Minnehaha Falls, one of the biggest attractions in the Minneapolis park system, on a late fall afternoon. Credit: Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

When Alicia Smith is sworn in to her seat on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board next year, she’ll be the only person of color on the nine-member body overseeing the diverse city’s massive public parks system. 

Smith, the executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Association in south Minneapolis, won an at-large seat November 2 on the board, which oversees a 6,817 acres of land with 180 parks, 102 miles of walking and biking paths, 49 recreation centers, and seven golf courses with a $128 million budget. The system has been ranked the top municipal park organization in the nation six times in the past decade. 

“With the climate in Minneapolis right now, you’d think the board would look totally different,” Smith said. “But it doesn’t.” 

A non-representative board

About 60 percent of Minneapolis residents are white, according to Minnesota Compass, a nonprofit demographic research firm. Park Board commissioners are elected from six geographical districts and three at-large seats. Because three incumbents were defeated and four others declined to run for reelection, Smith will be among seven new commissioners in January. 

The current board has three Black members: Londel French and LaTrisha Vetaw, who are at-large commissioners, and AK Hassan, the first Somali board member whose district includes Cedar-Riverside, Longfellow, Phillips, and Powderhorn. 

Vetaw is moving up in the political world after beating incumbent Phillipe Cunningham to represent the north side’s 4th Ward on the City Council. AK and French were defeated in their reelection bids. 

The outgoing commissioners were a diverse, youthful departure from a board that traditionally featured older, white representatives. In 2016, then-president of the Minneapolis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Nekima Levy Armstrong confronted the all-white board about equity issues in the parks. That’s what initially inspired French to seek office, he said. Now, he worries that diverse perspectives could have a harder time being heard. 

 “I want to make sure we’re not forgetting about anybody, and we have a tendency to do that when we have an all white board,” he said. 

Becky Alper, a 38-year-old white woman who defeated AK in District 3, said she aims to represent people from different cultural backgrounds. A parent to biracial children, Alper said she became motivated to run for the board when she started spending more time in local parks with her kids during the early pandemic lockdowns of 2020. She hopes to invest more in youth activities and environmental initiatives.  

 “I want to make sure I’m engaging all voices and listening to the diverse communities we have in District 3,” Alper said. 

Being the only Black person in the room isn’t new to Smith in her professional life, and she said her status doesn’t put any more pressure on her than she typically experiences as a Black woman. 

Smith is well suited for her role as citywide commissioner. She grew up on the north side, and attended school in northeast Minneapolis. Today, she lives on the south side with two young sons. She wants to increase investment in programming for parks on the north side to make sure recreation centers are fully staffed so that young people can use parks as an enriching place to relax and have fun. 

 “North Minneapolis and south Minneapolis are night and day from a parks perspective,” she said.  

A backlash to encampments

French, an organizer with Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, said he feels he lost because of his commitment to maintaining Hiawatha Golf Course as an 18-hole operation, and his stance on allowing unsheltered people to camp in parks during the summer of 2020. 

“Those are things I don’t mind losing elections over,” he said.  

In June 2020, unsheltered people who had been staying at a hotel during the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder moved en masse to Powderhorn Park, on the city’s south side. There a network of mutual aid supported what became the largest homeless encampment in Minnesota history. In response, a majority of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted to declare city parks a “sanctuary” for unsheltered people, essentially allowing encampments throughout the system. 

That declaration sparked a backlash, and the board gradually scaled back its commitments to allowing only permitted encampments of limited sizes at fewer parks. In 2021, the board did not permit any encampments on parkland. 

French said commissioners learned a lot on the fly in the summer of 2020, and while he doesn’t think the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board should be housing people, he does think it has a role to help in times of crisis as the largest landowner in the city. Ultimately, he hopes people who were upset about encampments in parks will pressure state lawmakers to make meaningful investments to help people find homes. 

“The homeless situation hasn’t been solved, they’re just not in our parks anymore,” French said. 

Smith said she heard a lot about encampments while campaigning. She volunteered at Powderhorn Park last summer, and while she wants to treat unsheltered people with dignity and respect, she doesn’t believe the system should allow further encampments. 

Another major issue was the Hiawatha Golf Course. The 18-hole course in the southeast corner of the city has long been a staple of public golf in the Twin Cities, and is particularly popular with Black golfers. The site is also prone to flooding, which caused substantial damage in 2014, and there is a $43 million proposal to convert the course to nine holes while making the rest a typical park designed with natural features intended to absorb excess water. Prior to a pandemic golf surge, it lost money for several years.  

In July, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted 5-4 to reject the nine hole plan, with all three Black commissioners opposed. 

French lost in a crowded field for three at-large seats on the board. Incumbent Meg Forney retained her seat; Smith and fellow newcomer Tom Olsen won the remaining two. Forney voted with French on the initial declaration of the parks as a sanctuary for unsheltered people, but has since committed to the board’s updated policies of not allowing encampments. Smith is also opposed to encampments in parks, while Olsen has said he would work to ensure any new encampments are limited in size to maintain health and safety standards. Forney and Olsen support the plan to convert Hiawatha to a nine-hole course. 

Making it more appealing 

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is not a glamorous political seat. Its commissioners receive about $12,500 a year for their service. Its bimonthly meetings often last over four hours. The current board frequently didn’t get along, and meetings at times featured contentious disagreements

Alper and French said they would like to see a pay raise for commissioners, which they believe could help attract more diverse candidates.

Voting for park commissioners isn’t typically top of mind for Minneapolitans casting ballots, French said, and often the election results reflect the politics of the times. Because park districts are larger than city wards, and because a third of the board is elected by the entire city, wealthier, whiter neighborhoods often cast more ballots. In 2017, the city’s election was part of a progressive wave in reaction to President Donald Trump’s victory the previous year, and French and other progressives were swept into power. This year, he believes his stance supporting Question 2 to reform public safety put him on the wrong side of electoral momentum. 

Park districts will be redrawn by the Minneapolis Charter Commission based on the 2020 U.S. Census. At a post-election meeting on November 3, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioners discussed the possibility of changing the way the four districts that cover downtown and the south side of the city are shaped. Today all four of those districts converge roughly near Lake Street and Interstate 35W, splitting more diverse neighborhoods like Central, Lyndale, Phillips, Powderhorn, and Whittier into multiple districts.  

“We had one of the most diverse boards in history and in a couple of months we will have one of the least diverse boards in history,” said outgoing District 6 Commissioner Brad Bourn, who did not seek reelection. 

Newcomers Alper and Smith are excited to get to work, and are optimistic that the new board can deliver results for the whole city. Both are parents to school age children, and think that perspective will be helpful in shaping a board that serves families. 

“I envision a collaborative board, one the pushes for youth recreation and development,” Alper said.

Smith said she’s hoping her white colleagues will help make positive changes for residents of color, not simply say the right things. She believes the new board wants to be productive and not get dragged down in petty disagreements. 

“We can do some really amazing things for our community, and for me that’s the most important thing, serving our community,” she said.  

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...