Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity in government? We have 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 Alec Weiss interviews Toni Newborn, the Chief Equity Officer for St. Paul, MN. Before working in St. Paul, Toni worked for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your current role in local government for the city of St. Paul.
I currently hold the official title of the first Chief Equity Officer for the city. I have only been in this positions since January, 2018, when our mayor, Melvin Carter took office he decided to create some new positions in St. Paul local government, Resiliency Officer, Innovation Officer, and my position as Equity Officer. Mayor Carter is the first African American mayor in St. Paul and has built on the existing equity framework established by the human rights directors who were influential in creating our racial equity change teams and action teams. Their work was sparked by involvement with GARE and I feel fortunate to have inherited all that has been put in place.
My role is internally focused to create change teams and action plans. A large part of this internal focus is as a part of ecosystems to offer our Foundation on Racial Equity trainings for every city employee. We have been successful in training thousands of city employees and integrating the training into our employee orientation. I also manage the Equity Steering Team, comprised of a few department directors who are working to expand this work across the city.
Q: As an office of one, how have you been able to maximize the impact of your work?
Because I am just an office of one person, it helps to design these change teams and action plans to build capacity and a larger framework across the city. One way I have been particularly successful expanding the reach of this work has been through creating a community outreach and engagement tool that allows the departments to include the community in how to prioritize our work and gather community input. Part of my goal for this year is to revise and expand the framework in order to add outreach and engagement plans.
It also helps that the mayor is supportive of this work. The mayor has listed three pillars to focus on during his office: (1) economic justice, (2) lifelong learning, (3) public safety. Part of what our goals is to align the existing racial equity structure with the vision of the new mayor. In essence, my role is to serve as the champion out of the mayor’s office to guide equity work and make sure we are always using a racial equity lens and providing training internally and externally to continue to support the work of the city.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
It’s really been a natural progression. I am an attorney by trade, and I went to law school here in St. Paul. My first job was working for the Civil Rights Department in Minneapolis. After a few years, I wanted to change gears and started working in human resources, which is how I traveled back across the river to work for St. Paul. There, I learned from the city’s racial equity initiative. That’s when I first started working with GARE.
I became passionate about this work and figuring out how to recruit and retain diverse populations and incorporate persons of color. I developed skills in bringing teams together to acknowledge and appreciate racial equity initiatives and how to execute the plans. These are tough conversations and my colleagues began to view me as someone who could hold people accountable to this work, but not through wagging a finger or shaming. I developed relationships in the departments built on trust and an approach that is culturally inclusive. I like being in the role of a champion; It allows me to use my skills to truly help people and effectuate change.
Q: With your perspective of having worked in multiple jurisdictions, have you seen any trends among racial equity efforts comparing St. Paul to Minneapolis?
The government structures in St. Paul and Minneapolis are completely different. St. Paul has a strong mayor who has a lot of executive power. The City of Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a weak mayor and strong council. This has important repercussions for how things get done, and how quickly they get done.
In 2013, Minneapolis was starting to work with GARE at the same time as St. Paul and was hopeful about moving this work forward. But when there are 13 council members that have decision making power and different ideas for the direction for the city, it can be really challenging to move the work forward and make the necessary changes. By the time I left Minneapolis, no significant movement had been made. But when I came to St. Paul, the action team was already in place, the goals were established, and the training team and executive team were formed. Everything was ready to go! Due to the government structure and the support of the mayor, racial equity initiatives in St. Paul were able to get traction and progress much faster.
Q: When considering moving across the river to St. Paul, did you consider the progress on racial equity as part of the criteria for deciding whether to make the move?
No. I didn’t know. I didn’t have the insider view Ss I had no idea. When I got here, it was just a breath of fresh air.
Q: What have been the most challenging aspects of this work?
It’s resources. There’s always a resource issue. We all have ideas about how to diversify our work, and they are great ideas, but in order to implement them we need people and resources. Minneapolis has a higher and larger tax base. They have much more revenue in comparison to St. Paul. Sometimes it feels like it stifles just how innovative we can be, but our departments are always trying to come up with new equity initiatives that best serve the community with the limited resources we do have.
Q: In your opinion, what role does local government have in addressing racial inequities?
Our services touch on everything that we do as a community. Whether it’s snow plowing, business licensing, or providing affordable housing – local government touches on the everyday life of every person. You want the public servants to be culturally competent and inclusive so this means that local government needs to want to hear from its community members, to be open in terms of acknowledging past wrongs that have taken place, and working towards remedying these harms. The GARE model helps support that work and provide a framework for departments in local governments to make the change and move the needle. The strategies and tools that we have implemented in St. Paul have made it so the government is better to able to work on behalf of the people.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect to you personally?
Honestly, it has been those moments in the course of our Foundations on Racial Equity trainings when I see the light go on for our staff members. There’s that moment when it clicks and they say, “I get it! I understand why racial equity is important.” They understand that it is not just about checking off a box, but that as an organization, and as a city, we will all be better off when we lift everybody up. And as we begin to implement these practices across our departments, we can represent to our residents that we support them and value them as being a part of our city workforce.
My goal for every department is for a career pathways program like the one we initiated in our Public Works Department. We need more opportunities in government positions at every level. Starting to see that change. We have created an operations of labor trainee program that is a pathway to our street worker program which is a good start and a good model. Underrepresented residents get paid to learn at an entry level position, earn their CDL license as well as permit, and then become qualified to apply for a full-time position. Getting this program up and running shows the potential that we have to affect change in the composition of our government positions.
Q: What do you hope to see accomplished in the next 10 years?
The demographics of our country are changing and soon people of color are going to make up the majority. Just looking at how Minnesota is changing, it won’t be long before white individuals are no longer a majority; as this trend continues, I want to see our city government reflect our changing communities. My hope is that with this change, we will see changes in our leadership, how we do business, and it will get to a point where government is far more inclusive. Change at the executive level will allow for us to implement more equitable policies and practices. I hope that in 10 years there won’t be a Chief Equity Officer because we have leaders in the cue that are always viewing their work through an equity lens.