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The view from City Hall: Melvin Carter talks about equity and race in St. Paul

Melvin Carter III was elected to a second term as Ward 1 St. Paul City Councilmember in November. The DFL member’s ward is considered to be the most racially and economically diverse in the city. Carter is one of the people we interviewed as part of TC Daily Planet’s coverage of the huge racial equity gap that impacts nearly every realm of life, in Minnesota as well as nationally. His work brings him in daily contact with people struggling to overcome the gap.

In his first term, Carter was most closely identified with efforts to create a Frogtown/Summit-University Community Investment Campus, a partnership between city and county officials, the public schools, and community organizers. Under leadership of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, the city won a highly competitive federal Promise Neighborhoods Grant, the goal of which is “to build a continuum of academic programs and family and community supports, from the cradle through college to career, with strong schools at the center.”

An advocate for transit equity,Carter has described access to transit as a “social justice issue” and has fought on behalf of residents and business owners along the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Line. Other issues the councilmember has championed include: forming the City’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, requiring landlords to notify tenants of pending foreclosures on their property, slowing the marketing of tobacco to children by banning candy cigarette and toy lighter sales, and educating restaurant employees about the dangers of food allergies.

Melvin Carter III is the son of District 4 Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, and Melvin Carter, Jr., a former St. Paul police sergeant, who founded Save our Sons (SOS), a nonprofit which works with young at-risk African American men. A St. Paul native, the councilmember holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

In Minnesota, as elsewhere, there continue to be significant racial disparities in unemployment and poverty rates. What do you think are the major reasons for those disparities?

There are a billion reasons for the disparities. Ultimately we haven’t made the necessary resource and priority decisions to eliminate them. In the City of St. Paul, service delivery models were set up for a city that used to exist, and that didn’t have the numbers of people of color, new Americans, and the diversity that we do today. In the St. Paul schools, in the past 20 years, we’ve seen the student population go from being 78 percent white to 75 percent students of color. A lot of rethinking is currently going on.

In light of these demographic shifts, what kinds of rethinking are occurring?

One of the things many people are beginning to explore is that one of the reasons we have so many disparities is because we have so many disparities. For example, the reason Minnesota has the highest unemployment gap in the country is probably related to the fact that we have the highest achievement gap in our schools and the highest rate of locking up young people of color. None of these disparities exists in a bubble.

What signs of inequality do you see as you travel around your ward? How are inequities felt in the everyday lives of your constituents in St. Paul?

I represent Ward 1, so from Frogtown, which is “ground zero” when it comes to housing foreclosures, south to Summit Avenue, where the Governor’s Mansion is located. It’s always striking to me that in a five-minute walk you can go from observing extreme poverty to seeing people, and these are working folks, who are among the more comfortable. In other words, you see everything from dilapidated run-down homes of people who are trying to scrape by month to month, to big homes with stone columns.

What do you see as promising solutions — any programs that are making, or could make a difference – to address some of these inequities?

The Promise Neighborhood is really focused on education and making sure that young people have the skills to compete in the workforce so that they can land the types of jobs that allow them to afford good housing and all of the other things that provide a good life. Educating children is one of the best routes to seeing that happen. I’m also impressed with some of the Blue Ribbon Commission work being done on reducing racial employment disparities.

Most of all it comes down to we as a society deciding that these disparities are not acceptable to us, that we all lose if we fail to educate our future workforce. We’re all in this together. Unless we close these gaps we all lose out. Those of us who are concerned about the education gap have to be concerned about all of the other gaps as well.

It seems to me that a fair amount of attention’s been given to educational and employment gaps. Can you say more about the juvenile detention gap?

In Ramsey County, Commissioner Toni Carter, my mother, has worked on developing a Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Too many young people are locked up in juvenile detention and the racial disparities are far too great.

Ramsey County’s JDAI mission is:

“To improve public safety and long-term outcomes for juveniles in Ramsey County by: Reducing the number of juveniles in secure detention; eliminating the disproportionate representation of juveniles of color in secure detention; achieving systematic reform of juvenile detention practices; and developing appropriate and effective detention alternatives for juveniles who should not be held in secure detention.”

What has that initiative accomplished?

It’s reduced the average annual admissions rates of juvenile detention centers. They’ve gone from running at overcapacity to entire wings being shut down. It’s been wildly successful in Ramsey County, which now serves as a model for other communities around the country. If you look at graphs, you can see that the populations of these detention centers have plummeted, and they’ve done so without an increase in juvenile crime. Most of the kids who were in detention didn’t deserve to be there in the first place.

Any final words?

Inequality isn’t something we need to attack just on behalf of poor people. The number of people in the community who have something to gain and something to lose by the choices we make has an impact on all of us, not just 20 years from now, but today.

- Bruce Johansen

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