As Minneapolis debates the pros and cons of Neighborhoods 2020, the city’s plan to incentivize greater diversity among neighborhood organizations, city staff have targeted another layer of city government where they want to broaden the type of people involved: citizen advisory groups — the 20 appointed boards, commissions and committees that meet regularly throughout the year to brainstorm new priorities for the council and city departments.
The groups, made up of volunteers who are appointed by the council and mayor to their positions, do not have any formal statutory authority, but they are funded with money from the city and they can direct government employees to study possible solutions to problems, research that often guides new ordinances. But with recent surveys showing the majority of those volunteers to be over the age of 40, white, homeowners and college educated, the city is trying to make membership more reflective of the city’s population.
The efforts come amid Minneapolis’ evolving demographics. The number of renters has grown steadily over years, and homeowners are now a minority in the city. Meanwhile, people of color now make up more than 40 percent of the city’s population, and demographers expect that number to grow in coming years.
“The council does really look to boards and commissions for that resident perspective,” said Cheyenne Brodeen, of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations department. “And if that’s not representative of the city, or a particular neighborhood or community, then, you know, it’s not as effective of input as it could be.”
What they do
Usually working behind the scenes, the roughly 300 appointees who serve on the city’s various groups — ranging from the Transgender Equity Council to the city’s Planning Commission — have input on all types of policies and initiatives that come out of City Hall. (Other volunteer groups also help guide policies in Minneapolis, but members of those groups are not appointed.)
The appointee groups are designed to be advisory and apolitical; they research and debate issues and make recommendations to city staffers and council members for further actions. For example, city planners amended Minneapolis 2040, the long-range plan for development, to include a new section of goals to help people with disabilities after a citizen-led group suggested they do so. The city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee works with the Public Works Department to make streets more bike-friendly.
The boards and commissions report to city departments relevant to the groups’ specialities. The Neighborhood and Community Relations department, for example, oversees the volunteer groups that study how housing or business developments accommodate people with disabilities or seniors. City departments use money from their own budgets to cover the costs for board and commission meetings.
Who they are
Over the past decade, the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations department has worked with the council and city’s clerk office to diversify the candidate pool for boards and commissions, part of a broad push by the city to eliminate racial and income disparities across the city. But there’s also a practical reason for the outreach, says Brodeen: If people of different backgrounds and experiences are more involved in the policy-making process, the council will have a better idea of residents’ perspectives when it comes time to make decisions.
Since the effort’s launch, the city has been able to recruit more residents of color to serve on boards and commissions. The Neighborhood and Community Relations department — which administers surveys measuring the advisory committees’ demographics every two years — recently found volunteers of color now make up about one-third of all members. The city says that proportion meets its “race benchmark” by being within 80 percent of the city’s actual share of nonwhite residents. Overall, 64 percent of appointees are white; 79 percent are homeowners; about 90 percent have graduated college; and roughly 65 percent are over the age of 40.
Raya Esmaeili, an urban planner for the Metropolitan Council, serves on two commissions in Minneapolis, and she says her experience has varied. One of her appointments, the Neighborhood and Community and Engagement commission, has had diverse membership over the years, which is generally rare for commissions and committees in the region, she said.
But her other Minneapolis commission — the city’s capital long-range improvement committee — is not reflective of the city’s demographics, she said. In the past, just one-third of the committee’s some 30 members were women, she said. “I remember the first meeting, when I was thinking they’re mostly men, mostly white men, and that a lot of the other types of diversity — being a person of color, being a person of a different sexual orientation — all lie with the women. You’re bringing in certain diversity checkpoints all with this one person, which is good but not enough.”
The city has struggled in particular at attracting renters to boards and commissions. While about 53 percent of households in Minneapolis rent, according to census data, just 21 percent of those on the city’s appointed boards and commissions rent their homes. “For whatever reason, that’s a really hard group of residents to engage and keep engaged,” Brodeen said.
The challenge to attract a younger, more diverse membership is a product of the positions’ structure: The gigs are mostly unpaid (besides a few that offer small stipends) and can require hours of work every week. Board and commission membership has long struggled to match the city’s share of people ages 18 to 24. Less than 3 percent of current volunteers fall between those ages.
But there are other challenges, too. When it comes to the city’s recruitment efforts, says Esmaeili, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of people of color and people who already represent the diversity to educate others and “go out of their way to make sure that they’re represented,” she said. Other people in power should work to eliminate barriers if the city wants to reach its diversity goals. “Putting the responsibility on the people of color to step up access to opportunity is not the same as equitable representation.”
In addition to young adults, the city is trying to attract another group of people who aren’t already well-represented on city boards: those without a formal college education. No one in the surveys said they did not pursue some sort of college education after high school. That compares to Census data that show 52 percent of Minneapolis residents did not graduate from any type of college.
“Typically, our boards are highly educated people … if not a college degree than most certainly a master’s degree or a doctorate,” Brodeen said. “So, we also need to find ways to get people with different life experiences, you know, that don’t have as formal of education.”
Right now, 77 positions across 10 different city boards and commissions are open for applications, appointments the council and mayor will finalize this spring. Additional spots will open this fall.
Brodeen said the Neighborhood and Community Relations department has launched a campaign to meet the city’s goals. For example, to attract volunteers within the East African community — members of which make up less than three percent of volunteers right now — they plan to hang posters picturing a current board member from the community in mosques.