Racial Equity in Parks and Recreation

December 1, 2015, Department, by Michelle Kellogg, Julie Nelson

Approved Bossen Field plan, including walking paths, open play fields, a central play area, picnic areas and garden features the Community Advisory Committee and Board unanimously supported.Equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably, but actually convey very different ideas. Equity is about fairness while equality is about sameness. Racial equity means that race can no longer be used to predict life outcomes and life outcomes for all groups are improved.  

Working for racial equity is to our collective benefit. When we think about racial disparities, we often think about how inequities affect communities of color. The goal is not to just eliminate the gap between white people and people of color, but to increase our collective success. For example, using plain language to convey our policies and procedures will make them easier for all community members. Improving outdated hiring practices will strengthen the hiring process for all employees. Creating inclusive and welcoming environments will ensure that all people will feel welcome.

Why Race?

While explicit acts of discrimination became illegal through the Civil Rights Act, government policies and practices included “race-neutral” approaches that perpetuated racial inequities, often without explicit intent. Across every indicator for success, from jobs to housing, education, criminal justice and health, we still see deep and pervasive racial inequities nationwide.  

Focusing on racial equity seeks to address the institutional and structural racism that perpetuates these disparities. Institutional racism is when policies, procedures and practices work better for white people than for people of color, often unintentionally. Structural racism refers to the history and current reality of institutional racism across all institutions, combining to create a system that negatively impacts people of color.

Why Is This Important to Parks and Recreation Professionals?

It is anticipated that by 2042 people of color will become the majority population in the United States. Children of color are on course to reach that milestone by 2023.

Parks and recreation services in this country offer a great opportunity to advance racial equity. To that end, park and recreation services need to be at the forefront of addressing the inequities in our society. 

Racial Equity Tools 

Too often, policies and programs are developed and implemented without thoughtful consideration of racial equity. When racial equity is not explicitly brought into operations and decision-making, racial inequities are likely to be perpetuated. Racial equity tools are designed to integrate explicit consideration of racial equity in decisions, including policies, practices, programs and budgets, and to provide a structure for institutionalizing the consideration of racial equity. A racial equity tool: 

  • Proactively seeks to eliminate racial inequities and advance equity. 
  • Identifies clear goals, objectives and measurable outcomes. 
  • Engages community in decision-making processes. 
  • Identifies who will benefit or be burdened by a given decision, examines potential unintended consequences of a decision, and develops strategies to advance racial equity and mitigate unintended negative consequences. 
  • Develops mechanisms for successful implementation and evaluation of impact. 

Use of a racial equity tool is an important step to operationalizing equity but is not sufficient by itself. In order to move forward, we must normalize conversations about race, operationalize new behaviors and policies, and organize to achieve racial equity.

Bossen Field: A Racial Equity Pilot Project

Bossen Field, which serves as a citywide athletic facility and neighborhood park on the south edge of Minneapolis, is a 37-acre park with 10 softball/baseball fields, one soccer/football field, a basketball court, two play areas, a wading pool, and parking lots. 

In the past two decades, the neighborhood immediately surrounding Bossen has seen significant increase in racial and ethnic diversity with growing populations of Hispanic, African-American and new African immigrants. It also has higher numbers of children than much of Minneapolis. One side of the park is bordered by high-density apartment buildings with primarily Spanish-speaking residents.

As one of the only athletic field complexes in the city, the park is heavily used by adult athletic teams who travel from other parts of the city and nearby suburbs that may not share the demographics of the neighborhood. In talking with neighborhood groups, Minneapolis Park and Recreation staff heard that many neighbors didn’t feel welcome in the park and felt that it is only available for use by athletic leagues. Local residents playing pick-up soccer games reported the experience of being “kicked out” when softball players would arrive and explain that they had reserved the field.  

In developing a master plan for the park, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) was faced with decisions about how to serve multiple constituencies with different, and sometimes conflicting, interests. Staff and leadership saw the opportunity to pilot the use of racial equity tools in the development of this master plan. More importantly, they saw the missed opportunity to meet the needs of the community if equity was not considered.

The MPRB started by training the project team staff in racial equity concepts and the use of a racial equity toolkit in decision making. The staff team knew that inclusive community engagement would be critical to the success of this project, so staff utilized different outreach and engagement methods to reach different user groups. Online surveys and public meetings were mostly used by athletic league participants, while neighborhood residents were contacted through outreach events at area churches and schools, door-knocking with bilingual Spanish- or Somali-speaking staff, working closely with key neighborhood residents, and paper surveys in multiple languages. 

Through this engagement, staff learned that there were areas of common interest between athletic leagues and neighborhood residents: the softball teams didn’t like kicking neighborhood kids off of the fields any more than the kids enjoy getting kicked off, and both groups wanted picnic facilities, more walking paths through the park, and improved parking facilities to minimize parking on neighborhood streets.

As a result, the master plan addressed parking, pathways and picnic areas and also placed open, flexible field space for soccer games in close proximity to the high-density housing. 

This inclusive process demonstrated the power of integrating racial equity into an important process, resulting in a strengthened proposal that will better meet the needs of both the surrounding neighbors and region-wide users.  

What Have We Learned?

Normalizing conversations about race is the only way to develop effective strategies for racial equity. One of the biggest challenges is the general discomfort many people experience in talking about race. This is a critical hurdle to get over. Avoiding conversations about race means there is a greater likelihood that organizations will not develop appropriate strategies to address institutional and structural racism. 

Behavior drives attitude. Sometimes we think that attitude drives behavior — we want people to “understand” racism and expect that behavioral changes will follow. In reality, the opposite is true: changing behavior changes understanding. Giving employees a common understanding of racial equity terminology and tools to use to do their jobs differently leads to an increased understanding of institutional and structural racism. 

Equity is a process. It takes continual learning and practice to embed racial equity into your organization. Equity cannot be relegated to a checkbox or an additional step to an existing process. Instead, it is a shift in the way our agencies do business. 

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Numerous organizations have already started this journey and have developed language, tools and resources. One of the organizations leading this charge is the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity. Check out GARE’s resources, including its Racial Equity Toolkit. 

View the approved Bossen Field plan, which includes features that the Community Advisory Committee and Board unanimously supported, including walking paths, open play fields, a central play area, picnic areas and gardens.

Michelle Kellogg is the Equity and Inclusion Project Manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Julie Nelson is the Director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.