Jessi Kingston and James Pierce

June 2019 – Race-based discrimination has existed in Edina, in various shapes and guises, for more than a century. In the 1920s, it took the form of overtly racist housing policies and employment practices. In hindsight, the injustice of denying a job to a person of color or refusing their family entry into “white neighborhoods” is patently and painfully clear.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape looks quite different, at least at first pass, notes Edina resident James Pierce. Federal and state laws are unequivocal about exclusionary housing covenants and human resources practices. However, racism is still entrenched in our daily lives – it’s just a little harder for some to spot.

James Pierce and Jessi Kingston

"In truth, it’s hard to overstate how embedded some of the problems are,” added Pierce’s colleague Jessi Kingston. “Everything from access to Edina’s public facilities, to the language of official city communications … needs to be looked at critically.”

Kingston and Pierce co-chaired the Race & Equity Task Force, an ad hoc body formed by the Edina City Council with exactly that kind of exploration in mind.

Both are eminently qualified for such a leadership role. Kingston’s bona fides include time as a sourcing and purchasing specialist for GE Fleet Services and ecommerce firm Digital River. At both corporations, Kingston painstakingly restructured vendor contract bidding procedures to increase the representation of women- and minority-owned businesses.

Later, as director of the City of St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), Kingston headed a diverse team responsible for ensuring fair treatment to historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

For nearly a decade, Kingston also sat on the City of Edina’s own Human Rights & Relations Commission – a sustained commitment for which she received the Tom Oye Human Rights Award in 2015.

James Pierce is a senior executive at and 27-year veteran of Cargill, where he has been a strong internal champion for various diversity initiatives.

Over the years, Pierce has also found time – or rather, made time – for important board commitments and commission appointments. Just this January, for instance, he accepted a post on the advisory board of prominent STEM nonprofit MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, National Resources, and Related Sciences).

“Because of this work, especially at Cargill, I was invited to sit down with Mayor Jim Hovland and City Manager Scott Neal a few years ago to give my thoughts on what the City might do differently or better,” Pierce explained.

“As it happened, though, this was just a starting point.”

In December 2016, the City Council created the resident-led Edina Race & Equity Task Force, and tapped Pierce and Kingston to helm it.

“Since equity problem spots exist everywhere, and since no one change is likely to work a culture shift,” the task force steered clear of single-track thinking and simple fixes, Kingston explained. Instead, its leaders delegated months of “on the ground” work to three Working Groups devoted to Institutions, Services, and Facilities, respectively.

Among other data gathering tactics, these resident volunteers (with help from professional diversity consultants) conducted an online survey, one-on-one interviews, small group gatherings, and two town hall-style listening sessions at South View Middle School throughout 2017.

After data synthesis and additional research, the Race & Equity Task Force presented its final report in June 2018. This guiding document outlines 21 specific recommendations for promoting diversity and equity in City operations. Examples include development of a Limited English Proficiency Policy to guide City communications, refinement of the City’s Affordable Housing Policy, and adoption of all-staff equity awareness training.

“We’ve already made some strides,” Pierce said. “The City just hired Heidi Lee for the position of Race & Equity Coordinator.” This move was high on the Task Force’s list of recommendations. “She’s going to do great things to move us forward.”

Above all, “some mechanisms for accountability are finally beginning to come into place,” Kingston added. “This is great to see.”

In recognition of their contributions to racial justice and community inclusivity, Hovland awarded Pierce and Kingston with the Mayor’s Individual Service Commendation in April 2019.