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In A Divided Region, Can A New Mayor Create A City United Against Inequality?

The newly inaugurated mayor wants to tackle the city’s most pressing problem: the widening gap between rich and poor.

In A Divided Region, Can A New Mayor Create A City United Against Inequality?
[Image: MInneapolis via Shtuterstock]

For all of the talk about inequality around the country, it’s not the expensive cities of New York City or San Francisco or Washington, DC, where disparities are necessarily the worst. When considering racial gaps in employment, poverty, and homeownership, it turns out that the less flashy region of the Twin Cities ranks at the bottom.

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That’s the central challenge that vaulted Minneapolis’s new mayor, Betsy Hodges, into office this January. She’s one of the new mayors across the U.S. that Co.Exist will be following through their term (see: “The Class Of 2014: The New Mayors Who Are Building The Future Of America’s Cities“).

With her campaign message of “One Minneapolis,” Hodges comes into office with a major focus on addressing the disparities in income, education, and opportunity among the city’s minorities and its white residents. “We’re absolutely at the bottom when it comes to education equality. We have more kids–African American kids, Latino kids, Asian American kids–dropping out of school and not graduating than just about any other place in the country,” says Sandra Vargas, CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. “It’s a societal issue, but it’s also become a serious problem for the economy for this region as a whole.”

With a focus on improving early childhood education for all groups, Hodges calls the gaps in outcomes between the city’s whites and people of color “shameful” and “intolerable.” She asks: Will we be a nation where anyone really can become president? Hodges believes this is a question that local governments need to play a big role in answering.

So far, she’s mostly joined in with progressive support for ongoing legislative battles, such as the statewide push to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage and the U.S. Congress’s attempt at immigration reform.

Her inauguration speech was also full of specifics that focused on the challenges of transit and smart growth, making sure development is sustainable, and ensuring that development happens along transportation corridors (Minneapolis is improbably the most-bike friendly city in the U.S.). One early focus for Hodges will be the creation of a modern streetcar system that connects different living hubs downtown. She spoke of green, walkable and livable neighborhoods in the southern residential parts of the city, and thinks the downtown mall should be the “envy of every street in the world.”

Hodges has done a big listening tour around the city to start. While she’ll face challenges in funding and pushing through her priorities, with a deep knowledge of the city’s finances from her time on the city council, Mayor Hodges starts with an advantage. “What she brings is a new energy around collaboration and a willingness to work through the tough conversations with people who are on different sides,” says Vargas.

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One telling but small detail: Unlike the two mayors before her, she had donors bankroll her inaugural party so that she could be more inclusive and offer tickets free of charge.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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