Back to the Sep-Oct 2020 issue

City of Northfield Makes Race Equity a Priority

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

A group of people at a Night to Unite party, 2019.
Police Chief Monte Nelson, left, and Deputy Chief Mark Elliott join residents for a Night to Unite party in 2019.

After the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, many cities have doubled down on efforts to ensure people of color are treated fairly in their communities. But for some cities, like Northfield, race equity efforts have been underway for years.

From communitywide learning sessions to specialized staff trainings, Northfield over the last few years has instituted a variety of programs and policies designed to make the city a more inclusive place. Currently, people of color make up around 14% of the city’s population, says Northfield Program Coordinator Beth Kallestad, who was hired to manage the city’s race equity efforts.

In the last few decades, more Latino immigrants have moved to the Greater Minnesota community. And in the last few years, African immigrants, mostly from Kenya, have also come to town. In addition, Northfield is home to Carleton College and St. Olaf College, which attract students and faculty from around the globe.

“The concept of being a welcoming city, where people feel comfortable, is important,” says Kallestad, who’s lived in our Northfield, a city of around 20,000, for 20 years. “We’re continually trying to figure out how to do this better as a community.”

Valuable training programs

Northfield’s race equity efforts kicked into high gear in 2017 when the City Council developed its 2018-2020 strategic plan and committed to making diversity, equity, and inclusion one of its top priorities. A major goal was to increase diversity among city staff and the nearly 200 members of the city’s 17 volunteer boards and commissions.

Soon after adopting the strategic plan, a cohort of Northfield employees signed up for a year-long race equity training program run by the Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE) in partnership with the League of Minnesota Cities. With lessons, exercises, and resources, the program prepares attendees to create a race equity action plan for their city.

“Leadership from City Council has really helped by putting the dollars and the resources behind implementing race equity initiatives,” says City Administrator Ben Martig. “Making it a strategic priority helped push us into action, and the GARE training and having staff dedicated to it have been key. We want to be a city that’s welcoming to all.”

But as the strategic plan was coming together, Northfield still didn’t have a staff member dedicated to working on inclusion. That’s where Kallestad comes in. She was hired in 2019 and currently dedicates around a quarter of her time to race equity issues and the rest to climate change. The two issues are related in many ways, including the fact that climate change disproportionately affects people of color.

With Kallestad’s help, Northfield formed a Racial Equity Core Team made up of nine city staff members, including front-line service workers such as an employee in the city’s motor vehicle office, the manager of the city’s liquor store, and the city’s deputy police chief.

“Without someone to keep pushing these efforts, it doesn’t translate into a lot of action,” Kallestad says.

The Racial Equity Core Team meets once a month to work on fine-tuning a draft race equity action plan for Northfield that Kallestad prepared using materials from GARE. Since March, team members have worked virtually on the plan, which was passed by the City Council in July.

To help diversify its boards and commissions, the city also created the Growing Local: Northfield Emerging Leaders program. Community members can apply for the four-month program, which is held in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension, Leadership & Civic Engagement program and includes monthly leadership classes. Each member of the program’s first 15-person cohort — the majority of whom are people of color — was also paired with a coach, a community member who has board experience.

“The feedback has been positive, and we hope to continue into the future,” says Kallestad.

Leading conversations about race

Northfield also plans to train employees on implicit bias, a topic that volunteer board members recently heard a presentation on.

“We want people to understand the historical context around race and equity issues, and implicit and explicit bias,” says Kallestad. “There’s individual bias and institutional bias.”

It is important for staff to understand how their daily work and the services the city provides play into that, and what changes need to be made, she adds.

Northfield also works with community partner Northfield Healthy Community Initiative (HCI) to ensure the city’s job descriptions and hiring interviews are inclusive, says Northfield Communications and Human Resources Director Michelle Mahowald.

“We’ve advanced,” Mahowald says. “It’s a lot of hard work, and it has to be intentional every single day.”

The city started a book discussion group for all staff members as well. Most recently, staff read A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, a collection of stories from Minnesota writers on what it’s like to live as a person of color in Minnesota. Kallestad facilitated a virtual conversation about the book.

“We wanted to start getting everyone comfortable with having these conversations about race and learning more about experiences beyond our own,” she says.

In addition, Northfield runs a yearly themed community reading program, Northfield Reads, for all residents. Led by a group of volunteers, the program features a book club and a speaker series. Past years focused on topics like climate change. In 2019, diversity was the focus.

A community for everyone

The city library has also taken major strides toward making service more inclusive in the last two years. The library hired a bilingual outreach coordinator who’s created new programming such as bilingual story times and bilingual bookmobile outreach story times, Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations, a Spanish language book club, free Spanish language notary services, and computer literacy classes in Spanish.

“Our library has really transformed in the past few years,” Martig says. “We’re seeing more people of color there, which is reflective of our community.”

The library has become a true community hub for residents, where they not only come to browse books, but also to partake in the rich programming, to apply for jobs online, and to connect with resources for help with food or housing.

The library’s mobile bus now delivers books to areas with a higher concentration of people of color. The effort has been especially successful with the new bilingual outreach coordinator on board. “Having language not be a barrier has really helped,” Martig says.

Sample of a Resident Identification Card
Northfield makes identification cards like this available to all community members.

The library also creates and distributes a monthly newsletter in both English and Spanish that provides information on city and state resources and important events. Before, the city produced the newsletter along with a nonprofit partner, Martig says. But bringing it in-house has made it more substantial and vibrant.

The library runs Northfield’s new city ID card program as well, which makes identification cards available to all community members. It also serves as a library card. “For our immigrant community, it’s very challenging at times not to have [an ID card],” says Martig.

Northfield saw other communities across the U.S. creating ID cards for people who, for whatever reason, could not qualify to get a driver’s license. City officials liked the idea of having an ID card for Northfield as yet another way to promote inclusion.

“It establishes that Northfield is a community for everyone,” Kallestad says. There has been great interest in the cards, she says, and local businesses extended coupons to those who applied for and received a card.

To get the card, applicants must provide proof of residence and identity. Northfield worked with local banks to promote the card. “It’s been meaningful,” Martig says.

Ongoing inclusion efforts

More comprehensive translation services are another key component of Northfield’s racial equity efforts. “We’re being more intentional about what gets translated and when,” says Kallstead, including city signs and emergency notices.

Northfield contracts with a company that provides translation services over the phone in around 200 languages. The Police Department started using the service, and it’s since expanded to all city departments.

The Police Department has been proactive in other ways as well. Officers helped promote the city’s ID card among Latino residents during visits to local churches. The talks helped community members get to know officers and feel more comfortable with the police.

Police Chief Monte Nelson, who retired in July, and Deputy Chief Mark Elliott held a virtual meeting last summer for Latino residents to meet the incoming chief and ask questions. Those types of conversations are crucial now, Nelson says, as some people feel more nervous about police interactions after the death of Floyd.

During his tenure, Nelson also helped increase the number of Latino officers to two on the department’s force of 24. “Our goal is to continue to increase gender and minority diversity,” he says.

Of Northfield’s overall staff, around 4% are now people of color. It’s a number that Martig hopes will continue to grow, especially as the city’s race equity plan takes off.

“We’re committed to this and we really want to build in structural changes,” Martig says. “It’s a process that takes time. There’s a lot more work ahead of us.”

Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.