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Minneapolis City Hall.

Dennis McGrath, Star Tribune

Race reshaping debate at Mpls City Hall

  • Article by: Maya Rao
  • Star Tribune
  • August 9, 2014 - 6:33 AM

Minneapolis officials are rethinking the way the city runs with a close eye on how even the most routine practices affect minority groups.

This new focus on racial equity comes at a transformative time for City Hall, as directors are taking a new wave of retirements as a chance to hire a more racially diverse workforce.

“We have a moment where there is more attention than there has been in a long time, and it is more focused,” Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said Tuesday during a conference on racial equity at the University of Minnesota.

The effort places Minneapolis at the forefront of a larger movement that has already taken hold of other cities like Portland and Seattle. Minneapolis has joined with the leaders of these other cities to form a new alliance focusing on racial equity, which helped sponsor the conference.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have among the widest disparities in the country between whites and nonwhites in employment, education and housing.

Hodges’ emphasis on racial equity prompted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — a leading voice on the issue — to invite her to join a summit of mayors next week; she declined because it coincided with her first budget address.

As Hodges hashes out the city’s $1.2 billion budget, she’s also asked department heads to submit ideas for incorporating racial equity into their own daily work.

Minneapolis officials have tried this before, but on a smaller scale. City leaders say what is new is the focused push to formalize them in written plans that are shared more widely throughout local government.

Last week, council members approved a definition of racial equity designed to ensure that outcomes and opportunities for all people in Minneapolis are not predictable by race.

Supporters of the work stress the importance of making a plan and chart the city’s progress, similar to the way Minneapolis wrote a blueprint to address climate change.

“What we’re trying to do now is institutionalize more how we ask those questions,” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said.

Much of the city’s work now is examining ways to reach racial equity within its own enterprise before focusing on broader efforts in the community.

That means recruiting a more diverse staff, better monitoring how the city hires businesses owned by women and minorities, and considering how new programs and hiring decisions could affect Minneapolis’ aim for racial equity. The city’s neighborhood relations department is holding focus groups around Minneapolis about making neighborhood organizations, boards and commissions and city departments more representative.

The city is preparing to hire a range of new employees as older ones retire. That includes police and fire workers, as well as dozens in public works this fall.

In public works and other departments, the city is looking at whether some educational requirements normally written in job descriptions are not really necessary to do the job well, said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. For example, some jobs could require an associate-level degree rather than a four-year degree.

City staff initially produced a so-called racial equity assessment this spring that featured a 28-point checklist of items to consider when making decisions about various projects, new hires, and other municipal decisions. It was met with some skepticism.

“Nobody’s going look at that darn thing,” said Council Member Blong Yang at the time. He represents a North Side ward with a high concentration of minorities.

The document, which has since been simplified, directs employees to identify how the policy in question affects racial disparities, and what changes could lessen any negative effects.

Minneapolis regulatory services chief Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said her department has already taken racial equity into account on landlord-tenant issues that could affect low-income people of color.

Regulators are also examining how race, income and other factors could affect where cars are towed during snow emergencies. That could lead to better communication in communities of color about snow emergency rules, she said.

She is seeking $30,000 from the budget to translate regulatory documents, such as inspection letters, into Spanish, Hmong, Somali or other languages.

“From my personal background as a Latina woman, it’s in my head that I think about these communities,” said Rivera-Vandermyde.

She added the effort “is meant to bring about questions, and have a dialogue and a pause before you start implementing something.”

Council Member Cam Gordon said he took the directive on racial equity into account when working on a proposal to strengthen a city ordinance requiring corner stores to sell a certain amount of fruits and vegetables. Many corner store owners are immigrants who would be hurt in a way that massive retailers like Cub and Target would not be.

“People are testing it out and sometimes it is helping us think through our decisions more carefully,” Gordon said.

City leaders say it’s important to actively talk about racial disparities.

“Not talking about race explicitly can often act as a reinforcement of individual biases and those kinds of things,” Glidden said. “A better way is to really be explicit and not be afraid to use the word, ‘race.’ ”

 

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

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