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 Society

Murder on Lake Calhoun

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Painting

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: May 23, 2010 - 9:05 PM

I had dinner last night with some friends who had read some of my writings and thought that I should post them. I must admit to some trepidation in that I usually write about social or economic policy and cultural issues. I thought I would take a chance and do something different, something out of character, and something that might surprise people. Just consider what follows as a little detour. I will be back next week with more food for thought on the social, economic and cultural front.

I hope you enjoy reading this. It certainly was a pleasure to write.
The Painting
We paint on this canvas of life. Stroke by stroke the picture unfolds before us and within us. At first, it is hard to tell what the picture will be. Unformed and without depth, we look for meaning in others. As our life develops, we learn that what we seek in others was always within us, yearning to be explored.
At times, we have to paint over mistakes, regrets and transgressions. We emerge from our soul-searching more whole; yet changed. We change the landscape of our lives; we heal. We notice the darker hues of what was and the pastels of what we are becoming.
Harsh, difficult and quick brush strokes; give way to strokes that are delicate, lighter, more refined and patient. We see things that were always there—but in new ways. We forgive ourselves, so that we can forgive others.
The ordinary is transforms from tedium, into the contentment and joy of living in the moment.
Because of the pain and joy of what is, we begin again, understanding that no one completes us--we complete ourselves. We understand that true companionship and love are gifts to be cherished, respected and nurtured.
Like the painting of a great artist, we are no longer fearful of the unknown for we know that we have much more canvas to work with; we have much more to explore on this multicolored journey, where our experiences weave together into abstract textures within each of our souls.
The painting reveals the wonders of this energy called life.  

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.


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.”

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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