During a time of bitter division, what can cause Minnesotans to work together to build a better future? I was pondering this difficult question recently as I scanned a diverse list of Minnesotans who, along with me, had recently signed a letter to Gov. Tim Walz.
The letter makes it clear that the signers are speaking out as individuals, not on behalf of their respective organizations, but their diverse voices are strong, clear, and united.
As bitter partisanship has many state, local and federal governmental bodies virtually paralyzed, that letter was signed by respected Democrats like Roger Moe, Republicans like Dave Durenberger, and Independents like Tim Penny.
It was signed by business leaders, such as General Mills’ former CEO Ken Powell, Ciresi Conlin founder Michael Ciresi, and Ecolab’s CEO Doug Baker. It was also signed by prominent nonprofit leaders, such as the Northside Achievement Zone’s Sondra Samuels, Opportunity Partners’ Armando Camacho, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s John Wilgers.
It brought together business leaders like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Doug Loon and the Minnesota Business Partnership’s Charlie Weaver with anti-poverty champions like me, People Serving People’s Daniel Gumnit, Second Harvest’s Allison O’Toole, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center’s Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, and Catholic Charities’ Tim Marx.
It was endorsed by health care leaders like Health Partner’s CEO Andrea Walsh, Dr. Lisa Saul, and Allina’s CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler, as well as education leaders like former University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks, Minnesota Comeback’s Rashad Turner, and former Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.
The letter showcased a unique group of 13 former elected officials, 81 business leaders, 32 community leaders from many races, ethnicities, religions, regions and professions. These are individuals who disagree with each other on many issues. As I read through that list of names, I kept wondering to myself “What’s different about this issue that brings such a diverse group of people together?”
Helping vulnerable kids unifies
The answer is that the letter was all about Minnesota’s youngest and most vulnerable children, specifically a call for Gov. Walz to prioritize funding for bringing quality early learning programs to 35,000 low-income children under age 5 whose parents can’t access them.
Why is that a unifying issue? No matter your walk of life or viewpoint, few blame those children for the difficult circumstances into which they were born. Few deny that Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps are at the root of our most pressing societal and economic challenges, such as the need to have a more economically competitive, equitable, and just society. Few deny that a major root cause of those shameful achievement gaps, which open as early as age 1, are early learning opportunity gaps.
Therefore, helping these vulnerable 35,000 left-behind children has become a unifying issue.
By the way, it’s not just these Minnesota leaders who agree about the need to prioritize those 35,000 left-behind children. A March 2018 Morris Leatherman survey found that 84% of Minnesotans agreed that “we should help the children most likely to fall into achievement gaps early in life, to prevent them from falling behind.”
Given that extraordinary level of agreement across so many societal lines, wouldn’t it be remarkable if Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman could work together to champion this unifying cause? This is a problem that has been kicked down the road for far too long, and helping Minnesota’s 35,000 most vulnerable children would be a gift that keeps giving to our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids.
During a time when we have a $1.3 billion budget surplus, we can do this.
I’m not naïve. I know we can’t reach agreement on every issue. But maybe if we could start by focusing on this single point of agreement – helping our youngest and most vulnerable low-income children access quality early learning programs — it might lead to cooperation and progress on other issues as well.
Nancy Maeker is the former executive director of A Minnesota Without Poverty (AMWP). While AMWP as an organization has recently dissolved, the commitment of its participants to early learning as a major step toward ending poverty remains strong. The referenced letter can be seen here.
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