Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tackling the Gap with Generation Next

“The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten. School neither increases nor reduces it.” That’s what Nobel Prize winner James Heckman opined after reviewing the results of a study which tested the cognitive abilities of a group of several hundred children from age 3 until they reached age 18.

He spoke from just one study of a limited group of young people, to corroborate what we all know from other research of other children conducted over many years. Children’s environments strongly influence academic success. Those environments propel young people in certain directions. Nourishment and nurturing, from the earliest years, even prenatally, have lasting effects – for good and for bad.

Heckman might sound a bit too pessimistic about the ability of schools to make a difference for kids. But all of us do know that families, communities, and schools jointly influence our children’s environments. Consequently, all of these important institutions must play roles if we want to eliminate gaps in educational achievement and promote the greatest development of talents for all young people. No one of them can do it alone.

That’s why we at Wilder Research value the opportunity to collaborate with Generation Next.

Generation Next takes a holistic approach. It pays attention to young people from cradle to career. It seeks to mobilize all who need to be involved in promoting academic success for all of our children. Generation Next seeks to identify the causes of both the bad and the good.

That is, by examining the indicators, doing research, and assembling networks of organizations who have expertise, Generation Next will first figure out what needs or issues exist that might be restricting the ability of young people to succeed. (R.T. Rybak likens that process to CSI.) However, this initiative doesn’t want to focus only on the empty part of the glass; Generation Next wants to understand the full part as well: What produces success, especially for kids whose environments have created many challenges. What about the kids who do well despite adversity? What about the schools who transform kids who begin their education several steps behind others?

Generation Next wants to build consensus around whatever we need to do to ensure we have the best educated young people that we possibly can.

We are happy to support this effort by assisting Generation Next to keep everyone informed about community trends and to equip everyone with knowledge that increases their effectiveness. It’s not just a select few who need to work on increasing academic success. As R.T. Rybak put it:

“This whole community will rise or fall on our ability to solve this problem that has stood for too long, so this whole community needs to help us find the right actions that can close our gaps.”

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Millennials, Leadership, and the Future of Our Communities

Every generation worries that ensuing younger generations might not subscribe to current, predominant cultural norms and institutions; the younger folks might disrupt or overhaul the status quo. Even baby boomers who once sloganized, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” now find themselves part of “the establishment,” wondering about the values, motivations, and lifestyles of people in their 20s and 30s, not to mention intrigued by younger people’s facile use of technology and social media which create new forms of social interaction.

Change comprises the only constant in life. And, as Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, told us  recently at the Minnesota Compass Annual Meeting, the lack of conformity to existing norms does not portend disaster. It simply reflects new ways of adapting to the challenges of the world.

Our meeting focused on millennials (people between 14 and 33) because they constitute the most recently emerging adult generation. All generations have impacts on the present and the future. All deserve our attention. The millennials have just begun (or will soon begin) to spread their adult wings; they will comprise a major portion of the parents, workers, consumers, business and community leaders throughout the world during the next half century. So, we need to learn about this new generation.

One fact with which you can impress friends and colleagues: Which generation in Minnesota is currently the largest? The digitals? The millennials? Generation X? The baby boomers? Or the greatest generation? Actually, the millennials, born 1981 to 2000, now outnumber the boomers, born 1946 to 1964.

Compass staff, Jane Tigan (a millennial) and Craig Helmstetter (an X-er), offered information about the millennials. For example:

  • Higher Education: Minnesota’s millennials rank high, relative to other states: 39% of those between 25 and 34 have at least a bachelor's degree, resulting in a 7th place ranking compared to other states (and MSP ranks 5th among the nation’s 25 largest metros). But large racial gaps persist for degree attainment.
  • Employment & Income: millennials experienced the great recession severely and remain among those still reeling. However, in making historical comparisons, we see a mixed picture: millennial women are much more likely to be employed than were young female boomers; millennial men are slightly less likely to be employed than were Gen X-ers and boomers when they entered the workforce.
  • Civic Engagement: Despite the fact that millenials are the generation least likely to vote or volunteer, Minnesotas millennials nonetheless engage in these civic activities at rates higher than their age-peers in other states.
Allison Liuzzi, of Compass, and Marilee Grant,  Minnesota director of community relations, Boston Scientific, shed a lot of light on the topic of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) – trends in STEM occupations, the importance of STEM education, and STEM interest and achievement among students. They noted:

  • The demand for STEM workers will grow faster than the demand for other types of workers.
  • Our most rapidly growing population of young people (that is, young people of color) express stronger interest in STEM careers, and engage in more STEM extra-curricular activities, compared with white young people. However, they tend to become short-circuited before entering STEM occupations.

It’s exciting to see how Minnesota Compass has provided a platform for organizations working on STEM to share information, raise awareness, and foster collaboration. Their initiatives constitute critical and significant efforts to strengthen the workforce, address educational disparities in Minnesota, and ultimately improve the quality of life for all people.

Jennifer Ford Reedy, president of the Bush Foundation, urged, if not cautioned, us to develop a holistic perspective on social trends – positive and negative. We tend to notice, discuss, and remember the negatives. However, this can bias our perspectives and inhibit creativity in promoting improvements. So, for example, a strategy to increase STEM competence in our workforce must build on the positive: that many children, especially children of color, have STEM interests early in life. Or, workforce planning regarding the millennial generation should capitalize on the positive: the relatively high proportion of young adult Minnesotans with bachelor’s degrees.

The Compass team looks forward to another year of engagement in activities to build our communities in Minnesota.

[Resources from the annual meeting are available on the Compass website, including full talks by Trista Harris and Jennifer Ford Reedy, and several blogs providing millennials’ perspectives on what the data mean and how they might use the data to have an impact on Minnesota’s future.]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Trends in 2014

What can we expect for 2014?

The trends people follow, and which they hope to foresee for the future, depend upon their goals. At Wilder Research, we strive to make Minnesota a better place for all. So, below appear some trends of importance to watch, for those of us in the business of building human capital and improving communities’ quality of life.
Watch the millennials.
Baby boomers have long enjoyed most of the attention of marketers, demographers, the media, and the creators of pop culture. The boomers’ “pig in a python” strongly influenced all aspects of society for the past six decades. In the cradle, unbeknownst to them, they influenced the development of infant products and propelled the sales of child care advice books (e.g., Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care). They filled the bedrooms of houses in newly created, sprawling suburbs. Now, in their sun setting years, they fuel the demand for everything from condominiums to Viagra.
Millennials will similarly shape the culture – partly due to sheer size, as with the boomers, but also by virtue of their unique position to tip the scales of opinion and behavior. In addition, they comprise the workforce of the future (despite, ironically, much tougher job prospects than previous generations). Their competencies, values, and work styles will define what that workforce can do and how that workforce can best do it.
Millennials have grown up with social media and smart phones. As they came of age, so did “video phones” (a tool existing only in science fiction fantasy for baby boomers). Millennials form and sustain relationships electronically, as well as by face-to-face communication. This has already begun to change how we govern ourselves, do business, and form community.
My colleagues in nonprofit organizations will need to respond to this changing demography in order to remain relevant and vital in the communities of the future. We must acknowledge the new ways that people expect to meet their needs – whether rich or poor. We must acknowledge the conditions under which they will donate time and money to our organizations. And we must adapt our actions accordingly.
P.S. Does all this indicate a lessening of the boomers’ influence? I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion; the boomers may actually have the last laugh because the existence of a strong cohort of productive millennials constitutes a crucial ingredient of the boomers’ continued quality of life. So, millennials must be as productive as possible!
Watch the changing attitudes regarding economic disparities
It has become fashionable for leaders in both of our major political parties to decry disparities, albeit for different reasons. While the approaches to reducing poverty and increasing economic stability in the population may differ between the two parties, common recognition of the importance of trends in disparities does exist.
Wilder Research began to sound the alarm more than 20 years ago, using census data, educational outcomes data, and health data to demonstrate significant gaps among racial and economic groups that remain today. Recently, working with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation and others, we have shown how disparities based on race, place, and income threaten everyone’s health and can take years off of our lives.
Admittedly, voters throughout our country have remained mostly indifferent to the growing income inequality in the United States. And here in Minnesota, despite concern among some of our leaders and members of the general public, we have not yet defined a strategy to address racial gaps ranking among the highest in the nation for educational attainment and homeownership. Nonetheless, the issue has high visibility across constituencies. My radar tells me that the viewers of both Fox News and MSNBC will increasingly share common discomfort and concern.
Many economists predict a relatively rosy year. They suggest that the economy will improve, the stock market will maintain strength, jobs will increase, inflation will stay low, and unemployment will decline. Amidst this outlook, will disparities decline? Let’s hope that positive economic conditions actually do permeate our new year, that they mollify any scarcity mentality that might inhibit our voters to take risks and address disparities, and moreover, that they nurture an attitude shift and a resolve to address and reduce disparities.
If awareness and understanding increase, and if attitudes change this year, we might witness positive change in the status quo in years ahead.
Watch for increasing emphasis on system-changing solutions to our social and economic challenges
One-on-one, volunteer approaches to charity will not soon disappear; nor will small nonprofit agencies acting independently to do good for their communities. However, increasingly, we will see broader initiatives formally organized and funded for collective impact.
To improve the education of our children, both Promise Neighborhood and the Strive model (known locally as Generation Next) represent examples of such initiatives, which involve large sets of organizations working collaboratively with school districts and other governmental entities. A new STEM section of Compass, developed as a collaboration of Boston Scientific, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota High Tech Association and Wilder Research, focuses on collectively targeting resources so the next generation of workers will have the skills they need.
Characteristics of such efforts typically include: a common goal or vision to which participating agencies subscribe; adherence to a set of standards for delivery of services; networks for acquiring and sharing information and results; and common core funding and infrastructure for leadership and coordination. Agencies give up some of their autonomy in order participate, but in return they become eligible for some limited funding, have the opportunity to increase the quality of their work through networking with their peers, and leverage the strength of their impacts by working in unison.
Several elements of our changing world propel this evolution of our approaches to community problem solving, for example: the overarching, worldwide effects of globalization; the complexity of the social problems which require resolution; and the new opportunities afforded by modern information technology for the development and management of large-scale collaborative efforts. In addition, these new efforts focus squarely on results. Geoffrey Canada, the original architect of the Promise Neighborhood initiative, exemplifies a “show me the data” mentality.
That “results” orientation suits the expectations among many in the new generation of voters, taxpayers, and donors (remember those millennials) who desire to see their money produce something tangibly beneficial for their communities and their charitable causes. It also satisfies the increasingly louder demands for transparency which nonprofits and government have heard during the past few years.
All the best for 2014.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sick and Tired on Martin Luther King Day

Fannie Lou Hamer should inspire us all.

The youngest of 20 children in a sharecropping family, she had only a few years of schooling. She lived in poverty for the majority of her life; the owner of the plantation where she sharecropped evicted her for having the temerity to register to vote, and night riders subsequently shot bullets into the house of the family who provided her with shelter. After an arrest as part of a group who sought to do nothing more unlawful than eat at a bus station, she received a beating, on the orders of a highway patrol officer, so severe that she lost a kidney and lost most of the sight in one eye.

Despite these challenges, she continued a life course which bolstered the civil rights movement. After attending a voting rights rally in 1962, she became an active spokesperson for justice, and within just a few years, the nation heard her voice at the Democratic conventions of 1964 and 1968.

Hamer inspires me for several reasons, and her civil rights career adds to our insight regarding how best to do applied research at Wilder Research, to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities.

For one thing, I admire her perseverance, despite adversity and great risk. Motivated by recognition at mid-life that “Hard as we work for nothing, there must be some way we can change this,” she realized that she could, in concert with others, work to change society.

I admire her ability to skillfully push the levers which can transform attitudes and systems. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote: “…there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Hamer precipitated that Socratic tension – to the initial dismay (unfortunately) of Lyndon Johnson who felt that the efforts of “that ignorant woman” might undermine his bid for the presidency, and to the dismay of many others. But in the long run, she and her colleagues persevered. Their efforts let greater numbers of people exercise their right to vote. And Johnson ultimately became a civil rights champion.

I also admire her long-term vision, within which she recognized the importance of developing an economic infrastructure which could enable people to sustain themselves. To achieve this end, she collaborated in the creation of the Freedom Farms Corporation, which lent land to African-Americans and enabled them to acquire enough wealth to purchase land on their own, thus achieving financial independence. Thus, she addressed structural impediments, such as lack of home ownership and poverty, which maintain racial disparities.


Hamer once said that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”. On this Martin Luther King holiday, let’s hope that all of us share similar sentiments as we move forward to create a better future.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

13 Highlights of 2013 (Accomplishments of Wilder Research and our partners that make us proud)

Here at Wilder Research, we have focused on improving lives, since 1917. We feel satisfaction every time we see our work has helped a child overcome barriers, an older adult  maintain a dignified standard of living, a family move into stable housing, an individual find a much needed job, and someone resolve mental health problems.

We accomplish these results by collaborating directly with hundreds of nonprofit and government organizations each and every year, on 200+ projects.

Here’s my list of 13 of the contributions we made in partnership with others during the past year, that make me proud to take part in this work:

  • Reports from the Minnesota homeless study which became part of the bedrock for the new state plan for ending homelessness.
  • The new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) section of Minnesota Compass, to improve Minnesota’s human capital and reduce the achievement gap – which launched through collaboration with Boston Scientific and a large network of STEM providers.
  • A new School Readiness Report Card, developed in partnership with the Minnesota Office of Early Learning, to monitor the state’s progress toward the goal that all children are ready for kindergarten by the year 2020.
  • Sponsorship by Senator Chuck Grassley (Republican from Iowa) and Representative AndrĂ© Carson (Democrat from Indiana) of a presentation of our report, Childhood Disrupted, with the Volunteers of America, on mothers in prison, to members of Congress in Washington, D.C.
  • Our collaborative efforts focused on engaging community members and businesses to improve transit – such as our work on the East Side with district councils, the East Side Prosperity Campaign, and the East Side Area Business Association, as well as our joint work with Corridors of Opportunity, intending to enhance transit and economic development.
  • Our study of Saint Paul’s Recycling and Solid Waste Management, commissioned by the city of Saint Paul, which resulted in plans for significant changes to the city’s recycling and waste management programs over the next 2-3 years, such as single sort, expanded plastics recycling, and possibly organics recycling options.
  • A national report, Collaboration to Build Healthier Communities, prepared with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America – along with a local conference on this topic which featured examples of projects in Minnesota which address social determinants of health.
  • Several initiatives with Blue Cross BlueShield of Minnesota Foundation, which have focused on the social determinants of health – offering insight into how we can promote community health.
  • Indicators projects, such as oneMinneapolis and The Central Corridor Tracker, which have enabled organizations such as The Minneapolis Foundation and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative to shape strategy, monitor change, and focus attention on community needs.
  • Systems we have developed for measuring collective impact: the Homeless Management Information System that last year involved over 250 service providers and more than 650 end-users throughout the state; the Sprockets database, supported by the Wallace and Kellogg foundations, Youthprise, Greater Twin Cities United Way, and many other partners, which adds value to the network of agencies providing out-of-school time activities for children and youth; the Minnesota Kids database, used to promote children’s mental health.
  • Research and evaluation assistance to educational innovations: Generation Next; Northside Achievement Zone (Promise Neighborhood); and Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood.
  • Demonstration of the economic impact of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.
  • Demonstration, for the Mental Health Crisis Alliance, of the impact of community-based crisis stabilization services on healthcare use.

We invite you to visit our website for more details on these and other activities of Wilder Research.


Looking forward to working together with you in 2014. And wishing you peace in the New Year!