Once St. Paul staffers started to search for racial and cultural inequities in how they provide services, it didn't take long for examples to emerge: Fewer people of color were getting access to library computers, they were less likely to be hired by the city and more likely to get towed during snow emergencies.

The city is one of many communities across the state that are examining how they operate and searching for biases. Officials from 13 Minnesota government agencies, including Brooklyn Park, Mankato, Ramsey County and several state departments, met for the first time last week to discuss systemic inequities. They will spend the next year developing plans to address them.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have already started. Minneapolis has created staff positions to focus on the topic and is looking for equity barriers — like hurdles that make it difficult for women- and minority-owned businesses to work with the city — that it can remove. And one year ago, St. Paul officials had every department, from parks and recreation to police, submit a racial equity plan.

Last week, Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann told St. Paul City Council members the focus on equity has resulted in extensive staff training and some concrete changes, such as a women's-only swim night at a community pool to accommodate Muslim women and text message warnings sent out in multiple languages before snow emergencies.

Council members said the city must now set broader goals and track progress.

"We can have the best policy in the world," Council Member Dai Thao said. "But if the behavior doesn't reflect those policies, who is held accountable?"

Proving progress

Racial equity is a popular topic in Twin Cities politics, one that comes up in community meetings and mayoral speeches. St. Paul staff said they are working to make sure it's more than just a talking point.

But change can feel slow, particularly when it comes to hiring a more diverse workforce, Beckmann said.

About 40 percent of working-age residents of St. Paul are people of color, compared to 19 percent of full-time city employees.

St. Paul has created programs to help youth get jobs skills. It is also working with local colleges to get students into the pipeline for jobs with the city's safety and inspections department, Beckmann said. They have hired four diverse candidates through that pipeline, she said.

"At first I was like — four? Seriously?" Beckmann said, but she realized, "We have to really try to get to 40 percent, and it is going to be at this incremental level."

Minneapolis has taken a similar departmental approach to addressing inequity.

That focus on areas like parks and libraries is important "because from a nuts-and-bolts perspective, it's at the department level that things get done," said Julie Nelson, director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which is helping lead the yearlong equity effort across 13 Minnesota jurisdictions.

However, that approach can make it difficult for people outside of a department to understand what changes are happening, said Joy Marsh Stephens, Minneapolis' equity and inclusion manager.

Minneapolis City Council members said at an October meeting that it was unclear what changes were being made, even after the city had received a $2.7 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and budgeted $250,000 for staff to focus on the issue. The St. Paul council had a similar reaction to Beckmann's presentation last week.

"It would be nice to have a goal," City Council President Russ Stark said. "Without those goals we don't know what we're collectively shooting for."

Community responsibility

In addition to departmental changes, Nelson said communities need to make racial equity a citywide effort. Officials must follow through on the goals they set or risk losing credibility with the community, she said.

That credibility has been tarnished in Yusef Mgeni's eyes. Mgeni is a member of the open government group St. Paul STRONG and a vice president of the NAACP's St. Paul chapter. He said he helped with government employee equity training years ago and feels such efforts have been piecemeal. He said he is also frustrated by the lack of information and interaction with the community about racial equity efforts.

"If we're going to have an equitable conversation, then we need to make sure all the intended beneficiaries are at the table. Not just people with money and influence," Mgeni said. "We need a collective agreement on what we're for, and how we share that responsibility."

One step to undo biased practices came after St. Paul librarians noticed a disproportionate number of people of color were not being allowed to use library computers.

City policy said computer users had to have a library card or guest pass, and those who did not meet the requirements for a guest pass were predominantly people of color, said Samty Xiong, a member of the VISTA program, which works to close the education opportunity gap in St. Paul. The policy has been changed, she said.

"That was an embarrassing moment," Beckmann said. "To stop and say, we have been doing this because that was just how you did things. And finally someone said, 'It doesn't feel right the way we're doing it.' "

Another change occurred after parks and recreation staff were told that Muslim women needed a female-only swim time at a community pool. The city designated certain times two days a week, and from 50 to 120 women now show up to swim on those days, Beckmann said.

"We wouldn't have known unless we were in this conversation about racial equity," she said.

Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649