A diverse community sees racial disparities worsening throughout the county.
Implement training for county employees to become experts in applying a racial equity impact tool.
County officials in Hennepin County, Minn., are encouraging everyone to be responsible for addressing racial disparities — including all the county’s roughly 9,000 employees.
“We figure everyone has a responsibility,” Executive Diversity Officer Tonya Palmer said.
Hennepin County adopted the Racial Equity Impact Tool (REIT) in 2019 from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, an organization that works to achieve racial equity.
The organization’s tool uses questions to examine how actions and decisions affect racial and ethnic groups. Originally 28 pages, Palmer said the county reduced the tool to two pages to make it less intimidating for employees and ensure the questions pertained specifically to the county.
“We basically took the tool and we ‘Hennepin-ized’ it,” she said.
The tool, for example, could be used when making equitable decisions about building a park, Palmer said. It guides users through various questions such as where the park should be located and how it may interfere with the community around it.
“It really makes people think about equity and what can happen,” Palmer said. “A park is a good thing but there’s negative things that could happen if you don’t think about it all the way through.”
To complement the tool, which the county is encouraging all employees to use, the county launched the Racial Equity Impact Tool (REIT) Champions Academy in 2020. The four-week development program teaches employees about the REIT and creates REIT experts in each of the county’s 32 departments.
Palmer said the county’s community is very diverse and the racial makeup of residents is quickly changing. The county’s population of color in 2019 was around 30 percent of the overall population, according to census data. Ninety-five percent of households at or below the poverty rate were households of color.
The county adopted the REIT and launched the Champions Academy to address these racial disparities.
The training through the academy includes independent work, self-guided study and four virtual classes with coursework focusing on topics like building community, facilitating dialogue on race and racism and intercultural competence and development.
County employees serve as the facilitators of the academy which aims to build participants’ confidence in using the REIT and promote a greater ability to recognize and respond to cultural differences and communications.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant Andi Banks said the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) team had many conversations when forming the curriculum about what skills and abilities are needed to facilitate conversations on race and racism.
“Those can be tricky and sticky conversations by themselves let alone when you’re examining your own work,” she said.
Courses focused on strong communications skills and the ability to trust and feel comfortable having conversations about race, racism and diverse perspectives, she said.
Palmer said the county needed “champions” throughout its departments to help put the REIT into practice. In the beginning, department leadership suggested candidates who would be best to complete the training, but after other county staff showed an interest in participating, the academy became open for everyone.
“We told the county administrator that we’d train anyone who wanted to know how to do it,” Palmer said. “We told him ‘We will keep training people until we run out of people.’”
Five cohorts from the academy have graduated.
“We want to make sure that our policies and procedures are being equitable,” Palmer said. “The best way to do that is to make sure that our staff are educated so they’re thinking about it when they go out and do their work.”
Palmer highlighted the importance of creating a warm environment where people feel comfortable to discuss DEI without feeling judged or made to feel guilty.
“It’s important from a human standpoint that we all understand about equity and how to make each other feel good about what we’re doing and to serve our communities the best we can,” she said.
Banks said having conversations about racialized outcomes is important.
“Folks haven’t been acculturated to talk about race and racism in relationship to their work and being able to normalize that conversation has been really important and I think really powerful in the larger context of the disparity reduction work that counties are doing,” she said.
Palmer advises counties interested in using the REIT to start slow and keep the right pace to ensure people understand, absorb and accept the information.
“We just want to make sure that we are serving that community with equity in mind all the time,” Palmer said.