Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

YWCA Minneapolis generously supports MinnPost’s metro news coverage. Learn why.

Members of Minneapolis boards and commissions are older, whiter, and more likely to be homeowners than the overall population. The city wants to change that.

REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang
Minneapolis is trying to make board and commission membership more reflective of the city’s population.

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.

The survey asked respondents more detailed questions regarding their race and ethnicity.
Neighborhood and Community Relations Department
The survey asked respondents more detailed questions regarding their race and ethnicity.
Survey respondents who identified as Black or African American were asked to further identify themselves.
Neighborhood and Community Relations Department
Survey respondents who identified as Black or African American were asked to further identify themselves.
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.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/27/2019 - 01:28 pm.

    The city is proposing in Neighborhoods 2020 to penalize neighborhood associations that are unsuccessful in recruiting what the city deems a satisfactorily diverse membership.

    The message has been that the associations haven’t tried hard enough or that that have actively discouraged renters from participating.

    Yet from the City Hall perspective with these boards and commissions the problem is it’s hard to get this appropriately diverse population interested. why is City Hall willing to give themselves the benefit of the doubt that it’s a hard recruitment challenge but they feel the neighborhood groups are at fault for basically the same issue.

  2. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 03/27/2019 - 01:31 pm.

    Yup, the world belongs to those who show up. Hobbling them improves nothing; but the issue underscores the importance of home ownership and the larger level of commitment to neighborhood and community that accompanies it.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/27/2019 - 03:06 pm.

    As far as the average age, what was it 10, 20, or 30 years ago? Wouldn’t members of boards of this type typically skew older?

    I’m not say these boards shouldn’t be more reflective of age, just curious how much this may or may not ave changed over the years.

  4. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 03/27/2019 - 03:27 pm.

    I do think that out reach is important on this, but also consider that most people under 40 probably do not have the time because they work. If the meetings met on the weekends it might help increase the diversity of people on the boards.

  5. Submitted by David Therkelsen on 03/27/2019 - 04:16 pm.

    Two of these three variables are not only legitimate, but should be encouraged. Public policy making benefits from life and professional experience, and life and professional experience increases with age. I have a lot of policy experience, both in the private and public sector. I was good at it at age 25, better at age 35, still better at 45, and so on.

    As to homeownership, those who own homes in Minneapolis have demonstrated, with the largest investment they will ever make, their commitment to the well being of Minneapolis.

    So we should value older citizens, and we should value homeowners, for their input to city policy-making.

    Should they be disproportionately white? Of course not. But the real focus should be on identifying experienced, home-owning, individuals of all ethnicities. Not to the exclusion of younger people interested in public policy, not to the exclusion of renters. But just as a matter of emphasis.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/27/2019 - 07:25 pm.

    Guilty as charged: WAS(no religion) voluntarily serving on a City of Minneapolis advisory committee, appointed for the 3-4 time around by, 2 African American, and a Hmong City council members. So, walk away because it isn’t content of character but color of skin? There is still an open position in this ward as of a week ago.
    “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”
    Message: Kwitcherbellyachen and get off your twin cheeks and get involved? .

  7. Submitted by ryam carter on 03/28/2019 - 08:52 am.

    I wonder how many actually read this story. It says the ethnic makeup is within the target goals. In fact, it appears in the story, increased membership of minorities. Looks to be click bait by the editor.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/28/2019 - 10:01 am.

    From my perspective as an old, white male involved in one of the city’s citizen groups, I don’t think there’s a perfect solution.

    People serving on these boards and commissions obviously have some interest in their city and in civic affairs, and perhaps everyone, speaking broadly, shares that interest, but there’s no way to avoid the practical considerations when talking about what is, in most circumstances, an unpaid service to the city and its citizens. For a volunteer, time spent in a meeting, no matter what the meeting is about, or where and when it’s held, is time away from job, or family, or other valuable parts of life.

    If meetings are scheduled during the day, employers have to be willing to allow an employee to perform this civic duty. Not all employers are willing to do that, or are not willing to make that allowance without some penalty befalling the employee, and not every job can be manipulated in such a way as to provide the necessary time, even if the employer might be willing to make the allowance.

    If meetings are scheduled before or after the normal work day, there will be similar time constraints, except the commitment necessary to be involved will have an effect on family or other aspects of a potential volunteer’s life that can be just as difficult as they are with a paying job. Many may decide the intangible reward of serving their fellow-citizens doesn’t compensate for the time away from work or family. That seems particularly apropos of those with small children, who may have considerable difficulty arranging childcare, something for which City Hall seems ill-equipped.

    Those two areas strike me as potentially having more of an effect on whether or not someone is willing to volunteer and serve than whether they’re homeowners or renters. I do think Frank Phelan is on to something in asking about average age of board and commission members a decade or two or three ago. The group I’m involved with has seen a significant influx of younger and more diverse members in recent years, which is all to the good, I think, but the constraints I’ve already mentioned undeniably have an effect nonetheless.

    As an old retired guy, I have the interest as well as the time to devote to civic matters, at least on a limited scale. Forty years ago, I had the interest, but the demands of my work did not allow for the time commitment of board or commission membership, and my son, with a similarly demanding job and two small children, found that same situation in his current circumstance, as well. When his kids have grown and left the nest, he may feel differently about getting actively involved. I did.

    I’m currently a single-family homeowner, but I’ve lived for years in other circumstances, including condo ownership, renting a house, and renting an apartment. While I do think there’s some truth to Kurt Anderson’s argument that home ownership implies a higher level of commitment to neighborhood and community, it’s not an all or nothing situation in my view. A homeowner mostly interesting in “flipping” his property may not have much interest in either neighborhood or community, while a long-term renter may be very much invested in both.

  9. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/31/2019 - 10:51 am.

    Exactly what we need, according to a spokesperson from Neighborhood and Community Relations who is quoted here: A whole bunch of new people on boards and commissions who maybe didn’t even graduate high school. Much less have college degrees.

    No need for education, to run Minneapolis.

    Does anyone else see the absurdity here?

  10. Submitted by John Ferman on 03/31/2019 - 05:09 pm.

    Most Boards and Commissions require various levels of knowledge, experience, and expertise. Most Boards and Commissions are volunteers to scant recompense. So the City is obliged to take who volunteers. Volunteers are more powerful than employees as a volunteer can walk & quit at no price save a few pennies. It would be well to examine what each Board and Commission does and what tools are needed to make it work. Then look to the overlooked demographics people to see who has what tools.

Leave a Reply