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Love and public policy in an age of trauma

How the words of bell hooks can transform the future of Minneapolis.

bell hooks
bell hooks
The bell hooks center

Last month, I ended my final class of the fall semester with a passage from scholar and activist bell hooks.

“Were a love ethic informing all public policy in cities and towns, individuals would come together and map out programs that would affect the good of everyone,” I quoted from hooks’ 1999 book, “All About Love.”

The next day, the world learned that she had died.

A “love ethic” is one that assumes every person has a right to be free, live fully and live well.  hooks delighted in knowing her words have the power to uplift others and create real change, and I have been reflecting upon what her vision might mean for Minneapolis in this age of trauma.

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As the city lurches forward after two years of overlapping crises, centering a love ethic has never been more critical. Tension, conflict and anxiety feel endemic, and that is unlikely to change for some time. That disequilibrium can help us identify exactly what we need to conserve or discard as we imagine a city where every person can be free, live fully and live well.

One idea gaining momentum in other cities and worth considering here is the creation of an Office of Care within the City of Minneapolis. This concept is at the vanguard of city planning, and few other places could use it as much as we can.

The office would break down bureaucratic silos, partner with community members, and coordinate multiple functions — economic development, transportation, health, housing, public works, parks, schools, community engagement, arts and culture — for the sole purpose of enabling residents to thrive.

Specific activities for an Office of Care would vary depending on the stakeholder. It might involve enacting a “no wrong door” policy for people experiencing homelessness and seeking stable housing or support services. The office could mobilize local midwives or doulas to close gaps in maternal and neonatal health care. The goal is to meet the needs of our residents, block by block. What care looks like in Powderhorn does not look the same as it does in Jordan, Kingfield or Dinkytown.

It was bell hooks who also told us that “[t]here can be no love without justice.” Reimagining a city that centers itself on a love ethic is therefore not possible without repair. There are physical repairs still to complete, of course, but hooks is speaking of a deeper social and spiritual repair that we must undertake together.

Fully confronting our past as the “Jim Crow of the North” is an act of love and care, and there can be no justice without truth, accountability and reconciliation. An Office of Care could create the holding environment to contain the trauma experienced by residents and help us process the conflict, chaos and confusion that these past two years triggered.

Anil Hurkadli
Anil Hurkadli
With hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into this region through the American Rescue Plan Act or held in the coffers of philanthropic institutions, piloting the idea is both ambitious and entirely feasible. Money is not the issue. Cities are our nation’s new laboratories for democracy, and the greatest barriers to this effort are politicians who tell us that love and care do not equal policy.

They are wrong, and their cynicism shows us the widening gap between the values they espouse and their ability to act upon those values in service of a more just, life-affirming city. “Love” and “care” are not empty words, and they can be used to connect thought to action. Applying these lenses to our policy priorities generates an opportunity to expand, enhance and refine our thinking about how this city works for each of us.

A love ethic doesn’t always require a charter amendment or a politician’s blessing. It can start with an acknowledgment that your fate as a member of this community is inextricably linked to mine, and vice versa. Accepting this truth fosters the curiosity and empathy that allow us to listen and be willing to be changed by what we hear from those with different perspectives.

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Whatever form it takes, a love ethic must sit at the center of everything we do now as a city. We witnessed what the absence of love and care looks like for the people of Minneapolis, and we will not go back. Love is the antidote to fear and despair, as hooks told us, but it requires us to move beyond words and summon the imagination, moral ambition and pragmatism to prove it.

Anil Hurkadli is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.