Sondra Samuels wants the culture of north Minneapolis to change so college becomes an expectation. When it comes to lobbying, she and her allies start young.
"We even call babies in the womb 'scholars,' " Samuels said. "Even in the womb. Like, speaking it into existence."
In December 2011, Samuels accepted a $28 million Promise Neighborhoods grant to fund the Northside Achievement Zone, a collaborative whose mission is to create a "cradle-to-college" pipeline in a chunk of the city from Broadway up to 35th Street, supplanting the pipelines to prison — and early graves.
"Our purpose is to end multigenerational poverty using education as a lever, creating this culture of achievement in this geographic zone, where all children graduate high school college-ready," Samuels said.
The zone covers 2,200 families and 5,600 children. About 77 percent of the children below age 5 live in poverty. Across the city, the black rate of high school graduation is only 36 percent.
In most ways it's too early to measure the program's impact, since it aims to steer a generation of children toward college. Samuels and everyone else at the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) have until 2016 — when federal funding ends — to make the program self-sustaining. She expects the nonprofit will need an annual budget of $6 million to $8 million. A task force from local and state government, business and nonprofit organizations across the Twin Cities and NAZ staff and board members is working on a sustainability plan.
Samuels, 47, a native of Newark, N.J., said she has "no intention of stopping."
Q: Explain how you think the program can stop the cycle of poverty in north Minneapolis.
A: We have a saying that "population-level results are revolutionary." We're not just trying to impact the children of families that actually come through NAZ, we're trying to impact the entire zone. Even in families that don't ever come to NAZ, and that's creating a tipping point. They become the culture. They are the culture brokers, creators and sustainers.
Q: How would you describe the economic landscape in the zone since the recession?
A: Everything's worse. The economic realities are bleak. That's one of the reasons we got the grant, it was that we were able to articulate and show a need, in real numbers. Seventy percent of the children are low income. The majority are in single parent households, which is detrimental just in that two incomes are better than one. The majority of our families are on some form of public assistance. With the foreclosure rate on the North Side, and then when you look at educational attainment, and the number of youth who are adjudicated, it stacks up. It's as if our city came to terms with itself decades ago, and just said that it would be OK to concentrate poverty in one area.
Q: How many families are you working with, and how many do you plan to get into the program?
A: Enrollment increased from 155 families with 450 children in 2011 to 217 families with 584 children in 2012. Our goal is, by the end of 2014, to have 1,200 families of the 2,200 families in the zone in our pipeline, and about 3,000 scholars. We concentrate on them, we focus the light on them like a laser beam and create this cocoon of support. We are erecting a cradle-to-college pipeline, a womb-to-work pipeline. The cradle-to-prison — and to the grave, by the way — is largely about boys. We're also dismantling the cradle-to-caseload pipeline, which is largely about girls.
Q: What's the economic case for the work you and your staff and partners are doing?
A: We have a 36 percent four-year graduation rate for African-American students in Minneapolis. You don't build an economy on that. You certainly don't attract the next General Mills to your hospitable climate. If you gasp at 36 percent, really think about the reality of who's actually ready for college and the workplace. I'd say 15 percent. The business community has been looking at the tea leaves.
Q: How is progress?
A: When we got the grant we had 12 full-time staff; now we have about 53, which doesn't include our AmeriCorps VISTAs. We've moved to a new location, and I think brought a nice wholesome presence to the corner (of W. Broadway and Penn Avenue N.), joining KMOJ in doing that.
Q: What have you learned since December 2011?
A: That ending poverty is absolutely a no-brainer. The only reason it hasn't happened is that we haven't had the will to make it happen. It can be done, and we can see it happen in our lifetime. You've got to start early and stay late, and provide the kind of supports that every single body needs.
Q: When will you be able to report on the progress of the program?
A: Wilder Research and the University of Minnesota are helping us to do longitudinal studies of the impact that we're having. Within the next six months to a year, you'll start seeing some real robust data, but it's taken a minute for us to get the data agreements, to get our system built, to start working directly in the schools with the students.
Q: What are the obstacles to progress?
A: It is certainly an economic issue. We can make that argument all day long. But I contend that the bigger gap is around our hearts, and it's a moral issue. We could by just sheer will, because of the economic argument, fix this achievement gap thing, but if our hearts don't change in terms of a concern and a determination that all our children are going to succeed, in our republic — if we don't really believe that morally — then it'll be still OK to concentrate sex offenders in the community that has the largest portion of children under 18 of any other neighborhood. It's really moral.