Celebrated author and social scientist Robert Putnam, at times almost sputtering with intensity, held a large southwestern Minnesota audience in thrall in Marshall recently with searing stories and scary statistics about widening inequalities and dying dreams in small-town Midwestern America.
Putnam, who has become one of America’s foremost analysts and writers on community well-being, coupled that despair with some optimism about the capacity of communities to respond. He pleaded for all of the hundreds of adults in the audience to volunteer and do everything they can to provide more equal opportunities for all the children in this increasingly diverse region of farms, small towns and ag processing centers.
A promising response already is under way. Leaders and community activists are organizing a remarkable “Grow Our Own’’ initiative, a 10-year commitment to closing the opportunity gaps for local youth. The project is led by the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which serves 280,000 people spread across 18 counties and 12, 340 square miles.
One in six children in this region now lives in poverty — a statistic similar to the Twin Cities urban core counties — and racial diversity has been steadily increasing, with newcomers flocking to jobs on the farms and in agriculture processing.
A failure to address stubborn inter-generational white poverty and a reluctance to embrace the children of the newcomers of color could be fatal to already struggling Main Street economies, Putnam warned.
A need for the right supports
“Our sense of who we are has shriveled,’’ Putnam said, weaving together national data with poignant personal stories of diverging fortunes between kids who get the right support and those who don’t. These social supports often happen outside of school, before K and after 12. They include early childhood nurturing and stimulation, special tutoring and mentoring, out-of-school enrichment, and intensive support in acquiring higher education credentials.
Putnam frequently alluded to data in his recent best-selling book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’’ to describe how declining community investment and educational support — including seemingly little things like charging fees for extra-curricular activities — has dashed that dream for low-income youth and adults in his own small, rural hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio.
“Poor kids are not just somebody else’s kids; they’re our kids too,’’ Putnam said repeatedly. Because poverty and inequality drag down the local economy and drain public resources for welfare and corrections, everybody in the community suffers eventually, Putnam reasoned. Poor kids eventually become a costly taxpayer burden, and everybody’s kids in the worst possible way.
Putnam and the Grow Our Own summit meeting drew an audience of more than 550 folks — a much larger response than expected, according to organizers — to a full-day program in the cavernous gym of Southwest Minnesota State University. The audience absorbed in-depth statistical perspectives about the growing educational and economic disparities in their region, listened to stories of hope and promising interventions, and participated in interactive discussions that produced specific ideas about how to respond.
My table included mostly young professionals from a hospital and medical center in Worthington, situated in Nobles County, by far the most diverse county in the region. The nonwhite school district enrollment in Worthington now exceeds 60 percent. By many accounts in recent years, Worthington has done an admirable job of embracing its diverse Latino and African and Asian immigrants, but a school bond levy referendum went down to defeat in November.
Hands-on mentoring required
There was consensus at our table that businesses, employers and successful adults in the community must do a lot more hands-on mentoring of disadvantaged young folks, introducing them to workplaces and guiding them through credential attainment that puts them in high-paying skilled jobs, which local employers say they often have difficulty filling.
Diana Anderson, president of the Southwest Initiative Foundation and chief ringleader of the Grow Our Own movement, describes the effort as a bold new way to spur economic development in the region, which has been the essential role of the six Greater Minnesota regional foundations since they were launched by the McKnight Foundation in the mid 1980s.
“One in six southwest Minnesota kids lives in poverty,’’ Anderson said in a statement after the summit. “These kids sit in our classrooms, will come to work in our businesses, and will need to fill the many roles that keep our community strong and vibrant.’’
“Our bold 10-year vision,’’ Anderson added, “is that by 2026, Southwest Initiative Foundation will position itself as the regional champion and inclusive partner to close the opportunity gap for all our kids.’’
Racial and ethnic inclusivity, and renewed attention to the multigenerational white poverty that has handicapped rural Minnesota for decades, came through consistently in the summit as top priorities. Another key word and concept throughout the summit was “equity,’’ explained as providing the extra investment, assets and resources, according to each child’s needs, in contrast to traditional concepts of equal per-pupil expenditure.
‘The journey has to be intentional’
The equity theme was captured by Kevin Walker, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, in a presentation entitled “Equity by Design,’’ and in which he emphasized that “the journey has to be intentional, and won’t happen except by design.’’
Intentional efforts at equity require good data. And a highly detailed new analysis of poverty and diversity, county-by-county in the region, was provided by Beth Mattingly, the director of research on vulnerable families at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.
The full report will be available in January but among the findings Mattingly revealed in the presentation were these: Huge differences exist between the 18 southwestern counties in diversity and poverty, with a “minority majority’’ in Nobles County and many other still almost all white. Current racial gaps in education outcomes were wider in the southwest region than in Minnesota as a whole. And on the upside, a relatively larger percentage of youth in the region do say they feel safe and cared for.
In her closing remarks, Anderson ticked off a half-dozen innovative efforts already under way aimed at improving the fortunes of “all our kids’’ in the region, ranging from mobile preschool programs to “bridging’’ programs into manufacturing careers in Marshall and Hutchinson. And she promised steady, long-term dedication by SWIF to the cause of equity, earnestly urging continued effort and collaboration by the hundreds in the room.
Anderson said an African proverb on the wall of her office has kept her inspired the past 18 months in getting Grow Our Own off the ground: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’’
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on a broader statewide prosperity for Minnesota. The organization in 2017 is launching a Minnesota Rural Equity Project, promoting public policies that revitalize Greater Minnesota and stimulate business growth by investing in infrastructure and reducing inequality, poverty and racial disparity.
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