Remarks by Senta Leff at the 2015 Annual Conference

MCH’s Executive Director’s Opening Remarks – Strength in Difference: Innovation, Inclusion, and Individuality 

My name is Senta Leff. I am the brand new executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

MCH Executive Director Senta Leff

MCH Executive Director Senta Leff

While we are here because of our shared commitment to ending homelessness, we each bring varied and valuable perspectives on how to accomplish that goal.

As this year’s conference theme suggests, it is the practice of shifting our perspectives and adapting our behavior to the differences among us that positions us to work most effectively.

I hope you have conversations at the conference that surprise you, that challenge you to change your mind, and maybe even make you uncomfortable.

These conversations, where we reach across difference, are the ones that are essential for establishing the kind of authentic and effective relationships we need to achieve our goals of working together, as allies and champions for equity.

The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless was founded with those values in mind back in 1984 by a group of direct service providers who had the bold vision of going upstream to address the root causes of homelessness. Since that time, our Coalition has worked tirelessly to fix policies and systems that perpetuate homelessness.

I was five years old the year MCH was founded. My mother was raising my older brother and I alone in a one-bedroom apartment with public assistance from what was then AFDC.

My Mom spent nearly 80% of her income on our rent so that we could live in apartments where we felt proud and safe. To do this, she maintained community garden plots around the metro. Those garden fruits and vegetables balanced our food budget and my grandmother sewed most of our clothes.

But the people and systems who interacted with our “case” (i.e. my family) always wondered how my Mom was pulling this off on less than $5,000 a year.

Some people were convinced she was somehow working the system and my mother was continually put in a position of explaining her personal choices. As a young girl I can remember my Mom reminding authority figures that they would never trade places with her, that they would never raise their children in anything less than the homes her children lived in.

I am always amazed when I think about what a strong advocate my mom was for her family. She was young, she had no college education, and she was easily labeled as an unwed mother who received public assistance.

Yet she constantly pushed on the systems she interacted with to be more progressive and just.

In 1985 my Mother gained access to a Section 8 voucher and she re-entered the workforce. Years later, I am still the only person in my immediate family to graduate from college. I can personally attest to the importance of stable housing.

I could stop here with my story. It has an arc and a happy ending. But it is missing something important. Something that is all too often minimized. Can you guess what I’m referring to?

I haven’t yet talked about my Whiteness. I am white. There, I said it. I’m white!

Speaking in front of 500+ people about my personal story does not make me uncomfortable. But standing here and pointing out the obvious – that I am white – does.

I read a piece a few months ago called, “How to Raise Racist Kids”. It starts out like this:

Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”

Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.

Surprised? It turns out that a lot of our assumptions about diversity are entirely wrong. Namely, avoiding the subject of race does not lead to a color-blind society. It actually leads to a society that minimizes differences and masks a deeper understanding of real cultural differences. Within minimization, what we call “diversity” is often not heard or talked about.

So as difficult as it was for my Mother to raise our family in deep poverty, I was also born into enormous privilege.

While the basic economics of wealth and poverty are universal, the experience is extremely different depending on our racial backgrounds.

And this is unfortunately especially true in Minnesota.

  • American Indians make up just 1% of adults in Minnesota and 10% of our adult homeless population.
  • Blacks and African Americans make up only 5% of the general adult population in Minnesota and 38% of the adult homeless population in our state.
  • Whites make up 86% of the adult general population in Minnesota and only 42% of the adult homeless population.

This is unacceptable. None of us can do what we do as housing advocates and isolate ourselves from this conversation.

It’s not enough to simply understand these issues if we aren’t doing anything to solve them. This is NOT “too hard” and we are not too fragile to do this. We need to collectively raise our sense of urgency around racial inequality, the way we have with so many other things.

Our community has done an incredible job of fighting for long-term policy change at the State Capitol on a range of issues connected to homelessness, including:

  • Creating a continuum of housing and services with the flexibility to meet people’s needs
  • Advocating for a more effective welfare-to-work program
  • Increasing public investment in affordable housing
  • And protecting and reforming health care delivery

Since 2012, MCH has led on passing a record $200 million at the State Capitol for affordable housing and services with the Homes for All campaign.

We repealed punitive policies in Minnesota’s welfare-to-work system. This year, our Prosperity for All campaign nearly passed the first increase in MFIP cash assistance since 1986.

This progress is only possible because advocates like you are educating your elected officials, coming to the Capitol, and raising your voices together. While our progress is historic, we know it’s not enough.

As a new executive director, one of the best parts of my job so far has been launching the MCH 100 in 100 tour. Between now and November I will meet 100 MCH members in 100 days. I will get to see some beautiful parts of our state and ask each of our members: What’s missing from our work? What’s next? I can’t wait to share with you what comes out of those conversations and where MCH is headed in its next chapter.

Whether your organization is part of the MCH 100 in 100 tour or not, please feel free to reach out to our advocacy staff in St. Paul, Duluth, Moorhead and Willmar. We would love to connect with you and keep in mind we are ready and able to drive to any corner of the state to meet with you. Your insights and participation in the advocacy process is invaluable to our work.

As I meet many of you, I would love to hear about how you and your organizations are learning and challenging yourselves. I would love to hear about the conversations you are having with people on topics that stretch you and about the intentional relationships you might forge with people from other races, geographies and biographies. These simple steps are a starting place for our community to move farther upstream, together.

THANK YOU for your unwavering and tireless advocacy and service efforts over the years, and for walking with MCH into our next chapter. Together, we can move even farther upstream than we already have, guiding us closer to what we know is possible – a safe, decent and affordable place to call home for ALL Minnesotans.