Civil Right Director Korbel: ‘Folks want to see action right now’

Velma Kolberl
Keith Schubert/MSR News

Civil Rights Director Korbel wants more people to know what she can – and can’t – do

“Being the civil rights director for the city of Minneapolis is probably one of the hardest jobs in the city,” said Velma Korbel, director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department (CRD). “Probably not as hard as the police chief’s job, but I think it’s a close second.”

Yet, as she has discovered, most people aren’t even sure what she does.

Korbel said she had an “aha” moment during a somewhat tumultuous reappointment process earlier this year in which she faced criticism for a “hate crime hotline” pegged as dysfunctional, raising concerns about First Amendment violations. She also received complaints from the community for not holding enough police accountable for their misconduct.

The public outcry caused Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to temporarily rescind her nomination to the position. She said it also revealed a more glaring issue: the public’s lack of clarity about her role and how much power her position actually yields.

“On any given day, someone could have an ax to grind on something that they perceived that I’ve done [wrong],” she said, adding that she needs to be “very clear to people [about] what the limits of my authority are as a civil rights director.”

According to Korbel, the CRD’s purpose is to protect the rights of everyone who lives in, works in, and visits the City of Minneapolis. She explained the department does this by investigating allegations of police misconduct and discrimination and by advocating for women and minority-owned business owners, while promoting all aspects of equity.

Within the department, there are five divisions, all of which are “engineered so that everybody can have a full and fair opportunity to live in a vibrant city,” in Korbel’s words. They are the Complaint Investigation Division, the Office of Police Conduct Review, the Labor Standards Enforcement Division, the Contract Compliance Division and the Civil Rights Equity Division.

There is also the Workplace Advisory Committee; the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights; and the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. Given her department’s complexity, it’s not surprising the public is confused about Korbel’s job.

The confusion is not unique to Korbel’s office — especially with the various divisions. “We tend to be like most government agencies,” said Korbel. “We put up information on a website and we expect that people are going to come to those sites and read the information and remember it.”

Korbel said that since she took over as director in 2010 the department has made a “180-degree turnaround.” She said it is now “functionally solid, and there is professionalism at every level in this organization.”

Her focus now is on better communication between her office and the community and better leveraging of the department’s services.

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“It has taken generations to get us where we are now. Hopefully, it won’t take generations to get us out of it.”

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“We’ve got to be more intentional about getting our story and our messages out. When we see an opportunity to get the word out, particularly to communities of color, we want to let people know that these ordinances are here for them,” Korbel said.

This includes working with a consultant to “help us push messages out, do different types of community events, and to identify certain celebrations where we want to be out in the community more.”

Korbel added that during this term she is looking to hone in on “protections in the law that we have never fully leveraged.” Those protected areas include public service, public accommodation, employment, housing, banking, business organizations, education, employment agencies, and business.

The 13 protected classes in the Civil Rights Ordinance include color, creed, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status, or status with regard to a public assistance program.

Regarding those priorities, Korbel said, “We realized we were not leveraging those areas well enough… Our focus this year and in the upcoming years is to leverage all aspects of that ordinance. So we have got to be very methodical, very intentional and very focused on how we do things.”

To maximize the resources available, Korbel said the department has to be “in lockstep with where the policymakers want to go.” This means working with Mayor Frey on his three main policy priorities of affordable housing, police and community relations, and economic inclusion.

“The Civil Rights Department believes that we’ve always worked in that space,” Korbel said. But, she said, there is more work that needs to be done and she knows the community wants it done quickly.

“People want to see things happening right now. Folks don’t have a lot of patience for waiting for five, six years for things to happen,” she said. “It has taken generations to get us where we are now. Hopefully, it won’t take generations to get us out of it.”

In recent history, the department has focused on employment discrimination. Now, she said, it also wants to focus on things like housing, which lines up with Mayor Frey’s top priorities. It wants to address disparities in business credit and lending. “We know that that’s an area where communities of color have had significant barriers to wealth creation,” she said.

Lastly, among other things, she said the department wants to focus on public accommodations, which she called the “bread and butter” of the original Civil Rights Movement.

Beyond her department, Korbel said the same conversations are happening at the City level. “I think the City has been very intentional and courageous in identifying the need for racial equity across the gamut of things…especially around the legacy that race and systemic racism has played in this city.

“This new progressive council has that at the forefront of their minds that folks want to see action right now,” Korbel said. She added, “I’m hopeful that they will do the things that they said they would do when they were out on the campaign trail.”

“I think this new mayor and this new city council know that people want to see change,” continued Korbel. “It’s encouraging to see that level of intentionality paid to this work at this time, but we still have a long way to go.”

As for the Civil Rights Department, her goal for this term is simple: “Continue the good work that we’ve done, improve, and become the relevant department for the City enterprise and for the city residents. That has always been my goal since I got here in 2010.”