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