Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity in government? Over the past several months, we interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. Some are working from the inside to change institutional practice. Others are organizing communities on the outside to apply political pressure and keep government accountable. 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 Vina Kay, Executive Director of Voices for Racial Justice in Minnesota.
Q: Let’s start by talking about what you currently do. Can you describe your role and organization?
I’m the Executive Director at Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ). VRJ is a community organization based in Minneapolis that does work across the state of Minnesota. Our goal is to build racial equity statewide, and we do that through capacity building, community organizing, training with a racial justice focus, and working with communities of color. We operate with the belief that communities experiencing disparities are the experts and must be involved in solutions. We develop research and policy tools that are community-driven, such as a racial equity agenda that we release at each legislative session. As grassroots, we seek to hold government officials accountable to serving the public.
Q: How do you work with local governments?
About 3 years ago, we put out a local level racial equity agenda for the city of Minneapolis. We are now developing a community-led racial equity report at the municipal level – so we’re also applying pressure locally. We’ve developed a racial equity agenda for the city of Duluth, and are working with community organizations across the state to do the same. We see power in putting forth proposals.
In addition to these tools, we see the necessity of working with government. Accountability tools push from the outside, but as more government leaders show interest in building racial equity, we see ourselves stepping into a different role than the past – to be more of a partner with government. This includes advising, consulting, and guiding electeds and staff about what it takes to build racial equity internally in government as well as in external policies.
What we have come to is an inside/outside game, where we build relationships with government while also advancing a strong organizing strategy. This is important to us because our value and social capital is in our relationships with communities. When we work with government, we make clear that our priority is the relationship with community members. When we’re consulting them, we also use that process to push them. Sometimes it results in a little bit of tension, but for us it’s important. Credibility in the community is difficult to rebuild, and having that relationship gives us the ability to work with government. Otherwise, we’re just talking about but not practicing the work to build racial equity.
Q: How did you arrive to this role?
I haven’t worked in government myself and have always have been in the nonprofit world. But I am an optimist and I believe that racial equity is possible. If we believe that, then we must be willing to work with and not only against government. Increasingly, there are strong allies inside government. If we want them to be successful, then how do we work with them to ensure that success? Personally, I’m not interested in always fighting – that’s exhausting. This work of building with government serves my interest, but it also serves our movement as well. Change is possible. We all must see our role in moving towards that. Sometimes, it takes the uncomfortable pushing and being pushed. Other times, it’s sitting at the table and building together. Both can happen.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work.?
I had a couple of great teachers in important points of life. First, I was studying at Carleton College and had Paul Wellstone as a teacher. He taught me the power of communities, of the grassroots, and of change coming from the people with the people having a voice. I found him so inspirational and that invited me into the world of social justice.
I then went to University of Minnesota Law School and had john powell as a professor. He helped me understand racial justice. I went on to work with john at the Institute of Race and Poverty. He’s such an amazing mentor and thinker in this work. I was lucky to observe and absorb so much from him, which really shaped the direction of my career.
Q: In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequity?
Government controls so many of our resources. They have a huge responsibility. Holding so much power and so much money, government impacts people at the most basic level. Whether it’s education, jobs, housing, or transit – these are all things we absolutely need as people. For government to have that role and that responsibility, they need to be thinking about what communities want. If they’re only making assumptions on community needs based on internal thinking and not connecting to residents, they’re bound to get it wrong – at least some of the time, if not all the time. It’s a huge responsibility to hold elected office and to hold power of spending public dollars while respecting what people need and want.
Q: What’s an accomplishment you’re most proud of?
There are several things, both big and little. The thing that’s been consistent has been making sure that voices of people of color and indigenous communities are at the early stage of thinking about solutions, that engagement is baked into the process. Government often doesn’t have the relationships in the community to do that well, and I think we’ve played an important role in those spaces.
Another example is when, almost 3 years ago, the state government explicitly named structural racism as a cause of health inequity. This was a big thing. Now, I have a staff that’s pushing the department to update the public on what they’ve done. We see our role not only as helping name what happened, but staying with it through the policy-making process and implementation. Policy change itself isn’t enough. There must be a real commitment to the leadership and practice in implementing those changes.
Q: What have been some challenging aspects of this work?
We’ve published a legislative report card on racial equity for the last 10 years. What was recently very challenging was to have the legislature receive an F for racial equity in our latest report. To be fair, racial equity policymaking comes in waves, and it depends on state leadership and on organizing in the community. But to see that despite 10 years of doing this work, the legislature had a grade of F – that was disheartening. Even though we have racial equity goals we report on, even though we have more and more racial equity champions at the legislature, and even though we have more electeds who are voting the right way and introducing the right bills, we still have the same (or worse) disparities in Minnesota. So, what else do we need to do?
I don’t have an answer but it’s clear to me that there are limitations to policy change. We’re going to have to think beyond what we’ve been doing. Maybe there are limitations to statewide advocacy and policy change and maybe there are things we need to do at the more local level. Somehow it hasn’t been enough and we’re going to have to think and organize in a way that pushes forward.
Q: What have been the most rewarding aspects for you personally?
We had a session a few years back where we reflected on what we’ve done across the state. Several things passed that year – like the Prosperity (or Dream) Act and a ban the box policy. These things had been at the capital for years, which took many years of organizing, and as we stepped back, we could see that it wasn’t just the political leadership that made that possible but also the years of organizing. What makes the news is the legislative session, but if you take the long view back, it was communities consistently pushing and organizing and being ready when there was a political moment when things could move.
Q: Where do you see opportunities for local government to accelerate progress towards racial equity?
A big opportunity is for local government to stand with racial equity. When we put out our Minneapolis racial equity agenda a few years ago, we did so because several elected leaders ran on a platform for racial equity. This dedication offers local government an opportunity to act differently and to commit to building their relationship with communities. That means being vulnerable and being open to hearing from people what it is that they really want. Being more responsive to community needs and being in relationship with communities means that it’ll be harder work. It means that you can’t just push forward policy change without engaging communities early on. So if more and more electeds and government staff are committing to that, then they have a path forward towards racial equity in their engagement and relationships with communities.