Toni Newborn didn’t plan on working in human resources. After getting her degree from William Mitchell School of Law, she worked as an attorney doing investigations for the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department. So when she first moved to working in human resources for the city of St. Paul, she was hesitant. She thinks now that a different explanation of the role might have kept her from trying it, and even at the time, she didn’t think it was what she wanted to do.

Coming around on HR took some time. When Melvin Carter III was elected mayor of St. Paul in 2017, he asked Toni to join his transition team and become the city’s first chief equity officer. She stayed in that role until 2021, when the human resources director left and Mayor Carter asked her if she’d take the position. It took some discussion, but Toni eventually agreed.

Toni brought her equity work with her into her new role, and quickly found that the department was much more important to that work than she had expected. On this episode, she discusses challenges and wins from throughout her career, the impact of COVID-19 and George Floyd, and areas where she wants to see change. Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

The challenge of change

It takes a lot of work to make change in a bureaucracy like city government. Toni uses the example of a government hiring policy that had been in place for around 50 years. The policy was intended to both motivate merit-based hiring and work against organized crime. What Toni found on closer inspection was that it didn’t account for people of color seeking employment and actually worked against them. So she set out to change it.

First, she had to get attorneys and her team on board. Then, they had to go through the actual processes of getting the rule officially changed. In all, it was over a year of work. It’s a similar story for a lot of Toni’s initiatives. She’s also the first person in recent memory to push for changes to the city’s civil service rules. After successfully making those changes, she believes that her team now truly understands the message of her work: our systems need to change.

Looking toward the future

Toni is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to make things better. One area of particular interest to her and Mayor Carter is the composition of the city workforce. As of 2023, only 30% of St. Paul’s 3,000 government employees actually lived in the city. Mayor Carter wants to change that through initiatives like resident-specific hiring programs and making entry-level positions more accessible, with more upward mobility. It would align with Toni’s drive to change systems – a city government run by its people will have a better sense of the actual effects (and limitations) of policy.

Another area of continuing interest for Toni and Mayor Carter has been funding equity initiatives. In fact, it’s been a pillar of Mayor Carter’s administration since day one. They established the Office of Financial Empowerment, raised the minimum wage, eliminated library late fees and set up numerous funds to support low- to middle-income residents and their families, both before and during the pandemic.

Now, Toni pays special attention to how funding for equity initiatives gets used. As she points out, it generally isn’t enough for organizations to appoint diversity and equity officers or put out an equity statement. The work has to go deeper than a special team – it has to be embedded into the culture, and it has to be funded to keep it there.

Change happens on a lot of levels, and Toni shows us what it’s like to make it happen in local government. It’s difficult and time-consuming, but the payoff is huge: changes in policy that fundamentally improve the playing field for the people of Saint Paul. A lot of it’s long overdue, but little by little, the system is changing from the inside. To hear more from Toni about her work, motivation and what it was like to work in government during the pandemic, listen to this episode of Off the Charts.