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As diversity in Woodbury and Minn. grows, some say inclusion needs work

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Wenceslaus Muenyi. Youssef Rddad / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

There's no shade of pink Wenceslaus Muenyi doesn't own.

Each time he goes jogging near his Woodbury home, he's sure to wear bright colors.

It's not out of fear of wayward motorists. Instead, Muenyi said he does it to wick away the long looks he gets from neighbors as a black man running. At times, they've called the police on him.

"Image control is key in Woodbury," said Muenyi, 23.

He tries not to let those and other moments, like waiting longer for service and awkward comments about his ethnicity, bother him. Still, they sometimes get under his skin, a critique he and other residents of color have voiced.

"If you want to succeed as a black person here, you just learn to be OK with how people are going to treat you," Muenyi said. "The little things are the most annoying things in Woodbury."

As Minnesota's fourth fast-growing city continues to balloon, so too has Woodbury's racial diversity, which accounted for a large share of its growth. Despite the rapid changes, some say frequent and subtle forms of discrimination are contributing to an unwelcoming atmosphere for people of color and may have wider consequences.

The latest U.S Census figures show people of color make up roughly 23 percent of Woodbury's population of about 68,000, up from only about 5 percent in 1990.

Although a recent survey of residents say they're pleased with the overall quality of life in Woodbury, when it comes to accepting people of color, the community falls short.

According to Woodbury's residential survey, more than a third of respondents gave a poor or fair rating when asked about the city's acceptance toward "people of diverse backgrounds."

City leaders have taken note of the responses, noting them as an outlier in the data, a trend that isn't unique to only Woodbury and other suburbs.

Economic consequences

Throughout Minnesota, people of color account for most of the state's population growth.

State Demographer Susan Brower said more people are moving to Minnesota from other countries than other states.

As more white Minnesotans approach retirement age, people of color make up a growing portion childbearing adults.

"When growth is happening, it's because there's growth of populations of color," Brower said. "Because more people of color are concentrated in those younger ages, those things go hand in hand: population growth and diversity."

Brower's department projects the state's overall percentage of residents of color will jump from the 14 percent recorded in 2005 to 25 percent by 2035.

Wen Muenyi.

State officials, however, foresee potential problems replacing aging workers if Minnesota doesn't recruit more people from out of state.

But retaining transplants, especially professionals of color, has been challenging.

A recent Greater MSP survey saw more than half its respondents — all professionals of color — say they've experienced either frequent or occasional bias or discrimination based on race. The Twin Cities economic development group published its findings earlier this year.

In 2015, Tatum Hawkins and her family moved to Woodbury after 3M recruited her husband.

She enjoyed the museums, the outdoors and was happy with her daughter's school. But Woodbury never felt like home, Hawkins said.

Outside of her friends from college already living in the Twin Cities, it was tough making new ones, she said, especially with native Minnesotans.

"There were some times when you wouldn't see any people of color at all," she said of Woodbury.

Hawkins recalls frequent and off-putting comments she'd get about how well behaved her daughter was or how nice she dressed. "It made me feel like there's something about me," she said.

Within two years, Hawkins and her family moved back to Michigan.

State Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, sees room for more conversation.

If Minnesota fails to attract and retain a diverse population of new residents, Kent said, the state could struggle to fuel its "workforce engine."

Kent acknowledged talking about race is complex, but she said there's opportunity for growth among residents as the country becomes more diverse.

"If we want to keep up, we have to continue to follow that trend as well," she said. "We have to continue to attract people from other states, from other countries to continue to contribute to our jobs and economy."

Lack of representation on city boards, institutions and public offices are problems Justice Sikakane sees in retaining diverse populations in Woodbury and the region.

A 2007 Woodbury High School graduate, Sikakane said he wants to changes that.

Along with his volunteer work mentoring young people about a career in information technology,

Sikakane's been working to encourage others to join organizations like the local Lions Club where he serves as an active member.

He's also the only black member, as well as the youngest at 28. Since joining, his fellow members have turned to Sikakane for helping recruit newer, younger members.

"They're not trying to be known as the 'old boys club' anymore, they're trying to be open to millennials joining the club," he said.

City responses

Staff at Woodbury City Hall recently completed a year-long equity program, with the goal of keeping racial equity in mind while making decisions.

So far, about a dozen city employees underwent the training.

Sarah Alig, assistant to the city administrator, said she hopes to break down survey results by respondents while factoring: Are white people saying the community welcomes diversity, while black respondents would disagree? Do longtime residents find Woodbury welcoming, while newcomers may not?

"We're trying to disaggregate by demographics," Alig said. "We need to find that out, and we need to fix it if that's what the case is."

Woodbury schools and police have also been leaders in building a more inclusive city, she said.

When the City Council presented a welcoming community concept as a directive a couple years ago, Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague said he saw a natural role for public safety.

Although officers in his department previously underwent implicit bias training, Vague said he looked at ways to make it better.

"We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable," he said. "We have to have some difficult conversations."

Those conversations, Vague said, are not isolated within his department. Public Safety helped facilitate community-wide dialogues along with local health and wellness group Woodbury THRIVES and the city's Muslim community.

Through those events, Vague said he learned late-night prayers sometimes take place at the local mosque, which sits in an industrial part of Woodbury. To people unfamiliar with Islamic prayer times, the after-dark traffic might seem like a reason to call the police.

But some say there's only so much local government can do to promote equity.

"As we become less of a monoculture in Woodbury, knowing different types of people will give everybody insight into the full range of people," said THRIVES' Project Manager Simi Patnaik.

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