For Met Council, equity has to start with inclusive decision-making

This commentary was originally published by the Pioneer Press on May 7 and is re-posted here with the author’s permission.

By Kadra Abdi

From housing to public transit, the Metropolitan Council is uniquely positioned to influence the quality of life for residents across the Twin Cities. To guide that vital work, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz trumpeted his February appointment of the “most diverse council in its more than 50-year history,” emphasizing the members’ “commitment to servant leadership and public engagement.”

Certainly, the time is right for bold and capable leadership. We face urgent challenges, from the deepening housing crisis to the growing economic gap between white and black households. With so many metrics continuing to move in the wrong direction, it’s imperative the Met Council take seriously its own commitment outlined in the Thrive MSP 2040 plan to engage a full cross-section of the region in its decision-making, particularly communities of color and indigenous communities that have been historically underrepresented.

Having served on the agency’s Equity Advisory Committee, I understand the importance of the agency and recognize the expertise and commitment of the new Council members. Unfortunately, without substantive changes to the way the agency operates, those diverse and capable leaders will face significant barriers in advancing their vision for an equitable region.

Most notably, the agency must prioritize and act on a collaborative and equitable framework, as well as a systems approach that creates a region of inclusion and belonging by addressing racial disparities in employment, homeownership, and income. For years, the community advocated for this approach, but the staff leadership at the agency is poised yet again to use inequitable processes to make harmful decisions.

For too long, the agency has isolated challenges into individual issue silos, failing to recognize that housing, transit, economic development, and access to parks — all aspects of its jurisdiction — are deeply interconnected. This narrow approach to decision-making is at the center of the current debate that criminalizes people experiencing homelessness riding public transit.

Rather than reckoning with the housing crisis across the region that leads people to ride trains for shelter in the first place, Metro Transit is seeking to increase interaction with law enforcement by pushing those individuals onto the streets in the middle of the night and eliminating 24-hour service on a train line used by many for critical transportation. As the entity that distributes Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers, the agency knows that simply handing out more vouchers is meaningless in a market where so few landlords accept them. And as the entity that reviews the comprehensive plans for cities throughout the region, the agency is aware of the overall lack of income-based affordable housing and privatizing public housing with no actionable plan to address displacement and homelessness.

When these dots between transportation, availability of income-based affordable and public housing, and regional planning aren’t connected and acted upon with intention, low-wealth communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities bear disproportionate harm. We need bold leadership that questions and transforms the systems that lead to homelessness and other regional disparities, rather than reacting to the inevitable outcomes of inequity with rushed “solutions” that are constrained by the broken system itself.

To change the broken system, the agency, at a minimum, must evaluate its investments — for example, within Livable Communities and the Transportation Advisory Board — and evaluate the impact it’s having. If equity is a stated goal, then who benefits from the agency’s investments?

To make these critical shifts, we need the governor to provide leadership that centers low-wealth communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities in a meaningful, inclusive way and insists on the same from the agency Chair Nora Slawik. Right now, even the agency’s own Equity Advisory Committee has been shut out of critical decision-making.

As a former EAC member myself, I know firsthand the expertise and dedication the members of this committee bring. Yet in too many instances, such as the Green Line service cut, the EAC is not consulted in advance or given meaningful ability to influence decision-making. For instance, when told of the “near-final” decision to stop Green Line service at night, the EAC rightly lifted up the need for input from directly impacted community members, explained why it is a problem to criminalize homelessness, and underscored the need for the agency to assert its role to address the regional housing crisis. While we know that effective solutions must be crafted with the direction and leadership of those most impacted, we instead see Metro Transit moving ahead with a decision made by people who likely have never faced the dire conditions that lead someone to sleep on a train.

Even the new council members appointed by the governor, leaders with connections to community and key professional skills, will be deeply limited in their ability to influence issues that moved them to apply for and dedicate their time to this institution. A clear example will be on display as early as this Wednesday, when they hear from Metro Transit leaders on the Green Line service cuts — but have no opportunity to vote on that decision.

Given the discourse and commitment to equity, the agency has the opportunity to use its authority in a way that is mindful, receptive, and inclusive of the changing demographics across the region. As EAC member Leslie Redmond suggested at a recent meeting, the agency has a choice. It can be on the right side of equity — or the wrong side. The time to make the right choice is now.

Kadra Abdi is a researcher, activist, and social entrepreneur living in Hopkins. She has a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She is the founder and CEO of Synergy Consulting, a research and strategy consulting business and a co-founder, writer, and curator for Ubuntu: the Collective, a platform that spotlights emergent issues impacting the global black diaspora.