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Bemidji lawmakers score high on racial equity issues

Sen. Mary Olson and Rep. John Persell, both Bemidji Democrats, talk Friday to about their "A" ratings in the Organizing Apprenticeship Project's 2009 Minnesota Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity, released at the City Hall meeting by the ACLU-Minnesota Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Bemidji's two lawmakers scored "A's" on racial equity issues in the 2009 session, according to a report released Friday in Bemidji.

Sen. Mary Olson and Rep. John Persell, both Bemidji Democrats, earned the high rating from the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, which rated lawmakers on their 2009 votes on racial justice issues.

Add to that that "A" list Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, who represents Beltrami County north of Bemidji.

"The OAP has been at the forefront in dealing with racial equity and justice issues in the Legislature," said Olson. "I am honored to receive this recognition, and I will continue to carefully consider issues of racial equity and justice as we move through the 2010 Legislative Session."

The Organizing Apprenticeship Project works to advance racial, cultural, social and economic justice in Minnesota through organizer and leadership training, policy research, and strategic convening work.

It ranked lawmakers on a variety of bills, including hiring equity in green jobs, covering more kids with health insurance, and strengthening efforts to revitalize the Dakota and Ojibwe languages.

Both Olson and Persell were at a session late Friday afternoon at Bemidji City Hall to go over racial justice issues, held by the American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project.

Olson "has done phenomenal work," said Audrey Thayer, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. And she noted that Olson, Persell and Sailer were three of the only eight lawmakers to receive "A's" from the OAP ranking.

"This year we particularly wanted to be sure to thank our representatives and senator," Thayer said. "We still have a lot of work to do locally ... in the community, and that's where we see the grass roots work."

Thayer noted that Wisconsin passed a law to record race when making traffic stops, so it could be determined if officers are conducting racial profiling. Olson carried a bill to do that in Minnesota, but it died.

"Things like that happen, for whatever reason, so you try again," Thayer said.

Thayer said ACLU must remain non-partisan, but "I want to assure you that the representatives that we have representing us right now are doing the job that they need to for us, and all we need to do is let them know what we need on a local level."

Among other legislators, Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, scored a "C", as did Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. The Legislature overall and Gov. Tim Pawlenty earned "B's" for 83 percent support for racial equity bills, OAP said.

"John and I are down there doing what we think is the right thing to do," Olson said. "We try to represent people in our district and often we get the privilege to be involved in local initiatives and things people bring to us to help us accomplish at the Legislature."

Olson authored legislation, S.F. 1256, that was incorporated into the Legacy Amendment appropriations bill that was passed and signed into law last session providing $2 million for preservation and revitalization of the Dakota and Ojibwe languages and culture. The funding will be used to design and promote education programs in the two native languages.

"That bill really evolved out of the work a lot of people have been doing for a long time," Olson said. "It was clear that there were many different initiatives happening by different tribes, but that they weren't necessarily even aware of what other tribes were doing."

The bill puts together a working group with representation from each tribe in Minnesota, as well as from communities with high American Indian populations like Bemidji .

The group over two years "will come back with recommendations on how we can build native culture and language into our curriculum, for not just native students but everyone to have some exposure to the benefits of what that would bring," she said. "We can revitalize the language so that our youth can be fluent speakers, so it doesn't become an historic language but a living, used language."

Funded through the new Legacy Amendment, the pot grew from $125,000 to $2 million.

Persell joked that he gained House support for the measure by bringing Leech Lake smoked whitefish to his colleagues.

"A lot of good things came out of that, and we're poised pretty well on the language issue," he said.

OAP said that 10 of the 12 racial justice issue bills they were following passed in the 2009 session.

Bills it tracked included covering more kids with health insurance, holding public schools harmless in budget cuts, setting new standards for payday lenders, rethinking graduation testing, and opposing efforts to dismantle General Assistance Medical Care.

The report also cited Olson for authoring restorative justice legislation.

People at Friday's meeting, representing a wide array of community action groups, cited the need for transitional housing and more youth activities. Cited as a positive move is the placing of Ojibwe language signs in Bemidji businesses.

Greg Paquin, the Bemidji union organizer who is opposing Olson for the Democratic nomination to Senate 4, said not enough has been done to enforce affirmative action policies at the county and city level.

Olson, however, said she had asked Paquin for specific violations but received none from him. Also, she can only work with state violations and she noted that Paquin has lawsuit against the city of Bemidji involving the lack of American Indian workers on the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"We need to have more of our representation to get our people's needs met," Paquin said, adding there are no American Indians serving in the Legislature.

"If we just stand by and let it continue, then it won't be long and all the Indian people will be gone," he said. "Our people are important."

The best way out of poverty is a job, he said, and that's why he continues to push enforcement of affirmative action.

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