June 13, 2022 / News & Blog

Content Front and Center: Minnesota Children’s Museum Talks about Racism

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Bob Ingrassia, Minnesota Children’s Museum

For more than forty years, kids and parents have appreciated Minnesota Children’s Museum as a playful place for fun, smiles, and laughter.

Millions of families have made joyful memories in our exhibits. Children who remember crawling through our mysterious ant tunnel have since grown up to watch their own kids confidently scale our four-story climbing tower and zoom down a giant spiral slide.

So why does our museum talk so much about the serious and challenging topics of racism and racial inequities? Shouldn’t we just “stay in our lane” as a place for family fun?

Here’s what our staff and board believe: Working toward racial justice is core to our mission and vision.

The organization’s strategic plan calls for us to “champion children’s healthy development.” We know there is no way to meaningfully advocate for the wellbeing of kids without acknowledging and addressing racial inequities that harm children in Minnesota—and everywhere.

So, yes, a children’s museum that speaks forcefully about racism—particularly its negative effects on children—and works toward a more just future is absolutely staying in its lane.

A Racial Reckoning in Minnesota

More than two years have passed since a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, touching off protests around the world. During this time, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area has endured bouts of civil unrest, additional police killings of young Black men, tense trials of police officers, and a divisive election about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The police violence against people of color sparked more urgency to finally take meaningful action to address broader racial inequities in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota—in housing, education, healthcare, and other areas.

Even before George Floyd’s murder, Minnesota Children’s Museum had joined other cultural organizations in a commitment to make progress toward becoming a more diverse and welcoming organization for visitors, staff, and volunteers. The museum has since doubled down on its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, work that museum President Dianne Krizan detailed in a previous issue of Hand to Hand.

Our staff and board members have also asked and started to answer a tough question about the museum’s responsibility outside our walls: What role, if any, should the museum play in the racial reckoning happening in our community?

Thankfully, we knew we would not be starting equity and inclusion work from scratch. During the museum’s forty-year history, we have earned a reputation as a joyful and welcoming place for all families to experience playful learning. The museum’s audience has grown to be at least as diverse as the region we serve, and often more diverse. We have a robust access program in which about 25 percent of our audience each year enjoys the museum through free or reduced-price admission.

Still, we understood there was much more we could be doing, and that remaining silent as the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained momentum in the Twin Cities was not an option. But we also understood that simply stating we supported the idea of combating racial injustice was not enough. The museum decided to map out a course to publicly engage in the work to combat racial injustice and to build a more equitable future.

Why Talk about Racism?

We considered the risks and acknowledged that speaking publicly about racial inequity and social justice might upset segments of our audience. Advocacy on issues as challenging as injustice and systemic racism would be new to the organization.

We also anticipated that we might hear the question: Why is the children’s museum talking about racism?

The answer we developed tied this work to the core principles and objectives in our mission, vision and strategic plan. The future we envision, one in which “all families thrive in a happier, healthier and more innovative community,” cannot happen when racial injustice holds children back.

Our answer leans on facts.

We found reassurance in a timely survey that showed substantial support among our audience for the museum working to combat racism. When a group of adults who visit cultural organizations were asked if Minnesota Children’s Museum should join efforts to fight racial injustice, 51 percent said they “strongly agree” we should and another 29 percent said they “somewhat agree.”

Taking Action

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, the museum publicly declared on our website our commitment to supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement, stating that “Black lives matter. They mattered yesterday. They matter today. They will matter tomorrow.”

In April 2021, just ahead of the anniversary of Floyd’s death, the museum hosted a panel event titled “Talking with Children about Racial Injustice.” More than 1,200 people registered and nearly 600 attended, with hundreds more watching the event recording.

In a post-event survey, many attendees said they appreciated the museum hosting such an important discussion and indicating they wanted more. One attendee stated: “That panel was outstanding: Direct, honest, specific, encouraging! I particularly appreciated the continual references to noting the historical context and legacy of race as well as the intentionality of conversations about race with children.”

The museum also collaborated with the panelists to create a one-sheet for parents and caregivers with tips for talking with children about race.

In November 2021, we hosted a second panel event about how play can help overcome inequalities. Three child development experts detailed the urgent need for action in addressing the negative effects of racism and inequality on children’s health. They made a case that playful learning, in the home and in the classroom, is a proven driver of every child’s growth and development.

We also continue to use our own channels, such as our blog and social media pages, to share resources and information that support this work. We’ve found that our followers and subscribers heavily engage with this content in meaningful ways. For example, in February 2022, the museum shared a blog post about how to celebrate Black History Month with children. The post was one of our most popular ever, getting more than 10,000 pageviews in just a few weeks and driving traffic to our website from all over the world.

Some of the museum’s other equity and access work includes providing free or reduced cost admission to income-qualified families. More than 4,000 families currently have a scholarship membership to the museum. In addition, nearly 12,000 people have visited the museum during the pandemic with steeply discounted day passes available to lower-income families.

Knowing that many families are either not able to visit or are still not comfortable visiting, the museum has provided free play kits to families in need. Using a state grant, the museum has packed and distributed more than 1,000 “tinker kits” featuring a variety of loose parts and materials.

Looking Ahead

Combatting systemic racism is difficult work. The museum has made strides toward becoming a more inclusive organization. We have publicly called out inequalities in Minnesota and taken initial steps to help erase them.

Still, we know that we are still establishing our voice and our path forward. We have not yet fully defined what it means when we say we want “ally” to be a verb, not just a noun—but we feel like we are on the right path.

We also know there will be more challenges ahead as marginalized communities press for equity and work to preserve rights that may come under threat.

Whatever lies ahead, we will remain committed to supporting parents in raising happy, healthy children, publicly advocating for the powerful role of play in growth and learning and furthering the movement for racial equity so all children thrive.

Bob Ingrassia has led the marketing and communications team at Minnesota Children’s Museum since 2014. He is a former journalist who lives with his spouse and two children in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Photos by Bruce Silcox for Minnesota Children’s Museum.