The departure this week of Minneapolis’ director of racial equity signals more uncertainty for a high-profile effort to address racial disparities in the city in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in 2020.
City officials plan to audit an event the director organized for a celebration of the city’s Black community after concerns about the event's funding were reported by the Star Tribune.
Tyeastia Green, former executive director of Minneapolis’ Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Department, told MPR News she was asked to resign on March 13.
Green said she’d previously offered to resign last month, but she said city officials had asked her to rescind it. A spokesperson for the city of Minneapolis said they could only share that Green’s last day of work was Monday.
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Green had been in the job — which included organizing the annual Trans Equity Summit and creating advisory groups to inform policymakers on issues of equity — for about a year. She faced criticism after the Star Tribune reported last week that she’d falsely told the Minneapolis City Council that she’d been “offered” $3 million from the Bush Foundation for the “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams Expo,” which was a celebration of the Black community on Feb. 25 that included guest speakers and opportunities for Black small business owners.
The expo eventually ended up costing taxpayers more than half a million dollars according to Green’s testimony at the Feb. 17 council hearing, including an urgent mid-February allocation of $145,000 unanimously approved by the council. Social media posts and reports from the expo show attendance that appeared to fall far below expectations of 20,000.
In an interview with MPR News, Green said she’d been referring at the council meeting to a conversation over the summer where an employee said the city could receive funding with certain stipulations: “When I said Bush Foundation offered me $3 million, I used the word ‘offer’ not ‘commit,’ because they didn't commit to $3 million, but they did make an offer.”
The Bush Foundation has denied that funding for the expo was ever under consideration. Spokesperson Kari Ruth said the foundation “did not offer or commit” funds to the expo. Ruth said that while Green did talk with a foundation staffer, that Green did not submit a proposal and “the idea was never under consideration.”
Green was not available to respond to the Bush Foundation's comments.
In the runup to the expo last month, Green said it was clear to her that some on the City Council were trying to undermine her. She said she tried to cancel the expo multiple times, only for city officials to insist that it needed to go forward. Green alleges the event was undermined partly by a lack of marketing support at City Hall.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, but I do think that it was a beautiful event,” Green said of the expo. “I know that it could have been better if I would have had the support of the city to do it.”
Then, on March 6, Green said she sent a 14-page memo to the city operations officer, the mayor and City Council members, where she described her experiences at the city as “toxic” and “anti-Black.” In the memo, Green outlined her experiences of “racism” at the city, hindrances to organizing the expo and what she called two “fake” ethics complaints against her. She also clashed repeatedly with some city council members.
“I don’t believe the city as an enterprise is concerned about having an antiracist organization,” Green said in the memo. “The city, as an enterprise, is concerned about optics.”
When Green was hired last March, the city sent out a press release packed with praise for Green from city leaders. It described the project’s goal as driving culture change at the city and aiming to “dismantle systematic disparities and institutionalized racism.”
Media organizations in Vermont, where she’d headed up a similar department for the city of Burlington, reported that Green left for Minneapolis because she felt unsupported in her role and that tensions had developed with top officials.
It’s not the first time the department or its predecessor found itself at the center of controversy.
Joy Marsh, the former director of the city’s race and equity department left her job in 2021, alleging that she’d experienced “gaslighting, marginalization and tokenism” at the city. She said in her open letter to city leaders that the city culture “centers whiteness” and harms employees who are people of color or Indigenous.
Interim City Operations Officer Heather Johnston said in a statement to MPR News that “the City is deeply aware of the toll structural racism takes on our residents, businesses and workforce.” Johnston said city officials signaled their commitment to equity by upgrading it from a division to a department and investing almost $800,000 more for its 2023 budget.
“We are committed to the success of the department. We will publicly post for a new director soon and will support the [racial equity and inclusion] staff through this transition phase,” Johnston said.
City officials are looking for more information about how public funds were used for the expo.
Council Vice President Linea Palmisano said the city auditor is planning to conduct a formal review of the expo to ensure that no fraud was committed and that public money wasn’t misused. After that, Palmisano said, they’ll likely contract with a third party for a breakdown of all expenses and accounting processes for the expo.
The city’s audit committee will then conduct a more “forward-looking” analysis of ways Minneapolis could improve their practices for events like this in the future.
“I think the taxpayers are owed answers, and there are a lot of people that are asking questions about it,” Palmisano said. “We want to make sure that people in our community, people in Minneapolis are benefiting from these events as vendors, as people that are attending, from all of the different aspects – and it doesn't feel like we hit the mark here.”
Palmisano expects to bring an auditing plan to the city’s audit committee at its next meeting on April 24.