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How one program is trying to address the lack of diversity at the state Capitol

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
This year's Community Equity Pipeline participants gathered at the program launch on Jan. 13 at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul.

Earlier this month, as Minnesota legislators streamed into the newly renovated Capitol for the legislative session, 14 young leaders of color huddled around a conference table at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul. 

One came of age in Colombia; another was born in Minneapolis; two or three spent their early lives in California; and one escaped the violent conflicts in Somalia.

But all of them have one thing in common: They spent many years serving local underrepresented communities in the hope of driving social change in the Twin Cities.

To effectively do that, however, these leaders realized they needed the technical know-how to navigate the legislative process, to forge relationships with lawmakers and lobbyists at the Capitol and understand how politicians turn ideas into laws.

It was that conviction that brought them to the foundation building on that cold January morning — a conviction that also drew them to the Community Equity Pipeline (CEP), a 10-month training program run by the Wilder Foundation that trains leaders of color in policymaking practices and connects them to influence individuals at the state Legislature.

“Too often, communities of color aren’t present at the table,” said James Chang, a public policy program lead with the foundation. “The sole mission of CEP is to get these experts within the community … to the Capitol … so that our policy will be beneficial and will have the impact we know we can have in our community.”

The start of CEP

In 1990, the percentage of racial minority residents in the Twin Cities’ seven-metro counties was 9 percent, according to Minnesota Compass, a research wing of the Wilder Foundation. Today, that number is 26 percent. Yet that demographic shift isn’t reflected in state and local governments. Take the 200 lawmakers at the Capitol, for example. In a state where people of color represent 20 percent of the population, only 5 percent of the legislators are of color.

It’s an issue that the foundation believes can be changed through the CEP training program.

“The CEP program began because of some reports that have circulated about six years ago that talked about how Minnesota’s policy and political process was virtually void of people of color,” said Kristine Martin, a vice president at the foundation. “That means — from the advocacy, from the generation of ideas, from the generation of responses to public policy — it was mostly, exclusively white people who were either the lobbyists, the advocates or the policymakers.”

Rena Moran, who in 2010 became the first African-American woman legislator from St. Paul, has seen that lack of diversity at the Legislature firsthand. “This is something that I thought about in my first term as legislator,” she said. “My district is so close to the Capitol that I always say that you can touch it. But often enough, people in the district don’t even see it.”

Policy training

The genesis of CEP came out of a series of meetings Martin and her team began having with leaders of color in the Twin Cities about ways the foundation could “change the status quo” and increase the number of minority leaders involved in advocacy and public policy activities.

Those meeting led to a pilot program launched in 2015, an initiative that drew a group of 15 leaders of color from across the metro-area who spent the first half of the yearlong-CEP learning about the legislative process.

During the in-class training, CEP members met every Friday for two hours for lessons on the legislative system: understanding the timing and processes for bills, budget proposals; and the committee system. 

Participants also are paired up with officials, advocates and lobbyists already working at the Capitol on issues that are in line with what the CEP participants are also working on.

PH Copeland
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
PH Copeland, an equity organizer with American Heart Association, is one of the graduating members of last year’s Community Equity Pipeline program.

Rep. Moran and Sen. Jeff Hayden are two of the legislators who worked with the program members at the Capitol, showing them in practical terms what they’d learned in classrooms.

“It’s so important for our communities of color that are connected to nonprofits to be connected to the process because they’re the people who can help influence the process,” Moran noted, “who can introduce other legislators to what it is that works in our communities and what doesn’t work.”

The third piece of the program is training the participants to train others in their communities about policymaking and advocacy. “We’re trying to equip the cohort members to go back to their community organizations to be able to convey and teach what they’re learning,” Chang said. 

Last year’s training was so successful that the foundation made it an annual program — with the official launching of this year’s CEP program held last week at the foundation.

One of those speaking at the event, PH Copeland, who was one of 13 members who completed last year’s CEP training, had some advice for the current participants: “I want you to connect,” she told them. “Connect everyone you can. It’s because of those connections that relationships are built, and they’re going to help along the journey.”

During the two years of its existence, CEP has trained 30 leaders of color, who can choose now to become lobbyists, advocates or policy directors. Or run for or support people in political office.

“One big reason why I think it’s so great to have the Community Equity Pipeline is that it’s making that connection from the community to the Capitol,” Moran said, “and from the Capitol back into the community.”

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