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St. Paul girl puts a face on Minnesota’s future — and its disparities

Carolyn Roby shares one child’s story to make a point: Minnesota needs to eliminate the health, educational and employment disparities between its white and minority citizens or suffer the economic consequences.

Carolyn Roby
Carolyn Roby

Her story of a child she calls Sara nearly brought Carolyn Roby to tears Wednesday.

When Roby met her three years ago, Sara faced language and economic barriers that seemed insurmountable. Growing up in extreme poverty on St. Paul’s East Side, the youngest of 10 siblings with a single mother who spoke no English, she couldn’t count beyond three or say her ABCs.

“Sara had no mental disability. Her only learning barrier was her home environment,” continued Roby, vice president of Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota, which focuses on economic development and employment for low-income families, neighborhoods and business owners, and is the charitable branch of the second largest private employer in the state, a company proud of its success in hiring persons of color.

“A child like Sara may have a desire to learn, but children can’t teach themselves what they don’t know,” said Roby, addressing a crowd of almost 300 representing philanthropic and nonprofit organizations, social services and government.

Yet, placed in a foster home, Sara made remarkable progress, proudly learning her alphabet and how to count to 100 in only a couple of months.

Roby told the story to make a salient point. Minnesota, she said, needs to eliminate the health, educational and employment disparities between its white and minority citizens or suffer the economic consequences.

Her choice of venue was appropriate. Roby spoke at the annual meeting of Minnesota COMPASS, a project of Wilder Research and an online data depot that describes in numbers the quality of life in Minnesota.

“I believe that Minnesota’s demographic trends — when combined with well documented disparities — point to a future filled with businesses that leave Minnesota, fewer jobs, staggering state budget deficits, growing unemployment and a diminished quality of life…. unless we address disparities,” Roby said.

“I truly believe that the future success and well being of our families, youth, neighborhoods, communities and the state, will depend on our ability to close Minnesota’s educational, health and employment disparities,” she said.

“I believe that by not finding effective solutions to eliminate disparities, we are compromising the future vitality of Minnesota because we are leaving valuable talent, creativity and innovation on the table.”

“It is connections between work force and economy, education, housing and health that are so critical” to Minnesota’s future, said Paul Mattessich, executive director of Wilder Research.

Mattessich heads up Minnesota COMPASS where numbers reveal social trends, progress and disparities and where those statistics are broken down by race, age, gender and income.

The event was set up as a Minnesota COMPASS annual meeting and meant to launch a new online reference section called Children and Youth on Minnesota COMPASS.  

Some key numbers
More than that, the meeting was meant to tie research to the future viability of Minnesota’s workforce. Among numbers cited were these:

  • In 2009, Minnesota ranked fourth among the nation’s 25 largest metro areas for educational attainment.
  • The state’s poverty rate has increased 38 percent since 1999, except among children under 5 where it’s increased almost 50 percent.
  • Overall, 24 percent of the state’s third graders are failing to meet state reading standards, but the number rises to 40 percent when students are low-income, change schools or are students of color.
  • There’s a 20 percent gap in the “participation rate” in the paid workforce for U.S. born blacks (60 percent) compared to whites (80 percent) in the Twin Cities.
  • 35 percent of black children in Minnesota have at least one parent born outside of the United States.
  • The state’s foreign-born population has grown 39 percent this decade, with the fastest growing groups being from Mexico and Somalia.

Also in her remarks, Roby, chair of the Minneapolis Workforce Council, said race, class and place disparities documented in the Itasca Project’s “Mind the Gap” report in 2005 have not changed.  

“Minnesota COMPASS indicators continue to show that disparities are deepening and widening,” she said, lamenting the fact that the next innovators — like Earl Bakken, who founded Medtronic or the next Curt Carlson who founded the Carlson Companies — might be “right here in a neighborhood that we too easily dismiss or overlook because the challenges seem intractable.”

Further, she said the Twin Cities rank last among the nation’s 25 largest metro areas when measuring black-white employment disparities, worse than Memphis or Detroit, according to research coming from the Economy Policy Institute and confirmed recently by COMPASS staff. Wells Fargo, Roby said, has 20,000 employees, with 30 percent of its Twin Cities retail employees coming from diverse communities.

She said the Hispanic-White employment ratio in the Twin Cities is fourth worst among the 15 largest metro areas.

That means, she said, “…we are leaving skills, talent and expertise on the table.”