Equity: a good word, deed and value

By Jane Leonard

Equity is a good word, deed and value.

Play fair. Love one another and the planet. Help your neighbors, across the street and across the miles. Rural urban suburban. Build a multicultural thriving community locally and across Minnesota.

My great-grandparents, Nils and Karin Berg, knew this truth in 1911 when they organized with other local immigrant families in Mille Lacs County to seek fair and just inclusion into the local and regional economy. They formed Chapter #5944 of the American Society of Equity. They worked together to get fairer returns on the investments they had made in producing crops they sold and fairer pricing of supplies they needed. They combined their loads of potatoes and other crops to gain lower transport costs on the rail lines to Minneapolis.

Their actions provide a useful reminder and role model for reintroducing more equitable and inclusive economic and community development practices today: diverse community members acting together, welcoming newcomers, gaining fairer treatment for all, contributing each as they are able to help their families and their shared community succeed.

Three years ago in response to changing demographics and inequities in the economy, the St. Anthony Park-based Growth & Justice and OneMN.org (a coalition of Black, Indigenous and People of Color organizations) joined forces to organize the “Thriving by Design—Rural & Urban Together Network” to co-create a non-partisan and comprehensive equity roadmap for our times, the “Minnesota Equity Blueprint.”

Over a six month period in 2018-2019, network members collected equity ideas, challenges, solutions and action examples from over 300 Minnesotans at more than a dozen community based gatherings around the state, including two statewide summits, all open to the public. The project’s research team spent the next year analyzing more than 700 recommendations and distilled them into 141 recommendations, ranging from general strategies to specific and interrelated equity policies, designed not only for governmental decision makers, but also as a resource for individual and local community action.

On Feb. 26, 2020, three weeks before life changed via the COVID pandemic, and three months before George Floyd’s murder, the Thriving by Design Network launched the completed Blueprint with a State Capitol press conference and a six-site, videoconference along the Mississippi River, from Bemidji to Winona, showcasing Blueprint recommendations directly from community members who had contributed them.

The river setting honored the Ojibwe belief that water connects us all and carries wisdom to future generations.

The Blueprint’s equity wisdom, organized by four chapters—­Human Capital, Economic Development, Infrastructure and Environmental Resilience—aims at assuring a vibrant and growing economy, with equal access to opportunity in a state without disparities across race or region, while also accelerating climate action and reversing related forms of environmental degradation.

The long journey to launch included public meeting previews of each chapter in the months preceding the full reveal. One preview (held in Little Falls) on the economic development chapter attracted about 20 protestors who saw the Blueprint as a challenge to their views on immigration (against it) and technology innovations (solar energy—against it). The protestors also disliked community planning. Their fears were somewhat alleviated as they were invited into the meeting and were able to learn more details as to how these “equity” recommendations might actually benefit their local communities and economy.

The COVID lockdown preempted plans to tour the completed Blueprint around the state in spring and summer 2020 to share its collective wisdom and stimulate more discussion on its themes of regional, racial and environmental equity. Organizers pivoted to other ways to share its know-how. We held Blueprint conversations statewide via Zoom and helped research and write the “Rural Communities Equity Action Guide” with rural partners who now use it in local welcoming community and equity development efforts.

Growth & Justice and OneMN.org assisted in community and economic recovery as co-founders and co-stewards of the ALANA Community Brain Trust, (ALANA: African Latino Asian and Native American) a multiethnic statewide network of individuals and organizations launched in June 2020 after the death of George Floyd to grow capital and build capacity in our ALANA communities. The trust provided significant applied economic research to assist the House Select Committee on Racial Justice, which helped lead to main street recovery funding for urban and rural communities this year.

Growth & Justice also began a partnership last year with students at the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota—­Morris to build the Minnesota Equity Map (https://www.growthandjustice.org/mnequitymap), to continue the equity story gathering that started with the Blueprint creation and to showcase the vital and often underappreciated work done by community organizations and activists to foster regional, racial and environmental equity. The map also aids equity idea sharing and cooperation between communities and community members.

Equity is to be shared, after all. “Shared” is the essence of equity—the word, the deed and the value. Intentional use of equity frameworks such as the Minnesota Equity Blueprint—and the deliberate intersection of growth and justice—can lead to fairness for all in life and livelihood and wise stewardship of the natural environment we desperately need to survive and thrive.

Embrace equity and share it widely. 

Jane Leonard is president of Growth & Justice and chair of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation. She can be reached at jane@growthandjustice.org. You can find out more information on (and donate to support) all the above-mentioned resources at www.growthandjustice.org.

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