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Advocates: $35M a good first step in closing Minnesota race gap

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Jeff Hayden
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, championed the funding package in the Senate.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP 2014 file

Lawmakers and nonprofit groups are applauding the $35 million approved by the Legislature to fund programs to help people of color. But some caution it will take much more to close Minnesota's racial disparities.

If signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, the money will be divided among more than a dozen nonprofits and state and county agencies providing job training programs, education, small business assistance and other services to low income and people of color.

At the beginning of the session, the governor proposed spending $100 million of the state's budget surplus to combat racial disparities. 

"We felt it was our job to actually start to do something to alleviate the underlying issues that I think we're seeing around people of color," said state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who championed the funding package in the Senate.  

The gaps between communities of color and white Minnesotans appear in nearly every measure of quality of life. A Metropolitan Council report released earlier this year found black Minnesotans lag behind whites in the areas of home ownership, employment and hourly wages. 

Other communities of color face similar disparities. 

American Indians face high unemployment and low high school graduation rates. Nearly $900,000 in the spending bill will be split between the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis and another group which helps Indians outside the metro area, particularly in adult education and job training.

Joe Hobot, CEO of the Indian opportunities center, thanked the governor and Legislature for taking a positive step to address the problems that plague American Indian communities. But he warned against expecting too much from the money.

"This isn't going to be a one-time infusion that is going to make, particularly for the American Indian community, several centuries of disparities disappear overnight," he said.

Hayden agrees that reducing racial disparities will take ongoing investment. He said lawmakers committed to spending another $35 million in the following years.

Meanwhile, he added, the nonprofits receiving funds can help people in ways that create positive ripples throughout their communities.

One of those groups is Twin Cities Rise! based in north Minneapolis. The nonprofit will use some of the $1.2 million in funding it will receive to continue a partnership with Metro Transit that trains mostly men and women of color in bus maintenance.

"When they exit that training at Hennepin Tech College, they'll be stepping into $50,000 a year diesel mechanic jobs with full benefits," Twin Cities Rise! CEO Tom Streitz said of the year-old program.

Those jobs have a multiplier effect as people who were previously unemployed or underemployed earn more money, Streitz added.

"Our proposition is really simple," he said. "We are going to produce a really great employee for an employer. And then, in turn, this individual is going to make great money, get their family back in many cases and then pay taxes and contribute to society and improve the community and we've done that thousands of times."

Unlike past efforts to address disparities, Streitz said this legislative funding package is more focused than past efforts and so has the potential to make a significant impact.