White homeowners overrepresented on many neighborhood boards

White homeowners dominate many neighborhood organizations in the city, according to a new Neighborhood Board Diversity Survey that includes information from about 52 percent of the city’s neighborhood group members.

The city has more than 800 people serving on 70 neighborhood groups across Minneapolis, and 428 of them responded to an online survey collected by the city’s Neighborhood Community Relations (NCR) Department.

Of those who responded, 81 percent are white and just 15.4 percent are renters. In the city overall, white people make up 60 percent of the population and the majority of people are renters — 52.8 percent.

Many community leaders have called attention to the lack of diversity on neighborhood boards and pushed for a civic engagement model that is proactive about reaching out to people typically under represented by neighborhood organizations and city commissions.

The diversity survey outlines several recommendations designed to make neighborhood boards more inclusive, including having city staff help groups develop effective ways to recruit diverse members and establish training and coaching programs for prospective board members. 

Some neighborhood organizations do better than others at recruiting renters. In a neighborhood that’s about 80 percent renters, they also make up eight of the 11 current board members for the Stevens Square Community Organization, Steve Gallagher, the organization’s executive director said.

But it’s not easy to recruit them — or hang on to them once they join. Gallagher noted most of the neighborhood’s apartment dwellers move on after an average stay of between one year and 18 months, which means there’s a “very brief window” to get a volunteer commitment out of a renter, a window that may or may not line up with a vacancy on the board.

“People become involved when something concerns them in the neighborhood — maybe crime or development, or something like that,” he said.

Renters typically find out about SSCO through word-of-mouth or one of the organization’s outreach events. A door-knocking drive hit about 80 percent of the neighborhood’s apartment units this winter, Gallagher said, and in a neighborhood as small as theirs, it’s hard to miss the SSCO hosted and branded events in Stevens Square Park.

Michelle Beaulieu, a renter in the CARAG neighborhood, joined the neighborhood’s board of directors about two years ago. Beaulieu said Diana Boegemann, the board’s current president, invited her to join after the two met at a DFL event.

“I think the CARAG board is really great about that — not only in having specific spots for renters, but they are just very friendly and welcoming to new members,” Beaulieu said, adding Boegemann in particular deserved “props” for making the organization inclusive.

Beaulieu noted CARAG’s bylaws allow any neighborhood resident to vote at a board meeting, not just board members themselves. That makes it easier for time-strapped renters to participate or even just gain a foothold in the organization, she suggested.

Beaulieu said some city assistance on recruitment and outreach might improve renter participation rates.

“Neighborhood associations are small and have limited resources and opportunities to do some of the heavy recruiting,” she said. “… A lot of my friends have no idea what neighborhood … they live in.” 

In a contrast to many other neighborhoods, Kingfield doesn’t cite difficulty in recruiting renters. In fact, most new board members are renters, said board president Hetal Dalal.

“People show up at our meetings all the time who moved in three months ago and want to get to know people,” she said.

And when the newbies arrive, Kingfield board members are ready for them, she said. They intentionally keep dry meeting material to a minimum, and instead focus time on new ideas and interesting events. They recently installed beehives above the Center for Performing Arts, for example, and they’re planning an outdoor bread and pizza oven.

Dalal also hosts gatherings at her house for people considering board membership, inviting as many people as possible, serving wine, and chatting about volunteer interests.

“We always have something people can immediately get involved in,” she said.

Kingfield cites its northeast section between Nicollet, I-35W, 36th and 40th streets as historically underrepresented. So when a board member from that area departed recently, she relentlessly talked to nearby friends and acquaintances until she found her replacement.

In prior years, Kingfield’s board has included Spanish speakers willing to translate board materials and drop them off at places including Cinco de Mayo Mercado. A Spanish translator also attended a school board candidate forum last fall, though translation wasn’t needed. Dalal said she isn’t sure if those strategies have generated new volunteers, however, and said perhaps the best course of action involves working closely with the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, which staffs bilingual community organizers. Kingfield partnered with Lyndale, Whittier and Stevens Square to doorknock in a get-out-the-vote campaign last fall.

“We’re open to lots of ideas,” Dalal said. 

The Lyndale neighborhood strives to host multilingual meetings that allow everyone to communicate simultaneously as a group.

For a meeting last year regarding minimum wage advocacy, Lyndale borrowed headphones from the Corcoran neighborhood that allowed for quiet translation into a microphone. They also used the headphones last year at a job seekers’ workshop with simultaneous Spanish and Somali translation.

“We can sit together and talk to each other as neighbors,” said Taylor Rub, president of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.

The people most likely to jump for a board position tend to be middle-class homeowners, Rub said, so they have to be intentional about recruiting renters and non-English speakers. They meet new recruits through the neighborhood’s leadership development program, ESL classes and neighborhood events.

“We all commit to doing personal asks. It’s one of the best ways to recruit people who might not otherwise commit themselves for a board position,” she said.

The board roster at the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Associationhasn’t been full in at least six years. Historically the board makeup is predominantly homeowners, although today there are four renters as well.

Board chair Craig Westgate said he thinks the board does represent a good mix of different types of people, however, ranging from retired women to a single mom to a young renter. A gardening subcommittee attracts people who live around Park SidingPark, both renters and homeowners.

Westgate said he’s knocked on doors at nearly every apartment building in the neighborhood, but the board’s time commitment can scare people away instantly.

“I’m trying to fill seats,” he said. “If anybody wants to lift that finger and volunteer, they get to.”

In Lowry Hill, a neighborhood dominated by renters, it has still proven difficult to get younger, more transient renters to fill board seats, said board president Phil Hallaway. One board member manages apartments near Hennepin & Franklin and lives in one of the units, and Hallaway said he’s tried to recruit some of his renters without much luck.

“It’s really difficult. The renters just do not seem to have any interest,” he said. “All you can do is encourage them.”

— Sarah McKenzie contributed to this report