Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2016 issue

Building Racial Equity in Cities

Picture illustrating racial equityBy Mary Jane Smetanka

To see his community’s future, Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge need look no further than the kindergartners who will enter the city’s public schools this fall. For the first time, most will be minority children. Less than 50 years ago, Bloomington was 99 percent white.

“It’s important for us to plan for the future of the community and understand what this means about providing services, the programs we offer, and how we reach out to communities of color to get more participation,” Verbrugge says of his city, which has about 86,000 residents. “We have an obligation to ensure that programs and services we offer are not creating barriers for people to participate, and that we are considering the perspective of all the voices in the community.”

But how do you build a racially equitable city? In Seattle, Washington, which pioneered such efforts, the job included taking a new look at garbage collection and how the city replaced street lights. The resulting street light policy not only made a mostly minority neighborhood safer, it saved money, too.

Minnesota project
Getting past often abstract and emotional discussions about race to reach concrete solutions is the aim of a Group of people involved in the Minnesota racial equity project.racial equity project involving 14 Minnesota cities, counties, and other jurisdictions. The year-long program, which is a partnership between the League of Minnesota Cities and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), is led by GARE Director Julie Nelson, former director of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights.

“Across the country, we know that race can tell how well you’re doing,” Nelson says. “We’ve made some progress with the civil rights movement. Discrimination is now illegal, but we still have policies and practices that can perpetuate inequity. Government touches everything, so we are using the leverage and power of government … to try to line up our actions with our aspirations.”

Participants in the Minnesota program are meeting monthly for instruction and discussion. Each city is setting its own priorities, goals, and strategies to devise a racial equity action plan, focusing on key departments and employee training.

In the past, policymakers often “looked at people as problems to be fixed, with programs to help. But we don’t fix the institution that creates the inequity in the first place,” Nelson says. “Government is incredibly powerful, in a good way. We’re trying to create inclusive, effective democracy. We can’t do that without changing government.”

She says cities need to wrestle with the issue inside their own organization before they can move outside and work with others. Police are one example. Cities can use technology like video cameras to add accountability, but if the underlying relations between police and communities of color don’t improve, she says, very little changes.

Start by building relationships
Maplewood (population 39,000) is participating in the racial equity effort partly at the urging of Police Chief Paul Schnell. Schnell says that while his city hasn’t Julie Nelson, of the Government Alliance for Racial Equity, presents at a meeting.faced a crisis like Ferguson, Missouri, experienced after the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, he recognizes the potential for such an event.

“We know the diversity of Maplewood is changing, yet we don’t have significant and deep relationships with the communities that call Maplewood home,” Schnell says. “That’s the concerning part. We believe that with the right set of circumstances, the right conditions, Maplewood could experience some of the things that happened in Ferguson. We don’t want that to happen here, and we want to grow trust before there is a situation that forces a crisis.”

Minority population in the first-ring suburb has grown rapidly since 1990, from 5.5 percent to 31 percent in 2014. Maplewood recently got its first Hmong city councilmember, and the Council wants to find ways to get more residents involved, says Assistant City Manager Mike Funk.

Traditional methods—announcing a meeting time and place, and waiting for people to show up—just doesn’t work anymore, Funk says.

“It’s almost a buzzword, saying we need to engage, we need to do a better job” he says. “What we haven’t done a good job of in government is saying what that looks like.”

Maplewood’s city employees are largely white. The city will examine hiring practices to make sure they aren’t biased or overlooking qualified people.

Schnell wants to make sure police actions don’t have a disparate effect on people because of race or gender. He says officers need to get to know residents who are different from themselves, and get to know them well. “The business of government is basically a relationship business. Equity starts there,” Schnell says.

An issue of livability and economic vitality
Another participating city is Mankato (population 40,000), home to increasing numbers of international university students and growing Somali and Sudanese populations. Deputy City Manager Tanya Ange says Nelson’s racial equity presentation to city managers last winter created a “buzz in the room” and that she was eager to participate partly because cities are working together and sharing information over the year.

“We want to make sure that the services we deliver are to the whole community,” Ange says. “It’s an issue of livability and economic vitality as well.”

Picture of Elizabeth Tolzmann, of Bloomington, at a racial equity meeting.Mankato’s racial equity team includes police, housing, public information, and human resources staff. The city’s work coincides with a wider city discussion about the history of race involving the local YWCA and the Greater Mankato Community Council. “It’s really the right time to have this conversation,” Ange says.

In Bloomington, Verbrugge was hired as city manager last year by a Council that was focused on community engagement. He says citizen participation is integral to everything from city commissions to the local youth athletic association. The city will look at whether its practices somehow create barriers that prevent or deter people from being involved, and will re-examine job descriptions and hiring practices.

“Once we identify issues of equity, it opens up a whole different scope of conversation, opening up to dealing with disparities,” he says.

Police, public health, community services, community development, and administration departments are on Bloomington’s racial equity team, which is led by Assistant City Manager Elizabeth Tolzmann.

Tolzmann expects the discussion to push employees out of traditional ways of thinking, saying it will “promote innovation, creative thinking, training, and opportunities for development that challenge our internal staff to move beyond their zones of comfort in how we do things. During this time, production may be low, but learning will be very high.”

Areas of disparity
In Seattle, the city used its own data to analyze disparities in city services. For example, officials discovered that missed garbage pickups were much higher in communities of color. A closer look showed that a difference in housing density and the number of alleys affected regular pick-up. Changes were made to assure better service.

Seattle’s streetlight replacement policy was changed after a series of shootings in a mostly African-American neighborhood. When the mayor toured the area, he noticed that many streetlights were burned out.

The city had been relying on citizen complaints to replace lights. But in immigrant, minority, and poor neighborhoods, most people didn’t know that, Nelson says. Seattle now replaces lights neighborhood by neighborhood every few years, heightening safety and saving money as well.

Box that says, There are lessons there for other cities. “Streetlights, potholes, graffiti removal—so much of it is a complaint-based system. We’re not intentionally creating that impact on people. It’s just the way it works,” Nelson says.

“To get a different outcome, we need to be intentional about changing things policy by policy,” she adds. “There is incredible leverage and traction that comes from government. Government needs to build the understanding and capacity of its own employees, and work in partnership with community.”

Mankato’s Ange says this year’s project is just the start.

“After this year, we will not be done,” she says. “This will be ongoing.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

Read the May-June 2016 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine.

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