Mellon Grant Will Help University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice Program Expand Community Collaboration

The University of Minnesota (UM) has received a $615,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand its Mapping Prejudice program. Mapping Prejudice, a collaboration among geographers, historians, digital humanists, and community activists, works to document and explore racially restrictive covenants—the clauses inserted into property deeds to keep anyone not white from buying or occupying certain pieces of land.

3 adults standing, 1 child seated at table, in small skylit space papered with documents. All are wearing winter coats.
Team members Kirsten Delegard and Denise Pike talk to community members about the history of racial covenants at an installation created by artist Sarah Sampedro in the winter of 2018
Photo courtesy of Shine On Photos

The University of Minnesota (UM) has received a $615,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand its Mapping Prejudice program. Mapping Prejudice, a collaboration among geographers, historians, digital humanists, and community activists, works to document and explore racially restrictive covenants—the clauses inserted into property deeds to keep anyone not white from buying or occupying certain pieces of land.

The two-year grant-funded project, “Mapping Trust: A model for co-creative community collaboration in an academic library,” will allow the team to establish a think tank that brings together academics, researchers, and members of the community. Project director Kirsten Delegard will be joined by Mapping Prejudice codirector Ryan Mattke, Mapping Prejudice cofounder Penny Petersen, and geospatial lead Michael Corey. The grant will also allow the team to add a new colleague who will lead community engagement work and develop collaborations with communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) residents.

Think tank members will include Dr. Taiyon Coleman and Dr. Daniel Williams from St. Catherine University, who have previously collaborated with Mapping Prejudice; a group of affiliated scholars doing research with the Mapping Prejudice team; and six community fellows, to be chosen, to convene conversations with BIPOC voices at the center of local efforts to dismantle structural racism. UM Libraries will serve as a hub to create space for public engagement with the project.

 

ANALYZING RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS

map showing concentrations of restrictive covenants in Minneapolis area
Racial Covenants in Hennepin County as of November 2020
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Mapping Prejudice Project

The Mapping Prejudice project, based in UM’s John R. Borchert Map Library, launched in 2016. It grew, Delegard told LJ, from a central question: How did Minnesota’s Twin Cities end up with some of the highest racial disparities in the country, even as the area has long conceived of itself as socially progressive? A historian by training, she was interested in using local records to examine that question, “and to get people to really grapple with this dissonance between the material reality, the lived experience of people of color in the Twin Cities specifically, and the sense on the part of a lot of white people that everything was great.”

Racially restrictive covenants—discriminatory agreements included in property and housing deeds by white developers and homeowners—became common throughout the United States in the mid-1920s, when the Supreme Court validated their use. Although these covenants were ruled unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948, and were made illegal by the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act, getting rid of them remains complex; homeowners must go through a legal process to remove the language from their deeds.

Although they can no longer be legally enforced, racially restrictive covenants continue to inflict harm. They have driven real estate redlining and segregation practices, which have been foundationally responsible for disparities in wealth, education, health care, and access to community resources.

Delegard discovered that racially restrictive covenants were not often used as part of the historical record because they were buried in the language of individual deeds. She decided that the first step in addressing her question would be to digitally map as many such covenants as possible in the Twin Cities area, and assembled a team of collaborators with experience in coding, digital cartography, and property records research.

UMN Libraries has a tradition of research that’s “always very deliberately collaborative, transdisciplinary, and public-facing,” said Delegard. Although Delegard was not a tenured faculty member—she was a scholar in residence at Augsburg University, a small liberal arts college nearby—Mattke, map and geospatial information librarian and head of the Borchert Library, was receptive to giving the project a home.

Delegard’s team worked with county officials to get digitized property deeds and comb through them with digital humanities–based text analysis tools. “But we still needed human eyes to decide, is this a racial covenant or not?” she told LJ. “Computers are not that smart. So we decided to use a crowdsourcing platform that was developed at the University of Minnesota, which had not been really used for humanities projects up until our project came along, and throw open the doors—harness the power of community and get people reading these primary sources and contributing to this research.”

 

CRITICAL DATA

Although she originally envisioned it as a short-term, stand-alone project, Mapping Prejudice is still active six years later. Since its inception, more than 6,000 volunteers have read approximately 425,000 property deeds in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. The project dataset was published in the UM open access data repository and has been downloaded more than 5,000 times.

That data has contributed to efforts from civic engagement policy to documentaries. Project data helped form the backbone of the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, a new approach to land-use guidelines. It was instrumental in passing legislation in 2019 allowing homeowners to file to have restrictive covenants legally discharged from their home titles. (Minnesota is the third state, after California and Washington, to enact such a law.) A group of economists have been using the data to understand the long-term material benefits to white residents that have resulted from restrictive covenants. And it served as the basis for Jim Crow of the North, a documentary by Daniel Bergin, executive producer for Twin Cities PBS, which has been seen by millions of viewers and has been taught in classrooms across the country.

One of those classrooms was at UM, where Kiarra Zackery was earning her master’s degree in education. That was the first time Zackery encountered the concept of racially restrictive covenants in a formal setting—but once she began to dig deeper into the subject, she discovered that the deed to the south Minneapolis house she grew up in contained discriminatory language.

“Learning this history really puts your whole life into context,” Zackery told LJ. “My parents purchased this home, chose the neighborhood and lived there for 20-some years. When we moved there, we were de facto the only Black family on this block.” She showed the wording of the deed to her father, Ulysses, who had bought his house from the original homeowner. While shocking, that information also helped explain why the neighborhood never diversified when they lived there. “It provided the whole context, a different understanding of why things were the way they were,” she said.

 

JUST DEEDS

Zackery is currently diversity, equity, and inclusion manager for the City of Golden Valley, MN, a suburb of Minneapolis, and serves as lead organizer for the Just Deeds project, a coalition of community stakeholders that provide free legal and title services to help property owners find discriminatory covenants and discharge them from their property deeds. In 2021 the city received more than 400 requests to remove restrictive covenants, and it has gotten calls from cities across the country that want to start their own programs.

Zackery’s first project on the job was to draft a resolution that the city should become a founding member of Just Deeds. The coalition asked Delegard and Mapping Prejudice to help identify covenants and give residents guidance on disavowing them, bringing aboard local realtors and title companies as well. Since then, Zackery and Delegard have continued working together, presenting on their work to professional organizations and community groups.

The Just Deeds project has spread across the Twin Cities metro area. “We are now in 14 cities that are doing the work of creating infrastructure to help their residents and community members disavow racially restrictive covenants,” said Zackery, “using the maps from Mapping Prejudice. And we are also working strategically with our real estate partners.” That includes an education component: Minnesota real estate professionals now must take a course on racially restrictive covenants and the Just Deeds project to maintain their licenses.

“One of the questions that we almost always get is: Why do we care about racially restrictive covenants if the practice is illegal and we have something like the Fair Housing Act of 1968?” noted Zackery. “It’s important because we still see those same patterns today. The Fair Housing Act says we can’t discriminate and create barriers based on race, but they never integrated those neighborhoods intentionally. The pattern still exists, even two generations later. And the other thing is, you want to educate folks about something like racially restrictive covenants because the patterns of racially restrictive policies follow all types of industries, not just housing. If we can get people to understand that there are disparities across racial groups because of something like covenants and place-based racism, we can start to understand a whole lot of other racial disparities.”

 

DEEPER ENGAGEMENT

As Mapping Prejudice’s scope grew over time, the team struggled to meet demands while continuing to work closely with the Twin Cities community. In addition, while members were deeply engaged in the history and work at hand, “the big issue that that became very evident from the beginning was that we were an all-white research team,” Delegard said. “To be true to the original vision for our project, we need to be in direct collaboration with communities of color and organizations run by people of color. And to do that, we had to be able to expand our research team, bring more people in. That’s what led us to go through this intense strategy process.”

Fortuitously, the Mellon Foundation approached the Mapping Prejudice team and asked if they were interested in developing a plan it could support. The team developed a proposal “to figure out mechanisms to be more deliberately and consistently in relationship with communities of color,” said Delegard, and “figure out ways to put [UMN resources] more in the hands of the variety of communities that the university is supposed to be serving.”

That will mean hiring a new full-time team member with community roots to help develop local collaborations. Once the new colleague is in place, the team will put out a call for six community fellows to work with the project for a year. “They will come with some ideas about projects that they want to do and, and our job will be to figure out how to how to resource those projects, and how to connect them with resources both in the university and in the broader community that can support that work,” Delegard explained. All fellows will receive stipends and a research budget.

They will form part of think tank, along with a roster of scholars who have been using Mapping Prejudice’s data. “We want to put those people in conversation with these community fellows, and talk about what is the work that we can do together,” she said. “We’re going to use an organizing model. We’re going to bring in community organizers to help us run the think tank with the idea of explicitly using those techniques of relationship building, one-to-one power mapping, to figure out what these new collaborations should look like. That’s our experiment.”

Delegard anticipates these collaborations generating new project and research directions. “We have all these resources in the university, but there are so many barriers to putting those resources in the service of community,” she told LJ. “We need new structures, we need new relationships, we need new ways to figure out how to bring a variety of people together to address these questions.”

The library lies at the heart of this conversation, she added. “I think libraries have the potential to really reconfigure the way that that universities are interacting with people,” she said. “They can be very elitist, they can be very white, they can be very traditional. But they also have some basic core values that I think we really need right now, if our if our institutions are going to not only survive but actually serve in the way that we really need them to.”

Eventually, Delegard hopes to develop pedagogical materials for instructors from K–12 through graduate-level education. Beyond that, she is waiting for what the conversations in the think tank and among community contributors turn up.

Zackery has ideas as well. “We recognize that we are in the middle of a reckoning, and that racially restrictive covenants, racism in housing, is a very concrete, very clear, in-your-face-example of how our society and economy and systems are structured around racial exclusion,” she said. “Community members really want to be able to feel like they have some sort of stake, or can take action against the legacy of racism. By disavowing a covenant, they can do that. But there are so many other things that they can do. So the next step in this grant work is to continue to tailor our approach to the needs of community.”

Talking with her father about how it felt to raise a family in a neighborhood where racially restrictive covenants were still buried in home deeds has kept her in touch with the questions she wants to see Mapping Prejudice address. “We’ve already acknowledged harm, and now it’s time to repair that. I think Mapping Prejudice is setting themselves up to do that work,” said Zackery. “What does intentional access to housing look like? What does intentional access to homeownership look like for communities that we know were historically excluded from those same opportunities? I believe that the solutions lie in the community, I believe that the more information that we know, the more narrative data that we collect from folks that have been harmed—people who are activated and want to take action and do things—that they also have solutions how to repair the systems.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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