Lawmakers, commissioners discuss inequality at Urban League

Forum part of broader conversation on economic disparities

Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-60), Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-59) and DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben at Monday's Urban League forum. Credit: Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Two state senators and members of Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration discussed initiatives aimed at tackling poverty and unemployment in the African American community during a forum Monday at the Minneapolis Urban League.

Sate Senators Kari Dziedzic (DFL-60) and Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-59) hosted the forum on jobs, income and racial disparities, which featured three state commissioners: Katie Clark Sieben of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, Matt Massman of the Department of Administration and Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans.

The forum came nearly three months after the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing median income for black households in Minnesota dropped $4,500 from 2013 to 2014. The data also showed that 38 percent of black Minnesotans live in poverty, up from 30 percent in 2008. Median income levels and poverty rates for other races remained stable.

DFL lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton have called for a special legislative session in part to address issues facing black Minnesotans.

At Monday’s forum, the state commissioners discussed their offices’ efforts in helping address the disparities. Sieben said the new $8 million Employment, Education and Healthy Living Center in North Minneapolis will help job seekers develop career-building and resume-writing skills and connect them to local jobs.

The building, located at 800 W. Broadway Ave., will including the North Minneapolis WorkForce Center, NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center, Minneapolis Public Schools and retail space.

She said the current WorkForce Center serves about 10,000 people annually, a number that should increase when the new center opens next September.

She said DEED is also opening a new office of career and business development as part of the governor’s response to the disparities.

DEED also hosts the Pathways to Prosperities initiative, which in August announced $9 million in grants to help train low-income adults for in-demand jobs.

Massman’s department oversees purchasing and contracting for state agencies. He said his office is looking to leverage its targeted-group business program, which helps certified small businesses owned by women and racial minorities.

Franz, the state’s chief financial and human resources officer, said the state as a whole is working on redoing its job descriptions to see if the positions really need the educational levels they have listed.

“We can become our own worst enemy sometimes,” Franz said. “… We need to put everyone’s feet to the fire.”

Audience questions 

Forum participant Alyce Dillon, executive director of Parents in Community Action, which operates Head Start programs in Hennepin County, said she has living wage jobs available and people she wants to hire for them. She appeared frustrated, however, with the amount of time it takes to hire someone with a criminal conviction.

Sieben said the state’s new Ban the Box law should help. The law requires companies to wait until later in the hiring process to ask about an applicant’s criminal record.

Another participant, from East Side Neighborhood Services, said some Minnesotans struggle because they don’t have the necessary certifications for jobs. She said Minnesota requires certifications that most other states do not for positions such as pharmacy technician.

Massman said it would be worthwhile to look at the intent of the certifications to make sure they are worthwhile.

A man who identified as a black Somali immigrant said the Somali community has no resources and struggles with high unemployment in rural areas. He said Somali businesses struggle to get contracts because of backlash.

Participant Cheryl Morgan Spencer asked how employers prepare to handle communities of color, noting that women with advanced degrees have a hard time finding employment.

Sieben said DEED is sending out a survey to about 3,000 businesses about their hiring, retention and recruitment practices.

Urgency needed 

Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church said he sees no sense of urgency from the Dayton administration with regard to the disparities. He said he’s looking for the same urgency the administration gave when it addressed the walleye issues on Lake Mille Lacs.

“When does the administration get serious about what we are going through?” McAfee asked.

Community activist Al Flowers said it uplifts him to believe that change is coming, stressing that people need to stand up and be apart of it.

“If we don’t get this done, it will become a bigger issue in the next 10 years,” he said.

Champion said he was pleased with Monday’s forum, during which he said he’s open to new ideas on addressing the disparities.

“If it’s still chronic, that means something is not working,” he said. “Any ideas you have to think outside the box, I’m all ears.”

Monday’s forum was the second in a series Dziedzic and Champion hosted at the Urban League. State demographer Susan Brower presented the Census data at the first meeting.