Occasionally an issue surfaces that allows the public to get deeper insight into how our civic institutions work. One such issue is the proposed renaming of Lake Calhoun.
I recently resigned as chair for an advisory board charged with making recommendations for a Lake Calhoun/Harriet master plan, focusing on developing a capital budget to use a $3.5 million grant from the Metropolitan Council. The reason for my resignation was that it had become clear to me that the committee wanted to commit far more time, attention and resources to issues that were not a priority with the broad general public.
While it was clear from the beginning that the Met Council and the Park Board wanted us to include ideas from diverse communities, I never envisioned this becoming a central organizing principle for our work.
After I agreed to be chair, I was told that the Park Board had hired a diversity consultant — to help the very racially diverse committee gain a deeper understanding of racially diverse communities. I was then told that a subcommittee was going to be established to work with the consultant to come up with ideas for enhanced inclusion, one of which was to rename Lake Calhoun Bde Maka Ska.
It is important to keep in mind that no comparable effort was made to look at water, bike and trail safety, or at any number of other issues that would affect the development of a master plan or a capital budget. On a number of occasions I raised these concerns and was assured that we would focus on my questions in due course.
Despite these assurances, I found the committee spending considerably more time discussing diversity and inclusion than issues I believe are more central to our core task, and that would provide benefits to all communities — namely, the adequacy of our bike and walking paths, parking, traffic congestion, transit connections and water quality.
Our committee hosted a number of open houses where more than 200 members of the public had an opportunity to share their ideas. When I asked staff if the public mentioned any issues related to diversity or inclusion, they said no.
In fact, a dirty little secret of our group was that virtually everyone had great difficulty figuring out just what the real diversity and inclusion problem was at our parks. Does anyone really believe that people are in any way discouraged from enjoying our region’s parks? One example of the lengths people went to: a committee member stated that she had heard some minority communities didn’t like dogs — so perhaps we should consider requiring shorter leases.
These kinds of discussions caused me to believe that the committee was out of sync with the priorities the public had for us. When I raised this concern at our last meeting, it became clear that the majority of the committee wanted to continue on its current path. At that point, I felt I could not continue to lead the group and that it needed a chair who could move forward in the direction the majority wanted to pursue.
As I reflect on this experience, it has become clear to me how issues of diversity and inclusion have become central to virtually every public forum we have in our community. I have often written on these pages that addressing racial and cultural issues in our society primarily through the lens of diversity and inclusion will not have the transformational effect desired. While there is plenty of work to go around, it is likely the most difficult and painful work needs to be done by disadvantaged communities themselves.
Wherever one stands on that question, surely diversity and inclusion are more central to some issues — education, employment or law enforcement — than to the master planning of our parks. Yet diversity is often elevated as a threshold question in our public discourse that prevents other, equally important, issues from getting oxygen.
I look forward to the day when our public institutions and leaders have the ability to bring more nuance, common sense and courage to discussions regarding these sensitive and important issues.
Peter Bell is former chair of the Metropolitan Council.