City of Minneapolis under fire — again — for failing to live up to its equity promises

Division of Race & Equity staff go public with long-standing complaints

The Minneapolis Coordinators Office, which houses the Division of Race & Equity, is under fire for creating a toxic work environment for division employees.

Seventeen of the division’s current and former employees have gone public with complaints, asking Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council to reject hiring Interim City Coordinator Heather Johnston to the permanent post. They wrote that the office “has a history of ‘toxic, racist and unsafe workplace conditions’ and she [Johnston] hasn’t done enough to stop it,” according to a Star Tribune report.

This story shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It’s part of the city’s troubling pattern of failing to live up to its anti-racism and equity promises.

Promises, promises

Screen grab of city website

Recent city promises to address racism and promote equity include:

  • Approving the Green Zone initiative in 2017, which recognizes that poor and BIPOC neighborhoods are overburdened with “environmental pollution and racial, political, and economic marginalization.” It’s a commitment to support community health, economic development, and the environment in Green Zone neighborhoods.
  • Creating the Division of Race & Equity in 2017, “to drive culture change throughout the city.”
  • Passing a resolution in 2020 declaring racism a public health emergency. It committed to “allocate funding, staff, and additional resources to actively engage in racial equity in order to name, reverse, and repair the harm done to BIPOC in this City.”
  • Passed a resolution in 2021 establishing a truth and reconciliation process to create “specific solutions to specific harms that created and perpetuate racial disparities,” focusing on “Black American descendants of slavery and American Indian/Indigenous communities.”

Resistance to change

The city of Minneapolis faces charges of racism on multiple fronts, including its police force.

The city’s actions often don’t line up with its promises

For instance, city leadership has created roadblocks for a neighborhood-driven Urban Farm development in the East Phillips neighborhood. The plan would repurpose an industrial site into housing, job-creating businesses and more. East Phillips is a disproportionately poor and BIPOC neighborhood, already suffering from environmental pollution. The neighborhood plan would meet Green Zone goals. Instead, the city wants to redevelop the site into a Public Works yard, which would bring more pollution to the area.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights released a report this year that found probable cause that the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) have engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory, race-based policing, violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act. It’s a long standing and well documented problem with no solution in sight.

It’s now come to light that the Division of Race & Equity — the team charged with creating cultural change in the city — has been beset with its own internal cultural problems. From summer, 2020 to Fall, 2021, all but one Division staff member resigned because of what staff described as a toxic work environment, according to an April 28 letter written by current and former Division employees to Johnston.

The letter signers were Amir Cannon, Angela Williams, Christina Manancero, Colleen Pulawski, Desralynn Cole, Diana Chao, Gina Obiri, Jonathan Williams-Kinsel, Kelly Muellman, LaLinda Xiong, Maria Lee, Nick Campbell, Nicky Leingang, Taylor Crouch-Dodson, Teeko Yang, Tor Chavarria, and Track Trachtenberg.

“Minneapolis lost eight exceptional staff in two years, including four Black women,” according to a timeline included with the letter.

The Division of Race & Equity’s long-standing problems

Problems in the City Coordinators Office predate Johnston.

A lack of commitment to listening to staff, to being transparent with staff, or to addressing systemic anti-Black racism are not new issues within the City Coordinator’s Office [CCO]. Concerns have been raised for years within CCO staff meetings. Promises were made by multiple people in the City Coordinator position to increase communication and transparency without any real behavior change or accountability structures established. Ongoing leadership turnover (4 new City Coordinators within 8 years) has meant that any commitments to change were never carried through.

April 28 staff letter

Spencer Cronk and Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde each served as City Coordinators, leaving in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Mark Ruff served as Coordinator for less than two years, leaving last summer. Johnston became Interim City Coordinator in August.

A November, 2020 staff survey showed the City Coordinator’s Office scored poorly compared to other city departments. City Coordinator Office staff gave high scores to their immediate supervisors and their teams. At the other end, only 25 percent of staff said “City employees are encouraged to develop new and better ways of doing things,” compared to 54 percent citywide. Only 35 percent of Office staff reported “I would recommend the City as a good place to work,” compared to 66 percent citywide.

The staff members who are speaking out said they raised their issues with Johnston last fall.

Johnston responded in an Oct. 20 email:

I have received a few questions on the next steps to address the issues in our workplace that came up in our staff meeting. The concerns I’ve heard are complex, systemic and ingrained. I am focused on finding solutions and want us to be on the same team to addressing these concerns. Because of my short tenure, I don’t want to dictate a process without your input and I haven’t been here long enough to define the issues. I want to make sure that the concerns that have been raised have been addressed so we can move forward together.

… I also recognize that I come with my own personal and professional limitations. In order to make progress, I believe we would need to engage a consultant to help lead this work.

Heather Johnston

It’s not clear what follow up happened, if any.

From December to February, staff experienced “a total lack of communication” from Johnston “on any plans to address workplace cultural issues,” the April 28 letter said.

The letter included stories from staff:

Naively, many white people, myself included, find it confusing when we’re asked to study racial equity and think, “I’m not racist, I don’t need special training,” until we take the time to learn – and then we understand it is lifelong work that changes the way we think. Authentic and productive training is different from the 30-minute training and quiz that HR requires. The City Coordinator role, as the head of our department, where we are struggling to create a healthy inviting workplace and retain good people, requires an ongoing commitment to racial equity learning in order for us to begin to heal. …  I think we need expert third party support to get us started.

Current City Coordinators Office employee, anonymous

The April 28 letter included a list of demands, including that the City Coordinators Office leaders set an anti-racist agenda to guide the department. “We demand this agenda be developed transparently and collaboratively with all interested CCO staff.” (Full list of demands here.)

The letter asked Johnston to respond by May 6.

Johnston emailed them May 6: “I wanted to acknowledge that I have read the memo and take the concerns seriously. I will be working with the appropriate people throughout the enterprise in the upcoming weeks to review. I look forward to moving forward in a positive manner to address the issues you have raised.”

That same day, the letter signers received an email from Robin Howard, Director, Internal Workplace Investigations, saying the City “has decided to enlist a neutral, outside party to investigate the concerns raised in the letter.”

Finding Johnston’s response inadequate, staff forwarded its April 28 letter to Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council on May 9, expressing opposition to Johnston’s confirmation in a cover letter.

Frey defends Johnston

Mayor Jacob Frey.

Frey is standing firmly behind Johnston and wants her confirmed as the permanent City Coordinator, according to the Star Tribune. During Johnston’s seven month tenure, she has started rebuilding the Division of Race and Equity, Frey said.

The mayor couldn’t publicly discuss employee complaints because of an ongoing review, the article said.

That didn’t stop him from taking a shot at Division of Race & Equity staff.

“To be clear, change is on all of us to make,” Frey said, “but assigning all of this and putting all of this on Heather [Johnston] is disingenuous at best.”

In calling employee concerns “disingenuous at best,” Frey implies they’re being dishonest or unfair. His comment only inflames the situation, and make the staff’s case that city leaders don’t take their concerns seriously.

It seems far more likely that staff members spoke out — with obvious career risks — because of their deep need to be heard, and their desire for fairness, honesty, and truth telling.

Frey doesn’t seem concerned that the city’s credibility on equity is taking another hit.

For now, the turmoil in the Division of Race & Equity is a prime example on how poorly the city is doing on race and equity.

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