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LaTrisha Vetaw: The Public Servant

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City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

LaTrisha Vetaw is a famously optimistic North Side health nut, a champion of bikability, purveyor of yoga blitzes, and mortal enemy of menthol cigarettes.

For much of the 2000s, she talked of running for the Minneapolis Park Board, but a sarcoma in her leg demanded chemotherapy every week for seven years. Nobody wanted to pressure the lady with cancer to launch a campaign for one of the most politically fraught governing bodies in Minnesota.

Then she began to get better. Her hair grew back. People started floating her name as a natural candidate for a historically white board under siege from show-stopping protests by former park employees alleging systemic racism. Past and present commissioners pressed her to run. So she did, and won.

Vetaw is used to working on the other side of the dais. In 2017 she successfully lobbied to get tobacco banned from Minneapolis parks so kids wouldn’t have to breathe second-hand smoke. It was a protracted struggle. People get really worked up over adult agency in outdoor spaces. Vetaw pushed it through anyway because her father, who chain-smoked all his life, died in his 40s with a pack of cigarettes in his pants pocket. Health disparities aren’t theoretical to her.

Yet nothing really compared to the vantage of power, being on the receiving end of all the unfettered anger, founded and otherwise, that gets unleashed on public servants. Even though all the commissioners are purportedly progressive, Vetaw’s freshman year was charged with specious grandstanding. Personality clashes distracted from the board’s stated goal of making America’s No. 1 park system equally great for everyone in Minneapolis.

“It’s beyond strange and so troubling,” Vetaw says. “When you just say the word ‘park,’ you think ‘fun.’ You know my whole campaign was focused on connections to youth and seniors, and all I thought in my mind was ‘fun.’”

Too shrewd to be tokenized and completely averse to bullshit, Vetaw focuses on separating ego from the real open-air substance of parks and rec. Like meeting parents on playgrounds if they can’t spare hours on a school night to attend meetings on West River Road. Or participating in events like Powderhorn Park’s art sled rally.

In 2018, she secured $200,000 from the Walt Dziedzic Recreaction Innovation Fund to get more girls and seniors out to parks, and held several listening sessions on policing after a group of Somali teenagers were handcuffed over a bogus 911 call. This year she’s eyeing pesticide-free parks and incorporating some tangible examples of culturally specific services that everyone loves to talk about.

“The things that we ran on, we have to accomplish,” she says. “Sometimes people forget that it’s not about you. You still represent people, and most of the time you have to go to those people.” 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.