After 138 days as mayor of St. Paul, Melvin Carter is tired of hearing himself talk. So on Saturday, he spent a lot of time listening.
A crowd of about 200 gathered at Johnson High School on Saturday morning for the first-ever State of Our City Summit, a twist on the traditional State of the City address. Carter did give a speech — and a few off-the-cuff remarks later — but in between, he and his wife, Sakeena, walked around the high school and listened in on conversations ranging from housing to citywide garbage service.
“I hear myself talking every single day,” Carter told a group discussing his proposal to create a college savings account for every St. Paul child. “I want to hear.”
Asking St. Paul residents how they want their city to work, and incorporating their ideas into policy, was central to Carter’s mayoral campaign and has continued into his time in office. Saturday’s event was the latest example.
“In the past, the State of the City address was a time to hear from our mayor about his — I’m being intentional about that word — priorities for the year,” City Council President Amy Brendmoen told the crowd before introducing Carter. “This year, we’re building on that tradition, though with an added element of community engagement.”
Carter’s speech, which started and ended with standing ovations from the crowd filling the high school auditorium, focused on residents’ role in shaping their city, from taking part in conversations about a citywide $15 minimum wage ordinance — which Carter said he intends to sign by the end of the year — to participating in the new Serve St. Paul initiative, which allows residents to get involved in city work as volunteers.
“We need your help,” Carter said. “Building a city that works for all of us will require all of us to do the work.”
The mayor used the speech to celebrate the successes of the past four months, including the launch of the city’s Community First public safety initiative, the creation of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance and the arrival of a new program to help food-related startups. He also took time to reflect on the not-so-good days, including the blizzard that kept St. Paul Public Schools students at school into the night, the rock slide on Wabasha Street and the emergency closure of the RiverCentre parking ramp.
“These past few months have been a lesson in challenges,” Carter said, acknowledging that there are even bigger challenges to come.
As in his January inaugural address, Carter’s speech Saturday grew quietly passionate as he spoke about the disparities that divide the city and the nation. Speaking slowly and intentionally, he paraphrased a line from the Declaration of Independence: “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
“That promise calls us to go beyond the loudest voices, beyond the people already in the room, beyond our own privilege to listen and learn from all of our neighbors, all of our families, all of our children,” he said. “We are all the governed. All of our voices matter.”
Once the speech was over, the crowd spilled out of the auditorium and into the gymnasium, cafeteria and classrooms to talk about fair housing, community-first public safety, the minimum wage ordinance, college savings accounts, citywide garbage service and the city budget.
People discussed their worries and frustrations, asked questions, offered ideas and exchanged names and phone numbers.
At one point, lifelong Rondo neighborhood resident Richard Magee paused to get the attention of a group gathered around a lunch table.
“You know what’s cool?” he said. “We’re hearing challenges, but we’re hearing solutions, too.”