Podcast

Episode 3: A Masterclass In Listening

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Melvin Carter III is the 46th mayor and the first African American mayor of Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota. This year, his city has been impacted by the tragic murder of George Floyd, the resulting civil unrest, and the economic and personal hardships of the pandemic. In this episode, Jennifer talks with him about leading his community through this trying year, his advocacy for the working class, and his thoughts on how initiatives in Saint Paul can inspire other cities to focus on an integrated financial health system for all.

Melvin Carter III

A fourth-generation Saint Paul resident, Melvin Carter III is a former Saint Paul City Councilmember, father, and the current Mayor of Saint Paul. He grew up in the city’s historic Rondo neighborhood as the son of one of Saint Paul’s first Black police officers and a teacher (who now serves as a Ramsey County commissioner). He attended Saint Paul public schools, ran track at his neighborhood rec center, and graduated from Central High School. He currently resides in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood with his wife, Dr. Sakeena Futrell-Carter, and their children, just a few doors down from his childhood home.

Melvin Carter III

Find out more about Saint Paul’s People’s Prosperity Guaranteed Income Pilot program and check out more episodes of EMERGE Everywhere.

Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:
Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries. And now I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward-thinking leaders, challenging the status quo and unleashing creative, new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees and communities in 3D.

My guest today, Mayor Melvin Carter has had a busy few months. As the first African American mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota, He’s led his city through a global pandemic, the tragic killing of George Floyd in neighboring Minneapolis and the protests and civil unrest that followed. Mayor Carter has been a steady and resolute voice through it all, but his real strength lies in knowing not when to speak, but when to listen. Since he took office in 2018, he and his administration have focused on listening to those who least expect to be heard, the true experts in the community, the regular people of Saint Paul. What he has learned from these listening sessions has fueled an agenda focused squarely on economic empowerment and opportunity for all. Mayor Carter, Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere.

Mayor Carter:
Thanks for having me on.

Jennifer Tescher:
I invited you to the show to talk about your approach to building a healthy city by building a financially healthy citizenry and we’re going to get there in a minute, but we have to start with the racial reckoning that we’re experiencing with the killing of George Floyd in the city next door to yours as the spark. If people didn’t know you before that day, they do now. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police is only one of the most recent entries into a much bigger and longer narrative of systemic racism and violence towards Black and Brown people. But there was something about that moment that has defined the last few months and brought renewed attention to the Black Lives Matter Movement. What have the last few months been like for you as the mayor of Saint Paul and how’s the city doing today?

Mayor Carter:
The last few months have been really hard. We have hopefully come face to face with the reality that is not a new reality, that’s an old reality. And I remind folks on that, my father and his father and his father and his grandfather could tell you about unarmed African American men who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement and no one is held accountable. And so when we see that video, it’s intriguing to me that half of us look at that video and go, “That’s unbelievable how in the world could that happen?” And some of us look at that video and say, “That’s not unbelievable at all, it’s happened far too many times and the truth is short of us doing something fundamentally different as a country it’ll continue to happen.”

And so we’ve been grappling with those realities. The great thing for Saint Paul is, I’m grateful that we started before George Floyd’s death. After he died, a few reporters would ask me kind of, “What are you going to do differently now that George Floyd was killed in the way that he was?” And the truth is we started doing it differently that’s why I ran for mayor in the first place. And so when I first got elected three years ago, we re-revised our police use of force policies back then, we completely rewrote kind of the rules of engagement for our canine unit back then. Our police chief last year fired five officers for failing to intervene in an assault in progress. So we’ve been making this journey in Saint Paul for quite some time and we’re sort of doubling down now on it, but we’re still a community in mourning. We’re still a community that sort of trying to find our collective breath around this, around how to move forward.

And I’ll tell you we’re a community that has a whole lot of people who look at that video and say, our officers included, who look at that video and say, “That’s not the world that we want to live in. And we have to work together to build a better world and a better way for our community.” And that’s something that actually gives me some kind of peace in my quiet time.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah. So this is personal for you. I mean, you just mentioned that you’re a fourth-generation Saint Paul resident, right? The son of a police officer, the grandson of a Navy veteran who spent much of his life as a porter on the railroad and you’re a black man who has been stopped several times by police in your own city.

Mayor Carter:
Absolutely.

Jennifer Tescher:
You have almost no choice when it comes to bringing your full self to work, right? So how are you doing? How are you coping with your own emotions while shouldering the responsibility of leading and supporting city residents through their own grieving?

Mayor Carter:
It’s a challenge. Our goal is just to be honest with people, to let people know that we’re not okay. This is a really hard moment for us to go through. You’re right, I’ve had a lot of those moments. We don’t have time in this podcast for me to tell you about all the times that I’ve been pulled over by a police officer here in Minnesota going to school in Florida, driving in between in Alabama and Georgia, for reasons that literally clearly had nothing to do with my driving. And so this is a hard moment, it’s a hard day today. You mentioned the events of the past few months. These past few hours have been challenging for us as we see the officers who broke down Breonna Taylor’s door, who fired wantingly and blindly into her apartment, according to the police department, fired wantingly and blindly into her apartment killing her, this armed innocent young woman. And somehow we have a justice system that lacks the capacity to call that murder, to even try it as murder, to even press charges as murder, let alone find a conviction.

Just today we have our latest piece of evidence that we have an entirely different standard of justice in our country or lack thereof where our police officers are concerned and then where URI is concerned because it had URI done one of those things I can guarantee you we’d have been charged with murder and we’d have to face kind of the consequences for those actions. So it’s difficult.

The fortunate piece I think is as we think back 10 years ago in America when we were debating whether or not we were suddenly this post-racial community, post-racial country. It feels like we are solidly in the realm of post, post-racialism where we know race is still a thing, we know disparities and inequities are undeniable in our community, we know that we can still predict a child’s expected life outcomes more accurately by her race and her zip code than we can by her GPA. And hopefully, we know we have to do something about it. So my goal is, and our hope is that the silver lining on these dark clouds is the future that we’re going to use this moment to build for our children.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah. So I don’t need to tell you that it’s been a tough year because on top of this racial reawakening if you will, or reckoning, the COVID pandemic has cost 200,000 lives and counting in this country, disproportionately hitting Black and Latinx people, and it’s dealt a big blow to small business owners to workers. I looked up the stats for your county, Ramsey County, I think you’ve had almost 10,500 cases of COVID so far. What are your thoughts on where your city and the country is today as it relates to COVID and the economic fallout and what are you focused on in particular over the next 90 days given the end of the federal COVID stimulus programs?

Mayor Carter:
I think it seems pretty clear like the 200,000 number that you just sited. We have 200,000 deaths in America. It’s probably cost us far more lives than that as we think about the lives and the livelihood, the families, the businesses that this pandemic has just gutted from us. It seems really clear that our federal response, our national response has been woefully inadequate as we look at the number of people who have contracted COVID, as we look at the number of people who have died from COVID, as we look at the impact on our national economy and local economies all over the country, it’s been woefully inadequate. Right here in Saint Paul, you’re right, we’ve seen people who have contracted the disease, we’ve seen people who have died from the disease, then on top of that, we have sort of the compound impacts and that we have… I’m the mayor of a city of 315,000 people, we’ve seen over 80,000 applications for unemployment insurance since March 15th alone.

We have families who are literally professional families who never worried about food and shelter for their family before suddenly thrust into this space where those are the kinds of things that they have to worry about. And I’ll tell you, even those families who haven’t been laid off or haven’t lost their income, or haven’t had to close down their business know fully well, they are a hair’s breath away from potentially having to do that and seeing their livelihood kind of ripped out from underneath them. Our unsheltered homeless population is literally more than 10 times larger in Saint Paul today than it was just a year ago.

So this is a fundamentally kind of snatch the rug out from under our entire economy. And one of the things that seems clear to me is, it’s not that a bunch of new things happened in 2020 it’s that this pandemic really exacerbated some existing weaknesses and lack of resilience in the way our whole economy is set up. If we don’t know it by the end of 2020, God bless us that anytime any family in our community, this is I think what 2020 has proven. If one family in our community can’t afford to go to the doctor when they have symptoms if one family in our community can’t afford to pay the rent or the mortgage on a safe home, that they can safely socially distance and shelter in place, if one family in our community can’t afford to take a week off of work to care for their child when their child gets sick, all of us are less safe. And that goes to this notion that I know you believe in the interconnectedness of everything that goes on in the community.

And so what we’re focused on, we started this thing talking about months ago, started talking about how we recover from all this. I stopped using the word recover because that’s just not enough. Recovery to me says, how do we get back to where we were six months ago or six years ago, or for some of us six generations ago, right? And the truth is going back, won’t take us there. Going back can only take us right back to the starting line that we were on when all of this stuff started. We have to find a fundamentally new way of operating our economy, we have to find a fundamentally new way of inviting our neighbors or kind of just real people in our neighborhoods to participate in our local economy as we’ve seen this country shed millions of jobs over the past six months, while our asset owning class experiences kind of record-breaking gains in the stock market and billionaire wealth grows exponentially.

We’re seeing people just gutted. Everybody I know is just worried and just stressed out to almost a point of debilitation because the money challenges right now are so pronounced for our country. So this has got to be about building a more resilient economy and learning, not just how do we find our way to a vaccine for COVID, but how do we find our way to a vaccine for our economy in such a way that whenever the next virus hits or as climate crisis worsens the state of emergencies that we experience in our country, we don’t just find ourselves doing this exact same thing over and over again.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah. So aside from graduating from Florida A&M, you’ve got really deep roots in Saint Paul. I think you and your family live in a house on the same block as the house you grew up…

Mayor Carter:
And I’m the one who moved away. I moved around the corner, my sister lives next door.

Jennifer Tescher:
What’s it like to grow up in Saint Paul? And what really inspired you to get involved in politics in the first place? I believe you were on the city council before you ran for mayor.

Mayor Carter:
I was. And before that, I was a community organizer and worked on campaigns and things like that. So I grew up in Saint Paul. As you mentioned, I’m a fourth-generation Saint Paul resident. My father’s a retired Saint Paul police officer, my mother is a former entrepreneur, a former school board member, a former teacher who currently serves as the chair of our Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. So we grew up in this community and I always tell folks, when I say I love this city, it’s not like a newlywed love where I think everything is great and there are no problems. It’s me declaring my love for a city that I know what our community’s morning breath smells like, right? My great grandfather moved here from Texas from fleeing racial violence of the deep South.

My grandfather owned over half a dozen commercial properties on a street called Old Rondo, which is Saint Paul’s version of a national story this thriving African American business and cultural district that was uprooted to build a freeway and our family inheritance was gutted when that happened as a result of public decision-making processes that my grandfather nor anyone he knew was able to participate in. My father was one of our city’s first African American police officers who was hired onto our police department after a lawsuit required us to integrate our police department. And we’ve seen enough stories about some of those early integrators to know what that experience was like. Some of the earliest stories that I remember hearing were about other officers, so-called brother officers, who would tell him that there’s no way they’d back him up in any circumstance because of the color of his skin.

And then I grew up kind of in two worlds from professional parents surrounded by adults who were determined to see us succeed, I always say whether we wanted to or not in our rec centers and in our schools and in our churches and in our community organizations. I grew up surrounded by those officers, those African American officers from our neighborhood who came on the force with dad. And then I turned 16 and started meeting a whole lot of other officers in our community as well. And it became really clear that this is a community that has a lot of prosperity, has a lot of opportunity and literally has limitless opportunity to provide for those who have access to it, but then it also has some deep shadows in which a whole lot of folks kind of end up getting stuck and languishing in the shadows of the opportunity that we’re creating.

I decided to run for office city council because we were building light rail and we were building a light rail line just two blocks away where that freeway is, one block away from where my home is and we’re building this great line that stopped… our engineers would tell us people are likely to walk at least a half a mile to a quarter-mile to get to the stations. I always used to ask are those August miles or January miles and no one ever answered that question. But suffice it to say, we built this line and at both ends of the line because of that data, the stations were located on the plan a quarter-mile to a half a mile apart.

You literally get to the boundaries of my neighborhood the area I used to represent on the city council and the staff were suddenly going to be spaced a mile apart by our transit authority’s own numbers. This investment would have actually… because we’re going to reduce the bus service on this same street, so the investment was actually going to reduce access. This billion-dollar investment, it’s the largest public works property project in our state’s history and it was actually going to result in less access to transit for my neighborhood. And that was so offensive to us. But that’s what happens when you have public processes that don’t include all the voices at the table. We can have a billion-dollar transit investment that literally makes transit worse for our most transit-dependent populations. That’s not good policy, that’s not justice, that’s not an equitable kind of way of going about it and that’s why I got involved in politics because I thought there was a better way.

Jennifer Tescher:
That’s an incredible story of the way in which systemic racism plays itself out, honestly. I’d like to think that no one sat around when they were planning that project and said, that’s intentionally cut off access, and maybe that happened, but nonetheless it’s still…

Mayor Carter:
I don’t think it’s about intentionality, Jennifer, I think… one of the things that we rehearse here a lot is that every decision that’s ever been made in the course of humanity has been made to benefit the decision-makers. And so the folks at the table make the decisions that benefit them and the folks who are not at the table don’t get the opportunity to do that. And so that actually becomes one of the guiding principles of my administration which is the belief that I’m the first African American mayor of the city, I’m told I’m younger than some of the other ones but for me to disappear in the city hall and in my little corner office in city hall, shut the door and make decisions by myself can’t produce a radically new, fundamentally new direction for the city because it would be more of the same. It’d be exclusive decision-making processes.

So we build at the core of our work around equity. And I define equity, not from the social justice movement, but from my background in business school in corporate America. Equity is a money word. Equity means ownership and with ownership really comes two things. With ownership comes the ability to participate in decision-making processes, but then it also comes the ability to participate in an economy. If I own equity in a company, and that company has a really profitable year, then I make some money. I get to participate in that economy. That’s, what’s not happening right now, based on what we just talked about, about the contrast between what the stock market is doing and what every main street in America is experiencing right now.

And so everything that we do, if we’re going to drive equity, it has to be about bringing people to the table, making sure that the voices who are traditionally not heard and who go traditionally ignored, that those are the voices we hear first and loudest in the processes. And that approach has yielded some really incredible, maybe surprising and I think earth-changing results for our city.

Jennifer Tescher:
Say a bit about how you go about doing that. In other words, making sure everyone’s voices are heard, and maybe you can give an example of a result that ended up being surprising or not what one would have expected as a result of using that kind of process.

Mayor Carter:
Sure. So the guiding principles of our administration are equity, innovation, and resilience. I did define equity for you, how we define it. Resilience, we look at everything through this notion of kind of resilience and sustainability first from a climate lens, but thinking about how our budget is sustainable, how everything that we do is done sustainability. The innovation piece is important. We have to constantly think and rethink the way that we do everything. Our belief is that our primary sources of innovative ideas are the people who live in this community and the frontline staff we serve them every day. And so we constantly go back to that group, no matter what it is that we’re doing. When I first got elected, instead of naming a kind of traditional transition team, we invited a hundred members of our community from every neighborhood, different ages, different races and cultures including city employees and different folks like that, business leaders to participate in what we call our community based hiring panels.

And those community members went and identified candidates. They went and sourced resumes, they sorted those resumes, they decided who to interview. They did the first round of interviews and passed me a slate of finalists to consider. Every single director that we have hired, every single director in my cabinet has been through this process and it has resulted in what our local news said is the most diverse cabinet, the most diverse administration that our city has ever seen. We do our budget the same way. I joke that if you put a math spreadsheet on a piece of paper and write game at the top, you can get 70 people, not in a COVID crisis, but before that, you can get 70 people to hang out with you in a brewery on a sunny Sunday afternoon and help you figure out what the city budget should look like, what the city budget should be.

I think one of our kind of a gold standard or kind of gold cases about kind of the innovation that we’ve tried to do as a city and the results that it’s yielded is, we had a group of library users and a group of librarians, library staff. I come and I sit in my first year in office and say, “Look, we’ve got to rethink the way the library works.” And I asked them what they meant. And we had this whole conversation about library fines about late fines when people bring books back late to the extent to which those late fines create a barrier to free access to information, particularly in our lowest-income neighborhoods. We realized that late fines don’t do what we thought they do. Many people think late fines make people bring a book back, but the truth is late fines make people stay away from a library oftentimes for years, if not for a lifetime. Every time I say that to a group of people, people start laughing because they know what I’m talking about from their own personal lives. And so we decided to eliminate late fines.

Jennifer Tescher:
Absolutely.

Mayor Carter:
Yeah. We eliminated late fines in our public library. Some of us weren’t sure the sun would rise again the next morning, but not only did the sunrise in the first quarter of this new policy, because it was done in direct response to what people were telling us, in direct response to what our frontline librarians were hearing, in the first quarter of this policy immediately, we experienced a double-digit increase in library use in all of our lowest-income neighborhoods. And so that’s kind of what I’m fascinated with is, what are these things that we can learn about our own community if we listen to people in a way that we literally never have. What are the things that are actually relatively minor shifts in the way that we do business that can fundamentally transform the role of city government in people’s lives and our ability to meet our mission.

Jennifer Tescher:
That’s incredible. That’s a great story. I noticed that the accomplishments that you tout on the city’s website are all related. In some way relate to the financial health of your residents. You just talked about eliminating late fees in public libraries, right? Not only does that, bring people back into the system and giving them access to information and literacy, but it also has a financial implication, a positive financial application for people. You raise this city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, you reestablish the affordable housing trust fund, you just created a guaranteed income pilot. Why were these among your earliest priorities? Certainly, it sounds like you were hearing from city residents, that, that was part of what was informing you, but these are all of a theme I would say. These kinds of policies. And I’d love to hear more about sort of how this was part of your vision when you ran a couple of years ago.

Mayor Carter:
It’s a part of the vision that people built together, that we built together. So when I first ran for office, before we even started the campaign, we spent a year and a half just listening to people. We called it, Imagine Saint Paul, and just sat in living rooms and coffee shops across the city and asked people just kind of simple questions like what are your happy memories from childhood? Why are you raising your children here? Why did you choose Saint Paul to open or grow your business? What are your dreams for your career, this innovative idea that you have. And we identified a real mismatch that when we ask people what their dreams are, what are the dreams that they’ve planted and invested in this city, they’re these limitless, enormous, bold, big, bold amazing dreams, but too often the dreams that we invest in from a public level, the dreams that we believe in city hall or the State Capitol or Washington DC are these super small microcosmic by comparison.

And so our goal was to sort of to balance that out of it by listening to people. When you come into office as mayor, people always tell you, your top two jobs are public safety and economic development. Well, those are two things that we felt like we can do fundamentally different and do far better than we ever really have historically. Where economic development is concerned, what people usually mean when they say economic development is finding some business in another state or in another city and paying them some money to come to Saint Paul instead of Minneapolis or Minnesota instead of Wisconsin or whatever it is. Our perspective is there’s an enormous amount of potential right here in our community. There’s an enormous amount of opportunity right here that we are underutilizing. And so if we really are thinking about economic development, the economic prosperity and vitality of our community, it would be blind to not start with saying, “How do we make the most of every opportunity that we have right here at home.”

We have people right here in Saint Paul, who money is working very, very well for, we have people right here in Saint Paul, who money is working against. One of the first things that we did was create our office of financial empowerment to say, we have this whole floor full of accountants whose job it is to make money work well for our city as an entity, the City with a capital C. We need to figure out how to transform that and translate those skills, that expertise into some work to help people in our community make money, work better for them. That’s where a lot of this work is held in our office of financial empowerment. Their kind of crowning kind of work is our CollegeBound Saint Paul, which is our initiative to start every child born in our city with $50 in a college savings account.

That’s an amazing initiative in and of itself. Research shows that children from low and moderate-income families who graduated from high school with literally like $50, $100, less than like $400, $500 in a college savings account are three times more likely to go to college and when they do, they’re four times more likely to graduate. And so it’s not about the amount of money, I know that $50 is unlikely to pay for a college credit or a book or a semester for that matter, but it’s about kind of figuring out how as a community to cast our collective imagination a little bit further, right? And that for those children for whom high school graduation looks like a finish line, a $50 in a college savings account is enough to sort of turn on the next light, turn on the next street light beyond that finish line and get them started early casting their imagination beyond high school graduation.

So what I believe and I think what those things you just described portray is a fundamental belief that if we bet on our residents, if we bet on our local businesses, if we bet on our local workers that those bets will literally win every time. So far it’s working out that way.

Jennifer Tescher:
So you just passed, I think just a few weeks ago a guaranteed income pilot. We’re starting to see these pop up in a lot of cities. The one I’m most familiar with is in Stockton, California, but I know there are others. Tell me a little bit more about why this was important to you and what you’re hoping will come of it.

Mayor Carter:
Absolutely. The goals are really twofold. The first is we know that we have people in our community who are struggling like they’ve never struggled before. And so our goal is to identify a cohort of low-income families with young children who have seen their income reduced as a result of this pandemic and provide some help to help them kind of get through, weather the storm of this crisis. The second goal is, our longterm goal is to advance these types of policies at the state and at the federal level. So we have to contribute to our body of knowledge of how these policies work, what are the impacts of these policies. So we’re working with a national team of evaluators to provide an independent third party evaluation of this. What are the impacts on our local economy, what are the impacts on the family spending, what are the impacts on the family’s child so that we can continue to build kind of our national pool of knowledge.

Our local pilot is very much patterned after Stockton’s mayor, Mayor Michael Tubbs is a good friend and I think a really strong leader for not just Stockman, but for our country in many of the things that he’s doing. So we’re patterning after theirs. We’re identifying a cohort of 150, again, like I said, low-income families with very young children who were participants in our CollegeBound college savings accounts program. They will receive a monthly benefit, unconditional benefit of $500 a month for a period of 18 months.

The unconditional nature of that transfer is really important because so often when we create these policies, we create them with a very kind of narrow lines of what you can do. Here’s some money, but you can only use it for rent. Here’s some money, but you can only use it for food or for only for childcare or only for whatever kind of the thing is that we’ve set out. Every time that we do that, Jennifer, we’re telling those families, we know from city hall, what’s best for your family, what’s best for your child, better than you do. And so to say, this is unconditional, it’s walking this road of saying, look, we know, one, that what one family is challenged with right now isn’t necessarily the same as what another family is right now and particularly in this COVID crisis. We also know that what one family needs in September could be fundamentally different than what that same family needs in October.

I’ll tell you when my oldest daughter was born, we were on WIC. We were a family of three on WIC, a nutritional supports for women, infants and children. And anybody who knows anything about WIC knows that we would leave the grocery store every two weeks with more milk, more eggs, more cheese, more peanut butter than we could possibly consume in a matter of two weeks, right? The challenge is, my daughter literally was born allergic to dairy, to eggs and to peanuts. And so we could get all the cows milk we could want, we couldn’t get any of the soy milk she could actually drink. We get all the eggs in the world, we get all the peanut butter, but none of the almond butter that she could actually eat.

And it angered me, it was frustrating and infuriating that we’re on this program where we were a family that needed help and we sought out the help that we needed and we sort of got the help that the government wanted us to have, but it actually did not help our child. They didn’t do what that program was designed to do. Those programs, many of those programs have been redesigned to enable families to buy nutritional food and things like that. But we can go a lot further than that. We can tell families, this is an investment in you. This is an investment in your family and your child. This is an investment that knows that, you know what’s best for your family and we trust you to raise your family.

I look forward to what we learn, and I imagine that we’ll learn the same thing Stockton did and that’s when low-income families have access to a little bit more cash at the end of the month, they do the same type of stuff you and I would do with it. They pay the rent, they go buy groceries, or they fix up a car so they can get to work because they’re real people who have real struggles and we can do a whole lot better. At the end of the day as people ask me, “Why this new approach?” I like to turn the question around, I say, “Tell you what, we’re 60 years, some 60 years into a war on poverty in America and my question will be what would be the argument to keep on doing it the same way we’ve always done it.” There is no argument. We’ve spent billions of dollars on alleviating poverty and somehow some 60 years later providing resources directly to low-income families still feels like a radical, strange and unusual new idea. That’s what seems strange to me.

Jennifer Tescher:
So being a successful mayor really requires seeing citizens in all of their complexities and considering all of their needs, but city government has its limits financially and otherwise. Despite the incredible, bold initiatives that you’ve been able to pull off, who are the most important partners to bring to the table, as you’re trying to build an integrated financial health system for everyone in Saint Paul?

Mayor Carter:
City government certainly has its limits. We have smaller budgets and smaller reach. I think any mayor in America, especially in 2020 will tell you their biggest frustration is a number of things that we’d like to see different in our communities that even as the mayor of a major city, you can’t just sort of flip a light switch or wave a magic wand and see that thing magically or instantly change. At the same time though city government has an advantage in that whenever someone asks me, “What’s the difference between city hall or city government and state government or the legislature,” I always tell them, “If you think about the complex issues of our day that stimulates your cerebral core, that’s the legislature. But if you think about the stuff that pisses you off that’s city hall.”

And the way I justify that is if you think about something that has impacted your life so immediately, so intensely, so intimately on your drive to work or just in the scope of like a regular everyday engagement that you involuntarily ground, that you go, mm, right? I can almost guarantee you it’s a pothole, in Minnesota, it might be snowplowing, it might be a vacant building, it might be neighborhood crime. I can almost give you kind of a 9-1 odds that to address that issue, you’d be going to city hall and not the state legislature.

So that gives us an opportunity to speak a little more directly to people’s lives, a little more intimately into kind of the communities that we serve and I think inspire people and engage people in a way that neither the State Capitol nor Washington DC has the opportunity to. And so that’s an advantage that we need because in order to do the work we have to partner, we have to partner with local universities to evaluate our work, evaluate our progress and tell us if we’re getting the outcomes that we want. We have to partner with local nonprofit organizations.

We have local nonprofits who have been committed to helping people, free tax preparation, to helping employees buy the business they work for as an employee-owned cooperative, to helping people figure out financial planning and figure out how to save and kind of meet their goals and those types of things. So our plan, the office of financial empowerment, it works pretty heavily with those organizations. Locally we work very heavily with some of the national organizations and some of the other cities from San Francisco to Saint Louis who are committed to this same type of journey around financial empowerment. I was at somewhere with one of our city council members at a conference and we were listening to the city treasurer of Saint Louis speak and she was talking about how they created an office of financial empowerment and how they built their college savings accounts program through their office of financial empowerment. And the city council member looked at me and said, “That’s an amazing coincidence.” I said, “No, it’s not. That’s who we’re copying,” right? So we worked pretty closely with-

Jennifer Tescher:
Jonathan Mintz, the Cities for Financial Empowerment is a terrific organization and there is a whole group of cities like Saint Paul that are on a similar journey absolutely.

Mayor Carter:
That’s right. And more every day. And I’ll tell you, we learn from all of them. We learn kind of in a community. But most importantly, because Saint Paul is different than Saint Louis, Saint Paul is different from San Francisco, Saint Paul is different from Portland and every other city on the planet, we have to listen to our community. And we have to listen not just to our business leaders and not just to our political leaders, but we have to listen kind of deeply. So when we were building the college savings accounts we spent time with just single moms. And so like, “How would this work for you? How will we make this work best for you?” We spent time with dads in our community and say, “How can this work best for you?” We spent time with parents in our public schools, with teachers and with young people in our community and just say like, “This is how we’re thinking about this. This is how we’re designing this, but talk back to us and tell us like how we make it the most useful for our community.
And so we all know that there’s these wide coalitions that we have to build. I think one of the things that we have to be most intentional about is identifying the people who expect us not to listen to them and go intentionally listen to them, go intentionally engage them, go intentionally… and not with the purpose that we’re going to tell them what we’re going to do for you, but with the purpose that they have something that we can learn from them. When I first got elected mayor, one of my mentors here looked at me and said, “Look, you’ll do fine. Just never forget that every single mom you meet, every stressed out grandma that you meet, every worker who takes a city bus to work every morning that you meet is a subject matter expert in American life and you’ll be fine.” And that’s the approach we try to take.

Jennifer Tescher:
So actually, what it sounds like is, in terms of bringing other folks to the table, the central lesson is really teaching them to listen so…

Mayor Carter:
Teaching us to listen. Teaching ourselves to listen.

Jennifer Tescher:
Right. So for instance, you need the business community at the table, but I think the point you were making is I need them at the table not because I have to just do everything that they want, but I need to teach them how to listen to their own workers, to their customers, to the needs of the community and that then they will be in a better position to be real partners and collaborators. And I use the private sector as an example, but I could have said that about anything. I could say it about local colleges and universities, I can say it about the healthcare system, I could say it about other nonprofit organizations that really… You’re on a mission to get people to listen differently and listen to different people.

Mayor Carter:
Without a doubt. There’s a book that I love called Street Fight. And it’s about just the way we reprogram our public right away as a public space for people to gather and for people to interact and not just for cars to drive through. And there’s a concept called desire lines that I’m really passionate about. And I’ll try to say this briefly, but the concept is, so for example, I graduated from one of our largest high schools here in Saint Paul. And it’s a high school on a corner and the doors kind of faces the street and for the past 100 years, there’s been sort of a cow path that the students, instead of walking up to the corner and walking around and then coming back up the stairs, they cut across the grass. There’s been a cow path there for literally 100 years, probably.

And just a few years ago, someone was smart enough to say, “Hey, why don’t we pave this and build and create a sidewalk here.” And that’s such a common sense thing to say, but it points to how we do public policy too often. We create our public policy, we create our public systems in these square corners and ask people to behave in ways that everyone knows makes no sense. Fundamentally speaking, especially in the snow, it makes no sense to walk all the way up and walk around the corner and come back around when you can just cut across here. Instead of asking people what makes sense, what would work for you what would work best for your life in the way that you engage and experience community and building our sidewalks where they’re walking, where they’re going, that’s what we can do when we listen in a new way. I’ll tell you, I don’t feel like the teacher, I feel like I’m someone who’s learning this alongside all of us.

And so the way we do our public engagement, we have, I always call them three-dimensional engagement. One of my staff members has a big word transient I don’t know what he calls it, but the goal is for people to hear from me, I’m your mayor, you deserve to hear from me. The truth is nobody’s suffering from a shortage of hearing from me these days, but in order for me to be most informed in what I say, I need to hear from you, right? I need to hear from our community members. But the same principle applies, in order for you to be most informed in what you tell me, you have to hear from your neighbors. You have to hear from somebody who lives in a different part of town or is a different age or a different culture, a different gender for you.

So our goal isn’t to sort of center me at the center. We have events all the time where people go, “I thought you were going give a speech.” And I go, “No, I’m not, isn’t it great.” We’re all going to have a conversation with one another and we’re all going to learn from each other, we’re all going to build a truth kind of together that we’re going to own together and we’re going to walk this road together. That’s how we’ve established our college savings accounts, that’s how we raise the minimum wage, that’s how we’re building our kind of guaranteed income pilot, that’s the future of our city. That’s the big bet for our city. The biggest idea that I try to bring in the city hall is, not only the mayor gets to have big ideas.

Jennifer Tescher:
Mayor Carter, thanks so much for joining us on EMERGE Everywhere.

Mayor Carter:
Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me on.

Jennifer Tescher:
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a financial health network production. I’m Jennifer Tescher and I’d love to hear your ideas for future guests and your reactions to the show. You can connect with me on Twitter @jentescher. If you liked this episode, please review the show and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about the work and research we do, please visit emerge.finhealthnetwork.org. See you next time.

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