Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity within government? Over the past few months, we interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Research Assistant Juan Sebastian Arias interviews Kevin Frazell, Director of Member Services at the League of Minnesota Cities.
- Let’s start by talking about your current position. Can you describe what you do?
I work with the League of Minnesota Cities, a statewide association of city governments, which almost all states except Hawaii have. We’ve been around for over 100 years. My specific job is the Director of Member Services, which means I’m responsible for a broad range of things that meet members’ immediate needs, like training and conferences, but also policy analysis and outreach.
- What’s your connection to local racial equity efforts?
Our racial equity work falls in this bucket of member needs, since it’s become an urgent issue that cities are increasingly wanting to deal with. We’ve had 2 fatal officer-involved shootings in the last year, which is part of what brought this around.
Since I‘ve been aware of GARE’s phenomenal work with St. Paul, Minneapolis, and other larger local governments in Minnesota, I wanted to think about how to partner with them to also make it accessible to suburbs and cities in Greater Minnesota. I realized that most of GARE’s work is with individual jurisdictions, so it struck me that since a lot of our jurisdictions aren’t large, GARE wouldn’t have the capacity to take all of them on as individual clients. So instead, we decided to try a cohort model. In 2016 we did targeted trainings for 11 cities, counties and a few state agencies. This year, 2017, we have 19 local governments and state agencies working together in the cohort model. This is less expensive for them individually and more efficient for GARE. It also starts to build a coalition across the state.
- What inspired you to do racial equity work?
It’s always something that’s been a passion and interest of mine. Even in high school, I had a sense of justice, fairness, and equality. The first community I worked in professionally was in Arkansas, which was 25% black. Though we didn’t deal with racial equity issues there, I did become more aware of them. At a later point in life, I also became fascinated with the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. A couple years ago, my wife and I took a self-guided tour of the South to see where the major events happened. Lastly, I also go to a church in downtown Minneapolis that has become more engaged in racial justice issues. We have members of the congregation that are a part of the current civil rights movement.
- In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
This has been an area of learning for me. I was certainly aware of the historic instances, like Birmingham and Selma, of deliberate local government discrimination and oppression of people of color, but I also continue to learn more.
What I became more aware of through work with GARE is that it’s not just in the past. There’s a legacy left over. Systems were designed from a perspective of white privilege where no one stopped to ask if this is also working for people of color. Unless we apply a racial equity lens and analysis tool, many government policies and practices will continue to have a disparate impact.
- What have been most challenging aspects of pursuing this work?
Not sure about challenges for me personally, but I’ve been hearing a couple things from staff people at the city level. The first is around sustained political support. We have these teams in different jurisdictions working on racial equity action plans, but the question then becomes how to sustain political support from elected officials and get professional colleagues to support the plan. There’s also the larger question of community politics. How do you navigate issues that people can have strong feelings about? This is hard when people don’t want to answer hard questions.
The second I’ve heard is that implementation can be complicated. A recent session we had with the cohort was about communicating to different groups of stakeholders. It can quickly become thick and complex. I learned that it can take sustained, hard work and that that can be tiring.
- What have been the most rewarding aspects for you personally?
What’s gratifying for me is to work with local jurisdictions. At the federal and state level, everything gets so political and rhetorical and often becomes about image management. At the local level, it’s very pragmatic. You can apply, for example, a racial equity lens to a discrete city service, ask if it benefits all communities equally, and if not, ask what we need to understand better and what we need to change. That’s exciting to see.
One other rewarding thing is that when you deal with issues of racial equity, you’re forced to suspend judgment and consider the worldview of people whose life experiences can be quite different from your own. This is very different from the rational model that professional public administration is rooted in, which assumes everyone kind of sees things in the same way. But it’s important because it lets you consider issues from a different perspective. There’s no better example I’ve seen than the relationship between law enforcement and people of color. Officers are not necessarily racist individually, but are instead part of systems that perpetuate racially unequal outcomes. We have to help them see that, avoiding shame and guilt, and instead focusing on what needs to be done.
Q: What’s the greatest opportunity for local governments to accelerate progress on racial equity?
Developing the curious mindset to at least ask the question of exactly who is benefiting and who is burdened can go a long way. We used to think that what’s good for one is good for all, but we now know that’s not true. If we don’t stop to ask questions, we won’t realize that policies have the different impacts on everyone.
It’d be nice if all municipalities had a racial equity plan and an in-depth strategy, but I think even small changes can change trajectories. Like the saying of a hurricane starting with the flapping of a butterfly wings – if all these systems are perpetuating inequities, then maybe small changes can begin to slowly change back the direction. In the long run, it has the potential to make a difference.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
People who are in denial of structural inequalities or don’t want to deal with it. Our national political environment right now is very problematic and difficult to deal with this. As Americans, we’ve been socialized to think about our country as a meritocracy. For some, it’s hard to hear that it’s more complicated than that. It’s hard for many to hear that some people won’t succeed because there are systems working against them. It takes a lot of political courage for government staff and elected officials to push through that.
One of our highly placed elected officials shared that she felt racial inequities and white racism were the hardest things to work against. White Minnesotans can feel they’re losing something when we talk about racial equity, so the challenge is how do you convince people that when we’re each better off, we’re all better off.
Q: Do you see any space for hope despite those challenges?
I do – we’ve been having roundtable discussions across the state about these issues, and it’s become clear to me that there’s a good cross section of people who care about racial equity and are searching for ways to talk about it and to deal with inequality. One example is the president of our league. There’s no personal stake in this for her, but she’s taken this on as presidential legacy. I see this as a tipping point phenomenon: when you get 30% of a community to change, you can see a tipping point of momentum. Then it’s just about turning that energy into actionable plans. And that’s where GARE comes in.