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Duluth city councilors propose to create African Heritage Commission

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the NAACP Duluth chapter, called the representation "long overdue."

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Janet Kennedy is sworn in as a Duluth City Council member during the city of Duluth 2020 inauguration Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, at the DECC Harbor Side room. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

A new city commission is being proposed: the Duluth African Heritage Commission.

Three city councilors โ€” Janet Kennedy, Renee Van Nett and Gary Anderson โ€” have introduced a proposed amendment to the city code that would create the body.

Van Nett, a Native American, said she has long recognized the need for a Duluth African Heritage Commission but said it took a leader like Kennedy, the city's first black councilor, to bring the issue forward.

"Janet and I both represent neighborhoods out west, where our people mostly live, which is pretty telling about our community. The African American community definitely needed to have this. But it wasn't appropriate for me or anybody else to bring this forward, because I'm not a person of that heritage," Van Nett said.

Kennedy agreed, saying: "It's important that it's done with the people that have the lived experiences and that it not come from somebody else. That's a value that we hold."

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"Whenever you begin any sort of commission or board or organization for a group, it's important that they're the head of it. It would have felt funny for say Councilor Van Nett to do it without myself being a part of it, and it could have been any person of color. It just happened to be me, because I'm in the right position at the right time," she said.

And Kennedy said the time is ripe.

"Especially during this COVID time โ€” right when we're really going to start rebuilding โ€” we don't want to rebuild to the old norm. And we don't want to have people being left behind. That just doesn't work, and we found that out during COVID," she said, noting the health disparities the coronavirus has revealed.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP, praised the idea of a commission, saying: "It's needed and it's long overdue, because the African heritage community deserves representation on all the issues for sure. So, it's always good to have that support and that voice."

Van Nett pointed to the progress that has been achieved under the leadership of another city commission on which she once served. and observed: "I think the development of the Indigenous Commission has elevated native communities and our issues at a level we had never seen before."

"The African heritage community needs that platform as well at the city level," Van Nett said.

Kennedy says she drew inspiration from Van Nett's example.

"I really respect the indigenous community and how hard they have worked to be able to overcome disparities, and Councilor Van Nett and the leadership that she brings forward. So, that's a model that has worked for another community. We're replicating it here at an important time."

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Council President Anderson readily lent his support to the effort, saying: "It has been a real privilege and honor to work on this historic ordinance."

Duluth already has more than 30 boards and commissions, but Alicia Kozlowski, a community relations officer, said city administration welcomes the idea of adding the proposed new body to the mix.

"Our boards really serve in an advisory capacity. They provide a lot of expertise and advocacy and even get to help create and enforce established policies," she said. "It's one of the best ways to co-invest in building a more inclusive, dynamic and collaborative city."

Kennedy, too, predicts the new commission will only strengthen the city's sense of community, and said: "For Duluth to be able to become more sustainable, we need to be a place that's welcoming for everyone."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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