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 Government

Closing the Five Educational Achievement Gaps

Posted by: Gary Cunningham 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

One of the Lucky Ones

Posted by: Gary Cunningham 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 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 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.

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.


Stadiums Vs Our Children’s Future

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: March 17, 2010 - 11:45 AM


Stadiums Vs Our Children’s Future
“Education has long been recognized as a good that has external effects and public attributes. Without public support, the market will yield too few educated workers and too little basic research. This problem has long been understood in the United States and it is why our government, at all levels, has supported public funding for education... Nevertheless, recent studies suggest that one critical form of education, early childhood development, or ECD, is grossly underfunded. However, if properly funded and managed, investment in ECD yields an extraordinary return, far exceeding the return on most investments, private or public.”
Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return- March 2003
Rob Grunewald - Regional Economic Analyst, Arthur J. Rolnick - Senior Vice President and Director of Research

Last Saturday, I attended a panel discussion focusing on early childhood development organized by Twin Cities African American leaders. The panel was moderated by Art Rolnick, Senior Vice President and Director of Research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Panel members consisted of: Daniel P. Mueller, Ph.D., Associate Director, Wilder Research; Scott McConnell, Director of Community Engagement, Center for Early Education and Development, University of Minnesota; Becky Roloff, CEO, YWCA of Minneapolis; Sameerah Bilal-Roby, Executive Director, Early Childhood Resource & Training Center; and Carolyn Smallwood, Executive Director, Way to Grow.
There were several salient points during this panel discussion I thought were germane to the concept of paying forward our public investments, up front, in order to realize savings in the long run. My summary doesn’t cover every panelist’s presentation. It does highlight important aspects of this discussion for consideration in the broader public policy debate.
Art Rolnick opened the panel discussion by framing the current proposal to invest $1 billion into a new Vikings stadium, but nowhere, according to Rolnick, do you hear political leaders talking about a $1 billion investment towards early childhood development. It was an interesting way of framing a political choice to the panel. I’m not sure it was a realistic choice (in part because I love the Vikings), but it did make me think that as we choose to invest in one set of priorities, we are making a decision not to invest in others.
In fact, in his work, Art Rolnick has been a courageous leader in bringing the issue of investing in early childhood development to the forefront in Minnesota and throughout the country. Rolnick postulates that “The conventional view of economic development typically includes company headquarters, office towers, entertainment centers, and professional sports stadiums and arenas… in the future any proposed economic development list should have early childhood development at the top. The return on investment from early childhood development is extraordinary, resulting in better working public schools, more educated workers and less crime.”
For example, Rolnick argues that Detroit has two professional sports stadiums and several casinos. These investments have proven insufficient in moving Detroit out of economic decay. Rolnick believes that the old-fashioned approach to economic development of providing public subsidies to private companies is “short-sighted and fundamentally flawed”. Jobs are not created “they are only relocated” and the public return on these investments is, at most, zero, according to Rolnick.
Rolnick is not alone in this view, Nobel Prize Laureate and University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, also evaluated the public “return on investment,” and concluded that, viewed purely as an economic development strategy, the return on investment to the public of early childhood development programs “far exceeds the return on most projects that are currently funded as economic development,” such as building sports stadiums or relocating businesses.
Another panel member, Becky Roloff, CEO of the Minneapolis YWCA, stated that “The front end of the educational system is broken and everybody knows it. Imagine what Minnesota would be like if we paid attention to education from cradle to grave.” As someone formerly in the corporate world, Roloff stated that she had always felt that Minnesota was great in early childhood education until she began to understand the “horrific trade-off “that we’ve made to reduce money for education and put it somewhere else. One of the answers that Roloff suggests is that K-12 and higher education leaders sit down with the next governor to be very clear that 40-50 percent of raw materials (children) are not ready for education. According to Roloff, there is a plethora of research data available that shows investment in early childhood education is one of the most effective means of ensuring that the next generation are productive citizens and have a pathway out of poverty. 
Sameerah Bilal-Roby, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Resource & Training Center, talked about the importance of working with parents to increase their understanding of the impact of self-regulation and verbal responsiveness in their child’s development. Bilal-Roby also focused on new research in physiology and chemistry of the brain that has established that the first three years of life are more critical to the development of human capacities than any three that follow. According to Bilal-Roby, “We know that quality school readiness must be coordinated with housing, food and mental health in order for it to be successful.”
Carolyn Smallwood, Executive Director of Way to Grow, stated that “Twenty percent of Minnesota workers are functionally illiterate. Less than one half of the children in this state are proficient in reading and math. Children born with low birthrate and fewer parental resources have poor health, are less likely to work and have lower earnings as adults. By age three, children of parents on welfare have a vocabulary foundation of about 500 words, working class parents 700 words, and college educated parents 1,100 words. Children who are chronically hungry are more likely to be in special education, repeat a grade, get into fights, and to have lower test scores. We are losing two to three generations of uneducated children.”
These are powerful statements and statistics that get to the heart of why many of leaders of major corporations such as Best Buy Co. Inc., Cargill, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of MN, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., Ecolab, Inc., General Mills and others, have formed The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation ( whose mission is “To recommend cost-effective strategies for preparing children to succeed in school… A child with a winning start becomes part of a solid community, contributes to our competitiveness and enriches our society.”
Another effort that is gaining momentum in seeking public and private support to address early childhood education is the School Readiness Funders Coalition. The Coalition members include the Blandin Foundation, Twin Cities United Way, Grotto Foundation, McKnight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, Sheltering Arms Foundation, Social Ventures Partners, and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. These funders believe that every child in Minnesota needs to be ready for kindergarten by 2020. The School Readiness Funders Coalition also believes that “Minnesota needs a comprehensive approach to early childhood care and education that establishes accountability for measurable and sustained progress.” For more information on this innovative approach, please visit
According to Lisabeth B. Schorr, in her book Common Purpose – Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America, “Our nation’s failure to act on what we know about the early years is the product, at least in part, of our commitment to rugged individualism. The notion that every family should be able to care for its own, without outside help, has made the U.S. the only industrialized country in the world without universal pre-school, paid paternal leave, and income supports for families with young children… One in ten children is growing up in extreme poverty – conditions in which it is almost impossible to give young children the responsive care and nurturing…their healthy development requires.”
As we think about what our priorities are as a state, it is hard to imagine that Minnesotans value sports stadiums and mega malls more than the human capital development of our children. I would argue, by making these investments now, we can begin to reverse the cycle of intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency. We could invest upstream in early child development, rather than paying much more money down steam, by building prisons to support increased incarcerations rates, low productivity, unsafe communities and increasing demands for public services. The current arrangement is unsustainable.
I had dinner the other night with a former state legislator and we talked about the wealth of evidence to support public investment in early childhood development.  I asked this person, why haven’t we invested to bring early childhood education efforts to scale? He said, “It’s simple, at the Legislature it is about entrenched interest and power and children don’t have either.”


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