Community's daughter: Chanda Smith Baker leans into the hard conversations

Chanda Smith Baker, Vice President of Impact for the Minneapolis Foundation, moderates a panel discussion on the criminal justice system as part of her “Conversations with Chanda” series on Aug. 5 at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

Chanda Smith Baker, Vice President of Impact for the Minneapolis Foundation, moderates a panel discussion on the criminal justice system as part of her “Conversations with Chanda” series on Aug. 5 at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

Birthed from North Minneapolis’ rich history, launched by its success stories, and activated by its decades of struggle, Chanda Smith Baker is, as she calls herself, “a community daughter.” 

She has found vocation in giving back to this place that raised her. She worked for 17 years at Pillsbury United Communities (PUC). Under her leadership as CEO, PUC purchased and relaunched this newspaper and North Market grocery store. She is currently the Senior Vice President of Impact at the Minneapolis Foundation where she hopes to more inclusively define philanthropy and who gets to participate in it.

Through the Foundation’s recently launched podcast series “Conversations with Chanda,” she addresses some of the thorniest social issues of our time—white supremacy, violence against marginalized people, and abuses in our criminal justice system—with local and national leaders such as Robin DiAngelo, Edgar Villanueva, and Valerie Castile. She counts her five children among her mentors, alongside pioneer civil rights icon Dr. Josie Johnson and former PUC CEO Tony Wagner. 

In August, North News summer interns sat down with Smith Baker at her home and discussed her life and work on the Northside. 

By Alissa Simmons, Myesha Powell, Kailen Branson Interns, Kenzie O'Keefe Editor

Photos by David Pierini Staff Reporter

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What does it mean to be the Vice President of Impact for the Minneapolis Foundation? Essentially my job is to look at the best ways for us to make an impact in community. Where are the needs? How can we respond to them? How do we get people engaged in the issues? How do we utilize all of the tools that we have, like advocacy and grantmaking and convening? My job is to bring all of these components together in a way that allows for progress to be made in communities.

Who or what inspires you to be an advocate for the community? I’ve been motivated by essentially debunking the stereotypes and by raising the complex narratives that actually exist in community. I like to say that this neighborhood raised me, and I feel very responsible to giving back to it. Living in 55411 is complex and also offers valuable perspective.

On Aug. 5, you spoke with Yusef Salaam as part of your "Conversations with Chanda" series. Was there anything he said that has stuck with you and that you think the community should hear? Dr. Yusef Salaam was one of the Central Park Five. He went to prison for seven years for a rape that he didn’t commit. What struck me about Yusef was that he didn’t let that circumstance make him bitter or negative. As he stated in his use of Maya Angelou’s quote, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” The best way to rise up from something that kicks you down is to not allow yourself to go where people are trying to take you, but to elevate above it. Have it be your testimony and have it be a gift into the community. 

You’re a community leader who has fought against gun violence. With the recent mass shootings, and the school year approaching, how should the community stay safe? My cousin Kristopher Miller was shot and killed in 2011. I hope we don’t all become proximate to gun violence. I believe that one way that we stay safer is by having a lot more grace, by being way more connected, by not letting small beefs get to a point where it’s worth taking one’s life. The adults in our community have to lean in and be more responsible for the young people that are in the community that are falling between the cracks. For those of us that are aware of people who have guns in our schools and in our community and aim to do bad, we have to get over the lack of reporting it. 

Smith Baker speaks with Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park 5, as part of her "Conversations with Chanda" series.

Smith Baker speaks with Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park 5, as part of her "Conversations with Chanda" series.

Your career is all about pushing tough conversations with the public. How do you approach those questions as a mother? The Minneapolis Foundation is committed to pushing topics and conversations of importance that are grittier. We are focused on creating a space for the conversations we are having in our own communities of comfort—and bridging our differences to better understand where someone else is coming from. I can’t necessarily separate who I am as mother from who I am as neighbor and grandmother. I bring all of that forward. The way that I lead is that you don’t get into leadership and forget where you came from. If you allow people to see where you’ve been imperfect and where your pain has been, and you lead through that, it allows you to leverage your leadership in a relational way, not in a positional way. 

The Minneapolis Foundation received a donation from the Justine Ruszczyk settlement. What do you plan to do with that money, and how do you plan to keep incidents like this from happening again? I feel very responsible for upholding Justine’s legacy and the intentions of that family to honor her memory by helping to make life safer for everyone. This is a complicated moment. We know that there’s been too many young black and brown men who have lost their lives through police shootings including Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Thurman Blevins. The outcome of those cases has not been equitable. We also know that change happens through many levers. That’s why I’m currently participating in a working group that our Attorney General Keith Ellison and our Commissioner of Public Safety John Harringon have put together to look at police-involved incidents across the state. I’m using my time and my role with great intention to be in places that will allow me to have influence so that we can begin to shape the type of future we’d like to see.

You've used art to fight violence. Do you think art can heal the community? When [my cousin] Kris was killed, it was my first week being the president and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities. My leadership story is very much connected to his murder. I was in so much grief at the time. I needed to do something that would allow me to shift from thinking about how he died to how he lived. I came in contact with this exhibit that was out of New Orleans—Guns In The Hands of Artists. I brought that here on the fifth anniversary of [Kris’] passing away for me to be able to heal. I was thinking: this might be away we can bring in other artists and other community members who maybe didn’t recognize they were artists but could maybe find a place to be creative, to be able to move that energy of grief into energy of hope. 

You’re a lifelong Northside resident, how have you seen the Northside evolve over the years? The more things change, the more things stay the same. I’ve always just loved the energy of the Northside. I love my neighbors. I love my kids being here and embedded. I love going to the football games and the basketball games and seeing how the community comes together through the good and bad. I love walking around and seeing people who look like me. I love seeing kids and looking at them like: do I know your family? What’s your last name? I love that sense of relationship. That’s what it feels like. There’s a history of people giving back to this community that are from this community. It’s important for us to tell the stories of our heroes and sheroes that are coming from this neighborhood because it’s important to have motivation and inspiration.

What are your hopes for the future of the Northside? I hope that everyone who lives here feels like they belong. I hope that everyone that lives here and feels like they belong finds finds a place to give back. We have an obligation to push beyond where we think we can go. I hope that it never loses its flavor. I hope that with all of the development and things that are going on, that we can maintain the sense of community, the sense of self, the sense of identity that is in the fabric here.

Northsiders have high expectations of their leaders, sometimes asking their leaders to individually solve challenges that are generations in the making. How do you handle peoples’ often outsized expectations of what you alone can do to make a difference? Trying to meet the demands of a role that aren’t necessarily realistic is very challenging. I’ve had to mature into it, and I still have moments where it’s hard. Part of leadership is actually setting boundaries and making hard decisions. I have to recognize why people have outsized expectations. It’s because they believe in you, because they have seen failed leadership, because people don’t have trust in systems, and they’ve been disappointed. I tend to take it as an honor when people push.

Kenzie O'Keefe