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‘Toxic, racist, unsafe’ work conditions in the Minneapolis City Coordinator’s Office

Today feels like a moment when some especially brave staff have chosen to set aside their comfort and speak out in the face of inequities.

Minneapolis City Hall
Minneapolis City Hall
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The letter that follows is from former City of Minneapolis Race & Equity Director Joy Marsh. Her letter addresses her experience as the city’s first Director of Race & Equity and the efforts of current and former City Coordinators Office hold leadership accountable for creating an anti-racist and safe workplace. 

Mayor Frey, Council President Jenkins and City Council, and Minneapolis Community Members,

I joined the City of Minneapolis’ City Coordinator’s Office (CCO) late fall 2015 filled with excitement about the opportunity to lead racial equity work in a city I loved. It was clear in the interview process that the people  I would look most directly to for leadership, the city coordinator and deputy city coordinator, had little to offer by way of wisdom on how to accomplish the work, but I was undeterred. I had transferable skills  leading similar efforts in far larger and more complex organizations. Also, I interpreted their lack of clarity  on how to support my work effectively and the promise of a blank canvas upon which I could create to, in  fact, mean that my leadership and expertise would be trusted. I believed I would be listened to and even  consulted on matters related to racial equity in ways commensurate with my leadership role. The stark  contrast between the vision painted for me and my lived experience in the Coordinator’s Office for six years is illustrative of the most insidious and toxic work environment I have experienced in nearly three decades of  professional work.

There were no signs in the interview process to warn me of the amount of gaslighting, marginalization  and tokenism I would experience or the toll it would all take on my mental and emotional health. I could  not have planned for the professional cost these actions would take on my self-confidence, or the weight  of the doubt I would experience. I had to operate under a significant degree of cognitive  dissonance in those early years as I tried to make sense of the stated equity values of the city. These stated values along with hollow public praise I might receive from city leadership on one hand was in stark contrast with the harm I experienced behind closed doors. My reputation for being a transformational  leader was growing locally and nationally, but within the confines of the city, most notably, the Coordinator’s Office, my efforts were regularly dismissed or co-opted by others to build their public profile.

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What is incredibly important to note is that my experience is not unique to me, nor is it tied to a single city coordinator, mayor or city council. The culture is one of harm and toxicity serving those who pledge  allegiance to it and few others. I point to my experience to contribute my voice to the growing numbers of city staff from across the enterprise who are organizing at their own risk in pursuit of justice. I speculated for a long time why such a movement never happened before, particularly considering how many staff, past and present in my tenure, had experiences like mine. How were people leaving silently,  not reaching back and saying something? How could we allow this culture of harm go unchecked at the cost of BIPOC employees and those white staff who dared to leverage their privilege to speak boldly for  justice?

Joy Marsh
Joy Marsh
One need only look to Mayor Frey’s public statement about the concerns raised by CCO staff calling for this moment to be one for deeper reflection and intention on addressing the culture of harm. By ignoring  the call for systemic change, he instead attempts to shift the narrative by minimizing the claims and  portraying the oppressed as making this matter a personal one against Heather Johnston (interim city coordinator). Instead of  seizing the moment to put action behind the city’s rhetoric of care for racial equity, he instead moves to  try to distract people from the issues that have long been at hand. But just like Heather, this matter isn’t about Mayor Frey. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen leadership in the city be dismissive in the face of  documented harm against BIPOC and allied white employees when it comes to racial equity. This is the  culture of white supremacy in action. It is why under four city coordinators and two mayors in my six years at the city, the culture didn’t change. It is why I heard countless stories from others in the workforce  about similar experiences in their departments and pre-dating my time at the city.

The culture is toxic and city leadership can either honor the voices of the oppressed and do something to  change it. Or you can continue to operate with benign neglect treating BIPOC staff as interchangeable  cogs that can be replaced with those who may be more accommodating, when the last crew, weary of the  toll of the harm, chooses to leave.

Today feels different though. Today feels like a moment when some especially brave staff have chosen to set aside their comfort and speak out in the face of inequities. These staff are embodying the city’s racial equity value by calling for justice, even if there are those in a position to take action to disrupt the system of harm opt to ignore these cries. Today is, in fact, a moment to simply lean into the discomfort of recognizing the city culture, as with every other organization that is built upon policy and practice that  centers whiteness, does in fact cause harm to BIPOC staff. The harm happens in the culture and there is a  doubling down of that harm when we shine a light on it and blame or marginalize the victim. Simply put, moving on as if growing numbers of staff, past and present, have not called for disrupting the status, isn’t a good look for the city.

To those who are putting their bodies, jobs, and professional futures on the line to lead this effort, I applaud you. Your leadership in this moment is an inspiration and compelled me to act first as someone  committed to people-led movement, secondly as a strong champion of so many of you individually, and  as a resident of Minneapolis. You are who the residents of Minneapolis and employees of the city deserve. Your willingness to act not only in this effort but in the work you do every day to move more equitable policy and practice is sowing seeds for true transformation in the city, not because words match deeds at the highest levels as often as they should, but in spite of that.

I offer my thoughts here not because I believe the mayor or council will act in accordance with the demands set forth by staff. Quite the contrary, history has shown that in the face of clear evidence, the city will operate against the interest of the people. None of it is personal. It is all about a culture that continues to benefit some at the expense of so many. I offer my thoughts here because I believe in the people and I could not let their sacrifice go without support in whatever way I could offer it. I offer it because regardless of how the city responds, the very fact that we are having this conversation now is a win for these staff. For that I am deeply grateful to have called many of them colleagues, some of them  friends, and all of them tremendous assets to the advancement of racial justice in Minneapolis and beyond.

Joy Marsh is the former City of Minneapolis Race & Equity director.