15 June 2022
On May 26, I watched the livestreamed Minneapolis City Council meeting, hoping to see the council vote in solidarity with the 75 city staff who put their careers and financial stability on the line to sign on to a letter about the toxic and abusive work environment at the city coordinator’s office.
My heart sank as city staff filed out after the City Council decided to delay the vote on Heather Johnston’s appointment to city coordinator. As someone with a background in working with survivors of abuse, I was familiar with the looks on their faces.
In over two hours of powerful testimony just two days before, these folks had shared examples of the ways their workplace was toxic and racist. Though they had been told that Interim Director Johnston (who is under investigation by the city’s human resources department) would not take steps to punish them, they still must continue to show up in that same harmful environment to do the jobs they care about.
These are folks trying to make change from the inside. They don’t get accolades from other city leaders. They create programs that make our city safer and rarely get credit — because that’s not why they show up. They do it because they care about our city.
While watching the earlier testimony, I recognized Brian K. Smith, director of performance and innovation, who spoke at our Ward 11 Public Safety Meeting earlier this spring. Smith was willing to come out after office hours and share about the work he and his staff are rolling out. I asked some tough questions and he took them with grace. It must have been harder for him to stand before City Council last month and be told to cut his comments shorter after sharing how difficult his job had become due to the culture in the city coordinator’s office. At one point he stated that he might not even have a job the next day.
That’s who pays the price for delays. That’s who burns out. That’s who deserves not only our sympathy, but our solidarity.
As painful as it was to see city staff file out after the vote to delay on May 26, the most upsetting thing may have been Mayor Frey’s attempt to re-center this conversation on himself by claiming that he would not get to be the best mayor he could be when council members did not follow his decisions. No one is getting in Frey’s way but Frey. The mayor chose — on his own — to claim those staff who made themselves vulnerable in the city coordinator’s office had made no clear documented incidents of harm from Heather Johnston. However, as Council Member Aisha Chughtai pointed out, there were incidents documented in their letter, as well as shared in the two hours of testimony at the hearing on May 24, during which the mayor sat on the dais.
Frey must have heard as staff recounted how they shook and cried on the floor of their offices because of the impossibility they felt of trying to get heard by those in positions of power. Frey showed that exact behavior by refocusing from their concerns to his mayoral power and attempting to minimize their testimony. What he did was diminishing, dehumanizing and harmful.
I have contacted the mayor’s office in the past about the importance of trauma-centered services at Hennepin County Courts. The staff member who responded to me recommended that I apply to a job opening in the courts so I could change the system from the inside. How can internal change happen when the current culture of our city enterprise thrives on wearing down staff until they break, especially those who come in passionate about making change?
This moment calls for leaders who listen to and act with those who are truly in the trenches. It is not about elected officials; it is not about appointees. It is about those who show up and do difficult, often uncredited work because they love our city and they want people to be in workplaces and city spaces free from the harms they face daily.
My current council member, Emily Koski has shared repeatedly that she values and supports city staff and their commitment to change. Her votes during her tenure as a council member tell a different story. While sympathy sounds nice, it does not make change. I hope Koski chooses to use the real tools at her disposal — votes and relationships with others in power — to show her solidarity with city staff and alignment with the values she professes to hold.
Rebecca Donley is a Ward 11 resident with over 15 years of experience supporting survivors of abuse and providing training about the dynamics of abuse.