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 Politics

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

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!

WE ALL DO BETTER WHEN WE ALL DO BETTER

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: September 22, 2010 - 9:51 PM

WE ALL DO BETTER WHEN WE ALL DO BETTER

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.”
 
Solutions
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.

 

“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.

 

Minnesota: The Land of 10,000 Cuts

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: March 9, 2010 - 5:52 PM

 

Minnesota: The Land of 10,000 Cuts
 
“When sleight of hand is no longer enough, our leaders have turned to across-the-board cuts, which weakens every program equally, regardless of its impact on citizens. When these are exhausted and real choices must be made, legislatures typically cut in an ad hoc and highly political fashion, based largely on which interest groups have the most muscle and scream the loudest. This process inevitably victimizes the weakest members of society, who have the lease political clout… But, as shortsighted or thoughtless as these tactics may be, they all obscure the fundamental flaw in the conventional approach to fiscal crisis.”
 
The Price of Government – Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis
Peter Hutchinson and David Osborne 2004
 
Currently, in Minnesota, across the country and internationally the public sector is grappling with how to make public services better and more efficient. We have come to a point in our history where we can no longer afford to deliver public services in the same way we have in the past. As we watch the Minnesota Legislature struggle with the current billion dollar deficit and looming future deficits; how to pay for and maintain the public service system is at the center of this on-going debate. The Minnesota Miracle, the tax and investment policy, which worked so well for decades, now lies dead at the bottom of the lake in the land of 10,000 cuts.
 
From a distance, as we watch the political theater at the Capitol, it is apparent that many of the current proposals to address the fiscal shortfall are designed to save money and assumes that the services and the systems remain essentially unchanged. On the one hand, you have the “just say no” crowd, who’s vision is a “race to the bottom”. While on the other hand, you have the “race to mediocrity” crowd that fights to maintain the legacy systems and institutional arrangements that will not position Minnesota to compete in the 21st century.
 
I realize that this is an oversimplification of legitimate political differences in debates occurring at the State Capitol. I only frame it this way to make a point. The political stalemate, balkanization and lack of compromise are having a devastating impact on what could be a great opportunity to revision and reposition Minnesota to address the underlying conditions that create our continued financial dilemma. It could also be an opportunity to look at long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes to the State’s budget crisis. The bottom line of our current financial dilemma is about governance.
 
In an article entitled The Challenges of Co-Production – How Equal Partnerships between Professionals and the Public Are Critical to Improving Public Services, David Boyle and Mike Harris frame the current Minnesota legislative approach quite well: "doing the same thing, only trying to do it more cheaply – rather than focusing on far reaching reform that prevent needs from arising and provides better outcomes."
 
The current approach to public service reform focuses on easy fixes and gimmicks which siphon attention and money away from prevention and early intervention strategies which are often more difficult to model and implement.
 
At the same time, as we struggle with the cost side of the equation, with regards to public services, the demand side is ever-increasing. Minnesotans face some of the deepest economic, education, health and social disparities of any state in the nation. These underlying conditions will continue to grow despite years of effort by well-intentioned and hard-working public servants. These disparities, if not addressed, will continue to overwhelm the social and economic infrastructure of the state. Report after report confirms this finding.
 
Minnesota needs a new vision and a radically innovative approach to public service redesign if it is to move beyond the current mindset of partisan gridlock. We have to reconceptualize how we think about service delivery.
 
There is no doubt that there is a real urgency among policy makers to find new approaches – cost efficient evidence-based practices – that work. According to Boyle and Harris, the reason that many of the approaches taken to date have not worked to address the economic and social disparities is that we miss addressing the underlying "operating system" which depends primarily on the social economy of the family and neighborhoods. The fact that “we can no longer rely on continuing economic growth to provide enough finances for public services is because the financial system is unreliable, markets cannot tackle inequalities, and because unchecked growth puts the planet at risk.”
 
Explicit in the solution to our current dilemma is a return to our basic values of democracy, where every citizen shares in the responsibility for sustaining the public good. This means seeing citizens as democratic co-creators in the solutions. According to Harry Boyte of The Center for Democracy and Citizenship, "This is simple in rhetoric but difficult in practice. The idea that democracy is a cornucopia of benefit packages – coupled with the view of politics as distributed activity, ‘who gets what, when and how’ – is entrenched in the famous formulation of Harold Laswell (1936). Politics as it is conventionally understood neglects where public wealth comes from.” What many of us fail to recognize is that our democracy is largely the work of citizens.
 
Instead of looking at people that use public services as a drain on the system, we could start looking at citizens as resources. The current users, clients and/or patients are critical components to the success or failure of public service professionals. Each user of the system is the building block of our missing neighborhood-level support systems – family and community – which underpin economic activity, as well as social development.
 
Our current public service system rations services depending on who is most needy and ignore the assets of individuals we are purportedly attempting to help. We know for example that social networks play a larger role in a person's ability to become self-sufficient, yet our public service systems do very little to build social and human capital.
 
In many cases, individuals have to continue to be needy or be at the threshold of subsistence in order to receive public support. These “benefit cliffs”, as termed by economists, increase the need for public services. The current system creates disincentives for people to take personal responsibility for fear that they will not receive the needed public support for themselves or their families.
 
A soon to be released report by Citizens League entitled, Creating Pathways to Prosperity, states, “It is clear our policies as written do not ‘believe in the power and potential of all citizens…’ A great deal of human capacity is used by those in poverty to become competent consumers of the welfare system, a system that requires learning multiple rules and regulations, managing disparate eligibility requirements and timeliness, collecting and submitting various documents proving one is truly needy, filling out multiple forms and applications, and spending time, energy and resources visiting numerous offices and meetings with different administrators and practitioners, telling one’s painful story over and over again.” This report compiled by respected leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors, demonstrate the need for reform of the public service system.
 
Boyle and Harris argue that "if public services are to become genuinely better and efficient, they must focus on maximizing positive outcomes defined in terms of public benefit, rather than merely minimizing costs and move upstream to tackle problems before they become critical."
 
At the heart of the current crisis, is the methods used in the public sector to provide services. By focusing on inputs and outputs and not changing the underlying conditions, we continue to resolve the same problems over and over. We need to move from a system that rewards public servants for their dedication to the system, rather than their commitment to building effective relationships with the public.
 
Anthony Wagner, Executive Director of Pillsbury United Communities, sums these issues up clearly in an article entitled, Hope for the New American Neighborhood: Creating a Fourth Sector, when he states, the dominance of the program/problem paradigm “with its endorsement of specialization and programmatic responses as units of analysis and funding… has slowly allowed the fundamental and most significant part of any human service effort – the relationship between worker and client – to fade into the background… we need more self-help projects, a mindset of investment with increased network systems, the identification and exchange of skills and clear expectation for reciprocity.” This is the idea of co-production between public service professionals and citizens.
 
The idea of co-production, as a means of public service delivery is not new. The term was originally coined by the 2009 Nobel Laureate for economics, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom’s team defines co-production as "the process through which inputs used to produce a good or services are contributed by individuals who are not in the same organization." It is built on the premise of rebuilding and reinforcing the core operating system of families and neighborhoods. Co-production of public services suggests that we can rebuild this core economy and realize its full potential. The idea of shifting the balance of power and responsibility from professionals to individuals by involving them in their own services delivery "recognizes that people are not merely repositories of need or recipients of service".
 
Edgar Cahn developed the practical framework of how coproduction can be used to transform public services. The five key principles of coproduction systems are:
  •  Recognizing people as assets, because people themselves are the real wealth of society.
  • Valuing peoples work differently, to recognize everything as work that people do: to raise families, look after people, maintain healthy communities, create social justice and foster good governance.
  • Promoting reciprocity, giving and receiving, because it builds trust between people and fosters mutual respect.
  • Building social networks, because physical and mental well-being of people depends on strong, enduring relationships.
 
The soon to be released Citizens League report takes the idea of co-production principles a step further by suggesting that public services, policies and programs be evaluated against the following questions:
 
  • Do they cover and build on individual – family – community strengths?
  • Do they make transparent processes, structures, policies impacting the individual – family – community?
  • Do they help illuminate for the individual – family – community the influence of social – economic and cultural context?
 
If we begin to structure our public service infrastructure around the principles outlined above and we evaluated them based on the questions articulated by the Citizens League, we can reframe the public service paradigm for the 21st century and increase the value of public services to citizens as a whole. It would provide us with the opportunity to move beyond short-term fixes and partisan stalemates to begin to address some of the underlying causes which exacerbate our continuing financial dilemma.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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