De'Vonna Pittman

Want to be an antiracist voter? Do your homework, and then vote all the way down the ballot.

Who is your County Commissioner? Go ahead. Think about it. I’ll wait.  

There’s a good chance that you have no idea who your county commissioner is. And yet, in Hennepin County, Minnesota, the county commission controls a $2.5-billion-dollar budget.  

Criminal justice, economic justice, environmental justice, education, housing, health, and voting rights all begin with local governments.  

Despite the importance of local elections, only 30% of eligible voters vote in local elections. In many local elections, voter turnout can be in the single digits. And, though 60% of eligible voters vote in presidential elections, many voters don’t vote all the way down the ballot, skipping local candidates and ballot initiatives.  

Today, we’re going to meet one woman who wants to use the office of County Commissioner to deal with some of the disparities in our community.  

De’Vonna Pittman is familiar with the issues in Hennepin County. She works as the Disparity Reduction Coordinator for the county. She is also active in her community. She founded the Minnesota Black Author’s Expo. And, she is a candidate for the Hennepin County Commission, District One.  

A complete transcript of our conversation can be found below.  

Learn More About De’Vonna Pittman:

Complete Transcript of our Conversation with De’Vonna Pittman:

De’Vonna Pittman

Hi, I’m De’Vonna Pittman and I’m running for Hennepin County Commissioner.

Tony Loyd

You were born and raised in Ford Heights, IL. Is that right?

De’Vonna Pittman

That’s correct.

Tony Loyd

So, tell people about Ford Heights. What is Ford Heights, IL?

De’Vonna Pittman

Ford Heights is a small town which was really characterized as a village for as long as I was growing up. It was considered a village. It is 20 miles South of Chicago.

With a population of less than 3000 people, where everyone in the town pretty much knew each other and there was concentrated poverty.

Tony Loyd

I read a statistic the other day that the population of Ford Heights declined from 1980 through 2010. It declined by more than 48%, so people were moving out of there.

Let’s just keep you in Ford Heights for a second. What do you think you learned from that?

De’Vonna Pittman

For me, I learned that I had to get out.

All my life, I saw generational poverty. My grandparents moved to Ford Heights as young parents. We all lived in the projects and there were times when of course some moved out of the projects, but many stayed.

And, we lived in a house, but many of my family members did live in the projects in Ford Heights. The houses sort of bordered the projects. Although there are some working-class folks there, about 95% of Ford Heights is low income housing and poverty. 

When you think about it, the amount of money that Blacks make compared to Whites is 62 cents to the dollar, and much less most cases. For me growing up as a young girl, I had some role models who were teachers and some principals, and I saw them of course go to work every day, trying to empower us young folks. But I really didn’t hear the messaging around getting out of poverty, I think they were just trying to make sure we even graduated from high school.

Tony Loyd

You came to Minneapolis Saint Paul area fairly young age, right? I mean you were a young mom.

De’Vonna Pittman

Yeah, I was 21 when I moved here.

Tony Loyd

You had one child and one on the way? I mean why Minneapolis? Why did you pick this place to come to?

De’Vonna Pittman

You know, I think at that time if someone had said to me, come to Europe, come to Africa, come anywhere, I probably would have gone.

I made this commitment to myself and I don’t know when it really sank in, but I made this commitment that I was not going to raise my children in poverty. I’m not going to be on Section 8 all my life because that’s what I had always seen. You know, some of the things that I saw growing up, I just wasn’t going to do it.

There were just things that I had committed to never having to deal with. When my friend moved to Minnesota, she invited me to come up and I moved with her very much willingly.

Tony Loyd

I know that you pursued a bachelor’s degree and eventually a Master’s degree.

Was that right away? Or how did that work?

De’Vonna Pittman

No, it wasn’t. I still didn’t really understand, you know, what my path would be. I worked a lot of temporary agencies, low wage jobs. I had a job at White Castle where I worked until I was eight months pregnant with my daughter. Cleaning buildings. I cleaned the Cargill building.

And I just worked a lot of temporary jobs. I was just trying to get ahead and had registered with some temporary agencies doing clerical work. And of course at the time, you know, being a single parent, I was on welfare. Hennepin County offered clients reimbursable college credits,  so that was an opportunity to complete some college work. But the terms around it didn’t really allow you to be creative. For me, I always wanted to be a hairstylist, so if I had my choice, I would own a beauty salon right now. But Hennepin County at the time said, if we pay for your education, it has to be clerical or social work. Anything like that. Anything that fit into their box, if it didn’t they didn’t pay for it.

But anything outside that box was not acceptable.

Tony Loyd

You didn’t really do well in high school though. Right? How about when you got to University?

I believe your first degree was a bachelor’s in criminal justice. How did that go for you?

De’Vonna Pittman

It went great. I think when you’re dealing with poverty and everything that comes along with that, it’s pretty tough for a kid to pay attention in school. And we know a lot of the studies show that kids just don’t do well when they have to grow up before their time. When they’re dealing with traumatic experiences.

And a lot of kids were dropping out of school when I was growing up and. At the time, I just wanted didn’t want to be in school. I wanted to be in the streets.

Tony Loyd

You got your BA in criminal justice and a master’s in law enforcement leadership, and at some point, you went to work in public service. So how did that happen?

De’Vonna Pittman

So I’ve worked for Hennepin County for 18 years now. I kept trying to get promoted at Hennepin.

And kept running into this wall. “We can’t promote you into this position unless you have a bachelor’s degree.” I kept hearing those words, and so that was it for me. The moment where I decided OK, I have to get my bachelor’s degree. I’m not going to be able to promote or make more money at the County. I’m just not going to be marketable enough. And so, the County was paying 75% of tuition for employees. And I decided to go back, and I did and I completed my BA, but then I kept running into the same brick wall. Because now the jobs that I was applying for I needed a Master’s degree. I went back and got my Master’s degree. Over $100,000 in student loan debt later, promoting was still an issue.

Tony Loyd

What’s your role in Hennepin County right now?

De’Vonna Pittman

I work in disparity reduction.

Tony Loyd

So say more about that.

De’Vonna Pittman

The County is focused on reducing disparities in Hennepin County in education, employment, income, housing, transportation, and justice. And for the last three years I have been the project coordinator bringing alignment across all of those domains.

Each domain is led by a domain lead, and I work very closely with the domain leads to make sure that there is alignment, and the messaging is the same and everyone knows what’s happening in all of those domains. I was brought on to assist the Director.

Tony Loyd

You’re working in disparity reduction, and you’re working within the County structure, the government structure, if you will. But you’re also working with community leaders, is that right?

De’Vonna Pittman

Indirectly

Tony Loyd

Yeah, indirectly, so what’s your relationship with community organizations right now, then?

De’Vonna Pittman

My relationship with community organizations really has a lot more to do with my activism and advocacy aside from the County. I spent a lot of time in the community, helping to reduce disparities.

I founded the Minnesota Black Author’s Expo which is focused on reducing educational disparities for Black and Brown youth. We were looking to bring something into Black communities that didn’t exist. There’s a big Expo that happens at the State Fair every year for authors.

And I’m an author. I’ve written and self-published three books. I attended that event once and was really hoping to meet more authors, sell books, and just get some visibility for my own published works. But realize that in that space there weren’t a lot of Black authors, and there weren’t a lot of White readers who were coming to that event to find Black literature.

And so, we created a space where Black authors could showcase their works. We have become a clearinghouse for Black literature.

And then for me, North Minneapolis is one of the closest places to home. It feels like home to me when I’m there. The culture, the food….the fight for me. 

Whenever I can. Whatever I find my hands to do in North Minneapolis, whether it’s you know, like right after the uprising and the George Floyd murder, we were there for weeks, making sure people have food and grocery on the corner of West Broadway and Emerson.

Tony Loyd

You been working in the County. You’ve been active in the community. What made you think that you wanted to jump into politics? What made you throw your hat in the ring for Hennepin County District 1?

De’Vonna Pittman

I think I had come to this point where I had been seeing decisions made for so many years. In a sense, I felt silenced being on the ground level, making recommendations about policy and things that were happening not just in the County, but in our communities. 

We gave the community this false sense of connection to the work that was happening at the County but not really allowing for community to change or affect policy in a way that we could see some real results.

And as someone who had kind of been in the background, but on the forefront at the same time, I could no longer continue to watch leaders make promises that they didn’t commit to. And I convinced myself that, hey, you’ve already been doing this work. Hey, you already have the passion that’s necessary to stand up and be bold and to really go against the grain and make sure good work happens in our community.

Tony Loyd

De’Vonna, the name of this program is Antiracist Voter So, how can people use their vote to dismantle systemic racism?

De’Vonna Pittman

What is really important first is for people to understand that any elections that are on your ballot are very important, so flip the ballot over. Try to do your research in advance so you really, really, really get to know the candidates and what they stand for.

 Secondly, follow them. Pay attention to what they’re saying. It is so easy to hear and to discern a candidate’s motives when you really listen to what they’re saying. If you think about what’s happening, not only in district one, my district, which includes Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Crystal, Robbinsdale, New Hope and Osseo. If you think about the issues that are pretty detrimental right now in district one, if there’s a candidate running in district one and they’re not talking about how important those things are to them.

If they are not talking about how they plan to tackle those issues, then you’ve got to make sure that you really understand what they’re after. Because every candidate on the ballot is not going to help us to get to an antiracist society. So just pay attention to what people are saying and their fully understand their intentions.

Tony Loyd

A lot of people, they vote the top of the ticket and then they leave the back of the ballot blank. They don’t vote all the way down the ticket. So, if somebody looks at that County Commission position, what are the kinds of things that the County Commission impacts that they may want to pay attention to?

De’Vonna Pittman

The County Commission impacts so much more than people even recognize or understand. It’s been called the most powerful and invisible position in the state. County Commissioners’ impact. Like I said, a 2.5-billion-dollar budget. That’s a lot of money for us to ignore. It’s public safety. Workforce development, health and human services. It’s our roads, it’s transportation.

It’s administration, and the hiring and re-hiring of the county administrator. The board is responsible for managing one of the most powerful people at Hennepin County. The person who runs the entire county on a day to day basis.

So, so many things.

A lot of the CARES Act money came to Hennepin County and the commissioners get to decide where that money is going to be spent and how. 

Although the County doesn’t make decisions about immigration, we have contributed funds to impact how we treat and support people in our communities and how we make sure that we get proper messaging out around immigration and public safety and the Sheriff’s Office.

Tony Loyd

So that’s an interesting question. You know, I’m recognizing that you have a big impact on like affordable housing workforce development, safe neighborhoods, transportation, but you know one of the things that has been such an issue so you know. I mean, it’s always been an issue, but something that many people are paying attention to right now is, criminal justice. And you mentioned public safety a couple of times. What’s the relationship between the County Commission and the County Attorney’s office?

De’Vonna Pittman

I’m in those rooms with the County Attorney’s office where we talk about many things facing our communities and public safety, reforms. That includes what we need to focus on. And some of those things are public safety reforms. How we fine people who have been charged, what needs to be changed about that. 

The County Attorney’s office really doesn’t do a whole lot without moving lock-step with the Hennepin County Commissioners, yet there is much independence. The commissioners do have the power to impact. We absolutely need commissioners who can stand up and have very difficult conversations with the County Attorney’s office.

Tony Loyd

Is there a relationship between the County Commission and the County Sheriff’s Office?

De’Vonna Pittman

There is a relationship, however. The Sheriff is also an elected position, but we do have the power to have conversations with the Sheriff’s Office that most people couldn’t have and to impact them and their budgets.

Tony Loyd

So, there’s a 2.5-billion-dollar budget on the line here. How that money gets spent is really informed by that County Commission.

A budget is a moral document, and so as you think about how you want to see the budget shaped in the coming years, what are your priorities? What are the things that you want to see move forward?

De’Vonna Pittman

Based on the budget and the legislative platform and priorities of the County and also what data has been telling us forever, we know that we have some of the worst disparities in the country. 

And I’m going to be focused on making sure that people have jobs. We still have a larger number of folks who were unemployed prior to the pandemic, and now people are losing their jobs at alarming rates. And so, my focus is going to continue to be on jobs, workforce development and jobs. We have found and we know that these traditional jobs that we try to force people into and tell them that they have to earn a college degree, it’s not working.

I believe that we need to work with our unions and establish the kind of jobs that people want and that can help people to have self-sustaining jobs and lifestyles. The County hasn’t always done a good job at being a good partner when it comes to thinking outside of the box with jobs and training programs. We expect that most people will want a clerical job.

Or most people might want a certain type of construction job, and usually we train people to be laborers, but we should be thinking that folks in our programs or people who are on probation can be electricians. They can participate in solar, executing those types of green jobs. 

We need to do more on housing. We know that over 60% of the people who have been evicted or have housing issues are low income folks. We absolutely need to think about affordable housing. For me that’s going to be another one of my priorities. 

Thirdly, in this district, what I’ve heard is that people want the blue line extension. A lot of people want it. I want to make sure that as we start to have new, invigorating conversations around this project that we consider who’s going to be riding the train and where. I don’t believe the folks who were at the table were conscious enough about that. I want us thinking about access for all. And that’s why I’m really focused on making sure that transportation is smart and meaningful. And we’re not just throwing something on the track just to say we finished a project.

Tony Loyd

What about safe neighborhoods and law enforcement reform? How do those things come together in your mind? 

De’Vonna Pittman

We’ve already established that my master’s is in law enforcement leadership. If I hadn’t been such a young mom, I probably would have been a police officer. It is not a complicated question. It is not complicated. There’s no complicated answer. I think it is the way people interpret it. 

As a mother, as a grandmother. As a wife, I absolutely want my family safe just like every other person does. Just like every White family does. Just like every Black family does, we want our families safe. 

But we also know that the way we have had relationships with our communities and our law enforcement is not working. If anyone thinks that we need to continue down the road that we’ve been going down, then we have some real serious problems and I just don’t know how we’re going to convince them otherwise. It’s been year after year after year. It doesn’t matter really what side people are on. We all have to agree that there is a problem here.

Tony Loyd

So what, what are your plans to reform, reimagine law enforcement in Hennepin County?

De’Vonna Pittman

Well, you know I was listening to a podcast yesterday. On the podcast, people felt that when the asylums closed down there was really nowhere else to fall. So, people with mental health issues did not get the help they needed. And so, what we are experiencing now, with most people who end up in jail or having mental health crises. 

And so we absolutely need more resources toward the mental health crises we are facing, we need social justice reforms. We need to reimagine how much money we spend on law enforcement and how much of that money can be spent making sure that people have the help they need to deal with their mental health situations.

Tony Loyd

Well De’Vonna, you’re running for Hennepin County Commissioner, District One. If people were looking for you online, where would they look?

De’Vonna Pittman

People can find me at Peopleforpittman.com.

Tony Loyd

De’Vonna, thank you so much for being with us on Antiracist Voter.

De’Vonna Pittman

You are welcome. 

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a leadership development expert. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and coach. He helps purpose-driven business leaders to thrive in life so that they can connect with others and contribute to the world. Find out more at https://TonyLoyd.com.

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