“This book is not about me,” Susan Shields says frequently. And in a literal sense, she’s right.
Shields is white, the former owner of a successful business. The book she developed is about Black lives and social justice, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
But “Lake Street Speaks: A Collection of Poetry & Art for Social Justice” is the product of partnerships between Shields, a baby boomer who lives in Wayzata, and 20-year-old Rashaunea Ambers-Winston, a Black college student from north Minneapolis, who writes poetry. The book also features murals by more than two dozen artists who turned the Lake Street area into a vibrant art gallery after Floyd died.
“In order to make this book successful, I had to engage with a community I had never engaged with before,” Shields said.
Ambers-Winston trusted Shields, but when they met at a Black-owned sandwich shop, a Black observer checked in with her after Shields left to make sure the younger woman wasn’t being taken advantage of.
“There is a mistrust between Black and white,” Ambers-Winston said. “But Susan never gave me any reason not to trust her. She connected me with good people.”
“Lake Street Speaks” is full of bright colors, bold images, a few messages of despair but mostly of hope. “Let’s grow together for a better tomorrow.” “Beauty from ashes.” “We’re one human race colorful and uniquely beautiful.”
Some pages hold the names, by now tragically familiar, of Black people killed: Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. And, of course, George Floyd.
“All mothers were summoned when he called out for his,” reads one of the murals, alluding to Floyd having called out for his late mother in his final minutes.
Woven among these images are Ambers-Winston’s poems, many offering perspectives on Black identity and experience.
“I’m from what people may call the hood / I’m from a place where lots of shades of skins are seen / Including me / I’m from the oppressed / But we rise / I’m from a big family / Together we strive / We stand tall and survive,” reads one poem, in part. “You would never know how it was like / Unless you lived my past.”
Shields developed the idea for the book after selling her business of 30 years, the Airtex Design Group, which manufactures products for home furnishings retailers like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.
“When I sold my business, I wanted to pay it forward” with a project that would empower women and people of color, she said.
She contacted North Community High School in Minneapolis, and asked for recommendations of female students who wrote poetry. She read a poem by Ambers-Winston and “it was so powerful I knew she had to be in this book,” Shields said.
Ambers-Winston, now a student at the University of St. Thomas, has been writing poetry for years, and has her own website. She also sells decorative prints of her poems in colorful frames she creates. They’re cheerful wall hangings, but for Ambers-Winston, writing poetry also provides a safe place to process tough emotions, especially when living in a neighborhood that often doesn’t feel safe. When she was 15, her oldest brother died in gun violence.
“When it happened, I knew that things were never going to be the same for me,” she said. “I had to find myself again, ’cause I felt lost.”
Ambers-Winston credits her mother, Kim Ambers, a special-education teacher, with inspiring her to express her emotions in poetry. Ambers writes poetry herself.
“Writing helped me survive,” she said. “I’m pretty proud of the fact that my daughter was never afraid to express her thoughts and feelings, not just for herself but for the world.”
A percentage of proceeds from the book will go to Ambers-Winston. The rest will be divided among four nonprofits that serve people of color: Appetite for Change, Memorialize the Movement, Migizi and Real Minneapolis.
“We are two women working together who want to make a change, to make a difference,” Ambers-Winston said.
“We come from different worlds,” Shields said. “(But) we got to know each other just like friends do. We have talked about our own emotions and our own insecurities.”
Rashaunea Ambers-Winston and Susan Shields will be appearing at Midtown Global Market from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Oct. 9.