Support, don't silence, state's minority councils

  • Article by: VINA KAY
  • Updated: March 28, 2014 - 6:40 PM

Legislature should invest to ensure minorities’ place at the policy table.

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A recent Star Tribune editorial, “Dysfunction plagues minority councils” (March 24), perpetuates a misguided analysis of how to meaningfully engage Minnesota’s communities of color in statewide policymaking. The editorial echoes the legislative auditor’s report calling into question the effectiveness of the state’s four councils of color: the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, the Council on Black Minnesotans, the Chicano Latino Affairs Council and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

 

Like other state institutions, the councils of color surely have room for improvement. The legislative auditor’s report pointed to issues like inadequate communication and poor meeting attendance. These are real concerns. But more significant is a history of underfunding and a lack of resources to do the work.

Rather than needing to justify their existence, the four councils need consistent commitment and support from the Legislature. The councils have faced scrutiny repeatedly through legislative sunset provisions that presume the end of the councils unless affirmative steps are taken to continue them. The $3 million in funding for the four councils is inadequate to support the engagement of communities of color that now make up 18 percent of the state population.

Minnesota’s demographics are changing, not just in the metro area, but throughout the state. Populations of color are growing at a faster rate than white populations, and make up 28 percent of the state’s under-18 population. People of color continue to bring their assets to communities statewide.

Bruce Corrie of Concordia University estimates that people of color add over $12 billion to the state economy. At the same time, we all know that Minnesotans of color experience some of the worst disparities in the country in education, employment and housing. The representation of these communities at the Legislature is still sorely lacking, with only seven legislators of color among its 201 members.

Paying attention to the experiences of these communities — both the gifts they bring to the state and the barriers they face — is an important step toward developing policies that work for changing communities. The engagement of communities on the front end of policymaking is a role that adequately funded and supported councils of color could help fill. The result will be better outcomes for all Minnesotans.

Transforming our state from one with the worst disparities to one that leads with racial equity will require intentional work. Transformative institutional change is necessary at all layers of state and local governments — not just the councils of color and other entities designed to address the issues and solutions affecting people of color.

Instead of continuing to set aside these entities as needing to improve their performance and outcomes, leaders should be looking to the whole. The reality is that a racial-equity-focused framework should be present at multiple levels of policymaking. Perhaps someday the councils of color should cease to exist — but only when the voices of people of color are truly represented in state leadership.

Until then, the councils should continue, but with committed funding that mirrors growing populations as well as the growing urgency to address gaps. The Legislature should turn away from its current “sunsetting” framework and assumption that the councils are not necessary. Increased investment will enable better outreach and a clear planning process for legislators and councils alike. The focus should be on the value of these institutions and how their perspectives and opportunity for building community leadership can improve our policymaking process.

Supporting these voices rather than silencing them would be an important step toward building a greater Minnesota for all of us.

 

Vina Kay is interim executive director and director of research and policy at the Organizing Apprenticeship Project.

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