COMMUNITY VOICES | One Minneapolis Mayoral Forum: Not sexist, not Minnesota Nice either

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Recently, I had the privilege of participating in the One Minneapolis Mayoral Forum that was held at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. The Forum was designed to carve out a unique space in which candidates for the Minneapolis Mayoral race would be called upon to bring forth specific solutions to address the growing racial disparities in the City. Unlike traditional political forums, the One Minneapolis Forum was organized by youth workers who are routinely forced to confront the harsh realities of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment through the eyes of the young people they serve. In addition to a specific focus on socio-economic disparities, the Forum organizers sought to ensure that racial disparities would for once be front and center in a major mayoral debate, as opposed to a peripheral issue, as is often the case in such forums. For a video replay, see http://www.theuptake.org/2013/06/06/minneapolis-mayoral-candidates-address-race-issues/.

The Forum was Not “Business as Usual”

The Forum attracted hundreds of young voters, concerned citizens, seasoned freedom fighters, and a large number of residents from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The energy in the overflowing auditorium was electrifying and signaled the desire for an end to a “business as usual” paradigm in political forums and ushered in the possibility of a new form of citizen engagement in political arenas.

The organizers of the event decided that the forum would be highly structured in some respects and free-flowing in other respects to allow for audience participation and feedback. The conference organizers, which consisted primarily of three men and two women, along with numerous other volunteers, went to great lengths to ensure that the forum was reflective of the rich diversity within our community, including race, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status, to name a few.

Women on the Frontlines in Ensuring the Forum’s Success

In order to ensure inclusiveness and balance, the organizers enlisted several women to pose questions directly to the candidates. This had the effect of giving women in general, and women of color in particular, the opportunity to use their voices in an arena that often feels unfriendly and unwelcoming to women. (The youth voice was also prominently featured as several young people were enlisted to pose questions). In light of the limited representation of women in the political arena, the conference organizers were forward-thinking in specifically recruiting women to play key roles in the forum’s success.

In addition to enlisting young women to pose questions directly to the candidates, the organizers, specifically Henry Jiminez and Marjaan Sirdar, recruited me –an African American woman– to serve as the moderator of the forum. In so doing, they empowered me with the authority to ask the tough questions and apply the pressure when answers by candidates were vague or needed further elaboration. The goal as I understood it was to get candidates to go beyond mere niceties and pat political answers and to delve more deeply into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory on issues of racial justice, poverty, education, homelessness, criminal justice, unemployment, and the overall lower quality of life that people of color experience in the City of Minneapolis and across the metro area. The women who participated in the forum had meaningful roles and worked tirelessly to ensure that the significant racial and socio-economic disparities facing our community would not be ignored.

Lack of Racial and Gender Diversity Emblematic of Larger Problems

The candidates were briefed ahead of time in preparation for the forum and all in all, eight candidates agreed to participate. There were noticeable differences between the platforms of the various candidates and a stark contrast between seasoned politicians and those who were new to the political arena. Two other factors stood out amongst the candidates; only one of them was a person of color and just two were women. The racial and gender composition of the mayoral candidates is emblematic of larger historical and contemporary problems within the body politic and society related to access to equal opportunity, strong political mentorship, robust political capital, and access to financial resources, to name a few. These critical ingredients are often difficult to attain, not only for white males who run for political office, but arguably even more so for women and people of color, who have historically experienced discrimination and oppression.

Given the deeply entrenched challenges to diverse political representation that existed prior to the forum, it is patently unfair and unrealistic to expect forum organizers, be they male or female, to be able to resolve these problems in less than two hours. The burden to remedy such inequities cannot and should not fall on the shoulders of forum organizers, but must instead be distributed more equitably upon the shoulders of our collective community.

In my estimation, the conference organizers went above and beyond the call of duty by organizing the Forum, inviting and encouraging all of the candidates to participate, and giving them a platform to demonstrate whether each has the capacity to lead Minneapolis into a promising future. Although the female candidates were small in number, I can honestly say that they held their own, and each seemed comfortable talking about racial disparities, how they have tackled such issues in the past, and their ideas for addressing such issues in the future. Of course, it would have been wonderful to allow the female candidates, as well as their male counterparts, more time to speak. However, the greater triumph is to build pathways for unfettered participation by women in the race for mayor as well as other key political races. Our society will benefit by having more diverse representation amongst major decision-makers. Equally as important is having representatives who truly “get it” and who feel comfortable talking openly about race and who are willing to devote the resources to close the gaps that exist.

We Must Stay Focused
In light of the intolerable disparities that communities of color are facing in our state and in our City, we cannot afford to be divided amongst race, class, or gender lines. It is imperative that we stay focused on addressing the issues that relentlessly plague our community. We also have a duty to ensure that the next Mayor of Minneapolis understands that we must work together to tackle the alarming disparities that exist. This approach will ensure the long term viability and sustainability of our entire community— and especially those without a voice in our society.

 

Nekima Levy-Pounds is an associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic. Levy-Pounds is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, poverty, and social justice. She may be reached at nvlevypounds@stthomas.edu or on Twitter @nvlevy.

 

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