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Marcus Hill is the first Black member of the ISD 197 school board. Appointed in early 2021 to the remainder of Stephanie Levine’s term, he’s now up for election in a campaign where race has played a prominent role, both here in West St. Paul and across the country. He’s the only person of color still running since Elena Villarreal dropped out in September.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the resulting protests, and pushback over how we approach racial issues, we wanted to talk with Hill about these racial dynamics—just as in 2020 we talked to West St. Paul’s first Black candidate, Kae Jae Johnson, and West St. Paul’s first person of color elected to office, Anthony Fernandez.
Hill works as a data analytics manager at Best Buy. He’s lived in West St. Paul for 15 years and has had three kids in ISD 197 schools. Learn more about Hill, the other candidates, and the election in general in our voter’s guide.
Conversation With Marcus Hill
Here’s our conversation with Marcus:
What’s it like being the first Black member of the ISD 197 school board and the only person of color still in the race?
I think it’s important for our entire community to see a diverse candidate group and diverse board. Representation matters. Being the first, I think there’s always a responsibility to the community at large and specifically to the Black community and people of color.
I’m proud to represent the Black community, and hopefully represent that community well. I want to make sure the voices of all students are heard and represented. As we talk about equity, I bring a lived experience to the table. There’s research and reading, which has some validity, but knowing one’s lived experience is a very different thing.
Sometimes people get uncomfortable when we call out race and talk about it. Why is it important to acknowledge and talk about race?
Race is always a very uncomfortable conversation in this country for so many different reasons. For the majority of folks, I think it’s uncomfortable because people don’t want to offend someone else. Part of that comes from lack of proximity to someone who’s different from yourself. It’s a lack of understanding. Maybe it’s, ‘I really don’t want to offend someone and I’m not certain what to say. So I say nothing.’ Or ‘by having that conversation, it diminishes who I am and my heritage,’ and that’s not really the case, right? This isn’t a zero sum game. By understanding someone who’s from a different background than you doesn’t mean your own point of view and who you are has to be diminished.
We look at this as a black and white issue, but this is a human story more than a racial story. As you talk about diversity, as you talk about equity, as you’re talking about allowing someone a seat at the table and really hearing their perspective—the inclusion part of that—and valuing that perspective and having it show up in our society, it’s more of a human issue and allowing and validating everyone who’s here, and I think that is the great American story.
My grandmother came from Arkansas and wanted a better life than being a domestic. My mom was a freedom marcher in Alabama. I grew up in a Black neighborhood in Chicago after the civil rights movement. Even though a lot of these things seem like they happened a long time ago, when you look at the arc of history, it wasn’t that long ago. And that gets carried down generationally.
So that proximity matters. Have the conversation with someone over coffee and be willing to be uncomfortable and vulnerable. Then you can get to that place of empathy. Whether you choose to socialize with someone or not, at least as a society we have systems in place where everyone can excel and I think that just makes us a stronger nation. All boats are lifted, and we get to a better place. That’s where empathy really plays a role because people can put themselves in your shoes.
Tell us about the work you did with the Black Employee Resource Group at Best Buy in the wake of George Floyd and the impact it’s had on you.
Being the chair for the Black Employee Resource Group at Best Buy for the last four years has been an interesting journey. The first year or two it was really about how do we build a community for people where they can come into a workplace and have a natural network and have a place to share ideas.
After George Floyd was killed we began this journey of trying to understand what was happening—why the black community was feeling the way that it felt. It was great to see people go on their journey of trying to understand these things and how they can become allies. We’re all still on that journey. We had so many people lean into the moment. We went from a resource group of 400 people to almost 1,300 people today.
We found that we were all struggling to make sense of this. We felt like we needed a day to come together and understand perspectives. We had this idea of rather than boycotts and marching, why don’t we host a day of unity. And we had tens of thousands of people show up.
People were able to connect and have conversations with people they probably would not have sat down to talk with over coffee before. It was a really powerful thing. We did it again this year. And we’ll continue to have it be an annual thing because it’s so powerful to bring people together. Of course you have detractors on both sides, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop doing it.
When you listen to Dakota talk about the world in general, they see everything as being interrelated. When you can see things as being interrelated, you have a much greater appreciation for those things and you begin to behave differently.
You really start to broaden your view and become empathetic about a lot of different things. Someone says this is about race indoctrination or queer indoctrination—it’s not about those things. It’s about broadening our perspectives of who we are and the society we live in. We’re really trying to live up to the ideal of the Constitution where everybody has those same liberties.
It’s changed me in ways I hadn’t anticipated and it certainly made me a better person.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a big topic this year, and often a misunderstood topic. Why is it important for schools to focus on those issues?
Big consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte and others show that when corporations have diverse boards and diverse leadership they do as much as 35% better than other corporations. Incorporating diverse perspectives and diverse points of view opens up markets and opens up idea sharing and opens up thinking and evolves the corporations. We know we do better when we have that understanding, and we can evolve and advance the country forward.
Studies have shown that when kids are a part of a diverse group they’re far more creative. They feel part of a wider society and that broadens their thinking as much as maybe music or participating in sports.
So it’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a conversation about me being lifted up and you being pushed down. We really have to get away from this conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion that divides—that to me is nonsensical. It’s just the opposite, it’s the antithesis of division. This is an ‘and’ statement. It’s not an ‘or’ statement. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.
That is the great American experiment, if you will. We just have very different views. I may not always agree with how you get there. But I think at the end of the day, we have to be willing to at least start from a place of civil discourse. Have a conversation even though it may be uncomfortable.
A number of districts across the country are banning books, supposedly because they make white students feel bad (Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a recent example.) How do we balance empathy with this sense of blame or guilt?
As we’re reading books, as we’re looking at art, as we’re listening to music—they challenge us to think about things differently, to see things from a different perspective. And then I think it’s up to us to decide what we want to do about it.
I think these things exist to expand our thinking. And even if you don’t agree with it, that was a perspective that came through in that book, and it made me feel that way. And I’m choosing not to believe that because that’s not how I see myself in our society, and I know who I am and I’m fervent enough in my beliefs and in my values to withstand that. I’ll be honest—I’ve had to do that my entire life. It’s not something people like to hear, it’s not the politically correct answer, but it is a very truthful answer.
So we’re going back to the conversation about being uncomfortable. If you read it, and it’s uncomfortable, you have to figure out why. I think it forces you to have a self reckoning of who you are and what your values are. And it’s a great time for in-home education. It’s a great time to say, for our family, these are our values. This is how we think about things. This is how we show up, and that doesn’t represent who we are.
Part of the role the school board plays is really putting some thought behind what we introduce. So we need to be purposeful about what we’re trying to accomplish, we need to offer a variety of books to meet the purpose, and then if books have material that might trigger folks, a notification home and the chance to opt out.
As many people know, Minnesota has a big achievement gap between students of color and white students. How do we close that gap?
This is where I put my data analytics hat on and look at the data. Let’s understand why that is. I don’t think we can apply one lens to it. It’s not just one reason and I think that’s where we need to get innovative and creative and drill down. Then how do we really come up with plans and be very purposeful about moving those kids through that gap? And it’s easier said than done because we know there are a finite number of dollars.
There’s no one answer on how to solve that other than let’s roll up our sleeves.
How do we set up different committees to get behind solving those problems? We’ve got a lot of really big thinkers in our community who have great ideas, how do we tap into people who have skill sets that can help us solve some of the problems? I think that’s where the community can help.
Does it get exhausting to continually have to talk about race and address these difficult issues?
I think people have to go on their own journeys. I can be an ambassador. I am happy to talk about guideposts or different ways people can begin that journey—but at the end of the day, I can’t do all the work for you. I think it’s very personal to everyone. The books you choose to read, the stories you choose to listen to, the podcasts, the documentaries, etc. That really has to happen at the individual level.
I’ll be very transparent—through the year of the pandemic and going through social strife and being on point a lot, I started to realize my own mental health and the mental health of the leaders of the Black Employee Resource Group was really faltering. We had to pull ourselves back. Collectively, we had to figure out how to do this, with group sessions of learning where no one individual felt like they were burdened by it.
I think, as a community, we have to decide if we’re willing to go on that journey. Are we willing to have this uncomfortable conversation?
We all have to be a part of that solution. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. And so yeah, there are times where it’s tiring, but there are times where it’s also very rewarding and I lean into this community.
When I think about how hard or exhausting it is, I think about what my ancestors went through—people who were physically beaten because they dared to say we should be doing this differently. And it wasn’t a popular point of view. Dr. King’s approval rating was less than 20% back then. So we’re going through that moment—this is what it feels like to live through that. As exhausting as it is, it’s the work that needs to happen.
Thanks to Marcus Hill for taking a break from the campaign trail to talk with us.
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