’re giving people permission to take breaks and ask for what they need. You know, as we close, I’m wondering, you know, what’s, what’s bringing you hope?

Artika Roller  52:37

Yeah, I think our young folks, definitely bring us hope. The people that are coming after us that definitely brings us hope, you know, I have to have faith and hope. I can’t do this work if I didn’t believe that change was possible. The other thing that brings me hope is that we’re talking about mental health in the black community in different ways. And so that’s part of our regular conversation, normalizing that sometimes it’s okay not to be okay. And that it’s okay to get help when you’re not okay. And that help? And what does that help look like? So that brings me hope that we’re having those conversations as well. One of the things that we’re doing in community is having honest conversations about sexual violence, sex trafficking, that’s kind of a word that I know through my career that we weren’t talking about within community within the black community. And that we’re recognizing that harms to women and to children are something that we need to address right away. We’ve had conversations about R. Kelly and how long it took for us to address that within our community, Bill Cosby as well. And, you know, we can have conversations, it can be this and that. We can say that those are creatives that contribute to our community and also they’re folks that did harm to our community, as well. We are a complex community. And we know how to solve complex problems. It is just not just one thing. And so I would say that I’m hopeful about how we’re addressing that in community. And I’m also know that we have a lot more work to do to maintain and prioritize safety of black women and girls.

Chanda Smith Baker  54:35

Yeah, for sure. For sure. And I think that’s good—two good, very good examples. And I think about over the years, the encounters that I know that I came through as a child, and people would say, be careful of this person or that person and it was known, but those people still maintained in role. We have come too far to not address the harms that have been done in our community that sweeping it under the rug does not, in fact make it better. Those people that are perpetrating also have been typically harmed. And that we can stop some of the cycles of violence if we’re just finding more places for people to talk about what they’re experiencing, and getting the help, the resources, and have the systems then to support them towards recovery.

Artika Roller  55:21

Very important. And we know that even if people are arrested, those citizens return back to community. So what are we doing to support folks that are coming back to community, and they will no longer do harm as well. There’s so much that has happened around sexual violence in our community, it’s been weaponized against us, it’s been weaponized against black males. And so I understand how we want to be cautious and make sure that is this really true and factual. But we can’t wait as long as we have waited. 30 years is too long for us to try to gather the evidence and recognize that we have someone that’s really harming the community and harming folks in our community.

Chanda Smith Baker  56:04

You know, you mentioned declining funding and no increases cola. So we’re at a critical inflection point. And so help me understand both how its funding mechanism works, and then what’s at risk, so that the listening audience can understand.

Artika Roller  56:20

So there has been a deficit for funding crime victim services from the federal government. When the previous administration was in, a lot of our crime victims fundings come from white collar crimes. So like the tobacco industry, their fines were put into victim service funds, Volkswagen had a large suit that was put into victim service funds. So our previous administration was not prosecuting white collar crime, the funds were going into that pot. And so we have a deficit that has not been replenished, we’re really at a critical point, if we don’t receive the money from the federal government, if they don’t make up that deficit, or put something in place to make up that deficit, the funding for crime victim services will continue to decrease. And then if we don’t get that raise that we’re looking from the state, local government, and we’re going to really be in a position where we’re not going to be able to keep shelters open, we’ve had a couple of shelters that closed, and we’re not going to be competitive, people are going to find jobs in other fields, because we’re requiring folks to have degrees, advanced degrees. And we’re not paying that type of money in order to sustain those type of positions. And we also work with our philanthropy organizations. But our work as a coalition is such a specific niche. We don’t fall into priority areas quite often.

Chanda Smith Baker  57:50

It’s about niche, and it feels like it also has a responsibility to government to make sure that its people are doing okay. And so I think that there’s always a balance of philanthropy between is this something we should be funding? And could we fund at the scale that’s needed? Or should we be thinking about government’s role in terms of that funding, it’s always a very interesting balance.

Artika Roller  58:11

I agree with that. And I also think that funding from the government is just so very specific, that they’re saying that you are going to do this specific program for this amount of time. And so there’s no flexibility if you’re trying to get wellbeing into your organization, trying to promote people having time off or sabbaticals or education, that’s not going to come out of that government funding because they’re just so very prescribed in what you can do with that funding. So that’s why we do fundraisers like our AWARE event that’s coming up on the 27th. And then we also have to work with our philanthropy organizations as well to get some of those general up funds so we can do some of this work to support staff.

Chanda Smith Baker  59:00

Fair point. Thank you again Artika Roller. If you want to find out more information about any of this conversation that we had today go to—

Artika Roller  59:11

m-n-c-a-s-a, MNCASA.

Chanda Smith Baker  59:12 Thank you so much for being with me.

Artika Roller  59:17

It was a pleasure talking to you as well. Thank you so much. I appreciate you and the work that you’ve been doing in community for many, many years.

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About Our Guest

Artika Roller

As the Executive Director of MNCASA, Artika Roller brings twenty years of direct service experience serving women and children in the fields of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and sexual violence. She holds a BSW from Metropolitan State University and a CPMSW from the University of Minnesota. In addition, she is a graduate of the Executive Leadership Institute from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Schools of Business and Social Work.