Though the Twin Cities are often lauded as among the best places to live, longtime St. Paul resident Steve LeBeau says the community contains untapped potential and unaddressed disparities. Alongside upbeat reports on the cities’ quality of life, Minneapolis and St. Paul also have gaps in academic achievement, income and unemployment between whites and people of color. A 2017 study from the financial news company 24/7 Wall St. ranked Minnesota second in the nation for income disparities, with the median household income for black Minnesotans less than half of the median income for white Minnesotans. LeBeau, a former journalist, started Synapse Connexion last month, an experimental initiative that seeks to bring together bright people of all races, genders and ages in the Twin Cities through social events and presentations. He received a grant from the Bush Foundation for the group and reached out to colleagues, community members and other local influencers. The goal? To bridge another gap, the “friendship gap,” and to encourage creative problem-solving and innovation.
Q: What inspired you to create Synapse Connexion?
A: The one constant in my life has been a search for how we can better understand each other, for I believe misunderstanding is the cause of needless conflict between people. We all live in our own world and tend to socialize only with people like ourselves. The solution is to get out of our silos and have shared experiences with people we would not otherwise meet. Synapse Minnesota LLC breaks down these barriers by gathering diverse people to events where they can talk with each other and improve their understanding.
Q: In a previous conversation, you said you wanted to gather the “smartest people in the Twin Cities” to communicate and collaborate. To you, who qualifies as such?
A: Synapse aims to gather influencers, thought leaders and creative leaders from all walks of life. The people who have signed onto our Brain Trust and attend our events include young entrepreneurs, authors, musicians, educators, manufacturers, attorneys, executive directors of nonprofits, artists, consultants, chefs and more. These are people who think for themselves and think out of the box.
Q: What is the “Brain Trust?”
A: The Brain Trust consists of a group of people who support the mission of Synapse and have agreed to let me pick their brains on various matters. In return, they are free to pick my brain — and it’s usually about media relations and how to write a news release, due to my background in media. The Brain Trust includes my advisory council and a number of advisers-at-large. The total number is approaching 120.
Q: You have said that a goal of Synapse is to “revamp the civilization of the Twin Cities.” What is that civilization and how have we lost it?
A: Civilizations arose at various crossroads where people met to exchange products and exchange ideas. By breaking down silos we are creating new interchanges of ideas. This mixture of ideas generates creativity and new relationships. I believe real change comes from creative people, not from the government or the media. Gathering influencers to share ideas and get to know each other will be a catalyst for greater creative change in our community — plus they set a good example for others to follow.
Q: Tell me more about the “friendship gap.” What is it, and how can we overcome it?
A: The friendship gap comes from the habit of staying with our own kind and not trying to meet different people. Ignorance of others seems to be tied in with fear. People would rather stay in their comfort zones. A study of social networks by PRRI [the Public Religion Research Institute] found that the average white person knew just one black, and that 82 percent of Midwestern whites only have whites in their social network. The average black knows eight whites, but no Asians. I suspect this friendship gap ties in with other racial gaps that tarnish Minnesota’s image as the best place to live: the academic achievement gap, the housing gap, unemployment gap, income gap, etc. We believe you can begin to close this gap by encouraging cross-cultural socialization. The friendship gap also applies to socializing with people from different occupations, age groups, those who live in different parts of town, etc.
Q: How is Synapse Connexion funded?
A: Synapse began with an events grant from the Bush Foundation. We’ve also been sponsored by Make It MSP [which aims to attract, welcome, and retain talented people]. We are seeking sponsors who want to identify with our emphasis on racial and age diversity. Our first event had 40 percent people of color, and our second event had 50 percent. Also, we have all ages of people, from millennials to members of the Silent Generation. Add to that that these people are all leaders, then you have a very attractive target audience.
Q: Since starting Synapse, how have you seen it benefit the community or the people involved?
A: We have already seen business deals made, potential solutions proffered to the problems of equity and cross-cultural understanding in our community, and people are making friends. Next month we’re starting a weekly podcast, “Synapse: Think Tank of the Air” in partnership with WCCO Radio.
Q: How do you hope to grow this initiative?
A: Our goal is to keep recruiting influencers to become members of our Brain Trust. We will continue to host events — whether parties, programs or think tanks. I also meet with a lot of people individually to tell them about Synapse.
Olivia Johnson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune.