They will confront ways of doing business in the Twin Cities that have led to some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in income, housing and education, and they’ll volunteer their time to do it.
And they’ll be working with the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency embroiled in a federal fair housing complaint with two of the state’s most racially diverse cities.
Despite those challenges, the Met Council’s new Equity Advisory Committee has drawn more than 100 potential candidates ranging from neighborhood activists to college professors.
The committee is a priority of Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck, part of what he says is a greater effort underway to diversify the council’s ranks and ensure its policies are drafted and implemented in an equitable fashion.
“It’s come time to stop admiring the problem and make some significant changes,” Duininck said.
The 21-member committee will set its own agenda and have broad latitude to analyze data and push for changes in regional planning, transportation and housing issues.
It also will have built-in diversity; it must include at least one black, Asian, Latino, American Indian and immigrant member, a person with disabilities, and a low-income resident.
It’s hoped that the new committee will build on the Met Council’s success in recruiting workers of color. But it arrives as the agency’s policies come under fresh scrutiny.
Some critics argue that the 17-member council, which is appointed rather than elected, has too much control over local communities. Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park have filed federal fair housing complaints against the council, alleging that its policies have concentrated poverty and perpetuated racial segregation in the metro area. The complaints are being investigated.
In December, the Met Council, prompted by an ACLU inquiry, released data showing that black and Indian light-rail riders were far more likely than white riders to be ticketed for fare evasion by Metro Transit police.
Teresa Nelson, legal director with the ACLU in Minnesota, was cautiously optimistic about the equity committee. She pointed to one issue that could be taken up right away: whether transit stations in traditionally black neighborhoods are as nice as the ones in predominantly white areas.
“In the Twin Cities area, there is pretty clear evidence that segregation has grown over the last decade,” Nelson said. “I think metro planning can contribute to that or alleviate that kind of segregation.”
Duininck acknowledges that more must be done at his agency and in the metro area. “What can we do to pick up the pieces from where we are today? These types of issues are not easy,” he said.
Taking a closer look
With a $987 million annual budget, 4,200 employees (including Metro Transit), a 188-officer police department, and oversight over regional planning in 188 communities, the Met Council has the resources and authority to push for change. Not addressing inequalities, said Libby Starling, the Met Council’s manager of regional policy and research, will drag down the entire region.
The seven-county Twin Cities metro area, now made up of about 25 percent people of color, will see that number rise to 41 percent by 2040.
“When we are looking at any of the socioeconomic indicators for the region and for the state, we have a low poverty rate and relative high income and educational attainment. In the aggregate, we are Lake Wobegon — everyone is above average,” Starling said.
“Look closer and the disparities by race and ethnicity become clear. … We can’t let these disparities continue and remain above average.”
Substitute schoolteacher Donna Oda, born and raised in St. Paul’s Selby-Dale neighborhood, is one of the applicants hoping to be an agent of change. During her interview with the selection committee, she expressed frustration at the disconnect between feel-good policies and action. “We can make it right on paper, but if we don’t enforce what’s on paper, we will just keep spinning our wheels,” Oda said.
Dan Trudeau, a Macalester College associate professor who studies social justice, also made a pitch to join the committee. “Equity and access — that takes continuous attention and reflection,” he said.
Ups and downs
Even as the Met Council dives into equity policies and practices, the agency can hold up some successes.
Nearly 31 percent of the agency’s employees, including Metro Transit, are people of color. That percentage has been climbing steadily for the past decade, and Duininck said he’d like to see more people of color enter management.
The Metro Transit Police Department is widely believed to be the most diverse in the state, according to Chief John Harrington. About 30 percent of its 188 part- and full-time officers are either people of color or women, including five Somali officers.
Harrington, who was St. Paul’s second African-American police chief from 2004 to 2010, said he tweaked the hiring process to give added weight to those with good people skills and language fluency. Last week, officers attended a course on Somali language and culture training.
Despite those changes, data last year showed minority riders were targeted by police for fare checks. During the first eight months of 2015, American Indians were 152 percent more likely and blacks 26 percent more likely to be cited for first-time fare evasion than whites.
Harrington said the results caught him off-guard. “We took our eye off the ball and things went astray,” he said, adding that he is now looking at the data each month.
The research arm of the Met Council is focusing more attention on data and analysis that examine equity and poverty in the region, and Starling said that will continue.
“We have discovered there was a pretty significant audience for those issues,” she said. “The data we’ve been disseminating about the disparities by race and ethnicity really surprises a lot of people.”