Otis Zanders

President and CEO

Company: Ujamaa Place
Role: Session Presenter

Otis Zander’s life path goes from Jim Crow Mississippi, to first-generation college graduate in Minnesota. After a career as prison warden, he was called to second service for Ujamaa Place as president and CEO in 2012. He is passionate about stabilizing young adult African American males who have experienced repeated cycles of failure.

When Otis received an internship with the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) during his final semester at Gustavus Adolphus College, he saw it as merely an opportunity to get off campus and a way to complete his criminal justice major. That was in January 1977. During his nearly 35-year career with the DOC, Otis served at various locations around Minnesota and retired as warden of Minnesota Correctional Facility–Red Wing.

Otis is the current chief executive officer of Ujamaa Place in St. Paul, Minn. He joined Ujamaa, exiting retirement from the Minnesota DOC so he could continue meeting the needs of an at-risk population. He knew that he would forever be passionate about serving and solving the needs of at-risk young black men. Ujamaa Place fills a specific role in the social service continuum—to work with young African American men, many of whom lack a GED. They test at a grade-school level educationally, and/or are homeless, unemployed, having mental health and chemical health issues. Ujamaa Place has provided a successful community-based solution for more than 1,500 young black men. A mere two percent have been returned to prison versus a national rate of 75 percent surrounding this population. Under Otis’s leadership, Ujamaa Place transforms the lives of marginalized young black men.

On a personal note, Otis is not a typical CEO. He allows his employees to shine in their own respect. He creates a positive, respectful and comfortable environment for his employees. His office is often empty throughout the day as he travels throughout Ujamaa’s classrooms to meet and talk to his young Ujamaa participants. If staff would describe Otis Zanders, they would say he is a compassionate person and he cares about his employees. He operates with an appreciated “open-door policy,” and staff concurs that he “listens with open arms.”

Otis has lived in Minnesota for 40 years, but his speech retains the flavor and cadence of the Mississippi Delta where he was born and raised. He grew up on a plantation and was the son of sharecroppers. His first job was chopping and picking cotton for one dollar a day. Otis was the first member of his family to finish high school. His mother insisted he attend college, a pledge he fulfilled by winning an academic scholarship to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. There he met his wife, Lucy, who currently serves as the executive director of Theresa Living Center, St. Paul.

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Photos by Sarah Morreim Photography
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