The nationwide search to find the next leader of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board is approaching the finish line, bringing an end to a process the organization says sought more voices and perspectives than any other in the system’s 135-year history.
Two finalists answered questions about climate change, inclusion, innovation, job training, recreation sports and their long-term vision for the park system and its $120 million annual budget in a Nov. 13 public interview at Park Board headquarters.
The finalists, Alfred Kent Bangoura, recreation superintendent for Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Subhajeet “Seve” Ghose, director of Louisville Parks and Recreation in Kentucky, both said they were admirers of Minneapolis’ parks.
A third finalist, Joseph Nicholas Williams, director of Parks, Recreation and Youth Development for the City of Oakland, withdrew his name from consideration before the interview.
Ghose, who went to college at Iowa State, said he recalled the parks from visits to the city as a young man and admired them. He said ending his parks and recreation career in Minneapolis would be a feather in his cap.
For Bangoura the connection is deeper. He grew up in the Twin Cities and spent 19 years working for MPRB, rising to the office of recreation centers and programs director. Bangoura also spent time working for Target in Minneapolis as a grants administrator.
“I know the city really well. I love the city,” he said. “My heart has always been here.”
Finding the finalists
The search to find the replacement for Jayne Miller, who resigned in February for a role in Pittsburgh, was one of community engagement, blind reviews and layers of filtration.
In May, MPRB hired a consulting firm, KP Companies, to help lead the search and recruit qualified candidates to apply. Over the summer, 22 listening sessions were held across the city to get input from residents on what they wanted to see in the new superintendent.
From there, a seven-member community selection committee narrowed the field by doing a blind review of dozens of applicants passed on by KP Companies. In the blind review, names were hidden and experience was emphasized. A group of seven finalists chosen by the community committee was then sent back to an internal team comprised of Board President Brad Bourn, Vice President AK Hassan and Commissioner Latrisha Vetaw.
The three commissioners then whittled it down to four people they wanted to bring in for interviews, Bourn said, with the commissioners all independently settling on the same four — if not necessarily in the same order.
While disappointed that all four couldn’t be brought in for interviews and that one dropped out after being announced as a finalist, Bourn said he thought the system produced two highly qualified candidates.
“I thought the candidates were spectacular,” Bourn said.
Hassan said the main goal was to learn about the leadership style and experience of each candidate. He said the board wanted to maintain the high status of the parks system while looking for ways to improve.
While the process took a lot of effort, Hassan said, it was very transparent and got a lot of people involved in the search.
“The best thing about this process was the community engagement,” he said.
As a commissioner who helped select Miller eight years ago, Bourn said the key to a successful search is to clearly outline the selection process. This time, with the community selection committee and listening sessions, he said the board got more input from more community members.
“The biggest thing is more people today are watching the Park Board and how it impacts their lives,” Bourn said.
Innovation and inclusiveness
At the interview, each commissioner asked one question of each candidate, seeking answers on how the candidates would implement changes, increase racial and socio-economic equity, fight climate change and promote youth sports.
Ghose acknowledged that he has bounced around the country — from Iowa to Portland, Ore. to Kentucky — to climb the ladder in parks and recreation for the past 37 years. He said that experience gives him a lot of connections nationwide and the know-how to do all the jobs in the park system.
“What I bring is that variety of experience,” Ghose said.
Ghose said he wanted to create a park system that touches the lives of everyone in the city and to have a staff that is happy, innovative and reflective of the community. He said the park system should work to fill gaps in the community by offering opportunities such as swimming lessons and affordable sports academies for kids.
Ghose said park systems needed to do a better job telling the story of parks and recreation and helping people understand the resources the parks offer. He referenced organizing a soccer tournament catering toward refugee communities that drew eight teams in its first year and 32 teams the second year.
“The participants bring their families, so now they’re signing up for programs they didn’t know existed,” Ghose said.
He emphasized partnerships with private companies to find sustainable funding for recreational programs and seeking creative solutions, such as a plastic bag collection bin to save money on expensive waste bags at dog parks.
Ghose said parks “should be leading” on the issue of climate change. He suggested switching to propane from gas lawn mowers; increasing naturalization acres to help pollinators and absorb carbon; and painting park roads gray, a move that has been used in cities such as Los Angeles to reduce heat from pavement.
Bangoura said he believed the MPRB should be using its recreation centers as touch points in the community to offer services such as job training, vocational programs and mentorships. In addressing racial inequity, he said there is a need to recognize that race permeates everything and to acknowledge the reality of historical racism when discussing access and opportunity throughout the park system.
“We have to talk about it and be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because you can’t move it unless you have an honest discussion about it,” he said.
Beyond offering youth sports, Bangoura said parks should be offering kids music, interactive learning opportunities and activities that connect them to nature. In Charlotte, he helped promote “Learn to Ride” programs, where park staff gives free bike lessons to community members. He said the parks system should embrace neighborhood-sponsored athletics, encouraging local businesses to sponsor youth teams based at neighborhood parks.
To combat climate change, Bagnoura said MPRB should explore implenting solar technology and renovating buildings to be more energy efficient. He called for reducing vehicle travel for park staff. He said parks should offer a wider range of services from recreation centers so people can access more of what they need in one walkable trip, cutting car emissions. He also suggested electrifying the MPRB car fleet.
Bangoura said he knows the park system has great staff members and he wouldn’t micromanage employees.
“We need to trust them, and let them lead,” he said.
Bourn said the MPRB aims to have a hire made by the end of the year.