FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (WCCO) — Diversity has been a hot topic surrounding the Minnesota State Fair since last year when the group Black Lives Matter St. Paul protested outside the gates during opening weekend.
Protesters said the fair was not doing enough to ensure people of color got opportunities to become vendors and work at the fair. Since then, the state fair held it’s first ever job fair this summer.
After his fifth year applying to be part of more than 500 food items at the Minnesota State Fair, Jason Giandalia’s shaved ice business Minnesnowii got a spot last year. Giandalia said he knows it’s so competitive to be a part of the fair partly because of vendors who return year after year for several generations.
“Realistically, all the stars have to align perfectly for you to be selected to be in the fair,” Giandalia said.
Giandalia got his shot before hundreds of protesters blocked traffic around the fair and approached the gates, calling the fair an example of white supremacy.
State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer said the organization has never asked any business applicants to reveal their race, but after last year’s protest the fair conducted an internal survey which revealed about 10 percent of fair exhibitors were people of color.
Hammer said that percentage has not changed this year.
“Everybody is treated exactly the same and it’s working because there are exhibitors here from a lot of different neighborhoods and backgrounds,” Hammer said.
Hammer also said last year’s protest did not inspire this summer’s job fair, and the fair did not track the races of the more than 600 people hired because of the job fair.
For Giandalia, a man who is a person of color, issues of racial disparities in society are very real, but at the fair, he said it is all about business.
“I feel like you should get your spot at the state fair when you have earned it because there are guys that have been doing this for 30 years,” Giandalia said.
Hammer said the fair is also beginning work with the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA) to provide young students of color with a chance to launch their own products and market them at the fair next year.
The leader of St. Paul Black Lives Matter, Rashad Turner, who participated in last year’s protest told WCCO he is pleased with the steps the fair has taken to improve diversity and hopes it will continue to become a bigger priority.