(photo by Sarah Whiting)
(photo by Sarah Whiting)

Since May, I have been working as the Hennepin County Disparity Reduction Coordinator. There are seven areas led by county-appointed domain leaders: education, income, employment, health, housing, transportation, justice. My role is to assist with strategy to change the current conditions — in tandem with city, county, and state organizations — around racial disparities. 

I grew up in poverty in the small town of Ford Heights, Illinois. As of 2011, the per capita income there was $12,217. My childhood experience is why I have dedicated my life to public service for almost 20 years. 

In some ways, the community of my childhood is much like impoverished communities in Minnesota. There are not enough voices at the table that move policy forward to enable growth and well-being for all of us.

It Is About Representation

Did you know:

• Since U.S. Congress first convened in 1789, our country has had 12,249 individuals serving as representatives, senators, or both. Only 153 of them have been African-American.

• The current 115th Congress started in 2018 with 51 African-Americans — that is only 9.5 percent of voting members in the House and Senate. 

• Of the 112 women serving in Congress as of October, only 21 are African-American. 

Although these numbers represent a sad and glaring truth, there is hope. The 115th Congress does at least have the highest number of African-Americans than any Congress we’ve had before.

I bring up national statistics because I have grown to realize how much representation in leadership is necessary for a community to thrive. When diverse voices are not invited, or do not feel welcome, to join conversations in rooms where important decisions are being made, the dollars that are distributed don’t include that community. 

I have also grown to realize how important it is that women are represented in our political offices, just as it is important that African-Americans and other minorities are represented. 

There are tremendous strides we can make in this mid-term election to start to change that. 

Moving the Needle

Some may say there has been progress around disparities. I do not agree. 

Until we can honestly say that more than half of the people who were living in poverty a decade ago are living above the poverty line, we still have much work to do. 

As a state, Minnesotans have not moved the needle enough.

Shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared The War on Poverty in 1964, a team of experts were assembled to focus on education and the effects of poverty. There was a strong desire to help disadvantaged children and to compensate for disparities that poor children faced. In 1965, Head Start was created to help meet the emotional, health, nutritional, psychological, and social needs of preschool-aged children from low-income families.

Head Start was created for early childhood development. An impact study that was began in 2002, and released in 2010, found results that were disappointing. According to the report, “the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole.”

The result of this research: less funding was given to Head Start. Today, the children who are allowed to benefit from access to early childhood education is dwindling. 

Yet, my brothers and sisters and I are products of Head Start. It was instrumental in preparing me for kindergarten, education, and life. From my viewpoint, the conclusion reached by that 2002 study was wrong. I believe we need to improve on programs that serve marginalized communities, not simply dismantle them.

It Is About Ingrained Policies

The crisis we face because of racial inequities are the result of practices, policies, and laws that have consistently mandated how we’ve done business as a society. What we are now seeing is a result of decisions made without consideration for people of color. 

In the October issue of Minnesota Women’s Press, for example, Nelima Sitati Munene wrote about how decisions were being made in her city to tear down affordable housing options because some inaccurately associated those communities with higher levels of crime. Decisions were made without talking to people who lived there. After housing advocates became involved, the city and those in the affected community were able to find much more effective solutions, which resulted in the housing development remaining intact, with crime rates lower now than they have been in 10 years.

Some decision-makers might think they are protecting “their own” with ingrained policies designed to separate and create exclusivity, but no one thrives with a narrow focus. 

My vision is to imagine how much stronger we will be as a society when everyone takes care of everyone: with opportunities to thrive in education, income, employment, health, housing, transportation, and justice. 

It Is About Growth

Let’s look at racial disparities related to education in Minnesota. Imagine if early childhood education became a focal point of importance, so that every child had the access and the right to learn, just like children who are privileged do. What might our state look like 10 years from now? 

Some perceive this as “wasting” resources. Those are the inequities that give us the systems we have today.

Leadership — in every area of government and business — with roots in communities of color will be better able to identify and address policies and protocols that overwhelmingly and negatively affect people of color. 

That’s not just good for the 853,343 people in our state who are people of color. It is good for everyone. 

A 2015 Deloitte report concluded: “The talent practices which predict the highest performing companies are all focused on building an inclusive talent system. Companies that embrace diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their business statistically outperform their peers.” 

It Is About the Vote

Places like We Vote MN are doing the important work to educate communities of color about how powerful their vote is and how powerful their voice is. Many disenfranchised voters have not historically believed they could make a difference.

We must continue to take very intentional steps to develop leaders and to prepare them for public service. I am optimistic because of the rising number of candidates in Minnesota who are people of color. I also appreciate the organizations that support women who run for office. 

Every one of us is part of a democracy. All of us can be part of making our community what it is intended to be: for the people, by the people.

When the issues that face our society as a whole — not a part — are represented by a truly collaborative and collective effort, we will begin to see significant positive change. We have lived with imbalance along racial and gender lines for too long.

The disparity reduction team and domain leaders I work with are conducting an environmental scan, which means we are looking at the way we do our work. 

In the first five months we have listened to stakeholders in order to learn about all Hennepin County departments. Our goal is to focus on how we serve residents, and how we can ensure they have the best quality of life and support necessary to thrive. We are looking at processes and internal policies, and will develop a set of strategies to reduce disparities. 

I am a long-term Hennepin County employee and have done rewarding work preparing ex-offenders for release. In my new role, my contribution has the potential to make life better for a lot of people. It is a big job, and I don’t take that lightly.