At the YMCA, we know that solving complex challenges about equity takes bold work. This call to action reverberated around the globe when George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. While our country has a long history of structural racism, this death sparked community conversation and action on a new level.
The YMCA has a strong history of educating and leading on equity and diversity. We are deeply embedded in diverse communities, and we are working to lean in with these communities to advance learning, understanding and equity across the Twin Cities.
To support us in these efforts, UnitedHealth Group in June 2020 awarded the YMCA a $5 million grant. The YMCA renamed its Equity Innovation Center of Excellence to UnitedHealth Group Equity Innovation Center of Excellence in recognition of the generous gift.
In establishing our partnership, UnitedHealth Group and the Center identified four key areas of focus: the justice system, government, education and health care.
The YMCA seeks to grow our voice as a force for change, helping individuals and organizations advance their understanding and knowledge, shift attitudes and be empowered to be equity leaders in their own communities and spheres of influence. Funding from UnitedHealth Group will accelerate that change, partnering with us to build a more equitable Twin Cities and beyond.
Case Study: Advancing Equity and Inclusion in Forest Lake, Minnesota
Forest Lake is a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota with a rapidly growing, diverse population in a community with a historically low rate of racial diversity. These changing demographics have exerted pressure on the city with incidents that did not support an inclusive environment, such as a notable rise in bullying taking place within the Forest Lake school district.
In response, a group of community leaders, including the city’s mayor Mara Bain, the school district’s superintendent Steve Massey and the local YMCA’s executive director Derek Otto, discussed ways to make Forest Lake a more welcoming community. Together, they partnered with the YMCA’s UnitedHealth Group Equity Innovation Center of Excellence to sponsor, design and co-host an equity and inclusion project for the Forest Lake area called Everyone Belongs.
Engaging the Forest Lake Community
The community-engagement sessions started out in person in the fall of 2019, then shifted to a virtual format at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each session set out to engage members of the community in authentic conversations about how to address implicit bias and enhance empathy, inclusion and diversity in Forest Lake. About 50-80 people attended each event, including city leaders; business owners; school district students, parents and staff members; and residents.
“We were pleased with the number of people who’ve gotten involved in what turned out to be a really constructive process of collectively creating a community vision,” said Otto. “The sessions were well received, leaving community leaders and event participants eager to make meaningful changes to advance equity and inclusion throughout Forest Lake neighborhoods, schools, businesses and institutions.”
Examples of positive outcomes sparked by the Everyone Belongs sessions so far include:
- The school district implemented in-depth equity and inclusion training for all employees at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The district also expanded culturally responsive curriculum and learning experiences for students, embedding equity and inclusion into its strategic plan and providing ongoing professional development for administrators on advancing culturally responsive school leadership.
- The city plans to link to an Everyone Belongs website the YMCA is creating that will include information about community events, Forest Lake’s changing demographics and resources about making the city more welcoming and inclusive.
- Attendees expressed enhanced feelings of empathy for fellow community members after hearing first-hand accounts of bullying that have occurred in the city and its schools.
“The City of Forest Lake's partnership with the Forest Lake Area School District and the YMCA through the Everyone Belongs program represents our desire to support equity and inclusion initiatives and to be a community where everyone truly feels they belong,” said Bain. “The experience resulted in our team creating a common vision and defined priorities that will be the foundation for our Everyone Belongs program for years to come.”
“I firmly believe that people throughout Forest Lake share the value of wanting a community where everyone truly belongs,” said Massey. “With this shared value, we are able to have meaningful conversations and experiences that build relationships and deeper understanding. This will lead to a more equitable and inclusive community.”
YMCA’s Commitment to Social Justice
In addition to supporting Forest Lake, the YMCA has provided in-depth community engagement and customized learning experiences to the Minnesota cities of Chaska, Edina, Hastings and Bloomington; the Minnesota Department of Social Services; the Anoka Public School District among other school districts; as well as many higher education institutions, corporations, nonprofits and organizations within and outside the state.
We have also delivered learning experiences to staff, community leaders and other residents; hosted challenging conversations; and worked to increase understanding of structures of racism.
Today, the YMCA is poised for further growth. In the wake of George Floyd's death, this is a new era with more urgency to address racism and equity. We’re committed to helping others heal through respectful conversations and being a part of positive change for the future. We are ready to lead within the communities we serve, as well as throughout the nation.