10/25/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Minneapolis Acts on Employment Equity

Minneapolis recently became the first city in the nation to adopt a resolution promoting racial equity in employment. The resolution declares that institutional racism "is a primary reason for unemployment disparities" and requires the city to take action to make sure that people of color have a fair shot at government jobs, promotions and contracts. It targets the city's 3,600-strong workforce and the $500 million it spends on contracts every year.

Councilmembers Cam Gordon and Don Samuels authored the resolution, which passed unanimously August 8, 2012.

"We heard from the community that the city better have its own house in order," Gordon explains. "If we can develop some tools that make a difference within the city's own hiring and contracting practices, that's going to be more powerful than if we try to tell others what they should be doing."

The council has set a high bar for itself, establishing three targets:
• Reduce racial disparities in employment by 25 percent by the year 2016.
• Decrease poverty rates for residents of color by 25 percent by the year 2016.
• Increase the share of people of color hired on city-funded projects from 11 to 32 percent.

Growth requires inclusion

The Twin Cities region has the worst racial employment gap in the nation, according to an analysis by Algernon Austin at the Economic Policy Institute. African-American residents are more than three times as likely as whites to be out of work and Native-American residents are four times more likely to be jobless.

In the city of Minneapolis, 40 percent of residents are people of color, but they hold only 17 percent of the jobs. Within the city's own workforce, 23 percent of jobs are held by people of color. Officials and advocates agree such inequities are potentially disastrous for the region's future.

"If you want a region to be viable and growing, you need to draw from all sectors of society, especially those that will be dominant in decades to come," said Shawn Lewis, an urban planner and advocate who played a major role in promoting the ordinance. "If you don't, the region will decline. This is not only a moral argument. It's economic."

The city took the first steps toward adopting the resolution in 2008, when it established an Equity in Employment Task Force to explore solutions to racial disparities in employment. It hired a full-time director of Employment Equity in January 2012.

Guided by the community

Years of advocacy and grassroots organizing to promote fair hiring and contracting in the Twin Cities preceded the council's efforts.

Austin's racial employment gap analysis provided the opening that local equity organizations needed to make sure the issue obtained lots of media coverage. To build on this, the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability seized the moment to bring him to the Twin Cities for a convening about the findings. They invited public officials to the meeting, and this prompted the region to take a deeper look at the issues.

HIRE Minnesota, a coalition of 70 diverse organizations and 2,000 residents, had already begun a campaign to bring the state "from worst to first" on employment equity in 2008. Responding to the coalition's advocacy, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has increased its hiring of people of color on road, bridges and transit projects by 138 percent since 2009.

HIRE actively participated in the Minneapolis City Council process, sitting on the task force and filling council chambers with its members who spoke in support of the resolution.

Other community groups have also been involved. Metro Talking Circle, a group of volunteers working to advance economic equity for African-American and Native-American communities, developed recommendations for the task force. Its report laid out three goals for the city: lead by example, strengthen workforce development and support efforts by business to hire, retain and promote more people of color.

Moving toward implementation

As a first step toward implementation, the city is developing an equity and assessment toolkit that it will use to guide its budget, policy, and program decisions. The Equity Impact Review Tool developed by King County, Washington is one model they are looking at.

The resolution also acknowledged the need for action at the regional level, and officially joined the city with the Ramsey County Blue Ribbon Commission's regionwide "Everybody In" effort to reduce racial employment disparities throughout the Twin Cities metro.

HIRE plans to hold the city accountable. "We will be in the room, reading the reports, raising questions -- if there are any," says organizer Avi Viswanathan. He is hopeful that the city's commitment to leading by example will not only be successful, but have a ripple effect that reaches private employers as well.