Former equity director blames Minneapolis leaders for ‘failed’ Black business expo, alleges ‘toxic’ work culture

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In a newly obtained letter penned days before her departure, the former city department head who planned the Minneapolis Black business expo blamed other city leadership for low turnout at the February event and threatened to sue City Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw “for defamation of character.”

Tyeastia Green, in her 14-page memo addressed to the city’s operations director and mayor, claimed her fellow city leaders stacked the odds against her success. Green alleged City Hall to be a “toxic work environment” that promotes anti-Black racism, a claim the city disputed in response to questions Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some Minneapolis small business owners — whom the “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” expo was meant to uplift — want an apology and their money back.

In the first paragraph of the memo dated March 6, Green stated plans to sue Vetaw “and any of her accomplices on and off the council,” claiming pages later that Vetaw “made it her mission to defame [Green’s] character” by supposedly “spreading rumors” about the “lack of work coming from [the] Race & Equity [Department],” which Green was the Director of until March 13.

“I was shocked,” Vetaw said in an interview Tuesday about her reaction to the threat of a lawsuit against her. “I had done everything within my power in that last week to make the event a success, even going myself.”

Asked if there is any truth to the claims, the council member said, “None of it, absolutely none of it.”

As of Tuesday, two weeks after the date stamped on Green’s memo, Vetaw said she hasn’t been served with a lawsuit.

Vetaw was a part of a unanimous vote by the council to double funding to nearly $1 million for the inaugural expo following a request from Green a week before it was scheduled.

“Did I think the expo should be postponed? Absolutely, when I found out some of the things that were going on behind the scenes,” Vetaw added.

In the end, it kept its place on the calendar, and local Black businesses set up, expecting upwards of 20,000 people to flow through the Minneapolis Convention Center. In reality, the estimated attendance by vendors and sources inside City Hall is closer to a couple hundred.

“I saw more vendors there than I saw, you know, participants coming in,” Vetaw remembered.

“I showed up at this event for it to be a complete fail,” added vendor and north Minneapolis small business owner Markella Smith.

In her letter, Green turned the blame on city communications for the lack of marketing and city operations for “purposefully misguiding her” in the vendor contracting process.

In a statement, a city communications representative said the department did its part, including promoting the expo in a news release, two live TV interviews — including on 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS — city newsletters, and social media.

A spokesperson from Mayor Jacob Frey’s office said the city “disagrees with [Green’s] characterization of the events” throughout the memo.

“Councilwoman Vetaw, she literally has apologized over and over and over again,” Smith said Tuesday.

City officials, including Vetaw, met with vendors Monday evening at Smith’s business, The Dream Shop.

“But what I want is a public apology,” Smith said.

She’s also requested monetary reparations for herself and on behalf of all local vendors who lost money.

Asked if she’s asking for the $2,000 she said she lost from participating in the expo, Smith said, “At the very bare minimum.”

“I say that because yes, that was money that I put in, and that’s time, and that’s covering staff and all of the things,” she said. “But also, what about the money that we could have made that we didn’t, right? So it’s bigger than $2,000.”

“We, at the end of the day, deserve that. Like, this was a complete disaster,” Smith concluded.

Green didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday and last week.

Mayor Frey’s office responded to her claims of racism at the city and other questions from 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS REPORTERS in the statement below:

REPORTER: How does the mayor’s office respond to Green’s claim that Minneapolis “doesn’t even make the list to be considered doing the work of anti-racism”?

The City disagrees with the characterization of the events outlined in the memo. There were many City staff working tirelessly to make this Expo event a success, and it’s disappointing to see them publicly criticized for the hard work they do on behalf of the city and its residents. 

The City is deeply aware of the toll structural racism takes on our residents, businesses and workforce. The mayor and city council took a step to advance racial equity during the 2022 budget cycle by elevating the former division into the Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (REIB) department. In doing so, the City enhanced the influence and stature of this work in the City enterprise. The City backed up its creation of the department by investing nearly $800,000 more for the 2023 budget than the year prior and increasing staffing capacity.  

Over the last several years, City leadership has also worked to build a more inclusive workplace and embed equity in policy and practice. Just this year, the mayor allocated significant funding to develop anti-racist training curricula and the City has already partnered with third-party experts to deliver anti-racist training sessions to City leadership. In the last year, the City has also reformed its procurement processes to prioritize local vendors within the Target Market Program. We have taken – and will continue taking – concrete steps to support the Black community, especially when planning large-scale community events.   

We are committed to the success of the REIB department. We will publicly post for a new director soon and will support the REIB staff through this transition phase.   

REPORTER: Where did the additional $435K approved by council a week before the event go? 

After learning that additional funds were needed to ensure the Expo took place, the City Council took action on February 17 to allocate $435,000 to support the event. The total amount budgeted for the Expo, outside the action taken on Feb. 17, is still being accessed by the City. The City is still calculating and paying invoices.

REPORTER: The mayor’s chief of staff is pictured at a meeting with expo vendors yesterday. Did the office apologize? And for what specifically? 

City leaders met yesterday with local Black business owners on the Northside who expressed frustration surrounding the City’s approach to contracts and vendors for the recent Expo. City staff apologized that the City did not better engage with Black community members and business leaders ahead of this event.  

The City’s Target Market Program prioritizes historically underutilized small businesses in procurement and contracting policies with the City. We are collectively committed to strengthening partnerships with local, minority-owned small businesses for all events in the future.  

REPORTER: Does the mayor’s office/the city have any intention to repay the vendors who lost money from participating in the event in any way?

The City is exploring legal options.

REPORTER: Does the city plan to try the event again next year?  

Every February the City sponsors and produces a number of events celebrating Black History Month and Minneapolis’ Black community. City leadership has already begun discussing plans for 2024 and has met with representatives from the Minneapolis Black Employee Network (MBEN) to collect feedback on this February’s event.  

The City is looking forward to reviewing the results of the audit, and has not yet made a determination on hosting such an event next year. 

Read Green’s full memo below: