Al McFarlane: The voice of a community

February 27, 2017 | GET MORE : Entrepreneurship

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Sitting down with a community leader, journalist and small business owner who uses his own voice to lift up the voices of others.

At U.S. Bank, we salute the African American entrepreneurs who have shown us that with determination and creative vision, anything is possible.

I had the privilege of sitting down with a man who epitomizes that spirit. Al McFarlane, publisher of Insight News, is a community leader, journalist and small business owner in the Twin Cities who uses his own voice to lift up the voices of others.

Born in Kansas City before his family moved to rural Worthington, Minn. when he was young, McFarlane came of age as an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. As a sixth-grader and member of the youth branch of the NAACP, McFarlane traveled to Atlanta to man picket lines outside hotels that refused to accommodate African American attendees of the organization’s national convention – under instruction from NAACP leader Roy Wilkins himself. Later as a student at Morehouse College, he mobilized students to participate in a march protesting Georgia's refusal to seat duly-elected state representative Julian Bond for speaking out against the Vietnam War – a rally led by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During these early years, McFarlane developed his community organizing skills and discovered a passion for public policy and community-based journalism that continues to this day.

In the African American community, he is a revered hero and national treasure; passionately advocating their contributions, concerns and challenges to a broad audience across the state. Conversations with Al McFarlane airs weekly on KFAI-AM radio in the Twin Cities, highlighting four central themes in regards to the African American community: education, health and wellness, culture and arts, and wealth and entrepreneurship.

When McFarlane discusses the importance of entrepreneurship in respect to communities of color, he is just as earnest as he is in discussing public policy. His advice to any aspiring small business owner is "Don’t wait... Start as quickly as you can. Because the more you do, the better you get. It’s about practice. I encourage people to think entrepreneurial about everything [they] do."

McFarlane speaks from experience. As a young 24-year-old reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he submitted a story. Turning it over to the editor, he had an epiphany – his "a-ha" moment – that he too could own a media company.

"I don’t remember the story, I just remember how good it was," he said. "A light bulb went off and I said 'I can run this joint. I can do this. This is not magic – it’s about skill, training, preparation. And I can run this newspaper. I know that.'"

Soon after, he began combining his skills as a reporter and a brief stint on the corporate side working in public relations for General Mills and Graphic Services.

In 1975, he purchased the rights to Insight News, which was only a monthly, color-cover magazine at the time. He worked tirelessly over the next year – while working nights as a janitor to support his family – to transform Insight into a weekly, print newspaper, supported by business advertisements.

The first advertiser: U.S. Bank-predecessor Plymouth First National Bank. During Insight’s crucial first stages, he said the bank committed to supporting the publication for an entire year. More than four decades later, Insight News is the Twin Cities’ premier African American community newspaper.

Despite his impressive list of accomplishments and impact on the community, in person, McFarlane is humble, modest and gracious. He welcomed us in with bottles of water and made me promise to stay in touch. When asked what he was most proud of he quickly cites his beloved wife Bobbie and five beautiful children.

"Our success is in helping other people," says McFarlane, speaking about his own vision. "Our wealth will come from helping other people become wealthy. I’ll do better if you do better."

Will Hodges is a St. Paul, Minn.-based account setup coordinator with U.S. Bank, and a board member of the bank’s African American Business Resource Group in the Twin Cities. The BRG offers a variety of events and activities for employees who choose to participate, including guest speakers, professional development seminars, discussion forums, volunteer opportunities, and more.