The Roots of Leadership
Each of us can name a few fertile spaces that have sprouted the green branches of our lives, shaped our knots and grown our leaves, pulling us into ourselves.
These spaces catalyze our growth, deepen our roots, expand our branches and grow us into stronger, more capable people. North Commons Recreation Center is one such place for Kenya McKnight Ahad, President and founder of the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, 2012 Bush Fellow, and volunteer on countless boards and commissions.
At 6:00 pm on a Tuesday in December, the outdoor part of the park is frozen, dark and abandoned. Walking into the Recreational Center, by contrast, warmth wraps around us. We hear basketball echoes coming from the gymnasium, and are welcomed by two stern yet caring adults at the front desk. The atmosphere is buzzing with young, mostly black, Northside kids.
Kenya’s drive and impact for her community’s economic vitality are larger than life. Meeting her for the first time is like meeting a good friend. A generous and welcoming storyteller, she invites us in, as if North Commons is her very own home.
Kenya moved to the Twin Cities from Kankakee, Illinois when she was six years old. She looks back fondly at her time in the rural rust belt, remembering outdoor movies in cornfields and the beautiful self-sufficiency of her small, historically black community. With fifty-four first cousins, Kenya began her life surrounded by family. She carries that value of collectivity with her, and it is one of the main tenets of her work with the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, where she stresses the importance of collective wealth and decision-making, rather than individuals working alone.
The opportunities of a large city called to Kenya’s mother. Wanting her children to have every advantage, she packed their family’s bags and moved Kenya and her 5 siblings to Minneapolis. After a few years on the Southside, they made their permanent home on Irving Avenue in North Minneapolis. North Commons Park, as it happens, was right around the corner.
“This is the place I grew out of as a young person. When I think back to foundational places of leadership, this is the place where it happened. North Commons was our spot. I would hang out with 23 other girls, and I didn’t know I was their leader.” Says the first black woman to sit on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory board. “I love that it’s still here. There are still young people growing out of here. Just like I did.”
POWERFUL WOMEN BUILD POWERFUL WOMEN
Her love of black culture drew Kenya to Islam in 2001. After studying with the Nation of Islam for nearly a year and a half, she attended an event with a friend at Masjid An Nur. She spent a year and half studying, attending Jummah prayers (Friday services) and learning the teachings of Warith Deen Muhammad, who reminded Kenya of her great grandmother, one of her most valued Sheroes. “My grandmother had us involved and engaged. She brought us to protests, and [enrolled us] in vacation bible school every summer.”
Part of her upbringing and spiritual calling is to elevate her community’s cultural assets, following in her great grandmother’s footsteps. Her work began in coaching girls and quickly evolved. Along with her current role as President of the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, Kenya has been an activist, a protester, and a policy leader; she has worked in housing, on education, and as an advocate to end youth violence. Kenya has participated in numerous fellowship programs, from the Bush Fellowship to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation Fellowship and the Humphrey Institute’s Policy Fellowship.
She even ran for City Council (Ward 5) in 2009.
Her resume is formidable, but her roots are where she maintains her drive.
Growing up, Kenya was always taught by her grandmother and others that making change means being an agent, stepping up and doing it oneself. Changing things with our hands is reflected in the principles of Islam.
“The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, told us that there are three ways we solve problems. And the first [and most powerful] is to change it with our hands,”
Kenya reminds us.
That is also consistent with her cultural upbringing.
Positioning her power economically
Kankakee, Illinois is one example of an economically stable and collectively driven black community, as Kenya remembers it. And her passion is now focused on delivering economic vitality for her current community in Minnesota.
Because of her first example of community working together for economic stability, Kenya knows and believes it’s possible for Minneapolis’ black community to prosper, despite it’s history of disenfranchisement. “As I’ve gotten older and have gotten more involved in politics, policy and planning, I can see where and how these disparities exist [here],” she explains.
Kenya now understands that the role she must play is in building collective economic capacity through education, skill and direct wealth-building opportunities. “It’s imperative to my people’s survival,” she shares. Her 2012 Bush Fellowship allowed her to explore the regional landscape and focus on the area where she can make the most impact. Borrowing from her community’s most valued skills of sharing and entrepreneurship, she imagines a female community that comes together to get a member out of debt or to purchase a meaningful asset, like a business franchise or a bank.
“Our community is operating in crisis mode, we’re far behind,” she explains. According to Kenya, the only way traditionally disenfranchised communities will dictate policy decisions and build real long-standing power is by being wealth creators, job makers and implementers.
Today, Kenya’s independent policy consulting work with the K-MA Group supports the first phase of work toward the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance (BWWA). In that work, she is focused on building economic infrastructure for what she calls ‘historical black women’ (black women with a multi-generational history in America).
Historical black women have a unique history and culture, while according to Kenya, men dominate the black narrative. At the height of the economic recession between 2007 and 2009, Black women’s unemployment in the State of Minnesota was slightly higher than that of black men. Even as primary breadwinners in black households (77%), black women lost more jobs during the economic recovery than they had during the recession, which caused the unemployment rates for black women to continue to increase while their peers were making substantial employment gains. Meanwhile, black women are shown to be both resilient and also entrepreneurial. In the State of Minnesota from 1997 to 2007 Black women outpaced all groups including men in starting their own businesses.
Black women are shouldering the highest economic burden and the greatest economic disparities. In looking at the data collected by BWWA, Kenya knows that if she focuses on black women, she can have an impact on her entire community. “I’m going, BINGO!” She exclaims. “Poverty continues to persist in our community because we’re not targeting women, where the biggest impact is.”
BWWA’s priorities are threefold: active skill and strategy building, generational wealth building, and collective economics. After a year of community based research, engagement and base-building, BWWA will launch its membership benefits in the coming weeks. BWWA will elevate cultural gifts, such as the ‘Each one, Teach one,’ tradition, to share wealth-building education and economic resources by and for historical black women. Kenya’s end goal is economic security for the black community.
Kenya, thank you for blazing the trail on policy and for pushing us forward towards a more financially strong community. Thank you also, for remembering your roots and living your history through your daily story. You are teaching our whole Muslim ummah about the power of women, the value of our cultural assets, the importance of moving our wealth forward together and remembering where we came from.
For those reasons and so many more, you are our shero.