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.

Posts about Crime

Murder on Lake Calhoun

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: June 10, 2010 - 2:15 PM

The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place, just as we make it a safer place. - Marian Wright Edelman, 2001

 
Murder on Lake Calhoun
 
The other day, I had the opportunity to attend a kick-off meeting for the 27th Annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. I sat next to a well-known, former CEO who happens to live near Lake Calhoun. We were discussing the violence that is occurring in our city and he mentioned that a window of his home was shot out and a bullet lodged in a bedroom mattress during a recent murder that occurred on May 24. No one in his home was harmed and he praised the police officers who came to investigate for their professionalism in handling the incident.
 
The former CEO commented, that unless we, as a community, address the underlying causes of the lack of opportunity, hope, and education; we are all at risk of becoming a victim of violence, which is no longer confined to low-income communities in the Twin Cities and is spreading like a virus.
 
If everyone thought like this enlightened former CEO, we may be able to address some of the difficult and wicked problems that permeate low-income communities throughout the Twin Cities area.
 
According to Bruce Western’s 2006 book, Punishment and Inequality in America, “…for every increase of 1 percent in the level of black male unemployment, the homicide rate increases by 1.28 per 100,000”. While the correlation between violent crimes and employment rates are complex and caused by a multitude of factors; the analysis by Western does point to a connection.
 
Recently, Kris Jacobs, Executive Director of JOBS NOW Coalition, sent me a report by the Economic Policy Institute, released June 8, titled Uneven Pain: Unemployment by Metropolitan Area and Race. The report, which highlights the unemployment rate in cities across the country by race, indicated, “The black-white unemployment ratio was highest in Minneapolis and Memphis. In these metropolitan areas, the black unemployment rate was three times the white rate. In both of these cities, the black-white gap was also over 10 percentage points.” Thus, for whites in the Minneapolis metropolitan area, the 2009 unemployment rate was 6.6 percent; for African Americans, it was 20.4 percent. This is a difference of 13.8 percent! Moreover, the report found, of the 18 metropolitan cities surveyed, African Americans in the Minneapolis metropolitan area experienced the worst relative disparities. I was surprised and disappointed by these statistics.
 
The report goes on to state that education plays a major role in unemployment rates; however, in the Twin Cities, education levels do not explain the unemployment disparity between whites and African Americans. In other words, African Americans are much more likely to be unemployed in Minneapolis than whites, despite comparable levels of education.
 
Is this true? Could Minneapolis, in 2010, somehow be a bastion of discriminatory practices today – a city recognized as one of the most affordable, liberal and healthy places to live in the nation, a city that boasts the best biking and walking paths, a city with one of the highest levels of educational attainment in the country? I don’t want to believe it!
 
It is interesting to point out that the murder rate seems to be decreasing throughout the country, but rising in Minneapolis this year. Could there be something unique going on in Minneapolis in regards to unemployment rates among African Americans, and the murder-rate?
 
What has become apparent to me is that the old solutions no longer work. It may be time for us to consider a different approach. Just as the former CEO pointed out, unless we come to grips with poverty in low-income communities in our region, we will continue to see violence and murder spread throughout our community, and innocent bystanders will be affected. It is fortunate that the bullet that struck the former CEO’s house near Lake Calhoun did not hit someone. We are all vulnerable to this type of collateral violence.
 
Some would blame the perpetrator, some the government or the private sector, and still others would blame the nonprofit sector. If we have disproportional outcomes for African Americans, not explained by education, then this group does not have the ability to compete in the employment marketplace on an equal basis. One could infer that if all things were equal, we might not see this level of senseless violence in our community. The question for all of us is – What are we going to do about it?
 
 
HIRE Minnesota Coalition – Making a Difference
There are people working to make a difference on these important issues. HIRE Minnesota Coalition is an alliance of over 60 community, faith-based, and policy advocacy organizations led by Summit Academy OIC, ISAIAH, the Will Steger Foundation, and others. The coalition seeks public investments to grow the economy, provide living wages to low-income people and people of color, and promote healthy communities.
 
This year, the HIRE Minnesota Coalition negotiated an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to invest more than $6 million in federal road construction funding to workforce-development for people of color and women.

One-half of 1 percent of all highway construction dollars that MnDOT receives from the federal government during each of the next five fiscal years will be used to achieve its diversity goals. During what remains of fiscal 2010, MnDOT will spend $700,000 on three workforce projects: $384,000 on six-month internships with trucking and highway heavy contractors; $250,000 on heavy-equipment operator training; and $66,000 on outreach to minorities and women in the west metro.

“This [agreement] has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of low-income people of color throughout the state of Minnesota,” said Richard Copeland, CEO of Thor Construction, one of the largest minority-owned construction businesses in the Twin Cities metro. “It will provide a path to stable, well-paying jobs with potential for career growth. It is these kinds of opportunities that people of color have historically been locked out of”.

Rev. Paul Slack, pastor of New Creation Church in Brooklyn Park, said, “After 17 years of MnDOT falling short of its goals to open the doors to disadvantaged workers, this agreement represents ‘a good win for all of us’ involved in the effort to change that”. What is most important, Slack added, is that the money will help “not just to get folks trained but also to retain people of color and women in highway construction jobs”.
 
I would encourage people who are concerned about our community, who want to make a difference on issues of both violence and economic opportunity, to join with and support the efforts of the HIRE Minnesota Coalition in creating opportunity structures to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in this vibrant community. Our future depends on it.

 

Reviving The American Dream

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: April 29, 2010 - 7:35 PM

 

 Reviving The American Dream - Our Future Depends On It
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
 
Most of our modes of commerce, from the purchase of groceries to banking, have been depersonalized. Instead of buying produce from the farmer or taking a loan from the local banker, we mediate these exchanges through ATM machines and supermarkets. At a deeper level, we know that the neighborhood we live in may be more important than the house we live in. We know that where we live will impact the schools our children go to, our safety, and our access to not just jobs, but also to people and both material and social wealth. A middle-income person living in a poor neighborhood is not similarly situated to a middle-income person living in a middle-income neighborhood. The importance of institutional arrangements and the interactions within these structures for the distribution of opportunity in our society is only increasing.
 
February, 2009
 
 
When I was growing up, I was told that in America, if you work hard and apply yourself, you could be anything you wanted to become. This, to me, is the essence of the American Dream – the Horatio Alger story of rags to riches. Something’s happened over the last 25 years that has impacted the viability and credibility of this romantic notion. For the majority of people of color, the issue of access to opportunity continues to be elusive; however, the ability of people to move up the economic ladder has gotten more difficult for all of us. The rich have gotten richer and the assets of middle and low-income Americans have stagnated.
 
In their recent book, Class Wars?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality, Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, conducted a thorough analysis of polling data going back 30 years on issues related to economic inequality. Page and Jacobs found that, “fewer than 5 percent of families moved from the poorest to the richest quartile during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.”
 
Concerns about economic inequalities cross all political boundaries. In 2007, President George W. Bush stated in a speech on Wall Street, “income inequality is real [and has] been rising for more than 25 years.”  On November 8, 2008 President Barack Obama stated that, “while some have prospered beyond imagination in this global economy, middle-class Americans – as well as those working hard to become middle-class – are seeing the American Dream slip further and further away.” The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, also weighed in on this issue in February 2007 when he stated, “[R]ising inequalities… has been evident for at least three decades… [N]o one should be allowed to slip too far down the economic ladder, especially for reasons beyond his/her control.”
 
Real family income for middle-class and lower class groups fell or stagnated over the past three decades. “[T]he total income of the average family and ‘real’ (inflation–adjusted) dollars -- declined by 3%. In 2004 dollars, that comes out to a decline of $16,000 per family, not the steady rise envisioned in the American dream," According to Page and Jacobs.
 
In fact, Americans, as a whole, are concerned about economic inequalities. This is not to say that Americans think everyone should be paid the same, but that the increasing stratification of wealth and income are harmful to the country as a whole. It’s not even a question about working hard and getting a diploma. American educational attainment has risen; at the same time, wage inequality has increased. 
 
In the last few years much of my thinking has been focused on questions of economic inequalities. Why do certain groups of people have significant levels of economic disadvantage while other groups enjoy higher levels of economic advantage? It always strikes me as peculiar why we continue to see inqualities in education, housing, employment, and health outcomes by race and ethnicity.
 
While everyone, with the exception of the very rich, is suffering from economic inequalities, low-income people of color have the most significant economic inequality of any group in this country. This is due in part, according to the experts, to lack of access to opportunity structures, such as good schools, transportation, housing, and social networks. These systems are mutually-reinforce one another and drive poor outcomes for the majority of low-income people of color. 
 
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a series of presentations by john a. powell, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, hosted by the Portland African-American Leadership Forum in Oregon. It was a fascinating series that began to unlock some of the mystery of why some racial groups experience significant social and economic inequalities.
 
In one of the presentations, Professor powell maintained that historically marginalized people of color and the very poor have been spatially isolated from economic, political, educational and technological power via reservations, Jim Crow, Appalachian mountains, ghettos, barrios, and the culture of incarceration. He states that there are “Interlocking systems of disadvantage which disproportionately shape and constrain the choices and life chances of people of color and poor Whites.” powell notes as an example that in 1960, African-American families in poverty were 3.8 times more likely to be in concentrated high-poverty neighborhoods than poor Whites. In 2000, African American families were 7.3 times more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than Whites.
 
This increased concentration of poverty for African Americans has persisted even with the advent of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act, fair housing legislation and other policies that were designed to equalize the playing field. According to Professor powell, “structural racialization involves a series of exclusions, often anchored in (and perpetuating) spatial segregation.” While bigotry and interpersonal discrimination still exist, he maintains, these types of persistent racialized outcomes are the product of opportunity structures within society.
 
A subtle, but an important point is Professors powell’s use of the term “structural racialization” as opposed to “structural racism.” He says that when we use the term “racism,” people are inclined to see a specific person—a racist. However, a racist is not necessary to perpetuate poor outcomes. Instead, institutional interactions generate racialized outcomes.
 
People concentrated in poor communities experience a number of deleterious, mutually reinforcing and cumulative impacts on their life outcomes. Research shows that children living in highly concentrated poverty and segregated neighborhoods are more likely to have lower educational attainment, have a higher probability to be involved in – or be a victim of – crime, live in substandard housing and not obtain the social and human capital necessary to participate in the American Dream.
 
To discuss racial economic inequalities, powell uses the framework of systems theory. He stresses that systems theory is not a panacea for solving wicked problems, such as racial inequalities, but is a framework to better understand these issues and to design solutions and interventions.
 
An excellent explanation of systems theory is given by Stephen Menendian and Caitlin Watt in their publication.  Systems Primer (click on link for more information about systems theory). “All systems have a structure, and those structures matter. It is the organization and relationships between a system’s parts as much as the components themselves that shapes system outcomes and system behavior…. Systems behavior is different from the sum of its parts, and does not follow from intentions of the individual agents, but on how system agents are interacting with each other within the system structure.” Menendian and Watt go on to suggest that, “Racial differentials in the United States are as much a product of system structure as they are of individual behavior.”
 
In other words, according to powell, “We need to think about the ways in which the institutions that mediate opportunity are arranged, the order of the structures, the timing of the interaction and the relationships that exist between them.” To make his point, powell uses the example of an escalator: "Some people ride the up escalator to reach opportunity and others have to run up the down escalator to get there. Others are in wheelchairs and cannot access the escalator at all. Institutions continue to support, not dismantle, the status quo. This is why we continue to see racially inequitable outcomes even if there is good intent behind policies, or an absence of racist actors (i.e., structural racialization).”
 
While the impact of these dynamics is often racialized and uneven, powell advises caution in focusing just on the disparities. One reason is that eliminating disparities does not suggest the need to improve the condition of the dominant group. If the needs of the dominant group are ignored, a disparity-focused approach is often not sustainable. Instead, powell recommends an approach he calls “targeted universalism.” Its goal is universal, such as good health care or schools for all. Its approach is targeted because groups are situated differently in relation to opportunity structures. Targeted universalism requires an approach that is sensitive to the needs of different communities. The concerns and needs of the marginal communities are not lost, while and the dominant group is neither ignored nor privileged. It is important to emphasize that the universal focus is on the goal side, not the strategy side.
 
Page and Jacobs argue, based on their extensive polling data, that there is a new silent majority in America that has reached a consensus across party lines and across income groups; that "[I]ndividuals ought to do their best to care for themselves, but that government ought to foster opportunity and protect individuals against threats that might impede their actual exercise of opportunity." powell argues that everyone should have access to the critical opportunity structures needed to succeed in life, and that affirmatively connecting people to opportunity creates positive, transformative change in communities. 
 
As the world continues to be increasingly interconnected and interdependent, what happens in poor communities does not just harm poor people, but harms us all—as evidenced by the meltdown of the financial industry in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. It is imperative that we continue to develop new ways of expanding opportunities for all communities and to ensure geographical relationships so that low-income, isolated communities have access to opportunity structures. 
 
The United States is in competition with the world; we cannot afford to waste human capital or allow structures and systems to diminish the productivity of all our citizens. If there was ever a time we needed to revive the capacity of the American Dream for low-income and middle-income citizens and to ensure that we have equal access to opportunity, it is today. Our future depends on it.

 

“Make Something Out of Nothing”: Hope on Pine Ridge

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: March 29, 2010 - 10:27 PM

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept only one; they promised to take our land, and they did. — Chief Red Cloud (1822–1909)

 “Make Something Out of Nothing”: Hope on Pine Ridge
Standing on a hill overlooking a vast prairie on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is a tall, lone, leafless cottonwood tree, encircled by a man-made wooded corral and fence. Blowing in the stiff cold spring wind from the tallest branches down to the base are hundreds of multi-colored prayer flags. Long, thick, yellow ropes hang from the strongest tree limbs, intertwined and wrapped together around the trunk.
Standing in front of the cottonwood tree is a young Native man, Nick Tilsen. He is telling us about the power of the Sundance ceremony and the spiritual tradition that has changed hundreds of young people’s lives in the Pine Ridge community. Born out of these spiritual roots, the young people of Pine Ridge have created Thunder Valley Development Corporation to empower Lakota youth and families to improve the health, culture and environment of their community by healing and strengthening of their cultural identity.
 
A few of my colleagues and I were visiting Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, as guests of Lori Pourier, president of First Peoples Fund. We were accompanied by Kelley Lindquist, president of ArtSpace and his staff. Our goal was to learn about the culture and great heritage of the Lakota people and build relationships with the Pine Ridge community.
The vision that Nick paints—and what I witnessed on Pine Ridge Reservation—stands in sharp contrast to a New York Times article I read in December, 2009, titled “Gang Violence Grows on an Indian Reservation.” In his article, New York Times writer Erik Eckholm, depicts Pine Ridge as “This stunning land of crumpled prairie, horse pastures turned tawny in the autumn and sunflower farms…marred by an astonishing number of roadside crosses and gang tags sprayed on houses, stores and abandoned buildings, giving rural Indian communities an inner-city look.” Eckholm goes on to describe the rise of gangs and violence on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After first reading this story back in December, I felt a certain amount of despair and hopelessness.
This was on the heels of a photo essay I reviewed about Pine Ridge Reservation in the New York Times in October, 2009 by James Estrin, titled Behind the Scenes: Still Wounded. While some of the photos were beautiful, others were sensational: Pine Ridge as a nation of tragedy. A Native American colleague of mine said “It depicted a depressing prospect for Pine Ridge tribal members.”
Lori was an excellent guide and teacher. , In the van on the way to meet Nick Tilsen at Thunder Valley, Lori talked about the statistics on young adults committing suicide, dropping out of school and using drugs. She contrasted this with the youth who are finding their way through education, community projects and entrepreneurial development. Lori indicated that a lot of "healing that needs to take place." Lori and others are building the bases for a new renaissance in Indian country.
Once we reached Thunder Valley, Nick Tilsen provided a powerful presentation on building community, empowering young people, and on civic and spiritual engagement. He explained that Thunder Valley Development Corporation has a bold vision of building a planned community on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They have already begun to implement a number of the projects, including the development of the Thunder Valley E-TANKA café, a partnership between the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and Native American Natural Foods, creator of the TANKA bar.
At the conclusion of Nick’s talk, we had lunch at the Thunder Valley Tanka Café and were treated to fantastic TANKA DOGs! I think it might have been the best hot dog I ever had. Okay, I had two.
 
We were then given a tour of Native American Natural Foods, which was founded in 2005 on the Pine Ridge Reservation by owners Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen (Nick’s father). According to the Native American Natural Foods website, Tanka means "delivering your best with all your heart, mind, body and spirit. It is the choices that you make and the actions that you take to be who you are. Whether you're Native, white, black, yellow or brown, it is your ability to overcome, to extend a helping hand for those in need, to defeat racism, to protect our Mother Earth, and to love all others on our planet. It is your ability to acknowledge "Mitakuye Oyasin" -- we are all related.”
 
We then visited the beautiful campus of Oglala Lakota College, the first tribally controlled college in the United States. In our meeting with President Thomas Shortbull, he provided us with an overview of the college and its special place in the Pine Ridge community. President Shortbull stated that “Oglala Lakota College is an accredited college which offers Baccalaureate degrees and a Master’s degree in Lakota Leadership along with certificates and A.A. degrees.
 As a result of having a college on the reservation, Lakota people are now employed in teaching, nursing, human services, business, computer, and vocational educational positions, among others. This last semester we saw a large increase in enrollment, from 1,100 to 1,400 students, with a full-time equivalency of 900 students per semester.” He acknowledged and praised the deep sacrifice of many of his staff and students who travel long distances on sometimes dangerous and icy roads to get to work and class.
 
Despite many resource constraints, Oglala Lakota College is making a real difference by building future leaders and workers for tomorrow. 
 
After leaving the college, we visited with the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce and Lakota Funds. The Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce represents over 135 Indian-owned businesses that are dedicated to “Improving the quality of life on the Pine Ridge and Indian Reservation."Lakota Funds is a “community development financial institution which assists tribal members in better understanding of their finances, their options for saving, and for asset growth. Lakota Funds gives tribal members immediate opportunities to use this information by improving their credit scores, growing an asset, utilizing Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) through our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, and or Individual Development Accounts (IDA), and generally taking positive steps to manage finances and build family assets.” Currently, Lakota Funds is leading an effort to establish a reservation-wide credit union that will provide members with enhanced and more accessible financial services."
 
Our next stop was the stunning campus of Red Cloud Indian School, which includes the Red Cloud Museum and Heritage Center. The school was established in 1888 at the request of Chief Red Cloud. It serves over 600 students from pre-K through 12 grades. Since 1999, 39 of its students have been awarded scholarships in the Gates Millennium Scholars program. Father Peter Klink, president of the school, led us through the beautiful complex. He indicated that over 90% of the students go on to post-secondary education. According to Father Klink, "Students cannot only have mind smarts, but must have heart smarts to know a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.”
 
The integration of Lakota language and culture within the school was very moving. I was also very impressed that the school has built two new science labs and will focus on math and science. The goal is to strengthen student’s knowledge so that they can be college-bound. The experience at the Red Cloud was certainly extraordinary; there are many families who have high hopes for their children on a waiting list to be admitted.
 
Robert Braveheart, Sr. Superintendent of the Red Cloud Indian School, indicated that the school’s key success factors are:
·        Compassion
·        Accountability
·        A stable curriculum
·        High expectations of students with positive feedback and encouragement
·        Emphasis on Lakota values and culture
 
Of course with all things, there are never enough resources for something we know works. I am disappointed that all children could not receive this type of high quality of education, no matter where they live in this country.
 
The visit to the Red Cloud Museum and Heritage Center was, in a word, fantastic! I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone who has an appreciation for Native American fine arts and Lakota tribal arts. This is one-of-a-kind collection and it rivals some of the art shows I have seen in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I would recommend attending the 43rd Annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show,June 6 to August 15, 2010. 
 
Our final stop on this quest was a visit to First Nations Oweesta, in Rapid City, South Dakota. First Nations Oweesta is a national organization whose mission is to provide opportunities for Native people to develop assets and create wealth by assisting in the establishment of strong, permanent institutions and programs, that contribute to economic independence and strengthen sovereignty for all Native communities The First Nations Oweesta Corporation provides training, technical assistance, investments research and advocacy for the development of Native CDFIs and other support organizations in Native communities. It is working with tribes throughout the country to build a financial infrastructure one individual, one family, one business, one community at a time. This is powerful work!
 
I was deeply moved by the whole trip. Where some see despair, others see hope and opportunity. Where some people exploit for commercial purposes the hardship that American Indian experience, others are working in their community to make a difference.
 
The article and photo essay in the New York Times attempts to tell a complex history using a myopic lens. While there is certainly deep and pervasive poverty and lack of opportunity on the Pine Ridge Reservation, this is only part of the story. There is no question that the broken promises, broken treaties and broken dreams have played a large role in the continuation of economic and social inequalities on reservations throughout this country. There are also many people, like Nick Tilsen, who are working to make a difference in these communities. They are working with vision, drive and tenacity to, as my grandmother would say, "Make something out of nothing."
 
This does not mean that Nick and Thunder Valley Development Corporation need to do this alone. We can all work to make a difference. Contact some of the people and organizations that I have listed in this post and see what you can do to help make a difference.
 
Thank you to all the people who took time out of their busy schedules to make our visit a powerful learning experience.

 

Our Children in Crisis

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: January 25, 2010 - 7:30 PM

 

 
Our Children in Crisis
“Deutsh (1967) and Ward (1982) in contemplating the education of disadvantaged children imply that ‘disadvantaged’ is not a homogeneous group. That is, within each group are great variations. This view is significant because it communicates that some black men as adolescents learn to be high achievers in an environment more challenging than most children face. Consequently, it reminds us that black mainstream is not a tangle of pathology. Rather it demonstrates a source for strength and resilience that is deeply rooted and viable against incredible odds."
 Successful African-American Men from Childhood to Adulthood
Sandra Taylor Griffin, Ph.D., 2000
 
Education is one of the key passports of social and class mobility for a majority of African Americans. In his classic work, A Theory of Justice, the late Harvard Professor and philosopher John Rawls eloquently elucidates why education is a critical component of social mobility when he states, "the value of education should not be assessed solely in terms of economic efficiency and social welfare. Equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy in the culture of his society and take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth."
 
My experience as a poor child growing up was one of continuous housing instability and school mobility; I attended four elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools in Minneapolis.
 
Patterns of housing segregation, housing instability and school mobility are still prevalent today for many poor inner city homeless or semi-homeless children. These factors have a significant impact on students’ academic achievement and exacerbate the achievement gap. Mobility and housing instability are not the only issues impacting student achievement, however. Child readiness, teacher preparation and curriculum, parent involvement, discipline, and reading and writing proficiency are salient issues for African-American students in urban communities.
 
Even with my chaotic home life, I did well in school in my early years. I was always interested in learning and had a few great teachers who really took an interest in me and my education. In my early adolescence, when I was 12 years old, the transition from boyhood to manhood was a very confusing time for me, as it is for most young men. I was having an identity crisis. In the nomenclature of psychology, “identity crises are periods of emotional and mental distress that can lead to significant alteration in worldview in a short period of time in a person’s life. The crisis can lead to changes in their peer associations, political beliefs, or engagement in risk taking behavior. The challenges of an identity crisis are an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to demonstrate resilience.”1
 
As a young black boy, things that I felt in my life regarding racial pride and social justice were incongruent with the images that were being painted for me on TV and in the media. I would watch movies like Tarzan, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Holiday Inn on TV and would see people who looked like me represented as savages, servants or worse. Questions of who I was and what I wanted to be or what I thought I could be in this society were continuously present.
 
I also began to understand that race mattered in the world.  It was in my early formative adolescent years that I began to understand that ,“Racism is omnipresent, though often subtle: it is channeled through multiple levels of context...It is inclusive not only of discriminatory behavior, but also of structural power relationships, political ideologies, and institutionalized practices, all of which can be normative, albeit unacknowledged, components of society. There are various and salient ways racism impacts lives, not only by disadvantaging people of color, but also by privileging White people.”1
 
When I was thirteen, I ran away from home and lived on the street for a few months. This was one of the best things that had happened to me up until then. Soon after, I moved in with my uncle Moe and his family and this environment provided me with the stability I craved and the home schooling I needed.
 
In the mid 1970s, on the heels of the civil rights and Black Power movements, there was a great deal of support for education within the African-American community.  Many African Americans were beginning to fill prominent roles in education in Minneapolis, including Richard Green, the first African-American Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools; Harry Davis, the first African-American Chair of the Minneapolis School Board; and a host of dedicated administrators such as Bill McMoore, Marvin Trammel, Mel West, Joyce Jackson and others. These trailblazers were critically important for many African-American students in Minneapolis, including me. They pointed, by example, at what was possible and opened the doors of educational access and opportunity for many of us at that time.
 
Under their leadership, I was able to participate in many opportunities that expanded my world view including the Urban Journalism Workshop, the National Close Up program, the Central High School debate team and serving as an editorial writer for the high school newspaper. These experiences were invaluable to my growth and development.
 
The cultural and community expectation was that you would and could achieve academically. This type of civic-centered focus on education served as a protective factor against the stereotype threat many African-American young adolescents face in today’s academic settings.2
 
Much has changed in the intervening years. There were a number of convergent factors which have had a cumulative impact on the social and human capital development within low income urban African-Americans communities. Some of these factors include:  the flight of middle class African-Americans and Whites from low income urban areas which has significantly increased the concentration of poverty; the loss of a once vibrant family structure in low income African American communities, exacerbated by the legacy of national welfare policy; the dislocation of economic opportunity afforded to the early generation through manufacturing jobs; and continued patterns of structural discrimination in housing, access to credit and employment opportunities.
 
 We have created, as so aptly stated in the 9-11 Commission report, “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable or steady employment—a sure prescription for social turbulence.3" 
 
The logical choice, some have argued, for many disadvantaged young African-Americans with bleak futures and very few economic opportunities is to turn to activity marked by violence and the lure of more lucrative payoffs.4
 
In America:5
 
Among men, blacks (28.5%) are about six times more likely than whites (4.4%) to be admitted to prison during their life. Among women, 3.6% of blacks and 0.5% of whites will enter prison at least once.
 
Homicide is now one of the leading causes of death for African American men. And the data on homicides indicate that, more often than not, the perpetrator in these homicides is also African American. In fact, an examination of the data on all violent crimes (rape, homicide, assault) demonstrates that violent crimes are primarily intraracial; in other words, both the victim and the offender are of the same race
 
For every increase of 1% in the level of black male unemployment, the homicide rate increases by 1.28 per 100,000.
 
There are more African American men in prison (1 million) than in college (less than 500,000). In contrast, with only 600,000 white men in prison and 3.5 million in college, there are 5.8 times as many white men in college as in prison.
 
Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal Justice supervision on any given day -- either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.
 
In Minnesota:
 
Minnesota already has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between black and white students. (StarTribune , 2008)
 
Black students in Minnesota are being suspended at a rate about six times that of white students. (StarTribune, 2008)
 
In Minneapolis, despite laudable efforts by the Minneapolis Public Schools in the 2008-09 school year: 6
 
Only 34% of African-American students pass the 10th grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments II (MCA II) reading proficiency test compared to 89% for Caucasian students.
 
Only 8% of African-American students passed the 11th grade MCA II math proficiency test compared to 59% for Caucasian children.
 
Only 12% of 10th Grade African students are predicted to score at least 21 on their ACT college entrance examinations and thus will be considered “college ready”.
 
These types of results for African-American children are repeated throughout the country in most urban areas with some variation.  If this pattern is allowed to continue it will have long-term and far-reaching consequences for the future of the African American community, but also for the general population of Minnesota.
 
If there is a case to be made for a state of emergency, this is it!
 
If we are going to make progress we need the political will to begin rebuilding the leadership and civic infrastructure within the African American community. We need to set clear measureable objectives, holding the system and each other accountable for results. The consequences for failure are clear.
 
The schools can’t do it alone, the police can’t do it alone, communities can’t do it alone and sometime the parents can’t do it alone either. The solutions will have to be a concerted and courageous effort led by the African American community in equal partnership with government, nonprofits and the private sector.
 


  
1.    Understanding Vulnerability and Resilience from a Normative Developmental Perspective : Implications for Racially and Ethnically Diverse Youth, Margaret Beale Spencer, et al. Chapter 16  P. 636, 643-Developmental Psychopathology: Theory and Methods Volume 1 edited by Dante Cicchetti and Donald J. Cohen, 2006
 
2.    Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group  (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. 
 
3.     The 9-11 Commission Report Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government Edition, April 24, 2007 P. 54
 
4.    JULIE A. PHILLIPS, VARIATION IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOMICIDE RATES: AN ASSESSMENT OF POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS* Criminology, Volume 35, 1997
 
5.    PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA, Bruce Western.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006
 
6.    http://www.mpls.k12.mn.us/uploads/sos_annualreport_2009.pdf

 

The Promised Land

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: January 18, 2010 - 3:22 PM

... My inquisitor was asking me to explain my existence. Why was I successful, law abiding and literate, when others of my kind fill the jails, morgues, and homeless shelters? ...The only answer is life itself. (p 256)
 
Brent Staples Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, 1994

Introduction:

As I thought about what to write for a weekly blog which would be interesting and something that would capture people's imaginations, something that would be worth reading and would articulate a particular point of view. At first, I thought about taking a policy approach given that public policy influences so much of our lives and shapes the playing field of human interactions. Then again, I thought that it might be better to focus on an authentic story that weaves the political, policy, economic and social context together.
 
First things first however; the first story is something that begins to frame and provide context to who I am and how policy, culture and economics shaped me and many African-Americans who lived in the upper Midwest. It is my hope that I can get plenty of feedback and hear other people's stories as a way of creating a dialogue to foster better understanding of the American dilemma.

The Promised Land
I was born on West Bank of the Mississippi in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1957, in a hospital where I now sit on the board of trustees. My birth certificate says that I was born a Negro. The man listed as my father on my birth certificate was not my biological father. He and my mother were separated at the time, but not divorced, so I became Gary Leonard Cunningham. In many ways our nuclear family was no different than many of the families in the African American community at that time. My four siblings and I had different fathers, although that never seemed to a matter much to us. We were very close in our formative years. My mother's parents, two generations out of slavery, moved from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1946, as part of the Second Great Migration of African American. More than 5 million African Americans from the South migrated to northern industrial cities from 1941 to 1971.
 
My grandparents, like most African Americans of their generation, came to Minnesota to escape Jim Crow laws, the Klan and sharecropping. They migrated like the Swedish, Norwegians, Germens and Jews before them to make a better live for themselves and their children.   My grandfather worked as a shift worker at Munsingwear clothing factory for over 20 years until his retirement and death soon thereafter in 1971. He supplemented his regular income developing a real estate business catering primary to African Americans in the Twin Cities. My grandmother worked part-time as a maid and cook for wealthy white families. They raised a family of six children on unless than $9,000 a year in the 1960s. They owned their own home and car. Each of their children was required to take music lessons, to do well in school, and to be involved in the local church.
 
In 1985, while working on my first research project on the role of people color and women in real estate occupations in Minnesota,  I discovered that my grandfather was one of the first Black licensed realtors in the State of Minnesota. In a subsequent study on people of color and women in construction occupations in Minnesota I also discovered that my great uncle was one of the first African American carpenters admitted into the Carpenters Union 1644 in Minneapolis. This was not something that either of these two men talked or bragged about at the time. However, these revelations were important to me as a young man; realizing that some of the men in my family were trailblazers who had forged the path before me, which had a powerful influence on my own life trajectory.
 
What I didn't realize was at the time, my grandfather was one of the positive male role models in my life as a boy growing up. He would take us boys to baseball and football games and family picnics. He would also provide discipline and guidance when we kids needed it. He provided for his family and I never seen him once raised his hand to my grandmother. 
 

While I didn't live with my grandparents, the environment at my grandparents’ house provided stability that was elusive and fleeting at home. I remember being envious of my Uncle Charles who was two years older than I was. He knew who his father was and had a relationship with him. He also had stability and normalcy, something I longed for as a young boy. Psychologist Dr. Joseph White, the godfather of Black psychology, refers to this phenomenon as “father hunger”.
 
The role models we see as young children establish patterns for our future lives and relationships. My grandfather was an exception; most of the Black men I knew until I was about 13 years old were hustlers, pimps and drug addicts. Being successful from their point of view was having a nice car, lots of women, very nice clothes and a nice house.  In some ways, these material trappings of well-being are no different than many White middle-class people want to obtain, but in the case of people on the streets they want to obtain the material goods and earthly pleasures by any means necessary.
 
One has to ask the question, was it choice or necessity that some of these men became predators within their communities? I would argue that it is the confluence of culture, policy and economics that create the circumstances and the conditions for the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty.  The lack of access to opportunity on the one hand coupled with personal choice on the other.
 
In his ground breaking book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, Elijah Anderson deciphers a complex code of rules that govern African-American life in inner-city communities, and how these cultural norms give rise to frustrated ambitions and perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Through his ethnographic study, Anderson acknowledges the impact of discrimination and institutional racism in shaping the culture of street life; he also convincingly demonstrates that street culture plays a significant role in the perpetuation of drugs, violence and out of wedlock births. The struggle between raising a "decent family" and being part of the street culture is something many African-American families grapple with. My family was no exception to this dualistic reality.
   
Next Week: Unintended Consequences 

The Promised Land

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: January 18, 2010 - 3:22 PM

... My inquisitor was asking me to explain my existence. Why was I successful, law abiding and literate, when others of my kind fill the jails, morgues, and homeless shelters? ...The only answer is life itself. (p 256)
 
Brent Staples Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, 1994

Introduction:

As I thought about what to write for a weekly blog which would be interesting and something that would capture people's imaginations, something that would be worth reading and would articulate a particular point of view. At first, I thought about taking a policy approach given that public policy influences so much of our lives and shapes the playing field of human interactions. Then again, I thought that it might be better to focus on an authentic story that weaves the political, policy, economic and social context together.
 
First things first however; the first story is something that begins to frame and provide context to who I am and how policy, culture and economics shaped me and many African-Americans who lived in the upper Midwest. It is my hope that I can get plenty of feedback and hear other people's stories as a way of creating a dialogue to foster better understanding of the American dilemma.

The Promised Land
I was born on West Bank of the Mississippi in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1957, in a hospital where I now sit on the board of trustees. My birth certificate says that I was born a Negro. The man listed as my father on my birth certificate was not my biological father. He and my mother were separated at the time, but not divorced, so I became Gary Leonard Cunningham. In many ways our nuclear family was no different than many of the families in the African American community at that time. My four siblings and I had different fathers, although that never seemed to a matter much to us. We were very close in our formative years. My mother's parents, two generations out of slavery, moved from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1946, as part of the Second Great Migration of African American. More than 5 million African Americans from the South migrated to northern industrial cities from 1941 to 1971.
 
My grandparents, like most African Americans of their generation, came to Minnesota to escape Jim Crow laws, the Klan and sharecropping. They migrated like the Swedish, Norwegians, Germens and Jews before them to make a better live for themselves and their children.   My grandfather worked as a shift worker at Munsingwear clothing factory for over 20 years until his retirement and death soon thereafter in 1971. He supplemented his regular income developing a real estate business catering primary to African Americans in the Twin Cities. My grandmother worked part-time as a maid and cook for wealthy white families. They raised a family of six children on unless than $9,000 a year in the 1960s. They owned their own home and car. Each of their children was required to take music lessons, to do well in school, and to be involved in the local church.
 
In 1985, while working on my first research project on the role of people color and women in real estate occupations in Minnesota,  I discovered that my grandfather was one of the first Black licensed realtors in the State of Minnesota. In a subsequent study on people of color and women in construction occupations in Minnesota I also discovered that my great uncle was one of the first African American carpenters admitted into the Carpenters Union 1644 in Minneapolis. This was not something that either of these two men talked or bragged about at the time. However, these revelations were important to me as a young man; realizing that some of the men in my family were trailblazers who had forged the path before me, which had a powerful influence on my own life trajectory.
 
What I didn't realize was at the time, my grandfather was one of the positive male role models in my life as a boy growing up. He would take us boys to baseball and football games and family picnics. He would also provide discipline and guidance when we kids needed it. He provided for his family and I never seen him once raised his hand to my grandmother. 
 

While I didn't live with my grandparents, the environment at my grandparents’ house provided stability that was elusive and fleeting at home. I remember being envious of my Uncle Charles who was two years older than I was. He knew who his father was and had a relationship with him. He also had stability and normalcy, something I longed for as a young boy. Psychologist Dr. Joseph White, the godfather of Black psychology, refers to this phenomenon as “father hunger”.
 
The role models we see as young children establish patterns for our future lives and relationships. My grandfather was an exception; most of the Black men I knew until I was about 13 years old were hustlers, pimps and drug addicts. Being successful from their point of view was having a nice car, lots of women, very nice clothes and a nice house.  In some ways, these material trappings of well-being are no different than many White middle-class people want to obtain, but in the case of people on the streets they want to obtain the material goods and earthly pleasures by any means necessary.
 
One has to ask the question, was it choice or necessity that some of these men became predators within their communities? I would argue that it is the confluence of culture, policy and economics that create the circumstances and the conditions for the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty.  The lack of access to opportunity on the one hand coupled with personal choice on the other.
 
In his ground breaking book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, Elijah Anderson deciphers a complex code of rules that govern African-American life in inner-city communities, and how these cultural norms give rise to frustrated ambitions and perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Through his ethnographic study, Anderson acknowledges the impact of discrimination and institutional racism in shaping the culture of street life; he also convincingly demonstrates that street culture plays a significant role in the perpetuation of drugs, violence and out of wedlock births. The struggle between raising a "decent family" and being part of the street culture is something many African-American families grapple with. My family was no exception to this dualistic reality.
   
Next Week: Unintended Consequences 
      

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