City takes on racial equality

Program seeks to identify disparities created by city policy and target changes.

Data collected through the U.S. Census, as well as local collection efforts, is expected to help inform work aimed at reducing disparities created through local government policies. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS)

Antinea Ascione said forms asking for her ethnicity can give her pause.

“I bristle oftentimes when asked for demographic data in context that doesn’t seem to make sense, meaning it’s not medical or it’s not reporting to the U.S. government,” the Rochester Library Board member said during a recent discussion about gauging use of the library and ensuring equitable policies exist.

“As a person of color, it makes me very uncomfortable.”

Fellow board member Jenny Fahse agreed, adding that many non-white people wonder about intentions when they come across such questions.

“I think it’s a matter of building trust with the communities that have basically been relegated to the corners of society basically,” she said.



As the nation addresses questions surrounding the issue of racial equity, Rochester continues an effort started in 2018 with the hope of bringing more equitable practices to the city government.

Measuring the impact will require data regarding the races of people being served, organizers say.

“When you are not looking at that, it becomes a race-neutral approach, which is kind of the way Rochester has done it in the past,” said Andy Stehr, the library’s circulation services manager and a member of the city’s GARE team, adding that the race-neutral approach can mask disparities.

GARE -- Government Alliance on Race and Equity -- is a national network of local governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities in their communities.

Rochester joined the effort two years ago, after Rochester City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead joined the city staff with experience related to Minneapolis’s work with the organization and newly hired City Administrator Steve Rymer voiced a desire to address equity concerns.

Hollingshead, who is leaving the city staff this month, has led the local effort, which sent a team of 11 staff members to meet with others in the state to start the Rochester initiative. They were part of the third GARE cohort in the state.

“It really is focused on ensuring local government both acknowledges and builds on the role it has on really intentionally advancing racial equity,” Hollingshead said.


The city planned to send a second group to join the effort this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the gathering on hold.


Still, Hollingshead said work continues, even as some of the original members no longer work for the city.

She said one of the first steps has been to raise awareness throughout city departments about how long-standing policies can lead to inequitable practices. As a result, the work is spreading beyond the initial 11 team members.

“That work has to involve people throughout the city organization -- from all levels of the city organization -- and the community as well,” she said.

“We might not have formal red lining in place anymore or formal government policies that restrict certain individuals from certain backgrounds from programs, but there are still residual impacts from those institutional practices and there are things that have unintentional impacts in perpetuating racial inequities,” she added.

As an example, she points to a resident who complained to the Rochester City Council about being fined for failing to clear snow from her sidewalk while on vacation.

Since Rochester’s policy on such fines is complaint driven, the resident said it became obvious someone in her neighborhood used the city policy to target her based on her skin color, since several of her white neighbors had also failed to clear their sidewalks without a complaint or ticket.


“We know a lot of anecdotal examples like that,” Hollingshead said, but acknowledged the city hasn’t collected data to support it.


Hollingshead said data surrounding city policies can help identify disparities, but it can also be used as a marker on whether policy shifts change the outcomes.

Others in city government agree: “It’s really really important that we hold ourselves accountable, and data is one way to do that,” Library Director Audrey Betcher said.

W.C. Jordan, president of the Minnesota/Dakotas Area State Conference of the NAACP and member of Rochester’s Police Policy Oversight Commission, agreed data is needed to keep the government accountable, but too often the government data isn’t shared.

“Locally, they want to give people the perception that we have racial equity here, when we don’t have racial equity here,” he said, adding that data that would likely show disparities are too often shielded from the public.

Jordan and others recently pushed the police department to post some data online, including use-of-force data that indicated Black residents are more likely, per capita, to face force by police officers than white people.

However, he said the online data lacks other important information, such as traffic stops by race.


Rochester Police Chief James Franklin has said that data isn’t currently collected.

Hollingshead, however, said GARE connections could help address that.


She said the 2018 gathering featured the police chief from Roseville, who discussed adopting a policy mandate by Ramsey County. It required police officers to collect racial data during traffic stops.

In Roseville, the police department opted to have officers cite their perception of a driver’s race, rather than asking the person to self-identify as one race or another.

“He was able to talk about how they did that and what they were able to learn by doing that,” Hollingshead said.

While the practice isn’t as precise as asking the driver, it grants insight into how officers view the people they are stopping.

“I’m not saying that’s the best way or the only way,” Hollingshead said, noting lessons learned from similar policies could inform future changes in Rochester.


Jordan said knowing how the data is collected is as important as having it.

“Data is something you can use in many different ways and when it shows (inequitable) outcomes, it helps you build strategies to overcome that,” he said.

Ascione said knowing data can be manipulated gives her pause when asked to participate, but she added that decreased participation also raises questions.

“I would be interested in knowing how many members of the community even feel comfortable giving up their data and what that means for us in regard to how valid that data is and is it painting a proper picture,” she said, adding that the GARE effort will need to look beyond data to determine real impacts on local residents

Hollingshead said city staff involved with leading the local GARE effort understand that when it comes to collecting data.

“We need to be careful about why it is being asked and how it will be used,” she said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or
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