Why is it that so many savvy players, when talking about achievement gaps and other educational problems, make it sound as though if we just got this or that policy calibrated right, or if the body politic just rose adequately to the occasion, or if taxpayers just shelled out more, we would make great progress?
Why, in other words, do so many politicians, activists and scholars leave the impression that things such as missing parents, chaotic households and perverse peer pressures aren’t all that important? One large reason for the frequent silence is that talking about such matters can get politicians, activists and scholars sliced and diced by people claiming offense.
All this is prologue to saying that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — as witnessed at a Center of the American Experiment panel discussion in 2007 — is not one to shy away from acknowledging tough and sensitive issues when talking about what’s holding back enormous numbers of boys and girls in the Twin Cities and across the nation. Because of that, I’m encouraged to learn that he will lead Generation Next, potentially the most important education prod in town, when he leaves office at the end of the year.
The 2007 program was titled “A Kitchen Table Conversation about Minneapolis and Its Future” and also included local African-American leaders Peter Bell and Gary Cunningham. I had a sense, up there on stage, that we were having a really good conversation. The excerpts below, featuring Rybak, suggest we really did.
Pearlstein: [W]hy is it that I have this sense that extraordinary numbers of young people in this city are doing such destructive and self-destructive things? Without getting too carried away, why are so many kids, in essence, committing suicide?
Rybak: That is something that the City Council and I wrestle with constantly. I distill down this very complicated issue to one key sentence: There are too many kids raising themselves, and too many kids having kids of their own. We’re moving in the right direction on teenage pregnancy, but because of the tinderbox into which child parents are bringing babies, every one of those kids is very, very vulnerable. We have too many kids making decisions that are incredibly violent when they’re very young. I’d love to hear anybody’s ideas about this, because we need a much more aggressive battle plan. …
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Rybak: Peter [Bell] is right about the idea that a lot of this can be solved by people simply getting up, getting an idea about where they want to go, going to their jobs and doing their work. Those of us who are sitting here are better able to do that because our parents did that. Yet there are, unfortunately, some incredibly incompetent parents who aren’t teaching that value. Through our Step Up summer jobs program, we are taking kids, many of whom have no value like that in their homes, and we are putting them into law firms and accounting firms and other places, and we are changing lives.
The deeper thing is values. I happen to be a person of faith. I see a lot of people in faith communities deeply engaged in work in their communities. I want people to have some faith or values, or whatever, if it leads to such work. …
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Bell: I want to take on rap music and the like. One of the things that has disturbed me in America over the past 30 years is that when we label something cultural, we immunize it from a serious critique. … [We have] said that things like rap music or hip-hop attire are culturally valid and therefore we must take a nonjudgmental approach to them — that they have the same value as any other form of dress or music. That’s nonsense. Rap music does, in my view, coarsen the culture.
It does matter how people dress. The most disrespectful thing we can say to a kid who’s wearing his pants around his behind is to say that this will not affect his prospects for getting a job, because it will. How you talk will affect your prospects for getting a job. To present this as a neutral cultural decision is just disrespectful, and it’s not true. I think that we have, for some very understandable reasons, gotten fixated on the idea that we can’t judge anything because it puts people down, shames them and the like. We’ve gone too far with that.
Rybak: I couldn’t agree with you more, Peter. Let me give a small example. … When I go into any classroom, especially one with little kids, I make every single kid come by and look me in the eye and shake my hand — not a high-five, not a soul shake, not a gang thing or anything else. I make them shake my hand and look me in the eye, and I say, “Pleased to meet you.” That may seem like a small thing. Yet if they don’t know it, they won’t be as successful. That is how we communicate in the business world, whether we like it or not.
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Pearlstein: Mr. Mayor, the final comment is yours.
Rybak: In building communities, it’s not an either/or between what the government does and what values we need to have in the community. You’ve heard me, and not just here but everywhere, talking passionately about the need for values. Yet we also have to recognize that there is a role for government to play.
We need huge wind in our sails right now. We need everybody in this room to say, thank God the city government is aggressively engaged in north Minneapolis, and what can I do to help? We are moving people into jobs, we are redeveloping areas, and we are sticking our finger in a dike on home foreclosures. We need aggressive help. There has never been a challenge like this or as aggressive a city response.
Government matters. Government mattered in south Minneapolis, and it was turned around. North Minneapolis is more complex. At the core will be those issues that we’ve touched on. It’s complicated to lead a social movement that changes longstanding value systems that have been destructive, and it falls more deeply on African-Americans than on anyone else, but I think it’s all of our responsibility.
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I wish R.T. success in his new and vital assignment. And if, along the way, he comes to the conclusion that vouchers are one policy innovation that can, in fact, make a key difference in the lives of lots of kids and their families, consider my future congratulations and thanks doubled.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.