New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman praised the 15-year-work of the Itasca Project in approaching challenges, from increasing Minnesota’s economic competitive to closing the skills-and-employment gap of minorities.

Itasca, started in 2003, is a business-education-foundation collaboration that studies big issues and transcends boundaries in seeking solutions with partners.

Friedman, 63, a St. Louis Park native, has written “Thank you for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”

It is a fairly optimistic examination of large forces shaping the 21st century: technological advances, globalization and climate change. These forces, which can threaten, also pose enormous opportunity as they transform the workplace, politics and community. But we’re going to have to slow down, think things through and collaborate across racial, economic and other divides if we want to succeed and spread the benefits.

Friedman, who returns this week to address the Westminster Town Hall Forum, dedicates a chapter to the work of Itasca, particularly how business leaders took to heart understanding racial disparities. He looks at how they have moved to support training and diversify their work forces and also at how they have rallied to the work of CEO Sondra Samuels, a business veteran who in 2008 launched the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ).

Samuels, who lives on the North Side of Minneapolis, calls it “ground zero for the racial disparities that have made Minnesota dead last in the nation” for gaps in academic achievement, home ownership and household income.

Samuels and the Wilder Foundation, which has studied the effort, report progress with the work that Samuels and 43 “partner” schools, nonprofits, businesses and others are having in slowly reversing the corrosive, generations-long trends.

Samuels this year exhausts the last of a multiyear federal “promise zone” grant to NAZ. But her $11 million annual budget will survive the $5 million loss in the budget next year because business and philanthropic interests have stepped up.

“I’m encouraged, by not only the positive changes with kids but with whole families,” said CEO Dave Mortenson of M.A. Mortenson Construction, an Itasca stalwart who has donated and raised money with his wife, Kate, a longtime NAZ supporter. “You don’t change a five- or six-decade-old problem in a few years. When you invest in a first-grader, it takes 10 or 12 years.”

Target, General Mills, U.S. Bancorp and other foundations, businesses and individuals have made multiyear commitments, as well.

Wilder Foundation’s study showed that, based on results to date from the 1,000-plus families and 2,400 students in the targeted low-income neighborhoods, there is a $6 return to the families and public for every $1 invested in NAZ.

NAZ and partners surround students and their parents with supporters who provide extra academic assistance, parent education and early childhood services to behavioral health counseling, housing and career support.

Some family members are getting GEDs, receiving skills training and graduating to better jobs at Mortenson and elsewhere.

This coordinated initiative has not been a slam dunk, but enough smart, concerned business chose to step up the investment.

“As soon as we got the grant several years ago, we knew it would be our biggest opportunity and challenge,” ­Samuels said. “The federal government told us it was our job to leverage those funds with local investment. We have been transparent and responsible. And we have a community of funders.

“Innovation is what Minnesota does in the for-profit sector. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And that resonates with business.”


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at