Velma Korbel was unanimously approved by the Minneapolis City Council on April 30 as the city’s civil rights director. She will assume her new duties on June 1.
Since 2003, Korbel has been Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner and has over two decades of experience in civil rights work. “It’s hard to imagine someone more perfectly qualified for this position at this time,” said City Council Vice President Robert Lilligren in a released statement.
“I believe Ms. Korbel will run Civil Rights in an accountable way that gives the community and the city council confidence in the department’s performance,” said Lilligren.
In a May 5 interview with the MSR at City Hall, Korbel explained that her first task is to reach out to the community, keenly aware of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department’s negative image, uneven record of handling discrimination issues, and frequent staff turnover – Korbel is the sixth director under Mayor R.T. Rybak’s tenure.
“One of the biggest challenges to overcome is the general perception of the office,” she points out, adding that her aim is a department “that is productive, responsive, reliable, and just [regaining] the respect of people.
“This is a civil rights office with a lot of history and a very broad legacy.
We just want to bring that back. I know that there have been some concerns [in resolving city civil rights cases],” says Korbel, adding that righting a wrong does take time.
As State human rights commissioner, over 98 percent of the 2,209 new cases filed with the State from January 1, 2007 through June 30, 2009 were resolved within the legally mandated one-year window. All but 35 were resolved, and the remaining charges were resolved within 54 weeks of the original filing.
“If you are accusing someone of mistreating you, there’s a due process,” the new Minneapolis civil rights director continues. “There are steps that get you from when something happens to you when you believe that you’ve been wronged, to when we can get to a place where it can be resolved and get some satisfaction.”
Prior to heading the State’s human rights department, Korbel worked for nine years at the Metropolitan Council, including four years as its equal opportunity director. She also served as acting equal opportunity and diversity management director for the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission, and worked in private-sector human rights and affirmative action positions.
The oldest of five girls, Korbel grew up “in a segregated small town” in rural East Texas. “When I first started school, I was going to segregated schools.
So I have a unique perspective to this work than people who maybe grew up in the Twin Cities.”
She later earned two degrees and also served six years in the U.S. Navy during the early 1980s. She and her husband moved to Minnesota in 1989.
In addition to resolving individual cases, Korbel says she believes that transparency must be ever-present in publicly funded construction projects such as the Twins ballpark, and she believes her department is responsible to ensure that this occurs.
“I believe that there should have been more defined terms in the contract between the Civil Rights Department and the [Minnesota] Ballpark Authority about what we were going to be monitoring, how often it was going to be reported, what the extent of the reporting out to the public was going to be, etcetera,” she points out.
“I am a firm believer that when people from the public ask a public entity questions, I think we ought to be responding to the people requesting the information. That means that the data and information has to be solid and verifiable.”
Also, her department must do a better job in “educating companies about their role and responsibilities… That is on the Civil Rights Department in conjunction with every other City department that is spending public money,” claims Korbel. “We all have to do our part ensuring that all of the provisions in our contract compliance ordinance are followed. This isn’t just the Civil Rights Department issue, but a city-wide issue.”
Despite discussions last year of possibly eliminating the City’s civil rights department, Korbel believes that it is definitely needed. “Until every kid has an equal shot at going to a good school, and every kid can graduate and have an expectation that they are going to go to college, and every head of household has an expectation that they can get a good job…until all of that is possible, then there always is a role for civil rights in this country.
Until accessibility and equality becomes a fact of life, there is going to be a role for us doing this work.”
With less than a month remaining before assuming her duties, Korbel says she has been meeting with City officials and others “getting us all on the same page with what the mission and purpose is of this office,” she continues.
“I am [also] interested in hearing what the public believes is the mission and the purpose of this office.”
After serving almost a decade at the state capitol, Korbel says, “I guess it is a natural progression to be here” in Minneapolis. “I am really excited about being here.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.