By Mary Jane Smetanka
Can local government really help reduce racial inequity? Cities like Red Wing and Mankato think so, as they try to turn ideals into action.
The two are among seven Minnesota cities participating in the second year of a racial equity cohort project that is a partnership between the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) and the national Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). The program aims to move beyond discussions of race by having government jurisdictions examine and change their own practices to reduce inequity.
In pioneer cities like Seattle, that meant replacing street lights on a regular schedule after officials discovered that people in mostly minority neighborhoods did not know that they had to report light outages and that unlit streets were aiding crime.
From learning to action
In Red Wing, city officials have adopted a one-page guide to check how policies and practices impact all residents. Changes are already being made. Instead of presenting plans for neighborhood street projects to residents, city staff members are visiting with neighbors first, asking people for their ideas before plans are even started. In Mankato, the city has run sessions on racial inequity for all employees and is planning to broaden those efforts into practice.
Michelle Leise is Red Wing’s new community engagement specialist, leading the city’s efforts to implement its racial equity action plan.
“What we learned from our year-long training is there are local government policies and practices that may have totally unintended negative consequences,” she says. “We need to be listening and understand how we affect all our residents. If we don’t do that, we are not the best community we can be.”
Mike Laven, president of the Mankato City Council, says his city’s racial equity effort is shifting thinking among city officials. “It’s about looking at what we do internally and how we provide services to all citizens, and what’s missing,” he says. “It’s about what anyone would expect from their city.”
Last year, 14 Minnesota government groups, including cities, counties, and state agencies participated in the GARE/LMC cohort, meeting monthly for instruction and discussion. This year, 15 jurisdictions, including the LMC itself, are involved in first-year activities. Each sets its own priorities, goals, and strategies to devise a racial equity action plan, focusing on key departments and employee training.
In their second year, participants stay in touch with each other, talking on a quarterly basis as they try to move from discussion to concrete action. Goals shared by some of those cities include expanding the racial equity discussion to all employees in connection with how they do their jobs; diversifying city work forces, boards, and commissions; and taking the discussion to the community.
“I think it is going exceptionally well. Some of our cities have really moved forward,” says Kevin Frazell, LMC member services director, who coordinates the racial equity cohort and is a member of the LMC group that is going through firstyear training. “It absolutely has lived up to its billing in moving racial equity beyond debate and philosophy toward applied strategies that change things.”
But, he says, “it’s not easy work.”
Mankato Deputy City Manager Alison Zelms knows that firsthand. Though city officials are committed to GARE and stand behind their city motto of “leading the way as a vibrant, diverse regional community,” staff turnover and a crush of other business has slowed the city’s implementation efforts.
“That’s always the hard part,” says Zelms, who joined the city’s staff late last year. “We’re still meeting every two weeks and we’re always accomplishing something, but maybe not as fast as we intended.”
Early this year, Mankato worked with the Mankato Diversity Council and the YWCA to broaden the discussion about racial equity from city leaders to all city employees. Participation was mandatory for 300 people from bus drivers to police officers to department managers. Facilitators helped steer discussion as people sat at tables with fellow employees they didn’t know, changing places and mixing during the day. Videos were used to educate and get discussion going.
“We wanted to have what can be an uncomfortable conversation in a safe place,” Zelms says. “It was fairly well-received. There was a lot of surprise … lots of information that people hadn’t heard about before. We were trying to say that everybody has their own history and can talk about it and that’s not wrong.”
A survey of participants showed that the vast majority said they learned something and were curious to learn more, Zelms says. The city is planning similar educational events to build on the first session.
The next step is to get leaders in city departments to use racial equity as one of their effectiveness measures. But with the city starting work on a new strategic plan, staff time is tight and efforts have slowed as the team attempts to align racial equity components with the broader five-year plan.
“Eventually, department heads will be asked to think about this,” Zelms says. “It will happen, but we haven’t gotten to a formalized process yet. We’re trying to educate while we’re trying to implement things. We want to gain momentum so it becomes normal for people to think about race and equity in decision-making.”
Gordon Goodwin, Midwest regional project manager for the Center for Social Inclusion, which GARE is part of, says it’s not uncommon for even committed cities to stumble on implementation. He says GARE asks cities to think about succession plans, because it’s hard to normalize a new way of thinking when leaders keep changing.
“It takes continuity of leadership at the senior level, and you need support high in the organization to move things forward,” he says. “Some have issues concentrating on it because of short staffing and too much other business to take care of.” He says progress is fastest in cities that have someone whose job duties include leading the initiative.
In Red Wing, Leise was part of last year’s GARE team as a member of a partnering nonprofit called Live Healthy Red Wing. This year, she took the new city job of community engagement specialist, working on the city’s racial equity effort.
“We had great momentum from that first year, with multiple departments involved,” she says. “We learned a lot together and it felt like we were just getting started. There was so much to learn, and we wanted to bring those ideas back to the community. We need to not be afraid to talk about race as a topic. Every city, as part of what we do, needs to be aware of all our residents.”
The Red Wing City Council approved a racial equity plan in May. The plan’s four broad goals include:
Under those big goals are more specific things that the city is beginning work on this year. Red Wing will roughly double the size of its racial equity team from five city officials, adding department heads like human resources, community development, and the library. Leise plans to set up an internal team that will look at how the city listens to residents and how effective the city’s social media use is. A criminal justice group will look for demographic patterns in police and court data.
Leise says one of the most exciting parts of the city’s work is development of a simple single-page racial equity tool that will guide staff and elected officials as they develop and assess policies and plans. The document pushes leaders to look at the impact of any decisions, including who would benefit, who would be burdened, and what strategies would lessen any unintended consequences.
The city is also updating its 2040 comprehensive plan. Ten teams of residents will look at different areas, including typical plan categories like economics, housing, and transportation, but they’re also including categories like arts and culture, lifelong learning, and accessible government. Equity and health will be a theme that runs through the plan.
The community survey that’s done in connection with the comprehensive plan includes questions on how to make life healthier and better for residents. “We want to reach the whole person, not just look at city services,” Leise says. These are just the first steps for Red Wing.
“We’re not pretending that we have reached everyone,” she says. “But we now know what we don’t know, and we know what we need to get better at. Two years from now, we’ll be in a better place.”
Government involvement is key
The League of Minnesota Cities is in its first year as a participant in GARE. Frazell says the League decided to do its own racial equity work plan because member cities expect it to lead on the issue. One of the League’s goals is to develop resources that can be used by smaller member cities that might not have the staff capacity to commit to participating in the GARE cohort.
Overall, about 200 Minnesota city officials are involved in GARE activities, and four or five cities have expressed interest in starting the program next year, Frazell says.
Goodwin believes that city interest reinforces GARE’s mission. With government playing a role, “We can really begin to dismantle structural racism in our society. We’re going beyond discussion and using tools to actually make progress,” he says.
“We’re not just wringing our hands,” Goodwin adds. “There is something we can do about this.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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