Summit Speaker Series: Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges on Building Equity into the City’s DNA

As Equity Summit 2015 approaches, America’s Tomorrow will showcase the work of a few of the 100-plus speakers and presenters featured at the Summit — inspiring equity leaders who are using innovative approaches to build an inclusive, thriving economy within their regions. 

During her mayoral campaign in 2013, Betsy Hodges ran on a platform of equity and growth, arguing that for a city with a rapidly growing population of color, but persistent racial disparities, the two couldn’t be more intertwined. Since taking office, Mayor Hodges has spearheaded a number of initiatives, including those within the city’s housing, transit, and educational systems, which will lay the groundwork for a more equitable Minneapolis. America’s Tomorrow interviewed Mayor Hodges, exploring how, as the city’s leader, she is weaving equity “into the DNA” of her administration.

Equity and growth have been common themes within your administration. What spurred this explicit focus on equity?

When I was campaigning, there really was this hunger to have a conversation on equity. We know that [in Minneapolis], demographics are changing and we’ll be a majority [people of color] sooner rather than later. But the way things are right now, Minneapolis has some of the greatest disparities between White people and people of color in the country and, if that continues, we’re not going to be ready for future growth and prosperity. We need to make sure that people of color are both equipped to take the jobs of the future and create the jobs of the future.

There are many people who are inspired by the moral argument that ending the racial gap is the right thing to do, but not everybody. A lot of people, however, are persuaded by the economic implications. If you look at the fact that 70 percent of the kids in our public schools are kids of color, and those are the kids who are failing, you realize that if that continues, in the future we’re not going to have the kind of educated workforce our economy depends on. To prepare us to be a city of the 21st century, we have to make sure people of color are not only in the picture, but at the center of the picture.

In practice, how does this focus on equity play out within your administration?

If you come to my office I have it written on the top of the white board: How does this move the dial on equity, how does this move the dial on growing the city, and how does this make the city run well?  Those are the three filters through which we view everything we do.

I’m trying to build equity into the DNA of the city, and to do that we need to apply focused, concentrated attention on it.  That’s why I created the Office of Equitable Outcomes, which will place a couple of dedicated staff in our City Coordinator’s Office — the most centralized body we have — and make it their job to look inwardly at how our city offices incorporate equity — into our hiring, licensing, civil rights work — and outwardly at how we can run our partnerships. When you add these staff to our Bloomberg Innovation team, which is looking to use data to help tackle some of the city’s challenges, you start to see this team of people who can make equity real for the future of the city.

What are some examples of equity-driven policies and programs that are in the works in Minneapolis?

I presented my budget a few weeks ago, and the theme of that was transforming how we do the basics in the city — from how we are doing our streetlights to our workforce programs to how we hire firefighters. All those things need to be reimagined for the 21st century.

So taking the firefighter example, our fire chief has a pipeline program to create a new ladder into fire department jobs for low-income youth and youth of color. It starts with talking to 10th graders to give them an imagination to be firefighters, then there’s curriculum in one of our high schools for it, an Explorer Program where kids can spend time on the ground with firefighters, and a new “cadet” designation that allows recent [high school] graduates to work in the fire department while they train to become full firefighters.

We are also one of the first 20 regions to join the White House’s TechHire program to connect people of color to jobs in the tech sector because we know our jobs of the future are going to be in tech and we know that people of color are not well represented there.  So [in my budget proposal], I’ve funded the program to do accelerated training in technology fields, as well as 30 scholarships for that program.

Another way we hope to connect youth of color to opportunity and employment is through our BUILD Leaders program, which is tied into our My Brother’s Keeper and Promise Zone work. Through this program, [which we’ve successfully piloted already], we will employ young men of color ages 18 to 24, who have gone in some ways down the wrong path, but are trying to get on the right path, to mentor middle school boys to help them stay off a bad path altogether.  This way, we give these young men employment, train them in a mentorship curriculum, give them job experience and skills, and create this positive loop of mentorship.

How do you ensure that these various individual initiatives or programs work in concert with one another, and not as siloed efforts within different sectors or city departments?

The work that I’m doing — the more I do it, the more it overlaps. I can see this bigger picture of where our youth violence prevention blueprint overlaps with my cradle to kindergarten initiative, which overlaps with the Promise Zone work, which overlaps with the Generation Next initiative around the achievement gap, which overlaps with the My Brother’s Keeper focus on boys and young men of color. The things that we do in any one area have a multiplicative effect on the other work we’re doing, and I’m very excited about that.  You pull a thread and you start to see that it’s connected to every other thread in the fabric.

What do you hope to gain from speaking at and attending the Summit?

I’ve done my best to move heaven and earth to be at the Summit because I know that some of the sharpest minds and most open hearts are going to be there. I know there will be good, practical, on-the-ground ideas about things I can do in my city. I also know there will be a lot of strategic thinking about the barriers we’ll face, how we manage them, and how we productively enter into a conversation on equity within our communities. To the extent that the work that we’re doing in Minneapolis and the perspective I carry as a leader — particularly a White leader doing this work — can be useful to people, I hope to bring that to the Summit so we can learn from and inspire each other.

Read the rest of the September 11, 2015 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.