‘Opportunity to make history’: Communities of color look to lawmakers to close gaps

Young children watch a man signing a document
People watched as Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill making Juneteenth a state holiday on Friday, Feb. 3 at the Minnesota Capitol.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Earlier this month, Black community leaders and lawmakers packed the governor’s reception room.

After years of seeing their bills hit a wall at the Capitol, they looked on as Gov. Tim Walz signed into law proposals to outlaw discrimination based on a person’s hair and make Juneteenth — the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. were emancipated — a state holiday.

For many, it was a long-awaited step. And just an introduction of what the next few months could hold.

“This is no landing space. This is a launching place,” Reverend Alfred Babington-Johnson, president of the Stairstep Foundation, said. “This is a journey just beginning.”

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After the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd laid bare stark racial inequities in Minnesota when it comes to income, home ownership, health outcomes, safety and academic opportunities, Black communities leaders said they see this as a moment of hope.

With a record number of people of color and Indigenous lawmakers serving at the Capitol, a DFL trifecta in control and a $17.6 billion budget surplus on the table, many said the state could take meaningful steps to support communities of color.

“This is an opportunity of focus, of leverage, and an opportunity to make history,” Babington-Johnson said. “There is a time when we ought to be at the table helping to design the responses and to decide how the resources are distributed. That's this kind of time. We need to build on this.”

Four people stand at a podium
DFL Rep. Cedrick Frazier, center, discusses his bill to restore voting rights to people with felony records who are out of prison. He's flanked by Rep. Ruth Richardson, right, House Majority Leader Jamie Long and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, all DFLers.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Starting last year, Education Department Deputy Commissioner Stephanie Burrage brought together more than 100 Black community leaders to discuss what the state could do better to address their needs. And in the months since, more than 650 leaders have joined the “Mind, Body and Soul” group meetings.

Based on that feedback, the Walz Administration put forward a budget that would take into account some of their concerns.

“Black Minnesotans wanted a consistent voice at the table. They wanted to see tangible changes and not just discussion,” Burrage told reporters last week. “They want to see resources made available to the communities at large.”

The governor proposed setting up an Office of African American Health, as well as an Office of Missing and Murdered African American Women, creating a first-generation homebuyer program, increasing grant funds aimed at bringing more teachers of color into classrooms and kickstarting a state program to give workers paid family and medical leave.

Some of those proposals are set to come up in legislative committees for consideration this week.

And those efforts, along with others, have generated new optimism among groups promoting equity and inclusion.

“We hear a sense of hope that this is our moment, our moment to continue to move forward, our moment to say that Minnesota is not only the epicenter of pain and crisis, or awakening about racism,” Tawanna Black, founder of the Center for Economic Inclusion, said. “But that Minnesota can become that epicenter for deep systemic policy change.”

Members of the legislative People of Color and Indigenous Caucus see it that way, too. After years of divided government, they said that lawmakers could now prioritize efforts to address disparities and to combat systemic racism. 

Members earlier this month identified dozens of priorities, including spending 20 percent of the state’s budget surplus to fund investments in underserved communities.

“History has shown that when we do not invest in our communities and we continue to delay by delivering on their needs, we set our people up for failure,” Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis, who co-chairs the House POCI Caucus, said. “But this session we want to significantly rectify that proposition and set our communities up for success.”

Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, previously chaired the House Select Committee on Racial Justice. She said she’s hopeful that her proposals to create a state paid family and medical leave program, add grant funding to support victims of trauma from government sponsored activities and increase training and education to aid healthy birth outcomes for Black mothers will have a path forward this year.

But Richardson said it will likely take longer to address deeper issues.

“When George Floyd was murdered, it dawned on me that we have been experiencing this public health crisis of racism that has taken many lives and we've never stopped as a community and said, ‘We need to address this,’” Richardson said. 

“It has taken decades to get to the space where we see Minnesota has some of the worst outcomes when it comes to disparities within our Black and brown communities,” she continued. “And we're not going to get out of this space in one session with a one time money investment.”

Person talks at podium
Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, spoke at the signing ceremony for the PRO Act. Richardson is also CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

DFL leaders at the Capitol have supported the POCI Caucus and have expedited proposals to allow residents to get driver’s licenses no matter their immigration status, to restore the vote to those convicted of a felony who have served out their prison time, and to outlaw racial discrimination based on a person’s hair style or natural texture.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she’s backed broader efforts to address racial disparities in past years but the political composition at the Capitol stifled that. But now, there’s a path to “bake” equity efforts into budgets and legislation more broadly, she said.

“What we're trying to do — and it will be some work to accomplish — is to make sure it's the butter in the batter, it is not the frosting on top, so that when we put together the E-12 budget, and the higher education budget and the health and human services budget, that we have equity baked into all the things that we're doing,” Hortman said.

At least some of the measures have faced opposition from Republicans at the Capitol, who’ve said they’d likely have unexpected ramifications. 

Person speaks at a podium while a room full of people sit
House Minority leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring speaks during the first day of the 2023 legislative session, Jan. 3 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, is the first Black Minnesotan to lead a legislative caucus. And she said the state should focus on improving quality of life for all Minnesotans, regardless of their background.

“Instead of pushing other things forward, in the effort of equity, let's give people the basics,” Demuth said, naming a strong education and ability to read at grade level as examples. 

“It's not a certain group of people, but it's overall, for the entire state,” Demuth said. How we can make our state stronger, better, more affordable, and the place that people actually want to come back to and stay instead of moving out.”

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, is a co-chair of the House POCI Caucus, and he said the disparities require specific solutions.

“When you start to cure these inequities and these disparities it helps lift up everybody,” Frazier said. “It will make the entire state better for everyone in Minnesota.”

MPR News Correspondent Brian Bakst contributed to this report.