Cops, dispatchers, and other Police Department staff file into the Heritage Rooms in the basement of city hall, where Rashed Ferdous of the nonprofit Islamic Resource Group dives in on the basics of Islam in America – definitions, demographics, basic beliefs, and other information that will fill city employees’ heads with new information about cultures and religions that exist in Eden Prairie.
At about the same time, city-owned ice skates in many sizes are deployed to the ice-rink warming house at Nesbitt Preserve Park. The skates are free to check out and use by nearby residents, including those from a subsidized-housing complex that is home to some of Eden Prairie’s lower-income residents. To reduce outdoor recreation barriers, the free-for-checkout skates will be rotated to seven more neighborhood parks before the winter is over.
These are examples of how a Race Equity Report adopted by the city council one year ago is reshaping how city employees think about serving an ever-more-diverse population.
The volunteer Eden Prairie Human Rights and Diversity Commission that prepared the report and helps oversee its implementation with help from their city staff liaison, Megan Yerks of the Housing and Community Services Division of the Community Development Department, is heartened by the progress so far.
“As a commission, we have been encouraged by the city’s work in the implementation phase of the project,” said Greg Leeper, who chairs the commission. “More work is yet ahead, but city staff have done an excellent job innovating, executing, and providing regular progress reports. Megan Yerks especially deserves special mention for the key role she has played.”
The May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked the project, which the report describes as an endeavor to “find ways for the city to become more responsive to residents’ diverse needs and to advance racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
Change is needed, the city has concluded, in part because Eden Prairie is a much different place than it once was. In 1990, nearly 96 percent of Eden Prairie residents were white. Thirty years later, white residents are 70 percent of the city’s population. Census data from 2020 indicate that 13.86 percent of residents identify as Asian, 7.15 percent identify as Black, and 4.63 percent identify as Hispanic/Latino. Another 4.16 percent identify as more than one race.
The school district is even more diverse: 54 percent of the 8,600 students enrolled last year were white.
What the report says
After being assigned to put Eden Prairie city government and its practices under the microscope, the human rights commission recruited DeYoung Consulting Services to help. The consultant carried out interviews with stakeholders – including community members from under-represented groups – and conducted focus groups, listening sessions, and an online survey before writing the report, a process that cost $50,000.
While participants consistently viewed Eden Prairie as a safe community, and one where city officials and staff support community members, they said the city hasn’t always delivered on promises to address racial disparities. Participants further said that diversity in the city staff and leadership doesn’t match what exists in the greater population of Eden Prairie.
The final report spelled out 22 recommendations, from additional “de-escalation” training for police and fire personnel to ensuring that everyone has equitable access to city services, programs, and activities – including limited-English and non-English-speaking residents.
The report was approved on Jan. 4, 2022, by the Eden Prairie City Council. And then, as they say, the real work began.
Megan Yerks is the community services coordinator in the city’s Community Development Department and staff liaison to the Eden Prairie Human Rights and Diversity Commission, which has led the Race Equity Initiative. Photo courtesy City of Eden Prairie
A lot of the work has fallen to 20 city employees – a cross-section of the city’s workforce, says Yerks, with representation from each of six departments. Together, they make up the Race Equity Action Team (REAT). It will provide direction on next steps, and hold departments accountable for hitting targets.
Much of 2022 involved forming and educating that group, as well as aligning each recommendation with the proper department.
“Some of our recommendations apply to lots of different departments,” said Yerks, “or maybe just two or three, so there isn’t a, ‘Here is Park and Rec’s checklist of the things you need to do.’ It’s more that Park and Rec needs to go through the report and identify the areas that match their duties and responsibilities.
“So, internally we did start to get a sense of where we’re at already,” she added, and how the recommendations might influence the city’s two-year budget cycle.
How city services are changing
A good example of how the report is already influencing city services, Yerks says, is how the Parks and Recreation Department is reframing its programs and events so that success isn’t just determined by the number of participants, but also by accessibility, engagement, and equity.
That isn’t to say that specialized and inclusive offerings were nonexistent before the report. They weren’t. But now there is added focus and impetus to reaching residents who haven’t participated much in the past, by offering programs such as Women-Only Open Swimming, a time at the Community Center reserved exclusively for women who wish to swim in adherence with their religious customs and personal choice.
“For us it’s about access for anyone … to reach all corners of Eden Prairie,” said Recreation Services Manager Lori Brink.
In the Police Department, three initiatives that have started – not solely because of the report, but tied very closely to it, says Yerks – are a Neighborhood Police Officers program designed to build better relationships within geographic areas and solve neighborhood-level issues; expanded use of a community liaison officer; and embedding a social worker into police officers’ work.
Layered on top of those is ongoing cultural training sessions. Police Chief Matt Sackett notes that the sessions are not intended to turn officers into experts but are generating positive comments from uniformed and non-uniformed staff. “I hope people will see it as we’re taking steps to get a basic understanding,” said Sackett.
Some report recommendations will be harder to implement than others. Hiring a more diverse city workforce, for example, faces headwinds because of a tight labor market overall. The state says Minnesota, in general, doesn’t have enough workers to fill job openings because of retiring baby boomers and other factors. That means filling certain city jobs with an eye on diversity will be extremely difficult.
However, if city hall is searching for a role model in hiring, it might find one just blocks away, in the offices of the Eden Prairie Schools. The school district this month was lauded by Education Week, a national, independent news organization that covers K-12 education, for its hiring practices because nearly half of the district’s principals and associate principals are people of color.
As for the Race Equity Report overall, the city also must formalize what success looks like; what the measurements will be.
“That is what REAT is focused on in 2023 is looking at those metrics,” said Yerks. “We’ve started to establish this baseline of what the city is doing right now, we’ve moved through the process of what actions we are taking in 2023 and 2024 through our work plan, and our next step is to figure out, one, how will we measure success and, two, how will we report, most specifically externally and then within the city departments as well.”
Yerks is encouraged by how city staff are embracing the challenges and work presented by the Race Equity Report.
“From a personal perspective, the ‘Whoa!’ moment was how eager city staff were to engage,” she said.
“I see over and over again staff that just really want to do right by residents. There really has been an eagerness.”
(Want to read the Race Equity Report? The full document can be accessed via the City of Eden Prairie website.)
We offer several ways for our readers to provide feedback. Your comments are welcome on our social media posts (Facebook, X, Instagram, Threads, and LinkedIn). We also encourage Letters to the Editor; submission guidelines can be found on our Contact Us page. If you believe this story has an error or you would like to get in touch with the author, please connect with us.