Skip to main content

Investing in Possibility

A Conversation with Lewiee Blaze, K.J. Rolenc, and Brandon Williams

Lewiee Blaze, K.J. Rolenc, and Brandon Williams are leaders on the Minneapolis Foundation’s Fund for Safe Communities Advisory Committee. This past fall, the three of them attended a convening hosted by Cities United—a national organization focused on violence reduction and public safety. In this conversation, they discuss the strategies and systems they learned about at the conference and how their lived experiences inform their work.

Listen to Our Episode

Chanda Smith Baker  00:00

This is Chanda Smith Baker. I am so happy to be with you again. Today’s conversation is with three fantastic men in our community, Brandon Williams, Lewiee Blaze, an incredible artist, and KJ Rolenc. The three of them recently attended a conference that Cities United put on in Baltimore, the Minneapolis Foundation sent a delegation of nine. And as I was debriefing with Brandon, we’ve lasted about three minutes before I stopped him and just thought, man, this would be a great conversation to share with you. And so that’s what I’m going to do today, where I’m asking them and hearing from them the first time what their experience was, like in Baltimore, being at the city’s United conference, Cities United is an organization ran by Anthony Smith. It is an organization that is focused on reducing violence in brown and black neighborhoods across the country. So I hope you enjoy that conversation.

Souphak Kienitz  00:56

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  01:07

I’m happy to talk to y’all Brandon, KJ, and Lewiee, I know that you all went out to Cities United, they had their conference and Baltimore and be more, I wanted to be out there. And I could just feel the energy Brandon was sitting back video and pictures of you guys. And Cities United is an organization that we’ve partnered with for a long time. It’s under the leadership of Anthony Smith, co-founded by Dr. William Bell, and others that really set out to work across the country in cities to reduce violence in brown and black communities. And so you all support us and our advisory at the Minneapolis Foundation, you do so much more in community to make a difference. And so, I was talking to Brandon and he was like so amped up about the conference. And the time y’all had I literally told him like, just stop talking, Don’t say another word, because I want to share the energy with the community. But I have not talked to you all about the experience. So, thank you so much for being here with me this afternoon. And I’m just gonna give you each just a few minutes just to introduce yourself. And I’m gonna start with you, Brandon.

Brandon Williams  02:15

Thank you Chanda for the amazing introduction. As you said, my name is Brandon Williams, and I am our Criminal Justice and Safe Communities Fellow at the Minneapolis Foundation. And I chair our advisory for the fund for safe communities. And I support our chief impact officer, amazing. Chanda Smith Baker on all her efforts to prevent violence in the community, build healthy relationships, work with community organizations, other foundations to really push forward for public safety efforts. And, you know, pretty much empowering community to support themselves and it’s a privilege and honor to be doing the work.

Chanda Smith Baker  02:47

How about you, Lewiee?

Lewis McCaleb  02:49

All right. Yeah, good afternoon. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for everything that you do to pave the way for young leaders like ourselves. And yeah, it was a blessing to be able to experience Baltimore last week, but my name is Lewis McCaleb. I also go by Lewiee Blaze. Born and raised in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. I am an artist, activist, and entrepreneur. I am a proud advisory member of the Minneapolis Foundation Public Safety and I am also working in violence prevention at a county level over Ramsey County for the Healing Streets Project. And I do more independent work over in Minneapolis under my own organization, which is N4, which represents new mindsets, new media, new leadership and new narratives, an organization with a mission to change the narrative for African American males.

Chanda Smith Baker  03:38

All right, I’m can’t wait to learn more about that. And KJ.

KJ Rolenc  03:43

Hey, how you doing? I’m KJ Rolenc. Happy to be here today blessed to be here. Right now myself. I’ve been getting into real estate and doing some work in the nonprofits as well. And I’m down at Circle Of Discipline, boxing and coaching as well now just trying to do the work in the community.

Chanda Smith Baker  04:02

Awesome some brands and bring us back to where I stopped you from talking. So you were talking about so you guys fly by Baltimore. You get to Cities United Just could you just describe what Cities United is in like what that conference is?

Brandon Williams  04:17

It was amazing. My energy was super high. I’ll get back there throughout the interview. But when we got there, it was really this feeling of being welcomed into a space. Everything was like top tier everything from presentation to the signs they had up to the people that you would see coming up and building relationships beforehand. I got to see some people and be welcomed by that energy but the conference in general, it was really powerful to see different people doing different types of work. I think what we’re so enriched in like the work that we’re doing, and focusing on our own communities, we forget that there’s other people struggling, learning different ways going through this pandemic going through this tough time. And I feel valuable to people who come from these communities that support black and brown bodies coming down off of that I was just amazing was an amazing trip.

Chanda Smith Baker  05:02

Lewiee, this was your first time going out to that experience, what was it like for you going and spending time out there?

Lewis McCaleb  05:11

it was very, very empowering, very inspiring. What I appreciate it was the percentage of black people that was in the building, you know, it was very, very black. Okay. And I love that the most because when personally, when I look at this issue of gun violence, of grouping gun violence in our communities, I personally, like focused on my own community, me being a black male, and how that affects our community and my lived experiences with that issue as well. I really believe that, like, if we want to change that, we have to be the change that we can see. Right. So to be able to see myself reflected, and across the sector, you know, at very high levels to we have people that were working, you know, on government level, you know, state levels, federal levels, showing that people are really serious about moving the needle. And then I’ll close with just saying that I really appreciated commendations was less about the problems and the issues that we’re facing, but more about the strategies that are used to solve these problems, more about the work that has been implemented more about statistics and data and like showing what’s working, showing what’s not working, and then assists people as currently, you know, in his work, being able to share strategies with each other, learn from one another, find out what issues are we dealing with, in different cities? How can we continue to have this network and chain across the nation, you know, to save, to save our young black men.

Chanda Smith Baker  06:40

And KJ, this was your, your second time, at the conference, the first time I had the opportunity to sort of be with you, in this space? How was it different this time from the last time that you attended?

KJ Rolenc  06:53

Well,we missed you out there this time, for sure. I was saying I wish Chanda was out here too. But it was it was beautiful. You know, I mean, I want to shout out Baltimore, the whole DNP. Like, they treated us good. It was beautiful. We had a ball out there. It was, it was just great to be, you know, back in that space, again, with folks from all around the country, who have a passion for doing this work. You know, we got we got folks that have been in a professional sector, maybe their whole life, and they’re coming at it from, you know, governmental standpoint. And then we’ve got folks such as myself, who, whose passion comes from being in the street previously. And, you know, being on the other side of that weapon, you know, and now trying to be like, Hey, that’s not cool. You know, and we want to save these young brothers. And we want to stop them from going down the same path. You know, we were talking to brothers out there who was on death row and had life in prison and whatnot. And they came, they were able to come back from that circumstance. And now they’re really doing the work in their communities, to really say, these young brothers, you know, and sisters, and I just thought that was beautiful, you know, just being out there getting to see, and a lot of the work here, even in Minneapolis, you know, is it mirrors a lot of things that are going on around the country. So it’s good to kind of see what we’re doing up here, versus what other folks are doing to other cities all around the country. And in what ways, you know, maybe we can collaborate or maybe we can take a piece from over here and implement it over here. Like, one thing about one thing that I saw in like New York and some other places, there was a lot of cohesion, when they may have came from different entities. But you couldn’t tell, like, for example, like out there, they had this thing where up here, it will be similar to it will be similar to maybe what Muhammad and him are doing on Lake Street right. Out there it was, you know, safe streets. But they all had like one color, like everybody that was doing the violence prevention work. And that was doing the street work and outreach work, they all wore orange. So they might not have been from the same specific group. But when they came in the building, it was like a presence. It was strong, you felt it, you know, and they was all they look like me. They look like us. They look like you know, they young brothers were, you know, you look like all these look like these may have been some prior street dudes. And now they’re in the community, doing the right things don’t. And it’s that cohesion and see them all together that unity. You know, I thought that was beautiful. And I was like that’s a piece that we may have mentioned up here, where, you know, we got these different groups and they all want to do the work and it’s beautiful. You know, how can we all come and stand together stronger?

Chanda Smith Baker  09:27

Lewiee you mentioned something about it was like a black event, right? Like the presence of blackness like you as young black man walking into a situation where you are in a professional environment, right, a group of black professionals, black experts from all the levels that you all just mentioned, that have gathered across the country to protect black and brown lives, particularly black men. I remember and I still have different energy when I walk into a space that it was like all black women professionals like I just have a different way I walk in the room. Right? What about that feels important? And do and do you feel seen differently in that space? And what was special about that for you?

Lewis McCaleb  10:13

Absolutely, um, I would say at the core of why it was so special for me is because I’m also associated, you know, with the activism movement, you know, and everything. And, you know, we’re a few years now, you know, past the lynching of George Floyd. Right, the first time I hopped off the activism porch was when Philando, you know, was murdered well, so like, I have this experience of like, protesting and debating around community to really be a voice and raise awareness around the issues of systematic oppression. And these things that the system continue to do to harm our community, right. And we seen what happened over these past few years is just like me being a cat is like, really from the community. Like I said, black man and seeing, you know, how rapidly our people are dying, you know, and also seeing the effects that has on our on our queens out here as well, like my mother had to raise had to raise us as a single mother and I got so many aunties and cousins, you know, and my grandma, you know, a lot of too many single mothers in our community, right, and the foundation has to be strong, right, it takes a village to raise a child. So I begin to be very frustrated with the amount of like, anger and energy that we all come together when, you know, a police officer kills one of us, but then, you know, when we out here dying in the streets every day from like these from like, these wars or whatnot, things going on the street, it’s not that same amount of energy people, you know, some people only jump up when we die from the hands of, of hands of a police officer. But when we got here, and we engaged in a war ourselves, and we killed ourselves, people kind of ignore it, right, sweep it under the issue, you know, only time community really like gets as loud as when, you know, we lose the lives of like the innocent, especially innocent children, which is completely sad, and it’s horrific, you know, I just feel like the energy should be the same. You know, I haven’t seen that, that’s actually why I’ve kind of changed my form of activism was like, Okay, I’m gonna focus my time and my energy, because I’m not sure how much of this time and energy I have. But while I’m here, I got to make the best of it. So I focus more of my energy to work directly with young people as involved in a system and as getting these charges in this involved in the streets. Because I feel like, it just continues to be a population that is unset, and kind of ignored and not seeing, but to be in this space at Baltimore to see how many people are devoted to this mission of keeping young people you know, being able to prevent, and intervene and transform the lives of individuals that’s involved with violence. Um, it’s just, it’s just very encouraging, you know, it’s like, okay, there’s, there are a group of people out here working on our behalf, they aren’t, they haven’t forgot about us, because of all of the other things is going on in the world. Like, it’s so many issues, but I feel like some problems get more attention than then our problem. And like I said, I’m gonna continue to relate this, to me being a black man, and knowing how many black men that I’ve lost, you know, to gun violence, and on both sides, right, you lose somebody sort of violence, but you also lose somebody to incarceration. So, there’s no winners on either side. And that perpetuates this trauma and the lack of, you know, a healthy home for a kid to thrive. So, um, it was very encouraging to be around a wider group of people that has that same mission.

Chanda Smith Baker  13:49

KJ, I you shaking your head? Is that the same relatable?

KJ Rolenc  13:53

Yeah, most definitely, most definitely. I agree with everything that was said, you know, and I think there’s like a lot of power, you know, and walking into the room and seeing, you know, a bunch of people that look just like you, you know, and that are all trying to do that all on the same mission. You know, you know, I thought it was powerful today, you know, you become and it’s a lot of comfortability, you know, like everybody, like, you know, you can come in here, you’d be authentic, you know, you could just say what’s on your mind, you know, we got people in here that are coming in, in three piece suits. And you got people that are coming in here with fitted caps and gold chains, you know, and everybody’s on the same thing, though, and I thought there was a lot of power and usefulness in that, you know, just being able to come authentic.

Chanda Smith Baker  14:34

Brandon, I see you also sort of acknowledging that, you know, I was just in another conversation where, you know, there’s not often a lot of spaces and I can imagine this is the case for y’all where you can just come in and just be you like free of judgment, right? Like you just come in and it does feel like you can just be 100% you and so one is that true or not? And then how did how did that space feel for you in terms of how you show up your leadership.

Brandon Williams  15:01

Yeah, that space was really unique. Because a lot of the times being a young black man, I felt like it can go both ways, right? Number one, people always mistake me for being like 35 years old, they asked me if I got kids, right. I’m 25. So, I always have to say that and like, I feel like I have, I’m called to say it because it gives context of where I am and my experiences. But then some people might see me in a suit, and they think, oh, like, you’ve lived this beautiful life, like you might not understand the struggle, a lot of times, even in community conversations. But I think being in that space, it was powerful because being a young black man, in a room filled with like, people working on this issue, I felt valued, not like this fabricate of value as like, hey, let’s shine a light on this one person. You know, it wasn’t like walking into a room of people that didn’t have a background as me. But it was people that, you know, though they live, I’ll set an example, there was this one woman who had worked, she worked for a school, a high school where she commonly interacts with black teenagers. And so for me, I feel like she would have enough of that experience. But when we had a conversation at our table, she was asking me and a few other people at the table like, hey, like, how do you think about this? How do you feel about this? Like, what is your response? Do you feel valued? And that was just powerful, because it’s like, for someone of that stature, you would think like, they know, you’ve had many experiences, like, you know, you’ve dealt with this a lot. But for myself, I feel like I bring those things to the table. And at the conference, I felt like that was valued. There was a lot of content-based things. But at the same time, we get time to reflect with other people and really learn that, like you’re not the only one working on this issue. And sometimes it feels like that, as a black man, as I guess a young adult as well. Like, this is crazy. As someone looking at this as someone feeling this the way that I do, does someone care about it as much as I do? And also, like, if I do something, will I be the only one standing out? Or if I feel this way? Would I be the only one standing out so to have those people gathered around that. And to be in that space, it was really empowering to come back into those spaces where I’m the only person like, no, there’s more with me, there’s other people that may not be able to be in a situation right now. But that can testify to the issues that are solutions to what we see. And the other powerful thing was it was very solution based driven. So a lot of times when I walk into these rooms, it’s problem-based, it’s like, okay, what is the issue? What are the statistics around the issue, the data, how was that presented, but I feel like this was really about like, you know, it was focused on the causes of the issues, how we can get to solutions? You know, why is it that people feel this way? Or feel unheard? Um, how do we reduce these weights by figuring out cost? But also, you know, how do people benefit off of it? Like I felt very heard and understood? And I would say that’s rare, if I’m not the one presenting it, or if I’m not the one saying it to have that presented, as you know, kind of this is the base level thing. It was powerful.

Chanda Smith Baker  17:48

Lewiee, I can see you also nodding your head. Were there. Were there moments of sort of solution setting that stood out for you and your time there. And Baltimore?

Lewis McCaleb  17:59

Oh, yeah, it was a few moments actually, moment, number one, being able to meet other black men that currently work in partnership with the system on this issue, right, like building those strong partnerships with the law enforcement departments or county attorneys or council members, like having government be engraved in this issue, because we understand there are there X amount of dollars and resources that go towards solving these. And I come from, like the more grassroots organizing culture where like we do this work based off of our heart, and because we know it’s the right thing to do. But we usually don’t have the right amount of resources to truly like, fulfill our mission, and what we want to get done. So being able to, like meet that many people that’s working in government, and they understand how to tap into the resources was amazing. Because here in Minnesota, I’ve been growing and maturing in that space to where like, now I’m a county worker, and I’m in you know, I’m I have relationships with some decision makers, and we’re looking at major budgets and how to allocate funding to the proper resources of our community. But then, like, kind of making that cross is very conflicted as well, you know, and there’s a lot of growth that needs to be done internally, in order to just be comfortable with that, you know, it’s very uncomfortable to work in that space being especially you might have some beliefs or some morals that you have to keep intact, as always, so it was encouraging to see other black men that, you know, was able to navigate that that space, you know, like Brandon said earlier might be some community conversations, and some people from this side might disagree with the way you’re doing your work on this side. But you know, like, you’re just doing it for the bigger picture, and there’s no ill intent, so that was helpful. And then the other piece to it, so I was able to meet a guy that’s doing some work out in Baltimore, and they introduced like a whole new program, I did it that the pilot in this year, caught the sidestep program where like the idea is like to get like a suspect list, right of young people that it’s like you, you haven’t been charged for anything or haven’t been caught like you haven’t been arrested just yet. But like, you kind of own a radar. And they’re working in partnership with the government to like, step in, like sidestep, like come in and get them and enroll them into this program. And if you complete that, you can avoid arrests completely. And I just thought, like, that idea alone was amazing. I’m like, Man, I want to bring that to Minnesota, you know, so like, just being able to analyze things like that, like, Okay, I love that innovation and the way that we’re thinking as far as like changing this, because a lot of times, like, it’d be too late for some people, sometimes, you know, when they do get caught up, so to step in before that it’s too late moment, and it might not even necessarily be too late. But psychologically, we believe that it’s too late. And that’s why we stay on a run. That’s why we don’t turn ourselves in, because psychologically, we already see ourselves in a cell, you know, and that’s terrifying. We don’t want to go there. So of course, somebody will run away.

Chanda Smith Baker  21:11

KJ, you talked about sort of being on the other side. And so now you on the other side, right? You’ve been on all the sides. And, you know, of course, I know your brilliance and the expertise you bring into the field, I’ve watched you in the rooms at the Minneapolis Foundation, open eyes have what the experiences are. So when you are in that space, and they are setting out solutions, and they’re talking about things you have, you know, sort of a unique perspective to be able to sort of assess it. And probably I would imagine, reflect and say, Would that have helped me? When I was younger? Did you? Do you feel that way? Are there things that you wish would have been available when you were up and coming and finding yourself? Sort of falling through the cracks?

KJ Rolenc  22:00

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s where a lot of pretty much maybe all the my passion in the work come from, you know, is being able to sit there and evaluate, hear a situation and assess, like, yeah, yes, sounds valid, or like now almost that a work, you know, just seeing how I feel like, you know, brothers will accept, you know, and the way that they’ll receive, you know, the word, you know, me still, me still knowing and being in tune with all the cats that I grew up with, you know, I understand that, like, you know, they’re still, you know, there’s still guys out here who I’m still trying to pull away from that lifestyle, you know, and who I’m trying to show something different, and show that there’s a different way. And you know, a lot of the work that I do is me trying to firsthand show them, hey, you can come from all of this, you can do all of this, you know, you can do all this harm in the community. And it’s not too late for you to turn around and put nothing but good into your community moving forward. And so I definitely feel like I love having a perspective of being able to have seen everything from the other stance, you know, and that those are the people that we’re trying to reach, you know, we’re trying to reach me and the pads, you know, and I love these, I love these programs. I’m thinking like, Man, I wish I had that for me. You know, I wish I had that for me 15-20 years ago, you know, and maybe that would have put me on a different path, you know, and that’s a lot of the work that I’m doing in the community now. And, you know, even with these young kids in a boxing gym, and everything else would be like, Hey, let me try to pull them away and give them some guidance that I didn’t receive that I feel like would have been really beneficial to me. So, I’m always constantly as I’m in these rooms, putting myself back in that 10-15-20-year-old mindset of myself, and saying, hey, you know, how would I have received this? And how could this message have come to me, where it would have made the biggest impact to maybe persuade me to go another way.

Chanda Smith Baker  24:06

The one thing I love about the Cities United space, and I think you all said this, but I just want to repeat it, like me talking to someone in a hoodie, and you can make an assumption and then find out they got a PhD, then you can be talking to someone in a suit. And you could make an assumption. And you can find out they spent 30 years in prison. And it’s like it just messes with your own biases that you have. And I think what they’ve done so masterfully that we could be thinking differently about what we do and how we show up is that they honor the expertise and the brilliance of everyone that it’s not like they don’t leave what positions they’re leading with. We are all here to make a difference and community and everybody in this space is valuable. Everyone here can contribute so that everyone here has an opportunity to be engaged to talk to connect, that there’s not like the same value chains that you sometimes feel and see when you go into space, and you’re like, Oh, this isn’t for me, because these are all the PhDs on this side of the room. So let me go to this side of the room, you honestly can’t tell.

KJ Rolenc  25:09

Yeah, I just want to second that like that. You hit it on the head, you know, because you’ll be sitting there talking to a guy. And you know, he’ll be in a three-piece so and, you know, maybe while the way he talks, you kind of think in your head, like, you know, it seemed like a square dude a little bit. And then he like, oh, yeah, by the way, you I’m coming home. I’ve been home for 10 years, and it’s what I’ve been doing since then. And I started 25 years, you’ll be like, oh, you know, and then it’s just, you know, that’s why I say it’s beautiful to be there. And to not be judged by anything. It’s not a, you know, so much, you know, my personal life. You know, with, me coming home originally, when I was like, almost 25 years old to be at 30. Now, there’s so it’s been a hindrance to so many ways, having a record is so to be in this space. And for it to almost be a benefit, you know, to almost have, you know, insight that a lot of folks don’t have that so beneficial to his work is refreshing.

Brandon Williams  26:04

If I can comment on that quick. One thing, I had a conversation with Anthony Smith, who’s the executive director of Cities United, me and him was talking because we had a number of executive sessions where there was mayor’s in the room talking, there was a press conference, it was a few different things that I was invited to. And I was asked them like, hey, what’s the attire and he was like, man, you know how we are, you know, we get down, I’m in sweats and jeans all day, not changing out of it. I think he might have changed it to a suit one time for presentation. But just that vibe was what it felt like in the rooms we had, as you said, the people that were like boots on the ground workers, like they were in their attire, they came showed up who they were, they didn’t feel encouraged to talk. But for the people who are they didn’t feel forced to talk. But for the people who wanted to, like it felt very comfortable. And like we were there existing, not as if, you know, we didn’t have a purpose, but more so of like, okay, we’re in a room of people who are like us, we don’t have to show out to do too much. But you also can do that. We have the gala night where everyone was able to pop out and you know, kind of dress up. But for me, the most powerful thing. Also was understanding that you didn’t have to be performative, right? Like you were where you needed to be, you were where you want it to be, you were where you felt like you were valued. And you can learn a lot. But there was nothing truly forced, but just a different experiences. As KJ said, it was it was shocking to be talking to someone and they’re like, Yeah, I’m a lawyer, or Yeah, I’m a I’m a licensed therapist, and to step in on conversations where people are welcoming you into them. Um, it was just it was amazing.

Chanda Smith Baker  27:33

So it was part of the overall experience. Y’all got on, I don’t know, took a car over to DC went to the museum. How was that guy? Okay, that was,

KJ Rolenc  27:42

That was my third time going to the museum. And I was telling them before we went, they were like, Yeah, you know, probably be able to go to the museum. No, we might make lunch by two o’clock, 1:30 I was like, Nah, we’re gonna be here until the close, you know, we went in the morning, I’m like, not for sure. We gonna be there. Why you say that? I’m like, Listen, this museum is six stories. And you could spend a whole day on each floor. You know, I’m like, is that dense, you know, it is that much? It is beautiful, you know, best museum I’ve ever been in. So by far. And, you know, this being my third time, you know, I saw things that I never saw before the previous two times, you know, and I feel like I could go 10 more times, and 20 more times, and it probably be the same experience. I just, there’s so much history. And there’s so much information. And I think the museum laid out beautiful everybody needs to go as many times as they can.

Chanda Smith Baker  28:42

I feel that Lewiee, how about you? How’s the museum for you?

Lewis McCaleb  28:45

Yeah, absolutely. I would echo everything brother KJ just said, very immersive experience. I really appreciate the spirit of Sankofa being here to like, just understanding where we come from, and understand where we get in order to get to where we going, you know, and me being a believer that like, that’s not just all that we come from, as well. So, I had a lot of different thoughts, those bubbling up for me, but just to appreciate the effort that was that was done and into, you know, creating a platform for you know, that that piece of history and, and being able to have people learn from it. And what I appreciated the most was just seeing, even in spite of slavery, right in spite of colonization, in spite of Jim Crow, in spite of KKK, like, in spite of all of the very hateful and demonic and dehumanizing activities that have been placed upon a group of people, we still rise and we continue to rise. Right. And in the words of our honorable Maya Angelou, I appreciated it that the most out of everything because I’m like man, who is literally living in a life that was and living at all, you know, it was indeed death but not everybody, you know, you know, went for that, you know, you have many people who stood up and fought for what was right and did the work that needed to be done in order to pave the way for our generation to be here today. And the changes that have taken place, you know, I believe that like mental slavery is, is the biggest thing right now. And I didn’t age, but just seeing like, in spite of all of those struggles, we are still here, we continue to be resilient, we exist, and we’re doing great things. You know, we’ve always been architects, we’ve always been mathematicians, we’ve always been doctors, we, we’ve always, you know, had this had this heritage that is rooted in royalty, and, um, to truly, like, just see that I’m embodied to through this museum. And even in his conference, as well, was very empowering. You know, it keeps a young black man like me, who often you know, sometimes I’m found questioning my words, or like questioning my existence or feeling hopeless due to whatever reason, right, um, to be intact with a strong community. And a strong history that continues to hold me up and uplift me up when I’m down is very important. Like I said earlier, it takes a village to raise a child. So I was able to just, you know, reflect on it, reflect on my village and be proud that I’m here and I’m doing the work that needs to be done.

Chanda Smith Baker  31:34

I was in Atlanta while you guys were in Baltimore, and I looked down, I got a text message from Brandon and Brandon was like, Yo, Chanda, we want to go over to DC to the Smithsonian, what do you feel about that? I’m like, go for Brandon, take take the take the group, I think it’s a worthy investment. Right? And what made you ask to go and what was your experience?

Brandon Williams  31:56

Some of our partners from the Office of Violence Prevention, brought up the idea and thinking of the conference, I was thinking of this as being like a healing time to kind of enter that moment. And when they asked about it, it just aligns so well as people with our group. And they were like, Yeah, let’s go KJ was very adamant about he was like, look, I’ve been there before, and I’m telling you, we’re not going to get through it in a day. And I’m like, Yeah, whatever. We don’t go we don’t be there for a little bit. We don’t have lunch, you know, us we young we ready to dip when we are ready to dip. We even separated when we got there. But just truly going. And being a part of that like getting there going through the experience. It’s it was like breathtaking is the word I was used. Because I’ve been in many museums. And normally you don’t have to mentally prepare yourself as like, Okay, I’m going to learn I’m going to maybe see something unique are something different, but going to that. And I think being black people being young people having a certain perspective on a world like it was just so much knowledge and history, that it’s something that really, I mean, it took vulnerability to process a lot of it. And for me, although I feel like I’m mentally prepared myself like alright bro, you big you don’t, don’t go up to here crying. Like when you go to this Emmett Till day, they’ll get to chicken, very big into law too. So going through like the stories of Thurgood Marshall and their stories, and just like oppression from that, it was very powerful. But for me, I think the one experience that wrapped up kind of what it meant to go to that museum outside of like the joyful effort was me and Lewiee was sitting at this table that kind of walks you through the sit ins and how to prepare yourself. And actually these questions of like, you know, if this was happening to you, what would be your response? And he gave percentages of how people would answer. And then on the video, there was the riots happening, where they were fighting and things were happening. And there was this family that walked to the left of us, and I’m like, in my own head, like, what you want me to be quiet, you don’t need to fight back on everything I answered, I’m punching somebody. I mean, I could show my reservation. But like, for me, in some situations, when people are throwing food, it was really depressing. But I’m in my own head, and I look over to the left, and this kid walked up and he’s like, What, oh, my God, look, mom, they’re fighting. They’re fighting, like, how are they fighting. And I tensed up, like, you know, a teardrop Lewiee didn’t see it, I cuffed it, but like to be in that moment, where we realized that this is bigger than us. Like, even though we’re in our own head, we have young people after us looking at these situations that’s processing a different, less, that’s really internalizing this stuff that does really let me know that a lot of it was bigger than me the trip, they experienced a museum having a committee there. We were really bonding in a way and building this understanding of each other in our work in this respect. That was much more than myself. And I think that kind of set the table really had me reflect differently about the entire conference. And that time together. After that, I took my time definitely through the museum, but just having that moment happen. And you know, being like the oldest of eight, it was really powerful to see that we have a lot of people after us, looking at how we respond to situations looking. Let’s you know, looking at what’s going on in the world, and really, pretty much how we’re responsive to those things. So it was it was emotional. It was amazing. It was joyful. The music and situations was fire, like every level had some piece that I can relate to that brought me inspiration, but also made me kind of reflect on what we’ve been through, there was anger, it was the whole nine.

Chanda Smith Baker  35:17

I know, just going back to a little bit of what Lewiee was talking about in terms of like the anger and the protests, relative to like, policing encounters that end in death or violence towards our community, we don’t often demonstrate the same level of anger and frustration with community level violence. And I don’t disagree with you, I do think there’s a lot of people working on it. I think it’s been in silos, I think it’s not, there’s so much more room for us to be loud. Over this last week, right? I’ve been watching a lot of news with migos and Take Off, getting killed down in Houston. And I was listening to someone and they’re like, you know, at least once a year, there’s a rapper that gets killed. And, um, you know, and I just really negatively reacted to that. There are people that are getting killed across this country every day. And folks that are in the industry are no exception. And I think that we tend to, like label black men that live in the neighborhood, like you live on the north side, you live on this side, right? You’re a rapper, you’re, you know, you’re an athlete. So these are these, like these labeling elements that becomes bigger than the violence that was perpetrated on Take Off for me was what I finally rested on in sort of my my spirit and my reflection, one of the things that I’ve talked about often, and I appreciate it, sort of the level of emotion because I think we’re surrounded by a lot of things a lot of times, and Lewiee, you talk a little bit like when you’re feeling hopeless, and you’re encountering the violence and, and I just want to lay layer that in, because there’s a lot of violence around us right now. And I love that you guys are building relationships, because you guys are in the age group you are in the work, you are in proximity to it in a way that I’m not even in proximity to this. And I just, I know that it is impacting you deeply. And if there are people listening, that have an ability to do something about what you think needs to be done, what would you share with them? Right? Like if you want people to act differently on this issue, like what what does that look like? Like whether or not it’s seeing you and caring for you individually? Or is it like what is that action?

Brandon Williams  37:50

I heard something powerful, again, at the conference, during one of our young leaders session. And it was about just like, in terms of being a community, we’ve given so many chances to other efforts, like if we think about the police has been a system that has been heavily invested in. And what she said was we have to give other initiatives, other projects, other ideas that chance to thrive just as much as we have been investing in giving the police a chance because, you know, some people can take the mindset of like, no, let’s get rid of the system. Let’s throw it away for the for the people who do give it a chance. And we should be given that equal amount of chance and opportunity, investment and funding. And whether that’s boots on the ground work, whether that’s people working in schools, whether that’s people working on other prevention strategies, like we have to invest in that possibility. For me, I think that is the most powerful thing because it takes education, it takes understanding the issue. And I feel like for people who don’t have that proximity, the number one I think golden responsibilities is to educate yourself to have a certain level of understanding and to get as proximate to the work as you can or to the issue as you can not just saying, Hey, I’m watching TV. I’m watching this on the news. I saw this on Twitter, I saw Take Off just died. It’s a sad situation. But more so understanding who was takeoff, like what was Migos about, you know, some people might say, Oh, he’s a rapper, and I heard one of his songs, and he was talking about this, but not to know him as a person and how he gave back to his community. And now out of all the Migos he was known as the most timid one, and the one to encourage people. I think, really doing some of that work, really digging deep into issues, the causes of situations. I think that really will bring about change among a lot of different people. If you can’t convene. If you can’t be in a formal meeting, then try to do as much research or understanding as you can about situations.

Chanda Smith Baker  39:38

And I think one of the other things I heard is like maybe moving away from just as perpetual staying in the problem to moving towards solutions and including folks that have the actual understanding of the issue, bringing them to the table. KJ do you have anything that you would have to offer because this is this is so pervasive in our community right now the amount of violence that’s occurring, do you have any suggestions for folks that are listening in terms of how they might be able to be engaged and be supportive?

KJ Rolenc  40:08

I think, I think they just got to be willing to, they gotta be willing to listen, they gotta be willing to learn, you know, you got to be willing to put yourself in uncomfortable situations, you know, you got to, you got to be willing to go and talk to those that you’re trying to reach, you know, and really listen and ask questions, not be like, you know, not come from a judgmental standpoint, you know, come from an open standpoint of trying to welcome in, you know, I’m just kind of, I want to bring you in, I don’t want to judge you, I want to ask, like, what’s going on, you know, and what ways could I be of assistance to you, you know, and what ways can I convince you, you gotta, you gotta come with something better to offer to bring to the table as well, you know, better opportunities, you know, you can tell somebody that’s, uh, you know, perpetuating violence or some other kind of negativity in the community, you can tell them to stop all you want, you know, but what other options are you going to give them besides what is around them and what they’re seeing. So it’s like, you got to, you got to be willing to come to them and be open, and you also got to be willing to bring something to the table? That makes sense to them.

Chanda Smith Baker  41:15

Make sense to them? I love that. How about you, Lewiee?

Lewis McCaleb  41:18

Absolutely. That’s, that’s what that’s what us and the hip hop community would call a mic drop, right there. Well, Brother KJ, just shit. So. So mic drop line, my brother. The real that’s all have you, you know, like, if you you’re telling people to put the guns down? Are you telling them to stop selling whatever they selling? Okay, what are you replacing that with? And are you replacing it with something tangible? Are you replacing it with just another idea, but like, just another spark of hope, like, we’re past, we’re past the moment where we just want to give each other hope we can’t be out here selling hope we got to truthfully, like have some tangible resource, some tangible opportunities for people, you know, to believe in, you know, and one thing about belief is like, well, I’m willing believe it to we see it. So you got people to talk a good game, but they never deliver. And that, you know, um, that, that builds the lack of trust within that as well. I’m a firm believer that, um, when a flower doesn’t bloom, we fix that environment in which he grows, not the flower. Right? And who is the flower? Who are the seeds? Well, we are the seeds, we are the walking trees of life. And we live in an environment that is oversaturated with, you know, unhealthy foods that we eat unhealthy ideas for our mind, on unhealthy water, you know, it is just so toxic, you know, in certain environments, certain pockets of the neighborhood. So, when we look at issues like that, it’s like, man, you know, what are we really doing here? You know, and we have to work with each other, we have to build in a healthy ecosystem, you know, amongst each other as people, you know, in order to truly, you know, help each other thrive and grow. But, yeah, we gotta, we gotta look at this environment, you know, I’m not here to play the blame game, I get to play the same game, not pointing the finger at anybody saying, You’re the reason I’m like this, I’m not here to do that. You know, I believe in accountability, I believe in consequences for our choices and our actions. And I also, you know, believe that there have been strategic designs, you know, to put a group of people in a position that they are in, so, when we get to the root of those issues, and people hold themselves accountable for that, and we receive some justice from the hurt that’s being done. I believe that, that that will help us, we’re moving forward but absolutely, you know, get us out of this toxic environment, put us in a place to where we can truly, like, just be you know, and just breathe and think clearly have a sense of clarity. It’s very hard to think clearly, when you got to look over your shoulder 24/7 Or when you saying, you know, CPS take your, you know, separates your family apart, you know, when when you see these things when you get kicked out of school, you know, being told that, you know, you’re not going out to anything, you know, it’s very hard to think clearly, when you live in in a constant state of fear in a state of trauma. You know, instead of always viewing ourselves from a trauma informed lens. Can we start to view ourselves from a talent and form lens? Right? Um, you know, if my, if my people were enslaved, can you tell me about my people, you know, that were kings and queens as well. You know, like, you know, give me the full story. Don’t just give me a watered down version of your story. I think a lot of that has to do with the issues that we see today. But KJ said it beautifully, you know, you need to bring something else valuable to the table for sure for sure.

Chanda Smith Baker  44:57

Lewiee, I know you have a piece that you want to share with us.

Lewis McCaleb  45:00

Great here we go the name of this piece is called “Be Free” and I wrote this as a message to my black men. From the moment you born they snatch away your crown your family is scorned they try to keep you down everything full circle when it comes back around as you’re gonna be another slave building up the town or take back your crown have everything reclaim their walk into your power teach them to do the same yeah they just want to put us in a box or a grave but look at what we had and how far we that came. Yeah, we can be free free freedom is really knowing yourself free free freedom is taken care yeah health free free free. You don’t miss generational wealth breaking generational curses making it out of hell but in the hood feel like we hyponotized see me wear my hoodie on and now I’m stigmatized. I really beat a truth they live in a lie swears fire and you see it and I ask why they refuse to be a fool consumed and used as a tool just for the day I found my purpose in this too the truth of the matter is self expression is liberation, we need progression [word] and better payment have been breaking free and folks from the cages by freeing myself they watch it and find it as inspiration champ of people we need more of this representation that says for the next generation landed a free I just want to make money but this land full of greed they want to take from me America it’s not a country it’s a corporation built upon corpses and created not enslavement hope racist cutthroat nation on losing patients, my people facing systematic oppression and economic devastation, the mass incarceration and multi generations of trauma passed from mamas and mamas and grandmas to our fathers who was taken from out of our home stripped of identity got us looking like skeleton bones gotta learn how to own we can no longer afford to rent fellas US versus the world. So when these persons I’mma vent, the police destroying tents they terrorizing the homeless, a thin line between low morale in these moments, these people bogus, I am feeling like a civilian they got us screaming hashtag save the children from the moment you born, they snatch away your cramp your family, your scorned, they try to keep you down everything full circle, when it comes back around, as you’re gonna be another slave building up the town. But take back your crown, have everything reclaimed, then walk into your power, teach them to do the same. Yeah, they just want to put us in a box. or a grave, but look at where we get and how far we came, we gonna be free, be free.

Chanda Smith Baker  47:30

Thank you for that. There’s so much time like y’all are. So we just have so much talent in this community. And I hope that the folks listening to this get a sense of what you all bring to this community, every single day, every time you wake up, every time your feet hit the floor, every time you get into a meeting, your talent exists, and it exists despite their willingness to hear it or not. I am so grateful that you are serving on our advisory committee, and that you chose to go to the Cities United conference where you could see and be yourselves where you can contribute where you can get the ideas from other parts of the country. That you know if there are ideas that that came forward there that you think should be in Minneapolis, please let us know about them here. So that we can think about and learn about it. And because we need to continue to learn what we need to do here to disrupt the cycle of violence that we have here. But also how do we get to a place where we can be well and whole, right, where we can thrive and move past some of the places that we’ve been? KJ, I’ve appreciated sort of this perspective, you brought around unity, right? Like, how do we do the work? And how do we do it together? Like there’s there’s a time where you act alone, where you have an identity that’s important to maintain? And then there’s a moment where it really is about the collective. So what about the collective experience? How do we do that more and more often, so that everyone else can see that despite us having different approaches, we on the same game, we trying to get the same ending which is Black Lives Matter and all day every day, that they can thrive and do what they need to do. So as we close, I just want to give you guys just a moment to just close out with anything you’d like to share with the audience, so Brandon I’ll go with you because I can see you smiling.

Brandon Williams  49:35

Now I’m just I’m happy and I’m joyful, the work around violence prevention or being in community. It’s a thankless job that was said a lot during the conference. And I think in everyday life, I’m in something where you do it because you’re motivated, you’re inspired. And sometimes you have situations where you feel called and people are like no, no, you’re great for this. For me, I just feel so much joy because I feel like I’m at a place where I feel valued. and I have that equity and being in a place where people like you, Chanda, mainly speaking you, but people who share that same value of like, you know, I can speak but I can give someone else that platform that chance that opportunity to take advantage of it. And I think that’s what makes a difference. That’s what sets the table for what should be going forward. For people who will be who are victims now to this environment, how do we put them in a place to be leaders in that environment and to influence that that’s what the advisory is about. That’s what my work at the foundation is about. That’s what community impact is about. And that’s what your leadership is about. And it’s a reflection really of what the community should be about. And it’s, it’s almost unbelievable, to be in these situations, to be at that conference to be with my people to go and experience different things to see, to see hurt, to see pain to see pressure being brought about different people, but also to feel that like appreciation, love that care, and a shared motivation for the work. It’s unmatched it’s untouched. And it’s really I say, it’s a privilege to be doing this work, because it is.

Chanda Smith Baker  51:01

How about you KJ?

KJ Rolenc  51:03

I want to close out and just, you know, given a huge shout out to the Minneapolis Foundation, and specifically you signed. And me being a founding member of this advisory board has just been a huge blessing in my life, you know, being here with the board from day one, having stuff that went on in my life and the board always standing with me, just me having that opportunity to be able to do this work and give back, you know, having that platform. And this being a second convention that we went into as a team, being great to be able to be in these spaces and get different perspectives from all around the country, you know, and just get fresh ideas and, you know, just being rejuvenated to get back in and community and do the work, do everything that we can it just like hey, it’s not just us. It’s a collective. It’s everybody. You know, and you guys really not just talking it, but walking it, you know, and so, love y’all, and I appreciate it. You know?

Chanda Smith Baker  52:05

I love you too. Okay, Lewiee, close us out.

Lewis McCaleb  52:08

Yay, yay, yay. I echo everything. They said thank you, Chanda, for being such a great leader that you are. I’m very grateful and honored to be a part of this committee. Thank you for reaching out, Brandon, you know, Brandan told me to, I think probably like a year before I even joined, you know, like, the, you know, I was pulled in so many directions, like I said earlier, you know, doing a lot. But like taking that time to pause was like, Okay, let me actually choose and not be chosen, what do I want to do? You know, and he was just very consistent. We’re having me be there. And I’m so happy that I chose to join the committee and being able to experience being a resource to my community at this level. You know, having that open up, you know, more doors of opportunity. And everything we experienced last week in Baltimore, DC, came as such a very divided time and for myself, and where I’m at in my life. So I’m very grateful to have have a village, I have a community, I’m grateful to be existing in this moment of time, you know, I was just close out and just say, ubuntu, I am because we are, right, we are reflections of each other. I love each and every one of you dearly, we are valuable, we are powerful, we are lovable, we are important. And we will continue to liberate ourselves and liberate the minds and bodies and souls of others, and create, you know, a much more loving, thriving community for the next 400 years.

Chanda Smith Baker  53:36

I hope that you learn something, I hope you are inspired by the brilliance of Brandon Williams, Lewiee Blaze and KJ Rolenc  . I’m so pleased and happy as you could hear my delight and having them be advisors to the work that I’m leaving at the Minneapolis Foundation, to be with me in community and to be thinking about work and leadership in ways that I have not had the opportunity to think about. And so I appreciate the value that they bring the learning that I get from them. So this is Chanda Smith Baker, from Conversations with Chanda, thank you and make it a great week.

Souphak Kienitz  54:13

And here’s our guest and artist Lewiee Blaze and his song called Freedom Fighter, featuring Myon Burrell and Kevin Reese.

Lewiee Blaze  54:26

[Music Plays]

Close Transcript -
About Our Guests

Lewiee Blaze

Lewis McCaleb, otherwise known as Lewiee Blaze, is a musician and visionary based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He is the founder of N4 Collective (New Mindsets, New Media, New Leaders, and New Narratives.) N4 is an artist cooperative that intersects artistry and activism. Lewiee is an internationally known artist who’s graced stages across America and collaborated with creators from Africa and Denmark. He is passionate about change and is a messenger of truth, love, peace, freedom, and justice.

K.J. Rolenc

K.J. Rolenc is a passionate advocate for social justice and community building in his home city of Minneapolis. A founding board member on the advisory board for the Fund for Safe Communities at the Minneapolis Foundation, K.J. works with various nonprofits throughout the city, both with violence prevention and at-risk youth. He does speaking engagements and coaches at a local boxing gym, mentors youth, and is currently waiting to be licensed in real estate. He intends to open his own nonprofit in the future.

Want to learn more?

Our Fund for Safe Communities was established in 2018 to support tangible, specific, and meaningful actions to address and prevent violence. See who’s on our advisory committee and where we’ve given grants. Go to our team page to find Brandon Williams’ bio. He is the Foundation’s Criminal Justice and Safe Communities Fellow and the Fund for Safe Communities advisory committee leader.