The People Behind the Movement: Elizabeth Tolzmann
Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity within government? Over the past few months, we’ve been interviewing practitioners across the country who are working to tackle structural racism through government in their own communities. What are their motivations and what challenges do they face? 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 Elizabeth Tolzmann, a government staff person in Bloomington, MN.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your current position. Can you describe what you do?
I am the Assistant City Manager for the city of Bloomington, MN. My role as an assistant city manager is non-traditional –I’m uniquely defined as 50% organizational development and 50% community engagement. Racial equity falls in line with both scenarios, not just one or the other but both. Doing work with racial equity helps me change our organizational lens to be more equitable within our workplace culture, systems and policies, while also working externally with communities to make sure we are meeting all our community members’ needs.
Our racial equity team has three desired outcomes: diversifying our workforce, diversifying our volunteer boards and commissions, and utilizing a racial equity toolkit to ensure that our programs and services are inclusive of our entire community.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
I have a very untraditional background – I worked as an immigration attorney for 10 years and still do pro bono work on the side. I first got involved in government when I saw a job posting in the police department in Brooklyn Park, MN for a community engagement coordinator position. It appealed to me because the description mirrored my professional experience working with diverse community members and my passion for serving the community. I later learned that the job posting was created by members of the community and not through the traditional HR process.
I did this for 3.5 years and then went to Hennepin County to do internal organizational development work for Public Works. I learned that the issues in our community often resulted in systemic and institutional barriers of employment, access, representation, and impact of policies. What drove me was a lot of passion for changes in people, processes and procedures. I can be much more impactful in community work if I have all of our governmental employees doing it than myself or my team alone. I did this for a year until the job posting in Bloomington opened up that combined both my head space in organizational development and my heart space in community engagement.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work?
Being an immigrant myself is a core thing that drives me to advocate for those most vulnerable in society. I have been in service roles my entire life –from being a server, to an attorney, to community engagement worker and now an Assistant City Manager. My professional positions and roles may have changed, but my passion and core values of serving those in need through morality and social justice have not wavered.
Q: In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
Government has a tremendous role in addressing racial equity, because it’s the inside game of where reason meets action. It’s the unique position of where access, information and power meets to influence behavior and the role of government. One of my most resonating experiences from the GARE cohort was learning about the definition of power and politics. Power is defined as the ability to frame or define collective reality, whereas politics is the collective rules of how power can be used.
Government also has a role in bringing stakeholders together to address racial equity. I see it as a kind of like a table with four legs: elected officials, senior leadership, city staff, and community. All four legs need to be on equal footing and with equal strength so that power can be balanced.
Q: What’s an accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
Being a legal nerd, I was looking at ordinances and at what it takes to sit on our commissions. I saw that you had to be a qualified voter – which means in general, being a U.S citizen, of age, and without a criminal record – and with my immigration background, I knew that many members of our community are permanent, documented residents for many years and have reasons why they chose not to become U.S. citizens (such as maintaining citizenship in their home countries). I didn’t think that should preclude them from serving as active and passionate volunteers in our community, so one of first things we did was to have that language removed from our city code.
And we didn’t stop there. After that, we had our city council acknowledge that we need to have better representation on our boards and commissions. So, in addition to doing more targeted outreach, relationship-building and authentic community engagement – we’re working on developing a targeted leadership cohort training program to help connect community leaders directly into city boards. We are looking to partner with the school district and with nonprofits to target underrepresented people and offer them tools, such as better understanding of how local government or school boards work, to be a local leader.
Q: What have been the most challenging aspects of pursuing racial equity work?
Mostly staff time, capacity, and resources. What was unique for us is that we had city council brought in from the get go. We were very strategic in getting council buy in, and we have strong leadership on our own staff too. Doing racial equity work is more about intention and not just quantitative work – it’s about checking our privilege and not just checking a box. The work itself is a full-time job, or it can be embedded in the work plan of the entire organization
Also challenging is recognizing and acknowledging that people are all on different spectrums in terms of intercultural development. Some are impatient in this work and want it to go faster. Others are still learning about implicit bias and about the discomfort of privilege and how to have courageous conversations on race. So, when you’re trying to unfold this entire philosophy into the organization, you have to be cognizant and patient that it takes time and that not everyone will move at the same pace.
Q: And what have been the most personally rewarding aspects?
The most rewarding thing is just seeing people engaged in the conversation of race and racial equity. One example is this “lunch and learn” series we are conducting every other week, where we showed some of the videos that GARE has shared with us (such as “Race, the Power of an Illusion”). We had a great turnout, about 50 people from across the organization with 30 staying for an additional hour or so for further discussion and reflection. 30 people also signed up for the related book club.
Seeing the energy and passion of our staff, and seeing that there is some buy in on this, is rewarding. This work not a one-person job – it’s not just me and my team, but it has to be all 600 people in our organization. So just seeing the energy growing across staff around this is great.
What I love about our work with GARE is seeing other governments in Minnesota doing the same thing we’re doing. This afternoon, I’m going to meet with other cities and reflect on our respective processes. We’re peer to peer learning – and now we are even partnering with other cities to bring the trainings to all our staff in a more efficient way. This also sends a nice message, because sometimes we compete with one another, but racial equity has brought us together. Structural racism is not a city issue, but a state wide one and even bigger than that. It’s really brought us together outside of our silos.
Q: Taking a step back, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for local governments to accelerate progress in our work to advance racial equity?
I would say, what we’re doing now in modeling GARE. We are having conversations about privilege, bias, and structural racism. We are acknowledging it, and we are learning from each other about how to apply it into our organization. We can be complacent and not do anything at all – but the fact of the matter is that this issue is embedded in every community. We could be the next Ferguson or the next Baltimore. We’re not immune to any of that. So there’s a real sense of urgency to understand this and make changes to our institutional practices and procedures. And I’m finding that most people want to do it, they just don’t know how.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
Politics. That’s one thing. Resources is another. And to be frank, we often lack fully culturally competent leadership. It goes back to my four legs example – what’s holding us back is that we have uneven legs, that there’s an imbalance of power, and we can’t be effective until they’re all even. Without the community to keep government accountable or without staff leadership to be visionary or without executive leadership to be courageous or to make the rest of us uncomfortable, we won’t succeed.
Q: To end on an inspiring and forward-looking note, what do you think we could accomplish in the next decade?
There’s a quote that comes to mind: “if you’re vision is for a year, plant wheat. If you’re vision is for 10 years, plant trees. But if you’re vision is for a lifetime, then plant people”. We need to invest in people, invest in our community, and to think about how this could last for more than a decade.