Outreach department works to reconcile cultural differences
By Charles Hallman
First of a two-part story
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges since her election nearly a year ago has made racial equity a cornerstone of her administration. The City Council earlier this summer approved her agenda, calling for all city departments to reduce racial disparities. Does this also include the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB), which historically has struggled with diversity issues both internally and externally?
The MSR first published stories in 2012 on MPRB Black employees’ workplace discrimination investigated by the Minneapolis NAACP. Earlier this year, we received a copy of an email sent by Sixth District Commissioner Brad Bourn “about a morale crisis among many staff” pointed out by a retired employee during a board meeting.
“I think we have to fit in,” said Bourn when asked how MPRB fits in Mayor Hodges’ racial equity plans. “We’re a city that has been so…divided for so many years. It is time to address these issues.”
“We obviously as an organization have work to do” in creating racial equity at MPRB, states Superintendent Jayne Miller. “I think we are making progress incrementally in some parts of our organization, and some [departments] are further along than others. I think it is partly [because] of the fact that it takes time to get…the City of Minneapolis, the Park Board and the employees within the Park Board to see this differently than where the Park Board operated through[out] its history.”
“It’s easier living in Minneapolis looking like me than it is looking like anyone else, or a newcomer to our community,” says Commissioner Bourn. “I’m saying that from a point of privilege, a member of this board.”
The Park Board “is a system that is hard to navigate for some folk. That can make some people uncomfortable,” Bourn points out. “I do think when people do learn how to navigate the system, the Park Board is…responsive. My concern is not enough people know how to navigate that system. Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of an organization that has a 1950 leadership structure…?”
“There’s truth to that,” says MPRB Community Outreach Director Cordell “Corky” Wiseman on some communities of color members who don’t always feel comfortable coming to city parks and centers. “There are cultural differences that often must be reconciled. Some persons don’t fully understand what the Park Board does,” he says: “That’s also part of the disconnect [with] the Latino community, the Spanish community or Somali — they don’t understand our [registration] form. Different things mean different wording.
“We want people to use our parks,” Wiseman continues, “but that [also] mean sometimes there [should be] people that look like them that they can feel comfortable with staying.”
Miller says that the three-year-old community outreach and engagement department is helping to improve relations between city residents. The department is to build relationships with underserved communities and “provide equitable access to and use of parks, programs and information,“ she points out. She and Wiseman together have worked on providing “clarity” about the department and its overall importance at MPRB as well.
“The Park Board is taking a real aggressive approach to outreach to the communities we serve to make sure that they know that we represent them,” adds Wiseman. “That’s the message we want them to know. We are aware that there are concerns and we are seriously taking the concerns, aggressively to address those. This is something we want to do and need to do.”
“It’s a critical time” to look at racial equity issues, says Michelle Kellogg, the community engagement manager. She adds, “Working with immigrant populations” in Minneapolis is very important “because
the region is changing so fast, and we need to make sure that programs and services…truly reflect the community.”
The Park Board then must learn “what works in the Somali community and the Latino community,” she adds, noting that now emergency information in other languages, as well as a multi-lingual phone system, is available: “Not just post it in the languages on the website, but to get it out to the channels [so] that those communities receive that information as well. We also are working on some standard signage so when a pool is closed or a building is closed, or a pathway is flooded, how do we share that information in other languages as well.”
“There is a lot of work that we are doing with staff internally to prepare them, to make sure that we are consistent” in serving the community, says Kellogg. This also means forming “trusting relationships” with community residents and groups, especially communities of color, she says.
MPRB Community Outreach Supervisor Tom Godfrey said partnering this year with the Twin Cities Black Film Festival for their summer film series was successful. “It was something new and we reached out to them. We created a new theme this year — ‘Movies That Inspire’ — where the main actors and actresses were non-Caucasian. It was well attended. We like to expand that for 2015.”
“Everybody really wants to do a good job, and I don’t think anyone wants to make anyone feel unwelcome,” says Kellogg. “Through the [translation] phone lines and the information swap, we are trying to be more pro-active on the common things people are asking over and over.”
“There are some areas where we’re progressing very well, and some areas where we are progressing very slowly,” says the commissioner.
Racial equity “needs to be institutionalized in what we do every day,” says Miller. “Anything that’s new takes a while to take shape. It is going to take us years, in my opinion, because we are a very large organization — a very spread-out organization — to get to where I hope we would be, and where diverse communities would hope we would be.
“I want the community to know how important this is to me personally, and how important it is for us as a parks and recreation system that we do this work. We are here at the park system to serve the residents of this community, and if we are not serving all of the residents of this community, we are not doing our job.”
“There is room to be self-critical and what do we need to do better,” says Bourn. “Right now we need to do some listening.”
Next: Some say MPRB’s longstanding problems still exist.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.