BY CAM GORDON
Part 2 (continued from “Mr. Smith goes to City Hall,” Southside Pride, January 2024)
On July 7, 2023, just a few weeks after Brian K. Smith retired from his position working in City Hall, I met and talked with him about his experiences. Last month in this column I shared some of what Smith said about his first years there. This column is about his last few.
In the fall of 2022, Smith seemed to be thriving in his role as director of the Office of Performance and Innovation (OPI) for the city of Minneapolis. In October he had won a Pollen 50 Over 50 “disruptor of the status quo” award for his work as a one of the “most inspiring and accomplished leaders from across the state.”
In the award announcement and elsewhere, Smith was noted for helping transform public safety in Minneapolis. The work he led examining the city’s 911 emergency response resulted in the establishment of the acclaimed unarmed Behavioral Crisis Response (BCR) program that has received national as well as local recognition. Smith and his team also created an overnight parking enforcement program so that police didn’t have to respond to parking calls at night, and a change to transfer theft and report-only calls from 911 to 311.
Smith resigned seven months later after he had testified against the appointment of a City Coordinator, formally complained about discrimination within the city, and filed a lawsuit against the city.
Through the settlement discussion over the lawsuit, the city offered to pay him to leave. He agreed and resigned effective June 23, 2023.
“I was about to go anyway,” said Smith. “I was tired. I had other options.” He said that the work had gotten so stressful that he took an unplanned leave because of “how toxic the place got.”
“I knew I wasn’t appreciated. I knew our work wasn’t appreciated,” he said. “It was just a bad environment for people who really wanted to serve residents. It was a super bad environment for Black people.”
“All of the Black folks who were in any position of leadership, those who went along with the status quo, as well as those who didn’t, are gone,” said Smith. “Anybody who was trying to do anything to change the status quo and make the city live up to what it says and writes on paper but doesn’t do, they’re all gone.”
Concerns, especially among Black employees, became very public in May of 2022 when a group of former and current staff from the city coordinator’s office held a press conference opposing the appointment of Heather Johnston, who was interim City Coordinator at the time, for a four-year term. Many of them were supervised by Smith, who was himself supervised by Johnston. Johnston has since also resigned.
In a letter shared at the time, 17 current and former city staff, many who worked in the division Smith directed, outlined concerns about a “toxic, anti-Black work culture that has been perpetuated by past and current City Coordinators, both interim and appointed, for several years.” “City leaders,” they wrote, “claim to uphold values of racial equity and justice and acknowledged racism as a public health crisis. However, these claims have failed to result in tangible actions that substantially support employees, especially Black employees.”
Smith said, “To be a director, your job is not only to supervise, give your staff the resources and the tools they need and the support they need to do a great job, it’s also your job to make sure that they come to work and be their full selves. So, when they took the time to organize, to speak out and to do all those things, to have no Black folks in leadership at the city say anything, what do you think that says for that group of people? How vulnerable and long-suffering do we expect people to be? To have no director stand up would have been pretty much everybody in the city’s saying, you’re on your own.”
“I wasn’t planning on going up there,” he said, adding, “I did it because everything they said was true and I experienced it daily.”
“I felt compelled to get up and say this is really happening, this is very personal,” Smith said. “You have people getting sick, scared at work, feeling like they are going to be retaliated against, not getting raises, not getting promotions, getting fired, getting disciplined.”
Despite being assured publicly at the hearing that there would be no retaliation against anyone who testified, when asked if there was retaliation, Smith said, “Yes, constant. They did it. I got a letter of reprimand maybe two months after and it included all the stuff from when I spoke out.”
Concerns about racial discrimination were perhaps most evident in the work he and his team did with 911 that ultimately resulted in the discrimination lawsuit Smith and Gina Obiri filed against the city. Obiri worked with Smith in the OPI.
Many complaints focused on Kathy Hughes, the 911 director at the time, who has since resigned her position with the city.
“When we were building the BCR, she refused to let us meet with her staff. She refused to give us any data. She refused to cooperate at meetings,” said Smith. “She would make racist statements directly to us, she would make them directly to other white people about us and the city about us, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The lawsuit stated that, “Beginning in late 2019 and for well over a year, Hughes, a White woman, discriminated against Plaintiffs because of their race, treating Plaintiffs with hostility and denigration, falsely accusing Plaintiffs of lying, criticizing and undermining them in front of City staff and residents, refusing to meet with them, and refusing to provide them access to information necessary to perform their jobs. … Hughes treated White employees in a dramatically different, respectful fashion.”
In one example, the lawsuit states that Hughes “demonstrated anti-Black bias, including openly questioning whether the majority-Black staff on the OPI team would be able to pass a criminal background check.”
Despite raising the issue with Hughes’s supervisors and the city’s human resources department through what Smith calls “constant emails,” he said, “nobody did anything for almost a year.”
Smith concluded that many people in City Hall think that “Black people are expendable.” “Everybody thinks we are built for long suffering, and they are so used to seeing people suffering they just think that that’s the way it is.”
“My size ended up in my 360 [work performance] review,” Smith said, quoting from memory one of the comments: “Brian has to realize that he is physically intimidating to some people, he’s a larger Black man so he should learn how to … .”
“Oh, it’s real,” Smith said of a racist, toxic work environment in City Hall. “If the pressure that came after George Floyd being murdered and other murders after that, the DOJ [Department of Justice], state Human Rights, $100 million in lawsuits, and the pressure that has built up in this community, if that is not enough to make change, I’m not sure what will.”
About the BCR service he helped create, Smith said, “What they need to do is to continue to let the innovation team manage it until they straighten out the things they need to straighten out in the office of community safety and the police department. To put it in precincts would be a huge mistake. Alternatives should be built, the same way we built the last one. They should be piloted, and they should be set up in a way that shows that people are serious about transforming public safety.”
Looking ahead, Smith said, “My concern inside the city is that people who truly want to be public servants will continue to leave, which means the level of service that the residents deserve, and pay for, will go down.”
“My concern is for residents,” he continued. “It can take a long time to undo some of the prejudice that is at play. The stuff that is embedded in our culture about race, about class, about who deserves service and who doesn’t, that’s so embedded it takes years to try to get at it.
“The people in this city have dealt with enough pain and deserve better.”