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Community Leader of the Year: Otis Zanders

Otis Zanders was honored as the Community Leader of the Year at our Night to Unite event on March 30. These remarks are adapted from Dr. Artika Tyner’s remarks at the event.

If I had to use just three words to describe Mr. Otis Zanders, these are the words I’d choose:
Visionary. Compassionate. Servant.

Mr. Zanders leads Ujamaa Place, a transformational organization in St. Paul that is disrupting the cycle of incarceration for African American men, and creating new pathways for future success.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Zanders for about four years, both personally and professionally. I serve on the board at Ujamaa Place. Two years ago, he and I traveled together to Selma, Alabama and crossed the bridge for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” during the civil rights movement. Furthermore, Mr. Zanders serves as my mentor, inspiring me to pick up the mantle of leadership and recreate the world around us into an oasis of justice, love and peace.

Ujamaa Place is just such an oasis. I witnessed this first-hand two years ago on Christmas Eve—the most memorable Christmas Eve of my life. I called Ujamaa Place to leave a message about dropping off a few items later in the week. I assumed the office would be closed in the evening due to the holiday. To my surprise, Mr. Zanders answered the phone and encouraged me to stop by. I watched as he patiently mentored, encouraged, and uplifted numerous men who entered the office doors that night. He made sure everyone was fed, had a safe place to rest their heads, had gifts for their children and most important, felt loved and cherished.

Ujamaa Place is more than a leadership position for Mr. Zanders. It’s a ministry of love and service, and a place of new beginnings.

It’s also a place of results. Under Mr. Zanders’ leadership, the number of men served has increased by 110%. More than 61% of men in the program are in secure and stable housing; and the Construction Trades Career Pathway program has graduated 126 men. Thus far, Ujamaa Place has assisted more than 1,000 young black men; a mere 2% have returned to prison, compared to a national rate of 75%.

Mr. Zanders is a community gardener—planting seeds of social change in the lives of African American men who often find themselves at the margins of our community (locked up and locked out). These seeds are yielding a harvest of hope, racial equity and social change.

I congratulate my friend and colleague, Mr. Otis Zanders, for this well-deserved honor.

Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, author, sought after speaker, and advocate for justice.

At the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Tyner serves as the Associate Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion. She is committed to training students to serve as social engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom.

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