Wednesday, June 20, 2007
By: Anna Otieno
On Friday June 15th, the first annual Shades of Diversity Juneteenth VIP Dinner & Fashion Show was held in Downtown Minneapolis, MN. A party, you say? A professional Juneteenth celebration? I had to check this out for myself so I threw-on a nice outfit and headed to the 601 Graves Hotel. The purpose of the event, as organizer Dre Sims of Inside Out explained to me, was “to bring people together collectively…We are bringing people together to network and create opportunities.” Well I’ve always been a fan of opportunities. And I suppose opportunities present themselves via networking, so it sounds like a great business plan thus far…
Doors opened at 5:00pm, but I arrived around 6:30 as to catch the hustle and bustle of the event (and maintain my fashionably late status). The evening began with various rooms occupying community businesses, a silent auction and live jazz, giving participants the opportunity to network with one another and actively involve themselves in local businesses. I scanned the room and decided to take a gander at the silent auction where all proceeds were earmarked for Girls In Action, a Minneapolis-based mentorship and empowerment program spearheaded by Dr. Verna Price, the keynote speaker of the entire event. Dinner at Temple Restaurant, signed Basketball shoes by host and Minnesota Lynx player Tamika Raymond and even a Jaguar, courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover Minneapolis were just a few of the many items up for bids. I took a sneak-peak at the Jaguar specs but quickly realized I didn’t have $40,000 on me to start the bid…so I moved on to T & Y Carwash and put my bid in for $15. Hey, you got to start somewhere. After placing a couple more bids on local products and services, I decided to peruse the business vendor areas. Girls In Action, Homewood Studios, Vasuda Salon, and Mshale Newspaper were just a few of the various local businesses displaying their products and services, all in the name of community and pride.
I managed to make it to just about every room and vendor area: networking and opportunity mission accomplished. There was another mission, however, that hovered over me…dinner. The evening flowed pretty smoothly, especially for a first-time event. But dinner was late and I was getting a little anxious. So I headed into the dining/program room and sat down, hoping that my presence in front of an empty plate would speed things up a bit. It didn’t work. But eventually the night progressed and dinner was served as soon as everyone made it into the room.
The magic of the evening began with the powerful spoken word of Shá Cage. She spoke of “diversity…change…transition” and exclaimed with urgency, “be yourself no matter what.” Her words set the tone for the evening. Next was the jovial, yet graceful introduction by host and Minnesota Lynx player Tamika Raymond. She eased the crowd with her lighthearted words but to be honest, I was slightly more focused on her fabulous Nwaka’ego Odigwe gown. But we’ll get to that later.
The theme of the night, diversity, managed to slip into the message of each and every speaker. Tom Gitaa, Publisher of Mshale Newspaper, spoke of the importance of diversity in light of immigrants in Minnesota today and the necessity to work together to “build our community.” Rico Vallejos, President & Creative Director of International & Ethnic Communications, Inc. and its Hispanic division, LatinoCreative, followed Gitaa perfectly and detailed diversity by defining what it is not…uniformity. Perhaps it was his words and partial recitation of The Gayarti Mantra that stuck with me the most: “May our intellect be stimulated so that we may be inspired to take the right action at the right time.” This challenged all of us to take another look at diversity and consider seizing action. Certainly a tough act to follow. Tim Brewster, Head Football Coach for the Minnesota Gophers, gave more of a pre-game talk similar to one he’d give to his football players, I imagine. Nevertheless, he got his point across. He explained how “there is a disconnect in the diversity at the University of Minnesota…and that needs to change.” And Congressman Keith Ellison highlighted the purpose of the evening by discussing the idea that Juneteenth should go farther than the African-American community. One idea shared by organizer and participants alike.
All of these speakers worked-up to the keynote speaker of the evening: Dr. Verna Price of Girls In Action. Dr. Price began by challenging us to spend 3.1 minutes speaking with someone we don’t know of “a different skin tone.” There goes that networking again. I found myself briefly chatting it up with Lindsey Harding from the Minnesota Lynx, proudly telling her how I ate all the food on my plate. I couldn’t think of anything else. After loosening up the crowd a bit, Dr. Price discussed her organization, which utilizes “personal power, leadership development, service-learning, and career building” to mentor and empower young girls at North High School in Minneapolis. And this was the full circle moment: a physical example to go along with the theme of the night – disclosing why diversity is important and how to take action. Her presentation was powerful to say the least. “Wherever, whatever, however you are in life…there’s still some place for you to take action.” By the end of her speech folks were ready to not just “talk about it,” but “be about it!”
Following Dr. Price’s powerful and motivational presentation was a brief comedy show by Brandon “Snack Bar” Lewis. Unfortunately I missed this portion because I was too busy picking up the T & Y Carwash vouchers that I won in the silent auction. That’s right, I may not have won the car…but I won the carwash. By the time I was done collecting my goods, the fashion show had begun. Various designers such as Crystal’s Closet, Cricket, Dynamyk Threadz, Wear It For Men, Soho Exchange, Bridal Emporium and Nwaka’ego Odigwe all collaborated with models by Ms. Denishia, stylists and make-up artists to present a funky and fun fashion show – a creative element to add to the diversity of the program.
The evening ended with “The Afterparty,” music by DJ Ray Seville, and one last chance for program participants to exchange business cards. I took that opportunity to briefly speak with Minnesota Twins player Torii Hunter about The Torii Hunter Project and how it connects to the ideals of Juneteenth. Torii explained to me how his organization gives children the chance to travel and participate in America’s favorite pastime: baseball. Some of these children have never had the chance to be on a little league team let alone travel on a plane. He illustrated how his project helps these children “envision what they want to do in life” essentially by opening the doors that they once thought were locked. And perhaps this is the archetype of the element of opportunity in Juneteenth. One that The Torii Hunter Project, Girls In Action, and other community organizations are striving to achieve. As his website states, "our goal is to increase the opportunities for America’s youth to enjoy the game of baseball in inner cities and beyond, and to provide an equal playing field for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity and skill level." Certainly Juneteenth’s ideals at work – a message of diversity…and opportunity.
Juneteenth has been celebrated across America as a day of reflection, history, community, pride and growth. I left the first annual Juneteenth Shades of Diversity Dinner & Fashion Show with contacts, carwashes, and fashion sense – the result of some good networking. More importantly, however, I left feeling like the event took a big step in the direction of action and opportunity – fulfilling the elements of Juneteenth by bringing communities together professionally and creatively.
Visit Minnesota Inside Out here for more information about the The First Annual Shades of Diversity Juneteenth Dinner & Fashion Show