White homeowners dominate the leadership of Minneapolis’ city-funded neighborhood groups, according to new data that could help shake up the way City Hall measures resident sentiments and priorities.
A first-of-its-kind survey of Minneapolis’ 70 neighborhood organizations, released this week, shows that renters and minorities are dramatically underrepresented on boards, given their share of the city’s population. The analysis comes as a new crop of leaders at City Hall are calling for minority communities to have a larger say in important city decisions.
The city’s robust network of neighborhood groups — each one a separate nonprofit organization — is the ground level for civic engagement. They influence development plans, review crime activity, track housing conditions, lend tens of thousands of dollars for home repairs and even invest in public art.
“Hopefully it will make boards think about their own work and who’s on their board and who’s not represented,” said Council Member Cam Gordon.
The report found that people of color comprised just 17 percent of board members who responded, while accounting for 40 percent of the city’s overall population. Latinos, who make up 10.5 percent of Minneapolis residents, had especially low board representation at 2.3 percent. The renter disparity was also stark: Renters make up 52.8 percent of the city’s population, and have 15.4 percent board membership. Board members also generally had more formal education than city residents as a whole.
About 52 percent of the city’s 820 neighborhood board members participated in the voluntary survey.
The city’s director of neighborhood and community relations, David Rubedor, cautioned that board membership does not tell the whole story of a neighborhood’s engagement efforts. “But it is an important measure … because these are the folks that are in the decisionmaking places,” Rubedor said. “I think we can do more with diversity on our neighborhood boards.”
Census records compiled by Minnesota Compass show that north Minneapolis’ Victory neighborhood, for example, is about 62 percent white. But the neighborhood group’s seven-member board is entirely white.
Staff member Debbie Nelson said they reach out to black residents who are active in the neighborhood whenever there is a board election. “Every time I ask them, ‘Are you ready to run for the board?’ ” Nelson said of one couple in particular who regularly volunteer for events. “And it’s always, ‘I don’t have time.’ The same reason I get from everybody.”
Time commitment can be substantial, since board membership typically requires not just attending meetings, but also serving on a committee.
Several neighborhood leaders said attracting more renters to their boards has proved difficult despite efforts such as sending mailers or holding happy hours at restaurants.
“Nobody’s got a magic bullet,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the Longfellow Community Council, an umbrella group for several smaller neighborhoods.
The Corcoran Neighborhood Organization has successfully organized renters around landlord conflicts and other livability problems in a predominantly Latino area.
But executive director Eric Gustafson said it has also been a struggle to build a renters committee that meets regularly, even though until recently they had a representative number of renters on their board.
“These are folks who are working two to three jobs,” Gustafson said. “They are on the margins, economically.”
Gustafson faults the city for not demanding better renter engagement from neighborhoods when it took more direct control of their funding stream — now about $3.8 million a year — in 2011. That change phased out a more independent program whose funds were geared heavily toward housing improvement.
“They’re just feeding a system that had 25 years to build itself up full of biases toward homeowners,” Gustafson said. “And statistically that means a strong bias toward whites.’’
Rubedor said he intends to revisit the survey every several years to track progress helping groups improve the numbers. His department is also exploring ways to engage residents in local issues outside of the traditional neighborhoods, accomplished partly through the city’s One Minneapolis mini-grants. One of seven One Minneapolis grants this year, for example, would provide civic engagement training to minorities and immigrants who own businesses on Lake Street.
Rubedor said he is optimistic about turning the tide. An analysis showed that replacing one or two white board members with persons of color across all 70 organizations would bring the numbers nearly in line with city demographics. “So it’s a doable thing,” Rubedor said.