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Minneapolis’ newest tool to fight inequality: racial equity assessments

City officials say the assessments, part of Minneapolis’ ongoing efforts to address inquality, offer a way to make sure city policies and programs don’t inadvertently do further harm to minority populations. 

Council President Barbara Johnson’s reactions (37:32 to 40:06) during a May 7 Committee of the Whole briefing on the city’s Equitable Solutions for One Minneapolis.

It was in early May when what had been a rather tame Minneapolis City Council meeting suddenly became anything but.

During a briefing about part of the city’s ongoing “Equitable Solutions for One Minneapolis,” a two-year effort to address long-standing concerns about racial equity in the city, Council President Barbara Johnson decided she’d heard enough. 

“I am so frustrated about this,” said Johnson, who at the time was dealing with another rash of violence in her ward, which covers parts of north Minneapolis. “I see it as another task force, another report, another reporting mechanism. I’ve got all the reporting mechanisms I need.”

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“I get these reports every single week from the police department when in my neighborhood 60 shots are fired every week, and in the rest of the city it’s 10,” she went on. “When are you going to spend some time on that?” 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when the council again addressed a proposed Racial Equity Action Plan. Showing how it had progressed and been simplified in the months since Johnson’s outburst seemed in order. So too was showing how the project might address the issues she raised; how it will change how the city operates, how it might actually address long-standing concerns over gaps between the white and minority populations in achievement, income and representation in civic life. How it was not just another exercise in handwringing.

Maybe it’s a small thing, and maybe it illustrated Johnson’s point, but the policy work group reported that it was able to complete one task. It agreed to definitions of “equity” and “racial equity.”

(“Equity,” it decided, means “Fair and just opportunities and outcomes for all people.” And “Racial Equity” means “The development of policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse racial disparity trends, eliminate institutional racism, and ensure that outcomes and opportunities for all people are no longer predictable by race.”)

So that’s done. Harder will be resolving those inequities when it comes to city hiring, procurement and appointments. Harder still will be making sure new policies and programs don’t inadvertently do further harm to minority populations in Minneapolis. 

That’s where the city’s new Racial Equity Assessment is supposed to come in.

Patterned after existing assessment programs in Seattle and Portland, the racial equity assessment is comparable to processes familiar to many in government, that of environmental impact or fiscal impact statements. 

In the case of the new racial equity assessment, city staff will use a form (though it’s now much shorter than it was initially) with a handful of questions to evaluate the impact of both new and existing programs.

Velma Korbel
Minneapolis Civil Rights Director
Velma Korbel

Sample question: “If you’ve identified racial impacts through your analysis, what changes are you proposing that either: a. lessen the negative impact? b. increase the positive impact?”

Minneapolis Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel said that answering a set of questions is less important than the “pause in decision making” that the process gives city officials, time “to minimize and perhaps eliminate unintended consequence.”

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So how might the assessment change anything?

Mayor Betsy Hodges, who is directly involved in the equity work group, used a racial equity assessment in developing her first budget as mayor. “This marks a watershed moment in Minneapolis’ history — leadership who were elected on platforms of racial equity and disparity elimination now invest in that work from the heart of the organization outward, intentionally and deliberately,” Hodges said during her August 14 budget presentation.

The Department of Regulatory Services has used the assessment to figure out why snow-emergency towing hit car owners in certain neighborhoods harder than others. In doing so, they realized that drivers in more-dense and lower-income areas are less likely to have garages or driveways to get cars off snow routes. Some grace factor is in order for those areas, especially when storms are not well forecast.

Minneapolis Councilmember Cam Gordon presented perhaps the most-interesting example of using the assessment. Gordon said he wanted to enhance the city’s existing staple foods ordinance that requires those with grocery licenses to offer at least seven varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables. Gordon wanted to broaden the list to include breads, cereals and proteins.

“We started recognizing that there were food deserts and access to healthy food wasn’t uniform,” Gordon said. Such access ties into the broader issue of health disparities where “based on zip code, you can predict life expectancy.”

Minneapolis Councilmember Cam Gordon
Minneapolis Councilmember
Cam Gordon

But after meeting with a handful of small grocers in areas that serve minority communities —all of them people of color — Gordon said he realized his proposal could put them out of business. Small stores, he said, have trouble getting distributors to make deliveries. To meet the existing ordinance, some are forced to buy produce from grocery chains and sometimes see it go wasted.

“It would be unfortunate if we burdened them so much they started losing money,” Gordon said. So he has found a distributor willing to work with small grocers and has sought out help from urban farmers as well. There also are grants and marketing assistance through the Healthy Corner Store program.

The assessment didn’t cause him to abandon the effort to expand staple foods, but it did force him to identify the issues and try to find solutions. The lesson, he said, was to “be patient, be careful and have the resources to help.”

Despite the earlier frustration, the council members most involved in the process remain encouraged by the response to the assessment statements. “Culture change is difficult and, make no bones about it, we are a bureaucracy here and culture change takes work,” Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden said.

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Said Gordon: “We have people thinking about racial impacts when they never would have considered it in the past.”