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 Joy Marsh Stephens, Equity and Inclusion Manager for the City of Minneapolis.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your current position. Can you describe your role?
I’m a part of the City of Minneapolis’ Office of Equity and Inclusion. My focus is on internal city enterprise, and my job is to grow the capacity of staff to think about race and apply a racial equity lens in our decision-making processes. My day-to-day itself varies but generally falls into five buckets:
- The second bucket is around departmental planning and action. This includes working with departments to tie their goals to racial equity outcomes. While we’re each on individual journeys, our overall success relies on how we translate this work to outcomes.
- The third is around alignment and acceleration of racial equity work. An example of this is the engagement design team, which is made up of staff from the communications department, the community relations department, the office of equity and inclusion, our City Clerk, our arts and culture department and our on-emergency customer service team. This team consults with departments on inclusive and multi-modal engagement strategies as a one stop shop, instead of having each department go from department to department.
- The fourth bucket is on evaluation and reporting. This includes how we define success in equity and inclusion work, how we make sure that we are being transparent – both internally and with community, and how we develop performance goals at both the enterprise and individual levels.
- The fifth is partnerships, such as being in relationships with other jurisdictions that are working to advance equity and with community to work hand in hand to advance racial equity.
Q: How did you arrive to this role?
Completely by accident! I’ve been in this position since September 2015, and prior to coming to the City of Minneapolis, I worked for United Health Group doing organizational change. But in my spare time, I did a lot of community organizing work through different boards I served on, as well as coalitions I was a part of that sought to advance equity. This opportunity came when someone from the city encouraged me to apply. It was a chance to build on my skills around change management and to also marry my head and heart in the same space. It allows me to do what I do well in work to further values I hold dear.
Q: Tell me more about what inspired you to do racial equity work.
I’ve been involved in racial equity and in growing capacity in high need communities for a long time. I don’t have a point in time when I necessarily started. A major shift was in 2009 when I started becoming more involved with a faith based organizing group in Minnesota. For me, that was a path to find more purpose and meaning in my life – to do more than just working too many hours on my job. The personal transformation there helped me see myself as more of a leader, to have a stronger voice on more issues, and to develop a deeper understanding of our deep disparities and the role of our systems. Without question, my life’s absolute best work is what I’ve done in this area. It’s work I would do for free if I didn’t have a mortgage.
Q: In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
Government’s role is significant. In the history of race, government has played a role in building systems that reinforce disparities and build in oppression of people (from Native Americans in the early period of this country’s founding to modern day new Americans and restrictive immigration policy). We have a government system rooted in a narrow view of who should have the opportunity to live their most abundant life and who should not have this opportunity. So to level the playing field and close the gaps, we need to look at the systems we uphold – the way we engage with community and the way we build our policies. We need to look at them and be honest with ourselves and be honest with communities, so that we as government are no longer a barrier to the success of all people. One thing that gets me excited in Minneapolis is that our definition of racial equity speaks specifically about not just eliminating racial disparities but also reversing those trends – not just to close gaps but to also address the harm that’s been done historically.
Q: What would you say to those who may be skeptical of government?
Communities are right to be skeptical of government. But at the same time, I recognize that for those in the majority who want to be intentionally proactive in the work they’re doing, it can become difficult to bear the burden of responsibility of those who’ve been put in power. But the reality is that communities of color continue to bear the burden of the past. Being in 2016 does not undo the impacts of policies that were put into place generations before.
Q: What has been one of your biggest accomplishments?
What I’m most excited about right now is a 5-year federal grant that the City of Minneapolis was awarded to work alongside community to address equity and grow our capacity to be resilient in the face of stress and trauma. This is an opportunity to convene a group of community members to really define what “resiliency” means in their own terms and to identify the community-based assets to really build their capacity. It’s exciting because it gives communities a strong and powerful voice in meeting their own needs, but it’s also an opportunity for us to take a deeper look at ourselves and the role of government in history to further grow our own capacity to be full partners with communities going further. This is some of the most exciting work I and my team anticipate leading in the years ahead.
Q: What have been most challenging aspects of pursuing this work?
Having someone who is dedicated full time to advancing racial equity in city is rare. The challenge for Minneapolis then is that there’s not a lot of precedent for exactly what someone in my position does, or how my work fits into the broader culture of my city. The biggest challenge in my first year has rested on the complexity around that. Every single day is a test. I knew when I interviewed for the job that people were not entirely sure what this role was, but I also knew what I had to do myself. And it can get very political, very quickly. It’s a long game for me to leverage my skills as a community organizer to build coalitions and to build capacity where I can with limited resources and high community expectations. So it’s been a big learning experience about how to do this and how to do it well, and even to know what success looks like.
Q: Taking a step back, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for local governments to accelerate progress towards racial equity?
The greatest opportunity is that we’re in this political climate around racial equity. There’s enough work that’s been done at the national and local levels, and we have organizations like GARE / the Center for Social Inclusion, Race Forward, and PolicyLink that are on the forefront and providing tools. There’s so much intellectual capital out there and so much interest in the community to figure out how to do it. Even in the community, there’s so much tension and demand to do this that there’s no excuse not to. There’s no excuse to not be bold, and no room to hide and pretend that you don’t know that disparities exist. We have to be clear – government played a primary role in the creation and maintenance of racial inequities over the course of a long period of time. We are fortunate to have a growing number of people in local government who are focused on rectifying the past. There’s so much evidence and opportunity to do the right thing; we need people to act.
Q: What do you think is holding back more cities from starting this kind of work?
People like being comfortable. There’s a fear for those in majority communities that if I enter down this path, I will be asked to feel guilty about decisions I didn’t make. But the reality is that since those decisions were made, the majority still benefits. And being sad or troubled by white privilege is not enough.
What holds us back is a fear of losing, a fear that you’ll have to give something up or that you’ll feel bad. In Minnesota, it’s the fear that you won’t be considered nice anymore. Even in communities of color, there’s often acquiescence to the reality of how things are and a lack of belief that things will change. If you buy into the belief that things will always be how they are, you’ve become complicit and internalized the oppression. In that sense, I love young fearless activists of color, and I think it’s amazing that they are as bold as they are.
Q: What do you think could be accomplished in the next decade?
Anything is possible in 10 years – absolutely anything is possible. If our intention is to roll up sleeves, we have to do the work of who we are, how we show up, and how our systems uphold inequality. Then anything is possible. If we are honest about the work, ask the questions we need to ask, and if we leave nothing off the table, anything is possible in 10 years.