Mind the Gap

Thursday, May 18, 2017

By Dennis Cass

How two Minnesota foundations are reframing the war on poverty


In May 2015, the Duluth News Tribune ran an editorial advocating against raising extracurricular activities fees for students who receive free and reduced lunch. Responding to a quote from a local high school activity director, the editorial first acknowledged an argument for these fees. The point was not that they raised revenue, but that "requiring a monetary investment encourages a stronger commitment from the kids." The thinking was that if families had to pay to participate in activities such as sports, theater and band, then the students would be less likely to quit.

 “When you first hear about the fees you might think that that sounds about right,” says Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation spokesman Rob Karwath. “If a kid is going to participate then I guess they should pay for it.”

But Karwath says that the “pay for play” question happened to hit the community during a time when local leaders were waking up to a new way of looking at poverty and privilege. Earlier that month Harvard social scientist Dr. Robert Putnam had given a talk at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation’s annual gathering. Speaking in support of his newest book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Putnam noted that free and equal access to extracurricular activities had historically had the positive effective of giving kids from all backgrounds chances at personal development and access to positive adult role models. Now those opportunities were increasingly being denied to low-income families and families of color. One person’s nominal fee is another person’s barrier to entry. Putnam’s umbrella term of these kinds of financial and racial disparities is the “Opportunity Gap.”

“Putnam opened our eyes to what we were doing,” Karwath says. “This issue raised concerns at the highest levels of the community. His ideas immediately had an impact.”

The Duluth school system tabled raising the extracurricular activities fees. Since then the Opportunity Gap has continued to animate the work of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.

Putnam’s Message Resonates with Foundations Across Minnesota

Independently, the Southwest Initiative Foundation has also embraced Putnam’s ideas. Both foundations are in the early stages of implementing new programs aimed at addressing the Opportunity Gap. Each has tailored the basic concepts of Putnam’s work for their own particular needs and communities, but both foundations show how a single idea can reframe an old obstacle (in this case poverty) and help communities address a seemingly intractable problem.

Diana Anderson, president and CEO of the Southwest Initiative Foundation, was also inspired by hearing Putnam speak. In January 2015—after 14 years in various roles for the foundation—Anderson was named president and CEO. Around that time the organization’s old strategic plan was coming to a close. While working on the research and planning for the new strategic plan, Anderson and her group took a data-driven approach, honing in on the demographic realities of where she lived. They discovered that there were 10,000 children, ages birth to 18 years old, living in poverty in the Southwest region. From birth to five years old, the number was 4,500. With that troubling information on their minds, Anderson and her team heard Robert Putnam’s talk at the national Council on Foundations annual meeting in San Francisco in April of 2015.

“It was like the light went on,” Anderson says. “We walked out of the presentation and we were like, This is it.”

One of the advantages both DSACF and the Southwest Initiative Foundation have gained from using the Opportunity Gap lens is that they can align internal and external stakeholders using a common language.

“There’s a tension between following the lead of our donors and what they want to do and taking a stand on something that seems too important to ignore and directing their energy toward that,” Anderson says. “The Opportunity Gap helps us engage donors and stakeholders, figure out how to meet people where they are and create a compelling message for them.”

“Having worked with children and families for the past 25 years I was well aware of the Opportunity Gap and have watched it grow over time,” says Beth Olson via email. Olson, who is the executive director of First Witness, a child advocacy center for abused children in the Duluth area, notes that Putnam’s work provides an essential vocabulary around the policies that make the Opportunity Gap worse. “The most important thing [Our Kids] does is talk about how our public systems support this growing Opportunity Gap and the need to fix the system in addition to supporting individual children and families.”

As well as providing a common language around poverty, Putnam encourages communities to experiment. Addressing the Opportunity Gap is broken down into five buckets of need (Family and Parenting, Early Childhood, K-12 Years, Neighborhoods and Communities, and “On Ramps” to Success), but how each community addresses those buckets is up to them. To foster this spirit of innovation—and to create buy-in from a broad cross section of the community—both the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and the Southwest Initiative Foundation convened action groups that could speak to the complexity of the problem.

“After Putnam came to speak at our annual party there were so many people from different sectors who had enthusiasm around this idea,” says Holly C. Sampson, president and CEO of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. “We brought together twelve members representing business, education, religion, the public sector and community activism. We’d never brought this kind of group together around an issue like poverty, but we needed a group like this to make sure we were representing the entire community.”

“All I did was present the data,” says Anderson of the Southwest Initiative Foundation. “Here’s Putnam’s research. Here’s where our community stands in terms of kids in poverty, kids who get free and reduced lunch. What followed was generated by the community. They shared experiences. They told stories. We had a business leader who said, I had no idea. These kids you are talking about don’t come into my business. Then the school superintendent chimed in about what was going on in the school system. Then a city council member spoke up. In the end they developed a four-step platform of what needed to be done immediately in the community.”


Poverty Is About More Than Income Disparity

In addition to generating ideas and getting buy-in, the community-driven approach also helps leaders see how the issue of poverty needs to be reframed as more than a matter of insufficient income. Central to the Opportunity Gap is the idea that many of the advantages that white and middle- to upper-class kids have are not only pervasive but also invisible. Not only does a more privileged kid not sweat having to pay a usage fee for after-school sports, but her mom can give her a ride to practice and tournaments, while her dad can sit down for homework help at night because he only has to work one job to make ends meet.

Lisa Dinger is coordinator for Luverne Child Guide, a school community program that's designed to meet the needs of at-risk and pre-at-risk children. Once a child is referred to the program, Dinger helps them with everything from basic needs to educational support to social support.

“Our grassroots effort is to inclusively involve different entities in our community and different social groups and to bring them all together to try and help close the gap,” she says via email. “It’s going back to simplify things and leveling the playing field for everyone and raising our kids instead of just our own. Finances should not be the factor that determines success. We are trying to organize a one-stop shop for those in need. One place that will be a resource for them to get the help they need for themselves and their family and to have a mentor walk along side them to guide them along the way."

“We’re learning from the community school model,” says Holly C. Sampson, whose group studied two successful low-income schools in the Duluth-Superior area. “We listened to their parent advisory groups and saw all the types of support services that embrace those families—health care, mental health resources, parenting education and so on. This also pushed us in the direction of making sure that children and families experiencing poverty—and in particular people of color—were involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of these programs.”

As of this writing, both organizations are too early in the process to have measured results. The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation announced its first Opportunity Gap grants in August 2016. The Southwest Initiative Foundation plans on announcing its first awards this spring. Nevertheless the impact of this new approach is already being felt. The DSACF has already used the Opportunity Gap lens to rethink some of its collage scholarship programs. Meanwhile Diana Anderson says the Opportunity Gap lens has led to greater alignment within her organization.

“We like to think of ourselves as opportunity seizers,” she says. “In the past when the phones rang and someone came to us with a great idea we immediately wanted to get involved. But the work we’re doing with the Opportunity Gap has flipped things on their head. Now we find ourselves saying ‘no’ if there isn’t a fit. Now our board recognizes that we’re in a unique position to do more than great programming. Now we can provide thought leadership within the region.”