When our partnership of more than 25 community organizations presented its “Vision and Agenda for Racial and Economic Justice” to Minneapolis City Council members and Mayor Betsy Hodges in January, we came in the spirit of partnership and collaboration. We know — because our communities are experiencing it — that the racial disparities in our city are destructive to our social and economic fabric. We came with the readiness and willingness for the hard work it was going to take to break down the barriers to success for all Minneapolis residents.
So when we learned of City Council President Barb Johnson’s frustration and anger with the time and attention being given to racial equity, we were frustrated, too. Johnson’s comments mirror a confusion about the course of action that the council has been on track to take. We agree that we do not need more studies, but we do need action. The plan before the council is one that council members had requested from city staff in 2012, and it calls for action. It addresses city employment, community engagement and procurement — not everything necessary to achieve equity in Minneapolis, but an important start.
Our history of racial oppression has created a necessity to commit time and resources to undoing its effects. Throwing up our hands at the work ahead — in the face of some of the worst racial disparities in the nation — indicates a lack of courage and leadership to tackle the multiple ways in which structural barriers exist to true opportunity for people of color in Minneapolis. Failing to see the connection between crime and violence and the systemic issues of education disparities, unemployment and criminal justice is shortsighted, even blind to the real experiences people of color face in Minneapolis every day.
The racial-equity plan offers goals that will require immediate action and implementation of policies to close current gaps by 2020. In a city where 40 percent of residents are people of color, 76 percent of city employees are white. In 2012, only 14 percent of Minneapolis boards and commissions members were people of color. Of the companies receiving contracts under $50,000 with the city in 2012, fewer than 1 percent were minority-owned.
The plan presented to the City Council also asked for decisions on some key policy questions. Among these were whether the council would adopt a racial-equity assessment to be used by city staff and how city leaders would be held accountable for meeting the goals. In short, the plan that came before the council asked for action.
The OUR MPLS partnership calls for true action to address racial disparities in Minneapolis. We call on city leadership to:
• Adopt the equitable-solutions framework presented by city staff. The recommendations are strong and, if implemented, would have a significant impact on employment, engagement and procurement at the city. The City Council has yet to address the key policy questions that were brought to it. Answering these questions will put the city on a path of action for addressing disparities. The council’s strategy to engage in a study session of the framework may result in an even better set of solutions by allowing council members to thoughtfully answer the policy questions, but action must follow soon.
• Apply racial-equity impact assessments. Both Johnson and fellow north Minneapolis Council Member Blong Yang expressed frustration with the burden of asking key questions to assess the impact of proposed policies. What they fail to see is that asking and thoroughly answering these questions — only five in the version the Organizing Apprenticeship Project has developed — is an important way to analyze policy proposals and avoid unintended outcomes that could worsen disparities. Done right and with true community engagement, such assessments are a proven tool for better policymaking.
• Invest in racial equity. The staff time and resources that Johnson complained about at the Committee of the Whole meeting are part of what it will take to dismantle the barriers to opportunity for our increasingly diverse population. Seventy percent of students in the Minneapolis public schools are of color. We must invest in them to build a future workforce that will make our city great. Laying the groundwork for this future must happen now — by making sure that schools work well for all students, that parks offer important after school and summer programming in all parts of the city, and that there is a pipeline of job opportunities available when our young people are ready for them. The city will have to invest time and money to make all of this possible, and with the budgeting process currently in progress, now is the time to commit resources to the work ahead.
As the OUR MPLS partners have met with City Council members, the mayor and city staff over the last several months, we have said that Minneapolis has the opportunity to change our current narrative. We can be the one city in the United States that goes from having some of the worst disparities to closing those gaps and being truly equitable.
We hope to hear soon from all City Council members and the mayor that they will lead and take the action required to make racial equity a reality. Community members are ready to work with city leaders to make the story of “one Minneapolis” true, as well as to hold leaders accountable for failing to act.
Scott Gray is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League. Vina Kay is interim executive director and director of research and policy at the Organizing Apprenticeship Project. Neeraj Mehta is director of community-based research at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. The authors are part of the OUR MPLS partnership of organizations working to advance racial justice in Minneapolis.