The podcast this week is a conversation with Erica Mauter, a engineer and executive director of the Twin Cities Women’s Choir, a non-profit. Mauter is running for City Council in Minneapolis’ Ward 11, in the Southern part of the city. We sat down for a chat the other day at Berry Sweet Kitchen on 34th Avenue, and chatted about her background, her campaign, her focus on affordable housing, renters rights, equity and engagement, and a bunch of other fun topics like riding a scooter and the Minnesota Lynx. We had a great chat and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Before we begin, the podcast this week is sponsored by Bang Brewing.
Bang Brewing Company is Minnesota’s only dedicated organic brewery. Established in 2013 by a husband and wife owner/brewer team, Bang brews a range of high-quality ales and lagers. The award-winning pre-fab grain bin brewery/taproom and beer garden tout their focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility. Goodness is brewing.
Thanks to Bang Brewing for sponsoring the podcast, and if you would like to sponsor future episodes of the streets.mn podcast, please reach out to me, Bill Lindeke, for more details.
[Rough transcript follows]
Erica Mauter on Ward 11:
Ward 11 is kind of a quiet ward, we don’t have an uptown we don’t have a downtown. It has a lot of those small commercial corners in neighborhood interiors. It has a lot of parkland a lot of water in it. As a runner Minnehaha Creek is my absolute favorite place in the city and i feel really lucky to have access to it.
On her experience as a chemist and non-profit leader:
I grew up in Detroit, and went to college in Michigan, and came to the Twin Cities for a job. I worked at General Mills and did R&D. My background is in chemical industry, I worked for 12 years and decided I wanted to get out of the pharmaceutical industry. Then I went to St Kate’s to study organizational leadership. Then I joined the TC women’s choir. That was a thing I was doing, I was on that board, and then the Executive Director was retiring, and they asked if I was interested in stepping into that role and I said sure. It was an opportunity to do something really different.
Now I’ve been on staff with the choir for 4 years. In some ways having that engineering background helped out with that role. Our women’s choir is a non-auditioned community choir, and we have about 120 singers for our 3 concerts per year. We also added a program, the TC girl’s choir, music education program for girls in grades 2-10. We doubled the size of our organization in my tenure, my time there has been characterized by quite a bit of organizational change. Anyone who has worked in non-profits would be familiar with the challenges and also the rewards of that situation. A little piece of if, I want something different to happen. Who’s going to do it? Well, why not me.
The thing about city government is that it has so much direct effect on our daily lives. Often times, if it’s working well, we don’t notice it. But to me, that felt like a really tangible way to make the change I want to see in Minneapolis. As a 7-year resident of Ward 11, I thought I would like to see something different in our leadership. Why not try it?
I was an engineer for 12 years. That means that I spent a lot of time working with systems with peculiar constraints on them, trying to creatively solve problems within those constraints, trying to do creative technical writing. That sound to me a lot like the law, in policy making. But I also, what I do now with the Twin Cities Women’s Choir, as a leader of an origination that serves and seeks to empower women and girls, we talk about lot about’s our vision for ourselves. What are the values that we’ve agreed upon as a community? How is what we do every week making that vision a reality? And how are we treating each other along the way? So I bring, as a leadership role in government, both the technical approach to getting stuff done and having a vision for where we’re going.
On Minneapolis’ need for affordable housing and targeted development:
When I think about affordable housing in Minneapolis, there are a few elements. The things we’ve been talking about the most is, do we have enough housing? We need to build more. How do we do that? That’s one piece of the equation. It’s getting more expensive to live here. One way to get at that is just to build more.
The other side of that equation is to pay people enough money to afford what we do have. So I support the 15-dollar minimum wage, with no exceptions. The other thing about building, specific to Ward 11, is that if the city really does need new housing, do we in Ward 11 want to have a say in what that looks like? Or do we want to let that happen without us. That’s guided by a couple things, like the zoning situation.
The fact of Ward 11 is that it’s strongly, widely zoned as single-family housing, the least dense and least efficient use of land. And given that, its hard to get any more people in this ward. I think the opportunity there is at these commercial corridors, like 34th Avenue or in the neighborhood interiors, places with four businesses on a corner. Maybe one way we’re going to target any up-zoning in those areas, because we want those businesses to be healthy. Part of that is building in a customer base, and you want to get as many people near you as possible. Everyone I’ve talked to in Ward 11 wants to have a coffee shop they can walk to, so maybe that’s one first step: let’s be targeted in our opportunities to change the zoning.
On community engagement and the role of a Council Member:
Sometimes the objections people have to developments that are coming is that they just didn’t know about them. Its really hard to know when and where to make their opinion known, so we have a lot of opportunities to help people. I am on CLIC and I enjoy this process immensely. I enjoy hearing about … one thing I’ve tried to do is help people know what’s going on. Sitting on CLIC I get a view of the next 5 years of paving projects, and any paving project is an opportunity to rebuild everything else around the street itself. So that even if its not the city’s formal community engagement process, that’s an opportunity for neighborhood organizations to be like, “hey this is coming.” It’s incumbent upon the Council Member to connect people with what those processes are.
On renters’ rights policies:
There are abusive landlord behaviors perpetuating unhealthy and unsafe living conditions. The problem is that, given our current legal situation, renters don’t’ have recourse. I mention a “just cause eviction ordinance”, which would mean that a landlord can’t just sell the building to a developer and boot out everyone who’s here. You have to give a good reason for evicting your tenants. It has to be for cause. Similarly I mention a “right of first refusal ordinance”, which means that if you live in a 4-plex, and the landlord wants to sell the building, well do the people who live there want to buy the building? We’re trying to not displace people who are comfortable where they are.
On Minneapolis’ role as a “sanctuary”:
I want to speak to the issue of our undocumented residents. I strongly believe that Minneapolis needs to be a sanctuary in every sense of the word. We need to be thinking about, what are our values as a community, and how we are lifting up everyone who lives here? One effect that a lack of renters’ rights has, it makes people… because they’re afraid to be outed as undocumented, it makes them afraid to stand up for themselves. Strengthening renters’ rights gives people a sense of security and safety that allows them to continue to build stable families, continue to work, and send their kids to school. I think we need to recognize that folks are here, and its better for all us if we encourage people to be part of our social fabric rather than hiding and in fear. Strengthening renters rights contributes to that goal so I want to make that part of the bigger picture.
On traveling by scooter and street safety:
So there is one little pice of road, 46th Avenue between Godfrey Parkway and 46th Street, right in that Minnehaha Park area. Basically if you’re coming across Minnehaha Creek to head to Saint Paul, you have to hang a left and a right to get onto the bridge. I have literally almost bounced off my scooter trying to ride there. I can’t imagine it’s any better on a bicycle. One part of the CLIC process, you can see what all these projects are. One of the first CLIC comments I ever authored was about the desperate need to repave that single block. That is supposed to happen this year and I’m very excited. Driving a scooter does make me notice the smoothness of streets in a way I’d never notice in a car.
On the relationship between the city and pro sports teams:
I know that any representative of a sports team is going to disagree at the assertion that they might not be involved in the community. But I mean if we are going to give public dollars to a team for a stadium, we should be really clear on what we’re getting in return for that. The economics show that we’re not getting the return that they say we should, as far as how jobs and wages etc. flow back into the community. In general, I really like the community benefits agreement (CBA) model, and projects of that scale must include a specific CBA. With the Twins’ stadium, people advocated to make sure funding came out of there for libraries and youth sports. But I think a CBA is a little different approach to how are we engaging the community in what they want back for this. There needs to be, for the amount, the large, huge amount of money we are giving to these teams worth billions, we need to be really clear what the benefits are in return. We can’t rely on trickle down economics for that.
On community engagement philosophy:
Philosophically, engagement is important, because what we’re deciding to do as important as how we are making those decisions. Small-d democracy can be messy, but there’s really value in capturing the broad sense of a community and to be proactive about engaging people who don’t know how to, or who aren’t typically inclined to, insert themselves into the process. That’s kind of the knock on neighborhood organizations, is that they’re not representative of neighborhoods. We need to be proactive about bringing in the loop everyone who’s affected in decisions we make.
I use on my website the phrase, “nothing about us without us is for us.” If segments of our residents are left out of the decision making process, the final result, without a whole lot of intentionality, is not going to serve those people the best. This is where I’m hopeful about the power of city government to be a force for good. The intentionality of including as many people as possible can lead to better outcomes for our most marginalized residents.
On Minneapolis’ legacy of racism in housing:
I saw the Histioriapolis organization do a presentation of the history of racial covenants in the city. The data they have so far is a map of little red dots that show where these were and. And Ward 11 is lit up with these little red dots.
It shows up in our zoning. I‘ve heard a lot of stories from long-time people of color who have lived in Minneapolis, and they have a lot of anecdotes to corroborate the social dynamics about this. Who people wanted to live where. This is important to me as a person of color, to reckon with that history. And that while there are very specific things that we can achieve by creating more housing and supporting our renters, to me when I think of what is the social justice, what is the just thing to do, attempting to remember that history of racial covenants is important in that process.
On the push for greater equity in Minneapolis:
What I would bring to this council role on issues like this is that I am accustomed, as a queer woman of color, to parsing all the very different elements of my interactions with everyone and everything. And I experience them differently, and in multiple ways, and am constantly forced to think about that. I think that we need to be thinking about, what are our polices about equity, and also what are equitable policies. Everything single thing we do has implications that have different impacts on different people, and somebody needs to ask at every turn, is this equitable? We might just be talking about paving 46th and 46th or a “green zones” policy… But people ask me, it’s important for us to consider every single ordinance we have and how they have equity implications, and to ask that question at eery opportunity.
On “Complete Streets” in Minneapolis:
The Council has recently adopted a complete streets program but we need to actually walk the walk on that one if your’e not attentive to every single decision that’s being made when these projects are being designed you can lose that prioritization. I’m glad there is something enshrined in already that can guide us in that conversation. But wen i think about complete streets and prioritizing people on foot, bikes, or transit, there are a few philosophical things that matter. What are the public health and public safety implications of those things. So can people with mobility impairments literally get down the street the way they need to do they have access to everything around them? Serving on CLIC has helped me understand the considerations around ADA compliance and the importance of sidewalks