We Are the Work
Repa Mekha has more than 30 years of experience in community building and systems change work. Currently, he is the President & CEO of Nexus Community Partners. In this episode, Chanda talks with Repa about the weight of leadership, the critical moments in his life, and their work together on the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness & Realize Racial Justice.
Souphak Kienitz 00:04
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 00:16
I appreciate you being on the podcast. Very much looking forward to this conversation today.
Repa Mekha 00:23
May the ancestors guide my words, my thoughts, my deeds, and my direction. I’m excited about this conversation today. And you know, and I, I had to put it in my mind that, you know, this is a conversation with Chanda — we have these conversations all the time, you know, and the reality is that we don’t get to do it enough, right? And you and I have had conversations about that, about how powerful it would be if we had the opportunity to just step away some time, and have some, some real conversation with each other that didn’t involve the sense of having to run to the next thing, or there’s something very hot on the stove that we got to get, you know, those sorts of things that don’t allow us to really catch our breath, and to engage in real authentic conversation. So I’m excited to be able to be in this space with you this morning.
Chanda Smith Baker 01:21
You know, speaking of the moments, I was preparing for our conversation, and then, you know, our cities are now again in deep mourning, and some of us in disbelief… In emotions related to another police-involved deadly incident. And I thought, man, you know, sometimes things just align, what I thought the conversation would be is still as important. But even maybe more so as a result of what’s happening right now. And so I want to sort of go there, if that’s okay with you to just talk about that.
Repa Mekha 01:59
Yeah, yeah, I think it’s all intertwined. And so as we move to the conversation, I think that we will be speaking to it anyway. And it’s just, uh, in certain parts we may be, we may crystallize the conversation a little bit more. But yes, you can’t not acknowledge that we… That this conversation that we had, and even the way that we talked about having it earlier this week, lives in context.
Chanda Smith Baker 02:30
Yeah, I also was thinking a little bit about the conversation that you, I, and Malik had in the work that we do together with the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness. And one of the sessions that the three of us decided to do, we call the in-between.
Repa Mekha 02:46
Chanda Smith Baker 02:47
And it’s a little bit hard conversations go when we do have those windows and those moments of where we just, we just are and we just sort of talk about what’s on our heart and mind. And I think today, they might get a little, a little taste of this, this in-between that we do.
Repa Mekha 03:06
Absolutely. And so I mean, I thought about some of our coversations and was thinking about, you know, you would ask… We had talked about some of my story and, and my journey, and what were some critical moments. And I think, again, as I, as I think about the moment that we’re in now and some of that journey, I think that the two are intertwined, but I think that they both speak to a deep, deep happening inside of us that we don’t get to walk away from, we don’t get to pause from, and we don’t get the time out from. You know? And so, so again, I’m excited to kind of travel through the conversation as it unfolds.
Chanda Smith Baker 03:48
Why don’t we start with how you opened up? I hear you open up a lot about you know, may the ancestors guide my words and my deeds? And why do you do that?
Repa Mekha 03:58
I think invoking the wisdom, the knowledge, the insights of the ancestors is my way of demonstrating that there is a knowing that is greater than me. And that brings an ancient clarity and is an acknowledgment that ego can’t mob oneness, can’t carry the insight and wisdom and again, knowledge that I think I try to bring to conversations in authentic ways so as to not trip up and play around with… I just acknowledged it right out the gate that there’s and there’s a knowing that’s greater than me. And it lives in ancestors. And I asked those ancestors, to guide what I say. The other is about what I say that I believe that what I tried to be as mindful and responsible as possible for the words that come out of my mouth. Because once I give life to those words, whether people take them and run with them or people take them and sit with them or whatever they do with them. On my end, I put those words in there. And I want to be as intentional as possible. That those words leave people at a greater point when they leave then when they entered with me. And then the last, I think is really just a very practical is to, to ask for the strength and the fortitude to navigate some of the hard conversations that we have to engage in over and over and over and over again. You know, in our last discussion, you know, there was a couple of points where you said, don’t even make me go there, right? Well, I think about it, you know, like, what Marvin Gaye used to say, make you want to holler and throw up both your hands. It’s just conversations that can make you go, it just drive you nuts. And so part of the guidance that I asked for, is to help hold me down. Help hold me center, because some of this stuff is just, it don’t make sense. And we know it don’t make sense. And yet, here we are, again. And so…
Chanda Smith Baker 06:01
You took a sabbatical. Yeah. And this whole idea of holding me down and being anchored, and practice and doing things. And we have leadership that is being encountered by some really hard things. And they’re just, they just keep coming, and they keep coming. And the expectations are high, and people are quick to judge and move on you quickly. And then there’s the additional sort of weight of responsibility when those issues hit your community.
Repa Mekha 06:37
Chanda Smith Baker 06:38
Can you just speak to that way? Right, like that don’t even go there, or the conversations in which you are just constantly in?
Repa Mekha 06:47
Chanda Smith Baker 06:47
And you kind of have to do it with some diplomacy. At least diplomatically, but you got to practice some diplomacy in terms of how you handle it.
Repa Mekha 06:56
Yeah, I, you mentioned the sabbatical. We’ve known each other for a long time. And I’ve always tried to show up fully, and really speak truth. It’s one of the things that, you know, we talked about what I ask of the ancestors, when I start, no one can ever say that Repa told me a lie. No one can ever say that Repa told me that he was going to do one thing and did another. And I’m not just talking about a small circle of people, you can move across the state across this country. So I try to be as authentic as I can, in all of my interactions and be present in that way. But that means that I have to take the fullness of the experience that I’m having in and it’s a weighty experience, especially when you been… When part of your understanding and your consciousness is that is one of haven’t I been here before? This sounds and looks and feels familiar to me. And yet, here I am, again. And yet, I have to show up fully. And at one point in time, it got where that kind of being present and showing up just became so much weight that I had to take a break. And said to my board and I said to my staff, and I even said to most of our funders, this ain’t about commitment. This ain’t about capacity or ability. This is about me being a human being. And at one point, and at some point in time, you can only tolerate so much of this. And this is even with a… Within an organization where we have a wellness policy and a wellness program and I budget for wellness for my staff, right? And yet, arriving at a place where I had to just pause. And now we are embarking on and to the kind of bigger context… We are embarking on a sabbatical program for folks that are doing this work every day, in and out, and in an environment where it says if you’re not pushing yourself to the bitter end, to the point where you collapse, then you ain’t real. Then you ain’t serious about this. And this whole narrative around, work folks until they fall off, and then find somebody younger, and celebrate those going out. But bring somebody else in and go through the cycle again. I believe that if we don’t give folks the chance and the opportunity to take care of themselves and we’re setting them up, then we’re setting the struggle up to fail.
Chanda Smith Baker 09:35
How so? Because we’re not bridging the knowledge and the generations or how so?
Repa Mekha 09:41
No. So I think that this… What we see… And it’s sitting behind some of the conversation that we’re having right now is that the place of a more equitable, humane space to live and be gets harder all the time. And in fact, the closer that we get to what the harder it gets, the stronger the systems get, the more reactive folks are. And we know that. So we know that it’s not getting easier as we’re getting closer, it’s actually getting harder. And then in many cases, we even asking ourselves the question, are we getting close? So to have folks that we know, are committed to the cause, and out there day in and day out, whether it’s a positive about their job, or just a sense of commitment to their community. And we don’t take the time to take care of them, knowing what it takes for them to do that, is to set them up. If we don’t create spaces and ways for them to pause, and for their families, to breathe. And for them for, for them to, to catch up to themselves, then what we know and we know it is that we are a contributor to bringing in great harm to them.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:01
This conversation that we’re having, are we talking about leaders of color?
Repa Mekha 11:07
Yeah, for sure. Because they carry the biggest burden. It’s almost as if they created the circumstances they’re dealing with, they carry the heaviest burden. And so this, I made reference to the sabbatical, this is a BIPOC sabbatical and it is geared to recognize and honor the fact that folks out there, many of them not getting paid, but doing the work on a day to day basis. Many of them not part of an organization, but they’re out there every day and every night, and they have to do it. Part of the reason that we show up for the work is because we are the work.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:41
We are the work. And let me just speak to the people that are getting paid to do the work. Because there are people that are paid to do the work and the work doesn’t end at 5 p.m. There are expectations of their community and from their community and of themselves back to the community that doesn’t allow them to get out of work and go home and relax until they come back in the morning.
Repa Mekha 11:55
That’s right. That’s right.
Chanda Smith Baker 12:09
Their churches calling out or their neighbors are calling on them. They’re working with their kids, friends, they’re doing other heavy work on top of the work that they’re getting paid for. And it’s not often understood, or people are like why do you do that? It’s not understood that there’s not often a way to separate those identities and expectations.
Repa Mekha 12:29
That’s right. To the point where I’ve just come to understand that even when I’m sleeping, I’m thinking. Even when I’m sleeping, I’m thinking. You don’t get a break. You don’t get a timeout. Remember when we was young and it was a game, you know, you chase each other? And when you want to take a break, you call two D’s or something like that it means it hold up, let me catch my breath. You don’t get that. You don’t get that. It is in your every breath. And this sabbatical recognizes that. It’s those who are up in systems and those that are out on the ground, the through line — the thing is, if they’re both pushing for the same kind of change.
Chanda Smith Baker 13:09
Yeah. Which is often misunderstood, right? This whole thing of people that are moving for change can also be within institutions?
Repa Mekha 13:18
Yeah, in fact, some have to be in institutions. It’s always been an inside and outside game that has gotten the best results. So we have to be inside. We have to see how it works. We have to be in proximity to some of the change that we want to see happen. And the processes through which that change must happen requires that we be able to reach out and touch it.
Chanda Smith Baker 13:43
So you talked about a nice game where you can call a time out. And were you like a deep kid? Were you thinking heavy as a little child running around? Playing hockey or what?
Repa Mekha 13:55
It’s very interesting, I lived a very quiet life as a kid where I don’t think I talked much until I was maybe in the fourth grade or so. I had learned some things about who I am and about being Black. That led me to be very, very quiet, and in many ways as invisible as possible. What it forced me to do in many ways was to spend time in my head thinking about things that I didn’t have words out of lack of exercise. I didn’t have words to articulate and so in my mind, I thought I drew pictures in my mind I do connections in my mind. I drew. I spoke to details in my mind that my words just couldn’t. I didn’t have the words to match. But I learned it was only later in my kind of youth that I actually begin to practice being able to release what was in my head through words that came out of my mouth.
Chanda Smith Baker 15:03
And what did you learn that kept you in your head? And who taught it to you?
Repa Mekha 15:08
Yeah, this idea of image, and what is the value, and what is the nature of Blackness. And I remember, early on as a kid, and this goes back, as far as kindergarten, two years old. So yeah, I was a really young kid. And somewhere along the way, at that age, I had received the message. And again, I didn’t have language, and so the language that I used then. I had come to understand that there was something about the Blackness of my skin, that was a sin, right? And how, when I reflect back on being, you know, on that stage in my life, this is, like I said, it’s this, like second grade or something, the experience that kind of amplifies that, for me is that I remember being in a classroom and having to use the bathroom, and being afraid to raise my hand. Because if I raised my hand, it meant that you would turn to give your attention to me. And if you turn to give your attention to me, then you saw me. If I’m in the skin that’s a sin, then you see me as that. And my family didn’t teach me that. My neighbors didn’t teach me that. My aunties and all them didn’t teach me that. But somewhere I had learned early on that there was something very, very deep, and very, very bad about being Black. And that stuck with me for a long time. And, and it’s very powerful. When you’re a kid and you learn that message early, early on. I shared with you… It was actually around the age of 10, that I actually begin to explore a connection between my words and what was in my head, and allowing the two to flow together. And it was, it was a song. I went back and look at I looked at the Times. Itwas 1968. James Brown had just come out with the song, “Say it Loud — I’m Black, and I’m Proud.” In many ways, it’s a song. You know, it was kind of one of the one of his many songs. But if you listen very, very close to the song, two things that happen, a very powerful connection between the two words Black and proud, and an echo of say it loud, say it loud, say it loud. And my head caught that. I was 10 years old, my head caught that. The context for that — 1968 was three years after the killing of Malcolm X. The same year, the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the atmosphere was thick. And so I knew it was just more than a song. Right? It was the space that I was in even as a kid. And then when I look back, there’s a video of a school in Harlem, where young kids are being taught how not to have that same thing instilled in their heads, and they’re being taught at a very early age. And that video is 1968. The same period. And this is a video where the teacher is telling kids in a classroom, preparing them for the life and the messaging that they will get as they leave and enter into the world. And he said to them in very intense instruction, “You are an eagle.” And you can hear the kids say no. Yes, you are. No, I’m the teacher. I know things. I know more than you. And I’m telling you that you are. And some of the kids right away no. Others, you can see the struggle in them have almost being willing to say yes. And then being asked, uh, who are you? And back then it was Afro-American. Right? And this idea, what is it that you want? I want my freedom. Well, you have to wait on it. No. Well, yes, you do know. When do you want it? I want it now. I mean, that kind of preparation, being absolutely necessary. You watch the clip, and the clip will… It makes you tense when you watch it. At the very same time you absolutely understand it. It was that context in that space was the time that I really began to discover my voice. And I think the thing that really tipped it was a teacher. Fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Lefloor, right? And Mr. Lefloor wore a big afro and Tashikis. And certain times of the year we put paper around all the walls of the classroom and we’d draw. And we draw the motherland. We draw and I mean it was it was it he’d never he didn’t know it at the time, and neither did I know that he was creating pathways for me to really get closer to who I really am.
Chanda Smith Baker 20:10
There’s so much in there that has come forward for me. And one of them is the recent series of the mothers in the movement. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it talks about Mamie Till and Emmett Till — most of us know his story. And if someone doesn’t, they should go do some research on Emmett Till. But he was a young 14 year old who was murdered on a trip to the South. He was leaving from Chicago, and you hear this story about his family training him to basically not be seen. Right? To mind, to not have eye contact, to don’t be you know… Here’s how you survive, like literally survive. Right? We’re still talking about survival in a very different way. Right? Like we are right in the city. Right now. There’s press conferences happening around, conversations around dinner tables, families praying about survival of their children, and what we’re talking about and what you’re talking about, and a phrase that that I heard you say is that we have young people in our city, and now negotiating with adults their own sense of dignity. Right? And worthiness. And people trying to find people, organizations, right? Us? Working to find ways to counter the messages that come through to say, you can be seen this way, but not that way. Yeah, you’re worthy if you act this way, but not that way. We will celebrate you if you’re this, but not that.
Repa Mekha 21:50
Yeah. It is very deep, because at the very same time, I truly believe this sitting inside young people is these glimpses of… There is something very powerful in me. There is something my own experiences led me through… Just a little bit of context. I grew up in Milwaukee — three brothers and a sister. Financially, economically, in poverty, but in terms of love each other and relationship and closeness — rich. Early on at the age of nine, I lost my mother, and then at the age of 13, I lost my father who had not been around because he struggled with alcoholism. And at nine, when my mother passed away, my oldest brother was 21, my sister was 18, and I had a 15-year-old brother. I was nine and had a seven-year-old younger brother. My 21-year-old brother got drafted to Vietnam. That left the 18-year-old with responsibility for a 15-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a seven-year-old. And I had cousins and so forth, but my mother did not want us separated. So that meant an 18-year-old took on, I mean, her, her life was pretty much shaped. Who’s wanting to move into a relationship with what an 18-year-old that has a 15-year-old, and a nine and a seven? And they ain’t like the nice boys on the block. You know? And so and that’s all of us, you know, with the exception of my sister, getting out into the streets. And I started early before… By 13 was in a gang. My older brother came back from Nam. Both my older brothers sold drugs. I learned to sell drugs and got engaged with everything that you can imagine that was out there. But all along the way, there was a little part of me and something inside that was saying, but there’s something powerful in me. I just couldn’t take the time to listen to it. In fact, it might even have been dangerous for me to pause in the conversation with the fellas to say guess what, y’all something very powerful was happening inside of me. Right? Right. And my sister was very good at constantly tapping that in me. And yet, I had committed myself to selling, spending it down as fast as I could, because I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t hear but it was there.
Chanda Smith Baker 24:36
Why would it have been dangerous? Why did it… Why would it feel dangerous for you to tap into that?
Repa Mekha 24:42
In the streets, you in context. And so to be sitting around on the corner and we’re doing our thing and then you bust out in the conversation about this very powerful potential you have on the inside, right? Folks turn to look at you. And so I just, I just didn’t have the time. But the story that I think that the reason I bring it out is that I talked about this kind of challenge and racial identity and Blackness in this, this piece around, trying to discover who I was. But in that, in that journey, I actually discovered that all that I needed to do was listen to what was in me and have the time to pay attention to it. At 21, I ended up facing 85 years in prison. I got sentenced to maximum security with a seven-year bid, and it changed my life. And I’m not proposing going to prison as a kind of career pathway. But I made a commitment/ I was 21, I had given my whole life to a lifestyle and had nothing to show for it. I made a commitment. And we were talking the other day about critical moments… I made a commitment that I’ve given 21 years to, to the life to that knew and that I owe myself five of those back. And I didn’t know what they were going to be like. I didn’t know… I knew they didn’t want any guarantees. But if I could give 21, then I can give five. And, and buckled down. You know, and I began to, to listen a little bit clearer to what was living in me that I now understand was my vocation and my calling. And we talked about this the other day, I’ve never pursued careers. I’ve always been more oriented towards vocation. And I think, again, your vocation is about your calling. And it’s about the journey of discovery of self and purpose. Where careers are platforms to which we exercise and actualize purpose, right? And that vocation lives with you from the beginning, even when you don’t know it’s there. And that our lives are about experiences or openings for purpose to come through. And so I think the more I listened, the more I learned across time in there. I had dropped out of school. So I got my GED in there. And one of the messages that I was saying… This is something that you were implying a little bit early, nobody does it alone. I remember a teacher brought me my GED scores and said, you know, look, look at this. You see what this is? And I said yeah, GED scores. She said but do you know what it qualifies you for? And I said, yeah, to get my GED. Right, yeah, it makes sense to me. Right? But she said, no, it qualifies you for a college program and that’s been hosted between the local university in the prison. And I said yeah, that’s nice. She said, so why don’t you go for it? And I said, I don’t think so. And there’s a glimmer of that thing again, because I said colleges for rich white people.
Chanda Smith Baker 28:15
Was that a message that someone gave you or how did you arrive at that?
Repa Mekha 28:18
Having seen… Only the images. Where do you see… When you see pictures of images on TV of college, or whatever it is in education? Who do you see? Right?
Chanda Smith Baker 28:33
I remember, oh, my gosh, she just brought this up. My cousin Kim graduated from the University of Minnesota, and I went to her graduation ceremony. And you know, those are large ceremonies. There’s a 1,000 people there. And I walked in, and I’m like, man, okay… And I’m looking around and all the graduates lined up. And I remember waiting, and I was like, okay, and I saw her. And I think I counted three other Black women. And I was like, oh, this is for the exceptional.
Repa Mekha 29:02
Yes. Yeah. That was the thinking. Right? And so I ended up I told her, I said, you know, I’ll take two classes for you. And when I take them, then you’re going to leave me alone. That’s the deal. And I did, I took two classes. And I fell in love with learning. I fell in love with the fact that I could learn. Not what I was learning, but the fact that I could learn. And so I got into the college program. And that was a critical moment for me again, this is to this… What are these turning points in your life? And doing that, Chanda, one of the things that happened to me I was listening to some jazz a good friend of mine older brother, introduced me to jazz and I was listening to some jazz and I was sitting on my bunk. A question came to me. And the question was a question that came that I never asked myself before. And it asked me what was my reason for being? And I remember trying to play games with the question like, you know, being could mean a lot of things, you know? Reason, you say reason why are you, right? And before I could get deep into that, navigating the answer came to me, like a bolt of lightning — the enhancement and perpetuation of Black people. And I never talked like that in my life. And I got scared, and my knees I can feel and my knees are shaking. And I told myself get up and walk. Because the act of walking, the act of movement is an act of control. So take control of this moment, get up and move. And then I told myself, No, sit, down. Stay still and let it happen.
Chanda Smith Baker 30:59
Can we unpack the woman who brought you the scores, your test scores, because we have long since had educational disparity, or a number of disparities, all the disparities in the Twin Cities that are quite appalling. And we both sit in spaces where often people want to program ourselves out of it. And I know, I’m going to knit a couple of things and you let me know if they make sense or not. But you often talk about it’s the being is how you are with people. And sometimes it is about the being as much as it is about what you’re trying to accomplish. And in that moment, she saw your potential. She wasn’t trying to sell you something to change your life. She actually saw your potential and came to you with a level of sincerity and commitment to your success is how I read that interaction.
Repa Mekha 31:59
Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, you should she could sing a pass request to the cellblock, they let you out to come to her classroom, and she will bring me into the classroom. And there would be younger men, men who were in there, who were struggling, to try to figure out this break… This separation from their life and family outside. And this stretch they were about to do. And she would ask that I talked to them, right? And what I discovered later, when I reflected back on the two things happened. After this kind of experience that I went through and this sense of purpose, I joined the Black Heritage Group and became eventually became the president. But when I look back on both of those things, I say to myself, you never really know how you’re being prepared for the work that you will be doing in the future. So there’s two things to what you said. One is she authentically saw in me something and it was potential. However, the angle she came at it, it was potential and, and not in a way of mentoring or any of that, but felt this sense to lift it up the message in that to me, and it’s been a message throughout my life that I’ve learned, is it nobody does it alone. Nobody does it alone. We all need somebody. And so when you talk about our young people and them trying to figure themselves out, it is our responsibility to be with them. It is our responsibility to listen for those openings, those spaces that we can hold open for them while they try to figure out how to pass through. Those are part of our responsibility. And to know that no matter what we hope for them, that if we’re not there, we’re not with them, then it won’t come to fruition. And it ain’t because they lack potential in it, but that nobody does it alone. So it was that nobody does it alone and the sense that two things one, leadership and visioning. Because with the Black Heritage Group, it was the first time that I was responsible for the thinking forward and the care of others, in this case, Black men in a legal, legal way that never happened with me. And then in that classroom, it was the first time that I had had a chance to work with people to break through barriers, to help with clarity. That’s part of my work today. Both of those things are part of my work today. And so the message that I walked away with that from when I look back is that you never know how you are being prepared in one moment, one space to fulfill parts of your vocation at later stages in your life.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:05
Let’s talk about vocation again. So I think a lot about, you know, even when I came to the Foundation, and people are like, oh, you know, you’re going from being the President and CEO to not being in that role. And then like, it’s not about the role, it’s about the impact for me. Right? Right. Impact is what I do. And I do a lot of that at the place I work. But I do it in other places, too, including boards, including my block, including other places in which I bring what I want, you know, like my gifts into community. So can you just say a little bit more about the vocation and how you’re being prepared, right? And how these things sort of knit together?
Repa Mekha 35:46
Yeah. So I think with careers we set ourselves out to line up a set of experiences towards an end. So I listen to the market. And I see what’s the demand? What’s good, high salaries? What are people striving for? What are folks talking about in the news, and then I line up a set of experiences, whether it’s education, what have you to get there. And then what I’m doing is that I’m being pulled from being pulled towards something outside of me, I think, with vocation, what we come to understand is that was driving is coming through me and not already outside of me in the sense of a career. But there’s something greater that comes with a purpose. You can’t help but to be on your block. Your job, where you are, is not about the your title is about the work that you get to do because you know, you’re supposed to be doing it. Just like we said earlier, we come to the work because we are at work in many ways, right? And so we bring our skills, our talents, our commitment, our passion, to the work on a day-to-day basis. And we find these platforms, like where you’re at, to be able to do that effectively. Or you find a board where you know, your voice and your insights and your wisdom can influence something towards your purpose. You don’t get on the board, because the board’s just a nice place to be. So I think, I think there’s a distinction between the two. And I think part of both the challenge and the beauty around vocation is that at the end of the day, it’s who we are not who someone thought we out to be. Not what the market had demand for. Not what folks are thinking what the highest or the most exciting role to be. At the end of the day, we get to be with ourselves, and appreciate ourselves because we’re doing the work that we know we’re supposed to be doing. I think that’s very different than pursuing a career. Right?
Chanda Smith Baker 36:46
Just for the sake of closure. We know you got out of prison because you’re leading at Nexus but did you finish your degree?
Repa Mekha 38:03
Yeah, I got out. And I made another one of those big choices. I stayed in prison to finish my associate’s degree when I was supposed to leave maximum to go to minimum to be with my brother. Well, actually, I did the time. When I got my associate’s degree, and then I transferred out and instead of going back to Milwaukee, I came to the conclusion that I only knew two things. One is street life, and the other was prison. And that I needed a third reality to match up to those two. So I got out and I went straight to the university, I went from a prison setting to a university setting. You can imagine what that was like, but I finished my bachelor’s degree there. I did a double major in urban studies and sociology, business administration, minor and a specialty in psychology. And then I worked for the University for… As an academic advisor for three years, and the call happened again, because I needed to be someplace else. In 1988, I came to the Twin Cities and have been here since. 34 years. And came here in thinking that I would work on a master’s degree. Ended up working. And then eventually getting into a master’s degree but it was when I got here is when I ended up at three portwest where we know each other. I was there for 15 years from a program manager up to Executive Director. I left there because although the work was good work, you know, we had the largest county contract, largest homeless youth network that existed, all those things. I was watching people’s space there… Communities being handled and manipulated and tore up and tore down and built up and nobody in the community had any say in it. The economy’s were controlled from the outside. And so what I did was that kept keeping my eye on the sparrow. I backed out of human services circle, and came back through economic development. And my route to do that was to get a Bush fellowship, I used the Bush fellowship to go to Harvard, and work on a master’s degree at Harvard, in addition to the one that I was working on through the University of Minnesota. In 14 months, did a two-year master’s degree at Harvard, and then came back and traveled Africa, and traveled around the country, and then eventually landed a space at Nexus.
Chanda Smith Baker 40:42
I was on the Harvard campus once. I felt very, I felt very smart and important.
Repa Mekha 40:49
Well, you are. You know, one of the things, Chanda, did I, you know, you create these mental frameworks… I told myself, at one point, I was gonna go earn a Ph.D., and then I told myself, No, you are a Ph.D. So in the same way, you’ve already been to Harvard.
Chanda Smith Baker 41:04
I sure have. Through my uncle and everybody else, and I’m sort of making light of it. But, you know, you see these stories from homeless to Harvard, and like, it’s from these desolate places to like this arrival place. And the way that you’re talking about it is really, it’s just part… It’s just part of the story that is leaving and connecting to the vocation that was already in you. Right? It was, it was the alignment of what was possible in your life. It wasn’t the destination that you had been striving for, and trying to go to… It showed up for you when it needed to. It validated in many ways, but it just was there for something that was already in you.
Repa Mekha 41:53
Absolutely, very well said. And I believe my story is similar to some other stories. And I think if you track those stories, you’re going to find the same thing, that there was something there. All along, we see the kind of successes like got a Harvard degree or overcame this. But if you get up close and personal, you will discover that there was something there all along. And that the most of the breakthroughs that people had, was really about a resolve to listen to what was already in there. Right?
Chanda Smith Baker 42:28
Repa do you think as a community… I think I know the answer, but I’m gonna ask it this way anyway. But do you think that we are tapping into the possibility? Or maybe better said is do we think we know what the possibilities of our communities are? In Minnesota?
Repa Mekha 42:46
I think, you know, it’s dual. I think that there’s enough of us that have been out there like yourself that listen closely. And we know, and we tap as best we can. But I think that there’s a hole there is sits below what we’re able to tap into this hole, so much potential, so much possibility, I think all the time. So what would be the kind of magical mix that will allow us to see it and grab it, and hold on to it, it’s a really get in, get in front of it, in some cases, and behind it and others? I think that’s the complexity of our situation right now. It is the reason we started off earlier, saying, and you and I have had this conversation over and over and over again, we do not get the time to spend time with each other to think about the question that you just asked to figure out pathways to help us to begin to unpack and unleash that potential in those possibilities. We’re always on the run. I know you got a meeting coming up. Some… You know what I mean? There’s something else today that you got, right? That’s how we operate. And we don’t get… I don’t I don’t think I think that our situation is so thick. That the only way that we end… And it’s so dynamic that the only way that we get a chance to catch up to it and get our arms around it is to be able to take the time to be with each other to leverage each other’s insights, each other’s sense of possibilities, each other sensitivities around this and to figure out together a way for it. And the pace of this stuff don’t allow us to do that.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:34
Yeah, and the way in which we’re organized, I mean, I know one of the one of the transition struggles that I had early on, I think I’ve resolved I’ve solved for it. And in some respects when I came into philanthropy as a whole, and I remember thinking at the right and pace in which decisions were made. Like in some ways, it felt very slow and in other ways you’d be in a meeting and you’re like wait, we are like wait, we started out Now what? What just happened? Right? Like, do I know? Did we talk to anybody? Do we even know the depth of the, you know, sort of divergent thinking in this room? Did we even ask the question? Do we know what we’re solving for? Right? Like someone just had an idea. We all came here to be sold that idea, we all agree, because we want to have agreement by the end of the meeting, right? That’s part of how we identify success is coming to conclusion and having something to show for our time spent. And it’s like, it’s so foreign to me that I’m always in conflict with the need to sit and talk and people are like, we’re tired of talking. And I’m like, yeah, but you really haven’t been in the conversation. Right? But you’ve been talking, but I don’t know if you’re in the conversation. And there’s a point and a reason for reflective in practice. And yeah, r&d, if you will, in the field.
Repa Mekha 46:05
Yeah, I always say responsible leadership is reflective leadership, that when we don’t take the time to be reflective and mindful and intentional, we could actually end up doing more harm than good and, and beating got some things done. But they don’t serve us. This framing thing around time, I just think is… A wise elder who has a book called time dimensions. And he talks about how time disconnected from nature is really just a social construct that we allow to kind of track us and drive us all those things. Do as you to your point, do we need to be trying to think about this differently? I too struggle a lot with we don’t got time right now, we don’t have the leisure right now. At the very same time that if we don’t be thoughtful about this, if we don’t give it the time that it needs in a natural kind of way, then we could actually be engaged in… Yeah, and that is that is a hard balance, especially when you’re in a place where at all times, something painful has happened.
Chanda Smith Baker 47:13
So I entered into this conversation after watching Amir Locke’s parents in the press conference. And Amir’s life was lost this week due to a police interaction, and one of the comments that was made by an attorney that’s representing the family is that this city, meaning Minneapolis, has refused to learn. It hit me on top of everything else that’s happening, right? Like this young man lost his life. He looks like my son. He had a permit. All the things that I think were devastatingly wrong with the scenario that led to that… But to say, you know, I am part of the city. I’ve been in relationship with efforts to try to improve a system that continues to fail this community over and over again. What is my role? What is my responsibility? What does this moment mean? For me, for the city, there’s just so many questions. I go from that and then I jump on to you. And I’m like, I will do my best, Repa. Like, that’s all I got is my best right now. Because my heart is just ripping for this family.
Repa Mekha 48:31
Chanda Smith Baker 48:32
I’m embarrassed for the city… Praying for all the other lives that they are protected. There’s just so much in this and particularly when you have responsibility around it. Yeah, that I’ve just I’m sitting with right now.
Repa Mekha 48:47
As we were talking earlier, this heavy weight that we don’t get to unstrapping and sit down, you know, put on the on the counter, on the desk at home and then go and do some other things. It lives and it is very visceral. You feel it in your skin, it shapes the way you breathe, I mean, all those things. And at the very same time, you’re trying to hold some sense of hope and possibility that things can be different. Right? I want to make sure that I say please, please take care of yourself in this too, because you and all that you bring is needed. Just to be sure to take care because this is the long haul and it’s unfortunate. When you first mentioned it to me I read a piece from Eddie Glaude. It is very powerful. I’ve never heard anybody give language to the big lie in the way that he does. Right? But he writes… But in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown was shot and killed and were working class Black community captured the attention of the nation. Seven activists died over the next five years after the cameras have been put away and reporters left town. This is the thing that I was talking about earlier when I called for the ancestors to give me strength. When I say that is… When you say, don’t make me go there and I say it makes me want to holler sometimes. It don’t matter. That there is no separation. We don’t get to separate from this. And so, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know Chanda, how we, you know, I say take care of yourself. I don’t know how we do that. I don’t know how we do that when we always feel no matter how much we in our work try to have hope and contribution and to build… Have this, this sense that at any moment, any moment, given all that is, it’s going to happen again. And that’s a heavy load. That’s a heavy load.
Chanda Smith Baker 49:39
Yeah, I talked to Eddie Glaude not long on this podcast, not long after George Floyd was murdered. You just quoted him from his book, “Begin Again,” if any listener wanted to reference that book or read it. And I guess before we close, it was in sort of the heaviness after George Floyd and here we are, we sit again and we’ve sat there before George Floyd, right? As individuals, and certainly as a people, it’s not unfamiliar. But after George Floyd, we decided — you, I, and Lulete Mola — to come together to start the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness. I would love it, if you would just say a little bit about what that did for you in that moment. And maybe a little bit about that work.
Repa Mekha 51:55
Yeah, I always start with the witnessing of the killing of George Floyd really was, like a, you, you poke a hole in a tire and air releases out. But you know that the tire is going to pop in multiple places. So seeing him represented something, and it has popped in multiple places in air, air is just waiting to release. On the one hand it’s a very vicious, painful experience. And this kind of bubbling that has existed over years and years all tied up together there, I felt this great sense of madness, anger, all the way up to the top. And so two things played out for me. One was just since that you can’t not say something, you can’t not be part of the release. And so the three of us say it out loud that a portion of the systems that we know contribute to the circumstances and the conditions that we’re faced with, need to stand up. And that we need to name the real thing, that this is about Blackness and a certain position against Blackness that we know. And so let’s speak truth to that and let’s say we cannot pretend as if the spaces that we operate in and philanthropy have nothing to do with it and can sit back and watch it happen. And so on the one hand, it was a work thing, we got it, that there’s, the field of spaces, that would be the other one was this release for me that if I don’t, if I don’t figure it out… I share it with you and Lulete and others. It’s all that anger and pent up energy at all that I didn’t let it go, I just re-channeled it into action. And so the work is to call philanthropy to step up and to support in ways that we know are aimed at real change as institutions. And this is the challenge that we find ourselves in. We are calling institutions, not just people but institutions to change as well. And the tension in that is that we know that through relationships and through, you know, kind of concentrations of effort, we’ve seen change. And then the other is that we know that things can contribute right back to the places that they were. But that if we’re not hold in space around this, the chances of anything that shifts the landscape… I’m coming out of it, there’s not going to happen and so the three of us have just been trying to figure out how do we hold the space so that the light stays on this… Shining on this and that we through our individual influence and power make something happen. It’s more collective.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:02
A foundation that found a new way of giving into the community is the Bush Foundation.
Repa Mekha 55:09
Chanda Smith Baker 55:10
And you have a new relationship with them? And do you want to say anything about that?
Repa Mekha 55:15
Yeah, it is new in certain ways, because we’ve been in relationship with with them for quite some time. But as you know, they… Based on the history of experience and support of Black people in this country and for Indigenous folks in this country, made a commitment to put $100 million up to address what they framed as a wealth gap. And with intention around entrepreneurship, homeownership, education, and we’ve actually pushed to say it has to… Any work in that area has to include healing, and you know, some other spaces as well. And we were selected to receive half of that 100 million dollars as a $50 million trust and a native Indigenous organization, Indian collective, received 50 million on behalf of the… To serve as a steward organization, in Native community. And for us, our first kind of approach to it is… We see it as both an honor, and it is humbled to serve the community in this capacity. And to be able to stay strong and committed to a legacy of Black economics. We’ve been doing this for almost two decades. And you recognize that the historical injustices that have Black folks… That we are struggling with now are of the past as well, and that there are many who have not just committed their lives, but lost their lives in this struggle for Black economic liberation. And so we stand… We approach it like that, first and foremost. And that means that we have to really be as we were talking earlier mindful, authentic about it, and be guided by community around how this should look. And we are now in a design phase where community will actually begin to shape the way that these resources go. Part of our hope is that, as you suggested, philanthropy begins to think about its relationship with community in a different kind of way. Because this gets at some challenges that we’ve talked about in the past this sense of risk, you know, communities being too risky, to give $50 million to… In our experience, it’s called $5 million, or $2 million dollars, right? The risk gets assessed differently, when it’s about BIPOC communities. And so for the Bush Foundation to lean in, in this way, and render over $50 million. And say you do this, and we know that you do it better than we do. And the beauty of it is we’re not coming with a set of this many, you know, this criteria. And this criteria. And this criteria. We got to be… It’s really been a different kind of way of being. So, in that spirit, you talked earlier about a way of being… They’re practicing a different way of being in relationship to community. And folks can look a little further about into this on our website, but it is… Based in a role as a steward organization that we that we are very humbled and pleased to be in and know that we will learn a lot. It covers three states — state of Minnesota, state of North Dakota, and the state of South Dakota.
Chanda Smith Baker 58:38
Well, that’s incredible. I’m really proud of the work that Bush is doing. And when I think about from three point west to this 50 million, right? From Milwaukee to Harvard, it’s like this story of life. It’s what’s possible… That plays out and you and me and lots of folks that are in and from community and doing good work every day. The collective narrative doesn’t suggest that but we know different, right? About what it is. And there are people every day that are making those type of moves, and what’s accessible within that context.
Repa Mekha 59:18
I would offer up a couple other books. I read these a long time ago, Chanda. One of them was called, “What is History?” is by Edward Hallet Carr. I read that alongside another book called, “The Death of White Sociology,” by Joyce Ladner. Both of them get to this thing around who determines what’s important and historical… What the facts are and what and presents what folks are to believe as what is real. And then who, who designs the social constructs that shape the way that we engage in life and the things that we believe. Both of those books… I read them a very, very, very long time ago. And they gave me great insights into the way larger systems play out that I just had no… At an early stage, I didn’t have any idea what’s taking place. I will say this, I told the story of my whole transition, there was a point where… It relates back to these two books… There was a point where I was sitting in the county jail, and I reflected on my experiences. And I said to myself, you woke up every day, decide what clothes you were going to wear, where you were headed, who you were going to hang out with, how you were going to hang out with them, and what you were going to be doing when you were hanging out, and you thought you were making big decisions. When in reality, you… The image that came in my mind was a shoe box. And in that shoe box, there were only really only seven choices. And that you could almost predict which of those choices that I was going to make. It ain’t hard out of seven to predict, right? When the world consists of far more than seven. And I remember sitting up on a box one day and said I will never let my life operate like I’m being like a puppet. Like there’s a puppet master. These two books helped me see that some of the broader systems that were at play, that were influencing my options in that shoe box. And I say I’ll never live in a shoe box again.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:01:48
When I was at Pillsbury United Communities, our mission at the time was something like creating choice, change, and connection. People hated it. Like there were people that just flat out just didn’t like it. To do what? To what end? You know, like all the questions. And I’m like choice within itself is an end. I love that line so much, right? To be in a position where you know you have a choice is powerful.
Repa Mekha 1:02:13
Chanda Smith Baker 1:02:16
Other people might know you have it. But if you don’t know it, you’re not gonna tap into it. And it’s all about narrative change. We’ve been talking a lot about that, right? Like, tapping into potential… But you got to tap into your own potential. And you need people that see it, that elevate it to amplify it, that come and there’s so many ways in which that was illustrated in this conversation.
Repa Mekha 1:02:39
Our tagline at three point was building on possibilities. Same thing, right?
Chanda Smith Baker 1:02:45
It just opens up… It opens it up for what people see their choices are and what people see the possibilities are. That it’s not pre-designed for them. It’s available for them. And that’s the difference.
Repa Mekha 1:02:58
Yeah, it does, because I just never would have… I was young, and I didn’t know and I reflect back now. And in a deep way, I’ve just decided… I made a commitment. Just like I made a commitment to five years not knowing… I made a commitment that I’d never, I’d never allow my options to be restricted like that again.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:03:17
I hear that. Well, here’s to everyone recognizing and seeing the possibilities and exercising, you know, choices that get us to better places.
Repa Mekha 1:03:27
Yeah, thanks to you for the space for this again, way off in California or a place like that was nice and warm… We can kind of be in nature, have a conversation, but the space to be able to have real conversation I think is important. And we need more of it. As students that we we hear ourselves in discovery.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:03:50
Yeah, put me on that $50 million design team. We can go to California.
Repa Mekha 1:03:56
Chanda Smith Baker 1:03:59
I appreciate you.
Souphak Kienitz 1:04:02
And that’s Repa Mekha and our host Chanda Smith Baker. If you love what you hear, please leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you to Sarah Gillund, John Cuoco, and Darlynn Benjamin. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you soon.Close Transcript -
Repa serves as President and CEO of Nexus Community Partners, a Community Building Intermediary that works at the intersection of community building and community development, engaging communities of color to achieve equitable, sustainable neighborhood revitalization in the Twin Cities region. Repa has 30+ years of experience in community-based leadership, community capacity building, asset and wealth-building strategies, organizational leadership and development, and systems change work. He is recognized locally and nationally as an innovative and visionary leader and heads up Nexus’ work with national partners.
Repa sits on many boards, including the Center for Economic Inclusion; The Minnesota Council of Foundations; and Shared Capital Cooperatives. He is also co-founder of the Twin Cities African American Leadership Forum and serves as a Nonprofit Quarterly Economic Justice Advisory Committee member.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government with a focus on community development and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Urban Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He is a 2005 Bush Leadership Fellow and a 2004 James P. Shannon Leadership Institute Alumni.
Want to check out the resources mentioned in this podcast? Read “What is History” by Edward Carr, “The Death of White Sociology” by Joyce Ladner, and listen to Chanda’s conversation with Eddie Glaude.