Back to the May-Jun 2021 issue

Understanding Your City’s Past To Advance Racial Equity

By Mary Jane Smetanka

As Monticello plans for a more equitable future, city officials are not only looking forward, but to the past as well.

They’re trying to ensure that city policies and practices are fair to all.

Three city employees meet around a table.
Leonard talks with Community Development Director Angela Schumann, left, and Public Works Director Matt Leonard about ways to incorporate inclusive historical information throughout downtown. Photo by Eric Haugen

As Minnesota’s population grows more diverse, it’s an exercise more cities are tackling, looking at everything from how they present local history to the disparate impacts of rules and regulations on today’s residents.

But how do cities start that process? Is it possible to really get to the heart of such deep and complex issues? And does it matter in places where, at least on the surface, people seem more similar than different?

Monticello City Administrator Rachel Leonard says it does matter. She says cities should constantly be asking questions about policy and operations, and that equity and inclusivity are worthy goals regardless of a city’s demographics.

“It is our responsibility to provide services and programs that are equitable for everyone,” she says. “In terms of policy implementation, we always need to ask who benefits from this, and who is burdened by this … and make sure there are not unintended consequences.”

Minnesota is changing

Minnesota is quickly growing more diverse, and it’s Greater Minnesota that is changing the fastest, according to Minnesota Compass, a Wilder Research project that compiles data about Minnesota. One in five Minnesotans is a person of color.

Since 2010, every region of the state, except for northern Minnesota, has exceeded the Twin Cities in percentage growth of residents who are people of color. Seven of the top 10 counties with the largest proportion of people of color are in Greater Minnesota, including Mahnomen, Nobles, Watonwan, Beltrami, and Mower counties.

Rachel Leonard stands by the river.
Monticello City Administrator Rachel Leonard visits East Bridge Park, where the city plans
to place historical signs along the pathway next to the Mississippi River. Photo by Eric Haugen

While some of that increase is driven by immigration, much of the change is homegrown. Thirty percent of Minnesota children are people of color, compared to just 6% of residents 65 and older.

“The big picture here is that growth in ethnic diversity is across the state, not just in the Twin Cities,” says Ellen Wolter, Minnesota Compass research scientist. “Our communities will be growing and changing for the foreseeable future.”

These changes make it even more important for cities to take a good look at their policies and practices. Monticello and Willmar were among a group of smaller Greater Minnesota cities that participated in a 2019 League of Minnesota Cities race equity cohort. They received training on race equity issues by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE).

“Racial equity work requires that government acknowledges and addresses policies that disproportionately impact communities of color,” says GARE Midwest Regional Manager Sarah Lawton. “It’s really important to talk about racial disparities in their historical context and push government to look at practices and systems that have to be dismantled to close gaps. Looking locally helps us look at how this is played out in a specific community.”

Responding to the change

GARE training has changed the way Willmar and Monticello city officials work and how they evaluate city projects and policies.

Sergio Fuentes
Owner and head barber Sergio Fuentes at his business Royal Cutz Barbershop in downtown Willmar. Photo Courtesy Willmar Main Street

In Willmar, about 30% of the city’s roughly 20,000 residents are people of color, many of them immigrants drawn by farm work and jobs at a turkey processing plant. Half of the students in city schools are children of color, and there are Latino and Somali-owned shops and restaurants in town.

“The starting place is recognizing and honoring everything that has happened here,” says City Planner Sarah Swedburg. “We have a beautiful tapestry of people who have shaped the land we live on and the community we live in. We are trying to bring people to a better understanding, talking about things and leading them to action.”

Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin says that as the city considers new policies, it helps to look back to the 1990s, when the city’s Latino population began growing. They got a wary reception.

The new residents “were here to make a living and help their families, but we didn’t welcome them as we should have,” Calvin says. “So, we stubbed our toe. And Les Heitke, who was the mayor at that time, said ‘We need to change some things around, so we don’t do this again. How can we learn, so the next time we have an influx of newcomers in our community, we can more openly embrace them and make them feel more welcome?’”

The city was able to improve relations with the Latino community through increased communication and invitations to be more involved. It aimed to make city boards and commissions more diverse, and resurrected its dormant Human Rights Commission, which Calvin calls “a catalyst for bringing people together.”

“It was all very intentional,” he says. “We are trying to be more open and transparent in our communications.”

The lessons learned 30 years ago are playing a part in Willmar’s reexamination of complaint-based zoning ordinances. Zoning enforcement is largely activated by people who report neighbors for issues like exterior maintenance of buildings, garbage, and vehicles stored outside.

That type of enforcement is unethical by design, Swedburg says, “because you’re relying on people to complain about neighbors rather than trying to address the root issues.”

Instead, Willmar officials want to educate residents about property standards. The city is preparing handouts in English and Spanish that detail city rules on issues like where to park cars and how to store garbage. “If we don’t tell people what to expect, how can we expect them to do what we hope they do?” Calvin asks.

He would like the bridge-building to extend to a review of city hiring policies and procedures. He says that because the city’s application process requires a computer, some new residents may never know city jobs are available.

Diversifying the workforce is a worthy exercise for all cities, Swedburg says.

“It’s not about, ‘Well, we’re not diverse, so we don’t have to worry about it,’” she says. “The goal is to have resilient communities that everyone is comfortable living in and raising a family in. If those communities aren’t there, I think we need to ask why they’re not there.”

A more complete story

In Monticello, as staff work on redesigning the city’s website, they are reexamining how the city’s history has been told. Leonard realized it was dominated by the stories of white settlers.

Abdiweli Yusuf and his son
Abdiweli Yusuf and his son participate in chalk art at the Willmar Welcoming Week Event, hosted by the Southwest Initiative Foundation, Pioneer PBS, and Willmar Main Street. Photo by Jennifer U’Ren

“It was history that was passed down by narrative, and that was wonderful, but it isn’t necessarily inclusive about what happened over time,” she says. “What we found was history from a dominant perspective, which is not unique to us.”

This type of “racialized” history — where the story is mainly about the experience of only one racial group — is incomplete. The new website will make a stronger effort to acknowledge Monticello’s Native American history.

The city is located on a shallow stretch of the Mississippi River that, because it could be easily crossed, made it an important meeting place for Native Americans. The area was also affected by the Dakota War of 1862. When that conflict ended, most Dakota were expelled from the state. But some city histories just said that Native Americans “moved on.”

“They didn’t just leave,” Leonard says. “It didn’t tell what was happening in our state at the time. [As a city], we want to be true to who we are.”

As Monticello considers replacing and adding historical signs in parks, city staff plan to note that Native Americans lived in the area long before settlers and loggers arrived. And background about the scenic overlook called Battle Rapids Park will include information about an 1820 fight between the Dakota and Ojibwe that gave the site its name.

Nothing is being lost in the updated histories. Settler stories will still be told, Leonard says. “We just need to make it clear that some history comes down as stories that are anecdotal, and we respect that while providing historical perspective.”

Other changes in Monticello

About 85% of Monticello’s approximately 14,000 residents are white. With a growing Spanish-speaking population, the city has begun using translators and bilingual materials at events, and the city’s new website will offer users a “translate” feature.

Leonard says city officials hope results of the 2020 census will add clarity to population numbers, so the city has data to shape more of its decisions.

“We want all stakeholders to be able to participate. It is our responsibility to provide services and programs that are equitable for everyone,” she says. “We need to be thoughtful as we draft policies. Five or 10 years from now, we need to be welcoming, no matter who lives here.”

Such work doesn’t pander to one group, Leonard says. Making city policies and practices more equitable almost always benefits everyone. “Look at curb cuts. Those are just as helpful to someone pushing a stroller as to someone in a wheelchair. The intent was to make the world more functional and better for someone, but we all benefit from it,” she says.

The importance of the past 

GARE’s Lawton says it is important for local government not only to explore how policies and practices are biased but to view that reexamination as more than an intellectual exercise.

“Understanding our racialized history is a starting point, a warmup for the work government needs to do to repair the harm,” she says. “It’s a call for government to fulfill its responsibility as a public steward, and advancing racial equity is a measure of our success in that.”

Rural areas that are mostly white are still shaped by racialized history, she says. “Government employees can develop greater awareness by looking at those stories that have been left out.”

But how do you find those previously omitted stories? Local historical societies, oral histories and narratives, and libraries may be able to help research cities’ pasts.

City archives and assessors’ records can provide clues to past policies, as can investigating how cities responded during times of national and local racial strife. Cities can look at hiring practices, where city resources are going, and whether all members of the community are being included in civic conversations and activities.

“Don’t let the weight of the subject matter prevent you from getting started,” Leonard says. “Look at data and ask questions. What does community engagement look like? Are we reaching everyone? If you keep coming back to those questions, hopefully, it will lead you to tangible changes.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.