Gary Cunningham

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

Posts about Government

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.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Mental Health: A Bipartisan Success Story

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 28, 2010 - 9:41 PM

Mental Health: A Bipartisan Success Story

 “The mental health services delivery system needs dramatic reform. The system is fragmented and in disarray—not from lack of commitment and skill of those who deliver care, but from underlying structural, financial, and organizational problems.”

-- President’s New Freedom Commission
One day in 1977 my Aunt Sharon called me and asked me to come down to Hennepin County Medical Center. My Uncle Moe had had a complete mental breakdown and was hospitalized. This was my first encounter with the mental health system and one that I will never forget.
It was certainly tragic at the time: here was somebody that had an abundance of intellect who had developed the community gardens in South Minneapolis in the early 1970s and later went on to build a co-op grocery store in the same community several years later. Moe was certainly considered a community leader and today if you can walk or ride under the Fourth Avenue Bridge on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, there will you find a sculpture of my Uncle Moe on the wall along with other community leaders that have been memorialized for their work to make this city and the world a better place.
He and my Aunt Sharon were the people that taught me how to read and write, who got me interested in making a difference for others. When I had run away from home and lived on the streets for a while, he was the one that found me and provided a safe and stable place through my adolescent years.
There I was - 19 years old with my Aunt Sharon having to face a difficult choice of committing my uncle to the Anoka Regional Treatment Center. Up until that point in my life I had never had to deal with any real issues related to mental illness. In the community where I lived, people with mental health issues were always hidden or joked about. People with mental illness were "crazy". As if mental illness was a personal character defect, it was something you didn’t talk about too much for fear it could happen to you. The myths and stereotypes, the stigma and shame associated with mental illness remains with us today.
Mental illness is an issue that crosses all racial, economic and political lines. Mental illness is something that we can all relate to through our own personal stories. According to Wikipedia, "The recognition and understanding of mental health conditions has changed over time and across cultures, and there are still variations in the definition, assessment, and classification of mental disorders, although standard guideline criteria are widely accepted. Over a third of people in most countries report meeting criteria for the major categories at some point in their lives."
Many families and individuals are touched by and deal with the very real challenges in seeking treatment and arranging care for loved ones with mental illness. The systems of support and treatment for people with mental illness back in 1974 were confusing and difficult to navigate. And in many cases the mental health system remains so today.
According to a report prepared for Minnesota Blue Cross Blue Shield, "Mental illness has a profound effect in our community. The U. S. Surgeon General’s report estimates that 28 percent of the nation’s adults and 21 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a mental health or chemical dependency disorder. Using national trends as a rough indicator of Minnesota’s experience, this means that over one million Minnesota adults and 140,000 Minnesota children have a mental health or chemical dependency disorder."
It is funny how life works. In 2003, under the leadership of former Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services Kevin Goodno, I was asked to co-chair with Kevin a public/private partnership called the Minnesota Mental Health Action Group (MMHAG) to address some of the significant issues and dysfunctions of the Minnesota mental health system. 
 
MMHAG was a broad-based coalition of consumers, advocacy organizations, mental health professionals, hospitals, clinics, labor, health plans, local government agencies and officials, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Health. MMHAG had a vision to create a comprehensive mental health system that is accessible and responsive to consumers, guided by clear goals and outcomes, and grounded in public/private partnerships
 
At the time I was Board Chair of the Citizens League and CEO of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center which has a large mental health center in North Minneapolis. Given my family history and the significant challenges faced in attempting to integrate mental and physical health at Northpoint, this was opportunity I could not pass up.
When I first got involved in this project, I was told by Sean Kershaw, the President of the Citizens League, that this was a six month commitment and it should not be too difficult. Four years later, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. After much effort and with the input of thousands of citizens, mental health professionals and families impacted by mental health, MMHAG’s efforts resulted in the 2007 enactment of the most comprehensive package of mental health system improvements and funding increases that have occurred since the original enactment of the state’s mental health acts in the 1980’s. (Go to http://www.citizensleague.org/what/committees/mmhag/updates-1/ to review some of MMHAG's accomplishments)
 
About two years ago, at the invitation of Minnesota Senator Linda Berglin, I had the opportunity to present the accomplishments of MMHAG at a national conference on mental health. I was very surprised to see how far we have come in comparison to other states. I was taken aback to see how far we have yet to go to ensure that all people with mental illness can live without stigma and have access to quality affordable mental and physical health services.
My contribution to this effort was very small compared to those of people like Kevin Goodno, Michael Scandrett, Sue Abderholden, Glenn Andis, Mary Braddock, Ron Brand, Theresa Carufel, Gail Dorfman, Kris Flaten, Paul Goering, Peggy Heglund, Joel Hetler, Kathy Knight, Mark Kuppe, Steve Lepkinski,Cal Ludeman, Maureen Marrin, Mark McAfee, Sandra Meicher, Kathy Mock, Roberta Opheim, Carolyn Pare, Patricia M. Siebert, Jonathan Uecker, Denny Ulmer, and Donna Zimmerman as well as countless others. I was honored that I could play a small part in this work that had such personal meaning in my life.
The Minnesota Mental Health Action Group was a successful bipartisan effort to address some fundamental issues with the mental health system in our state. It demonstrated that we can work together across the political divide to create a better system for people and families who live with mental illness.
However, the Minnesota mental health system is not fixed by any means. As I write this, thousands of our fellow citizens with mental health issues may be forced to go without any health insurance at all because of the looming cuts to General Assistance Medical Care. Many are single men without the type of family support that my Uncle Moe had; many who will lose their insurance are our poorest citizens making less than $8000 a year.
Minnesota, we can do better!
Through a long recovery period and medications my Uncle Moe was able to resume the life he loved making a difference for others working for the Minneapolis Urban League. Several years later in the 1980s, before his death, he was instrumental in creating a community celebration called Family Day in North Minneapolis which is still held every year to reinforce and honor the value and the importance of families in creating a sustainable community.
My Uncle Moe is a testament to the thousands of people living with mental illness who have made and continue to make significant contributions to our community.
For more information on mental health and what you can do to address the stigma contact: The National Alliance on Mental Illness at http://www.namihelps.org/

TROUBLE IN LAKE WOBEGON

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 7, 2010 - 9:26 PM

TROUBLE IN LAKE WOBEGON

I’ve always been a big fan of Garrison Keillor and his fictitious town of Lake Wobegon. According to Wikipedia, “The characterization of the fictional [Lake Wobegon], where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,’ has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. The Lake Wobegon effect, where all or nearly all of a group claim to be above average, has been observed among drivers, CEOs, stock market analysts, college students, parents, and state education officials, among others.”

In some ways, Minnesotans emulate the Lake Wobegon effect, in that many consider themselves to be a little better than average. In national surveys, our kids historically have performed better in school and Minnesota generally ranks higher in health and quality of life indicators. Until recently, Minnesota had fared better economically in recessions than the national average.  It must be noted that these better than average outcomes are consistently lower for people of color and American Indians.   
The recession we are currently in, however, seems to have a leveling effect on all of us in the midst of a jobless economic recovery, high unemployment, and the continued home foreclosure crisis. It is a grim picture even for us stalwart Minnesotans who are used to “toughing it out.”
Many Minnesota families today are struggling to make ends meet – regardless of their race, creed, color, or whether they live in rural, reservation or urban communities. The theory that all boats rise and fall together with the tide of the economy seems to be true. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The fact of the matter is we are all in the same boat.”
In September 2009, the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul released the results of a survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners, which polled 400 adult Minnesota residents. This survey asked a series of questions about how families and individuals are faring in these tough economic times.
According to the survey, more than 60 percent of Minnesotans, when asked about the economic struggles within their homes and communities, indicate that they have cut back on their spending because of the recession. About one-quarter of Minnesotans say they or a family member living with them have lost a job in the past 12 months. More than one-third (41%) say they have had their work hours cut. More than one in four families (27%) have had problems paying for basic necessities, and 51 percent of Minnesotans have cut down the amount of money they are spending on food and have cut back on their retirement savings. Hard times indeed!
Two-thirds of Minnesotans see more people struggling today than they did a year ago. Minnesotans also believe people are struggling because of circumstances beyond their control. Only 22 percent say it’s due to poor individual choices. In other words, the discussion about poverty that Minnesotans are having in their living rooms and kitchens has shifted. It is no longer about those “other people”; those “other people” are us.
Minnesotans are worried, but somewhat hopeful. More than 74 percent of Minnesotans say they are worried that their local economy may get worse in the coming year; however, almost 60 percent of Minnesotans feel optimistic that the national economy will turn around.
Minnesotans are also hopeful that they can address issues of people struggling in their community and are willing to roll up their sleeves to do something about it. Upwards of 80 percent are very optimistic that the number of people struggling locally could be reduced within their communities. Moreover, 80 percent also indicate that they are willing to volunteer for an organization in their community to help their neighbors who are struggling.
One of the significant findings in this survey is that even though times are tough, more than 55 percent of Minnesotans say they would be willing to pay $50 more in taxes if it went to local programs to help people struggling in their community.
According to the survey, “Minnesotans have clear priorities when it comes to what they say would make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet. A vast majority of the public (94%) says local elected officials have a great deal or some responsibility in keeping and attracting good-paying jobs. Eight-two percent say this should be a top or high priority. Three of four Minnesotans (76%) say that local elected officials should have some or a great deal of responsibility in making sure that there is a safety net for homeowners and renters so they do not lose their homes.”
More than 75 percent of Minnesotans state that they think about how well a candidate for office would help those struggling to make ends meet as they cast their ballot. Almost half of Minnesotans (47%) indicate that helping people to make end meet is a top priority.
Many of us are very grateful for the commitment and the dedication of all public officials, regardless of their political affiliation. We know that they are facing very difficult and challenging decisions.
Through hard work and sacrifice, Minnesota has ranked better than average on many indicators. Our quality of life has been better because we’ve lived by our values and have sought long-term solutions that ensure adequate investment in education, infrastructure, health, environment and community. While we have many issues, including health and social disparities, we have rarely sacrificed the underlying values that make Minnesota a great place to live and work.
With the Legislature currently back in session, grappling with a $1.2 billion deficit in this biennium (2010-11) and a projected $5.4 billion deficit for the next biennium (2012-13), there are no easy answers. I believe, as many Minnesotans do, that we need to move beyond the partisan deadlock and focus on innovative solutions. Sacrifices will have to come from all corners. Minnesotans have indicated that the primary goal must be not to harm the already fragile quality of life for working and low-income people who are struggling to make ends meet. It is important that our policy leaders really listen to what Minnesotans are saying and what Minnesotans expect from our elected officials as they deliberate on how to balance the state’s budget shortfalls.
Now, more than ever, we need to invest in Minnesota and its people.

Does Leadership Matter?

Posted by: Gary Cunningham Updated: February 1, 2010 - 11:55 AM

Does Leadership Matter?

“When we teach, write about, and mode the exercise of leadership, we inevitably support or challenge people’s conceptions of themselves, their roles, and most importantly their ideas about how social systems make progress on problems. Leadership is a normative concept because implicit in people’s notions of leadership are images of a social contract. Imagine the differences in behavior when people operate with the idea that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ versus ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problems’.”

- Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald A. Heifetz 2003

I received a number of e-mails about my last blog, "Our Children in Crisis". Many people were very encouraging and I thank all of you for your feedback. A colleague working in philanthropy asked an important question, “Where are the ‘concerted and courageous’ solutions going to come from? Who is going to carry that torch?” These are important questions.

The answer is a call to action for African-Americans to put aside our individual and personal differences and to work towards collective transformational solutions. It is in this way that we can build the coalitions and alliances necessary to create a better future for all people in our community. There is a need for common agendas among African-American leaders and within the African-American community as a whole. Without this common agenda it will be impossible for us to forge concerted and courageous solutions. The issue of low income African-Americans living in ghettoized concentrated poverty will not be not be addressed using old thinking, methods or ways of doing business which may have worked in the past.

Historically, the African-American community, through much sacrifice, has played a vital role in helping this country live up to its highest democratic values and principles. We are at another critical juncture, as we grapple in the mires of a deep recession and unending state budget deficits. We should each ask ourselves, did Dr. King die so that half of us would ‘make it,’ and half of us perish? Will we have the courage to resist balancing the state budget on the poorest of the poor? Leadership, particularly African American leadership, sits at the heart of these questions.

According to Simon J. Buckingham, “wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional approach in which problems are defined, analyzed and solved in sequential steps. The main reason for this is that there is no clear problem definition of wicked problems.” In the African American community, systemic intergenerational poverty has persisted despite a plethora of nonprofit organizations and social services, and decades of programmatic responses. There are no easy answers and people of goodwill have been working for many years to try to address some of these “wicked” problems within inner-city urban America. However, the problems persist and in fact have become deeper and more embedded into the fabric of our community.

Further complicating the leadership question in the African American community is who is considered a leader. There are many individuals who hold positional power or might appear on the list of Ebony magazine’s selection of the 100 most Influential Blacks that are counted as African-American leaders, but many do not exercise leadership in or for the African-American community. In the past, it was assumed that if you are a black elected official your base of support came primarily from the African-American community; today as we have moved from the Era Civil Rights to The Age of Obama, we can no longer make this assumption. In their seminal work, Bibliography of African-American Leadership, Ronald W. Walters and Cedric Johnson state, "There is no era in which black leaders or their organizations did not play a central role in the advancement of the black community, although as indicated in our study, it is also clear that the because whites have access to the monopoly of power, they had exercised far more leadership of the black community than blacks themselves."

In working in cities across the country, I have witnessed fragmentation and polarization within local African America communities and their leadership. Some of the fragmentation and polarization is due to differences in philosophy and approach; some of these differences are exacerbated by competition for limited resources. Part of the fragmentation is also based on egos and power relationships of old guard leaders vs. new emerging leaders. The fragmentation and polarization is a continued impediment to advancing a united agenda to improve the conditions of low income African American people.

In fact, these issues have become so explosive that in many situations African-Americans with different philosophical approaches are physically intimidated, harassed and castigated by individuals with no legitimate constituencies in the African-American community, other than they happen to be African-American themselves. It then becomes impossible to hold a civil dialogue or seek common ground among different approaches. Many of these individuals spend their time treating other African-American people as enemies, but have very limited track records of making a difference for the community in which they purport to reside. Unless bridges can be built to move from transactional zero sum relationships to transformation solutions, many low income African-Americans will remain in a prisoners dilemma trapped in the vicissitudes of poverty.

The role of religious leaders is a critical component of leadership within the black community, historically and currently. This is true whether one focuses on African-American leadership that developed out of slavery, the civil rights movement, the black power movement, or on the present day issues of racial profiling and disparities.

At the same time, there has been a significant rise of African Americans who have moved into the middle class over the past two decades. Unlike prior decades, African Americans now hold prominent positions in nonprofit organizations, government, arts, business, education and philanthropy. This is certainly an opportunity to be seized by combining the historic leadership of the clergy with the emerging leaders in government, business and the nonprofit sector. This could be a potent force in building bridges toward a common agenda within the African-American community.

In a powerful and prescient essay entitled “The Future of the Race”, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornell West identify areas where common agreement among African-American leaders may be forged, "Not to demand that each member of the black community accept individual responsibility for her or his behavior -- whether that behavior assumes the form of black on black homicide, violation by gang members against the sanctity of the church, unprotected sexual activity, gangster rap lyrics, misogyny and homophobia -- is to function merely as an ethnic cheerleaders selling wolf tickets from the campus or the suburbs, rather than saying the difficult things that may be unpopular with our fellows. Being a leader does not necessarily mean being loved: loving one's community means daring to risk estrangement and alienation from that very community, in the short run in order to break the cycle of poverty, despair and hopelessness that we are in, over the long run. For what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of our country, and the African-American people."

This is the call for leadership for the African American community – to find leaders from all our sources of strength who are able and willing to lead on community issues among all people, with a message of responsibility and civility whether it’s popular or not.

Our Children in Crisis

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

 

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


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

 

Our Children in Crisis

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

 

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


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

 

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