State commitment to race equity now has a face

James Burroughs
James Burroughs

It appears there yet may be change in which we can actually believe, if not in the White House, where, when all is said and done, a great deal more has been said than done, then right here in Minnesota. James C. Burroughs II is rolling up his sleeves to have state government live up to its espoused creed of ensuring racial equality.

On May 18, Burroughs assumes the position of chief inclusion officer for the State of Minnesota, a job newly created by Gov. Mark Dayton to which Burroughs has been appointed by Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher.

Burroughs will, states the governor’s office press release, “oversee…efforts to ensure: that the state’s workforce reflects the rich diversity of Minnesota by increasing economic opportunity for people of color, people with disabilities, and others underrepresented in our workforce; increasing state contracting opportunities for racially diverse businesses; and increasing the state’s civic engagement and partnerships with communities of color and other diverse communities.”

It’s a tall order, to say the least. One is inclined to ask whether Burroughs was fitted for a blue suit and red cape.

Sitting in the MSR conference room, he readily responds with a confident smile, “It’s a lot of work [that] has to be done. [Since] 1992, I’ve seen the population of people of color, of immigrants, the disabled, grow. But, I haven’t seen the prosperity grow that we talk about when we talk about Minnesota doing well for those communities.”

He notes that diversity is far from equitably reflected in the 34,000-strong State workforce. “We’re below double digits — seven or eight percent.” Along with jobs, his scope includes supporting businesses. Of more than $2.5 billion spent annually, just over $100,000 is spent with minority business.

“That number is egregious, and the governor and I agree we can’t have it,” continued Burroughs. “We are spending nowhere near a significant amount with communities of color. We have to increase opportunities for construction contractors [and other enterprises].”

Burroughs has behind him more than two decades of experience in diversity and inclusion, nonprofit management and employment law, having led equity and diversity efforts for educational institutions, public entities and private sector employers. He has both barrels loaded in terms of troubleshooting; his background is impressive in the fields of education and law.

Accordingly, as chief inclusion officer he realizes the importance of educationally empowering those who seek inroads to State employment. He knows the legal means by which to undo discriminatory obstacles that’ve long marginalized citizens who deserve a fair chance to make the same living as those who customarily enjoy mainstream privilege.

Burroughs served nearly seven years as executive director of equity and diversity for Minneapolis Public Schools, overseeing implementation of the system’s efforts on diversity and equity, including an integration plan, inclusion training, and diversity partnerships.

He also was an associate at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, assisting the firm in hiring and retaining diverse lawyers as a member of the hiring committee. Burroughs co-chaired the Twin Cities Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms and worked with minority lawyers and large law firms to increase racial diversity in Minnesota’s legal profession. He was as an adjunct faculty member at Hamline (now Mitchell Hamline) University School of Law and the University of Minnesota Law School.

Importantly, he is plugged into the minority community, lauded by such leaders as Lena K. Gardner (Black Lives Matter Minneapolis), Ruby Lee (Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servico), Dustin Goslin (Grand Casino Mille Lacs) and Terri Thao (Nexus Community Partners), who were among members of the search committee.

Jaime Tincher attests, “The work we are doing to expand access to jobs and economic opportunity for all Minnesotans is urgently needed and incredibly important. James Burroughs possesses the talent, conviction and experience necessary to make that possible.”

Policy expert Sarah Catherine Walker, the only African American contract lobbyist at the State Capitol, comments, “Mr. Burroughs’ appointment is a significant step forward in ensuring that the administrative departments that oversee community resources and engagement will reflect the changing demographics of Minnesota.

“Government agencies should reflect the communities they serve and model the inclusiveness we desire from the private sector. This is a critical step in addressing deep economic disparities,” says Walker.

Hopes and expectations have to be weighed against the reality that, if James Burroughs walks on water, Republicans will hold it against him that he didn’t wear Florsheims. Undaunted, he states, “The work is less about Republicans and Democrats, but more about what’s in the best interest of Minnesotans.

“For example, in state government we are going to have about 1,000 people each year retire from employment,” says Burroughs. “If we want to replace these people we must aggressively recruit from all communities and do a better job of recruiting from communities we have [historically] undeserved.

“I think Republicans and Democrats alike know we will have a worker shortage of over 100,000 people unless we do something different,” continues Burroughs. “And both parties want the state to continue to be successful and improve its outcomes for all Minnesotans. As this position is successful, Minnesota is successful.”

Though his appointment comes under this administration, its longevity doesn’t necessarily depend on Dayton being re-elected. “My hope is this office will be integrated into state government so that no matter what party is in the governor’s office, the work to make Minnesota better for all of its citizens will continue. In fact, I am confident it will [continue] even after Governor Dayton has left office.

“The work will be made a part of all the work we do in state government and the State of Minnesota,” says Burroughs. “Hopefully it will become a way of life and not attached to one party or the other.”


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.