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Lawmakers ask whether Minnesotans of color served well by Legacy funds

A view of Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay. Representatives from each of the state's Legacy funds talked to lawmakers about ways to ensure that communities of color are being served by their efforts. Photo by Andrew VonBank

How you serve diverse communities is a complex subject when you have diverse responsibilities. Take the House Legacy Finance Committee, for example.

Its charge is to distribute funds that aid the quests for cleaning up the state’s water, presenting the arts, enhancing parks and trails offerings, and maintaining wetlands and forests. Bringing an equity lens to such work may sound like four separate conversations.

And so it was Wednesday. Representatives from each of the four funds the committee oversees talked about efforts to ensure that communities of color are being served by their efforts. Some shared success stories, others aspirations, while one didn’t broach the subject until pressed by a committee member.

Approved by Minnesota voters in 2008, the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment earmarks 0.375% of the state’s sales taxes as a dedicated funding source for clean water (33%), outdoor heritage (33%), arts and cultural heritage (19.75%) and parks and trails (14.25%).

 

Parks and Trails Fund

Last week, the committee heard about how the state’s parks and trails have seen a big bump in attendance since COVID-19 arrived last spring. But questions remain.

“Are our spaces inclusive enough for BIPOC communities?” asked Lisa Barajas, the Metropolitan Council’s community development director. “Are they spaces that they feel are for them?”

Barajas said metro-area parks are putting special emphasis on programming for underrepresented people, citing collaborations with Indigenous communities on a redesign of St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park and the remaking of Brooklyn Park’s Mississippi Gateway Regional Park as a place that invites new visitors to build outdoor skills.

Renee Mattson, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, said her organization set aside $250,000 to fund new initiatives to promote accessibility for diverse communities.

“Roughly one-third of our Legacy funds have been focused on diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Erika Rivers, the Department of Natural Resources’ director of Parks and Trails. She said people of color make up the majority of participants in the “I Can” program that helps families become more skilled in camping, fishing, paddling and biking.

 

Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund

Of the four funds, this one was best able to supply statistics about increased funding and participation in projects by people of color.

House Legacy Finance Committee 02/10/21

Sue Gens, executive director of the State Arts Board, said that 37% of those on grant review panels making arts funding decisions identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of color, and that 45% of grants to individuals have been given to BIPOC artists in fiscal year 2021.

“We underwent significant changes in fiscal 2021,” Gens said. “You’ve heard about the terrible impact COVID has had on the state’s arts community. The killing of George Floyd had a tremendous impact on artists, too. … We transferred about $10 million into two funds, one for artists and another for organizations. We prioritized BIPOC communities, Greater Minnesota and serving people with disabilities.”

Kathy Mouacheupao, executive director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and vice president of the Forum of Regional Arts Councils, said that, in 2015, 16% of those receiving funding from regional arts councils were from communities of color. In 2020, the number had grown to 36%.

 

Clean Water Fund

The death of George Floyd also served as a wakeup call for the Clean Water Fund.

Paul Gardner, administrator for the Clean Water Council, said it’s going through “a period of self-reflection” that includes developing a diversity, equity and inclusion plan in 2021 with input from the state’s four ethnic councils and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.

But Gardner added that other events also reshaped this focus, especially the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which disproportionately affected people of color. He cited a national survey showing that Black Americans are far more interested in learning about protecting water than white people.

“I think Flint may have had a lot to do with that,” he said.

“Lower-income and minority residents are more likely to have old homes with lead service lines,” said Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner of the Pollution Control Agency and member of the Clean Water Fund’s Interagency Coordination Team. “They’re likely to have higher exposure. They also often rent, which means they have less power to affect change.”

She said the Clean Water Fund has set out to create an inventory of lead service lines; conduct outreach on lead levels, service line inventory, and progress on service line replacement; and institute supplemental lead testing at schools and daycares.

For those in the state with private wells, Kessler said nitrate levels are an issue, but whether residents install home water treatment systems corresponds closely to income level.

 

Outdoor Heritage Fund

The fund designed to “restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife" was conveyed as not giving much consideration to equity or environmental justice in its funding decisions.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council that makes recommendations for the fund, said, “Racial boundaries aren’t one of the things we look at in proposals. The projects are rated on the immediacy of their needs and what are the costs.”

Rep. Patty Acomb (DFL-Minnetonka) asked about intentional efforts on the Outdoor Heritage Fund’s part to engage with communities of color.

“I can’t say that the council reaches out specifically to communities of color,” Johnson said. “The funding calls go out to everyone. … I’d love to have a nonprofit that specifically serves people of color apply, but I can’t say that’s happened.”

Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-Mpls) asked what each fund administrator was doing to recruit and retain more diverse staffs.

Both Kessler and Rivers spoke of their agencies’ partnership with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa — IDEC or “Increasing Diversity in Environmental Careers” — which provides mentorship and internships for young people of color.

Rep. Greg Boe (R-Chanhassen) asked about the source of Kessler’s assertion that BIPOC communities have less access to water for recreation. She spoke of her experience of working with the City of Minneapolis on the issue, and finding a shortage of transit routes to lakes, rivers and streams.

“We found that it was very car dependent,” she said.


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