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It’s time to go ‘all in’ for OneMinneapolis

As anyone who has left a fulfilling job can tell you, letting go is hard to do!

Sandra L. Vargas

It’s been my privilege to have spent my whole career in Minnesota, working with dedicated people toward important goals: Creating jobs and growing our economy. Fostering excellence and innovation in our schools. Supporting emerging leaders in underrepresented communities. The Minneapolis Foundation, where I’ve served as CEO for the past nine years, has made real contributions to our community’s well-being, and when I step down in June, I know it will continue to do so.

Yet despite the progress we’ve made, I find that the decision to retire from the foundation makes me even more impatient for the changes that I long to see in Minnesota.

Those changes can be expressed in one word: Equity. I want future generations to live in a community where everyone has the resources and support they need for a fair shot at success. Your ZIP code, your parents’ income, your skin color: None of these should affect your chances of leading a happy and productive life. They shouldn’t predict whether you attend a high-performing school, the likelihood that you can afford to own a home, or how long you live. Yet they do, nationwide and especially here in Minneapolis.

As a lifelong resident, I know how easy it is to believe that the Twin Cities is second to none. We have world-class parks and bike trails, innovative and community-minded businesses, standard-setting medical care, and a vibrant arts scene. We brag about toughing out subzero weather. We’re home to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average! 

We’re absolutely right to be proud, but there’s also a danger in thinking this way. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that we all enjoy the best of Minneapolis — and that we all have equal access to great schools, living-wage jobs and affordable housing. 

At the foundation, we talk about OneMinneapolis, a place where social, racial and economic equity thrives. We don’t live there — yet.

Last year, just 36 percent of American Indian, 52 percent of black, and 57 percent of Hispanic students at Minneapolis Public Schools graduated from high school in four years, compared to 82 percent of white students. From 2013 to 2014, Minnesota’s poverty rate for black residents rose from 33 percent to 38 percent, compared to 11 percent for all residents. The unemployment rate for American Indians was roughly triple the state’s overall unemployment rate.

Though these disparities have deep, tangled roots, change is within our power — but only if we’re willing to work together.

All over the Twin Cities, I see nonprofits, businesspeople, and generous Minnesotans who are working to pry open the windows of opportunity. Many are posting impressive results, demonstrating that in many cases, we already have the tools we need to create jobs, educate our children, and empower the voiceless to speak loud and clear. The commitment by leaders like Gov. Mark Dayton to directly address racial economic disparities is encouraging.

Yet the biggest challenge we face now is building broad understanding that social, racial and economic inequity affects all of us. This is not an “us versus them” scenario – creating a more just society doesn’t mean that some must make sacrifices so that others can prosper. To the contrary, closing these gaps is critical to our community’s future health, especially when you consider how quickly Minnesota’s diversity is growing. To stay strong, we’re going to need a skilled workforce and voters who are motivated to participate in the democratic process because they see it working for them.

To “own” these problems, we need to be willing to learn, reflect and advocate for change. We have to understand that the structures and systems we currently have were built without deep thought and action on how to include people – especially low-income residents and people of color – who live on the margins.

Creating OneMinneapolis will be a long, tough road, but I plan to keep walking it. I hope you will too, and I invite you to join the Minneapolis Foundation as it begins its second century by launching a focused effort to build a community where equity thrives. 

Sandra L. Vargas is President and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation. She will retire from the foundation in June.


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/27/2016 - 09:38 am.

    Bubbling and Simmering

    Many of us have read and heard this rhetoric many times, over many decades.
    That’s certainly not to say these words are without significance or meaning.

    Why do we always seem to talk about this in major election years, leaving much off the stove top, maybe somewhere in the back of the warming oven on low temp between cycles?

    Many leaders of many organizations spend far too much time raising money rather than rectifying core issues…again, process over product. It’s easy to get money for cause in this country, more so today than previous eras. [GoFundMe, etc.]

    So, why are we still all writing about this stuff? Why do most articles tell us these issues are getting worse, not better? Because they are getting worse?

    Just tell us why all the money hasn’t worked. Is it partially because we may have too many NGOs constantly fundraising for their chosen causes, effectively competing for the same basket of charitable money? Give us a concise working plan from which to build solutions.

    Slogans and campaign logos don’t get the job done. “OneMinnepolis” in a city that “celebrates diversity” strikes me as inconsistent, but I don’t know whether internally or externally. Please…just make one of these campaigns create a solution, or three.

    It’s clearly not about money, so must be in some way about method.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/27/2016 - 10:00 am.


      I think you’ve hit on one issue why money doesn’t work: too many NGOs. For every cause you want to put dollars toward, you can find several charities with their hands out. I have a handful of favorites because they’re large enough to have a regional impact and they prove that they have an effect. However, as much good as so many of them do, the money IS diluted because there are sometimes dozens of groups trying to do the same job, maybe under different religious or political filters, but there is no bulk effect. It’s like trying to the job of a bulldozer with hundreds of shovels.

      One of the biggest problems that affect all the groups mentioned in this article is instability. Paycheck to paycheck living, especially if you don’t know if your paychecks will only cover the basics, is stressful and unfulfilling. That is, for some people, no matter how hard they are trying to keep life together, they’re one sick day away from being homeless. I would love to see many of the tiny charities disband in favor of one larger charity, or even a strong governmental program, better yet, a collaboration between government and NGO, to build a strong “home first” type program that makes sure that there is adequate, stable, clean, and affordable–TRULY affordable–housing for everyone that has a need. Such an effort will not only financially help many Minnesotans, but also provide them with a situation in which they have the flexibility to improve their situation without threat of penalty for trying to get ahead. Under the current system, people have to know which charity might help them, and any time they get an extra dollar, the programs that were intended to help them drop their support. And, every time that happens, families suffer from toxic stress even if they don’t end up in physically dire straits. Toxic stress affects behavior, affects ability to think critically, affects mental health, and even affects practical intelligence in adults, as well as children. Stressed adults are less effective employees. Stressed kids act out and have trouble learning.

      If NGOs really want to be effective, they need to consider whether they can set aside their personal pride of identity in favor of their intended goals. Money can help (though money isn’t all that’s needed, but people who provide the needed services don’t live for free, either…), but I do believe that the strategy of directing a thousand tiny cuts to poverty is inefficient and mostly just a way to pad the pride of more people rather than actually fulfilling the goal of destroying poverty.

  2. Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/27/2016 - 10:07 am.


    I actually agree with you, at least in effect, if not cause. In my mind “too many NGOs, competing for the same charitable dollars” illustrates perfectly the problem with reliance on charity to solve societal level social ills. Why should we expect problems brought upon by failings in society, all of it, to be solved by the efforts and dollars of only a small percentage of its members. Charity should be relied upon for what it’s good at, applying focus to, and solutions for, specific, small scale problems. Asking it to fix large scale social ills, better left to us all, through governance, is a recipe for failure.

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