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Why Did Almost Everyone Quit at Minneapolis’s Division of Race & Equity?

"The city runs good people off," a former staffer says.

Jeramey Jannene via Flickr

A curious update appeared in a city of Minneapolis newsletter earlier this year. Authored by the Division of Race & Equity‘s lone remaining employee, it read, “You also haven’t heard from us much in general because most of the staff in the Division of Race & Equity have left, and we don’t have new staff hired yet.”

On March 2, the city announced the hiring of the department’s new executive director, Tyeastia Green. News reports highlighted Green’s immediate need to “replenish staff” due to “recent turnover.” Pre-pandemic, nine staffers worked at the Division of Race & Equity, the city’s five-year-old department that’s tasked with dismantling “systemic disparities and institutionalized racism” in a deeply unequal city.

What happened? An ex-worker, who we’ll call Jordan, agreed to tell Racket on the condition of anonymity.

“I don’t know if it was coordinated… We could not withstand it anymore,” Jordan says. “The city will always say, ‘Well, the police officers are your coworkers.’ Well, the police officers are killing my community, they’re literally killing our babies. Coworker or not, there’s nobody being held responsible. We encountered resistance in really trying to make a difference.”

Members of the old Division of Race & Equity staff, most of whom were people of color, overwhelmingly cited the city’s failure to adequately address police killings as their main reason for departure, Jordan says; the bulk of the exodus occurred in mid-2021, though it started shortly after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

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The department didn’t keep its frustrations secret. Interviews with concerned Division of Race & Equity workers, past and present, were included in a grant-related August report, which was shared outside the department—all the way up to Heather Johnston, the interim city coordinator. In it, one worker was asked whether it’s possible for the city to help heal fallout from “racist violence.”

“No,” they responded. “If the city continues to block, barrier, and bruise the staff—city employees themselves—attempting to right the city’s wrongs.” Under the section header “Insidious City Culture,” another worker said, “That’s a culture inside of the city that is so awful. It’s oppressive, it’s traumatizing, it’s awful and the players are upholding the culture.” The report called for additional training, increased support, and “a clear vision for what success looks like.”

Under Green, a Minneapolis native and Black woman, the Division of Race & Equity will rebuild to 4.5 staffers. Currently, it’s just the new director and the worker who wrote the newsletter update. Green held a similar leadership position in Burlington, Vermont, and beat out around 60 candidates vying for the Minneapolis job.

Racket asked a city spokesman for comment on Jordan’s assessment of the department. They provided the following statement from Green, who started Monday.

“This is my first week as director of the Race & Equity division. As such I cannot comment on the history of the division over the past couple years,” Green says. “What I can say is my goal is to create a division focused on ensuring race is not a determining factor in any measurable outcome and making sure equity is built into the fabric of city operations.”

Without dramatic and concrete policy changes to the Minneapolis Police Department, Jordan says, meaningful change from within the city will be difficult. A toxic culture, they say, is too ingrained, noting the hypocrisy of the city paying lip service to racial equality while ignoring calls for change from the Division of Race & Equity.

“The city runs good people off. It has nothing to do with the people who are trying to make a change,” Jordan says. “This is bigger than us; we were a microcosm of what was happening across the enterprise, because we saw people leave the Civil Rights Department, we saw people leave other departments en masse—and mostly Black women.”