Monday, November 29, 2010

Social Change Powered by Data

“You used to be a fun guy, talking about all the cute kids you were helping. Now, all you do is talk about data.” Geoffrey Canada jokingly referred to comments from friends, who noted the transformation in his behavior as he created an important new model for education: the Harlem Children’s Zone.

You might have seen Geoff in the American Express commercials on TV, or in the recently-released movie, Waiting for Superman. His approach to using information represents a new version of the old aphorism, “What gets measured, gets done.” Meaningful measurement can motivate, guide, and enable everyone who works on improving the lives of our children to understand what’s going right and what’s going wrong with the education of those children.

Harlem Children’s Zone has created what they call “a new paradigm for fighting poverty.” It has five core principles:

  • · Serve an entire neighborhood comprehensively and at scale.
  • · Create a pipeline of support. Provide support that starts with prenatal programs for parents and finishes when children graduate from college.
  • · Build community among residents, institutions, and stakeholders, who help to create the environment necessary for children’s healthy development.
  • · Evaluate program outcomes and create a feedback loop that cycles data back to management for use in improving and refining program offerings.
  • · Cultivate a culture of success rooted in passion, accountability, leadership, and teamwork.

The emphasis on outcomes, data, and the use of information for continuous improvement reminds me of the visit I had with Dr. Beverly Hall, the superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. As she told the story, two ingredients for her successful reform of those schools are: (1) making sure that everyone – from the teacher’s aide and the cafeteria worker to the principal and associate superintendent – understands his or her role in educating the system’s children; and (2) using data at all levels to set goals, monitor performance, and continuously improve outcomes (by improving every step that everyone takes toward meeting those outcomes).

Our Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood includes a unique and powerful approach to promotion of children’s success through community organizing, which builds upon data. Neighborhood residents, both adults and youth, designed a community assessment, to understand the needs of the neighborhood’s children and their families. Powered by that information, six Solution Action Groups, totaling 120 or so residents and experts, will identify how this community can support children’s success in school and in life, “from cradle to career.”

Challenges exist in Saint Paul, some of which Geoffrey Canada faced in Harlem, some of which he did not. One challenge, for example: of the 8,500 children 18 and younger in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, barely a few hundred attend schools in the neighborhood. So, the approach to improving their educational achievement is not as simple as creating something at an existing site and expecting that it can help most children in the neighborhood. We will look at solutions which can address all children, some of whom are too young yet to attend school. Another challenge: organizing resources. We will have to produce significant community change without expecting that financial resources will increase. In fact, they might decline. Our approach will build upon the ingenuity of an empowered neighborhood to identify how the formal systems of education, health, public safety, and human services can realign, along with the community systems of families, friends, and neighbors, to create a new environment that supports our children.

Data powers all this: the data from our community assessment; data on educational performance; other data on community conditions. Data will provide the raw material for helping us determine where we want to go, how we will get there, and whether we have arrived.

More on the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, as time goes by. For now, I hope I’ve made clear how sound, credible information, placed into the hands of community residents and others who care about the well-being of our children, can fuel a process of highly productive community organizing, to improve the success of the neighborhood’s children in school and in life.

Comments? Please let me know.

Interested in learning more about the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood? Check the web site:

Interested in joining a Solution Action Group? Take a look at the description and the application on the website.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Promise Neighborhood - A Promising Prospect

Why did the federal government give the Wilder Foundation a half million dollars for a Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood? Don’t Minnesotans already reside in the land of great promise? National publications often tout our state as one of the best places to live. Why do we deserve this grant?

On many indicators, of course, we do quite well. However, troubling signs exist. Students in some of our schools do very poorly in reading and math. (Actually, the students in very many of our schools do not do well in math.) In some of our neighborhoods, a third or more of all residents live below the poverty line; too many children live in poverty. The trend data show clearly that large proportions of our younger generation – the people who we hope will grow up and continue the success of this state, in work, in civic life, and in family life – lack the academic skills they should have.

The Promise Neighborhood model provides a cradle-to-career framework for developing a set of supports that will enable a neighborhood’s children to succeed in school and in life.

That’s why we applied for and received a Promise Neighborhood grant – to work with one community to organize its strengths and mobilize existing resources for the benefit of its children. Based on what we learn, hopefully all neighborhoods can become neighborhoods of great promise.

Where is the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood? The Promise Neighborhood encompasses a 250-block area in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods in Saint Paul, which includes two public elementary schools, Jackson and Maxfield. Nearly 40 percent of the residents are younger than 18. Two-thirds of the residents live in poverty; eighty-two percent of students are eligible for free lunch.

What’s happening over the next 12 months? The Department of Education selected us as one of just 21 communities in the nation to carry out a “planning year.” The year includes a community assessment, lasting several months – shaped by neighborhood residents themselves – to understand all the characteristics of the neighborhood and the needs of the children and families. With the assessment in hand, we will bring neighborhood residents together in “Solution Action Groups” with educators, child development experts, and service providers to develop the best possible approach to supporting the neighborhood’s children. Finally, we will secure commitments from organizations to collaborate to provide cradle-to-career educational, family, and community resources and supports.

What happens after the planning year? If the planning year accomplishes its goals, then by summer of 2011, we will have constructed a network of organizations that will collaborate to provide services in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. This, of course, will include the school district and the two public schools in the neighborhood.

How will we know if this all works? If successful, the first thing we should see – just a year or two from now, is that every child, even before birth, becomes a focus of community attention. Parents receive parent education. Infants and toddlers have access to health care and if they have health issues, these get addressed early, before those issues start to have negative effects on the child’s development and readiness for school. Preschoolers receive good care when their parents are working, possibly from child care providers, possibly from family, friends or neighbors. They develop in an environment in which they learn their numbers and abc’s, so that all of them, not just those with better incomes, can move ahead faster in kindergarten and elementary school.

In not too many years, we should see better school performance. While achievement tests do not measure everything, and we cannot focus solely on test scores to measure success, we should see reading and math scores rise, reflecting greater achievement among children living in this neighborhood.

Momentum has developed already. More than 30 adults who live in the community have completed the second of three meetings to shape the assessment. About 20 young people have had their own meetings for the same purpose. We’ve received calls from volunteers and from organizations who want to take part in the initiative. Our Project Director, Hamilton Bell, is actively reaching out to all who want to be involved.

I’ll have much more to say about this as the year progresses. I expect to learn a lot, and to have a lot of fun, managing this initiative. It has the potential to help us not just on 250 blocks, but throughout this region and our entire state. Stay tuned. If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

CSI is re-engineering how government works

A CSI role for the Executive Director of Wilder Research? That’s correct. Something more important, though, than a mere role in one of the most popular television dramas of all time. Rather, an opportunity to shape the future of our state.

The Commission on Service Innovation launched its efforts last month, to provide the Minnesota legislature with a plan to re-engineer how government does its work. Over the coming months, we will ask: What quality of life do we want to create for our state over the next 20 years or so? How can we best shape government to support the creation of this quality of life?

Responding to these questions has more challenges than immediately meet the eye. State and local governments operate mostly in ways that fit the 20th century. Until recently, they have usually benefitted from reasonably adequate sources of revenue to do so.. The 21st century presents a different landscape. National and international environments have changed. The state’s residents have a different social makeup; they hold different preferences and expectations.

Economic and demographic trends, at state, national, and world-wide levels, have created a situation unlike anything that Minnesota and its regions have experienced before. For instance, globalization has established a new playing field for business. Economic forces and competitive trends throughout the world have as much relevance as the trends and competition locally. (Competitors that Minneapolis business people need to watch don’t live in Saint Paul, or even in Wisconsin. They live in places far away.)

The aging of our population will present challenges and opportunities unlike anything ever seen anywhere in the world. For some counties and regions of the state, the “old-age dependency ratio” has begun an upward trend that will result in one person over 65 for every two persons “of working age.” What does the change in this ratio mean? It means that, for every person who is likely to be retired, we used to have four or five people in the labor force, receiving paychecks and paying taxes. Now, we will only have two or three. You can see very quickly how the burden on those workers will increase.

The state faces severe revenue shortfalls in the foreseeable future. Government must work smarter and more productively, as one of several steps to compensate for those shortfalls.

At the same time that these social and economic challenges have arisen, we have changed in other ways. Technology has created opportunities to organize work more creatively and efficiently than in the past. Communication with, and engagement of, the population can occur in new and powerful ways. Younger generations especially (but not exclusively) have come to rely on online access to resources, services, and information; for them, the use of social media has become second nature, whereas it might have seemed like science fiction even just 25 years ago. People of all ages expect 24/7 access for retail purchasing, banking, travel reservations, and other functions that previously could occur only in-person or by phone during much more limited times of day.

These changes in our circumstances and needs make it imperative to produce innovation in the ways that we serve ourselves through government. I look forward to creating a small but hopefully significant product that will help to shape the future of our state; and I look forward to doing so with colleagues on the Commission from business, from foundations, from employees’ unions, from education, from government, and elsewhere. It’s a rare opportunity to bring great collective expertise into the same group to move ahead boldly and creatively for the benefit of our state’s residents.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Immigration, the Need for Rational Discussion

Why have we witnessed the recent upsurge of commotion and concern about immigration?

A few facts deserve mention.

First, just about everyone on this earth is an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants. Virtually all land masses have received their human populations from elsewhere. It’s just a question of how long ago that occurred. I recently visited the Museum of Natural History in New York. If you’ve visited, you have probably seen the very impressive map which shows the flows of people, from continent to continent, beginning in Africa thousands of years ago. Even our American Indian people, the most native of any of us on this continent, descended from tribes who originated far away.

Second, a century ago in Minnesota, the proportion of our population comprised of immigrants far exceeded the current proportion. For example, the “non-native” residents of Minnesota made up 26% of the population in 1870; they made up 20% in 1920. Immigrants built Minnesota as we now know it – not just the urban Twin Cities, but the many cities, towns, and communities throughout our state, which contain streets, roads, and places often named in commemoration of distant homelands. During the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of residents born in other countries reached its lowest point (about 2-3%). Today, immigrants make up about 8% of the state, and are a growing proportion of many areas of greater Minnesota.

Third, hostility toward immigrants is nothing new. Jews arriving in New York City from Europe in the late 1800s experienced frequent disdain from existing city residents. “Chinatowns”, which now attract tourists, served in many cities as protective enclaves from intense persecution of Chinese people. The Know Nothing movement of the mid-1800s spawned a national political party unsympathetic to immigrants. In Saint Paul, Swedes, Irish, and others initially faced much discrimination when they first arrived. Swede Hollow of the 19th century exemplifies a situation of immigrants living in squalor due in large part to discrimination.

The Arizona law has prompted much of the most recent, visible controversy. In truth, I sympathize with anyone in Arizona who has suffered as a result of criminal activity perpetrated by illegal immigrants, or for that matter by citizens and legal immigrants who profit from the drug trade, for example. However, illegal activity should not define the debate. I don’t generate my opinions and recommendation for the health care system, based on the behavior of bad doctors; or for the legal system, based on the behavior of bad lawyers. We can’t let illegal behavior cloud our sight and damage our ability to understand trends and develop creative visions for the future.

In any case, the Arizona hullabaloo will pass. Underlying discomfort, often not outwardly expressed, plays a larger role. Why this discomfort? Why – especially if we all can point to our immigrant heritage – do we encounter a lot of tension in our communities related to immigration?

I’ll offer my interpretation; you may have your own. I would suggest that different members of our communities become uncomfortable for different reasons. Some people hold dear an “ideal” conception of life as it once existed. (In fact, such idyllic life probably never did exist, but that does not matter.) They witness different cultures, see institutions change, and wish for “the good old days.” Some have the concern that new arrivals will take their jobs and/or increase the demands on government service systems. Other people simply fear change and resist change; any change makes them uncomfortable. For other people, racism or xenophobia impedes their capacity to think and act. For others, a combination of these and other factors explains their reactions.

Rational discussion – based on current context, short-term perspective, and long-term perspective – must prevail. Trying to change or resist the patterns of migration, established over thousands of years, is equivalent to trying to change ocean currents or the tides. It can’t be accomplished in the long term. Indeed, it should not be accomplished. These patterns are neither good nor bad; they are simply reality. In the shorter term, we need to recognize that businesses need employees for production and consumers for consumption. Our communities need active, caring members; they need families with good parents. Individuals and families who arrive in Minnesota, whether from New York or New Delhi, offer today, in the 21st century, opportunities for the state to thrive – just as offered by those many Minnesota immigrants of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

To promote rational discussion, we presented a webinar, which you can view – to hear about how immigration is changing the current Minnesota landscape. It contains information, along with commentary from three community leaders from throughout the state. More important, you can see the larger body of information about immigration, on which the webinar is based. Go to Click on the immigration tab.

As always, we welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Homelessness -- Can we "cure" it? Should we care?

In Minnesota, a state blessed with resources, should we have 13,000 or more people who are homeless, nearly half of whom are under age 21? What if we could solve the problem for a thousand homeless people, at a cost of $1.75 per year, per state resident? I know that we want “no new taxes”, but might such an investment have some value?

Minnesotans can take pride in the fact that we have initiated efforts to end homelessness. Without such efforts, we would likely find ourselves in a worse situation. However, as Wilder Research has reported, many homelessness trends have moved in a bad direction.

Is this issue intractable? Is the cost of a solution insurmountable? I performed some “back of the envelope” calculations to help think about this.

A portion of the homeless population just needs housing. Some low-income, low-skilled adults fall into this category; so do some women and children fleeing domestic violence. With a place to live, they can handle their lives without intense supportive services, and just with the normal sort of assistance that all of us need at significant transition points in our lives.

What might housing cost for 1,000 homeless people, who need no special supports beyond housing? Assume a housing cost of $750 per month per person. Calculate the total yearly cost; divide it by the number of residents in the state of Minnesota (5,446,420). You will discover that we could house 1,000 homeless people – who just need a place to live – for a cost per year of about $1.75 per state resident.

Many homeless people, of course, require supportive services; they cannot live on their own. Suppose that supportive housing costs $1,500 per month. Do the math again. You will discover that we could house 1,000 homeless people – who require supportive housing – for a cost per year of about $3.50 per state resident.

Is that an insurmountable cost? Not really. Although I do realize that resources are finite, and if you use the “just pennies a day” formula with every possible good thing to spend money on, eventually resources will exhaust themselves. However, the will to do something may have greater importance than the amount of available resources.

Homeless people must have the will to improve their life situations. Many of them have that will. They have the same desire and drive as anyone can; they pursue exactly the same goals as middle and upper income people. Yet barriers get in their way, including low income, severe mental illness, poor credit histories.

In addition to these individual barriers, structural barriers create place severe limits on what people can achieve. What do we mean by structural barriers? Very simply, if 110 people needed housing, but only 100 places were vacant, 10 people would not have housing, regardless of their abilities and determination.

Analysis by one set of economists** suggested that just a small increase in the vacancy rate (an economic structural factor) can produce a major decrease in rates of homelessness in a community. Why? Well, understandably, a greater number of available units, in combination with likely rent reductions, will enable some low-income individuals and families to afford housing.

So, as we seek to end homelessness, our strategies must focus on both structural and individual factors.

What does it cost us if we do not address homelessness? Well, homelessness increases chronic health problems; homeless teens have much lower graduation rates than do other teens. Again, you can do some math. In the Wilder Research 2009 survey, 42% of homeless adults had used a hospital emergency room during the previous six months. At $1,000 or more per visit, costs add up. National data suggest that the cost of not receiving a high school diploma averages $260,000 over the course of a non-graduate’s lifetime. (Remember, the individual incurs those costs, but so do all of us in the form of lower productivity, lower tax receipts, etc.)

The Family Housing Fund found that “the cost of supportive housing for a chronically homeless family is less than half the cost of public services required if they remain homeless.”

We can make choices; we do have resources. We can make a dent in this problem, if not solve it.

A recent study in the sporting world showed that penalty kick takers in soccer matches score their point 92% of the time when the score will produce an immediate win for their team; but they score their point only 60% of the time when the point will simply tie the match. That shows the power of psychology. Might we take a similar approach to social policy? If we feel we can succeed, if we have that will, we produce a much greater likelihood of success.

I encourage you to take a look at the results of the recent research on homelessness on the Wilder Research web site,

**“Homeless in America, Homeless in California”. Quigley, Raphael, Smolensky. The Review of Economics and Statistics, February 2001.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Respecting Different Perspectives -- Demanding Hard Evidence

“We need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence.” “The practice of listening to opposing views is essential to democracy.” Barak Obama’s opponents, supporters, and those in-between should find inspiration in his speech to the graduates of the University of Michigan this past weekend.

Obama encouraged members of our nation to “learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes”. If the liberal media commonly nourish your thinking and shape your opinions, pay some attention to the conservative media. Most of us mix with people in networks of familiarity and comfort. We should extend that zone, discovering the perspectives that others hold. No doubt at all that we could gain some valuable insights that might enrich our ability to work with others and to improve our communities.

Obama also quoted from Daniel Patrick Moynihan – advice which we at Wilder Research have taken to heart over many years: “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Yes. We like this point of view at Wilder Research; we hope that you do as well. We can’t know everything; but we must agree in common on what we do know, and then use that information as a platform for discussion, decision-making, and further action. We should insist that those who promote a specific course of action or a remedy for a problem build their case on a clear, nonpartisan, acceptable base of the most complete, up-to-date evidence – whether they want to recommend an approach to mental health treatment or the best way to confront the Taliban.

Can you rely on a drug or other treatment which a professional has prescribed? Only if it has received thorough testing and endorsement through valid, unbiased research. Do local, state, and federal social programs, for which we have paid billions of dollars, actually work? Do such programs have a positive return on the major investment we have put into them? Some certainly do work; some have a large, positive cost/benefit. Others, however, have never received a true test; we don’t understand their full value (or lack thereof).

In a world where sound bites can shape the public’s image of the world, where everyone can become his or her own publisher and distributor of “information” and opinions, and where groups with vested interests have powerful tools to selfishly coerce us to move our thinking in their direction – it becomes more important than ever to insist on really knowing the facts – facts which Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives can accept, even if they use those facts to draw completely opposite interpretations and conclusions.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Lifelong "Fight for Justice"

“She waged a fight for justice” – stated the headline in the Pioneer Press for its story about Katie McWatt, a longtime Saint Paul community leader. I first met Katie in about 1978, when I became involved in some initiatives in the Summit-University area. The neighborhood also had the moniker, Selby-Dale, which conjured negative images for many, especially those who lived outside the city and did not understand the true nature of city life and specifically life in this neighborhood, with its rich traditions, strong family networks, and of course, its leaders like Katie McWatt.

Katie can certainly serve as a model for the community leadership initiative which we are currently crafting with the Bush Foundation. Its purpose is to inspire and empower grassroots community leaders to make progress in their communities.

I think of her when I think of John Gardner’s contention that:

“Most leadership today is an attempt to accomplish purposes through (or in spite of) large, intricately organized systems. There is no possibility that centralized authority can call all the shots in such systems, whether the system is a corporation or a nation. Individuals in all segments and at all levels must be prepared to exercise leaderlike initiative and responsibility, using their local knowledge to solve problems at their level. Vitality at middle and lower levels of leadership can produce greater vitality in the higher levels of leadership.

What qualities of Katie might other community leaders – those working at the level which Gardner says can have such an effect on our vitality – want to emulate?

Awareness of self – perhaps first and foremost. She knew exactly who she was and what she wanted to accomplish. This provided a set of values which anchored her and sustained her through difficult situations. In addition, she visibly lived and communicated those values – something which effective leaders must do.

Selflessness. She did not self-promote, but always acted for others, for the community, even when it meant taking risks. Leadership, visibility in the public eye – these can bring about strong temptations to act in self-serving, arrogant ways; but Katie did not succumb to such temptations.

Vision. She dedicated herself to a future ideal. This served as a constant guide, influencing what she did in everything from working on community improvement through institutional channels such as service on boards (Hallie Q. Brown is the place where I think I first met her), to less conventional activities such as nonviolent protests, in the spirit of Martin Luther King.

Use of information, communication, networking. She based her efforts on a sound understanding of what was really happening in her community.

We should all aspire to develop these qualities. It’s what can make our communities great places to live. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s comforting to know that, in their own ways, leaders like Katie McWatt have commitment, have a vision, and are getting it done – with results that benefit not only those of us who live in Saint Paul, but those of us in this entire region, of which Saint Paul makes up an important, vibrant part of the center.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Progress for ALL - Making It Together

Do Minnesotans systematically look at the needs of our communities, collaborate to address them, and make progress in moving our quality of life in a positive direction? If forced to respond yes or no, I would have to say “no”.

Don’t misinterpret that “no”, however. Examples do exist of excellent work involving people across sectors and across communities (such as those featured in Minnesota Compass’ “Ideas at Work” sections). However, the complex challenges of today and the imperatives of tomorrow require that we do much more, and do it smarter.

What gets in the way of broad-scale community improvement? In some instances, lack of vision or accountability. In others, limited solutions result from convening just the usual suspects, with little invitation or accommodation to involve new voices. In other cases, partisan rancor and self-interest impede decision-making based on examination of unbiased research and the fostering of civil discourse..

Wilder Research wants to change that. Our Compass initiative seeks not simply to inform, but to inspire and to catalyze action in our communities to improve the quality of life. In addition, the Wilder Foundation’s Board has encouraged Wilder Research to do more “Community Research and Leadership” – that is, to bring people together around significant community issues, provide data as a guide, and see if we can create a common sense of purpose to improve our communities and resolve our issues in creative ways.

Now is clearly the time to move from data to action. If we act effectively – and I think we can – we will see the trend lines change for the good!

Over the coming months, we plan to convene groups to address the following:

School success. Why? Well, for example, about 3,600 children could have received high school diplomas last year from Saint Paul Public Schools, if they had not dropped out and if all graduated on time. Only about 1,960 did so, resulting in a graduation rate of about 55%. How can we focus our attention, to move this rate up to perhaps 65% in the next three years? How can we raise it to close to 100% by 2020?

Reasons vary as to why our children do not graduate; no single approach will get everyone through school. However, similar to proven methods for eliminating health problems, or reaching public health goals, we can address the issue in “chunks,” bite off as much as we can chew at any given time, and work to make incremental improvements year to year.

We want to bring together anyone who can play a role in moving the school success numbers in the right direction, and get us all to identify and implement action each of us will take to reach our goal.

Care of our aging residents, and care of their caregivers. Why? Well, for example, about 70,000 persons 60 and older in the East Metro have limited ability to accomplish normal activities of daily living. How many receive the formal care they need?

Most of these individuals receive some amount of assistance from a family member, relative, or other associate. How many of these informal caregivers receive the support they need to prevent or ameliorate the mental and physical health problems that develop among those who shoulder the burden of caring for an older person?

We want to bring together anyone who can play a role in helping to make sure that older adults and their caregivers receive the support they need, and get us all to identify and implement action each of us will take to reach our goal.

Youth development. The Twin Cities region has about 385,000 young people, ages 10-19. This group receives much attention related to its educational progress. However, their time spent out of school—with families, after-school programs, hanging out with peers, volunteering and working—also influences their development in powerful ways. Yet, the community does not typically focus on “youth development,” in a fashion similar to the focus on “early childhood development.” In addition, formal health care and other systems sometimes forget these kids, or don’t know the most effective ways to serve them (which can be all the more serious as a result of the typical teenage reticence to bring problems to the attention of adults, until those problems get worse).

Along with some foundations and other advisors, we will assemble information about this group. Then, we’ll discuss with anyone interested what the next best steps might be.

The vitality of our nonprofit organizations. Hundreds of nonprofit organizations currently face common challenges. Change is inevitable in the current social and economic environment. Challenges to sustainability exist for many. Can those of us in the nonprofit sector collaborate more effectively? Can we stretch resources, to work more efficiently and maintain our impacts, despite declining resources?

We plan to bring nonprofits together, in different settings, to see what creative approaches we might develop, to work together more efficiently, economically, and effectively. Increased resources will not be the answer. Creativity, ingenuity, willingness to change old styles of behavior – those will be positive, adaptive features that will move us forward. We expect that, if we can create the right circumstances for dialogue, together we can create many innovative and unexpected initiatives for improving their ability to continue having an impact on our communities.

If you have thoughts or suggestions, please let me know. I also recommend that you take a look at Eric Schubert’s thoughts in this past Sunday’s Pioneer Press. You will see words like “ideas,”“shared voice,” “civility,” “credible data” – all features of the convening we want to do. And, if you want to explore an "Ideas at Work"section in Compass, take a look at Education, or at any of the other topics.

I look forward to working with you!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Good Bye Ron, Hello Many Other Rons

“Do you want a ride, Dr. Paul?” The death of Ron Maddox, a few weeks ago, brought those words to mind – words he would shout on many mornings during my first years of working at the Wilder Foundation – whenever he drove by and saw me waiting for the bus, to travel to the Wilder Building on the corner of 5th and Washington in downtown Saint Paul (current site of the Ordway Theater). He, of course, had a Council member’s office at City Hall, a short distance from the Wilder Building.

The Pioneer Press story about his life characterized him as “a nonstop eruption of ideas, plans, gimmicks and projects for his beloved city.” (If you read Joe Soucheray’s recent column about Ron, you noticed that “eruption” was a literal, not figurative, description of his exchange of words with Norm Green at The Saint Paul Hotel in 1991.)

I frequently disagreed with Ron, either on the substance of his position or on the style of his approach. However, we had a respect for one another. He or his aide occasionally would call with questions, in the hope that I might enable them to see a new solution to a challenge they had to address. While they didn’t always accept my conclusions or agree with my advice, they always expressed appreciation for the insight, and they acknowledged the likely validity of my facts.

Several of Ron’s qualities deserve mention, for those of us dedicated to the success of Saint Paul. For one, he had a true, strong commitment to Saint Paul. He loved our city, believed in it, and dedicated his life’s efforts to the betterment of our residents. Many others in Saint Paul demonstrate this commitment, even though they have not entered into the public eye in the way that Ron did. I’ve witnessed their efforts in the city’s schools, which my children attended (one still does), on citizen work groups and task forces (multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational, in which residents joined together for the common good), and in other activities that have offered us the opportunity to work for our city.

Another of his positive qualities: a vision. He recognized the importance of constructing a vision – to inspire others and to provide a direction, a common goal to orient people’s plans. The importance of vision, along with the value of the people who have it and communicate it, has struck me over the years, as I’ve met with groups as varied as the Aurora-St. Anthony Block Clubs (now evolved into a Development Corporation), the East Side District 2 Community Council, University United, and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and many more too numerous to mention (which, of itself, testifies to the energy of our city’s residents). Some of the groups which power our city have developed from grass roots; all rely on volunteers, even if some have paid staff. Among all of them, we can see people with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit, who want to create a better future for us and for future residents.

And finally, one of Ron’s attitudes: “get it done”. Like any effective leader, he recognized that discussion works to a point, but then action must prevail. If you read the newspaper account of his life, you noted how he stepped in on many occasions when things were stuck, and he pulled them through to an effective conclusion.

The city has many Rons. I’ve mentioned above how I’ve witnessed them; I won’t name any, for fear of leaving someone out. It’s comforting to know that, in their own ways, so many residents have commitment, have a vision, and are getting it done – with results that benefit not only those of us who live in Saint Paul, but those of us in this entire region, of which Saint Paul makes up an important, vibrant part of the center.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Art?

A new art exhibit, “Remember Where You Come From,” goes on display soon at Wilder Center.

Why do we display art? Our first and fourth floor “galleries” provide venues for rotating exhibitions by local artists. What value does art bring to an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in our communities, especially for the most vulnerable?

You may have your own answer. Mine appears below.

Art brings variety to our senses. Typically, it decorates our environment with beauty. Sometimes, it confronts us face-to-face with ugliness. An environment with art stimulates and provokes any or all of our senses and creates impacts on our bodies and minds.

Art expands understanding and imagination. A book about poetry, which I read long ago, described a good poem as “a new door to an old, familiar room” – perhaps an apt metaphor for all art. Art brings new perspective on everyday personal and social issues, thus opening our eyes to new ways to improve our lives.

Art liberates. Artists rarely confine themselves to convention. They push the boundaries of current thought. They frequently question the legitimacy of common cultural beliefs and practices. Totalitarian governments typically have great disdain for artists; our freedom very much depends upon and reflects our art.

Art is therapeutic. The artist finds fulfillment and meaning in creation, which provides renewed energy to overcome physical, mental, social, and spiritual obstacles in life. The viewer can find fulfillment and meaning as well, either by interpreting the artist’s messages or by recasting the artwork in light of the viewer’s experiences and perspectives.

Art creates connections among human beings. A formal opening for an exhibit convenes many people. On a daily basis, interaction occurs by happenstance – two or more people happen to arrive at the same place, looking at the same piece of art; they engage in conversation (about the art or about something else).

The purpose of the Amherst H. Wilder Gallery is to present works of art that foster connections and conversations that broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves and of one another.

That statement succinctly indicates why we feature art in our building. We should never doubt its importance to our mission. As we end this first decade of the 21st century, social and economic trends have created a collision between increasing community needs, but stable or declining resources to meet those needs. Solutions for our communities, our nations, and our world require creativity, imagination, and energy. For our part, we have the goal to convene and engage members of our community to work on the issues we face. Art inspires, supports, and motivates us in that endeavor.

(We cordially invite you to attend the formal opening and reception of our newest exhibit – on Thursday, March 4, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. at Wilder Center.)

Friday, February 05, 2010

More Thoughts about Education

On Thursday, at a seminar to advance an initiative to develop “Learning Campuses” in Saint Paul, several speakers offered comments which stimulated my thinking:

Patrick Bryan, Principal at Jackson Magnet: “Educational success is not just academics. It is academics plus resilience, the ability to set goals, self-confidence, curiosity, a sense of meaning …” He suggested the motto: “Every kid, every day, after school.”

Mary Kay Boyd, Board member of St. Paul Children’s Collaborative and long-time educator: “Systems don’t always understand what’s happening at the ground level – for example, they don’t always understand all the things that families do to educate their children…We can’t just transplant models that worked somewhere else and expect them to work in Saint Paul. We’ve got to create what works for Saint Paul.”

Kathy Lentz, Greater Twin Cities United Way: “Learning is a continuum. It starts prenatally. It includes reading by grade 3, good out-of-school activities, academic and involvement activities. We have to align and integrate all that we do for all of children’s lives.”

Nan Skelton: “We really need to plan for 2020, not for what we see today. It’s important to understand all the trends, not just those we associate with education.”

John Mueller, St. Paul Federation of Teachers: "This spring, at our conference, there will be many opportunities in the program for teachers and community partners to dialogue."

Clearly, more people recognize that learning occurs over time; it involves a combination of formal and informal experiences. All of us are both learners and educators. It will be exciting to see what develops.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Obstacles to College Access - One Solution

“Any country that fails to encourage and develop the talent in each individual through its public school system will suffer greatly, because the quality of a nation depends on the collective wisdom of both its leaders and its citizens.”

Bruce Alberts, the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine offered that thought – addressing an issue of major significance for our nation and others: A college degree has increasingly become significantly important – not just for individuals who aspire to better jobs, but for our society which needs a competent workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 80% of “growth occupations” will require a college degree. Yet obstacles to learning, for low income students and students of color – whose numbers have increased greatly – have impeded many of these young people from achieving their potential and reaching college.

So, I took special note of recent news from Admission Possible. This Saint Paul organization identifies low-income young people with talent and motivation and assists them to earn admission to college; it plans to expand to as many as 10 cities. Both this program and the issue it addresses merit our consideration.

Wilder Research evaluated Admission Possible in the mid-2000s. Our objective, systematic look at the program revealed very positive results.

During the time of our study, the program enrolled high school students from families with incomes in the bottom half of family incomes in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. About 90 percent were youth of color. These students face many barriers to attending college, beginning at a young age. Nonetheless, 100% of program participants who graduated from high school in 2005 received an acceptance from at least one college; 91% actually enrolled in the fall. Among African-American participants, 98% enrolled in college, compared with 85-90% among other racial/ethnic groups.

No single strategy or type of program will eliminate the achievement gap or remove all the obstacles to educational success for low income students and students of color. However, this is one approach which can deliver positive results for at least some high potential young people.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The "Love" That King Inspires

This morning, the Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery recalled in his keynote speech at the Martin Luther King Holiday Breakfast that Dr. King was a visionary, crusader, preacher, and revolutionary who could “illuminate the past, understand the present, and envision the future”. King created a dream – a dream that took shape during a time of great awakening for the United States, also a time when violence silenced forward-looking and prophetic voices.

During my junior and senior high school years in New York City, one assassination followed another: John F. Kennedy; Malcolm X; Martin Luther King; and Robert Kennedy (whose death was the major topic of conversation at my graduation ceremony). Many of us of that generation witnessed events which appalled us, yet intensified our resolve and determination to make a difference in the world.

To fulfill the dream of King, Dr. Lowery admonished us to move from “charity” to “love”. Charity is OK; it’s not a bad thing. However, charity is seasonal; love is everlasting. Charity is selective; love is all inclusive. Charity may or may not embrace justice; love always embraces justice. Borrowing from another metaphor, he equated charity with “giving people a fish so they can eat today”. Love, he equated with “teaching people how to fish”. However, he went even further, to indicate that love entails not just building people’s skills so that they can sustain themselves; it also involves addressing systemic issues – “checking the water to make sure it’s clean enough for fish to thrive”, and preventing pollution from occurring in the first place.

Poverty, pollution, economic decline, disparities – the list of structural issues in our society could continue. For us, what’s important is the understanding that we can and should extend a hand to help people with their immediate needs. However, we need to move beyond that charitable endeavor to change systems, policies, and institutions which constrain people’s initiative, no matter how capable they might be and no matter how hard they might try. We need to understand and improve the social determinants of health and well-being.

At Wilder, we’ve acknowledged that improving our community requires attention to immediate needs (mostly through services that we provide). We have recognized as well that we must attend to larger, systemic conditions (mostly through our research and leadership activities). That’s the complete approach – which acts earnestly to achieve the “love” which Lowery recommends and which Dr. King inspires.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Food Stamp Use + More Wall Street Bonuses = A Threatening Mixture of Ingredients

As you shop for groceries or eat your next meal, consider this:

  • About one in eight U.S. residents receives food stamps.
  • About six million people nationally have no other source of income except food stamps.
  • In Minnesota, the average monthly number of people receiving food stamps rose every year from 2002 to 2008. (When final numbers appear for 2009, I suspect we will see an increase as well.)
  • More than 40,000 Minnesotans may be living on no income other than food stamps, according to information reported by MinnPost from the Department of Human Services.
  • In Minnesota, about one in 12 people lives below the poverty line; in the U.S. as a whole, it’s about one in 8.

People with no income other than food stamps comprise the extreme tip of a larger iceberg created by the current economy. As profiled in the January 3 Sunday New York Times, many of them dropped suddenly into this situation from middle class lifestyles, as a result of losing jobs that had paid decent wages. In the current difficult economic environment, everyone knows someone out of work.

A public official opined something to the effect that providing food stamps and similar benefits indefinitely might foster reliance on the government welfare system. While I’m always open to new findings which will shape my opinions, I have to say that, so far, no evidence has come to my attention to indicate that people who receive food stamps, who have no cash income, and who double up with relatives or live in a shelter develop a liking for that condition.

Our economic challenges will not disappear soon. The Department of Labor reports that the downward trend in jobs continues; nationally, 85,000 disappeared in December. We have an unemployment rate at about 10%; and the underemployment rate, which includes people who gave up looking for work as well as people who took part time jobs to replace fulltime positions – could be 17% or more. No trends have yet emerged to indicate that the “stimulus” has had a major impact.

In the short term, concern and compassion for the less fortunate must motivate us to meet the immediate needs of those in our community. (Lack of effort or determination has not caused people to find themselves in bad economic circumstances. Many have led honest, hard-working lives, only to have their livelihoods destroyed by circumstances outside of their control, precipitated by people who were not so honest.) In the long term, we must collaborate with others around the nation and the world on issues such as economic development and the distribution of natural resources to needy nations – if we want to eliminate the underlying conditions that produce poor health, human suffering, and social deterioration, not to mention the breeding of terrorism.

National and local recovery from the current economic hardships will require all of us to contribute; it will require all of us to tighten our belts. Which leads me to other facts which have astounded the public recently.

As you examine your next paycheck, consider this:

  • Goldman Sachs is expected to pay its employees an average of about $595,000 apiece for 2009.
  • Workers in the investment bank of JP Morgan Chase will receive an average of about $463,000.

Corporate executives – some of them the same people responsible for causing the banking and housing industry problems which have devastated our economy – have now entered “bonus season”. Wall Street traders who created derivatives – they will receive big bonuses. Wall Street traders who bundled mortgages into “collateralized debt obligations”, sold them to investors, but then bet against them behind the scenes so the traders would profit when the investors lost – they will receive bonuses.

Again, I’m always open to new facts that will shape my opinions, but I have not seen any evidence that large salaries and bonuses for Wall Street executives, or huge rewards for dishonest traders, stimulate or nurture the democratic, capitalist system that we value.

Meanwhile the news amuses us with stories of NBC’s dispute with two talk show hosts, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, who together earn $50 million plus per year.

People living on nothing but food stamps, others making millions. How long do we think that our communities can survive unless we address the issue of poverty among some in the midst of such great abundance among others?

(To examine trend and background information related to these issues, see for example: Twin Cities Compass; New York Times; MinnPost. Food Support (Food Stamp) trends for Minnesota appear in the Quarterly Economic Pulse. )

Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Year at Wilder Research

10 years ago, we feared we might wake up to Y2K havoc. As we transition to the teens, what do we call the first decade of the 21st century? The “ones”? The “Os”? “The aughts”?

Whatever we call them, the opening years of this century did not bring Y2K, but they did bring many other challenges and opportunities. At Wilder Research, we look forward to continuing to collaborate with you to take full advantage of the skills and reputation we have gained through the long legacy of Wilder’s community-oriented research, along with the current resources which the Foundation can dedicate to meeting needs and improving our community.

The Board of the Wilder Foundation has decided that Wilder will focus on:

  • Children and Families
  • The Elderly
  • Community Research and Leadership

In establishing that third focus, the Board formally acknowledged something very significant: Meeting the needs of vulnerable people and others who need assistance, along with promoting the quality of life for all of us and preventing problems before they occur, cannot be accomplished solely by providing direct services. We, as a community, do not have the combination of resources, systems, organizations, and services to satisfy the duty we feel as a result of the compassionate, caring values which we share.

So, at Wilder Research, we take Community Research and Leadership very seriously. Over the coming years, we will continue to dedicate the efforts of our 80+ staff to work with you to identify how we can have more impact with limited resources. What can our communities do better? What can our nonprofit organizations do better? What can government do better? Let’s determine this, and take steps to implement worthwhile improvements.

We hope to bring people together and empower them to care for others, to build better organizations and communities, and to create new ways of thinking and new policies that will improve everyone’s quality of life. “Leadership” does not mean that the Wilder Foundation or Wilder Research has all the answers, knows the best direction to pursue, or expects to dictate anything to others. It does mean that, as a foundation, we have an obligation to stimulate, enlighten, and engage people in ways that human service delivery organizations and government cannot. We can put the best interests of our metro area in the forefront and act in a nonpartisan way to bring together people of all types and perspectives in literally hundreds of small efforts and large initiatives – to foster positive change.

Research has historically led individuals and communities to consider new options, to think in new ways. Wilder’s Community Research activities began in the teens of the 20th century. We are the oldest existing part of the Foundation. Heightened emphasis on Community Research and Leadership, during the teens of the 21st century carries out the intent of our founders and gives our community a precious resource for ongoing improvement of our well-being.

Again, we look forward to all we can do with and for you during the years ahead.

Happy New Year!