Q: Let’s start by talking about your current position. Can you describe your current role?
I am the Director of the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) for Saint Paul, Minnesota. It’s a multifaceted department with a lot of moving parts. HREEO includes several divisions that perform a diverse array of functions including contract compliance, human rights, procurement and contracting services as well as River Print, our in-house printing facility. The division managing contract compliance is responsible for monitoring prevailing wages, affirmative action, section 3, and our vendor outreach program. We continue to promote business inclusion by finding new ways to include small, minority, and women owned businesses in that work as well. Recently, my department took responsibility for the police civilian internal affairs review commission – a group comprised of community members that review and make disciplinary and policy recommendations to the police chief on all civilian initiated police conduct complaints.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
Well, through a series of interesting twists and turns. For this particular role, I was actually recruited for it, in part because of background in private sector purchasing. At the time, the city was implementing a new enterprise resource planning system, and I had done similar work at my previous company. I also had experience as the chair of the Human Rights commission for city of Edina, doing operational perspective and human rights work.
I was thrilled to make the transition to the public sector. Prior to working for the city of Saint Paul, I was essentially doing two full-time jobs; one day job in the private sector and another for the human rights commission for the city of Edina. I knew I wanted to be investing my time in efforts that would combat discrimination. I had encountered racism and struggled with accessibility in my own experiences and I didn’t want others to face the same challenges. This position is unique because it blends the skill set that I acquired from trainings in the private sector and my passion for equity. Moving from private to public has been an eye opener, but it has been the best decision I have made.
Q: Tell me more about what inspired you to do racial equity work.
I come from a diverse family, with two brothers and younger sister, and we are all adopted. Each of us comes from different racial and ability backgrounds, and we were raised in a white middle-class family. Throughout my childhood, we ran into racism and issues of accessibility – with all my experiences, I just knew that I wanted my work to combat the kinds of discrimination that we went through.
For instance, my oldest brother is in wheelchair and I remember going to restaurants and having to decide about which stairwell to use. Do we tackle the steep stairwell in front or the shorter one in the back? We brought my brother up the back and walked through the busy kitchen. It wasn’t as if they were angry that we were coming through, they knew it because of a wheelchair, but it still felt like we were invading their space. These kinds of things need to change because we live in the United States and we have very diverse populations. We need to make sure no one is facing issues because of gender, skin color, disability, or anything else.
It was a really interesting journey growing up in the family that I did. I was formed by these experiences and thought processes instilled by being raised in a multiracial, diverse, family in the 70s and 80s. Unlike what you sometimes see in the broader community across U.S., varying shades of skin color did not divide our family. It actually made us stronger.
Q: What role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
Government played a key role in separating white people from non-white people, and in the creation of the concept of “whiteness.” We see this everyday in our laws and in court cases. We are here as government to serve all the people and make sure that we are meeting everyone’s needs. Government should be functioning with a racial equity lens in mind, because our policies, services and practices were historically built on racial inequities, whether it was explicitly or inexplicitly stated. And so as we continue to serve community, we need to make sure we are considering everyone’s interest, regardless of race.
Q: Tell me a story about one of your major accomplishment in this role
When I started in Saint Paul, we were embarking upon the journey of racial equity. To see how far we’ve come, in just even the last three years, has been amazing. When Kristen Beckmann was named Deputy Mayor, her office came up with goal to bring all city employees through a one-day Foundations of Racial Equity course by the end of 2017. At the time, we didn’t have a training plan or program, but we wanted to do it. We were able to create something that was meaningful and challenged people’s thinking, just by doing something different. And now to have over 2,100 civil staff and 605 sworn officers trained, it’s just amazing! It’s been energizing to see the work we are doing, with work plans and change teams that bring together people from different departments, slowly but surely people’s mindsets are shifting. We’ve been building a culture around this and embedding this approach in the processes of our organization. It’s been great to be a part of this work.
Q: What has been challenging?
Creating the training program and getting it off ground was a difficult process. My colleague, Jane Eastwood, and I put in a lot of work to get the training together, to test it, get feedback, and then recruit employees to deliver the trainings. Then we had to jump into it and stick with it through quite a bit of resistance. In addition to that resistance, one thing I did not anticipate was how tapping into race would force me to confront my own buried demons I developed around my experiences growing up. That was tough. In the midst of processing that, to then walk into trainings, and have conversations with white employees who don’t want to acknowledge or change anything they’re doing – that was one of the toughest years. But that was one of the reasons that these trainings have been so important, to change the way we see and treat each other.
Q: What role can local government play to advance racial equity?
That’s an interesting question. While the leaders in Washington may be thinking one thing, at the local level, we have leaders that are absolutely committed to this community, regardless of what’s happening in DC. It’s important to support that message and to be out in the community providing real options for people. We are here to navigate and find solutions, and that role can be, and has been, pretty powerful. I’ve learned that you can’t get sucked into all the negativity – instead I think to say, ok, how can we help? One example is after President Trump’s first Executive Order, the first iteration of the immigration ban, I spoke with attorneys in Human Rights about how to help people. We discussed how best to educate the people traveling and what to do if people are green card holder. We disseminated information to make sure they knew they had a document to identify an attorney when they travel. We were able to respond on a local level to our community. Locally, government can work to protect and be a resource to the members in the community.
Q: What’s one critical lesson that you’ve learned through your role as the Director of HREEO?
At times when we talk about racial equity, it immediately brings up some negative connotations for folks. Those of us doing racial equity work need to be mindful of how we are being perceived and find ways to guide people through these transitions because change is hard, and we need to learn how to be effective agents of change. If you aren’t sensitive to meeting people where they are at in this conversation, it will be incredibly difficult to succeed. When you look at what gets accomplished by focusing on racial equity, engagement with the community and its profound impact, you can’t help but sit back and feel a sense of pride on the accomplishment and the positive impact you’ve had.
Q: To end on an inspiring note, what do you think we could accomplish in the next decade?
I think we can accomplish richer more thriving communities in which community members and people work together, talk to one another, and excel. The U.S. used to be a country of amazing innovation, just think about what we’ve done with cars and the internet. My grandparents passed away when they were in their 90s, and I often think about how much changed in their lifetimes alone. It’s amazing, and it gives me hope for addressing the challenges we are facing. If people are getting their needs met in all of the critical ways, then we can focus our energy on inventing and refining more incredible things.
The more we listen and create relationships, the more we can address peoples’ needs. People have to be able to hear multiple perspectives and learn how to find common ground again. I believe in people sitting knee to knee and having authentic conversations. We need to embrace the fact that we may never get to 100% agreement, that this will not wrap up like a movie, and that there will always be more work to do. But instant gratification is not always in the best interest of all of us. We need to have the courage and patience to work through all of that, for everyone’s benefit.