Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton: To Solve City Problems, Bring Everyone To The Table

Interview for The UpTake by Sheila Regan

Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton will be honored tonight when a prominent bridge designed in the style of architect Frank Lloyd Wright is named in her honor. The bridge was built during Sayles Belton’s two-term tenure as Minneapolis Mayor and carries Third Avenue South across Interstate 94. It’s the bridge with the strange looking lobster antennae and curved fences (see a photo by clicking here).

Sayles Belton, born and raised in St. Paul, was the first woman, and first African-American, to be elected mayor of Minneapolis, and served from 1994 to 2002. A DFLer who won high marks for reducing crime, stabilizing neighborhoods, combating racism and strong support for public schools, Sayles Belton was defeated in a bid for a third term by fellow DFLer R.T. Rybak, who, in turn, leaves office in January after three terms as mayor. Today, Sayles Belton, 62, is the Vice President of Community Relations and Government Affairs at Thomson Reuters and serves on boards of numerous local and national nonprofit organizations. The UpTake spoke with the former mayor about her bridge, her legacy and her thoughts on the current mayoral race:

UpTake: What are your feelings about having a bridge named after you?

Sharon Sayles Belton: Well, I think it’s a wonderful tribute coming from the mayor, from the city of Minneapolis and the city council to find a way to acknowledge my work and my administration. It’s a very humbling experience to have something of this magnitude happen. It’s an extraordinary emotional feeling. And (artist) Janet Lofquist, the artist has done a terrific job of capturing what it was that we were trying to accomplish while I was mayor of the city of Minneapolis. The goal was to bring people together from across the city for the common good. The dedication of the bridge speaks to the importance of that effort. I’m grateful.

Vintage campaign button for Sharon Sayles Belton, first woman and first African-American mayor of Minneapolis, 1994-2001

UpTake: What do you feel the city needs in order to achieve what you set out to do?

SSB: Well, the thing that I would say is that it’s a journey. I would preface my remarks by saying that there were people that came before me who also worked hard to try to bring communities together. Progress gets made and then the next leader or group of leaders comes forward, assess the situation and try to build on that progress. We’re trying to build on a legacy of the people of Minneapolis being champions for social justice, equity and equality and opportunities for all. We have a strong tradition in the city of Minneapolis for caring for our children, for our communities and our neighborhoods, and taking the city to the next level and also for dealing with the challenges that the present creates for us. In my term, Minneapolis was experiencing a tremendous change in demographics in the citizens, and one of my objectives was to find a way to design some initiatives that tried to identify what those common bonds were between all of these different communities that were calling Minneapolis home. I was obviously enthusiastic and really focused on my intent to do that and one of the things that we focused on was trying to use things like the arts and all our individual unique cultural differences to be the bridge to bring us together. And in addition to that, our commitment as individual communities and collective communities to ensure the next generation had more opportunities than we did. So there were a number of initiatives focused on children and youth and I’m very proud of those efforts.

These things don’t begin with a civil action. These things are things that require continuous action on the part of future leaders. Any mayor going forward is going to have to take stock of some of those same things — bringing people together, focusing on the next generation, and ensuring that the adults of our community have the resources they need to sustain themselves and their families. So housing and jobs are critical developments of any healthy community. We worked on those things — we created new jobs, we built more housing, we advanced the environment, we led the effort to clean the city’s lakes, we celebrated our diversity by opening up the river which is the birthplace of the founding of our community, we did all of those things to be a starter for a path for growth and prosperity. And I feel good about that.

Read More To See How Sharon Sayles Belton Thinks Minneapolis Should Tackle Its Problems

UpTake: As the first African American of Minneapolis, what do you feel Minneapolis needs to do to start bridging gaps in education, employment, housing, etc., that Minneapolis faces?

SSB: There are a lot of things the city can do — but you do that in partnership with the regional government, with the state government, with the federal government…You do it in partnership with the K-12 schools and the institutions of higher ed. These things don’t fall to one individual; they fall to the community as a whole. The mayor of the city and members of the city council need to chart out a course of action to identify those critical partners and provide an agreed upon strategy to close these gaps. Everyone is I’m sure embarrassed by the depth of the gap, and a lot of people are talking about what we need to do to close it, and I believe there is some agreement on the elements of the plan, but the question is the execution: How do we actually deliver on the promise and the vision that people have? The candidates have outlined strategies, and it’s up to the voters to decide which one of those strategies they are articulating has the most promise.

UpTake: Do you have any advice for whoever becomes the next mayor?

SSB: Well, I’m not so much in the advice business, I’m just not certain that’s a good role for me to play, but I would offer some suggestions, and that is give everybody that lives in the city an opportunity to participate in the government of the city, and by that I mean everybody deserves the right to be at the table and offer their ideas about what course of action the city needs to take. If you want to solve the problem, you’ve got to have the people who are experiencing the problem involved in the discussion about the solution. If you don’t do that, you won’t get a good strategy and you won’t get a good result. Be collaborative: Nobody expects that the problems we are experiencing in our communities can be solved alone…it’s got to be collaborative.

UpTake: You’ve endorsed Jackie Cherryhomes, can you say how you made that decision?
(Note: Former City Council President Cherryhomes and Sayles Belton worked closely together).

SSB: I will tell you the top issues I used to decide who I wanted to support. I think that there are great candidates. I personally was looking for candidates that have a demonstrated the ability to get things done, who know how to tackle problems, who have a distinctive record of doing that. I’m interested in supporting someone who has worked in the neighborhoods in the city — some of the problem neighborhoods in the city — that have some of the more chronic and persistent problems and issues and have specific things they can point to that shows that progress has been made. So that’s why I think Jackie’s my candidate, and I’ll be supporting her.

UpTake: Thank you, Mayor!

The Dedication of the Sharon Sayles Belton Bridge takes place at 7 p.m. tonight at 3rd Ave. S and 16th Street East. A new public sculpture created by artist Janet Lofquist that will sit on the north end of the bridge and will be lit at the dedication ceremony, which also includes performances by Larry Long, Robert Robinson, JD Steele and Tonia Hughes.

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