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Needed: A strategy and structure for change in Minnesota’s social climate

“… an old world is collapsing and a new world arising; we have better eyes for the collapse than for the rise, for the old one is the world we know.” — John Updike

Yet another report that decries Minnesota’s disparate educational outcomes has been issued, this one from the Federal Reserve Bank (“A Statewide Crisis: Minnesota’s Education Achievement Gaps,” Oct. 11, 2019). In summary, the findings of Rob Grunewald and Anusha Nath spotlight the stark reality that, despite our national leadership in “adopting policies that promote equal opportunity for education,” the educational outcomes for children in Minnesota remain stubbornly and strikingly disparate, in regard to both race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. More recently, we learn that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), our historical status of being above the national average in student achievement is slipping.

So we must be missing something here. We try so hard, and we just can’t move the needle. I think what we are missing is the crucial matter of social climate, which goes deeper than policy, deeper than good intentions and deeper, even, than good actions. It is about us, the way we view ourselves, and the way we view and relate to those we perceive as “other.”

Stuck in a paradigm

Minnesotans, we need to get to know each other. We aren’t who we used to be, and that’s a good thing. But we are stuck in a paradigm of white, middle-class cultural expectations that does not serve us and our future. To get free of its limits and release the potentials of our complex community, we need to teach each other who we are, penetrating the ethnic/racial and economic boundaries that separate us.

Mae Seely Sylvester
Mae Seely Sylvester
One needs only read “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” in which Minnesotans of color share their experiences, to realize that we suffer from genteel “othering.” Many people are engaged in laudable efforts to promote “inclusion,” efforts that do in many instances make a difference for individual people, and even organizations. But we have something larger at stake. We have to get beyond “inclusion.” We have a pervasive culture that has created and sustains the intractable problem that haunts us: we aren’t educating our children of color and lower economic status in a way that prepares them to enjoy and contribute to a healthy Minnesota future. The Federal Reserve Bank calls it a statewide crisis.

I argue that it isn’t fundamentally about education. In an attempt to shine a hopeful light, the Federal Reserve report cites several educational initiatives – in New Orleans, in New York, in Boston – that have resulted in narrowing educational outcome gaps. Yes, schools are of course part of the solution. But as a former classroom teacher, I find it disheartening that we continue to place responsibility on schools and teachers for dispelling disparities that begin not in the classroom, but in our larger social and economic interactions.

Fixing the foundation

References to social climate are common, and often come from prominent spokespeople. Minnesota’s first chief inclusion officer, James Burroughs, said, “Yes, it’s important to have the strategies and policies to do business. But we also need to change the culture and the climate of our workplaces.” Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in an address to University of Minnesota  Morris graduates that, when a “house” is unsound, “The only way to solve the problem is to take the much harder course (as opposed to patching) of stripping all those bricks completely off the house and finally fixing the foundation.”

We have a foundation to fix in Minnesota, but amidst many “diversity” efforts, I have not heard of a strategy or a structure aimed specifically and intentionally at comprehensively changing our social climate. If we do not strategically set out to shift our culture and the way we interact with each other, the status quo will persist, and we are likely to continue the pattern of disparities.

A sample structure

What might a structure for social climate change look like? In the 1980s, author/psychiatrist M. Scott Peck was concerned about the loss of community and founded the Foundation for Encouragement of Community, developing what he termed a “technology” for building community. It took the form of Community Building Workshops that were conducted nationwide. I participated in one of his workshops, and the technology was pretty simple. People gathered in circles and were encouraged to talk with each other. After a slow start in my workshop, honesty emerged in the second day, and it became a powerful experience. Bonding occurred. Circles, which symbolically and physically eschew hierarchy, have long been an effective construct for social processing. Other technologies – cultural self-profiling, storytelling, skills development and visioning – could be employed to build on the circle technology. Many resources are at our disposal: Banaji and Greenwald’s work with Implicit Association Tests; Elizabeth S. Anderson’s work at the University of Michigan on social “fairness” versus “equality.”

We have the tools, and a pilot circle of diverse individuals could design an experiential learning process that could be replicated with willing people in various community venues throughout the state. I believe that if the intent were properly presented, Minnesotans of many backgrounds would choose to participate and that, gradually, through knowing ourselves and each other in new ways, we might shift the social climate of Minnesota. What we need is an entity with the visibility, resources and vision to launch an initiative.

Minnesotans, we need to get to know each other, and that won’t happen unless we do it on purpose.

Mae Seely Sylvester is a writer and community volunteer living in St. Paul, after a career in classroom teaching, local government appointive positions, and as education coordinator in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota Medical School.


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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/08/2019 - 04:04 pm.

    Needed: Minnpost to stop publishing this kind of nonsense. The solutions in the report all point to so-called corporate education reform “success” stories, many of which have been exposed as fraudulent.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 11/09/2019 - 07:20 am.

    If you want to go back and rebuild communities, which I agree is a root problem, start by getting rid of bussing and magnet schools and turn back to clock to the 60s where all the kids went to the same neighborhood schools together.

  3. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 11/09/2019 - 09:45 am.

    The article is woefully short on specifics. I assume the writer is no more implying a broad brush criticism of the diverse European-American cultures (traditionally thought of as the “majority”) than she would of American Indian, African-American, or other cultures. She also does address whether the increasing educational gap is a result of a decline in “minority” achievement or a flat achievement level that is falling behind improving levels among the “majority,” and what may underlie those disparities besides the usual suspect, quiet racism.
    Rather than curse the darkness, my micro-approach to lighting a match (by mixing) is to get out of my single occupancy car and use mass transit. I also chose several decades ago to live in the center city, although now those of us who made that choice are being shamed as beneficiaries of discriminatory housing policies from a half-century ago. I guess one has to have a thick skin to stay in the conversation.
    Best wishes to the writer, and to all of us who still have our eyes on the ultimate prize: a colorblind society within our lifetimes.

  4. Submitted by James Baker on 11/09/2019 - 11:40 am.

    We have structurally evolved a system that sets up and perpetuates vast disparities of opportunity and human development across institutional sectors, public and private. Continued, resentment of marginalized and disadvantaged groups will undoubtedly continue to make society uncomfortable—probably increasingly.

    To become more harmonious, biases, injustices, inequitable access to society’s well-being resources, etc, need to be redressed. This work must begin for children when they are young, so that “foundations” of optimism, genuine sense of skills-based competence and ability to work productively with others translate through the upper grades to a success-oriented mindset that exudes motivational resilience for pursuing and achieving larger goals beyond high school graduation.

    That the US k-12 education sector does not adequately address these needs so that children can become capable, self-determined individuals who are hopeful and optimistic for a good life experience does not mean that it couldn’t. But to better meet these developmental challenges, colleges of education will need to encompass the core pedagogy and subject matter curricula with a web of science-based child development, educational psychology, and relevant neuroscience themes to enable teachers from the beginning to work holistically with children’s developmental needs. The legal-institutional will to make these human development upgrades currently does not seem to exist.

    To spotlight a research based slice of this work, a readable scientific paper by Ellen Skinner and colleagues of Portland State University suggests how teachers trained in deeper human development theories might proceed to meet both students’ and their own emotional needs, while improving motivational outcomes.,%20Pitzer,%20&%20Brule-Emotion%20&%20Mot%20Resilience%20v31_5Jan2013_0.pdf

  5. Submitted by John Hasselberg on 11/09/2019 - 03:43 pm.

    There is a well-vetted, excellent process for doing precisely this that’s been underway in MN for about ten years. It is the intentional social interaction (IZI) process crafted and being now spread nation-wide by Marnita Schroedl and Carl Goldstein and their colleagues at Marnita’s Table. You can check out their processes via their website at:

  6. Submitted by Howard Miller on 11/09/2019 - 05:35 pm.

    Is there a chance that we are contributing to the problem by practicing altruistic racism? If we ‘help’ children first by identifying them as disabled (ADHD, Emotionally-Behaviorally disabled) is that a net positive effort? If we help minority families struggling against incredible social odds by identifying them as abusive and negligent, ultimately breaking them up involuntarily; does that have positive impact overall? If these efforts speed up the passage of minority children through the school to prison pipeline, can that have a salubrious effect? Look at the data; you’ll find these three efforts guided by altruistic Minnesotans appear to produce the actual gaps we are seeing,

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 11/09/2019 - 09:52 pm.

    Early childhood education should help.

    • Submitted by cory johnson on 11/10/2019 - 11:07 am.

      Not if parents don’t care about education. If parents/caregivers don’t value an education it’s basically just free babysitting. Spending doesn’t improve scores. If it did MN wouldn’t have such an embarrassing gap.
      I also think this applies to public vs charter schools. If the kids don’t grow up in an environment that values learning it doesn’t matter.

      • Submitted by David Markle on 11/12/2019 - 04:10 pm.

        If parents don’t care, that is a huge problem. But early childhood ed is not free babysitting; it can and should provide impetus and support even when parents don’t care.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/13/2019 - 10:32 pm.

          The best early childhood programs for low-income children not only provide the support that middle-class families provide (nutritious food, medical and dental care, modeling and enforcing good behavior) but also involve the parents, who may mean well but have no idea how to be effective parents.

          You can’t just write off children who have the bad luck to be born to dysfunctional parents, and not all dysfunctional parents are unsalvageable. Some just need a bit of guidance.

  8. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/10/2019 - 09:28 am.

    As long as we favor corporations over people, globalization over local economic empowerment, and a service/gig economy over a productive economy, then the economic and educational disparaties we see will persist.

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