KILLING THE MESSENGER

For 17 years Larry Blackwell has been incurring the wrath of Minneapolis officials in his position as city affirmative action director.

          Last May Minneapolis City Coordinator Kathy O'Brien called Larry Blackwell into her office for a scolding. Blackwell, the city's affirmative action head, found Human Resources Director Ann Eilbracht waiting there as well. Blackwell had been talking, they'd heard. He'd taken a meeting with City Council member Doré Mead--a talk Mead asked him to keep "confidential"--in which the two discussed a pending discrimination case against the Convention Center and a possible upgrade of his department within the city hierarchy. The meeting was not unlike many that go on between department heads, council members, and staffers all the time at City Hall. Yet Blackwell was in trouble.

          "I was meeting with my own council representative," says Blackwell, an attorney by training, shaking his head. "What do you do when you have people who are the ultimate supervisors saying we want to meet with you and it's confidential? I was asked about the Convention Center case," he says--a matter in which numerous minority and woman employees are claiming they have been harassed and treated unfairly for years. "Mead wanted to know how it was coming along. I said it was one of the biggest cases we'd ever had and I said I hope we do the right thing in this case. I didn't want to do an investigation just to get rid of some fall people and have the sources of the problem continue to exist. And I think that got back to Kathy. I didn't see the big deal.

          "I think Kathy thought I was saying something about her and her administration," Blackwell says now. "I wasn't thinking anything. I just wanted to go back into my hole and do my job." If Blackwell sounds worn and defensive, it's because he's been the city's affirmative action director for 17 years, which has meant going to work every day in an environment plagued by routine and entrenched kinds of discrimination and a marked hostility to change.

          Affirmative Action needed to be a "partner" in building a healthy work environment, said a carefully worded follow-up memo from O'Brien. If there were any more requests for private meetings by council members, or anyone, he was to tell them "that you needed to disclose the conversation with your supervisor and that you would not participate in a discussion that was confidential from those you reported to in the organization.... If indeed Council Members have concerns about the effectiveness of the affirmative action function of the City, they should bring them directly to those responsible." Apparently, by O'Brien's lights, that didn't include Blackwell.

          O'Brien says she was trying to make a point: "If we have business, we should be dealing with the people we have business with. The letter was to give him direction as a staff member that all of us in City Hall work together that we are inclusive and that we don't hide information." Are other department or division heads under similar requirements? "I can't speak for other department heads. My position with everyone who reports to me is the same--we don't have secret meetings." The fact that such a simple act on Blackwell's part could draw such a quick and paranoiac response is a testament to the political disfavor of affirmative action these days, and to Blackwell's ever-tenuous status at City Hall.

          Established in 1973 as a symbol of the city's dedication "in spirit, in law, and in performance" to fairness, Blackwell's office has seen its authority steadily undermined and its position in the city hierarchy diminished over the years. Each move made the office less a watchdog and more susceptible to political pressures; on some occasions specific powers were taken away after Blackwell championed an unpopular cause. He's recently been told to cut back on investigations, to be more "positive" and "pro-active." Meanwhile, the city's payouts in discrimination cases have gone through the roof, reaching a high of $1.3 million last year, compared to $13,000 in 1986. City officials have responded to the escalating troubles with a new proposal: They want to do away with the department altogether.

          "People are uncomfortable with the investigative role," says Blackwell in his even-toned manner. Over the years he's become known as a seeker of the middle ground: a straight shooter, but one who's not in the habit of raising his voice. "Quite frankly, nobody wants to be told that they have done something wrong. I'm probably naive, but I see it as an effort to achieve a higher level of performance. I was told that I was advocating for employees and that that is negative--that is viewed as negative in this city.

          "I think the City Council's intent when it set up the affirmative action program was that it was not a program that was going to go along with the status quo, because some parts of the status quo needed to be fixed. It was understood that it might upset some people, but it's better for the entire city. And that's what the City Council had in mind when they set it up--that there was a larger benefit. We can correct some problems rather than repeating them."

          Besides investigating between 50 and 70 complaints a year, he and his staff of four monitor policies, hirings, and promotions to make sure the city's various departments treat the so-called "protected classes"--mainly minorities and women--fairly. And to some extent, they've been successful. In 1976, the city's workforce was 4.7 percent minority and 20.9 percent female. Now it's 15.1 percent minority and 30.6 percent female. While those numbers look good on paper, cautions Blackwell, most of those people are at the bottom of the pay scale. "We have one department head of color, and that's in the Civil Rights Department. There are few women at higher levels. Pay levels are not equal." He's pushed the issue at meetings with charts and graphs. "I think the challenge to the city is promotions over the next five to ten years. If we don't do something to raise up those people we've brought in, we'll face a tremendous amount of liability. It's something we emphasize every year. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

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