Did you know the city of Columbia Heights, MN does not have an equity policy? This means there is nothing to stop your city government from all having the same skin color or the same gender. It means the people who steer and direct the city do not need to represent the diverse ethnic backgrounds we celebrate in our community. Prejudice and bias are unchecked in our system. As it stands, most City Council members don’t think twice about favoring people of their own generation, gender, or skin color.
Keeping whites in charge is nothing new
Minneapolis Minnesota is the epicenter of the worldwide calls for racial justice. It’s neighbor to the east, St. Anthony, is recognized for the murder of Philando Castile. Bordering both cities is our home: the suburb of Columbia Heights. Just look at our residents and you’ll see just about every skin color from across the globe. But you won’t find that beautiful variety in our small town government. Our many commissions and elected officials have always been predominantly white. It’s easy to assume that this is by accident; that perhaps whites are the only people who apply for such positions. But the fact is, white leaders show preference to white applicants, even when more-qualified non-white people are interested in the job.
A Tale of Two Applicants
Recently, a resident Somali man built a house in Columbia Heights. Construction involved zoning, permits, and many interactions with the city’s Planning Commission. This gentleman is very smart, diligent, and has learned to navigate the nuanced process to complete a new home for his family.
In February of this year, the Planning Commission had two expired seats that needed to be filled. Three women and six men applied for the positions, including the Somali gentleman I mentioned earlier. Like any leader, he had been actively looking for a way to build a bridge between the government and his Somali community. Because of this, he felt his experience with city building ordinances and working directly with the Planning Commission made him an ideal candidate.
Another applicant was the father of the City Council President. This particular fellow has very few qualifications when it comes to zoning, permits, or leadership. However, he makes plenty of disparaging remarks about immigrants and Muslim people on social media. Clearly, this is not the best Columbia Heights has to offer.
An Astonishing Vote
On May 21st, City Council Member Connie Buesgens saw two open seats and two opportunities to introduce some equity into our Planning Commission. Appointing a Black Somali man with such experience and background would make the government more representative of our diverse community. One seat on the Planning Commission went to a Latino man. But in a stunning upset, the other seat was filled by the Council President’s father. Each appointment is a four year term.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Because we have no equity policy, the least-qualified white man was chosen over a fully-qualified, enthusiastic, and eager Black one. As a result, we have a Planning Commission member who is prejudiced against our residents of color! Other cities have rules, ordinances, and frameworks that prevent this kind of obvious bias and nepotism. Isn’t that what we want for Columbia Heights?
I spoke with Kelly Bourgeois, our City Manager, on June 3rd about this matter, just one week after the murder of George Floyd that triggered worldwide calls for justice and equity. She confirmed that Columbia Heights does not have any policies around diversity, inclusion, or equity.
Skin Color Matters
While some may claim they “don’t see color”, the fact is our skin color is an important part of our identity. It is one way we link ourselves with our cultural background. To ignore a person’s skin color is to ignore their humanity. There is no reason why our Council and commissions should not equally represent the skin colors of our residents. But without an equity policy, systemic prejudice will continue.
On June 29th the city conducted its annual goal planning session. City Manager Kelly Bourgeois noted that the issue of diversity in government had come to her attention. I am very pleased that she plans to address inclusion and equity in city policy in the near future.
It’s time to find balance
As your Mayor I will work with our city staff to ensure that a diversity, inclusion, and equity framework is in place across all departments and appointed positions. It will include goals, training, community engagement, action planning, and key metrics that can be reported back to the public. I will follow the example of other municipalities in the National League of Cities in supporting such a program. In a town where only 64% of residents are white, Columbia Heights must not be governed, planned, or operated exclusively by white people. This is a city for ALL of us. It’s time.
I urge you to contact me with your perspectives on diversity in Columbia Heights. I want to hear your ideas on how we can address inclusion and equity together.