One of the discussion points during yesterday's Minneapolis City Council Committee of the Whole meeting was about a study intended to identify strategies for addressing racial inequalities in the city. That the city is investing resources in that doesn't sit well with Council President Barbara Johnson, who said she'd rather have staff spend their time on more pressing issues.
"I remember taking a government class in college -- public safety is the number one responsibility of government," Johnson, who represents a good part of north Minneapolis, said. "We have neighborhoods in this city -- on Lowry and Morgan the other day, Tuesday I believe it was, somebody fired six shots at a car [in] an ongoing gang war that is going on right in our city, and so I'm just curious as to what kind of staff time we're talking about and exactly what our priorities are as a city."
Johnson heated up from there.
"I am so frustrated about this. I see it as another task force, another report, another reporting mechanism -- I've got all the reporting mechanisms I need," she continued. "I get these reports every single week from the police department where in my neighborhood 60 shots are fired every single week and in the rest of the city it's 10. What are we doing about that? When are we gonna spend some time on that?"
In response to Johnson, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden argued that pursuing long-term goals shouldn't prevent the city from addressing immediate public safety concerns.
"We have to be able to do what's in front of us and address those priority issues while at the same time putting together the guiding framework that hopefully will allow us to achieve the goals we have identified as a city," Glidden said.
Glidden's sentiment was echoed by Minneapolis Civil Rights Director Velma Korbel.
"I suppose if we don't care that there is a segment of the city has to continue to live on the margins for a generation, I suppose we can stop doing the work," Korbel said. "The City Council and the mayor set the priorities for what happens in this city, [and] 10 out of 13 of you I'm certain said that equity and racial equity were priorities for you during this most recent campaign."
But Johnson held her ground.
"It frustrates me to no end because I will tell you, everybody that ran on racial equity and all this sort of thing have no clue what it is like to live in the community and not be able to have your kids ride their bikes out in front of their house because they might have gunshots fired at them," Johnson said.
Reached for comment today, Johnson says the city's Racial Equity Action Plan represents "the latest outgrowth of how to deal with a problem that is kind of entrenched."
"Over the years there have been efforts to do it through different names -- affirmative action, diversity, cultural competence -- and people get trained in them, and the latest it seems to me is this racial equity thing," she tells us. "We're going over the same ground is what I want to say... it's just talk, talk, talk."
But Johnson doesn't want to be understood as suggesting all city efforts outside the realm of immediate needs is a waste of time.
"We have strategies that I believe have been shown to work," Johnson says. "We've got a STEP-UP program that high school students are involved in, working in different sectors getting real job experience and actually some money coming in the door. We have an Urban Scholars program in our city that has targeted young people of color that are in college to try and get them some real life experience working in the city. That's been a big success, and those are the kinds of things that work and produce results."
"Why not invest more in that rather than tie up all this staff time working on another report?" Johnson adds. "Another 'toolkit'? That's a buzzword. Send the kid to college is my message."
To see video of the animated exchange Johnson had with Glidden and Korbel yesterday, click to page two.
The lively back and forth begins right around the 39:00 mark: