Minnesota Cities Magazine

St. Paul to City Hall: The Challenge to Achieve Racial Equity

UnmachtSPCHBy David Unmacht

Throughout my career, I have enjoyed being able to share my thoughts and reflections through writing, including in this Minnesota Cities column. In 33 years of writing, this column on racial equity—from start to finish—was for me the most unanticipated and, thus, the hardest topic to write about.

I am not an expert on racial equity. I have little experience in leading discussions on the topic. I don’t know what it is like to be a person of color. I can’t put myself in the shoes of others and fully understand everything they have experienced.

Still, I’m saddened and taken aback that this subject has risen to such a prominent fervor in our society in 2016. I want to believe that in my lifetime of 57 years, we have made progress in race relations and that we are a more tolerant and inclusive nation.

But the events of recent months call into question just how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

The job description of the executive director of the League of MinnesotaAn illustration with stacked hands of people from various races. Cities (LMC) calls for skills in strategy, leadership, and vision. It’s easier for me to provide those skills when dealing with subjects with which I am deeply familiar. It’s not so easy on this topic. It’s even more difficult because cities and communities across Minnesota each have their own unique experiences in the understanding, meaning, and significance of racial equity. However, tackling a topic that takes me out of my comfort zone is precisely what is expected in the essential duties of my position.

The reality is that racial tension and inequity still exist in our country today. It is manifested in ways both subtle and direct. The depth of tension varies within our cities, but as we have seen across the nation, it flares up in communities of all types—urban, suburban, and rural.

It is my sincere hope that the League can help you learn more about this issue, so you can understand it and address it in your own cities. I believe the League’s credibility and standing put it in a good position to do just that. But, no matter what our personal experiences and individual beliefs, this is an ongoing journey without a clearly defined path. I strongly urge you to consider your own city’s stake in the journey.

The good news is that the League has some experience in addressing this topic. In 2003, the League developed a booklet entitled Building Inclusive Communities: An Action Guide for City Leaders. And in January, LMC Member Services Director Kevin Frazell began coordinating a cohort that includes 11 member cities and other public entities working with the Government Alliance for Race and Equity to develop their own racial equity action plans. The cohort is nine months into its mission, and feedback to date from city participants has been excellent. (An article about this initiative appeared on page 18 of the May-June 2016 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine.)

Also, the League Board of Directors last year identified diversity and inclusiveness as priority topics for its focus, and recent events have only accelerated the pace and heightened our own expectations around these priorities.

The fundamental question is: What is the role of the League in addressing racial equity going forward? The answer certainly includes the area of law enforcement, where it is critical that we uphold the dual objectives of public safety and racial equity in a way that is safer for both our officers and our communities. But it is also much broader, impacting all areas of city governance and service delivery. Over the past few weeks, we have been informally posing this question to our peers, League staff, members, and even other state municipal league directors.

Over the coming months, the LMC Board will conduct a thoughtful, deliberate, and honest conversation about the history of the League’s work and our expectations for the future. Our Board will consider many ideas, including sponsoring additional cohorts, being a convener for stakeholders to talk about race and equity, dedicating additional staff resources to lead ideas and initiatives, and supporting city officials in other ways that may help you along this journey.

Admittedly, we don’t have all the answers, but our goals are honest and attainable. It is my hope that together we begin to explore specific strategies cities can use to address racial disparity and get to better outcomes for our citizens and cities.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

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