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Low morale, staff burnout interrupted Minneapolis race equity promises

12 June 2022

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to embark on a sweeping “truth and reconciliation” inquest to examine how historic discrimination created the city’s persistent inequality. But two years later, it has yet to begin.

Former Hennepin County Judge LaJune Lange joined a workgroup of African American and Indigenous experts that delivered recommendations for the scope of that process to the City Council one year ago. She has not heard of any progress since.

“Our city has never really examined its history and been transparent about its impact on the various communities that live within the city, so it needs to be done,” Lange said.

Amid the racial reckoning of recent years, the city of Minneapolis made an array of overtures to culture change by incorporating equity into its most significant decisions. A “Strategic Racial Equity Action Plan” defined ways in which the city could measure improvement. City Council also declared “Racism as a Public Health Emergency” in 2020 as COVID-19 exposed social determinants of health.

These initiatives, along with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were tasked to a small team under the City Coordinator’s Office called the Division of Race and Equity. They were at most nine staff who also had the job of offering mental health resources to communities at the center of tumultuous police killings.

By last year, all but one had quit, leaving the city’s key equity endeavors in limbo.

This spring the city hired a new director of the Division of Race and Equity, Tyeastia Green, who comes by way of Vermont. She has taken a measured approach to rebuilding the division, studying where the former staff left off as she seeks to pave a new path forward.

Still, last month some 75 current and former city staff signed a letter criticizing the “racist, toxic work culture” of the city of Minneapolis. At a news conference on the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder, Gina Obiri from the City Coordinator’s Office asked, “What can you say is different in the city?”

“City Council and the mayor have declared racism as a public health emergency,” she said. “Well, what has come of that? How has it been operationalized? It hasn’t.”

According to city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie, the pandemic and staff turnover stalled the initiative’s rollout. That work is just starting up again, she said, beginning with researching how other cities have interpreted that message and what concrete actions they have taken.

‘There was weariness’

Several former Race and Equity staff said they felt overwhelmed, not taken seriously by other parts of the city and distrusted by the public.

There was the ongoing police violence in Black communities every year that motivated some to depart,” said Joy Marsh, the former Race and Equity director who oversaw the division’s creation in 2017. “There was weariness of being tokenized and marginalized as racial equity leaders while city leadership espoused a commitment to this work.”

A team sent to do community engagement at 38th and Chicago was told the input they gathered would inform the gradual reopening of George Floyd Square in partnership with activists occupying it. That didn’t happen, said former Race and Equity program manager LaLinda Xiong. The city’s sudden decision to remove barricades last summer took the team by surprise, destroying the rapport they had begun to build with caretakers of the Floyd memorial, she said. To date, the intersection remains partially blocked.

“It made us feel small because we were continuously told that the city was fortunate to have our talent, but it felt insincere because our skill sets and expertise were not utilized,” said Xiong. “We felt like props.”

Another former employee, Nick Campbell, was in charge of implementing internal measures such as the Racial Equity Impact Analysis, a tool for assessing the consequences of city decisions on historically marginalized neighborhoods and populations of Minneapolis. Staff were required to fill out a form for all charter and code amendments, policies and budget matters, but some departments skipped it, he recalled.

“You start to question why you continue to put a lot of time, energy and effort into programs and initiatives that you really cared about and that you knew could make an impact, when it’s generally disregarded and ignored by the organization,” Campbell said.

As the division diminished, their unfinished work fell to those who remained. Many of the initiatives ground to a halt.

The Racial Equity Impact Analysis now is built into staff’s internal workflow program, City Clerk Casey Carl said. It must be filled out for required agenda items before they can be submitted to City Council, but the Race and Equity Division lacks the capacity to validate the assessments or ensure they do more than check a box.

“Some departments enthusiastically embraced the concept and did everything they could to demonstrate support for the process as an expressed value of the city,” Carl said. “Other departments, lacking help, training, ongoing support … did the best they could with what was provided. That resulted in variation across the enterprise in terms of the overall quality.”

‘No instant gratification’

In March, Tyeastia Green signed on as the city’s new director of Race and Equity. A Minnesota native, she held a similar role in Burlington, Vt. There, she was a city executive who answered directly to the mayor, which vested her with the power to push through changes. From 2020 to 2022, she grew Burlington’s race equity department from one employee to 14, she said.

Under Green, Minneapolis’ Division of Race and Equity is on the mend, expanding to five staff members. They are currently learning how things work in the city and hiring a program manager to launch the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she said.

“The staff and the community at large have been incredibly traumatized. … It’s really hard to deal with all of that trauma and still be able to come to work and function,” Green said. “There’s no instant gratification here, but what we can do is put things into motion so that generations after us will be able to enjoy things that we’re not able to enjoy today.”

City Council President Andrea Jenkins, who drove several of the city’s equity campaigns and has been one constant throughout the turnover of council members and professional staff, said she would be thrilled if, by the end of the year, the city came up with a plan for tackling racism as a public health emergency.

“We have some of the most pressing issues the city has ever faced. Crime, carjackings, health concerns, police-involved murders. These are really big issues,” Jenkins said, stressing that the city’s issues of short-staffing and institutional inertia plague workplaces everywhere.

“They have a role to play, too, the general public. It isn’t like racism only exists within the city of Minneapolis. I believe we will be addressing these issues for many, many years.”

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