She gets people talking

Shanene Herbert of Healing Justice St. Paul engages youth through power of words


Shanene Herbert at the “Youth Will Rise” March on July 3, 2020 on the University of Minnesota Campus. Over 100 people gathered to celebrate the perseverance of youth of color, especially lifting up this year’s high school and college graduates. They carried their message through the neighborhood despite punishingly high heat and humidity, ending with a celebration at Father Hennepin Bluffs. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)[/caption]

Shanene Herbert chooses her words carefully.

In her work as Healing Justice St. Paul Program Director, she helps Black and Brown youth find theirs. The program she leads is under the umbrella of the American Friends Service Committee: a Quaker organization devoted to service, development, and peace programs throughout the world. She works with Saint Paul Public Schools administrators, teachers, and students to build community and repair harm.

She gets people talking.

Before COVID-19, participants in her group sessions would gather in a facilitated circle to talk about race and racism. Now it happens via Zoom, but Black and Brown students still have a chance to build their knowledge and language.

They learn how to recognize racism, and they learn how to organize against it using direct action.

According to Herbert, making sure young people enter into intentional conversation around race and racism is crucial. She said, “People of color have been dealing with the pandemic of systemic racism for more than 400 years. Young people are enraged. They don’t have the patience that their parents and grandparents did. Their generation expects things to happen quickly.”

She continued, “We have to give them the tools to deal with their hurt, their anger, and their fear. Most of these kids don’t have access to quality mental healthcare. How do we keep them from self-medicating with drugs at this time? How will they function with distance learning or with classroom learning in the fall? Will they be ready to take standardized tests when they do go back to school? What words can they find to describe this moment that we’re in?”

‘When we cry for help, no one is going to save us’

In the Twin Cities, we are living in the past and the present simultaneously. Racial injustice has been happening for years on end but people, especially young people, are reacting to it very differently now – as if a line has finally been drawn in the sand.

Again, Herbert chose her words carefully. She said, “George Floyd was lynched in South Minneapolis, in what was historically a Black neighborhood. Notice that I said ‘lynched’, not murdered or killed. This is an important distinction for people of color. We need to be clear with our language.”

She continued, “When you see historical photos of lynchings, there’s a coldness in the killers’ eyes – just like there was in former officer Derek Chauvin’s. And the way he had his hands in his pockets, that was a power move. That image reminds us of all the power we do not have. It reminds us that when even we cry out for help, no one is going to save us.”

Herbert sees this as the time for changing that narrative. She said, “If you have power, you’re likely going to be comfortable all the time. If you don’t have power, you’re always living with a level of discomfort.”

Getting unconfortable is necessary step toward change

Talking about race and racism makes many white Minnesotans very uncomfortable, but feeling uncomfortable is a necessary step toward change. Herbert, who is from New York City, moved to St. Paul at 17 and graduated from Como Senior High School. She said, “Many Black and Brown people who live in Minnesota aren’t from here; they moved from Chicago or Milwaukee, or their parents migrated from the South. We’re of a different make up. We’re a more communal kind of people.”

She continued, “With the pandemic, Black and Brown people were relegated to their homes just like everybody else – but because of our communal nature, we may have found it harder. Our jobs are more likely to be threatened by the pandemic, our family members are dying at disproportionately higher rates from COVID-19, and we were doing badly in this country already.”

When Herbert looks back at her own evolution as an activist, she knows exactly when it started. Arriving at Como Senior High School as a senior, she signed up for an African and African American Studies class. To her surprise, the teacher was white. When she asked why he was teaching the class, the teacher said, “We don’t have a Black teacher here who is licensed to teach it. I wish you would go out and get your degree, and come back and teach this class.”

Herbert went on to the University of Minnesota, graduated with a degree in African and African American Studies, and has been working as an educator/activist ever since.

Name and identify

In the aftermath of the uprising, St. Paul and Minneapolis are busy picking up the pieces. Herbert said, “While the buildings can be rebuilt, we are left with the harder job of addressing race and racism where we live. This work, this emotional labor, is exhausting. I believe that one of the good things that will come out of this time is true honesty, true transparency.“

She added, “At Healing Justice Program St. Paul, we will continue to engage youth in the conversation, without talking around or about them. We will continue to help them name and identify what is happening to them.”

For more information on the work of Healing Justice Program St. Paul, visit the website of the American Friends Service Committee at, or email Shanene Herbert at


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here