Like many of us, Al Bangoura, the Superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, has had to adjust his working routines to work from home in response to COVID-19. But for the Superintendent, his home is the historic Theodore Wirth Home and Administrative Building – where many of the original Minneapolis parks were designed and planned.
Like Wirth, Bangoura has the ignoble distinction of overseeing the immense parks system during a global pandemic. As the Spanish Flu had dire consequences for the time and how important parks are to our collective health and well-being, so does this current health crisis.
We originally scheduled a conversation as a way to discuss in more detail how he and his team were navigating the challenges presented by COVID-19, but before we were able visit, our city’s racial and economic disparities rose to the surface after the murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations and the emergence of encampments that followed. As the first African American man to serve in this storied position, Superintendent Bangoura became immersed in the Park Board’s response to an entirely new set of dynamics and expectations.
Ultimately, the responsibility of overseeing a complex urban park system rests on Superintendent Bangoura’s shoulders. While he is not alone in making decisions, it is clear that his compassion and empathy inform each decision. He has a dedicated team, an active Board of Commissioners, and is part of a statewide and national network of elected officials, community leaders, and civic servants working to provide the best responses in a time of uncertainty.
I wanted to spend some time with Superintendent Bangoura to discuss specifically some of the challenges of this moment, and delve into factors informing Park Board decision as well as his hopes for how we continue to navigate through this period of our city and nation’s history.
Tom: How are you doing? It seems like this year has been an unending row of challenges .
Al: What’s the term they use? Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Yeah, everything seems to be happening at once. We have a pandemic and then we have a horrible situation that happened with the murder of George Floyd and now the next big challenge is what’s happening around the unsheltered community living in Powderhorn and several other parks so, yes, it’s been difficult. But you know, we have got to find solutions and we have to keep doing what is right by the people we serve.
Parks are unlike anywhere else in the city. Even during this pandemic, everybody immediately came to the parks. If we don’t understand the value of our parks systems now, I don’t know when we ever will. This park system is so important to the wellbeing of our city and the wellbeing of your soul and your spirit. You know I get out here after a hard day and I go ride my bike. I let go. I find peace. It’s that hour of time I spend with my family when we go riding or we go walking. We just find somewhere in green spaces in this beautiful city to be together, and that is the value. That’s true across the country right now.
Tom: It almost feels that you’ve been addressing a cascading list of things that have been kicked down the road and they’re all stopping here.
Al: I think that we are uniquely different in the sense that we’re the largest landowner in Minneapolis – the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board – and our parks touch everything. Look at the walk-shed in the neighborhoods that have parks and recreation centers that are located across the city. Whether it’s public safety issues, wellness resources, food security, or nature experiences. All the things that are really important to oneself, we’re connected to. In Minneapolis, we’re unique to be an independent board, an independent agency. Unlike any other large city park system.
TOM: When we first scheduled this conversation it was in hopes of exploring the complexities the Park Board was navigating related to COVID-19 and how to operate the parks in that dynamic. But the climate has become even more complex since the murder of George Floyd and the city-wide demonstrations that followed. People are wondering how you and your staff are doing in this moment.
Al: What happened to George Floyd has profoundly changed this country. I would be lying if I said this hasn’t impacted me, with George Floyd and his murder and what followed. It is devastating. It has impacted me in ways I didn’t expect. You know, every time that I talk about it, something wells up in me that comes from somewhere really deep.
As an African American man, as a person of color in this world, I am reminded of things that I have experienced in my lifetime and the things that I have struggled with.
I’m lucky to work with such an amazing team. We have a group of incredible professionals that are passionate about the parks system and about the services we provide to the people. We know that we save lives in many ways and that can be metaphorical or it can be literal. We talk about young people and engaging them, mentoring them, providing them with access to opportunities. But also, we provide infrastructure, green spaces, places that people can go and heal and just be at peace.
I know our staff is driven by our mission and our values. What drives us every day is the absolute honor and privilege to be in a profession that can so profoundly impact people’s lives. And when you go through things like this you realize how important that job is. Sure, we’re tired mentally and physically, but we’re committed to public service. We’re committed to the city. People depend on us. So, we keep working hard.
Tom: Let’s go back to when you were just looking at the challenges you had to face with COVID-19 and a global pandemic. As you were making decisions in real time, trying to keep the parks open while keeping park users and staff safe, what information was critical for decision-making to keep this park system operating?
Al: It was challenging. At the very beginning, we were very clear about following the experts on the Governor’s team. We tracked as much information as we could from the epidemiologists from the Minnesota Department of Health. We looked to the experts to understand this particular virus, this disease. One thing we did immediately was we brought our team together including executive leadership team members, our communications director and our chief of police. We sat every single morning including weekends and mobilized to respond because this is a matter of life or death. It was hard at first because there were a lot of unknowns and fluid changes that required our organization to be nimble and adapt to new information.
It was critical for us to get the messaging out not only to our staff, but to the public. And so right away I think the biggest thing that we did was communicate, share, be transparent. We began by looking at our concept of operations, we started resetting priorities, and we focused on keeping our staff and the public safe and slowing the spread of COVID-19.
We made decisions in the very beginning based on the state’s projections in March, that the virus would peak in early July. We were doing our part in following the executive orders and making sure people understood physical distancing is the only “vaccine” to this particular virus right now. But we also knew people were going to come out to our parks. The governor said, “Go to your parks, go on walks, exercise, be out there, be present.”
We recognized at the very beginning that the best way to communicate with people was having our staff go into our parks. So, we looked at our ambassador program. We knew that the one-on-one communication with people, from a safe distance, needed to be woven into our work. We knew we had to get ambassadors out into our parks and have that direct communication so we could build upon the relationships and knowledge that our staff had within our communities.
Tom: I remember you talking about how this challenge was to communicate to park users how to use our parks differently. You spoke in the past so passionately about the beauty of watching people use their parks, for example, how you want them to use the basketball courts but you also knew the impact to families.
Al: This is a public health crisis and we followed public health recommendations. But it isn’t easy when you start to talk about taking something away from people that you know is the one thing they can do and the one place they can go. It’s hard to tell people that tennis courts are closed, basketball courts are closed, and playgrounds are closed.
We realized that we had to pay attention to the fact that we want people to be safe and we don’t want people to get sick. If you go and play basketball with others, you may not get sick but you can bring the virus home to your mother, to your father, to your grandmother. The weight of that was really hard. So, we flipped it, and encouraged people to visit these gems or these places they never visited before. Be at peace with that and start to realize that this place is so unique, and we have one-hundred and eighty parks in our system.
It wasn’t just about don’t go here but rather here’s what you can do.
Tom: The decision early by the park board to close the parkways to traffic was appreciated across the cIty, and it had this interesting impact in changing the soundscape of the parks. If you’re walking around, I noticed it was quieter, it felt more human, it felt more like you were in connection to people. People are seeing these spaces in a whole new way.
We closed twenty-two miles of parkways to vehicles so we could provide social distancing for pedestrians.I realized when I was walking with my family there was a different connection to people I hadn’t experienced before. So many people were smiling and saying hello, taking pictures of things, and they were just slowing down. The experience was just different.
I have never seen so many people out in the park all day, each day. People hammocking around this entire area. People playing Frisbee golf. Kids playing. People running up and down the hill exercising, and people just laying out here with blankets in a social distancing circle. Young people literally put their phones down and were just playing. People were flying kites. I haven’t seen that many kites being flown in a long time. As challenging and difficult and terrifying as this time has been, I think people began to find a sense of place and community.
Tom: I know this is still dynamic, but how do you see this summer unfolding from what you know now. And where will you turn for decision guidance?
Al: The Governor’s turning up the dial to reopen Minnesota and we’re turning up the dial to offer more park programs and services. I’m excited that we’re creating opportunities and activities that engage youth and adults safely, and we’re doing so through an equity lens.
We opened up 13 recreation centers exclusively to provide school age childcare, which is so important. There are between 300-330 youth who are coming to our RecPlus program, because parents need help so they can work. Obviously, I think our RecPlus program is phenomenal, but our staff really provide a place where they get snacks and lunch and love and friendship and activities. And that’s what we do, right? You know I’m pretty excited about that.
We also have our Teen Teamworks program, where we are employing 75 youth this year and providing work and, more importantly, youth enrichment. We’re also offering a variety of free summer drop-in programs at parks throughout the city, from Fun on the Run recreation activities to Nearby Nature environmental activities.
Tom: And that leads into our next questions. Everything is changing and it’s a tumultuous time. I wanted to make some time in this conversation to talk about how the park Board – just like every civic institution – is having to look at the systemic racism it operates within and that is within it. And we have to look at Minneapolis particularly because of what happened specifically here. I know you, your team and the Park Commissioners have been working to be responsive to change. Can you share a little bit about how you and your team and commissioners are looking at the role of parks in this time?
Al: This Park Board has been committed, even before this time, before I returned here, to racial equity work. We have been working very hard to address racial equity, expand our staff’s understanding around equity and build it in to our organizational culture, processes and procedures. We were the first park system in the country to pass ordinances that commit to allocating neighborhood and regional park capital investments funds using equity criteria. We now use equity tools when developing our budget, allocating recreation center funding, and developing policies and procedures across the organization. There is a commitment to examine our guiding statements around racial equity, and also look at ordinances that could be out of date. We could have had an ordinance for 30 years, but until we actually looked at it and understood it, we wouldn’t know that there could be an ordinance that is racially biased against people.
Our work has become a national model. When I was the Director of Parks in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina,when I’d go to the National Recreation and Park Association conferences and events, Minneapolis was held up as a model for racial equity work. Understanding that race is integrated into everything and we cannot ignore the pain, the injustices, the institutions that exist are real.
We also committed that all of our certified full time and part time staff would go through Racial Equity 101 training in 2018 and 2019. And I think as an organization, to have our staff go through that and find a place in this organization that it’s acceptable to begin that conversation, to talk about it, to understand how we feel with our own bodies and to openly have those discussions, is incredibly powerful.
Tom: Minneapolis is seen as a leader for parks. We’re almost always ranked number 1. I wonder, as you’re learning through this, how are you sharing out and communicating and letting others around the country learn with you? Are you in conversation with people across the country, other park systems, and are you finding ways to both learn with others, and also to share out?
Al: Yeah, I think so. I think just by nature of being recognized as the best park system in the country – it’s based on specific metrics that the Trust for Public Land established – is powerful. Because at the end of the day, we want to make sure that all people have access to the park system, the amenities, and the opportunities. It’s not even about being number one in the nation, it’s about being the best for the people you provide services to. That’s what it’s about, right? So, it’s an incredible honor because it shows the investment that the people in Minneapolis have made over many years. And we know we need more support, right? We get about 8 cents on the dollar through Minneapolis property taxes. And we always want to provide more, and the public always demands we provide more.
What I find fascinating is that our ranking has opened up the opportunities for us to lead. People from around the country reach out and ask how we look at planning? In Minneapolis, we established the first-of-its-kind Racial Equity Matrix in 2016 and we view our work through a racial equity lens in every single thing that we do. Other cities can talk to us about that, and learn how it works.
You have to look at the neighborhood the park serves and understand the people who live in it, and you start looking at statistics, data, and demographics to drive your decisions. What’s really exciting and powerful about being the superintendent at this time, is that while this park system is recognized for what we do, this role affords me an opportunity to study and explore other organizations and build on a foundation of success. When I have these casual conversations among other city park leaders in other park agencies, you share, you communicate, you look at best practices, trends, innovation. It’s exciting because it really does open the door for you.
And when people reach out to you, you start to then examine other park systems and learn how they do things. What’s the phrase? “Amateurs borrow: professional steal.” Because it’s been done somewhere, and someone is doing it exceptionally well and that’s what we aspire to be. For me as a leader, I aspire to be the best organization to the people we serve. The best park system that looks at its ecology, at its environment, at its carbon footprint. The best organization that provides the best recreational opportunities. The best organization that has the best greenways and parkways. The best water quality in our lakes. The best professional staff that we recruit or are from here, that grow up in this park system and they have these incredible backgrounds and understanding.
That is who we want to be. That’s what we share with other organizations and it’s inspiring people. I will just say that being the best park system in the country is such a privilege, and it always pushes us to do more and to be the best for the people we serve.
Tom: Al, thank you. Is there one or two things that you wish Minneapolitans understood about their park system and what its stewards are trying to accomplish? How can they help it be the best? Is there anything in particular that you want to make sure everybody knew or understood as we look ahead?
Al: There are multiple layers to this question for me personally. You know I’ve worked in this park system for almost 20 years before I came back as Superintendent. Now I’m here sitting in this amazing position that I’ve been afforded. I’m know I am fortunate. I think you can become so familiar and so accustomed to this incredible park system, that it almost becomes… I don’t want to use the word natural… I think it can become internalized that this is normal. But when you leave the state, you recognize how fortunate, how rare this park system is. When you go other cities, you realize that what was so normal to you is truly magical and beautiful. I ask people to always remember what an incredible privilege it is to be in a city park system that was founded back in 1883. People had foresight. Our past superintendents and people that worked here, they left a legacy where I stand today.
They imagined a system that was owned by the people, designed and built so that everyone can experience it, and everyone can touch it. The idea that you can walk around entire lakeshores in an urban environment in this city and remain in the park is profound. We can’t take for granted that we have such a jewel. So when we talk about advocating for and supporting this park system, when we start to highlight the needs and we talk about the tax levy, we can’t forget to fight for it and to support it and the people that are working to maintain such a beautiful amenity.
We can’t take for granted the incredible effort coming from the staff – people who work in every neighborhood, the forestry staff who maintain every tree in this system, the people that maintain the water quality in our lakes, the people that pick up the trash every day, the people that mow the lawns, the staff that work with and mentor our youth and provide daycare and programing, the staff that are in our community centers and our police department that provides public safety. It’s important for me to note that even though we are the largest landowner in Minneapolis, less than 2% of crime happens in our parks. This is a direct result of the work our officers do through community policing. They work directly with community, in the neighborhoods.
I just want them to remember how amazing this park system is and don’t take it for granted and fight for it. The staff is working every day to steward this treasure. And we’re changing to meet emerging needs. We have incredible partners like the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, who also love this park system and work tirelessly to enhance our amazing places, like with RiverFirst, and the addition of Water Works and the 26th Avenue Overlook.
When we’re in these tough times, to remember the importance of this park system and what it means to this city. People move here because of our park system. The health and livability of the city is because of our park system. We can’t overlook it. And we will continue to manage it to meet the challenges of our times – no matter how complex.
Tom: Thank you. It has been great to have this time on your very busy schedule and thank you for providing your leadership at this time. I’m very excited to see you bring your vision forward in the coming years and we’re here to help you be aspirational in your efforts.