Advancing social equity and economic vitality at The Minneapolis Foundation

By Camille Erickson

“Community is always telling you what is working and what isn’t working. When you’re tuned into that and it’s driving decisions, then what you hear should come to the table,” proclaims Chanda Smith Baker, new senior vice president of community impact at The Minneapolis Foundation.

Having recently transitioned from president and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities, this intrepid leader has an eye on scaling up her impact. With 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience, Smith Baker carries a record of advancing social and economic equity and promises to “translate community need into strong, strategic and innovative solutions.”

Commitment to Community

When I met Smith Baker at her new downtown workplace, she emphasized that her priorities align with those of The Minneapolis Foundation. “Addressing equity in the city of Minneapolis is a priority for myself personally and a priority for The Minneapolis Foundation.”

A driving question guiding her work remains, “How do we make Minneapolis a more inclusive place to live, work and play?” This approach demonstrates a deep trust in the cpacity of community leaders to drive results and change. “What I communicate [to the foundation],” she insists, “should be driven by the narratives, stories and needs of community first.”

A dimension of Smith Baker’s new role involves overseeing the foundation’s Community Impact team that “distributes $5 to $7 million every year to transform education, foster economic vitality, and promote civic engagement in greater Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

Smith Baker believes The Minneapolis Foundation already boasts a strong practice of selecting leaders closely connected to the voices and needs of the community. Although, she is quick to add that there is ripe opportunity to push that pledge even further. She asks, “How are residents that have the most impact helping to guide [decisions] and be at the table?” Smith Baker stands committed to ensuring that a “feedback loop between community and the foundation” stays intact so as to be responsive to the demands of the community.

In their main grant round, The Minneapolis Foundation awarded more than $4.9 million to 87 organizations with programs propelling equity in education, the economy and civic engagement. The Minneapolis Foundation's commitment to uplifting community means first and foremost listening to what people need to thrive. That’s where Smith Baker comes in.

This relationship “doesn’t mean giving [communities] voice, because they already have voice.” She clarifies, “It does mean providing opportunities to improve their access to decision makers.” Consequently, a significant part of her role is serving as an active listener and communicator. “I have the responsibility to listen and translate what I hear into decisions. I take that very seriously,” she remarks.

Narratives of Resilience

Smith Baker is a proud, long-time resident of North Minneapolis whose robust network extends throughout the Twin Cities and the nation. Her upbringing and sustained connection to the neighborhood continues to influence her professional journey.

Smith Baker recounts as a child listening to the ways North Minneapolis was negatively described. She remembers wondering “whether or not the description was true for me and my family, whether or not I was destined to some bad place unless it was disrupted by somebody who could help me find the right path to go on.” Consequently, Smith Baker is on a mission to amplify the multifaceted stories of people and place and demonstrate the resiliency of North Minneapolis, her home.

“I’m African American. I’m a woman. I’m a Northsider,” she asserts. “Having visible mentors living in the community is very important to how people build positive self-identity. It was important to me, and it was true for me living in North Minneapolis. I had very strong examples living in my neighborhood that I could pull from.” For Smith Baker, living in the neighborhood where generations of her family have also been active residents represents both a personal dedication to supporting her neighbors as well as a professional vision to build vitality there that enables the entire city to thrive.

Toward an Equitable and Just Minneapolis

The road to an equitable and just Minneapolis remains long, but Smith Baker also brings a seasoned history of facing obstacles and leading community response efforts. “You always have to learn how to work around the unexpected,” she states. “There will be big things that happen in community that will demand—hopefully—the need to rethink the work, or will demand your attention. The organization needs to be responsive to that.”

She recounts her experience responding to community emergencies such as police shootings, fires and tornadoes, emergencies that require a drastic redistribution of attention and resources. “When you know community is the priority, it becomes easier to be responsive to those things.” She asserts that in her new role she does not “plan to be less responsive to those issues as they come up, and they will.”

At The Minneapolis Foundation, Smith Baker intends to bring a courageous spirit to further combat persistent disparities in Minneapolis. She brings a unique capacity to work across difference. She is resolute in her belief that locating a shared vision in decision-making processes leads to big impact. This may mean disrupting traditional systems inhibiting organizational or personal growth. Or generating synergy between all stakeholders through active listening, so solutions can speak to multiple people’s needs.

“Where I have found success is when I can come in, listen and then cast a vision that people can see and believe in,” Smith Baker attests. “Opportunity exists when you can build the collective muscle of courage and bring in the strengths of individuals around a table towards a shared vision. I think that is the best way to be disruptive.”

The Minneapolis Foundation has a renowned legacy of enriching communities for over 100 years. “I think the Minneapolis Foundation has a history of being disruptive,” Smith Baker claims. “It feels like an opportunity for all of us to just push that envelope a little further to a more equitable, livable Minneapolis for everyone.” She contends that being able to acknowledge and appreciate the robust history of change-making and what is already functioning well at an organizational level remains key.

“There are many of us across the city talking about equity, and we know that we have a long way to go,” Smith Baker remarks. “But I am really eager to be a part of a team that is committed to equity and being a strong voice in moving that forward.”

Camille Erickson is a writer and arts organizer working to advance equity and justice in Minneapolis.