By Allison Campbell-Jensen
She didn’t plan to become a radio host and a podcaster. It started with her work in another discipline, organizational behavior. Lissa Jones-Lofgren helps organizations “detangle problems,” and while doing so, she sometimes serves as the interim executive director. For one organization, the executive had a half-hour audio show specific to behavioral health issues, which she took over for a year. Then the organization decided to be done with it.
But audio was not done with her. About a year later, the new general manager at KMOJ FM got in touch to say he had heard her recordings and was impressed by her voice.
“’I’d love to have you on radio,’” she recalls him saying. She replied: “I have absolutely nothing to say, sir. I don’t know what I would talk about.” But he persuaded her to help another person with a new show.
She came to the station, but the other person did not. She doesn’t remember what she did for that first show, but it must have been good.
“Here we are, almost 15 years later, with the show, Urban Agenda,” Jones-Lofgren says. “It has been one of the joys of my life.”
That was the first audio platform that Lissa Jones-Lofgren, a Friends of the Libraries Board Member, found to claim and celebrate Black culture.
Urban Agenda deals with Black culture in the broadest sense. “The central theme is helping Black people see themselves in ways that are not restricted,” she says. Recently, she was excited to interview Chris Harrington, the first Black president and CEO of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
On a recent episode, she spoke with Aundria Sheppard Morgan, author of “Smiling is not Resilience.” They dug into deep topics of depression, suicide, grief, faith. And the meaning of home. She and the author lifted up the need for honesty and the value of journaling to record memories.
Jones-Lofren asked Sheppard Morgan how she found the courage to write a memoir that is raw and can be painful to read. The author said: “If you don’t find the book you want to read, write it.” Even if it takes a support network to carry you through the writing.
On Urban Agenda (broadcast Thursdays at 6 p.m.), “we explore everything from the Second Amendment and the way it was written to historically exclude Black people, to a celebration of Black literature, to Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ and interrogating that process and its effects with scholars,” she says. William Green, professor of history at Augsburg University, will be on the show soon with a new book about Nellie Francis.
Black Market Reads
“I love reading … I love the Libraries. You can go to a library, and you can be transported anywhere in the universe — outside of the universe, if you want to — by picking up a book.”
In addition, Jones-Lofgren hosts a literary podcast, Black Market Reads, which she also came to via an indirect route. She was giving a presentation in the Hosmer Library about Frederick McKinley Jones, a Black inventor who lived in Hallock, Minnesota. Among his many inventions was the snowmobile; he also patented refrigeration in transportation for the company Thermo King. She communicated so much excitement about McKinley Jones that two people in the audience, Edie French and Paul Auguston of iDream.tv, asked her to host Black Market Reads.
They are producers of the literary podcast, which is a project of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature; Jones-Lofgren now is in her seventh season. On Jan. 1, 2021, she interviewed poet and essayist Claudia Rankine about “Just Us: An American conversation” (Graywolf Press, 2020). In the book, Rankine challenged herself to talk with white men about white male privilege. The title is based on a quote from the late comedian Richard Pryor: “You go down there looking for justice; that’s what you find — just us.”
Recently, she spoke with Tananarive Due, the Queen of Black Horror. “She just re-released her book after 20 years: “The Between.” Whew. It is phenomenal,” Jones-Lofgren says. Publisher HarperCollins has been in touch with her about books prior to publication. It’s an exciting time to be working on the podcast.
“We’ve taken Black Market Reads on the road,” she says, “and we’ve been in schools and been in front of live audiences and we’ve been at the Twin Cities Book Festival.”
Dispelling illusions and making Friends
Among her other work, Jones-Lofgren also seeks to help enterprises grow beyond “the illusion of inclusion.” While it’s not exclusive to Minnesota, there is an ideal that ours is a progressive liberal state where it’s beautiful to live. “It is, and it isn’t,” she says. “It depends on who you are and where you live and what you have access to . … disparities continue the same way they have for decades.”
When companies recognize the illusion and make commitments to change, she is willing to work with them.
She packs a lot of different experiences into her days. In one recent week, she says: “I will be honoring Black women’s genius with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. I will be with Blue Cross Blue Shield highlighting health disparities at a luncheon and doing a podcast from there. I will be working with a 56-member organization on issues of inclusion in the nonprofit sector.”
She was invited to serve on the Friends of the University Libraries Board by French. “I love reading, which is my tie to the Libraries, too. I love the Libraries. You can go to a library, and you can be transported anywhere in the universe — outside of the universe, if you want to — by picking up a book.”
The Friends Board, she says, means “much more than I would have ever imagined. … We’re curious, we love to read, we believe in supporting the Libraries. We believe in supporting the University. But we all do it in similar and different ways. It’s like a great exercise in inclusion; people get to show up with all their intersections.”
She co-chairs the Nominations committee with Gary Peterson and is proud of the greater diversity that they are fostering. She also believes the Friends help her, a grandmother, build a legacy in the world by serving in a way that is meaningful. And she may have started accidentally but she has, with intention, given voice to many Black writers.