Interview #112: Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.

Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?

A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?

Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?

A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.

Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?

A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.

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Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins

Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?

A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.

Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?

A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.

Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.

A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.


Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.

If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA

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Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This week, we air the newest episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project featuring a big-name city: Richmond, Virginia. I talked with many different residents about their favorite and least favorite things about Virginia’s capital. Many brought up the city’s ties to the Confederacy and the legacy of segregation. Others talked about the extensive collection of neighborhoods. You’ll come with me to a rally with the mayor, stroll along an island, and visit the pew where Jefferson Davis sat in church.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to learn which historical figure had turkey quills shoved up his nose, head to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 10: Richmond, Virginia

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Photo source: Main Street Station

Richmond is a city of 220,000 people and the capital of Virginia. It was also the capital of the Confederacy and that legacy still lingers. The James River provides recreational opportunities and the Amtrak station provides a connection to Washington, D.C. and beyond. During our visit, we stand in the middle of the water, attend a rally with the mayor, and visit a restaurant that will be gone in a year. We hear from a real estate agent, some college students, a teacher, a tour guide, people who have moved away and returned, and two political watchdogs.

#114: Minnetonka, MN 6/26/17

“The next item on the agenda is ‘special matters,’ and that’s, uh, having me receive the C. C. Ludwig Award,” announced retiring Mayor Terry Schneider.

He practically whispered the last part, seeming slightly embarrassed to be standing in the middle of the room while superlatives were broadcast about him. Chalk it up to Midwestern modesty.

“A kind-hearted individual….we are eternally grateful,” Council Member Brad Wiersum read from multiple glowing recommendations. The mayor clutched his mic timidly with both hands.

“I want to reflect on a personal story that many of you haven’t heard,” he said cautiously, “that might be difficult for me to talk about.”

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I’m all ears

“People asked me, how can I sit through a contentious, controversial meeting and keep my cool and keep it civil? My standard answer is, well, I’m an introvert,” he explained in a gravelly voice. “So it’s the easiest thing for me to do. While that is true, it’s not the real reason why. And, um….”

Schneider coughed lightly and stared at the ground, trying not to cry. A black-and-white photograph of the mayor’s grandfather flashed onscreen.

“My grandparents lived in Plymouth [Nebraska] and I spent most of my summers with my grandparents. It was a phenomenal experience–particularly for an introvert–to be in a low-key town.”

The entire room was listening silently.

“I didn’t realize until after the fact, when we’re in a small town, you didn’t have any toys. One time, I made a bunch of darts. I was doing it in the living room. He was sitting on a rocking chair smoking his pipe. I was throwing and all of a sudden, it stuck him right in the eye.”

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IN THE EYE?!

A few people nervously chuckled. The mayor again paused to collect himself.

“He just sat there. Didn’t say a word. There’s this dart in my grandfather’s eye. So I walked up and took the dart out. He never said a word. That kind of quiet lesson taught me that there are consequences to your action.”

The mayor reached into his pocket and brandished a small trinket.

“I’ve got a little toy tank that he gave me when I was a kid. I would spend hours on the carpet running the tank around. So I carried this with me every day to remember to act like my grandfather. I realized after 20 years, I didn’t need to carry it.”

Council members smiled sympathetically as the mayor concluded: “My grandfather passed away exactly 50 years ago. So thanks for listening to that little story. Maybe somebody will be touched by it.”

I see the man’s point here. But if I may: when someone throws a dart into your eyeball, how on earth is the lesson to sit there until they come and pluck it out?! I’ve heard of turning the other cheek, but you’ve only got so many eyes–and those things are NOT dart-resistant.

I believe silence is golden, but retina damage is PERMANENT.

Speaking of which, in another first for me, council members abruptly donned official “Tour de Tonka” sunglasses as the bike ride’s director strode to the podium.

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Awww, group picture!

“You guys are amazing,” he beamed, pulling out his phone and snapping pictures. “You look amazing, every one of you.”

The ride, he said, “is a sense of accomplishment. It’s not a race. If you can go that far, you deserve a pat on the back.”

Now THAT is a perfect lesson about life–and about being mayor.

Interview #52: Raleigh, NC Councilor Corey Branch (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Corey Branch is in his first term on the Raleigh city council and there is one simple thing that he’d like to receive at a council meeting. (Much to my chagrin, it’s not a flamethrower.) Plus, we talk about how you have to acknowledge criticism from citizens and move past it.

Q: Other than grievances, what have people given you at council meetings?

A: Handouts, shirts, mugs are the main things we’ve seen. Little pinwheels we’ve received for child abuse prevention. Those–

Q: I don’t see the connection there.

A: Yeah, they’re pink pinwheels. It’s a symbol for that. I couldn’t tell you how it started.

Q: Well, obviously you remember what the pinwheel was for, so it did its job. But if you could receive anything for free at a council meeting, what would you want it to be?

A: A thank-you. That for me, honestly, means so much because I know the time that me and my peers put in to serve. Sometimes it’s just good to hear that it’s appreciated because we hear a lot of what we’re doing wrong. It’s just good to hear someone say thank you.

Q: Mmm. I would have chosen those novelty glasses that you put on and it looks like your eyes are open but secretly you can sleep behind them, you know?

A: I know exactly the ones you’re talking about!

Q: Yeah, well that’s what I would have chosen anyway. That or a flamethrower.

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Raleigh, NC Councilor Corey Branch

When public commenters bring up the issue of race or refer to the other council members as “white folks,” do you feel they are excluding you? Or are they not speaking so much about “black v. white,” but really “citizens v. people in power?”

A: I think it’s a mix of both. People’s experiences play a major role in how they interact and how they may see things or express things. As for me, do I feel they’re talking to me or excluding me? I can’t speak for them. I just know every day for the last 39.5 years when I wake up, I’ve been a man of color.

Q: I don’t want to be the white guy who does this, but I watched an episode of Blackish recently, and–

A: [Chuckles]

Q: I know how this is coming across right now! But the father explains to the son about “the nod,” where if two black men walk past each other, they nod in acknowledgment. Do you get the sense that when people speak to the council, they telegraph to you, “hey, YOU should at least be on my side?”

A: Um, yes. I have to look at the situation, what’s going on. I’m fortunate that I can bring in some experiences that other council members have not [had]. If I feel there is a lack of equity, I need to be a voice. Speaking out may not be directly from that table. It may be a sidebar conversation.

Q: If someone was criticizing me because I was “white folks” or…or anything, “young people,” “left-handed people,” I would get defensive and tune them out.

A: I hear it and acknowledge it. We have to act like adults. That’s why earlier when you asked me what I wanted, I said a thank-you for these very reasons we’re talking about here.


Follow Councilor Corey Branch on Twitter: @Corey4DistrictC

Interview #49: Johannesburg, ZA-GT Councilor Michael Sun (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

This is very exciting: our first visit to Africa! Michael Sun is one of 270 councilors in Johannesburg. We talk about how the meetings have changed since the 2016 election, the importance of singing and dancing, and the time tragedy struck.

Q: Before the 2016 election when one political party, the African National Congress, had a majority, did council meetings go smoothly?

A: I would say it ran fairly smoothly and [there] probably was very little disruption from the opposition parties. I think the biggest disruption we’ve ever seen was a walk-out from council chambers. Other than that, we have not seen any violence as we have been seeing very recently.

Q: I do read the South African news and see stories about protesters, intimidation, and threats at the Johannesburg council meetings. Have you ever been threatened?

A: It’s very unfortunate that some groups of protesters would choose council to stage their protest. Our Constitution protects one’s right to protest. Some of them go as extreme as ending up in fistfights. It’s something that we are not accustomed to–something that we certainly condemn.

Q: I do have to be thorough because you are in Africa: has a group of elephants ever stampeded your chamber, sir?

A: [Laughs] Michael, we are a little far away from the Bushveld!

Q: Ah. Do councilors trust each other?

A: I trust my fellow councilors. Our position is that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t trust each other. But when doubts are being brought to the fore [about corruption], one needs to exercise discretion.

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Johannesburg, ZA-GT Councilor Michael Sun

Q: I noticed that in your first council meeting after the election, a group of EFF councilors started singing and dancing. And at one point, most of the room was dancing! Does music have a role in your council meetings?

A: Oh, absolutely! Singing and dancing is part of our culture. Whether there are happy moments, we sing. Or sad moments, we sing. So political parties in a way of celebration or to express sorrow will break out into song. Often if you’re not exposed to this kind of display of culture, one would feel offended by the noise and gesture. But if you have an understanding of where the country comes from, you would appreciate the display.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: Sometimes we get up and sing at the top of our voices. Some of them don’t know all the words but we try our best!

Q: Going back to that first council meeting, one of the councilors collapsed. And a little while later, she died. I mean, you had singing, dancing, allegations of corruption, and now a death. 

A: This is the first time that a councilor passed on in a council meeting. We would never wish for any councilor to suffer that fate. We understood afterward she had been ill. But because of the volatility of the contestation of the mayorship and the speakership, it was a very sad day for all of us.

Q: Is there any racial tension in your meetings?

A: I think as a country, we’ve really come a long way. Once you have so many ethic groups in one pot, it’s bound to spark. It’s also from the spark we will learn from each other. We know to respect each other. So racial issues has never really been a problem for me.


Follow Councilor Michael Sun on Twitter: @MichaelSun168

#94: Montgomery, AL 3/21/17

Mayor Todd Strange smiled patiently as he waited for council members to slowly fill the numerous vacant chairs on the dais.

“Well, obviously Spring Break has taken its toll on certain council people,” Strange quipped, soldiering ahead. Montgomery City Hall was fuller than usual with brightly-dressed dignitaries lining the front rows.

“We have a large crowd visiting Montgomery: 18 or so individuals from faraway Africa! Their purpose is to study the structure of race and social justice and look to our diversity and things that work.”

Um, I get that they’re here to study race relations, but–and don’t take this wrong way, Mr. Mayor–why the h*ck did they choose Alabama?!

“We were notified by Trivago that we were the number one community as a must-see for African-American culture,” he explained. Then he wheeled around to face the audience directly.

“I see you shaking your heads, so you do understand some English. We’re delighted to have you here!”

As the mayor turned back, the visitors exchanged glances and stifled laughter. Granted, his delivery was a little goofy, but I don’t get the joke.

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Is there a lesson about racial justice here somewhere?

With that, the lady in charge of the platoon stepped forward to introduce everybody.

“The delegation this evening, ALL of whom are English speaking and representing 16 different countries in Africa, are emerging leaders.”

Ah. They all speak English. If the mayor realized his faux pas, he shrugged it off in a nanosecond. “We wanna get a group picture!” he gestured excitedly.

“This is why we come to Montgomery,” the woman deadpanned. What followed was a painful butchering of names as the journalists, attorneys, and even members of parliament gathered in front of the dais for what was, I assume, the highlight of their 6,000 mile trip.

Unfortunately, the travelers all journeyed to the exit, heading to their next event. Which meant they missed this slickly-produced audiovisual display:

Coming off the good vibes from the video, the meeting’s smooth flow was suddenly halted by a man so tall that he hunched at the podium to reach the microphone. The subject was a grave one: the city wanted to demolish his dilapidated house.

“You want to talk to us about your appeal?” President Pro Tem Tracy Larkin gently inquired in a voice so smooth you could toss a bowling ball down it.

“Yeah, my dad was fixing on [the house] and he got sick and all,” stammered the man. “I would like to have the opportunity to fix it back up to the code.”

“How much work was done so far?” Larkin murmured.

“Well, you look up on the basement, you can see all the way through,” he replied in his heavily muddled accent. “Then you look in the roof–on the edge it’s rotten. It’s real bad. Then it gotta be rewired.”

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If lullabies were a person

The white-haired, mustachioed housing enforcement officer jumped in. “Mr. President, it would be appropriate for the council NOT to give him any extension,” he asserted.

Oh, no! What kind of heartless bureaucrat would demolish a man’s house?

“We’re not bringing it for demolition. We contend that it’s an unsafe structure at this time,” he clarified.

“You do agree that it is an unsafe structure?” probed one council member.

“Yes,” the tall man leaned into the mic and nodded vigorously.

Well then, no demolition. No controversy. No further discussion. I guess the Africa delegation didn’t miss much after all.