Closing the gap: Mayoral candidates share plans to reduce racial inequities

The city’s substantial racial disparities in employment, education and housing have been a major focus of the mayoral campaign.

Within a generation, the demographics of the city are expected to shift and the majority of Minneapolis residents will be people of color. Working on closing the racial gaps will be a major challenge for the city’s next mayor.

While overall the city’s unemployment rate is about 5 percent, unemployment for blacks is much higher at 18 percent and 25 percent for American Indians. The high school graduation rate for minority students is also significantly lower than white students in the city. According to a recent Results Minneapolis report, the 2010 public high school graduation rate for black students was 63.7 percent, 60.5 percent for Latino students, and 44.4 percent for American Indians — compared to 89.6 percent for white students.

For the first time this year, city department heads are being asked to consider how their choices are impacting the city’s efforts to improve racial equity as they craft their budgets for 2014, said Karen Francois, director of Employment Equity for the city.

The city is trying to provide more opportunities for people of color in three major ways: through city jobs, city contracts and positions on city boards and commissions, she said.

The goal is to have the city’s workforce better reflect the diversity of the city and there’s still a ways to go, she said. The city’s population is 40 percent people of color and to date, 23 percent of city’s employees are non-white.

Another major way the city is to trying to diversify the workforce is through the Urban Scholars program, which gives college students from diverse backgrounds interested in pursuing careers in the public sector a chance to work on city projects. Mayor R.T. Rybak’s proposed 2014 budget calls for doubling the program’s funding.

Here’s a look at how the most active candidates for mayor say they would tackle the city’s racial disparities: 

>> Mark Andrew, one of the leading DFL candidates for mayor and a southwest Minneapolis resident, said the city is a “modern day ‘Tale of Two Cities.’”

“The gaps in educational achievement, employment, housing and criminal justice rates for our children and neighbors of color are not acceptable and are, frankly, scandalous,” he said.

Andrew said while the school board and superintendent need to be leaders on school curriculum and policy, the mayor must lead by articulating a “cogent vision” for improving opportunities for the city’s youth.

“Children truly are the future of Minneapolis and their success will be a gold mine for our city,” he said. “I want a future where families move into Minneapolis for the educational opportunities, not move out because of the lack of them.”

As for tackling the racial jobs gap, Andrew said he would support “zip code hiring and work collaboratively with city contractors and developers to establish hiring goals”; work to implement job training programs; create a business incubator in vacant spaces to provide support for export industries; make it easier for people to launch home-based businesses; and focus on expanding opportunities in the green technology sector.

>> Jackie Cherryhomes, a DFLer and former City Council president, has a multifaceted approach for dealing with the achievement gap in Minneapolis schools.

She said she would focus on improving early childhood educational opportunities, work with school leaders to keep classroom sizes down and find ways to make sure students aren’t coming to school hungry or too stressed to learn. She pointed to a program in Cincinnati where schools have a variety of “wraparound” services to help children, including mental health care and a mentoring program, among other things, as something Minneapolis leaders should explore for ideas to improve schools here.

To deal with the employment gap, Cherryhomes said she would focus on job creation.

“We can’t be a successful city if everybody is not working,” she said, adding she’s the only candidate in the field who has done job creation in the city and pledged to make it her number one priority.

If elected, she said she would focus on supporting small businesses and recruiting manufacturers to the city, particularly on the North Side. She’s been involved in the North Side Job Creation Task Force and has been working with the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management to identify potential employers to recruit to the area, including food production, packaging and textile production companies.

Cherryhomes also said she would hire a point person that would be solely charged with job creation.  

>> Dan Cohen, an independent candidate and Planning Commission member, said the racial gap is a “false premise.”

He said the disparities are related to class, not race. He said more work needs to be done to ensure children have stability at home. “Single parent homes have poorer records for educational achievement,” he said.

Fathers struggling to support their families need more job opportunities, he said. The main idea he is pushing for in his campaign is the creation of a new downtown casino. He said it would create hundreds of jobs and attract more hotels and retailers to downtown. 

>> Bob Fine, a DFLer and newcomer to the mayor’s race and a long-time Park Board commissioner, said the causes of the city’s racial inequalities are “complex and solutions must be vigorously pursued.”

“During my 18 years on the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commissioner, I worked with other passionate Commissioners to examine issues of race in the city and envision ways to level the playing field for everyone,” he said. “It is critical to work with the public and private sectors to give youth more and better opportunities to thrive in school and work environments with the goal of increasing the potential for economic prosperity no matter the youth’s race, ethnicity, or the neighborhood in which they live.”

Fine has also served on the Youth Coordinating Board and said as mayor he would continue to champion the work of that group to help provide more opportunities for impoverished children. He’d also work to strengthen relationships between the School and Park boards to provide kids all over the city with more recreational opportunities.

As for dealing with the job gap, he would work with business owners to provide more jobs to youth.  

“Specifically, I will focus on providing opportunities for youth of color in the neighborhoods in which they live, increasing jobs opportunities and economic activity in their communities,” he said. “Working meaningful jobs gives youth the chance to cultivate new skills, learn from mentors, and develop a greater sense of purpose. We need to get the private sector on board to help with this work as well as providing continued funding to programs like Urban Scholars and Step-Up so that youth have positive places to grow.”

>> Betsy Hodges, another leading DFL candidate and City Council member representing the 13th Ward, recently released a plan called Cradle-to-K, which is designed to improve educational outcomes for low-income minority students.

“While there is a great deal of good work happening, the status quo is not acceptable,” she said. “I want everyone to be a part of giving the best opportunities to all Minneapolis children, and the only price for admission is to be able, willing and ready: able to approach this issue with urgency, willing to be challenged and ready to take action for Minneapolis children.”

The Cradle-to-K plan calls for an expansion of the Healthy Start program, which serves low-income families; increased access to childcare; and a new mayor’s cabinet on the Cradle-to-K initiatives.

As for her plan on addressing the employment gap, she would focus on improving transit options “through state-of-the-art bus improvements and streetcars in every neighborhood”; streamlining the city’s regulatory and permit process to make it easier for small businesses to start up and expand; attract more clean energy jobs; and increase hiring goals for women, LGBT and minority workers on city projects.

“I have put addressing opportunity and achievement gaps at the center of my solutions in my years of public service and as a candidate on every issue, every time,” she said. “… From starting what is now the Women’s Health Project in New Mexico at the age of 21 to fighting the elimination of the city’s Health Department to helping defeat the anti- gay marriage amendment, I look at every issue through the lens of equity.”

>> Don Samuels, a DFL candidate and City Council member representing the North Side, released a detailed education policy Aug. 12 designed to fight the achievement gap.

“It is assumed that because the mayor of Minneapolis has no statutory control over schools, that person can’t have much influence over the education in our city. They are dead wrong,” he said.

He pointed to educational initiatives spearheaded by mayors in Newark, Los Angeles and Denver as good case studies for Minneapolis leaders to explore. As mayor, Samuels would also create a Trust for Innovation in Minneapolis Education (TIME) Fund, which would raise money for loans and grant programs to reward innovative schools and help turn around troubled schools.

He would also work to promote best practices working in schools like Harvest Prep Academy and Hiawatha Academy — two high achieving charter schools in the city.

Samuels said he would also work to engage parents to take a more active role in their children’s education and expand early childhood, after school and summer learning opportunities for low-income children.

Samuels said making strides in tackling the achievement gap in schools is an essential part of reducing the racial disparities in employment.

“Until we transform the long-term outcomes of our education system, we will continue to swim upstream in closing the employment gap,” he said.

Samuels has also said he’s the best mayoral candidate to lead the effort to tackle these issues because he’s the only candidate in the race representing a significant number of poor and low-income residents.

As mayor he would focus on working with the Minneapolis Community and Technical College to develop specialized training programs to provide more employment opportunities, and continue strengthening the city’s STEP-UP summer jobs internship program.

He would also enforce the “Ban-the-Box” ordinance, which in most instances, prohibits private employers from asking job applicants about previous felonies on job applications. 

>> Cam Winton, an independent candidate for mayor and southwest Minneapolis resident, said he would lead stakeholders on five key initiatives to address the achievement gap in schools if elected mayor.

He would work to reduce red tape for businesses to make it easier for job creation to flourish. “When parents have paychecks, they have the peace of mind to guide their children’s education more effectively,” he said.

He would also work to create stable homes for all of the city’s children and increase public safety in the neighborhoods by equipping officers with more resources.

Winton would also seek the authority to appoint School Board members if elected mayor and work to change education policies to tie teacher pay to performance and expand the school day and academic year, among other things.

He would also find ways to replicate best practices at high-performing charter schools and demand excellence from school administrators, teachers, parents and students.

As for the employment gap, Winton said the city doesn’t need another “blue-ribbon commission or mayoral task force.”

“Rather, City Hall needs to get out of the way and enable real businesses to sell goods and services in the marketplace,” he said. “They’ll hire employees to provide those goods and services, and those employees will then spend their paychecks on other goods and services, thereby creating further demand for workers and a rising tide for everyone.”

As mayor, he said he’d streamline the process within the city to make it easier for businesses to launch and expand. He’d allow businesses to apply for permits online rather than having to make a trip downtown to do so.

He’d also hold the line on city spending by “prioritizing the basics over bells and whistles to keep tax rates reasonable.”

“Bottom line, when I’m mayor, Minneapolis will become the go-to destination for business creation and expansion,” he said. “I am the only candidate not coming from the existing power structure of insiders, so I’m bringing to City Hall my fresh eyes and willingness to call it like I see it.”

>> Stephanie Woodruff, whose campaign was recently endorsed by the Independence Party, said city leaders need to be “courageous and think outside the box” when it comes to solving racial inequalities in education.

“Within the United States, Minneapolis is nowhere the top [in education],” she said. “While it may be a good thing to be the greenest city in America or the most progressive city in America, the most important issue in the mayoral election is how we become the smartest city in America by preparing all of our children for a brighter future.”

If elected, Woodruff, a Whittier neighborhood resident, would create a Mayor’s Cabinet on Closing the Achievement Gap. The cabinet would include representatives from the School Board, labor and teachers unions, nonprofit leaders, Hennepin County and Park Board, among other community leaders.

“This cabinet will partner with the superintendent and the School Board to create a culture of innovation and create communities that support our kids and attack the cycle of poverty,” she said.

She would push for new learning labs to be created throughout the city and partner with the business community to provide every student in the city with a laptop or tablet.

Woodruff would also work with the county, Park Board and School Board to explore the possibility of establishing early childhood centers in park buildings.

She said an investment in educational programs is more important than the proposal to fund streetcars.

“The $6 million in new tax annual revenue should be used to fund the labs and the centers, not a streetcar line that doesn’t advance our transit issue,” she said. “… The proposed Nicollet Streetcar line will not help close that gap. How does our transit policy address this need? The answer — it doesn’t. Plain and simple.”