The Minnesota state legislature established the Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force (MMAAW) to examine and report on systemic causes of violence against African American women and girls. The state hired Research In Action, founded by Dr. Brittany Lewis, to lead the effort.
Lewis says her agency specializes in community based research.
“What is at the heart of our work is that traditional research has historically done a lot of harm to Black, brown, Indigenous communities, claiming to know them better than they know themselves,” explained Lewis. “I believe in actionable research led by community. In short, that means we have reimagined the research model. And then what you'll naturally find is that the recommendations and or the policies or practices that are falling apart will become obvious, as we are analyzing it together.”
The Department of Public Safety appointed a 12-member panel that included representatives from the courts, law enforcement and victim advocacy groups. However, Lewis advocated for a second council made up of sex trafficking survivors, and people that have lost family members to violence.
They partnered with Minneapolis and St. Cloud based shelters to collect data inside the shelters and within local communities.
The Task Force came up with six recommendations, including making emergency and long-term housing accessible and affordable, and funding specific spaces and resources to serve Black women and girls.
Black women within the system said they were treated differently than their white peers; staff said otherwise.
“So whereas Black women and girls are talking about none of the shelters respecting them as Black women, making them feel like the problem even when they came under violent circumstances… versus the ways in which the folks that we interviewed who worked in the shelters talked about Black women,” said Lewis. “This idea that we don't really know each other. And we're all making a lot of assumptions about who black women are, and it's influencing how we treat black women. When the folks that we interviewed who ran these centers, or worked in those spaces talked about black women in particular, they had this way of absolving themselves of knowing who black women were at all, kind of wanting to lump all women into being very similar.”
Dr. Lewis says this indicates a lack of awareness of the differences between Black, native and white clients and their lived experiences. The task force is recommending better, consistent training for professionals who work with Black women and girls.
Moving forward, Lewis says representatives will take the task force’s recommendations and form them into bills in this legislative session.
“The next phase of the work is standing behind our representatives, showing up, and testifying,” she said. “Also determining, are there some of these recommendations that we don't need legislation for at all? But we actually can partner with state departments, and other county entities to move? The reality is, after a state task force is done, the state is done with it. The state hands it over to the state representatives to create the bills, and to battle them out in committee. It's now up to the council members and Research In Action - because we care - to make sure the action items stay front and center in the legislative conversation.”