Dishwater and burgers. These are the intermingling smells that remind Velma Korbel of segregation. She told about a café that sold smoothies, milkshakes and, of course, burgers in the small town of Center, Texas where she grew up. “Blacks weren’t allowed at front,” she said. “They had to go to the back where the dishes were washed.”
Velma Korbel, 51, is the 2011 recipient of the St. Paul Foundation’s Minnesota Facing Race award for her work in racial justice. When she speaks about the racial inequalities she still sees in Minnesota, she becomes so passionate that she apologizes for being a bit “preachy.” She feels honored to be recognized for her work and appreciates the opportunity to talk about racial justice.
“I don’t like injustice—never have,” Korbel declared. The community where she spent her childhood was segregated, and she went to a segregated school until she was nine years old. “Everyone knew their place,” she said.
She remembered an incident when her father and she were in what was called uptown. Two young white men came toward them. It surprised her to see her father, the head of the household, drop his head as they addressed him. His quick change to subservience struck her as strange. It didn’t seem right.
When she was very young, she had a friend named Sue. Although Sue lived across the street, their parents never socialized together. Sue had blond hair and blue eyes. When it came time for school, Korbel naturally assumed that both girls would get on the same bus and go to school together. It turned out that they boarded different buses to attend different schools. “I learned at a young age what segregation was and that white people were treated differently from black people,” she said.
Such experiences motivated Korbel to work on racial justice issues. She has worked in this area since she was in her early twenties. But at an even younger age, Korbel challenged conventions. “I’ve always rebelled against the status quo,” she said. Korbel was the first black drum majorette at her high school, and she joined “certain” clubs in town.
From 1979 to 1985, Korbel was a base advisor to a navy commanding officer. Her job was to help make sure that the base was culturally and ethnically diverse. Upon leaving the navy, her first job was as an affirmative action officer for a company in California.
Korbel explained affirmative action as, “Forcing people back then and today to work next to someone they wouldn’t normally see every day. It forces people to learn about someone different from them.” She stressed the importance of pulling away from the homogeneity we all gravitate towards and to instead purposely engage with someone different from ourselves.
These days Korbel is the Director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights department. The department’s responsibilities include investigating complaints of discrimination and making sure that companies that do business with the city are in compliance with affirmative action.
She also served on the YWCA board for five years and was chair of their racial justice department, which hosts It’s Time to Talk Forums on Race. Started eight years ago, the program brings together 1200 people each fall into dialogue circles of ten people each. The participants then return to their homes and start their own circles. “There are dialogues occurring all across Minnesota because of this work,” Korbel said. The dialogue circles provide an avenue for safe conversations about race. “People are allowed to talk about things they normally would not be able to because there are no recriminations and no judgments,” Korbel explained.
Although much has changed, Korbel is very aware that her work is not yet done. “I realized how far we have to go when my son was 16 and I had to tell him how to behave if he was ever stopped by police. I told him these things in an era that I shouldn’t have to.” Her son is now 25, and her daughter is 20. A hint of sadness showed in her next words. “Despite all the work we’ve done, we still have a long way to go. There are things I see that still look the same way they did forty years ago.”
Korbel mentioned that she feels a sense of urgency for the work left to be done in the area of racial justice. “Time is short,” she said, “especially for me.” In the past, she focused on affecting change one-on-one, but she now looks more at systemic discrimination and how to bring about change in groups.
Korbel is adamant that she is working toward a time when people won‘t be judged by how they look. In Minnesota, she stated that there is a three-to-one unemployment gap between whites and blacks. There are multiple reasons for this, she said, but one reason is hiring bias. “In this job, I can do something about that,” she said, “and we will be proposing something to the mayor.” And with that, Korbel soon got ready for her next meeting of the day to address just that issue.