James C. Burroughs II: An Advocate for Children and Change 

James C Burroughs Portrait in front of Minneapolis skyline

James C. Burroughs II has been selected as our 2021 Champion of Change.

James C. Burroughs II will be recognized with the 2021 Champion of Change Award to recognize his work for diversity, equity, and inclusion across systems. Burroughs will attend the 2021 Mayors Challenge on December 13th to accept the award. 


Previous recipients have included Representative Ilhan Omar, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Associate Justice David Lillehaug. 


James shared his thoughts about the award and reflections on his accomplishments with the MNUDL team. Read on to learn more about his thoughts on why debate matters, what Minnesota children need most and what change means to him. 

Tell us a little bit more about your work. 


I was born in Detroit, MI and went to college at Morehouse College and law school at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. I came to Minnesota in 1992 to clerk for a federal magistrate judge. My plan was to be in Minnesota for just a few years, but I stayed for 30 years. Along the way, I had great opportunities to work for a large law firm, and as the COO and General Counsel of a nonprofit called Summit Academy. Then I worked for Minneapolis Public Schools where I learned about the Urban Debate program. I began to be a partner and funder. At MPS, we looked at equity, diversity and inclusion in a different way. We wanted to give our students access to higher education, like HBCUs, colleges and universities, and also business networking opportunities. Our volunteers would come and get kids excited about college. I also worked for Governor Mark Dayton as the state’s first Chief Inclusion officer, and now I work for Children’s Minnesota in a similar role. 


Can you tell me more about your first connection with urban debate? 


I was always aware of debate. As a kid growing up, my mom told me I should be a lawyer because I argued so much, even at 7 years old. At Morehouse, I didn’t participate on the debate team, but I enjoyed doing debates in speech and political science classes. When I was at MPS, at the time, we were funding debate through our integration dollars. Part of the way to desegregate was to make sure kids were integrated in the same classes. However, another strategy was to make sure that all schools had the same program offerings, like the urban debate program. We knew the program would help students academically, but also promote interaction and cultural exchange between students who are part of the program. 


Also, The Great Debaters, with Denzel Washington, that depicts the journey of the Wiley College (Historically Black College and University) debate team is one of my favorite movies! 


Amy asked me to be a debate judge for one year. I enjoyed that a lot. After that, I kept in contact. It’s a great way for young people to find their voice. They don’t have to find it the way everyone else does. It was exciting for me that it’s multicultural, multigender, multilingual, with different LGBTQ representation too. There is diversity within the group of students. 


The thing I enjoyed most was preparing young people for the future. They were very thorough, thoughtful, and prepared when answering questions. 


What motivates you to work on behalf of kids? 


I had people in my life, as a young person, who influenced me. My mom said I should be a lawyer, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, neighbors, social workers, and educators all invested in me and helped me prepare for my future career and academic studies. Part of the reason I continue to invest is because of the investment made in me. 


The work that I do involves equity, inclusion, and diversity. My goal is also to create pipelines for opportunities for students to get involved with healthcare at Children’s Minnesota. The best way to do that is to invest in young people and prepare them. We partner with AchieveMpls and RightTrack, through Minneapolis and St. Paul, to focus on internships for young people. We give young people exposure to healthcare careers and opportunities. We find that once you get someone interested, and show them what they can do and what they can be, they can envision their future. 

I also have a 9-year-old daughter. She’s a 4th grader. She has been a Children’s Minnesota patient because of her sickle cell disease. She told me that I had to take this job so I could help more kids like her. That was something that stuck with me. We see people who come in here with health issues we have to address, but they’re still kids. They’re smiling, they’re excited. They want to feel better and get better, and we want to help them get through those issues. That drives me as well. 


What do you believe Minnesota children need right now? 


Children need love and protection. Love is knowing someone cares about them. A lot of our kids have gone through mental health challenges. For the last couple of years, our kids haven’t been able to go to school physically, see their friends, or play sports. A lot of times, parents are working. Or, in some cases, not everyone’s household is as loving and kind as it needs to be. Young people need to see that love, whether it’s through academic mentors or team coaches or adult volunteers. 


On the protection side, one thing at the top of my mind is vaccinations for kids. That protection from COVID-19 is important. You don’t want any kid to be ill, come into the hospital, or die. But you also don’t want families who are unprotected getting COVID-19 from their kids. Kids 5-11 can’t protect themselves by making their own decisions. It’s important that we protect them through their health needs. Measles is also prevalent these days and can be detrimental to young people’s health. 


Do you have any accomplishments you’re particularly proud of? 


In the last two jobs I’ve had, creating internship programs have been important. At the State of Minnesota, when I worked for Governor Mark Dayton and the people of Minnesota, we had a robust internship program for young people before, but we developed one through Urban Scholars in partnership with the City of Minneapolis. We also created internships through AchieveMpls, RightTrack, the Doherty Family College and the Wallen Family Foundation. Putting together those programs was exciting to me because it helped students who may or may not have the opportunity to see the images they want to aspire to in the future outside of that internship. The question is, how are we engaging the next generation of employees and young people? It helps when we keep working with high school students, college students, and graduate students. 


Champions of Change are important to advancing change in society – What does the value of “Change” mean to you? 


The value of change means a couple things. It means action. Change can’t mean just listening, it can’t mean just understanding, it can’t mean just appreciation. From all those things, we need action. I’ve seen more action in the last year when it comes to racial equity, though we need more of it. George Floyd’s murder was a catalyst for not only Minnesota, but the rest of the world to see that we need change in terms of policing. We also need change in terms of opportunity and access to employment, business, housing, and healthcare. 


One of the things we’ve noticed with COVID-19 is the disparate impact on people of color due to comorbidities. Those are not conditions unique to those populations, but a large majority of those populations have dire circumstances leading to those problems. Change to me means change to racial equity through action. For example, Children’s Minnesota is going to be vaccinating quite a few young people over the next few months. If we only vaccinate middle class white kids from 5-11, and not take care of those who are underrepresented, we haven’t changed. We haven’t addressed racial equity. It’s important to me overall. We have to change all those systems through actions. 


What do you perceive as the difference between when you arrived in MN and now? 


In 1992, when I came here, I moved to downtown St. Paul from Washington DC. It took three weeks to see another Black person in the skyway system. Then, the population of people of color was 6-7% at most, and now it’s more like 20%. In 2050, the majority of kids born here will be people of color. The LGBTQ+ populations have grown, too. There’s no specific measure of how many there are, but there’s a greater level of students who are comfortable being themselves. I’ve seen a change in the political landscape, too. More women and more people of color have been running for office and winning. Where do we have to go from here? We still have some of the largest disparities in the nation. There are racial disparities in healthcare, education, economic development, and housing. It can’t be about talking about the numbers. It has to be, “What are we going to do about it? How will we engage differently and how will we measure results?”


At the time this program started, I really wanted to see more kids of color in the urban debate program. We talked about strategies by which to do that. We talked about which schools to recruit. That intentionality is why I accepted this award. I don’t necessarily like awards- but when people I’ve worked with are doing this kind of intentional work, I’m happy to open my arms.and be recognized. 


Is there anything you would like to add? 


I’d like to send the message for all people to stay committed to our youth. Stay committed to being an example they can see, touch, hear from, and count on so they can have the best education possible, and also get more involved in activities like debate.

Meet James and honor his accomplishments at our 2021 Virtual Mayors Challenge. Get your free ticket to the event, which will happen from 8:30 AM-10:00 AM on December 13th, 2021, or create a workplace sponsorship at Augsburg University’s Advancement Page.