City government in St. Louis Park Sets Racial Equity Action Plan

A brochure on racial equity produced by the city of St. Louis Park presents two circle graphs of the city’s overall and school populations by race. Some 20 percent of the overall population and more than 40 percent of school children are people of color. In contrast, a chart of benefit-earning city employees shows that over 93 percent are white.

St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano has strong opinions about why this is a problem, and why it’s important for the racial make-up of city government to better match the community’s. “First,” he says, “it’s the right thing to do.” He describes bringing schoolchildren to a room in City Hall where photographs of past St. Louis Park mayors are hung. All mayors are white. Two are women. Spano makes a learning opportunity of the inequity.

“Look on the wall behind you,” he says to the kids. “What don’t you see?” He tells the children that one of his jobs as mayor is to make sure the picture changes. “One of you,” he tells them, “will be the next famous face, the next mayor.” And it’s not just about photos on a wall. Greater racial diversity in city employees “will make our service delivery better for everyone,” he says. Councilmember Gregg Lindberg agrees. Representation in city government and service of people in the community both fall under the umbrella of equity, he says.

Starting the conversation

The mayor and council (notably Councilmember Tim Brausen) have been interested in conversations about race since, and in some cases even before, Spano was elected in November 2015. At the time, issues of policing and race were coming to the fore both locally and nationally, Spano says. He had participated in a project to advance racial equity with the office of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and was impressed. “I went through the process and learned a lot about myself, my colleagues, and what cities can do” about issues like racial equity.

St. Louis Park’s program for advancing racial equity, first in city government and eventually in the greater community, began officially early in 2016. Working with several national and local organizations dedicated to achieving racial equity and advancing opportunity for all, a committee of nine was formed, including the mayor, Councilmember Lindberg and city manager Tom Harmening. Shortly thereafter, two volunteers from each city government department were added for a total of 30 city staff liaisons tasked with facilitating conversations about race within their departments.

Lindberg says that talking openly about race has not always been easy. “I’m a white, middle-class person. It would be easy to look through my lens only, but I’m trying to make sure I see through other lenses.”

It’s almost inevitable, says the mayor, that discussions about race will be uncomfortable. Ideas of racial equity can easily lead to accusations of racism. But it’s important, both Lindberg and Spano say, to understand concepts like explicit and implicit bias (presented here as in the city’s brochure on racial equity). Explicit bias, for example is expressed directly and operates consciously, as in a sign in an apartment building, “We don’t rent to _____.”

Implicit bias, on the other hand, is expressed indirectly and operates subconsciously. The brochure cites “a property manager [who] does more criminal background checks on African-Americans than [on] whites.”

“Implicit bias does not make you racist,” Spano says. For many people, there is an inner conflict, he believes. “You want to do the right thing but all the messages that have bombarded you in a lifetime provide a certain set of assumptions, and you have to push back against those assumptions.”

Extending the conversation

In October, half-day workshops were organized to train selected city staff to work with all departments on facilitating racial equity. Spano recalls the group watching a PBS documentary called Race: The Power of an Illusion: The House We Live In. The program demonstrates, says Spano, that while the modern concept of race is not a biological concept it nonetheless became codified into American law. “If I could ask that one thing come of this interview,” requested Spano, “it’s that people reading this article take a look at that documentary.” (It’s available for viewing at newsreel.org/video/race-the-power-of-an-illusion.)

Participants also learned about “dog-whistle racism,” Spano said. For example, participants learned that the phrase “law and order” might mean one thing (establishing an environment of law-abiding peace) to law enforcement and another (violence, “command and control”) to some people of color.

“It’s called ‘dog-whistle’ racism because some people simply don’t hear it,” says Spano. Once the “whistle” is heard, however, people can be more sensitive to what words and phrases mean, and connote, to others.

Where are we going?

In early December, training was extended to all staff in St. Louis Park city offices. In January, the council’s annual workshop was dedicated to discussions on race and equity. In late February, St. Louis Park partnered with Bloomington and Maplewood in a two-day program on diversity and inclusion.

“So far, the work has been in internal city offices,” says the mayor. “We have had great participation and engagement by city staff.” City manager Tom Harmening adds, “We’re appreciative of the enthusiasm with which city staff has embraced this learning and understanding of race equity; staff are invested in ensuring its success for the long term.”

As to seeing the make-up of city staff and community leadership mirror the community’s demographics, everyone agrees it is a short-term goal. Ideas are being generated. One example for bringing in more diverse applicants to the police department is to make training and mentoring available for later-life transfer to police work. And everyone is working, says the mayor, for greater representation of St. Louis Park citizens of color “on boards, commissions and leadership in neighborhood associations.” More consideration is being given to when and where meetings are held so that people from all sectors of the community feel welcome and empowered.

Looking forward, Harmening considers it important to view the demographics of the school district as an indicator of future demographics. “It is essential,” he adds, “that we continue to deliver city services and programs equitably that fit the needs and direction/vision of the community we serve.”