Democracy in Practice: From Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska

By Jake Virden

On Monday night I attended a meeting of the Minneapolis Park and Rec Board Community Advisory Committee (CAC) tasked with making recommendations to the Master Plan for the next 20 years of stewardship over Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun. A subcommittee had been formed to take a closer look at what it meant for the CAC to apply a racial equity lens while thinking about the future of the lakes, which is a part of the charge of the CAC. The sub­committee decided, after much study and debate, that a serious commitment to racial equity would start with a recommendation that the Park Board do everything in its power to restore the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska to Lake Calhoun, currently named after proud champion of slavery John C. Calhoun.

The sub­committee put together a thoughtful, concise and heartfelt presentation for the broader CAC with sub­committee members from diverse backgrounds sharing why they felt the name should be restored and how it fit within the charge of the CAC to make this recommendation. The sub­committee then attempted to take the temperature of the larger CAC by asking members to identify where they stood on the name restoration by placing dots on a continuum with Bde Make Ska on one end of the spectrum and Lake Calhoun on the other, with the option of being somewhere in the middle (this spectrum activity had been used by MPRB staff to gauge opinion on many issues relevant to the CAC, for example more development vs. preserved green space). Apparently, affording racial justice the same importance as bike trails and traffic patterns was too threatening for CAC Chair Peter Bell (former head of the Met Council) who grabbed the microphone and went on a 5 minute monologue in an attempt to shut down the sub­committee and prevent the CAC from voicing its collective opinion on our city’s decision to honor the white supremacist John C. Calhoun.

After getting some pushback while trying to derail the well organized sub­committee, Mr. Bell gave it another shot, standing up from his seat and posturing aggressively in front of the room, raising his voice to make clear that the choice was to either waste more time on racial equity or get to the serious business of allocating dollars for trails and the like. It was revealing for me to see Mr. Bell resort to bully tactics, using his appointed authority and the privilege of his political experience and loud voice to silence the subcommittee’s well researched and poised presentation. It showed me those working to stifle truth­ telling and delay racial equity must resort to intimidation and treachery to compensate for the moral and logical weakness of their position, an approach that backfired last night. CAC members and members of the public attending the meeting rose their voices in support of the sub­committee for taking the charge of equity seriously and refuting Mr. Bell’s frame to “Either address Equity or handle real business.” After 20 minutes of time wasted with the protestation of Chairman Bell, CAC members were finally able to express their position on the name, with 14 voters being in support of Bde Maka Ska, 4 people somewhere in the middle and 3 people in support of Lake Calhoun.

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I left the meeting energized and inspired by the courage of the sub­committee and with a new sense of the power of organized people in public space. The CAC meetings I have attended in the past, as well as the vast majority of Park Board and City Council meetings for that matter, have produced the opposite effect in me. Both boring and designed to exclude, they have made me want to continue the cycle of disengagement from politics that has taken root in my and many other communities. At Monday’s Lake Calhoun/Lake Harriet CAC meeting I saw passionate, everyday people interrupt the regularly scheduled program to move an issue of urgent importance, I heard Dakota women speak about the deep connection they have to Bde Maka Ska and the pain of feeling unwelcome in their ancestral homeland, I watched a European American man catalyzed by the June 17th terrorist attack carried out by a white supremacist in John Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina acknowledge our responsibility as a nation to address the state sponsored violence inflicted upon African and Native Americans and to confront the legacy of white supremacy that lives within our public institutions, I observed CAC members thoughtfully listen to the sub­committee and be won over by their persuasive arguments. At Monday’s CAC meeting I saw democracy in practice.

The democratic energy in the room Monday night put the undemocratic nature of the MPRB’s status quo mode of operation in stark relief. For instance, Park Board president Liz Wielinski has the power to appoint the Chairperson for every CAC; Peter Bell was serving as chair of the Calhoun/Harriet CAC as an appointee of Commissioner Wielinski. If it were not for the extraordinary conviction and preparation of the racial equity sub­committee, this political appointee would have snuffed the voice of the community out of the process in favor of a business as usual agenda. It is important to note that the Calhoun/Harriet region is probably the most educated and experienced area of the city when it comes to civic participation and political savvy. Would a group of working class neighbors unfamiliar with the process been able to hold out against the pressure of Mr. Bell, a former Met Council president? The disproportionate appointment power held by commissioners encourages the same cast of characters to be in the power seats in these meetings which produces the same inequitable results. Also, one of the main arguments used by Mr. Bell Monday night, and often by racial equity naysayers, was that there is not enough time to deal with race, that the limited time frame for the project means equity can not be prioritized if deadlines are to be met. A first time CAC member made the poignant observation at Monday’s meeting while refuting Mr. Bell that if there is not enough time to deal with racial equity, that more time must be made. Neglecting racial justice is not an option and that it is the unrealistic time frame allotted for community engagement by the Park Board that is the real issue. It was a breath of fresh air to hear a community member say clearly that it is the Park Board that needs to work at the pace of the people, not the other way around.

I am writing today to applaud the hard work and solid organizing of the racial equity sub­committee of the Harriet/Calhoun CAC and to hold Monday night’s meeting up as an example of what is possible when community members organize, show up and speak up. The defenders of this racially and economically inequitable status quo are counting on us to not show up and to remain silent. Monday’s meeting showed that when we show up and when we speak out, the status quo cannot compete with the bright vision of racial justice.

Jake Virden is the Parks and Power Organizer at Hope Community.

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