Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

Closing the Five Educational Achievement Gaps

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: March 25, 2012 - 8:37 PM
A Community in Our Crisis: Closing the Five Educational Achievement Gaps
Addressing the achievement gap is one of the most pressing and critical issues facing the State of Minnesota. A seminal 2009 report entitled, Minnesota’s Future: World-class Schools, World-class Jobs prepared by Itasca Project and Minnesota Business Partnership states, “While in aggregate Minnesota may perform well relative to other
 states, there are significant performance gaps in
 the state between ethnic
 groups, low income students, and English language learners. 
In fact, Minnesota has some of the largest performance gaps in the country. This is particularly concerning for the workforce given the overall population is expected to decline in school age brackets, while the demographic groups with lower achievement are expected to grow.”
Much has been written about the elusive achievement gap between students of color (particularly black students) and white students. There are as many theories that attempt to explain this persistent and ever-present gap. According to Roland G. Fryer, Jr. Department of Economics and EdLabs, Harvard University, “The lack of progress in closing the racial achievement gap has led some to assert that we need more supportive communities and neighborhoods; stronger, more intact families and engaged parents; or less income inequality to eliminate racial disparities in achievement. Others have interpreted the lack of progress as prima facie evidence that genetics or other cultural dysfunctions are holding blacks back, and argue that these problems cannot be solved by government interventions. A third group argues that the presence of labor unions makes true reform impossible, dismissing the current school-based interventions as being tantamount to "fiddling while Rome burns."
Another theory postulated by Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty (IRP) is that racial segregation in housing and neighborhood schools exacerbates and accelerates the racial educational achievement gap. According to Orfield, “Integrated schools boost academic achievement, attainment, and expectations; improve opportunities for students of color, and generate valuable social benefits. Integrated schools also enhance the cultural competence of white students and prepare them for a more diverse workplace and society.”  
The IRP's GPS maps, graphs and charts on housing and educational segregation in the Twin Cities are compelling. They show without a doubt that the Twin Cities is a highly segregated community and growing more so. However, the prescription IRP puts forth has met stiff resistance, particularly from local suburban school systems as witnessed by recent bounty disputes in Eden Prairie, Bloomington, Edina and other places.  In fact, even in Minneapolis, a city known for its liberalism, the integration approach is also highly divisive and controversial, as witnessed when the Minneapolis Public Schools attempted to implement what it called the "Changing School Options" proposal in 2009.
Unfortunately, the political will at the federal, state and local levels to implement an integration approach most likely will not happen in our lifetimes. One need not be a social scientist to reach this prognostication; all one has to do is look at what has happened with integration in public education in the fifty plus years after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
In effect, real educational reform to address the achievement gap, particularly in Minnesota, continues to be held hostage to vested interests, local nimbyism, and outmoded social ideologies, regardless of the political party in power. Everyone, regardless of his or her political persuasion, agrees that something fundamental needs to change if we are to change the trajectory of our current dilemma. However, not many are willing to step out of line with the party orthodoxy or their comfort zones to do what is necessary to make this so. In the meantime, another generation of our children is undereducated, underemployed and in poverty.
A different bipartisan approach is needed if we are to make progress on this important issue.
A new report entitled A Crisis in Our Community: Closing the Five Achievement Gaps written by Jeffrey A. Hassan, Esq. and Eric Mahmoud and published by the Twin Cities African American Leadership Forum’s Education and Life Long Learning Work Group (AALF/ELL), may be able to move us beyond our educational reform paralysis and our parochial stalemate. This report unravels and demystifies what needs to be done. It provides a road map based upon clear and irrefutable evidence of what works as demonstrated in practices at Harvest Preparatory School and other high performing schools throughout the country.
According to the report:
“The African American Leadership Forum/Education and Life-Long Learning Work Group (AALF/ELL) believes that the achievement gap for African American children is actually comprised of 5 different gaps: preparation, belief, time, teaching, and leadership.
The Preparation Gap. The achievement gap begins before children are old enough to enter school. Upon entering kindergarten, they show differences in personal and social development, in language and literacy, in mathematical thinking, as well as in the arts and physical development. Children in households with lower family income, and children whose parents had less education, tend to have lower school-readiness ratings. But school-readiness is not simply a matter of academics. It involves a child’s home environment, economic status, emotional and social development, health, and cultural identity. All are related to achievement in school.
To resolve this issue, AALF/ELL believes that four changes are needed: access to high-quality, certified, early childhood education must be made available; family support systems must be ensured; community resources and social services must be brought into schools; and parents must get education and training.
The Belief Gap. The beliefs and expectations of students, parents, teachers and the community all contribute to the achievement gap: students, parents, teachers and the community do not believe it can be closed until they see it done. Once the gap is closed in one school district, others will follow. Additionally, teachers’ expectations strongly influence students’ effort and performance. High expectations or pressure to learn ranks highly among school- level factors that impact student achievement.
To resolve this issue, AALF/ELL believes there must be a laser-like focus on student achievement and African American students must be offered more rigorous curriculum choices. Success stories must be widely publicized to dispel the myth that our children cannot succeed.
The Time Gap. Many of our children have fallen behind grade level. To successfully address this shortfall will take time; more time focused on learning during the school day, a longer school day and school year are necessary. This gap cannot be reduced without adequate time for teaching and learning. After- school and summer programming are also critical components of closing the time gap.
The Teaching Gap. The single most important factor contributing to student success is teaching excellence. Good teachers make good schools. Students taught by several effective teachers in a row soar, no matter what their family backgrounds, while students taught by just two ineffective teachers in a row rarely recover. Strong teaching is especially critical for children at risk, and highly effective teachers are most critical to those furthest behind.
To resolve this issue, AALF/ELL believes that: The best teachers must be placed where the greatest need exists; educators must be culturally competent; effective teacher evaluation and coaching must be implemented; and traditional teaching preparation must be transformed.
The Leadership Gap. The impact of principals and school leaders on student outcomes is second only to that of teachers. School districts that have been most effective in closing the achievement gap are led by strong and effective district superintendents and school principals. Such leaders have applied proven and effective models of academic success.
Closing the Leadership Gap necessitates the evaluation and professional development of school leaders to ensure they are familiar with and implementing best practices for success. Principals must also be able to choose their teachers.
Summary. AALF/ELL believes that a cross-sector approach to leadership is needed, one that brings together leaders in education, business, government, philanthropy and the community, and unifies the entire educational continuum from cradle to career. Our community cannot afford to squander our most precious regional resource — the growth potential of our children of color. It is morally wrong, economically destructive and socially imprudent. It is time that we come together and eliminate the achievement gap in our great state once and for all — the economic vitality of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area depends on it.”
Gary Cunningham is co-chair of the Twin Cities African American Leadership Forum

Marv Davidov - A Drum Major For Justice

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society Updated: January 15, 2012 - 9:59 PM

Marv Davidov - A Drum Major For Justice


"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (1968-02-04)

The last time I saw Marv was a little over two years agoWe were at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis for the release of a book by Eric Etheridge entitled, Breach of Peace-Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.  Using the 1961 arrest pictures of the freedom ridersEtheridge contrasts each with wonderful present day photographic portraits of these American hero’s and heroines. This book captures a pivotal moment in time that was a watershed for our country and the world.

Marv’s photos and essay in the book provides a sketch of a man who committed his life to social justice and peace.  Marv grew up in Detroit in 1931 and moved to St. Paul in 1949. He was drafted into the army in 1953 and served 19 months.

Upon returning from the army he took part in the antiwar and draft resistance movements in Berkeley and Los Angeles. Returning in 1968 to Minneapolis he spend the next 22 years running and organizing the Honeywell Project; a peaceful protest to force the Honeywell company to stop making cluster bombs, land mines and other weapons.

Marv also organized on behalf of a wide range of social movements including the civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, famer and hotel workers, and civil rights organizations. He dedicated his life to making a difference for people who are on the margins and largely invisible in our society.

When we met at the reception for the book’s release he was still very much the Marv that I had known and come to love. Of course much older, he still had the same receding hairline, the same Greek fisherman's cap on his head, the signature mustache, the same gravelly and resonate voice and intense eyes, the only thing missing was the cigarette dangling from his hand as he talked.

>“Hi Gary! I am so glad you came.” He said as we gave each other a big, powerful hug of long parted friends. How are you Marv?, I asked. He talked about his health and about the current state of the movement for peace and justice.  We reminisced about our serendipitous first connection when I was 13 years old in Berkeley, California on Telegraph Avenue in the early 1970’s. Of course, anyone who knew Marv also knows he was a great storyteller of the movement for social change. They would also know that his stories could be sprinkled with well-placed expletives, which can’t be repeated here.

The conversation soon turned to our time together in his class on social justice at the, Meridel Le Sueur Center for Social Justice on the West Bank of Minneapolis. soon recalled that it was Marv who taught me Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent protest called Satyagraha, soul force/truthful force. It was Marv who pointed me to a quote from Gandhi, “They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end...” This thought remains a guiding principle of my life. It was Marv who introduced me to the writings Norm Chomsky, Henry David Thoreau, John Rawls, Taylor Branch and Gunnar Myrdal and many others.

It was Marwho moved me beyond my shallow understanding of the deeper significance of civil rights movement. He taught me that the civil right movement was not just Dr. King and a handful of leaders standing alone leading us to the promise land, but that this movement was built upon the blood, sweat and tears of many everyday black, white, red, yellow and brown people standing together and sacrificing together for justice and equality.

Most of all, it was Marv the activist who demonstrated through his life long commitment that system can be changed; people can be uplifted through tireless efforts and self-sacrifice. Marv who showed me through his courageous actions time and time again that nonviolence action could change the world and the community in which you liveIf there was anyone who was a drum major for justice, it was Marv.  He led his life with purpose, conviction and steadfast principles.

That night in the reception room in The Loft, I ask Marv, my good friend, mentor and brother to sign my book.  He signed it:

You Teach Me, I Teach YouLove and Strength, Marv

I was deeply moved. I will always cherish the moments had the privilege of sharing with Marv.

It is not often that we have the opportunity to thank the people who have left such a lasting and indelible mark on our lives, but that night I got to thank Marv for the teaching me the tenants of nonviolence, the understanding of the how, the when and the why it is so important for people to peacefully stand up for what is right, fair and just.  

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we should also take time to celebrate the life of Marv Davidov, a true drum major for justice. May each of us have the courage and commitment to live up to his legacy of a well-lived life.

One of the Lucky Ones

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Disasters, Government Updated: September 15, 2011 - 5:12 PM

 One of the Lucky Ones 

I was returning to Minneapolis from the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, in Durban, South Africa, where I had spent the last two-and-half months as an observer, part of a contingency from the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

After a 10-hour flight from Durban, the last leg of my journey was from Amsterdam to JFK Airport in New York and I had a 5-hour layover. I was walking around the airport and I happened to I run into my friend, colleague, and fellow traveler, the Hon. Judge LaJune Lang, who was also in Durban for this life-changing experience. We sat down and chatted about what we had learned at conference. Little did we know that over the next 24 hours our lives would be forever changed. LaJune suggested that if I changed my flight to the one she was on, I could get home sooner. After a 10 weeks away, I was looking forward to being among friends and family. I tried to change flights, but as fate would have it, hers was full. As we said good-bye, I thought we would be meeting again soon in Minneapolis.   

As I got on the plane, I noticed that many cultures were represented: France, Germany, Holland, Cameroon, China, India and Israel—to name a few. Rich languages filled that air as people jostled about to get their seats in the jumbo jet. The attendants on this Northwest flight were friendly, helpful and cheerful as they got the 600 of us ready for takeoff. I found myself in an aisle seat in the middle of the plane. 

After settling in, I got to know my fellow passengers. Seated next to me was a Catholic priest named Richard, a native of Calcutta, India, who worked for the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center. To his left, was an older man named Mordecai, returning to the United States after an extended stay in Israel. We introduced ourselves and talked about where we had been, what was awaiting us in the United States, our families, and our work. After the small talk, we nodded off, read our books or listened to our music.  

I was awakened out of my dozing by the captain, who said the bathrooms were being locked down for the duration of the flight. And wouldn’t you know it, just my luck, right at the time I had to go. I thought this was strange and so did my fellow passengers. The flight attendants were scurrying up and down the aisles, trying to look casual, but with worried looks on their faces. Something was going on but we did not know what. Suddenly, the plane sharply changed direction and altitude. My stomach tensed. The priest and I looked at each other: Was something wrong with the plane?  

A few moments later, the captain came back on the intercom, his husky voice breaking with emotion: “The United States is under attack!" He had no further information at the time but would let us know as soon as he did. We were 2 hours from New York City. At first there was complete silence. Then everyone on the plane began to talk at once. "What does this mean,” I asked no one in particular, “‘The United States is under attack’” ? I had never heard those words before: The United States is under attack.” They still haunt me.  

It was a surreal experience, filled with tension. Flying high over the Atlantic Ocean without a clue about what was happening. Ten minutes later (although it seemed like forever), the captain came back on the intercom with a little more composure, he said the attack had been on the World Trade Center and that all U. S. airspace had been shut down. We were being diverted to Gander, Newfoundland.  

A few hours later—or what seemed like years—I looked out the window and saw that we were landing on a small runway on a bright and sunny day. Snow covered the ground off the runway; just beyond the terminal was a large forest of evergreen trees. We taxied a while and then stopped. We saw jet after jet fill up the space on this small runway. The captain then allowed us all to use the restroom. It was a long wait for over 600 people. The captain’s information was sketchy and the elderly Jewish man, Mordecai, became the unofficial source of what was going on: he had a short wave radio (I suspect the captain was reluctant to share information for fear he would be passing it on to terrorists who might have been on the flight.)

Waiting on the tarmac, the minutes turned to hours. Passenger started walking around the plane. The captain opened up the exit doors for fresh air. The flight attendants served the last of the food on the plane and many people tried to call their loved ones. But their cell phones did not work. The captain said we could not disembark until we had been thoroughly checked out by Canadian customs. A Mountie, dressed in red jacket, dark pants and the broad-brim hat, soon appeared. He asked for our IDs and said sandwiches would be brought on board shortly. They ran our IDs through a number of databases, including those of the CIA, Interpol, and the Israeli and Canadian intelligence services. And we waited. There was no place for us to stay and no provisions for over 6500 passengers who had descended on the quiet town of Gander, population 10,300. But the town folks eventually mobilized and come up with a solution. 

At about 7 p.m. the next day, 22 hours after we had landed, we disembarked. I remember the mass of people 6500 who lined up to go through a makeshift customs inside the terminal. It took 4 hours. My fellow passengers and I then boarded buses and were driven from the airport along a beautiful wooded area filled with evergreens, poplars and birch to our respective lodgings. It was cold and there was significant snow on the ground and in the trees. When the bus stopped, it was dark and hard to determine where we were. I recall being herded into what looked like a 1970s two-story, brown concrete building. Once inside, we were greeted very warmly and served a wonderful meal by the women of Gander. They were so hospitable and so happy to help. It was an emotional experience for me and my fellow refugees. Some people wept openly; others were just glad to be off the plane.  

The people of Gander were certainly organized. The women took us in small groups on a brief tour of the facility, complete with rules for using the showers and other amenities. They had clothes available in all shapes and sizes (all our luggage remained on the plane). They had food prepared for us. (I don’t think I’ve ever had a better meal.) In the basement gymnasium, each of us got a foldout cot and two blankets. The room was already crowded with people arranging their things and setting up their beds for the night. Some families had erected sheets on makeshift clotheslines for privacy. Then we got in line and 600 of us used one phone to call family and loved ones. 

I had never felt so disconnected from everything I knew. I was a stranger in a strange land and got a very small taste of what it is like to be a refugee—not knowing what was going on in the outside world, feeling totally disoriented, and nothing but the clothes on my back and what was in my carry-on bag. But all of us Gander refugees were in the same boat. We were taken then upstairs to the lounge with its large TV. A video showed the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. The room was packed and everyone was crying. It was mind-numbing to see those pictures played over and over again and to realize the magnitude of the loss of life. My shock, grief and disbelief were beyond anything I could have imagined. 

I spent a few more minutes talking to the other passengers and then lay down in my space on the gymnasium floor. I thought about how this day would change the world. I don’t think any of us slept well that night. I know I didn’t. Throughout the night, I heard children crying and muffled whispers. When I woke up, I realized that I was in the basement of a Catholic school; the rising sun through large windows at the top of the room provided a dim light. I was disoriented, I was tired, and I was in shock. 

On that first morning and thereafter our daily ritual was to rise to get cleaned up in shifts, to eat in shifts, to use the restroom in shifts, and to use the Internet computers in shifts—everything in shifts. When it was warm enough, we would sit outside and talk; some got a ride into town. There was much speculation about what would happen next, who was behind the attack, and when we could go home.  

On the third day the flight crew, led by the captain, held a large group meeting about where things stood. They still knew little. In fact, the captain did not know when we could return. Not until the seventh day did the captain return and say we had been cleared to land at LaGuardia Airport in New York City in the next day or so. He said there was a storm front over the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland that could turn into a blizzard; if we did not leave in the next day or so, he said we might not get out of Gander for some time. He gave everyone the choice of getting back on the plane or making other travel arrangements. It was a decision point for all of us. The drive from Gander, Newfoundland, to the United States was a two-week affair. Yet a number of passengers would not, under any circumstances, get back on the plane. I decided to get back on the plane. 

The next morning, the yellow school buses reappeared outside the school yard. We all got on and were driven back to the airport. Security was tight; it took 8 hours to get through the makeshift customs. Each of us was interviewed thoroughly—some of us more than once—and our photographs were taken. It wasn’t until about 7 or 8 that night when we all boarded the plane. Once again, we sat on the runway for several hours. A light snow began to fall. None of us knew why we were waiting. Eventually, the captain announced that he was waiting for our luggage to be removed from the plane. A forklift arrived; I could see it is yellow lights flashing and feel the plane rock as our luggage was removed.

Suddenly, two Mounties appeared with their guns drawn. They went directly to the rear of the plane and escorted two French passengers off, a man and woman, in handcuffs. It happened very quickly. I had talked with them briefly at the school. They seemed like nice, warm people. Then two other Mounties showed up with battery-operated drills and removed their two seats from the plane. We did not know what was going on and we were all very quiet. It was another scary moment. 

Finally we were airborne, en route to LaGuardia, or so I thought. A rumor that we were bound for Detroit proved true. When we landed that morning, I was so happy that as soon as I got off the plane I literally kissed the ground. Northwest Airlines employees escorted us right through to the front of the airport. There, I saw the longest line I have ever seen in my life. It stretched at least six blocks from the main entrance. We bypassed the line and were escorted first through the front door and then through security. At that point we were told to find our connections. I got on a flight to Minneapolis and was back home in 2 hours. 

I was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of people, thousands of my fellow citizens, lost their lives on 9/11. Many families lost their loved ones. I will be forever indebted to the people Gander, Newfoundland, and I will forever be in sorrow for what we all lost on 9/11. 

The warmth, the generosity and the human spirit exhibited by the people of Gander is something that I will never forget. They gave from their heart to those of us who, for a time, had nothing. They provided shelter, food and clothing to over 6000 people on a moment’s notice. Most of all they provided warm smiles and comfort to people that they had never met and in all likelihood, would never meet again. It was one of the most moving experiences in my life.

A Tribute to Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: November 20, 2010 - 6:28 PM
A Tribute to Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson
“She was then as she is now: always, calm, witty, a glutton for hard work, and shrewd as they come. Though she was still a young woman in the mid-60s, Josie was already a veteran civil- rights campaigner and a seasoned lobbyist for fair housing and employment laws at the State Capital. She was known and respected by legislators, governors and business leaders."
Overcoming – the Autobiography of W. Harry Davis edited by Lori Sturtevant – 2002
On an unusually warm, bright sunny November morning, I walked into the French Meadow Café in Minneapolis to meet with one of the most graceful, compassionate and remarkable leaders of our community. Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson is an eloquent woman with beautiful silver hair, high cheekbones, a dignified frame and rich caramel-colored skin. On this day, she wore a red jacket with a beautiful purple silk scarf. She is always dressed impeccably. On her lapel was a bright yellow button that read “So! Do you know how our children are doing?”
Josie speaks in a careful cadence, with a slight hint of a southern accent. Soothing, it draws me in.
“Hello, Gary. It’s so nice to see you,” she says as she reaches out, graceful arms, delicate hands outstretched.  My hero gives me a big hug.
We stop at the register to buy some coffee. People throughout the cafe are now stopping to say hello to Josie as we pick up our coffee. Josie is a well-known icon. Her story is an integral part of the rich tapestry and vibrant history of the African American community in the Twin Cities. Josie is a magnificent community leader, scholar, administrator, social and political activist, mother, grandmother, and teacher.
Two generations out of slavery, Josie grew up in Texas. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she earned a B.A. in Sociology. She went on to earn an M. A. and Ed. D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In 1964, Josie Johnson led a multiracial delegation of women from Minnesota to witness first-hand the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. I can hardly imagine the courage it took these women to confront the violence and injustice of unabashed racism in the South at that time. Josie transcended the pain of inequality and denied opportunity to build a lasting legacy of hope and opportunity.  
African Americans are indebted to the hard work, perseverance and trailblazing efforts of Josie Johnson. In 1967, her work as acting director of the Minneapolis Urban League, was responsible for creating many successful programs to help African American people find employment, housing, and to make community connections.  She severed as a bridge between communities, as an assistant to Mayor Art Naftalin during the turbulent riots in North Minneapolis.  Josie used her experience, knowledge, and skill to champion with others the creation of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
Josie became the first African American appointed to the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota (U of M), in 1971. In the 1990’s, as associate vice-president for academic affairs at the U of M, she spearheaded efforts to increase diversity in the student body and faculty. To honor her committed efforts, the U of M established the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award, which honors “its faculty, staff, and students who, through their principles and practices, exemplify Dr. Johnson’s standard of excellence in creating respectful and inclusive living, learning, and working environments.”
Recently, Josie finished a stint as principal at the Saint Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul. Saint Peter Claver serves primarily low-income African American children and focuses on quality academics. It teaches resilient faith, self-determination, perseverance, hospitality, participation, respect, and reverence. Many of today’s local notable African American leaders are graduates of this important community institution.
Josie explained that her experiences working with the children at Saint Peter Claver had a profound impact on her. The stories she told gripped me, stories of children and families battling poverty and harmful peer pressures. Wistfully she noted that great teachers and discipline alone would not change the outcome of for our children. We have to “go beyond the classroom” into the homes to work with the parents.
  “Gary.” She pauses, and is very thoughtful and quiet for a moment. She studies my face, perhaps to gauge my readiness. Has a dense cloud suddenly shadowed the bright sidewalk outside? A look of deep concern crosses over her face.  “Gary, it is so important that we focus on our young people. There is so much work left to be done. Things are much more challenging for our children today then they have been in the past.”
As Josie said these words, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and goose bumps run up and down my arms.  At that moment, I felt the total weight of responsibility that we all have to leave this place better for the next generation. As great mentors do, Josie was again raising the bar. She was letting me know that I cannot rest on my laurels; these children need my help, all our help, more now than ever before.
Then into our conversation, Josie casually mentions that, she turned 80 last month. I could not believe it – WOW! What a milestone.
Josie then, without skipping a beat, began to paint a picture of her vision to bring elders and young aspiring African American leaders together.  That’s a vision I share. Big-time. We need to ensure that young people learn from the hard-fought wisdom and experiences in the struggles and victories gained over many years.  Her words remained me of that old saying, “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
As I went to refill my coffee and thought about Josie’s vision for the future, I flashed back ten years. I am mentally, for a moment, back in a strategic planning meeting of the Leland-Johnson Common Vision organization at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. Josie founded Leland-Johnson Common Vision, in honor of her daughter, Patrice Yvonne Johnson, and Congressman Mickey Leland, both of whom perished in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1989. The Leland-Johnson Common Vision organization brought together African-American and Jewish high school students to dispel myths and stereotypes, promote understanding, and develop leaders who would fight racism and anti-Semitism. Students participated in lectures, projects, and field trips in this yearlong program.
My time on the Leland-Johnson board was a fantastic experience. The people I met, the students, my fellow board members and people of the community taught me a lot. I came away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the intertwining history and relationship of African American and Jewish people. I am deeply indebted to Josie for opening this door to me.
As I return to the table, we begin laying plans to make our joint vision of intergenerational learning a reality. The time passes effortlessly as we talked. Sooner than I wanted, it was time for us to part. We set the time for our next meeting to finish this unfinished business.  
Josie’s life experience, dedication to human, and civil rights helped change the social, economic, and political landscape for all of us. We all owe Josie a great debt of gratitude for all she has done to make our community a better place of justice, equality, and opportunity for all.
Thank you, Josie!


Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: September 22, 2010 - 9:51 PM


It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
The title of this article is a phrase coined by the late, great senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone. In a 1999 speech to the Sheet Metal Workers Union, he stated: “Whatever happened to the idea…that we all do better when we all do better? When I travel the country, much less travel Minnesota, I'll tell you this: I know what people are focused on. People are focused on: how can I get a decent living so that I can get my children the care that they need and deserve. People are focused on: how can I make sure my children get the best education. People are focused on: how can I make sure that we don't fall between the cracks and get decent health insurance coverage.”
What many of us fail to realize is that we are all interconnected and interrelated. What happens in Minneapolis impacts what happens in Shakopee. We are part of an interconnected and interrelated system that includes roads, transit, housing, economic infrastructure, commerce, the environment and governance. If we choose to allocate public resources to fighting crime, then we can’t support economic development or early childhood development. Unless we understand this interdependence and the need to invest in the whole community, we will continue to make inefficient and ineffective use of our limited resources. In other words, we all do better when we all do better.
Working Twice as Hard
Today, we are facing significant economic crisis, the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. Despite significant efforts, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 and expansion of unemployment insurance benefits and healthcare—particularly for children—in 2009 one in seven Americans lived in poverty and one in six was uninsured. Poverty and lack of insurance are particularly common among African Americans and other communities of color.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the high poverty rates are directly linked to high unemployment rates. In the Twin Cities, this is particularly true for African Americans. In his report, Uneven Pain: Unemployment by Metropolitan Area and Race, Dr. Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute documented that the unemployment rate for African Americans in the Twin Cities was one of the highest in the country and that the disparity in White–Black unemployment was also  the highest.
A few weeks ago, I facilitated a community discussion featuring Dr. Algernon Austin, hosted by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability at the Wilder Foundation. This community discussion was held to better understand the reason for the disparity in unemployment rates for African Americans and what can be done about it. In Dr. Austin’s presentation, titled Working Twice as Hard: African Americans and the American Labor Market,
Dr. Austin cited a disproportionate high-school dropout rate and lack of education as major contributors to the high African American unemployment rate. He also cited discrimination in the labor market and the relatively young age of the African American labor force.
High School Completion
The issue of disproportionately high dropout rates for students of color in the Twin Cities is a subject I am familiar with. Several years ago, former St. Paul mayor George Latimer and I co-chaired a Citizen’s League study committee. It produced a report titled, A Failing Grade for School Completion: We Must Increase School Completion in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The report said that, “…despite the promising practices and best intentions, there simply is not sufficient pressure on the system to make the necessary [graduation rate] improvements. Good intentions and promises of improved performance are not enough. To genuinely succeed in engaging all students, the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts need to set measurable school completion goals, establish clear rewards and consequences for success or failure, restructure the notion of high school, and improve schools capacity for taking the steps they need to engage more students in learning.”
The report went on to insist that “The current dismal outcomes on school completion are unacceptable and continuing the status quo threatens the vitality and livability of our community. The public, the Legislature, executive agencies, parents, teachers and administrators all hold part of the solution for achieving greater school success for students in our core cities. We must do better for our students and our state.”
While the school systems, charter schools, community-based groups and parents have all attempted to implement some of the report’s recommendations, much remains to be done to ensure that students graduate from high school.
Below I highlight three promising efforts to improve educational outcomes for all children in the Twin Cities.
The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood
Saint Paul is one of 21 communities across the nation that President Obama selected to receive a $500,000 Promise Neighborhood grant. The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, which encompasses a 250-block area in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods, is a community-wide effort to ensure that all children succeed in school, and in life, through seamless coordination of cradle-to-career educational, family, and community resources and supports. The Promise Neighborhood effort is led by The Wilder Foundation and supported by a variety of community organizations, including these key partners: the City of Saint Paul, St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, Summit University Planning Council, Frogtown Neighborhood Association, and the YWCA of Saint Paul.
MayKao Hang, Wilder Foundation President, said “The Wilder Foundation is thrilled to take a leadership role on behalf of Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. Our collaborative efforts with the many partners will assist our community in becoming stronger and more vibrant.”
According to Councilmember Melvin Carter, “This Promise Neighborhood grant is an incredible opportunity for the Frogtown and Summit University neighborhoods. Through this initiative, we will ensure that all of our youth, regardless of family income, have the tools, resources and support they need to succeed, whatever it takes!"
Michael Anderson, Executive Director of the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, was equally enthusiastic: “This grant will galvanize the community and bring students, parents, community organizations, the city, and the school district together to support academic and social success for all children in the Summit/University and Frogtown neighborhoods.”
The Northside Achievement Zone
The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) works to build a culture of achievement in a geographic zone (North Minneapolis) to ensure that all youth graduate from high school, college-ready.
Thus NAZ is partnering with schools, organizations, and families to significantly improve education and to guarantee children’s access to support from pre-birth to college. This effort is patterned after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, which demonstrated that low-income children can achieve, graduate, and compete at the same level as all other children.
According to NAZ leadership, they have laid the foundation and are ready “to fully plan and create a continuum of solutions that will ensure all children residing within the Zone are prepared to succeed in college and life. In order to achieve such an ambitious goal, NAZ has defined three areas of strategic focus:
·         Education Pipeline: A convening of district, charter and alternative schools, undergirded by a strong partnership of early childhood and out of school time providers, will co-construct with NAZ leadership a new educational experience for children on the North side.
·         Family Engagement: By engaging families in children’s success and empowering neighbors as leaders in the effort, NAZ will create a culture of achievement in the Zone.
·         Opportunity Alignment: By building a coalition of existing service providers, NAZ will revolutionize the way organizations work together and refocus their service delivery around clear achievement outcomes for families and children in the Zone.
Within this integrated NAZ Continuum system, every organization, family and neighbor is focused on children’s education and success. This effort will result in children entering kindergarten ready to learn, students demonstrating proficiency at or above grade level in reading and math and children graduating from high school prepared for college and life success.”
The Strive Partnership
Another effort that has shown promise to improve educational outcomes for all children is The Strive Partnership in the Greater Cincinnati metropolitan area. From the education, business, nonprofit, community, civic and philanthropic sectors, Strive brings together leaders at all levels to support every child, every step of the way, from cradle to career. Its Striving Together report can serve as a catalyst for discussions about the current state of education. Built on the Six Sigma model of quality and accountability, the Strive model ensures outcomes that are consistent with its roadmap for student success.
It is important that we in the Twin Cities take the opportunity to learn from the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati. I believe they are on to something that will transform urban public education.
The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, NAZ and Strive are just three of the successful approaches available to us for changing the tide of low student achievement and low graduation rates, not only for African Americans, but for all young people in our community.
We Are Better Together
It is in our interest—all of us—to ensure that all young people graduate from high school on time and with the requisite skills to become productive citizens in our community. As Sen. Paul Wellstone so aptly stated, we all do better when we all do better.


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