When Nekima Levy-Pounds of the Minneapolis NAACP crashed the Parks and Recreation budget meeting on May 11, she unloaded a slew of racism charges against the nation’s largest parks system.
She accused the board of allocating more money to the parks in white neighborhoods than those in black and brown neighborhoods. She accused the board of hiring few people of color, and then treating them differently on the job.
Looking around at the nine board members, all she could see were white faces – indicative of white supremacy, Levy-Pounds concluded.
Caught by surprise, Parks board president Liz Wielinski flipped out and fired back. She screamed at Levy-Pounds for stealing center stage during a meeting where there had not been time set aside for public testimony.
"Don't talk to me like I'm a slave," Levy-Pounds responded.
"I'm not talking to you like you're a slave,” Wielinski yelled. “I'm talking to you like you're a rude, interrupting person!"
Levy-Pounds called for both Wielinski and Parks superintendent Jayne Miller to resign.
On Wednesday, Wielinski apologized for losing her temper. The parks board also proposed a series of peace offerings, including meeting with Levy-Pounds to talk about her allegations. Miller scheduled a set of public forums in July to explain what Parks and Rec has done for racial equity, and to hear ideas for improvement.
But even before the NAACP and the board sit down for an officious “dialogue,” public records show the board actually allocates more money to nonwhite neighborhoods.
Parks and Rec breaks down its budget into North, Northeast, South, and Southwest service areas. North has 49 park properties and 59,119 residents, according to the 2010 census. Parks and Rec allocated $243 per person in north Minneapolis from 2010-14.
Northeast received a curious $461 per capita for 66,915 people, but that discrepancy can be explained by the board’s acquisition and development of 5.5 miles of the Mississippi shoreline before it got snatched up by private developers. While that parcel falls into Northeast territory, it doesn't have anything to do with neighborhood parks.
Parks and Rec recently accepted a 20-year, $11.5 million-a-year funding proposal offered by the city council to keep up and improve city parks. While parks all over the city will get some funding to maintain what's already there, neighborhood parks in areas of concentrated poverty will be the only ones getting any funding for improvements — amenities like playgrounds, wading pools, fields — during the first five years.
Parks in wealthier neighborhoods won't see a cent more than what it costs to prevent them from breaking down.
Parks employee demographics are also public record. They show that the workforce is overwhelmingly white. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean that people of color are intentionally barred from employment, or relegated to the low end of the labor pool.
From 2010 (when superintendent Miller came on board) to 2016, the percentage of white employees decreased in six out of eight categories. Meanwhile, the percentage of black employees has increased in six out of eight categories. There are nearly as many black administrators as there are black maintenance workers.
Members of the University of St. Thomas' Community Justice Project working on the racism allegations could not be reached for comment, but in an April 6 letter to the board, student attorneys working under Levy-Pounds wrote, “There have been allegations that since the MPRB took over hiring practices from the Civil Service Board, hiring decisions are all but made before the positions are even open and that preference is given to white applicants.”
“Second, another issue that needs to be addressed is disparate disciplinary practices. While the MPRB has the authority to reprimand those who violate its policies, there are allegations that the way in which violations are handled is unjust. According to the employees with whom we spoke, this is widespread within the organization, from minor offenses to major ones, individuals of color are given significantly harsher punishments than white individuals who commit similar infractions.”
Those exact allegations actually came up in 2011, when the NAACP investigated more than 160 complaints from a number of people regarding racism in Parks and Rec. When then-NAACP president Booker Hodges confronted Miller about the complaints, Miller owned up that the board had room for diversity improvement. Against the advice of legal counsel, she personally conducted hearings for employees who felt they were unfairly disciplined because of their race.
The complaints were found to be unsubstantiated.
"The fact that she took such the unheard of step is indication of her character," Hodges wrote earlier this month. "The accusations against Superintendent Miller in regards to her being a racist are absurd and off base. Superintendent Miller is committed to equity in the workforce and this is evident in the increased numbers of employees of color who currently work for the Minneapolis Park Board."
In addition to Hodges, Steve Belton with the Minneapolis Urban League wrote to denounce the "vitriolic personal attacks that recently have been made against Jayne Miller," who currently serves on the Urban League's board of directors.
As for all the white commissioners on the Minneapolis Park board, that's probably more Minneapolis voters' fault than anyone else's.
In the last Parks board race, only three candidates out of 20 were people of color: Said Maye, Ishmael Israel, and Hashim Yonis, who took the video of Levy-Pounds' confrontation with the Park board on May 11.
Maye received 24 percent of the vote in the third district, losing to Scott Vreeland's 76 percent. Israel and Yonis both ran on the citywide ballot, competing with eight other people for three open seats. Only 5.6 percent of voters chose Israel, and 6.3 chose Yonis.
Free elections could certainly still be racially biased, but in Yonis' case at least, his failed race probably had something to do with his felony conviction (his sentence was later commuted to a gross misdemeanor) for stealing soccer field rental fees from Parks and Rec in 2013.
More people of color could help the pickings by running for spots on the board. There's just not much incentive for anyone to do it.
The board president makes $13,852.80 a year. The other commissioners make $12,438.40 a year. For the most part, all they do is preside over mind-numbing proposals about mowing lawns and planting shrubs. They vet angry comments from constituents who care way too much about how lawns are mowed and shrubs are planted. They do not receive vacation, sick, or holiday pay.
It's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of job.