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A Lakeville father shared that his Black daughter was told she "looks like a monkey" and felt she had to "laugh along with her 'friends' " only to come home and cry. Another resident of color said they felt like others in their all-white neighborhood view them as a threat. One resident took a Black friend to a parade only to have the friend called a racial slur.

These were among numerous examples of racism detailed in a Lakeville report that came out this week intended to assess how residents see their community.

Lakeville formed a "Cultivate a Sense of Community" task force last year as part of the city's strategic plan. Seven focus groups met to identify Lakeville's strengths and weaknesses and discuss the city's effectiveness in creating a sense of belonging. But anecdotes about racism permeated the discussions.

Recommendations to address the issue in the report include holding further community conversations about diversity, completing a community survey while ensuring underrepresented residents are included and building on successful community activities already in place.

Overall, "it was very clear that people are happy to live here," City Administrator Justin Miller said of the report . "There are areas for improvement, just like in any community."

Lakeville's report comes as many Twin Cities metro communities have reviewed the way they operate after several high-profile police killings of Black men.

Falcon Heights held a series of community conversations with topics such as racial equity and inclusion. Brooklyn Center passed a series of reforms to remake its Police Department. And many suburbs — from Eagan to St. Louis Park — have started their own diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Other communities are also having these discussions about racism and its effects right now: "I don't think that Lakeville is alone in that, by any means," Miller said.

Lakeville had 69,500 people in 2020, according to the census, with about 21% people of color, Miller said. He said the city has since grown and now has 73,000 people.

Lakeville's focus groups

The focus groups' participants — mostly white adults between ages 40 and 70 — met in May. They talked about how they liked Lakeville's low taxes, rural feel, large home lots and quality schools. But stories and concerns about racism repeatedly popped up, particularly when Lakeville Area Schools was discussed. The topic appeared in the report about a dozen times.

Some residents said "their children had felt targeted because of race and did not have support from school staff," the report said.

In two groups, participants shared details about trying to bring a "cultural night" to schools and being "shut down." Another participant noted that friends in other districts "hate playing sports against Lakeville because of the racist comments the Lakeville students say to the opposing team."

Though Lakeville students also attend schools in two other districts — Farmington and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan — participants with kids in those districts "did not seem to feel race-based issues were as much [or at all] a concern at their schools," the report said.

In a statement, Emily McDonald, acting superintendent of Lakeville Area Schools, said the district was "committed to creating school communities where all students feel safe, welcome and ready to learn."

District staff and leaders are "engaged in diversity, equity and inclusion practices and social-emotional learning work," the statement said. Any issues are addressed promptly in accordance with district policy, and the district has an anonymous online reporting tool families can use to report concerns.

Other focus group anecdotes included feeling there was a "Christian/everyone else schism that negatively impacted the community."

Dan Wolter, task force chair, said he found the comment about Lakeville being unwelcoming to non-Christians "eye-opening" and hoped the community felt the same.

What can be done

The task force proposed several "action steps" and a facilitator suggested two more.

The task force's recommendations include conducting a community survey — with a focus on encouraging underrepresented groups to participate — next year with open-ended questions, using themes from the focus groups. The task force also suggested increased communication between the school district and city.

Other steps included having the city refine current communication methods and develop new ones. Further, police, fire and EMS providers should increase engagement, especially with groups that haven't had positive interactions with them before. The recommendations mentioned National Night Out as a success to build on.

The facilitator also proposed additional "community conversations" and said city leaders and residents should undergo training to help them hold constructive discussions.

Mayor Doug Anderson said the council will use the task force's findings to come up with "action steps" related to improving the sense of community for all residents.

Building relationships and listening to people's stories, Anderson said, helps to discourage racism and division.

"Our community is changing and will continue to change," he said. "This is a journey, not a project."

Leadership matters

Satveer Chaudhary, an Indian American immigration attorney and a former suburban state senator who has been active in diversity policymaking, said it "absolutely" can be challenging being a person of color moving into a community that traditionally hasn't had much diversity. He recalled being one of a small handful of students of color at Columbia Heights High School in the late 1970s. Now, the area is very diverse, he said.

"It should not be as challenging as it was in prior decades. ... We ought to be more welcoming to others," he said.

Local leaders can make a big difference in climate, he said.

"Community leaders are primarily responsible, in my view, for setting the tone for a welcoming community," he said.

When focus group participants were asked to name priorities for Lakeville in the next five years, the most common responses involved schools, ensuring crime remains low, and planning for and controlling growth. But there were also calls for more opportunities for connecting with the community, more diverse events and better communication in the city.

Five residents each suggested "more diverse leadership" in community organizations and more opportunities for "honest dialogue" as areas for concentration, along with the need for a community center.