Minneapolis Park Board clashes over funding for sexual violence survivors memorial

Park commissioners are in agreement that the memorial would be lovely, but all three women on the board voted against spending public money.

Park commissioners are in agreement that the memorial would be lovely, but all three women on the board voted against spending public money. Break the Silence

Minneapolis is getting close to building the nation's first memorial for survivors of sexual violence. The plan is to install a mosaic on Boom Island Park, encircled by stone benches where people can sit and talk. The design is steeped in the symbolism of piecing broken fragments together in something beautiful and complete.

It's something Sarah Super has been working toward since she first proposed the idea to the Minneapolis Park Board in 2015.

Super, a rape survivor who founded the nonprofit Break the Silence, put together a design team. Last July, their proposed location and design received the unanimous approval of the former Park Board commissioners, who agreed to provide financial support as long as Super did her own fundraising as well.

Super's team has raised approximately $175,000 out of the $475,000 it'll cost to build the memorial. And at Wednesday night's Park Board meeting, newly elected Commissioner Chris Meyer proposed giving the project a matching gift of $160,000, which would finally allow them to break ground.

But there were a few problems. A legal analysis of the board's public art review found that public dollars can only be used for veteran memorials. And an ordinance passed last summer requires all new project spending to be determined by an "equity matrix," which prioritizes spending in the city's roughest parks.

Another Park Board newcomer, Latrisha Vetaw, opposed the measure, arguing that it would set a troubling precedent for awarding public money to special interest causes. She worried that if the board were approached by a group with a cause commissioners might not agree with -- say, an anti-abortion group wanted to erect their own memorial -- it could be considered discriminatory to turn it down.

"I explained to them, I’m a two-time survivor," Vetaw says. "I’m very supportive of [the memorial]. I think that it should be there. But I think they should find the money to get it on their own. That’s it. I don’t want to set a precedent for us to be the people to come to if you want a memorial, and we’re going to fund it."

Vetaw, who ran on a platform of championing the needs of underserved youth, also took issue with how the funding was proposed without applying Park and Rec's equity matrix.

"That $160,000 could be used in a big way in north Minneapolis," she said.

The matrix was implemented in neighborhood parks in 2016, and in regional parks -- including Boom Island -- in August 2017.

The way Break the Silence sees it, the memorial would also fit into an equity framework because it recognizes a group of people who have been pushed aside.

"I'm Indian and in my community we never talked about sexual assault," says Anishaa Kamesh. "It's a very taboo topic. So when I was assaulted, and I'm a two-time survivor, I never talked about it. I didn't have anyone in my community, within my culture, to turn to. I feel like having a public space such as a memorial would be a great way to engage these communities."

In the end, commissioners voted 5-4 to direct staff to find the $160,000 somehow. All three women on the board voted no.

It's not clear how park staff will come up with that $160,000 if public money can only be spent on veteran memorials. Board President Brad Bourn suggested that the memorial could be tweaked to emphasize veteran survivors of sexual violence in order to meet the criteria for funding -- a notion that neither Vetaw nor Break the Silence were excited to hear.

If the memorial's going to be built, it won't be exclusive to just one class of survivors, Super says. Likewise, she says commisisoners shouldn't have to worry that their financial support would open the floodgates to all manner of memorials, because standing up for surviors of sexual violence is something that everyone can generally agree with.

"I think one of the common themes is this is a precedent ... that we hope will inspire other cities nationwide," she said. "And I'm not sure all the commissioners have seen the bigger picture of all the detail and thought that’s been put into it."

If the remaining funding doesn't come, Super says the memorial will move forward regardless.

"It would just require us to work longer and work harder."