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Podcast: Race and Equity in Minneapolis with Joy Marsh Stephens

Posted on July 3, 2020


Joy Marsh Stephens

Joy Marsh Stephens
Director, Division of Race & Equity
City of Minneapolis, Minnesota
LinkedIn | Twitter


Planning for a stronger, more equitable Minneapolis. Joy Marsh Stephens, the Director of the Division of Race & Equity for the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, joined the podcast to talk about the work her team is doing to advance racial equity and the current moment of activism around structural racism. She discussed the City’s Strategic and Racial Equity Action Plan and the policies the City is pursuing to address racial equity. She also talked about the importance of cultural change and capacity building.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

Minneapolis Strategic & Racial Equity Action Plan (SREAP)

Division of Race and Equity Website

Upswell – Centering Racial Equity in City Hall’s Response

The People Behind the Movement: Joy Marsh Stephens


Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

Hey y’all. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host. We’ve got a great episode for today. I am super excited about our interview. We’re going to talk equity in local government and we’re going to take a trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Before we get into the episode, I do want to just remind folks that the ELGL annual conference, #ELGL 20 is going digital. It will now be taking place October 12 through 16th. Details are forthcoming. But we are spreading the conference out over a full week to avoid that notorious Zoom burnout. And if you want to support GovLove, the best way to do that is becoming an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. We’re also looking for your feedback. You can visit GovLovesurvey.com and tell us a little bit about what you think about the podcast. Knowing more about you helps us make GovLove even better. That’s govlovesurvey.com. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Joy Marsh Stephens is the Director of the Division of Race and Equity for the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a position she’s been in since 2015. Her work for the city has been focused on growing the capacity of city staff to integrate racial equity into everyday decision making, business planning, the budget, strategic planning, employee engagement activities and policy-making. So with that, welcome to GovLove Joy. Thank you so much for joining us.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Thank you so much for having me.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. So we do have a tradition on GovLove to start with a little bit of lightning round, let everybody kind of warm up for the interview. So I’ve got a few fun questions to get us started. So my first one, what are you watching or are you bingeing any TV right now?

Joy Marsh Stephens

I’m actually I’m not really committed to anything on TV right now. I tend to let Netflix tell me what I’d like and I find that generally it’s right. I also find my attention span lately around TV especially like benching a show is pretty limited because life is pretty heavy. So I tend to be drawn into lighthearted movies that are about absolutely nothing at all, that can offer me some sort of an escape.

Ben Kittelson

That’s fair. The latest like Netflix offering that has allowed me to escape is This Floor is Lava show. I don’t know if you watched any of it. [Laughter] It’s very ridiculous, but it’s quite entertaining.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Yeah, I’m watching one that’s out of Australia and I’m not going to capture the woman’s name. It’s just going to escape me just for the sake of escaping me in this moment. But it’s about it’s you take these comedians and put them in a room for six hours and they are, the challenge for them is not to laugh. And so they spend this crazy this time just making each other laugh, you know, telling jokes and doing bits and all of that and the whole point of it is for them not to laugh and if they laugh then they get ejected from the room.

Ben Kittelson

Wow, that sounds right up my alley. So I have to find that one. [Laughter] All right, the next lightning round question for you. What was the first concert that you went to?

Joy Marsh Stephens

The first concert I went to was the Jackson’s Victory tours. This was Michael Jackson and his brothers. It was a first concert that they had been in together. After like several decades, I believe it was and I was in the eighth grade. And I remember convincing my mom to buy me a pair of parachute pants to wear to the concert. And my mother has always been like so super practical, especially around the wrong clothes. And so she bought them and they were like a little bit too big, which is not how you wear parachute pants what’s up but she thought I could I can grow into them, right because that’s what a practical mother does. But so it was it was great. Like we went all the way to Atlanta. I was living in Georgia at the time we went up to Atlanta into this concert and it was this great experience even with my two big parachute pants on.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Awesome. I love that. All right, and what book are you reading?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Right now I’m reading Sister Outsider by Audrey Lorde. I’m really, really drawn to fiction and nonfiction by black women, particularly that fiction is focused on our liberation. It’s just really, really drawing me in. I fundamentally believe that we heal and that if we heal and liberate black women to live true to ourselves and not be bound by patriarchy, and cisgender heteronormative ideologies, then that’s our best bet to heal the world.

Ben Kittelson

All right, my last lightning round question for you. Where do you go for inspiration?

Joy Marsh Stephens

I love being outside and experiencing nature, especially being near our natural bodies of water and birds. My love for both of them, quite frankly, represents a lot of my own healing journey. For the over the last couple of years, I’ve lived nearly my entire life up to about a year ago, afraid of both natural bodies of water and birds. And so I’ve had to do, I’ve invested some work in like moving through the trauma behind a lot of that fear. And so really being very grateful to be in a space where I can really embrace this creation and not only enjoy it, but also find a sense of healing, particularly in these last several months we’ve been battling this worldwide pandemic.

Ben Kittelson

That’s lovely. Awesome. Yeah. Um, I mean, one thing I’m always interested in hearing from folks, because I know there are so many different paths to local government, is how kind of folks ended up where they are. But I’m curious for you, how did you end up in local government? How did you end up in in the City of Minneapolis?

Joy Marsh Stephens

My storied history – getting into the City of Minneapolis was certainly not by plan. My last job was in a very private sector, a very for profit healthcare company and had been working in a lot of different types of organizations, not just the private sector and public sector but not local government, in doing enterprise change work around usually using technology as some sort of driver for institutional change. So for instance, in healthcare, it’s like how do we use technology to respond to the market demand by changing the way that our systems operate or responding to some regulatory change like the Affordable Care Act. And so I’ve been doing that work for a long time and finding a lot of value because it allowed me to use my head in my hands and ways that were very much aligned with my gifts, but I also was looking for ways to center more in my life, my values around equity. While I worked professionally for United Health Group I, on the side quote, did a lot of volunteer work. As a community organizer, I served on a nonprofit board for an organization in Minnesota. called Isaiah, which organizes people of faith to leave for greater racial equity, and a whole host of different issue areas. And I was finding a lot of passion in that work. So much passion so that I was in I was organizing a lot in the northwest suburban region of the Twin Cities area. And, and finding so much enjoyment in that one of that one of that type of work to be at the center of my life and not on the side. And so I found out about the job, this job in Minneapolis, quite frankly, from someone in the city who reached out to me and said, Hey, you should apply for this job. And I looked at it and I thought I should apply for this job. I didn’t know that this type of work, quite frankly existed. I didn’t really imagine that and even if it did exist, I didn’t necessarily imagine that I could make that leap from the private sector into the public sector and have found that the work that I had done over you know, 20 years of my career, at that time, leading large scale enterprise change was exactly the same sort of work that I’m doing here in Minneapolis, leading large scale enterprise change, still operating every single day as an organizer, still relying upon and building strong relationships inside and outside of the organization to advance equity. But having the ability to align both my head and my hands as well as my heart into this work that I get to do. So I feel very fortunate to do this work every single day. It’s taxing, and challenging, but it’s solidly the very best work I’ve ever been able to do.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, it’s like you brought these two strands kind of, of your career and your professional and personal life together into one, one job.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Mm hmm.

Ben Kittelson

For you, I’m curious, because I mean, this is a moment of activism kind of across the country. And I know, I’ve worked with folks that have been activists and then you made the transition to working in local government. What was that like for you? How did you kind of have to adjust maybe? I don’t know, your, your thought process of the city before you kind of were on the inside or did you, I guess I’m curious about that transition between kind of, you know, fighting for something on the outside and then being, you know, now on the inside and kind of having to navigate that.

Joy Marsh Stephens

No, it really is a very interesting transition coming from the outside to the inside. And ironically, I mean, I guess it’s not so much ironic. But I was fortunate to have some prior experience operating like that to some degree. While I was in my last job working in the private sector, I was also organizing, in my, quote, spare time, around corporate accountability. And so being someone who worked in the private sector, who worked in a large corporate, but still working with community around how we hold corporations accountable for greater equity, I actually it was actually an advantage to me to have that experience and so even coming into the city of Minneapolis while I did not have that municipal government experience coming in the door, I had a lot of community organizing experience, I had done equity based work in a lot of different roles both in the private sector in the public sector, through education, and some work at the state. And so I was able to bring a lot of different perspectives around how we organize and how we move racial equity based policy and how we shift culture. I believe that in order to actually advance equity, it can’t just be about staff, or elected officials or community. It’s about everybody coming to the table, and everybody playing their part to move, more transformational structural change inside of government. And so having had the experience, organizing on the outside, working in the private sector, had some tours of duty within nonprofit and now coming into municipal government, quite frankly, provides me with a much more comprehensive view of what it takes to advance more equitable policy and certainly I think equips me uniquely to do this work in a way that, that is really beneficial to both my success as well as to the people of Minneapolis. But on the point of kind of coming from the outside, I guess what I didn’t, which you also spoke to is making that switch, you give up a lot of I mean, I gave up a lot of social capital to come into the city, right. So you go from being a community based person, and then suddenly, like, you’re the quote, you’re the man, right. And like that sort of a shift is a really, really challenging shift, because you can’t, I can’t move the work the same way that I can as a constituent. The sorts of moves I can make as a person on the street is very different than the sorts of moves that I can make inside of City Hall. And so that type of a switch took some time for me to figure out how to make that so that I can be successful in this work while also not losing credibility in community.

Ben Kittelson

That’s interesting. So is there an example that like you could share about like what that difference is? Because is it, is it just maybe how, like outspoken you can be about certain issues? Or is it because, you know, you have to, you know, play to these like internal dynamics that you wouldn’t as a kind of an outside activist or, you know, if you have an example doesn’t come around, that’s totally fair. But I’m just curious. That’s a really that’s a really interesting way to think about it. They’re like the way you have to use that kind of some of that social capital. And then the way you kind of approach some issues is, is different. I don’t know if there’s something comes to mind that might be kind of enlightening for folks.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Yeah. Well, I mean, I can try to come up with a specific example. But I would just say generally, as a, as a community organizer, I, particularly as a constituent, I’m in a role where elected officials are accountable to me, like I vote for you, I put you in office, that’s a lever that I have as a constituent that I don’t have as a person. In my staff role, my work, I am here at the pleasure of our council intervener and city leadership. And so my job and my function is not so much about directing the work or trying to hold accountable city officials, but more to say they set for policy or they introduce a vision around where they want the city to go. And it’s my responsibility to advise on how we actually meet that outcome in a way that’s racially equitable, but centering the voices of black, indigenous and people of color, and also our division focuses on equity for transgender and gender non conforming residents in the city. That’s my job. It’s not so much to identify the what we’re going for but the how we get there in the way that expands equity. So it’s a really different type of shift. And it becomes, and it can become really challenging as a black woman, in this black body, working inside of a system that has historically perpetuated harm and violence on other black bodies, that sometimes the ways in which the city operates aren’t necessarily aligned with who it is that I am as a person. So operating inside of my role and my core values as an individual, there can be that delicate dance of figuring out how do I show up in this work in a way that doesn’t violate my values, and still keeps the broader responsibility of my role front and center. I’m still responsible for leading in this work and being a resource to our leadership in advancing equity. It’s still my responsibility to help guide and to direct from my position while recognizing that it’s not about these individuals necessarily being accountable to me and more of my responsibility to be of support to them and executing their vision. So it was a real different type of switch to make.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. Thank you for appeasing via kind of a tangent there. But I think that’s a really interesting, I don’t know, we don’t talk enough about that as maybe a profession of like public administration that like there are these folks that are activists and like really well versed on issues that could be, you know, super beneficial if they were, you know, working in the city, but we don’t, I think we don’t, you know, appreciate that the shift that they have to make and both in mindset and then identity if they were to do that and, and anyway, so I appreciate that. So I do want to get to our kind of the current moment and kind of what’s, what’s happened in Minneapolis and across the country, but I also want to recognize like that y’all have been kind of doing some of this work for a while. So I mentioned in the intro that you know, you’ve been in your position since 2015. Which you know, for a lot of cities they had were not thinking about or at least not seriously racial equity you know, back then, and they many did not have you know, if they do now they did not have a chief equity officer type position back then. So I’ll just kind of like cede the floor. But what is what are some of the major focus areas of like your division of race and equity and kind of the focus of the work at the city?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Sure, so that we’re in even when you say that, like 2015, like it feels like it’s a long time ago, but it also feels like I’ve literally never had another job in my life besides one that I have right now. And then it feels like it just happened yesterday. So it’s very strange, like how time works in this in this role, that the charge of the Division of Race and Equity really is around how do we support the city in advancing racial equity in our policies and our practices and the services that we deliver? So that looks like two basic kind of core functions of our work. One of them was around capacity building, right. So how do we help people understand more about what’s the role of government historically, what’s the role and how does that the role of government policy how that has impacted black and indigenous people of color in Minneapolis, the harm that that has caused, the basis behind that harm, the anti blackness, the racism and all of that, like how those structures are coming to play to result in the outcomes that we’re seeing. And then the other piece of it also for us tied to that capacity building is around deepening staff, and community understanding around anti racism. And so we’re meeting the skills which has deep roots in healing around racial trauma, and around fostering greater resilience inside of our community and then also inside of the city enterprise. So general capacity building in areas like that training, speakers, resources, building communities of support for one another, that type of work. The second bigger piece of our work, wouldn’t it and it’s largely where we, where we look to really measure like the impact and the outcome of our work, like why do we do all this capacity building is because of the policy base work that we are that we’re able to support. And so we work directly with departments, and with our elected officials who are moving some sort of policy to help ensure that we are thinking critically about the impact of that policy on our black, indigenous and people of color in Minneapolis, that we’re thinking about the impact of that policy on our transgender and gender nonconforming residents in the city of Minneapolis. And so that takes on a whole host of different views. I, for instance, an example, as I served on the steering committee for our 2040 comprehensive plan, and so was able to work and support that effort, particularly around helping to shape in the early days, how we went about our community engagement, and helping to ensure that we’re centering the voices of those who are most often not heard in the policy base moves like that, all the way up to the adoption of our Strategic and Racial Equity Action Plan, which my division primarily led that work over the course of about 18 months. So it’s both the capacity building because we want individual people to have the skills to be able to engage in a conversation about racial equity, and to be able to come to the table about racial equity and transgender equity, to come to that table, also to have the skills to be able to address racial healing and what that looks like, so that they can show up in these in, in these anti racist bodies to the work and we can shift the culture of the City of Minneapolis, all the way up to the actual outcomes of that, which is a policy that we’re moving. That’s essentially kind of the arc of what it is that we do in this division.

Ben Kittelson

So, so quite a bit. Yeah.

Joy Marsh Stephens

A little bit.

Ben Kittelson

Well, so I’m curious, the how much of like your time or kind of, you know, maybe not daily, but like, you know, across the course of the year is split between, you know, doing some of these educational and cultural, you know, shifting work, you know, training staff, compared to like, you know, I don’t know if it’s, you know, policy research or looking back at like the impacts of you know, city policies that have had on, you know, people of color and African Americans, and folks in you know, in different protected classes in the past? Or I guess what’s kind of that like, if you had to say this is kind of the, those are the big buckets, but most of my time is spent in this bucket or that bucket or are some note that that’s a very good question. But I’m just curious to kind of split maybe of your time, day to day or month to month.

Joy Marsh Stephens

For, and I’m going to speak gonna kind of like on might from the perspective of my division, like me, personally, I would say that our time is largely spent, maybe it’s 50-50. As time has gone on, we are spending more and more time engaged in the policy based work and less time in the capacity building work, not because it’s still not a lot of it, there’s just been an increase in the demand for support around the policy based measures and a lot of that is tied to the adoption of our strategic innovation and equity action plan. That put in motion, some core structural changes inside of the city on how we consider race and the work that we’re doing. And so that has necessitated us showing up differently in the ways in which we support departments. And so it’s just, it’s both increased that demand not so much that the capacity building effort has slowed down, that demand has stayed the same. It’s just that, that policy base support work has increased. And so now I would say that they’re probably fairly on par with one another as far as how much how much staff time is spent doing that work from a fight. And yeah, that’s what I would say probably. Mm hmm.

Ben Kittelson

Well, and I mean, you’ve mentioned it a couple times and I wanted to ask you about the action plan. I really enjoyed like kind of going through it and we’ll make sure to link to it and kind of the show notes for this episode, but I liked it like you kind of identified some operational things and operational strategies and policy priorities. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about what’s in there, and maybe some of the, I don’t know, the buckets that you guys have that are a part of that plan?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Yeah, definitely. So our Strategic and Racial Equity Action Plan that we fondly refer to as the SREAP, [laughter] because government needs as many acronyms as they can get.

Ben Kittelson

It’s very important.

Joy Marsh Stephens

It’s so important. Um, so this plan was birthed in late 2017 by city council action to establish the division of race and equity and part in establishing the division, they also passed two resolutions one that formed a an internal racial equity steering committee, and the second that formed an external racial equity Community Advisory Committee. These two bodies per council action were charged with developing the city’s first racial equity action plan. We’ve been as a municipality on this journey around racial equity for a long time like we have enjoyed a national reputation for being very progressive and being on the front lines of racial equity policy. But we did not have an actual plan that we could point to that says this is what we’re doing. This is how we will measure progress. This is how we will hold ourselves accountable. And this is how we invite community to collaborate with us and support us in actually accomplishing these goals. So by naming that in Council action in late 2017, it got its it got this process in motion. At the time, I also recognized the advantage of us as a city embedding this racial equity action plan into the broader strategic planning process the City Council and Mayor will do at the beginning of each council term. Knowing the complexity of what it takes as far as staff time and elected official time to do a very solid racial equity plan, I knew that the likelihood that we were going to be able to pull that off and a strategic plan and be preparing to host the Super Bowl like that was not, that was not going to happen. And that was just not going to happen in early 2018. And so we made a commitment, we made a decision internally to marry those two processes together. And so for the first time in the history of the City of Minneapolis, we have a city wide strategic plan, with direction from our mayor and city council, around our goals for the city for their Council and mayoral term that also center very squarely racial equity. The seven components of the plan are rooted in the portion of like the operational plans that are the operational goals that are identified around how we spend our money, how we diversify our workforce, how we leverage and use racially disaggregated data, and how we go about community engagement. Those four core areas, were actually identified in a broader, a broader, directional document that comes from an organization called the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. The City of Minneapolis is a member of that organization and has been since its inception. And so that organization provides direction to municipalities across this nation on how to go about embedding racial equity into your organization. And so their framing around a racial equity plan included those four areas that I mentioned, spend, workforce, data and community engagement as well as policy. So for us, we took those first four and looked at those as our operational plans or operational goals, how will we look at our own work and where will we find opportunities for us to embed racial equity more squarely in our work. On the policy piece, City Council and Mayor agreed upon taking the, of the eight goals that the city set around policy that they chose three of them, that would be our three or three policy areas of focus for that, the three areas of focus for the strategic and racial equity action plan – Public Safety, Housing and Economic Development.

Ben Kittelson

And then so the so how does the policy piece work? Is that we’re going to come up with a policy around kind of affordable housing that addresses racial equity, or is it we’re going to take a look at the housing policies we already have in place and, and rethink them in the way that we’re using a lens of racial equity does that? Does that kind of make sense?

Joy Marsh Stephens

It does make sense. And so one of the one of the values of our strategic and racial equity planning process for us this year was that we were going to choose goals that we knew that we could accomplish within the term of our city council. And so it was it was to cover the, the rest of the rest of the council term as well as overlap one year into the next council term. So we weren’t trying to boil the ocean with this plan. We weren’t trying to eradicate racial disparities with this plan. We were saying what can we discreetly do within the next three years so that we can look back and say we’ve done a thing. And so that the benefit to that for both us and for community, as well for us internally is that it allowed us to focus like this is where we’re going to focus progress. It doesn’t mean that we’re not still trying to tackle and confront racial equity in other aspects of our work. We absolutely are. We’re we’re in the process of finalizing our transportation action plan, for example, like there’s lots of things that we do in the city that aren’t reflected in this document. But for those areas that are identified in this document, what we’re saying is that we are going to look to ensure that three years from now we can look back and say, on the area of housing for example, we said specifically if we want to reduce displacement in core zip codes, 55411, 55412, 55409 those are areas that have a high concentration of both people who are low wealth, but also people of color, people who are experiencing currently lots of housing instability and are experiencing displacement. So focusing like, we know that if we look for years from now and the specific areas and we complete these specific tasks, we believe that we will have made a change. That’s how that that process works, which again, like I said, doesn’t mean that those are the only housing relating things that we care about, or that those are the only housing related areas where we’re thinking critically about race. It just means it for our strategic plan, those are the areas we’re prioritizing.

Ben Kittelson

That’s the focus for the length of the plan. Cool. Awesome. So um, yeah, our listeners should check that out. We’ll make sure that we link that in the description in the show notes for this episode. So I do want to talk about this current moment. So Minneapolis like with the killing of George Floyd is at the center of this conversation about racial equity and police reform. And I guess, um, I want to start with like for you personally like what, what has this moment and last few I guess it’s been a little over a month now have been like for you and then you know, both on a personal level and then as the person that is charged with kind of leading this racial equity work within the city, like what is it kind of meant as a professional level like, I’m like I’m kind of putting on your two hats like what has, what have these last few weeks been like for you?

Joy Marsh Stephens

I will say that, um professionally, I’ll start there because it’s easier. So professionally, this moment when there is an awakening, if you will, worldwide around the impact of structural racism on black people, particularly American descendants of slavery when I, when I see that, professionally, I’m in this moment where I’m feeling like we have the opportunity to really make some amazingly transformational change happen. As a black woman, I’m like, that is very exciting for me to be in this moment, because I have been at this work for decades, and very much want to see us capitalize upon this moment, to be very bold, and to be doing the things that we have long said we could not do, to consider solutions that we’ve said were impossible. And that’s what I see happening, in weighing is that historically, were not happening, certainly not in my lifetime. So to that end, I’m very excited about the moment. Professionally, I’m also drained because the things that once upon a time were impossible are suddenly possible. And there is an enormous amount of emotional and mental and physical energy that it takes to come in and to do this work, particularly as someone who’s in a black body, who is inside of a system that is rooted in policy and practice that is not designed for my success, and still showing up every day trying to push against a culture that is anti black, racist in its form, I mean, all of these sorts of ideologies that permeate how it is that you know the water that we all swim in every single day. So that piece of it becomes very frustrating, and very disheartening and exhausting and traumatizing and feels violent, to also be in this place where suddenly now we can do things that are different. So it’s a really strange dichotomy in this space to be in and so there’s an enormous amount of energy that I’ve had to expend for myself to be really careful about how I’m showing up in this moment because I don’t want to lose the moment. But I also want to recognize that it’s not a moment in the sense that we’re going to solve it all in some set of actions that we take right now. And then all of this goes away. All of the discomfort that people are experiencing in their body is around this reality of structural racism being on full display, like we’re not going to make a couple quick policy moves and then all of that is going to go away. Like this is really hard work. And it’s work that’s going to, to exist for a long time for us. So experiencing a lot of things, both for myself personally and even as someone who has the great fortune of leading a team of people that is primarily people who identify as black, indigenous and people of color, who identify as transgender or gender non conforming. It’s a whole host of folks who are on this team who are also experiencing this moment in ways that are similar to me and also different from me and then trying to hold that space and make sure that again, we’re taking every opportunity to be part of this time when some transformational change what can happen, but also being able to sustain ourselves because we know that this individual moment will end. But the work won’t end. And we’ll have to still figure out how we can stay inside of it in whatever way is right for us.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And then no matter, no matter the leaps you make in this time, like there will still be a lot more work left to do. Yeah.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Oh, yeah.

Ben Kittelson

Well, and I’m curious what, what’s, what’s the balance between you know, you have a more awakened community pushing for change within the city. You know, they’ve, they’ve got their own demands. How do you, how do you balance kind of what you know, now the community is, you know, more engaged than you than you would maybe ever expected or ever seen in your time, kind of doing this work. How do you kind of keep them engaged and harness that versus like, hey, we have this roadmap and we have this plan and we you know, we had this kind of like well thought out you know strategies for what we’re going to do as a you know, as a division and as a city. What’s kind of the push and pull between those two, those two pieces, I guess?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Um, Oh, you know I have that work plan that we artfully took [laughter] years to develop? Like what happened to that?

Ben Kittelson

Yeah exactly. [Laughter]

Joy Marsh Stephens

This wasn’t on my plan sorry. Um, so for now, because we, while I have a team that I adore, working with and feel very fortunate to work with every day, there are more demands on us than we have time and resource to be able to respond to so yeah, the practical reality when everything feels very much up ended by either a pandemic or the the murder of a black man in the middle of the street by you know, it’s like those, those sorts of incidents arise up and we have to really be able to confront like, what is it that I’m able to even do in this moment, despite what my work plan says, just me as an individual? So for us, we’ve had to be really thoughtful around how do we go back to our work plan? How do we go back to our value to the organization, the skill set that we have? What is it that we are charged with doing as a division? And how do we make that work really relevant in this moment? So we have a strategic and racial equity action plan that does speak specifically to things like how we improve our public safety. That’s deeply relevant in this moment. We have and thinking about what community safety looks like, and from my vantage point, community safety has a whole host of factors associated with it, which is not just about policing. It’s about you know, how livable is my community, what’s the opportunity inside of my community? And then we inside of the City of Minneapolis, thinking about who are the people who work here? And how are we making our own investments into community through the ways in which we spend our dollars, the ways in which we engage people in community, the ways in which we use racially dis aggregated data to measure our success, like everything about this moment is very much reflected in the strategic plan that we have as a city. And so it’s less about finding new work for us to do or bring on new work for us to do and more about making sure that the current work that we have that people don’t lose sight of it, right that those departments who are now rallying are maybe being impacted differently than we’ve been impacted. But they don’t lose sight of the fact that we have a set of goals and we need to be continuing to center those goals and centering our racial equity analysis in the work that we’re doing.

Ben Kittelson

So it’s keeping those plates in the air that you guys had already planned out, and then kind of maybe I don’t know, my metaphor, my or my metaphor might fail me. But giving bigger plates for the areas where maybe there’s more room to make progress on now.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Yeah. And well, and I think also reminding people of all of the capacity building that we’ve been doing and reminding them that even in this moment when it feels like everything has been turned on its side, that what we’ve taught you is still relevant. What we’ve taught you about how to think critically about race is still relevant in this moment. When that, when the initial stay at home orders were happening in Minnesota, we had to do some pivoting, a little bit of pivoting within our work around our racial equity impact analysis process that we had just started rolling out for staff. And we said, we know that decisions are going to be made really quickly. We still want to make sure that people have what they need in order to consider race, intentionally in the middle of that very quick decision making process and so we created a more streamlined process for them to do that, that also works alongside of the more robust process that we use generally within our legislative process in the city. So it’s again, it’s it’s not so much about like it’s about one, how do we make sure that that people recognize that the work is still relevant to what we’ve taught them along the way is still important for them to be utilizing. But sometimes we may need to make some adjustments in order to utilize those tools because other factors are at play, like a worldwide pandemic, for example.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Well, and umm, I know when, in places I’ve worked, some of the hardest to change departments are public safety, whether it’s a police department or sheriff’s office, or, or whatever the entity is. And so what’s been kind of your ability to get to impact the police department, you know, prior to the current moment, compared to maybe now the openness of policymakers and others to take a hard look at the police department now? Has that change over time, is the moment as I assume it, different than that has been in the past or have you been able to kind of make progress with the police department previously?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Um, I would say that every city department has its own, um, have their own sorts of hurdles to overcome in order to engage in racial equity work, while it is a core value of the City of Minneapolis and it is something that we believe needs to show up in the decision making process period. And that level of thinking in that lens and approach to people’s approach to their work is critical all the time. That’s that can, that can very quickly be perceived as something that’s outside of quote, my job to do and so there’s always going to be there. So there has always been some sort of a challenge in working with any department, not just the police department, which is not what I heard you say, but just want to name that every department has its own work to do to get there. And a lot of that is just because every person has their own work to do in order to get there. And so that process is not as much as I would love for it to be seismic. As far as the outcomes and the change, it’s just not always necessarily the case. With regard to the police department, we have had experience in our work with the police department because we support all city departments. Our police chief currently serves as a member of the racial equity steering committee. For the City of Minneapolis, we have the police department as a core department with the Strategic & Racial Equity Action Plan as well. So we have had opportunities to work with the police department. We’ve worked with the police department as well with some of the work that the Office of Violence Prevention has done and so being able to support some of that strategizing work that that departments done. So yeah, we have had opportunities in the past. I would say currently, I don’t know that we have fewer opportunities to work with them than we had previously. Yeah. And those opportunities still exist, where they are, you know, folks are pretty busy. Folks are pretty busy.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, that’s fair. And I’m curious, this is maybe, a little off topic, but I’m curious, like, something I’ve been thinking about a lot is kind of, like, Why did it start? Why did this moment kind of start in Minneapolis? Like there’s, there’s so many instances of, of this across the country. And, you know, there were there were other instances of, you know, police killing black people, like, across the country, you know, right before George Floyd, and I’m curious what your perspective is, and maybe this is not something you want to answer and that’s totally fine. But was, you know, was this just hey, Minneapolis was, you know, kind of not to say the wrong place at the wrong time. But kind of in, this was the moment, it could have been maybe anywhere and it happened to be Minneapolis or is it because the city has done and not just the, you know, the City of Minneapolis, but the community in the city has done a lot of thinking and reckoning with, you know, racial equity and kind of some of this in some of this, like reckoning with some of these inequalities, because I know you guys, the city has done a lot of work in that and you’ve talked about some of the community activism around that. Was it kind of, did that kind of work, prime the pump to, to start demanding kind of more progress on this front. And I don’t know, maybe that’s a little more. I’m just curious, in your perspective on whether like, you know, was this kind of the, is this moment, kind of the result of some of the work that, you know, folks have laid the groundwork for and kind of done, you know, in the years leading up to, you know, the summer or was it kind of, you know, there’s maybe it’s not there’s not correlation, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. And I’m just curious what you think.

Joy Marsh Stephens

I think there’s a lot of factors that contribute to why Minneapolis and why now. Certainly the fact that folks were tired of being in their houses and had run out of things to watch on Netflix, there’s like that wish not to be like crass, but I feel like people had a lot of freedom to pay attention that they didn’t have before. And, to your point, yes, there were several, several police involved killings that happened just prior to George Floyd. One of the things that makes Minneapolis I think, unique, in addition to folks having a lot of time on their hands, due to COVID is that we have had community based groups organizing around police reform for a long time. So the conversations that we’re having right now around things like reform, or dis-invest, or defund or abolish, or wherever people are in the whole spectrum of ideas being shared, these are not new ideas. These groups that are galvanizing in this moment have been actively working towards lifting up these platforms for a long time. So, and because, and because we have a very active constituency in Minneapolis, anyway, um, there is, there is something to say about this moment, and being able to in this moment for these groups to, again, elevate the importance of these specific factors. I think in addition to that, because of who Minneapolis is, because of the council that we have, because of the mayor that we have, because we have a strategic and racial equity action plan, because we have elected officials who are very, very vocal about their support of racial equity, it does create a very unique opportunity in Minneapolis for the level of energy in response to this critical moment to be much larger than we might find in some other areas, as well. And so there is a, there’s just that. Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of factors that that could potentially contribute to this outcome. I also like to believe that even though this has been a, an especially challenging time for us as a city, um on it for a whole bunch of different as a city, not just like city municipal government, but as a community, as people in this community who love Minneapolis and call Minneapolis home and want to find a path forward that’s more, find a pathway forward that’s more, either transformational or reformational or however, people want to look at this specific matter about policing and community safety, that despite the fact that it’s been very challenging, it’s also a space where I believe we can navigate this. Like we have a history of constituents rising up of demanding change and responding to change. And sometimes that response from the external perspective is where it needs to be. And sometimes it doesn’t go far enough. But we have this. And we have the uniqueness of this unspoken sort of relationship established between government and community in which we are accustomed to doing this dance with one another. So to that end, I feel like the fact that it is Minneapolis means that we have the ability to really just not only make it through this moment, but actually make it through this moment and do something really amazing in the process of it as long as we continue to stick with it. And that’s because of who we have both on the elected side and in community and the necessity of all of those players working together to get to that outcome.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, it’s like the, the work and the activism done in the lead up to this moment allows you to kind of take it, not take advantage of it, but use it to make progress and kind of make real change. Because yeah, I totally agree that the place, I mean, the last place, the last local government I worked for was the City of Durham, and we had a huge conversation about reforming and, you know, and activists brought up defunding the police last, you know, part of the last summer’s like budget cycle. And so it wasn’t like new ideas. It was like there’s just this new energy around them in a way that’s kind of that you’re kind of going to go back to the beginning of our conversation is exciting and, and tiring and yeah, so.

Joy Marsh Stephens

I would also say that I mean, one of the things that everyone has experienced with COVID is a grieving of freedoms and liberties, of normalcy and whatever that looked like. And so you have an entire nation of people who are deeply grieving even the freedom to do what feels like very simple things like have my haircut, get my nails done, go have dinner with my family, like not have to cook three meals a day for myself, like those sorts of that grieving process that people are experiencing and experiencing that, recognizing that, that the loss that they’re experiencing is also at the hands of government, quite frankly. And so then on top of that, what you see is government in a video that’s horrifying to watch, you see this video or you see these images or you hear about this experience of government, as represented by police saying exacting harm on someone’s body in a way that it’s like another stripping away of both life and liberty and the trauma that’s associated with all of that. So people are already in this deep sense of trauma and the sequence of mourning and grief. And now by this by the hands of government and already over it, quite frankly and then now seeing this on even greater to display I believe triggers for a lot of people this reaction, not to say that people were indifferent or did not care before or would not have cared about someone losing their life in that way. But I just, but I do believe that the state, the emotional, mental, physical state that so many people were in prior to George Floyd’s murder really did create an environment in which the response to seeing that but very different and and set off like dominoes across the nation and across the world of people saying yes, I really am tired of government being oppressive. I really am tired of seeing this in this way and in creating this openness to actually for many, for the first time, experiencing the weight, the full weight of structural racism on black bodies.

Ben Kittelson

In kind of doing research for this interview, I watched most of a panel that you did for up, so I might I might admit to fast forwarding through the parts that you weren’t speaking for, but [laughter] I won’t tell the other guests if they come on GovLove, but you mentioned that, while the current moment is focused on police reform, the challenges of structural racism are much more intersectional. And so, I’m curious, like, you know, we’ve talked a lot about kind of what’s informed this moment and kind of, and, you know, this, again, this phrase is coming to mind, but taking advantage of and making progress, you know, in this time, because there’s this appetite for it. What are some, maybe some other things that if you’re, you know, a person that works for a city that wants to, you know, add to this conversation, something, you know, other than police reform, like what, what are maybe some things that folks should be considering or local government should be, I don’t know grappling with along with the conversation around policing?

Joy Marsh Stephens

So I thought structural racism isn’t, um, it’s not issue based you know, right. It’s not just like, oh, structural racism equals policing. No, it’s much broader than that. And so, because structural racism is fundamentally rooted in the belief that black and American Indian people primarily are the least valuable, the least humane and deserving of whatever social and economic outcome systems produce, be that housing instability, income inequality, chronic disease, poor educational outcomes, all of it, like the list goes on. Like those individuals, these communities of which I’m a part of, are deserving of those outcomes. That’s kind of the social narrative around black and American Indian people in America and, and the way that systems operate, be it policing or the investment of public dollars or the dispensation of government services that these are only manifestations of that fundamental anti black, anti American Indian sentiment. And so it’s mindsets that formed this nation, and are the undercurrent of policy and practice that is still very much alive in society today. And so if we don’t solve, and we don’t solve for any of that, by simply changing, and I say simply because it’s not that simple. But we don’t we don’t solve for any of that by changing policing. And it’s not so much that we need to start, to not be talking about these topics. We do. We need to be talking about policing, we need to be talking about public investment of dollars, we need in you know, to support small business growth, we need to be talking about all of those things. But until we start actually talking about the fundamental undercurrent and ideology beneath them, until we start doing that level of both understanding and capacity building and healing and addressing those harms, and building in the measures that help us to make sure that we’re checking for that and the ways in which we’re making decisions then we’re not actually going to get to the outcomes that we that we say we want to get to by change, by simply changing a policy. So it’s not so much that we need to be talking about new topics. In addition to policing, it’s just that we need to be talking about all of them all the time. They’re all deeply intersectional. And we can’t afford to be so hyper focused on policing, that we forget the fact that, that so many people are going to be, fall over this financial cliff when the additional $600 in, in unemployment support runs out at the end of July. We can’t lose sight of the fact that so many people are going to be have their housing disrupted when any sort of moratoriums on evictions go away. Like we can’t be so hyper focused on one thing that we forget that all of this up is all tied together. And the basis for all of these policies in the first place, which I believe wholeheartedly to be an anti black and an anti American Indian sentiment that every other community of color racial ethnic group is caught up in but that the outcomes for them are not as stark as they are for black and American Indian people.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, and I’ve been slowly making my way through Abraham Kennedy’s stand from the beginning and he talks about these like ideas that inform a kind of filter through the way people talk about issues and the way we, you know, ultimately what informs and impacts policy. And without, so, yeah, you’re right, like it’s not it’s not just saying hey, we got to think about planning now or, or Parks and Rec, you know, community, the community centers, it’s like, what are we are we taking a critical lens and thinking about you know, structural racism in all of our aspects and, and trying to make change there. Um,

Joy Marsh Stephens

Well, and that’s what I honestly believe is the is the one of the best values that the division of race and equity in Minneapolis brings to the table. So we definitely care about issue based work that departments would like that’s their, that’s their lane. The Community Planning and Economic Development Department in the city, it’s your lane to be thinking about things like economic inclusion, about supporting housing and small business. I was like, that’s your work. Our work is not leaving those pieces of it. Our work is about supporting you and making sure that as you’re doing that work, you have the tools that you need and the feel you have the skills that you need in order to think critically about the impact of your work on black, indigenous and people of color. Like we’re here to help support those efforts. Regardless of what sort of policy people are trying to move, we want to make sure that that policy results in outcomes that benefit black, indigenous and people of color. Because we all have to be doing it. We can’t all just say like, well, now the police are up in 2020. They’re the ones that we are focused on, and everybody else can take a beat. Nobody can take a beat.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, and it can’t be oh, it’s you know, it’s Joy’s job and her team that she, they’re the equity people. It’s everybody’s got to have ownership and, and use the tools that you provide within their day to day work.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Yeah, exactly.

Ben Kittelson

I’m curious, I’m one thing for this work I’d like there’s a, there’s a, you know, applying it to the current world and thinking about how policy currently affects people and then there’s also like, how do you address the history that a lot of cities have around you know, segregation and you know, systemic racism and these in these like decades old wrongs that yes, the current people in the jobs or the current policies are you know, are not may not be resulting in anymore but there’s still these like, like these this historical legacies, like I’m, what’s your perspective on like, how do we, as local governments kind of, do we tackle that or can we only control kind of the current moment or like what what’s been kind of your thought your thought around dealing with the history versus like, maybe making sure the current, the way we currently do work is, it takes into account racial equity and address the systematic racism.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Um, I believe that there’s no…

Ben Kittelson

I’m asking you all the hard questions today. [Laughter]

Joy Marsh Stephens

No this is great. This is really great. Um, on a side note, I ran for office a few years back until like, I’m used to, like, I’m used to getting the hard questions without anybody like sending them to me ahead of time. So that’s why we’re there. Um, the, the piece around, you know, do we reckon with the past or do we just sort of like, move forward from this moment? I, I believe we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the past. I don’t want to dwelling on it. I don’t want us to be so deeply rooted in the past that we lose sight of the fact that we do need to make some forward progress. But there definitely needs to be a reckoning with the past because the past very much shows up in what we see today. It’s very much relevant in the, in the policies and the culture that we have inside of the city, like, how did we get here and understanding how we got to where we are helps to ensure that we don’t get there. We don’t go back there to that place. And it’s the naming of that and the reckoning of that, that helps us be able to move forward effectively, because I don’t know that we fully understand the current moment without first understanding the past. And if we don’t understand the past, and we don’t understand why we have the deep disparities that we have right now.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, and for some cities, like the past isn’t on that path, like, like, yeah, and or it’s, you know, your It was your, your father or your grandfather or your grandmother. Like they, they, they like were immediately impacted by some of these policies and, and so it’s not like, it’s not even that long ago that some of this history is was made, I guess. All right, so I’ve got one more question for you and then we’ll kind of get on to wrapping up the our interview. What’s kind of next for you? What do you, what do you kind of see on the horizon and I know obviously we’re in kind of this, this very heightened and heated moment around racial equity but and so maybe you can you can think about it in different ways of whether, how do you build on it or what’s once this moment is over what what’s next but for you kind of what do you kind of see on the horizon or what’s kind of your next plans for the division of race equity in Minneapolis?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Um honestly, I feel like what’s next for the division of race and equity is our own degree of reckoning with the fact that certainly yes, we are in a hyper activated state right now around policing and that is going to absorb a lot of energy both from our team, from my team, the enterprise, the community are like there’s like that is going to that’s going to absorb a lot of energy. For us, it’s a matter of I think, recognizing that this is not the last time there is going to be a high energy moment that’s going to be demanding, and it may not look exactly like this, you know, there’s some uniqueness to this moment. But, but this is not, this is not some unicorn, right. We will have to, we will, we will need to figure out as a division, we’re pretty small in numbers, we run with a pretty lean budget. Like how do we structure ourselves in a way that we can really, really make sure that we are being impactful to the enterprise both in the perspective of capacity building and supporting policy based work in a way that does not cost us more emotionally, physically and mentally than we have the ability to do. So there needs to be some work on our end as a team just internally to figure out how we structure ourselves to be able to be responsive, and impactful in the moment, while not losing ourselves entirely burning out all of the things. So that’s about I think is most immediately for us, which is a very like for us internally. The other piece for us that’s more external, is we have been drawn into some of the Community Safety work that the city is doing and finding it as a, I’m finding it I don’t want to speak for my team, but I am finding it has a really unique opportunity for us to elevate some of the work that we’ve been doing for the last three years on embodied anti racism. We’ve invested a tremendous amount of resource and time internal to the city, and equipping staff to understand embodied anti racism, building an abolitionist culture inside of the city around racism, building community with one another. These sorts of skills that the staff who’ve been part of this work have had gained is being is is increasingly valuable, particularly in moments like this. And so for us, as we’re engaging in our roles around the community safety work or other aspects of our work, one of the big opportunities in front of us is how we expand that, how do we continue to increase that culture and the numbers of people inside of the city enterprise who are part of that culture, of building that community, so that we have more and more people who have the skills to understand those embodied practices, the cultural sematic practices, what am I experiencing? What is racial trauma look like? How is it showing up in my body? How am I living in community with other people who are also doing the work to understand this and supporting each other particularly operating inside of a system that is fundamentally racist, and it’s in its origins, and oftentimes in its practices today, and so and so learning how to seize this moment as a way to deepen that work and draw more people in, is a critical step for us in actually doing that deep, deep work of transforming who the City of Minneapolis is, internally as an enterprise and becoming a much more trauma informed and trauma aware organization.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, this talk has been very inspiring, and you’ll have to come back and give another update.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Ok. Sure.

Ben Kittelson

In two months maybe. [Laughter]

Joy Marsh Stephens

I tried to get my team members to come with me and they’re like it’s crickets chirping. I was like, hey, we can do this podcast together and nobody said anything. I’m like, whatever, that’s fine.

Ben Kittelson

Well, this is a great, um, my last question for you. Um, we have another tradition that we let our guests pick our exit music. So if you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick to close out this episode?

Joy Marsh Stephens

Kendrick Lamar. We’re gonna be all right. We’re gonna be all right. Yeah, we are, I like I said earlier, I believe that there is there’s something unique about Minneapolis. Even though these challenges are really challenging, the people that we have and residents and electeds and staff like we, we are the people to navigate this and to make something really transformational happen. And so we are going to be okay, we’re going to be okay.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. So I hope some of my listeners, some of the listeners will join me in moving to Minneapolis now. [Laughter]

Joy Marsh Stephens

Come on!

Ben Kittelson

That ends our episode for today. Joy, thank you so much for coming out and talk with me. I really appreciate your time and your perspective.

Joy Marsh Stephens

Absolutely. Thank you for the invitation. Appreciate it.

Ben Kittelson

Cool. And for our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at elgl.org/govlove, or on Twitter at the handle @govlovepodcast. The best way to support GovLove is by joining ELGL. Membership is $40 for an individual for 20 bucks per student. You can also sign up your whole organization. Subscribe to GovLove on your favorite podcast app. If you’re already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. Help us spread the word that GovLove is the go to place for local government stories. And with that, thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

 


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