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.