Racism and inequity are more than just ugly feelings in the country’s rearview mirror.

They were built into American laws, businesses and educational systems — yes, even in Minnesota — that limited where groups of people could live, study and work, said Hedy Lemar Walls, chief social responsibility officer for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.

Effects can be still felt today in income, educational attainment and homeownership rates for Minnesota’s families of color that still lag behind whites’.

That stark history lesson is a pivotal component of the YMCA’s new Equity Innovation Center, housed at its downtown Minneapolis branch. The center, which will have a grand opening Tuesday, occupies 3,500 square feet at the main entrance of the Dayton YMCA at Gaviidae. It includes classrooms and a new Equity Innovation Experience, a large, interactive exhibit created in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The YMCA has already begun offering multiday training to businesses, civic and student groups, and nonprofits.

“We are trying to help people have a transformative experience about culture and race,” said Henry Crosby, the Y’s senior director of social responsibility. “It’s helping people reflect on, ‘How do you get where you are today?’ ”

YMCA leaders say the center is a first-of-its-kind in the country and represents a bold, public commitment to equity work in the Twin Cities at a time when the new governor and mayors of both Minneapolis and St. Paul have made public commitments to equity.

About 25 percent of the 3 million people living in the Twin Cities today identify as people of color. That’s expected to climb to 40 percent by the year 2040, according to Metropolitan Council forecasts.

“There is a significant community need for this dialogue and this collective coming together,” said YMCA President and CEO Glen Gunderson.

“The current national debates around immigration and other things have only widened some of these gaps,” he said. “Educators, school groups, church groups, corporations and civic leaders need to have these discussions and grow and learn around their ability to embrace and serve all. The Y is uniquely positioned to do that.”

Participants select from courses and activity options that dive into history and discuss strategies that individuals and organizations can use. Course titles include “Dismantling Racism,” “Increasing Cultural Competence,” and “Moving Equity From Theory to Practice.”

“It’s a customized learning process based on the outcomes the organization wants to achieve,” Lemar Walls said, noting that the goal is to create systems changes in organizations.

Business and community leaders can also take a social responsibility assessment developed by the YMCA, community partners and Dr. James Toole, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. The test helps organizations identify their strengths and areas for improvement.

While most participants will attend in groups, it’s really about personal reflection and self-awareness, YMCA leaders say.

“We are meeting people where they are and serving as a catalyst to grow,” said Scott Peterson, YMCA senior director of equity and leadership development.

The center’s clients include the Minneapolis Downtown Council, local Rotary clubs, Minneapolis Public Schools and the cities of Edina and Hastings.

“It’s a program that gets under your skin and makes you think about it all the time,” said Jennifer Bennerotte, Edina’s communications and technology services director. “It’s compelling. It’s good training.”

Lessons about how people of color were systematically prevented from buying homes, becoming American citizens and obtaining certain jobs were the most glaring. For example, while white soldiers returning from World War II flocked to colleges and bought homes with the help of the G.I. Bill, black soldiers were often denied full access to those benefits.

Languages in property deeds, including in Minnesota, prevented families of color from buying homes in certain areas. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that stripped an Asian immigrant of his naturalized American citizenship based on his ethnicity.

“Almost everyone who participated in training was not taught that history in elementary, high school or college,” Bennerotte said, adding that her staff were still talking about the training a week later. They’ve agreed to continue their work with a reading and discussion group, she said.

In addition, about 160 students from North Central University in downtown Minneapolis attended training at the center.

“There is a certain naiveté because Minnesota has a history of being very liberal and somewhat socially responsible to its citizens,” said Bill Green, North Central director of multicultural engagement and support.

“This presentation really jarred their historical understanding,” he said, because it disrupted the false narrative that families of color were not ready for or did not want to buy homes and attend college at the same rate as whites.

YMCA executives, including Gunderson, have also gone through the equity training. Gunderson said one study stuck with him.

A college professor had students of color play a game of Monopoly. White students were allowed to join the board games two hour later — after most of the property had been purchased and the other players had accumulated wealth.

“The individuals starting with that two-hour deficit have never once come back to win because of that system of not providing them the same opportunities,” Gunderson said.

“That lesson speaks to what we are trying to accomplish here.”


Grand Opening: Equity Innovation Experience
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 5.
Where: Dayton YMCA, 651 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.