Twenty years ago this month, in the largest lawsuit in Minnesota history, the state showed that major tobacco companies had conspired for 50 years to defraud America about the hazards of smoking, to stifle development of safer cigarettes and to target children as new customers.

In the fourth-largest settlement in history, the companies agreed to stop targeting kids, bring down all tobacco billboards, end the branded merchandise targeting children and end paid product placement in movies. The state of Minnesota would receive more than $6 billion over the first 25 years and about $200 million every year after that.

So if you were the lead attorneys in this case, and your work is now being used around the world, what would you have done for an encore?

Lead attorneys Mike Ciresi and Roberta Walburn went right from their success in the courtroom to the community, where they set out to make Minnesota healthier and more just. Some $30 million of the attorneys’ fees was used to establish the Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children. They have been partnered with the Minneapolis Foundation to invest $23 million in the community over the past two decades.

Now called the Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children, its goals have been to:

• Create a sense of urgency to close gaps in educational outcomes that affect low-income students and students of color.

• Expand high-performing K-12 schools and school networks.

• Increase parent demand for schools that provide high educational outcomes for all students.

The foundation’s grants have gone to early learning programs, education policy and advocacy, high-performing K-12 schools, family engagement, and wraparound programs such as the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood and the Northside Achievement Zone. This winter, the foundation awarded $1.52 million in grants to 21 Minnesota schools, policy and advocacy groups, and education-focused nonprofits. Now it is developing a new effort to help more low-income students get access to college.

Minnesota is blessed with many foundations and individuals who put kids first, but Ciresi Walburn has played a unique role, in being a catalyst for systems change to create more opportunities for kids who need us most. They have often stepped out earlier than almost anyone in supporting innovative new ideas and, just as often, been a disrupter calling a complacent community to task for tolerating intolerable gaps for kids for too long.

The tobacco settlement also had another game-changing impact on philanthropy in Minnesota. The agreement gave Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota $241 million to establish the Center for Prevention, which has tackled root causes of preventable death and disease — specifically commercial tobacco use, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating. The center has invested $128 million of the tobacco fund in more than 200 community organizations in Minnesota, and it has been a key player in numerous innovative initiatives, including the 2007 Freedom to Breathe legislation.

The center was a key funder of Minneapolis’ wildly popular Open Streets, and I can say without a doubt that the Nice Ride bike share would not have come to Minneapolis-St. Paul if Blue Cross had not stepped up with a gutsy lead grant when virtually all other potential funders thought the idea would fail. The center also developed a transformative Heath Equity in Prevention initiative, an example of its growing efforts to tackle Minnesota’s unacceptably large health inequities.

As someone who started smoking as a teenager and fought the addiction for many years before finally quitting, I want to thank Mike Ciresi and Roberta Walburn and the other groundbreaking lawyers who got businesses out of the dirty business of getting kids hooked on nicotine. And as someone who has partnered with the Ciresi Walburn Foundation and the Center for Prevention on everything from making schools better to starting Nice Ride, I want to thank them for being willing to take risks and break barriers.

My hope is that this 20th anniversary reminds Minnesotans how monumental that tobacco settlement has been for our lives, and why we all need to take more risks and break more barriers for those most in need.


R.T. Rybak is the author of “Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis.”