Gov. Tim Walz wanted to send a clear message when he used his first executive order three months ago to create a council on diversity, inclusion and equity.
Those goals would permeate all his work at the Capitol, he said, making a commitment he and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have repeated often in the months since. But members of his administration and equity advocates say Minnesota has a long way to go to make the state’s workforce, boards and commissions and contractors reflect the overall population.
Inside the governor’s office, 67% of his staff is made up of women and 23.4% are people of color.
But at the top level of state agencies, that picture changes.
The individual commissioners Walz appointed to lead the state’s 23 agencies are a diverse group who come from across Minnesota. But counting deputy and assistant commissioners — a number of whom are holdovers from the Dayton era — just 14.3% of the people leading state agencies are members of a racial or ethnic minority.
To Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, who has been involved in the new administration’s diversity efforts, said that number is “disappointing.”
James Burroughs, the state’s first chief inclusion officer under former Gov. Mark Dayton, said he wishes minorities would make up 20% of those top executive ranks, mirroring a goal of the previous administration, albeit an unmet goal.
Dayton’s ambitious aim for 2019 was to have 20% of the state’s approximately 40,000 employees be people of color. When he left office, state government — the second largest employer in Minnesota — was falling far short of that, with minority members making up just 13.6% of the executive branch workforce.
In Minnesota, people of color make up 20% of the population.
“We’re trying to steer a very large ship,” Flanagan said. “Governor Dayton’s administration laid a foundation for us. We now get to build on that foundation, and my hope is that administrations that come after us will be able to build on the good work that we’ve done as well.”
The Walz administration set a goal earlier this month of raising the employment level for people with disabilities to 10% in state agencies. Flanagan said they will set other benchmarks, assess equity in each agency, and tackle issues with recruiting and retention.
But first the governor’s office is focused on hiring a chief inclusion officer. The position has been vacant since Walz took office.
The governor made it clear in early January that he would continue the position the Dayton administration created in 2016. The officer, who will have two assistants, helps lead inclusion and diversity within government while doing outreach to eliminate disparities statewide.
Walz aides say they expect to fill the position in the next few weeks, but the creation of the council could take a couple more months.
Hayden, who has been on the selection committee for the chief inclusion officer, said that timeline is too slow.
“I would have loved for that to have happened at a much faster clip,” he said, though he added that pace is not the only important thing. “Is it going to do anything? Is it going to matter? Is that person going to have the ear of the governor?”
Flanagan said she feels that sense of urgency, but wants to get the right person and be intentional in setting up the role. The administration also has been busy seeking broad input on their budget.
Burroughs, the former Dayton administration chief inclusion officer, said the Walz administration is clearly being thoughtful about the job. Instead of making the officer part of the governor’s staff, as Dayton did, Walz wants to elevate the position to an assistant commissioner in Minnesota Management and Budget — a shift intended to make the role more likely to remain after Walz’s term.
Burroughs worked on many initiatives he hopes his successor takes up, such as participating in the People of Color Career Fair, meeting with community leaders and reaching out to minority-owned businesses for contracting jobs.
Kevin Lindsey, who led the Department of Human Rights under Dayton, would like to ensure that the Walz administration continues to collaborate with universities and colleges and do pilot projects to get graduates to work for the government. He said the coming wave of baby boomers retiring is an opportunity to diversify the state’s workforce.
Hiring more people with disabilities also was a big priority for Dayton. They made up 4.6% of the workforce when Gov. Tim Pawlenty left office. By the end of Dayton’s term that rose to 7.1%.
That accompanied the jump in hiring people of color over Dayton’s eight years in office, as well as a slight uptick in the percentage of women. But the number of veterans in the state workforce dropped. Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans attributed that in part to Vietnam veterans retiring.
Frans said the goal of 20% minority member representation in the state workforce by 2019 was always aspirational. Burroughs agreed, adding that when he took the job in 2016, “I knew in my head the math doesn’t work.”
To reach that goal, they said retention, not just hiring, will be key. People need to see pathways in state government to become leaders, Burroughs said. Luz Maria Frias, a race equity strategist in the Twin Cities, said it’s also important to show new perspectives are valued.
“Retention is possible when there is an infrastructure that is supportive of the new ideas and thoughts that come from communities of color and indigenous people that may not be mainstream,” Frias said.
But it’s not just the 40,000 state employees who need to reflect the state’s demographics, she said. Minnesota has more than 220 boards and commissions. Lindsey spent a lot of time traveling around the state “demystifying” how those panels work and how to apply, and letting people know that state leaders want their commissions to be more diverse.
“Having people from the governor’s office going around the state doing that, I think, had a really powerful impact,” Lindsey said.
It’s a topic Flanagan is passionate about — she is bent on getting the Board of Cosmetology to fully represent the number of women of color working in the field. On Thursday, Flanagan, the second American Indian woman to ever be elected to statewide executive office in the U.S., spoke at the graduation ceremony for a leadership program that helps train and place underrepresented community members on local and state boards.
The new administration has appointed 104 people to boards and commissions so far, 47% of whom are people of color.
That push, along with Walz’s effort to bring in a diverse pool of candidates for commissioner spots, is encouraging to advocates like Burroughs, despite the difficulties.
“We didn’t get here overnight with large disparities in Minnesota as far as hiring, retention or leadership levels. And we’re not going to solve it in a day,” Burroughs said. “But what we can do is create the processes to make sure that people are engaged or interested in coming to work in state government.”