By Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice, a policy research and advocacy organization focused on a more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota. Growth & Justice is also a Generation Next partnership member.
The enlistment of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to lead Generation Next puts our Twin Cities cradle-to-career movement “on the map’’ for many who were unaware, and the front-page news of his decision elevates our profile for those who were just barely aware. Few leaders in the state have as much star power, and substance and respect, as R.T. In my conversations about Generation Next since his announcement a few weeks ago, I can just feel the heightened interest and awareness..
I’ve known R.T. since we were both young staff writers at the Minneapolis Star in the early 1980s. I’ve noticed how his remarkable success as mayor has been achieved in part with superior wordsmithing skill, choosing just the right phrases to articulate his values and priorities. He again chose just the right words in breaking the news that he would become executive director in January. The phrase he chose is displayed prominently on the GN website: “Improving education for all children is clearly the civil rights issue of our time.’’ Those word bring the racial dimension of our unacceptable Twin Cities opportunity gap in to perspective, and make it clear that this is a moral imperative.
The mayor also used the right words in describing how gap-closing is a business imperative: “If we can close the gap in our schools, our increasingly diverse next generation can help our businesses soar in a global economy where the most important skill is to cross cultural barriers. Kids in our schools do that every single day, and they can teach us how if we can only teach them better.”
Reviews and reaction to the news was overwhelmingly positive, and the round-up of reaction by Beth Hawkins at MinnPost reflected the good will. Hawkins noted that Rybak is “in his element’’ when he interacts with youth, citing AchieveMPLS CEO Pam Costain, who said: “The things that RT brings that others do not is incredible connections…I think there’s honestly no public figure who cares more about kids. I’m just excited to have that passion.’’ An encouraging response was issued by Center of the American Experiment’s founder and president, Mitch Pearlstein, whose conservative think-tank is hardly a predictable ally of the DFL mayor. The mayor, Pearlstein wrote, is “not one to shy away from acknowledging tough and sensitive matters when talking about what’s holding back enormous numbers of boys and girls…’’ Pearlstein added that Generation Next is “potentially the most important education prod in town.’’
The elevation of opportunity gap-closing as THE top priority for political and business leaders in the Twin Cities, not just in north Minneapolis, was wrapped up nicely in a post-mortem on city and school board elections by Star Tribune editorial columnist Lori Sturdevant. She noted that the newspaper’s own polling showing that education equity had become a top concern of city voters. Noting the influence of 64-year-old mayoral candidate Don Samuels and his wife Sondra and the Northside Achievement Zone, Sturdevant wrote: “It’s dawning (on voters and leaders) that educational underachievement among minority kids is not a problem that can be confined to one side of town. With minority population growth outpacing that of the white majority, the future economy of the whole region is at risk if minority kids in Minneapolis aren’t better educated. The Minneapolis achievement gap is everybody’s problem.’’
The gap is just as worrisome in St. Paul, the suburbs and in rural and Greater Minnesota. Rybak compared the crisis to the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, and argued that we didn’t “spend years talking about how it fell down, and a couple more thinking about how we could fix it; we raced in to the water and broke down every barrier possible to get it rebuilt as fast as it possibly could. If we can do this about a piece of infrastructure, then surely we can dothat with the future of our next generation.’’