Connecting state and local government leaders
The Minneapolis initiative is focused on addressing harms that drive racial disparities. Route Fifty spoke with program manager Malaysia Abdi about the work now underway.
George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in May 2020 led to racial reckonings across the country, inspiring marches, protests, demands for racial equity, and promises from public leaders to address institutional racism in their respective governments.
Now, two and a half years after the killing of Floyd, one such promise made by Minneapolis officials is being fulfilled. The city’s truth and reconciliation program is underway and is being developed by a young advocate, Malaysia Abdi.
At 28, Abdi is one of the initiative’s program managers. Named as one of the 100 Top Local Influencers by the group Engaging Local Government Leaders, she faces the challenge of setting up the program from scratch.
A truth and reconciliation commission is a body tasked with revealing past governmental wrongdoings in an effort to move a community toward resolution and unity.
While communities across the globe have created truth and reconciliation programs, the effort is somewhat new in the U.S. Greensboro, North Carolina, created a commission in 2004 to help residents heal 25 years after a racially motivated massacre that left five people dead. In 2020, officials in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco announced they would also establish truth and reconciliation commissions.
The most well-known truth and reconciliation effort is South Africa’s commission, which was created as the country emerged from apartheid in the 1990s. The commission heard thousands of testimonies, providing victims a platform to describe their experiences under the racist policies of apartheid. Dozens of other countries have also used different truth and reconciliation models.
Route Fifty talked with Abdi about her work, the goals of Minneapolis’s truth and reconciliation program, and the challenges it faces. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What does the truth and reconciliation process look like in Minneapolis?
Truth and reconciliation processes look different depending on where you're doing them. But in Minneapolis, what we really wanted to do was focus on providing specific solutions to specific harms that perpetuate racial disparities.
One of the goals out of this truth and reconciliation process is creating a commission of community folks that will be primarily black and American Indian, and we would also like youth representation.
Some of the harms, I should say, are missing and murdered Black and American Indian women, things like racial covenants that date back to like the 1900s, racial segregation, redlining, the construction of Highway 35, the militarization of police, things like that. We also are cognizant of being on Dakota land and the forced removal of Dakota people in the exiling of them from their homelands, now known as Minneapolis. So those are just a few to name.
What’s happened since the city decided to undergo a truth and reconciliation process in 2020?
The city made a truth and reconciliation workgroup [of] educators, law professionals, faith-based leaders, historians. They all came together from the community—the majority of them were Black and American Indian—to create recommendations on what this process should look like. They convened in June 2021 and met for about nine months
Me and another truth and reconciliation program manager were hired in the fall of 2022. So that kind of brings us to today.
The Commission hasn't been formed yet. We're still in the development stage. Since we've been hired, we've just been doing a lot of research and developing the program. We are hoping to apply for funding, that’s what our next step is right now.
What were some of the recommendations the workgroup came up with?
Some of the recommendations that they mentioned aligned with the truths that we were speaking about, like racial segregation and redlining.
But they really wanted to focus on capacity building, like cross-cultural learning, because there needs to be some camaraderie between Black and American Indian communities. So we wanted to focus on that cross-cultural learning, building capacity for the white community, and just doing a really transparent communications plan so the community feels a part of this work.
Some of the other recommendations were creating the commission [to include] a platform for the community to speak their truth and for perpetrators of harm—institutions, other people of power—to make a public apology. That's something that is really important to me; something that I want to see is a public apology.
Can you explain what you mean by building capacity?
It's mainly to deepen [the white community’s] understanding of white supremacy, and how it affects all of us. Because I, in my personal opinion, feel like there is some apprehension when we use the word reconciliation or reparations, like it's really triggering for white folks. So we're just trying to provide education on what this could mean, and how when the most vulnerable people are safe and they have their needs met, that it impacts our whole city.
Can you just take me through what your day-to-day looks like? What are the mechanics and logistics of doing this kind of work?
It's a lot. Not only are we trying to ground ourselves in what truth and reconciliation is, but also how it pertains to our community in Minneapolis. So, [it involves] a lot of collaboration with other people in my department and talking to community folks. We are also leading [efforts under] the [city’s declaration of] racism as a public health emergency. I do some work with the [city’s] Transgender Equity Council. I have my hands in a couple of different projects.
So what my day-to-day looks like is really just working with my team, brainstorming, and talking to people, whether that be city staff or community folks. Because we're just trying to get a sense of what truth and reconciliation looks like to folks that are in the community.
Are there other communities you’ve looked to for advice and guidance in this process?
I met with somebody from the city of Los Angeles, because they're doing some reparations work. And with Iowa City—they are creating a truth and reconciliation commission as well. We've been in collaboration with them and just learning from them. Like, what are best practices? What are some things to consider?
I feel like the majority of it has been about capacity. This is a really heavy lift: Does our city staff have the capacity to do this work? Does this community have the capacity to participate?
Can you talk a bit about your journey to this role? How did you become a truth and reconciliation program manager?
I have been with the city in different capacities for the last two years and I built relationships across the enterprise with folks. So that institutional knowledge has made it easier to transition [to this role].
But I think the biggest experience that led me to this role is my own personal experience. As city staff, and being a resident that lives in Minneapolis, I just value good governance and justice. And I believe that institutions should be working for the community and with the community. I also have experience with advocacy and around things like public safety and violence prevention.
I started with the city because I was on a commission called the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. That was one of my first experiences with the city just doing policy and community engagement work. That led me to a policy aide [position] for a Minneapolis council member. We represented a part of the city that is also going to be a huge part of this work: North Minneapolis. So I feel like that's helped me because I've had relationships on that side of the city. I was in the civil rights department. We focused on discrimination, employment and housing.
But also, I'm just tired. I'm tired of my community feeling unseen. I'm tired of them feeling unheard, and of the lack of accountability and the polarization that makes it impossible to move forward. I just thought that this would be a great opportunity to move the needle and tell the truth about what has happened in Minneapolis since its inception.
What have been some challenges of the truth and reconciliation process so far?
Some challenges that I'm seeing are people are just burnt out. Or they don't want to change. Or they don't see the value in putting themselves in other people's shoes if they can't relate. I feel like the level of empathy that we have for our neighbors is a really big challenge. Our city just hasn't been able to heal, and it's only furthering the divide.
I feel the biggest challenge is, how can we heal as a city when people aren't getting their needs met and they're trying to survive? And how do we have these conversations with folks that are action-based? I think that's what Minneapolis residents want to see is action.
I know it's still early in the process, but do you have any idea of what that action might look like? What do you envision as its next steps?
I think this work would be credible with the dedicated funding to back it up.
I really want to see the sense of truth and reconciliation being integrated across departments.
What I am looking forward to is the residents [feeling] a sense of community. I hope this commission can be that or can at least facilitate a sense of community and belonging. That's something that I want to see in the next steps—how do we build community? And how do we sustain it and make plays that make spaces that people can dream?
Do you have advice for other communities that may be interested in moving through a truth and reconciliation process?
Do what you say and say what you mean. If institutions don't think that they are ready to take this step, then that's one thing. But don't say that you're going to do it and [then not] do it 100%. Take your time to build the infrastructure that is sustainable and community-led. I feel like a lot of the time in government we create these programs, rush, we don't dot our I's and cross our T's, and then it ends up not being what it's supposed to be. It could do more harm. So I would say, please do what you say you're going to do, and take your time doing it.
Molly Bolan is the Assistant Editor for Route Fifty.
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