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CHICAGO – Mayors of the Twin Cities highlighted the need for greater equality and education, particularly for low-income children of color, in separate speeches before their peers and other big-city leaders and urban enthusiasts here Friday.
The gathering came as city leaders nationally seek to exert more authority and not solely rely on the federal government or other agencies to improve education and racial and income equality. It featured talks from nine mayors, including Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of St. Paul.
The Twin Cities has some of the highest disparities in jobless rates and academic achievement between whites and people of color, and Hodges cited a report that inequalities cost the U.S. $1.2 trillion a year. She said they lead to a downward spiral for cities.
Given projections that our region will be majority-minority by 2040, she said, "we know this is not sustainable. We know this is not workable if you want to develop and grow … I know this is happening in cities around the country."
Other big-city mayors have sounded similar themes recently, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on raising taxes for the wealthy to fund universal prekindergarten and has urged mayors nationwide to address an "inequality crisis."
"This town we're in here has been gripped in a frustrating paralysis and so it turns, we turn as a nation, to all of us, to the mayors of this country, to address the root causes of inequality," De Blasio said at a conference of mayors in Washington, D.C., in January that Hodges and Coleman attended.
"We should have a consistent federal partner in that endeavor. … That's not today's reality," said De Blasio, who was not in Chicago.
Friday's event, called "Big Ideas for Cities,'' was sponsored by the national League of Cities and featured a series of talks from mayors from Portland, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Gary, Ind., and other cities. It was the seventh out-of-state trip this year for Hodges and the eighth for Coleman, as Hodges' position as a progressive new mayor and Coleman's recent election as president of the National League of Cities have opened opportunities beyond Minnesota.
Some other mayors also addressed racial issues, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who made the connection between high-quality education and stopping the violence that makes homicide the leading cause of death for young black men.
For lunch, Hodges and Coleman walked to the landmark Renaissance Blackstone Hotel around the corner from the site of the event, Venue Six10 on Michigan Avenue, and rode up to the mezzanine floor, where they dined at a table that included Nutter and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
Like Hodges, Coleman has cited closing the achievement gap as a priority in his administration. But while mayors in cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago control the schools, mayors in the Twin Cities have no such authority.
Still, Coleman told his audience Friday, "I reject the notion that mayors don't control education."
Education happens all the time, he said, and is about developing children's whole character, helping them become resilient and believe that hard work will make them smarter.
St. Paul is "dramatically changing how we approach our work with our youth," said Coleman. The mayor acknowledged that he is on planes more than he would like these days but said that he is always in touch.
He said the city is opening the Arlington Hills Community Center with a library, and that workers there are receiving training to understand how to interact with youth of color. Coleman also championed opportunities for disadvantaged children to build their confidence through outdoor programs and experiences in the park system.
He noted a program he helped launch to send children — mainly low-income youth of color in high-crime neighborhoods — on camping trips to Glacier National Park in Montana. Out in the park, he saw one young man who went from crying in fear to skipping along the trail happily.
"His self-confidence had changed dramatically … he found inner strength that he never knew he could have," said Coleman.
Asked if he wished he had the power of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who was scheduled to speak but canceled to fly to Washington, D.C.) to oversee the school system, Coleman said there's already much for him to do.
Hodges, who has long touted the importance of increasing Minneapolis' population, told the crowd that a city focused on reducing inequalities will grow better, faster, and over a longer period of time. But cities need tailored policies to bring people in different places to the same goal, she said — and they need to make everyone believe there is something in it for them.
"Let's say we have a goal and we want everybody to be able to look over a 6-foot fence to see a ballgame — we are not all Bill de Blasio," said Hodges, in a crack about the New York mayor's height of 6-foot-5 that prompted laughs.
Some people over 6 feet tall can see over the fence without a problem, Hodges continued, while shorter people (like her) need to stand on a box or ladder. Others who can't see well may need someone to help describe the scene.
She also displayed a slide showing people struggling with a rising tide flooding a boat and van, noting, "A rising tide isn't doing what we need it to do."
Hodges sees some of her role at such events as promoting the city.
"If people don't know about Minneapolis, they don't think of us for partnerships or funding," she said afterward. "Part of my job is, 'Here's who we are, here's what we're doing.' "