From Colorblind to Race Conscious: Two very different sets of metrics

By Jake Virden

Parks and PowerAs the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) announces it has been ranked the #1 park system in the country for a third straight year by the Trust for Public Land, now is a good time to share some observations from our perspective as the Parks and Power community campaign engaging the MPRB on issues of racial and economic justice. This is the third year in a row that the MPRB has received the #1 ranking in the country from the Trust for Public Land and, frankly, its getting pretty boring. The response from Parks and Power to this ranking has been consistent over the past two years that the MPRB has been boasting of its champion standing, if we add metrics that take into account race and economic factors we get far from a perfect “5 bench” score.

This PR campaign by the Trust for Public Land and the MPRB is another version of the colorblind narrative of the “Minneapolis miracle” that erases the struggles of communities of color and poor people in the Twin Cities. The Trust looks at three areas to rank park systems for its ParkScore Index:

  • Acreage (total park land/median park size)
  • Access (% of residents in walking distance to a park)
  • Facilities and Investment ($ per resident)

These metrics completely ignore the social geography of the cities and park systems they evaluate, perpetuating the colorblind myth that people from all racial and economic backgrounds have the same relationship to public resources. If the Trust for Public Land and the MPRB were serious about evaluating the benefit of our park system for the public good they would incorporate measurements that take into account history, power and the experience of the people that live near and use park land. What is different about this year is that, thanks to the persistent effort of neighborhood leaders pushing the MPRB to prioritize racial equity, there is an example of race conscious metrics being developed at the MPRB that point toward a new way of doing business.

Colorblind vs. Racial Justice Perspectives

At the April 20, 2016 meeting of Park Board Commissioners, MPRB staff presented a racial equity based criteria system for allocating money to come from the City of Minneapolis and MPRB’s 20 year Neighborhood Parks Plan. MPRB staff have developed criteria used to assign points to various parks, the parks that get a higher number of points are prioritized for rehabilitation. What is new, exciting and promising about these metrics is that they are race conscious, which is to say they take into account the generations of oppression, disinvestment and disenfranchisement of communities of color by both the public and private sectors and have the explicit goal of directing resources in a racially equitable manner. This criteria system is rooted in a racial justice framework, as opposed to the criteria used by the Trust for Public Land, which perpetuate a colorblind framework.

A colorblind framework pretends as if race has not been a determining factor when making investments and setting public policy. A colorblind approach does not see the dramatic disparities in living conditions between white, affluent residents and communities of color and low wealth European Americans. A racial justice framework consciously acknowledges the colonial, white supremacist history of Minneapolis and sets out to creatively chart a new course toward racial equity.

Let’s get into the specifics of how projects are weighted and how race and class play into the decision making under the MPRB’s new criteria. Each park is scored using seven criteria, with four based on community characteristics and three based on park characteristics. A park can earn a total of 23 points. The metrics include:

Community Characteristics

  1. Is the Park located in a Racially Concentrated Area of Poverty or (RCAP) (5 possible points)? RCAPs designate a census tract where 50% or more of the residents are people of color and 40% of the residents or more have family incomes below 185% of the federal poverty level. If a park is located in an RCAP, it is given a 5 and moved up the list of priority for rehab.
  2. Population density in the neighborhood where the park is located (2 possible points). The more densely populated neighborhoods will be a higher priority for rehab. Communities of color and low wealth communities tend to live in high density neighborhoods in Minneapolis. This metric takes into account extra wear and tear on park infrastructure in high density areas and the proportional value of public investment dollars per person in those areas.
  3. Youth density of the neighborhood where the park is located (3 possible points ). The higher the youth density of the neighborhood, the higher it is scored and it is moved up the list for priority for rehab. Same logic as the above metric applies with an extra focus on the needs of families.
  4. Neighborhood safety ( 2 possible points). Neighborhood crime statistics are looked at to determine need, with more crime in an area resulting in a higher score and increased priority for rehab investment. This is a public health and racial equity approach to crime reduction, grounded in the understanding that crime is the symptom of disinvestment and oppression, rather than racist myths about super-predators and character deficiencies.

Park Characteristics

  1. Park asset lifespan (3 possible points). Amenities in the park are evaluated and higher points are given to parks with infrastructure more than five years past its lifespan.
  2. Park Asset Condition (5 possible points). Assets in worse condition receive higher priority for rehab.
  3. Proportionality of investment (3 possible points). Referring to the amount of capital invested since 2000, this measure helps prioritize parks that have not received capital investment in the last 15 years.

When applied to the capital investment plan these criteria yield real results for communities of color and low wealth neighborhoods. Park staff applied these metrics and released the projected list of parks slated for rehabilitation for the first five years of the 20 year plan and it looks like they are working. Parks in the most disinvested areas of North, South and Northeast Minneapolis are slated for much needed capital investment. Beyond the immediate application to the 20 year neighborhood parks funding plan, these metrics can help set a precedent for socially and racially conscious capital investment that can provide substance to the suddenly popular and often abused term racial equity. These metrics bring history and power into the conversation at the point of budgeting. This is a necessary, meaningful and concrete step toward racial equity.

But these strong criteria, the substance of racial equity in this funding proposal, have not yet been instituted as policy at the MPRB or City of Minneapolis. Currently, the metrics have been developed by staff and presented to MPRB Commissioners, but no vote has been taken to make these metrics official policy and guarantee their application. All of the back patting being done by City Council members and MPRB Commissioners about racial equity in the 20 year neighborhood park funding agreement is for proposed changes in policy and process that have not been instituted. This posturing demonstrates how many in the establishment think about racial equity; first resist the conversation completely, then begrudgingly acknowledge the community pressure for change, and then when the momentum from the people can not be denied, claim to be an advocate for racial equity — while not actually committing to or understanding the transformation we are seeking.

While a plaque that says “number #1 park system in the country” must feel nice for MPRB officials to hang on their wall, we at Parks and Power are not interested in colorblind self promotion; we are concerned with the urgent work of transforming our public institutions into bodies that promote racial justice. A claim to be #1 by a city so deeply divided is distasteful; racial equity must become the measure of excellence for serious people. The metrics developed by the MPRB for allocating funds from the 20 year Neighborhood Park Plan are a sign of progress, an example of a racial justice framework solidified in policy that encourages us to deal with the problem rather than ignore it. Hopefully next year the Trust for Public Land will take a step toward relevance by adding some depth to their ParkScore index.

The work continues.

Jake Virden is the Parks & Power Organizer at Hope Community


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.


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.


Parks and Power

By Jake Virden, Hope Community

Hope Community is a community development corporation rooted on the corner of Portland and Franklin in the Phillips Neighborhood of South Minneapolis and grounded in the practice of deep listening and engagement with neighborhood leaders. At Hope, people are not viewed as clients to be serviced, but as leaders to be developed, challenged and supported in the pursuit of their vision. One vision, shared by an energetic group of young artists of color, was to create a space where neighborhood leaders could develop their skills to become the next generation of community organizers to lead the fight for Racial Justice. This vision grew into S.P.E.A.C. (Sustainable Progress through Engaging Active Citizens), an 8-month Community Organizing training that is now in its 9th year with over 100 Racial Justice organizers trained.

The Parks and Power campaign grew out of the energy of the first S.P.E.A.C. cohort of community organizers that were working, almost a decade ago, to bring increased resources to Peavey Park. Over the 8 years of organizing that have ensued we have expanded our focus from increased resources at Peavey to a shift in power dynamics across the municipal government. The work of our campaign is to build power with low wealth communities in the Minneapolis Parks through popular education and local political action. Our foundational political value is Racial Justice. We work on the ground with people and also at the policy level. Our aim is to bring the policies to the people and the people’s policies to the seat of power. We see the Minneapolis Park Board as a tangible, challenging, entry point into local public and political life and aim to make it a training ground for grassroots leaders and a petri dish for people driven, race conscious public policy.

The summer of 2015 is another busy one for our campaign, as is becoming tradition. In 2013 we hosted the first ever Racial Equity focused forum for candidates seeking election as park commissioners, over 250 people gathered in the Phillips neighborhood and sent a message to candidates that Communities of Color will no longer accept being an afterthought of policy makers. Building on that momentum, in June of 2014 we partnered with the Land Stewardship Project, Hope’s Food Justice leadership group and others to demand and successfully implement Racial Justice goals into the Park Board’s Urban Agriculture Master Plan.

General FlyerThis summer we are working with Voices for Racial Justice and Park Board staff on a listening project that will inform the MPRB’s Rec Quest evaluation of Recreation Centers and Programs across the system. We are facilitating listening sessions in neighborhood parks across the city to hear from community members about what is working in their park, what is not and what the priorities should be moving forward. These listening sessions are an opportunity for us to meet and learn from new leaders and to build the base of our campaign. Please join us at one of the following opportunities:

Wednesday, August 12 at Harrison Rec Center 6:00pm – 7:00pm
Monday, August 17 at Folwell Rec Center  6:00pm -7:00pm
Tuesday, August 18th at Corcoran Park 6:00pm – 7:00pm
Wednesday, August 19 at Brian Coyle 6:00pm – 7:00pm
Thursday, August 27 at Pearl Rec Center 6:00pm – 7:00pm
Also, join us Tuesday, August 18th for a FREE concert at the ICEHOUSE with Toki Wright, BDot Croc, Baby Shel and K.Raydio with O.D. to learn more about connecting to our work.