The Twin Cities could be the nation’s best example for racial equity — so pledge the mayors of the state’s two largest municipalities. In welcoming the estimated 500-plus attendees at the August 5-6 “Convening on Racial Equity” at the University of Minnesota, both St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges told the audience that they are committed to addressing racial equity in all aspects of government and society.
The two-day conference was co-sponsored by 10 governmental jurisdictions and over 40 local and national community-based organizations.
“It is critically important that we leaders come together and work through every aspect of what we do in our cities and in our states to make sure that we are truly an equitable society,” stated Coleman. He told the conference participants that there are young Blacks who choose to go away for college but often don’t want to permanently return to St. Paul after graduation.
“Are we creating the type of community where these children want to work in our community, buy a house and live in our community, raise their children in our community and send their children to the St. Paul Public Schools system or the Minneapolis Public Schools system or any school in this region?” Coleman asked participants.
“Are we really interested in making sure that we have a diverse society, a just society, an equitable society? We have to do the hard work to ensure that when those children leave and go off to a great college, that they do want to come back to St. Paul or Minneapolis because those are places where they can get a fair shot, where employment is equitable,” Coleman said.
“Whites are uncomfortable to hear about racial equity,” stated Hodges, who noted that racial inequality “separates one from the other. It removes people from one another based on completely arbitrary criteria, and defines our characteristics of humanity, and determines that some people have more than others.
“Our future as a city, as a region, as a state and as a country rests on getting this question right,” she said. “If we continue to have our racial divisions, we will not have the workforce that we need. We will not have people ready for jobs or homeowners.”
Later, in separate interviews, both mayors were asked why last week’s racial equity conference would be any different from previous such gatherings.
“Racial equity is not just a philosophical policy,” said Mayor Coleman. “There are practical, tactical things that cities can do to address longstanding problems of inequality. Having conferences like this are good whenever you can have them. But the quicker we can get to work, the better off our communities will be.”
Said Mayor Hodges, “We are speaking in real terms on what we are doing to coordinate the work, but in a real sense we are not going to know if things are different until we hear them differently. And that’s my pledge, to do my best to move that dial in a way where that happens.”
The first-year Minneapolis mayor said she agrees with Coleman that the Twin Cities can be the nation’s leader in racial equity. “My goal is for Minneapolis and the Twin Cities to be a beacon for the rest of the country about how to get this right,” she said. “It is our work to go from having the worst outcomes and the biggest division, the biggest gap between White people and people of color, to having none. If we set our sights any lower than that, we are doing ourselves a disservice.”
The racial equity issue must be taken more seriously “if we are going to shift the paradigm,” said University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, who spoke passionately prior to the keynote address by Professor john a. powell, director of the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
“If we are successful [in creating racial equity], we actually will become a people. We will get a cleaner environment. We will get a fair economy, a fairer society. That’s the charge, and it is a big charge,” said powell. “We have not talked about a creating a space where we all [benefit]. It is not just an idea.”
“I believe we have people among our leadership who are committed to not just have a meeting, go home, and then business as usual,” said Dr. Josie Johnson. “I think [powell’s remarks] helped the conferees understand that there is work to do, and that there has to be commitment in addition to the hard work. What I hope that we will do is give the conferees…a timeframe around which they have to make a change and have to prove that all of this conversation can make a difference.”
“We’ve got elected officials that are saying the right things about racial equity,” said Neighborhoods Organizing for Change’s Anthony Newby. “The real question for this administration is do they really want to take the risk and act on some of these gaps.”
“We have the ability to change the communities we live in,” suggested Glenn Harris, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, who spoke on racial equity opportunities for government and communities.
Nick Muhammad, a local community organizer, said he wished that, as opposed to listening to “experts,” there had been more discussion on how Blacks and other communities of color can find real solutions to racial equity. “When you are talking long-term solutions, what better strategies [than] to get them [to] actually come up with their own solutions if you are serious about closing these gaps — economic, social, educational and health disparities with the underrepresented communities.”
Each attendee was asked to sign a “Commitment to Take Action” pledge at the conclusion of last week’s racial equity convening. “There is a planning committee that will be meeting [later] in August, working with all the groups who want to be involved” in a follow-up session in late September, said Government Alliance on Race and Equity Director Julie Nelson.
“I’m excited to see the follow-up,” said Johnson.
The MSR will publish articles in upcoming editions on other topics discussed at the Convening on Racial Equity.
All photos by Charles Hallman