Meet Tyeastia Green, the woman tapped to jump start Minneapolis’ stalled racial equity work

Last spring, the city of Minneapolis hired Tyeastia Green to restart the racial justice work that collapsed after most staff in the city’s Division of Race and Equity quit in frustration. Mayor Frey’s budget proposes that Green lead a newly created Department of Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Green’s putting together an ambitious agenda, including the annual publication of the “Minneapolis Inequity Report,” more robust and ongoing racial equity trainings for city employees, and fundraising for projects she can’t do within her city budget.

Tyeastia Green

Green grew up in Minneapolis’ Central neighborhood. She worked in information technology for 20 years. Her career path took a sharp turn as she listened to President Barak Obama’s Farewell Address, Jan. 10, 2017, particularly when he said: “I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”

That night, she applied to the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota to get her Masters Degree in Public Affairs. “It was like, ‘OK, maybe it’s time for me to take this work more seriously, stop being a …. social media activist and start putting some of these ideas I have to good use.'”

She graduated in 2019 and by February, 2020 she was hired as Burlington, Vermont’s first director of Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Green’s department started diversity training for Burlington city staff, a Reparations Task Force, and the city’s first Juneteenth celebrations, she said. (In June, Burlington made Juneteenth an official city holiday.) Green’s office also helped run health clinics to reduce racial disparities in COVID vaccination rates, supported minority-owned business growth, and promoted Black home ownership policies, she said.

Racial equity and policing

Green resigned her Burlington job after two years, following reported friction within the city.

Police issues were one point of conflict. Mayor Miro Weinberger removed Green from overseeing a city study on police staffing, saying he wanted a neutral party. (He replaced her with the Burlington Electric Department’s general manager.) Under pressure, the mayor would later reverse course.

Minneapolis police fire tear gas at protesters following George Floyd’s murder.

Green started work in Minneapolis not long after a state report identified the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD’s) pattern and practice of racial discrimination. (George Floyd’s murder spurred the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) review.)

City leaders are negotiating with MDHR on a court-enforceable Consent Decree on needed changes in policing, one of the most important racial justice issues the city faces.

Green is not part of those discussions. She would have liked to be involved, “but it is also not my call,” she said.

Asked why Green — the city’s point person on racial equity — wasn’t included in Consent Decree discussions, the City Attorney’s Office issued this non-answer answer: “Negotiations with MDHR are ongoing,” it said. “The City Attorney’s Office has and will continue to consult with internal experts as negotiations continue.”

Minneapolis Inequity Report

Green plans to issue an annual Minneapolis Inequity Report, one that’s not just filled with numbers about racial disparities, but a solutions-based document with policy recommendations to reduce disparities, she said.

The initial report will take 18 months do produce, because “it is going to be massive,” Green said. Expect it around late 2023 or early 2024.

“It will be up to the City Council and the Mayor’s Office to take those policies up,” she said.

Truth and Reconciliation

On July 17, 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s murder, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution declaring racism a “public health emergency.” In late 2020, it created a Truth and Reconciliation process.

Neither initiative has gotten off the ground. It’s now up to Green and her new staff to get them going.

In the past month, Green’s hired two staff as Truth and Reconciliation Program Managers, she said.

  • Daanis Chosa, an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, has worked in public health for more than a decade. She worked eight years with the American Indian Cancer Foundation, focused on engaging and empowering Indigenous communities to promote health equity.
  • Malaysia Abdi, who worked as a Senior Policy Aide for Ward 4 and as a Civil Rights Program Coordinator. She also served as the city’s Police Conduct Oversight Commission vice chair, and has a background in youth work, violence prevention, and public safety reform across Hennepin County.

Addressing the city’s ‘toxic work culture’

In 2019, the city adopted its first Strategic and Racial Equity Action Plan. It created the Division of Race and Equity within the City Coordinator’s Office to help implement it.

The city’s racial equity work stalled when all but one of the Division’s nine-member staff quit last year, citing burnout and frustration, the Star Tribune reported. (Staff members were predominantly Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC)). In May, “some 75 current and former city staff signed a letter criticizing the “racist, toxic work culture” of the city of Minneapolis.”

I want anti-racism to be second nature
to city employees.

Tyeastia Green

Green said she wants to change the city’s culture so that BIPOC employees “feel like they want to come into work … and that their voices are elevated there.”

Green is developing an anti-racism curriculum for all of the city’s roughly 4,000 employees. Her biggest challenge is logistics — how to make sure all city employees get the training at roughly the same time, she said.

It won’t be a one-and-done training, Green said. She compared it to OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) trainings. OSHA trains on a regular basis. It repeats information to reinforce it and make it second nature.

“I want anti-racism to be second nature” to city employees, she said.

Changing rules and mindsets

Green doesn’t believe you can train racism out of people. The key is to provide information and “change the rules about how we do business,” she said.

“Colored” drinking fountain from mid-20th century. Photographer: Russell Lee. Image from Wikipedia (cropped).

She gave the metaphor of Jim Crow-era drinking fountain rules, with separate fountains for “whites” and “coloreds.”

“Seventy years ago, you and I couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain. Today, we can. Why is that? Because the system changed,” Green said. “So regardless if you are racist or not, you are going to drink out of the same water fountain that I am. Then the mindsets change.”

City funding and fundraising

Mayor Frey’s has proposed a $1.5 million budget for Green’s new department. (In Burlington, population 43,000, she had a $1.8 million budget.)

“It is going to be challenging to do the things I want to do, but I never let the budget dictate what my capabilities will be,” Green said. “I did a lot of fundraising in Burlington, raised millions of dollars to do most of the things that I wanted to do.”

In Burlington, Green helped raise money for the Juneteenth celebrations; supporting Black- and Brown-owned businesses, and a food insecurity program that provided gift cards to people to buy culturally appropriate foods for themselves.

Green’s already fundraising in Minneapolis around Black History Month (but she’s not ready to announce the specifics).

Parallel struggles

Green said she saw parallels between Burlington and Minneapolis in their struggles to move forward on racial equity work.

“After the murder of George Floyd, everyone wanted to be on the right side of history, from corporations to municipalities,” she said. “I mean everybody wanted to say ‘Black Lives Matter.'”

After Derek Chauvin and the other three officers were convicted, that feeling started to recede. “I saw that happening in Burlington in a major way, but I also see it happening across the country, how people have reverted back to an ‘All Lives Matter’ rather than a ‘Black Lives Matter’ frame,” Green said.

Where I stand in my integrity
is most important to me.

Tyeastia Green

How does she navigate the reality that some politicians will freak out if she pushes the racial justice envelope beyond their comfort level?

“I have to be here for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color,” Green said. “I cannot be guided by politics. I cannot be guided by conservatism or liberalism.”

That might make it more difficult to get along with some politicians, she said. “But I make myself very clear before entering any position, that … where I stand in my integrity is most important to me.”

“So if I believe that something needs to happen for the good of the community, I’m going to stand by that, regardless of what the political air says.”

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