Building a Bigger Bench

Joan Blakey (l) and Patricia Torres Ray. Photo Sarah Whiting

After Joan Blakey graduated from college more than 20 years ago, she worked for Patricia Torres Ray in Children and Family Services at the Minnesota Department for Human Services (DHS). They shared a frustration that the overrepresentation of children of color in the state’s child welfare system was not monitored well.

Blakey left the state to get a PhD in social work from the University of Chicago, eventually was associate dean at Tulane University in New Orleans, and returned to Minnesota last summer as the director of the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota — just as her former boss was stepping down from 16 years as a Minnesota senator.

The two reunited in conversation to talk about how their mutual mentorship started, their focus on persuading colleagues about needed policy changes, and what they learn from each other’s approaches. They also talked about the need to expand the “bench” of people of color leading Minnesota policy.

On becoming allies in a governmental system

Joan Blakey: When we worked together, I remember feeling that if I could change policies I could change people’s experiences and we could make things better. We were very concerned about racial disproportionality.

Patricia Torres Ray: We knew that we needed something internally to monitor the placement of children of color. The Indian Child Welfare Act led to the monitoring of placements by the Indian Child Welfare division. But we also needed to attend to needs of Asian and Latine children in the system, and the disproportionally large number of Black children.

I recall that we immediately connected, that we had this very big vision of understanding the system and being very frustrated with the system — but also being willing to be part of it, to understand it, and to figure out how we could have an impact.

It was refreshing for me to have a Black woman joining me with that passion and that knowledge, that background. You were a young person with the mind of an older person. We kind of had to guide our supervisors and be patient with them. It was wonderful to realize that we could do this together.

JB: For me, it was that you were very much, and still are, big on getting out in the community and talking to people and building relationships — that is really the cornerstone of how you get things done.

In school, we are taught a top-down approach. Even though social work talks about working with community and self-determination, it still feels like “this is what we are going to do,” as opposed to partnering with, collaborating with, listening.

You always reminded me that the community really needs to be driving this process — how do we bring them along, and how do we bring them in? We wanted to get their voices heard, not as an afterthought, not as [an obligatory] stamp of “we talked to the community.”

That was so impactful for me to watch — developing those relationships. I still feel like I forget that. Sometimes I get focused on getting things done. I don’t always have the patience for the process, or [recognition that people have] different paces. I am, “Let’s get moving.” You say, “Let’s slow down here.”

You also were able to finesse higher-ups, finding out what was important to them and then selling it from that vantage point. I tended to feel like, “Why do we have to do it like that? Why can’t we just …”

Watching how you moved and how you work has left a huge impression on me. Ultimately what I learned is that if we do the upfront work, the back-end work is much easier and much smoother. It is not only about how to really involve the community from the beginning all the way to the end, but how do we sell this idea to different stakeholders? It is about understanding what is important to them so it becomes a win-win for people.

On defining mentorship

PTR: I don’t think you make a decision that “I am going to mentor this young person.” To me, mentoring is a natural process of a relationship, and it is mutual. I view our relationship as strong mutual mentoring, teaching, and learning. Though you were just coming in from college, you acted as an older person with a deeper understanding of process and policy. That to me was so exciting.

You have been “let’s get this done, let’s make this decision” since I met you, more than 20 years ago. For me the benefit of our relationship has been this opportunity to learn and act with you, and feel always supported and uplifted. It was not just my crazy idea by myself.

We were breaking ground in so many ways. There was no manual that said, “This is how you involve communities, this is cultural competency.” We were doing those things as we as we moved forward together in that institution.

JB: You started off as my boss. I think you were the first woman of color that I had as a boss, which is sad that in the 20th century we are still the first anything. I have only had two women of color bosses in my whole career.

You are very much connected to who you are as a Colombian woman. The respect that you gave me, and the way you treated me as an equal, and as a partner, is what enabled us to go our separate ways but stay connected. It was 1999, and today we are still involved in each other’s lives.

I have always cared deeply about you. I think of who you are as a woman, and what you stand for, and that matters to me — that you always tried to do what was right even when it wasn’t popular. You have values, and there are lines that you won’t cross for anyone.

PTR: A memory I have of you that is very powerful is when you came to DHS, with academic training, at that moment in your life when you were wondering, “What is next for me professionally?” It is such a beautiful moment.

Especially in the life of a woman of color, this next chapter [after being focused on graduating from college] is just so uncertain. Many of the women I work with are first-generation college graduates. That next moment is, “Now I really need to decide what will be next.”

You were in that position. You had a lot of ideas, but it was unclear how to put those ideas and that knowledge and that training into this mega system that was so big and so unfair. So, there was a sense of frustration. We worked on that together, because I had the same frustration but I was older and already had gone through that.

You were such a refreshing person. “I’m open, but I’m damn upset that this thing is not working.” I think you grew incredibly fast into finding that you wanted to do more academics.

JB: Some of the people in the community that you have connected me to enabled me to realize I want to be at tables, in places where I can really make a difference. Meeting those people helped me realize, “I’m going to need more education if I want to do that. How do I do that?”

Now I am back here in Minnesota after being gone for 20 years. I know that I’m here for a reason.

On the loneliness of being one voice

JB: One of the things that has always been clear to me about you is that your life has never just been your own. You always have had a bigger purpose for your life, for the community. Your children have had to share you with the community. Your husband has had to share you. It has left an impression on me. What is my role and how am I going to leave the world better than when I found it?

PTR: For a lot of women of color, it feels very lonely when you are tasked with something really big. In the last 16 years for me as a Minnesota senator, a lot of tasks are just so big: like dealing with disparities and poverty.

From the moment we met, it was clear to me that you struggle with the same issues of inequality and unfairness in the treatment of Black people, Indigenous people, and communities of color. You were not going to tolerate that.

The challenge that we faced was having a lot of people who were foreign to that kind of struggle.

Encountering that reality day after day — being hired for who we are [as women of color], but discounted [as members of the team]. We kept going anyway. Recognizing policy challenges, bureaucracies, but not letting it take us down and say “there’s nothing we can do.” Together we were angry enough to do something better.

JB: If nothing else, I have learned tenacity from you. You do not take no for an answer. If they say no, your response is, “Okay, we will figure out another way.” And you always do.

Now that you are figuring out what is next for you, I have no doubt you will be in a position, again, that gives you a platform to do even more.

PTR: You are now the new dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota. That is a big, big deal. We need you. Women of color need to see you. They will see hope. I think that we both evolved into “this is the life that I need to take.” I didn’t know that I was going to run for office.

JB: What made you decide?

PTR: Then-Governor Tim Pawlenty, shortly after we were doing this work, started to eliminate a lot of the programs that we put in place. Little by little, they eliminated everything. The administration cut funding everywhere. When he was reelected, I realized this situation was terrible.

My senator decided he was going to retire and I said to my husband, “I am so upset that I should run for office,” out of the blue. Jack said, “The filing period ends in a month, you should do that.” We went to the county office and I filed.

Then I realized how big and difficult it was, because I had no political training. It was so great to find people I’ve worked with who were so eager to help. We just got it done.

It was born out of frustration. It is that moment when you decide you have to do something bigger.

JB: Had you known more, you might have talked yourself out of it.

PTR: Absolutely. I would have decided it was too daunting, not knowing anybody. I had to raise a ton of money.

We both have made difficult decisions, important decisions, that placed us where we are now. I’m very proud of you. I am so happy that you came back to Minnesota.

You probably find yourself in a lonely place as a woman of color. There are not many people with your background doing this work today. Minnesota is a difficult place.

One of the things I would like to work with you on is mentoring and creating a bigger bench [of people of color involved in policy], because our bench is just too small. It has been for as long as I have been in Minnesota. There are three, four, or five people and we rotate and it just doesn’t grow.

Many people leave Minnesota. Building a big bench is difficult, so we need to talk about it. We need more.