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The Big Picture: Dane Smith and Maureen Ramirez on justice, jobs, and education

John Spayde speaking with Dane Smith and Maureen Ramirez
John Spayde speaking with Dane Smith and Maureen Ramirez
Dane Smith, President of Growth and Justice, describes the nonprofit as "a broad-range, multipurpose think tank that looks at all the factors that can build a stronger, more equitable economy." Note that link between economic strength and equity--that's the keynote of G and J's research and writing, working against the idea that social justice is an economic drain. On the contrary, G and J (which is one of The Line's sponsors, and advises us on equity issues) asserts that equity is a builder and driver of prosperity for all.

A major current project, in its beginning stages, is called Smart Investments in Workforce Development--a study of how public/private sector commitment to helping lower-income Minnesotans get the training they need for better-paying jobs can benefit all sectors. It builds on an older initiative, called Workforce First.(The new project has produced a report by Minneapolis Community and Technical College Assistant Vice President of Workforce Development Michael Christenson on how workforce development and other private-public partnerships helped turn the declining Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis around.)

Jon Spayde of
The Line took part in a walk-and-talk with Smith and G and J's Research and Policy Director, Maureen Ramirez, along University Avenue near G and J's offices. Then, when Ramirez had to leave for the U of M, where she is a regent, he continued the conversation with Smith in his office.

The Line: "Direct, equity-focused workforce training, sector-specific"--that's the mantra of your current work, isn't it, Dane Smith?

Dane Smith: Yes, those are the buzzwords for what we're into. Equity-focused means for the people who need it the most: long-term unemployed, communities of color. There's a huge employment gap between them and white Twin Citians. And sector-specific means jobs that are right there--in specific industries.

The Line: Maureen Ramirez, postsecondary education is the linchpin of the effort, right?

Maureen Ramirez: It's an important part. What I like about the Smart Investments in Workforce Development project is that it brings a number of things together: Workforce development, education, and equity. And having all three of those conversations at once is what's new and exciting; I don't think all three get together all the time.

My background is in higher ed, and there's obviously a role for that, whether it's at the community college level or beyond. At the end the day, education is how you're getting productive workers, it's how people who live here can go out and get a good job.

Workforce development is the way that businesses like to talk about education. If you call it that, they listen, they get engaged. Of course, when we talk about education and training, we also want to make sure that we're moving people into jobs in an equitable way--and providing a long-term, sustainable, and living wage--not churning people through entry-level stuff. The big picture is, how do we create an economy that's both stronger and more fair?

We're really looking at specific sectors of the economy in the Twin Cities and asking, is there a skills gap here? And how do we bridge it? And where is this already being done? And  there are plenty of places where it is being done, plenty of examples to lift up.

A Workforce Focus

The Line: So G and J is choosing to focus on moving people up the educational ladder via postsecondary education, getting them qualified for better-paying jobs, rather than lobbying for minimum-wage increases or other improvements that would immediately benefit low-wage workers.

Dane Smith: There are other groups that are working on that, though we completely agree that labor needs to be paid better. One of the big conundrums of the global economy right now is why isn't it producing for more people? It's quite true that the one percent has a greater share of the economy than it's ever had. By any measure you want to use, people in the eighty percent have lost ground. Lower wages, fewer benefits. This is a function of global competition, an economy that is changing rapidly to brain power, so that people who have that higher education are rewarded more handsomely for it.

And another big part of it is political, too, frankly. More conservative policy has consciously put more money in the hands of fewer people, we believe. So we do need to make sure that people are paid more for their work, that they have things like health care.

But right now, given the extremely high unemployment rate in communities of color and among low-income people in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and suburbs--and in some parts of greater Minnesota too--we believe that a fast track toward folks getting the skills they need to get better jobs, and to lure employers from other places with the promise of a skilled workforce, is the right place to be right now.

The Line: The Line pays a lot of attention to the "creative class"—tech-centered innovators. Are we talking about helping folks gain entry there?

Dane Smith: There's creativity in every human, as we know, and it's grossly underdeveloped among low-income folks. If they just had the skills that would put them into the virtual world in a regular way, we know we would get ideas and productivity that would help us all.

But even the older parts of the economy are demanding these skills. A car mechanic today has to practically be an electronics engineer, with a high level of math and science that just wasn't necessary a few years ago. Every part of the economy is changing to require more knowledge and more skill.

Common Ground

The other reason that we're interested in this is that there's such unanimity around the idea. We try to find common ground. We're big on this equity-focused workforce development issue because the business community is so supportive of it. We consider ourselves business-oriented progressives.

The Chamber and the Minnesota Business Partnership, the big dogs among the business interest groups, understand this; they are totally involved with us and others in workforce development. I wish they would more often support the taxes it takes to do this kind of work, but that's a discussion for another day.

To give yourself some idea of the strategies involved, you can look at All Hands on Deck, a report by the Governor's Workforce Development Council produced under the Pawlenty administration. It's fifteen great ideas for strengthening Minnesota's workforce. Including: helping people with disabilities. Lifelong learning accounts. "Reducing cost barriers to credential attainment," which is simply lowering tuition. Helping students navigate roadblocks and opportunities. This is more direct help for kids of color and kids who have no experience with college whatsoever--their parents haven't been--it's a morass, to make your way through college. I know this because I was just dealing with student aid forms for my own daughter and son. And early track--getting kids focused on a post-secondary goal in eighth, ninth, tenth grade.

Our policy goal is a dramatic increase in postsecondary completion, period. Right now only about 50 to 60 percent of our kids, by age thirty, have any kind of postsecondary completion--a lot of them have gone a little bit, haven't finished, dropped out--we want to get that to 75 percent by the end of this decade. We're not necessarily talking about the four-year degree; we're talking about a one- or two-year certificate that allows you to be a paramedic, a barber, or whatever. And to use the state's enormous--and yes, declining--resources to invest in this. There's nothing more important in the whole realm of what government does than this kind of investment: in infrastructure and workforce.

This notion that government is some gigantic welfare check is just baloney. Welfare is three percent of the total. We're fighting against that mindset all the time, acting as an anti-defamation league for the public sector. I do some thirty or forty commentaries a year, explaining what government really does and why we should keep paying our taxes.

Back to the Founders

The Line: What are the historical, intellectual roots of this idea that government should invest in developing the infrastructure and the workforce?

Dane Smith: It goes back to the Founders. I just wrote a piece called "The Founding Federalists," about how strong Washington and Hamilton in particular--the Federalists--were on the power to tax and invest for the public good, in the things they knew would help build a prosperous society. And one of the first things that America did right after its birth was invest in canals and other public works. These investments paid off handsomely; they turned New York into the dominant city in the world. And then the other American thing that got going was universal, taxpayer-supported, mandated, non-optional public education. That built human capital in a way that no other nation had even attempted. By the middle of the 1800s we were easily the most broadly educated nation in the world.

Local Successes

The Line: What projects along these lines do you most admire locally?

Dane Smith: There's a whole lot of recognition of this need and a whole lot of funding at both government and nonprofit levels, and public-private partnerships for workforce development. Project for Pride in Living is blue-chip. Another is the Jeremiah Program. They take low-income, unmarried single moms, and take care of them and their children. The families live in the facility. The children are given first-rate early-childhood education--and we know how important that is to breaking the cycle of poverty--and the moms are required to get a postsecondary credential.

They are so hard-core about this that they don't allow the cheap kinds of degrees that don't lead to careers; they have to get broader degrees than just, say, cosmetology. A two-year degree at least. That's a classic case of workforce development that's aimed at both mother and child to break the cycle of poverty. We know that one of the key indicators for a child's success is the education level of the mother.

There are literally dozens of efforts out there. Saint Paul College and MCTC are probably the major higher-education institutions where this workforce development work is going on, and North Hennepin has some great stuff going on too. We're just beginning to catalogue the best examples and organize our ideas on the new project.

Education: From Cradle to Career

This is part of our broader focus on education from cradle to career. We've always been advocates for much more investment in early-childhood education, especially for the poorest families, who need it most. Cradle to career, comprehensive investment along the whole way--we think this is hands down the most obvious and best way to build a better society.

Education has been whipsawed by single solutions. Somebody comes along and says, what we need is school uniforms. Relatively random ideas that seem to show some correlation with solving one piece of the puzzle. Even something like better teachers, which is probably a good idea, is just a single idea; everybody keeps putting all their eggs in one basket. But the secret is that there is not single secret. It has to be thought of as a comprehensive investment from cradle to career.

That's how wealthy, successful people raise wealthy, successful kids. They start investing in them early. They send them to music camps. They send them to Switzerland!

The Line: It seems like you would need a single entity to correlate the cradle-to-career arc. Who would that be?

Dane Smith: A good question, though I prefer questions to which I have an answer!

Actually, there's something coming along called the Strive Network. It's supported by the key elites in this community: United Way, General Mills, the African American Leadership Forum, which is most of the top African-American professionals in the Twin Cities. A lot of corporate buy-in, a lot of foundation buy-in, teachers, parents, school districts.

You're familiar with the Promise Neighborhoods and the Northside Achievement Zone. They focus on this cradle-to-career thing, but in a really small area. (See The Line's coverage here.) This project has a wider focus.

Both diversity and inequality are spreading throughout the Twin Cities area. We know now that 30 percent of kids in Minnesota under the age of five are kids of color--that is a huge difference from our historic demographic makeup. And in many inner-ring suburbs, the nonwhite demographic in public schools is pushing up into 20, 30, 40 percent.

So we need an all-Twin Cities approach; we need a partnership among public, private, nonprofits to oversee it, set benchmarks, mobilize groups of people to get this work done, to fund the best practices. And we are really just now getting started with that, and the Strive thing is a really promising effort. So watch for that--it will probably be announced in a month or two. It's the best thing I've seen yet that aims at comprehensive, cradle-to-career investment, with everybody in the community as a partner monitoring it and driving it.

"Equity is the Superior Growth Model"

It's hard work. But I think it is the biggest public policy challenge of our times--how to have a more equal and prosperous society. We just can't continue down this path of fewer and fewer people having more and more, and more and more people having less and less.

We do it by linking equality and prosperity indissolubly. There's this mantra we are trying to popularize: "Equity is the superior growth model." Angela Glover Blackwell, who is the head of a national group called PolicyLink, is the main apostle of this mantra right now. That anything we can do to improve the status of people who are falling behind will actually help the economy in the long run. It may require higher taxes on wealthy people, or on the fortunate top fifth of us who are doing okay or at least better.

This is not some socialist plot. This is classic American distributism. I avoid the term redistribution, because that's what's happening right now. Were having a redistribution--a maldistribution--toward a wealthy one percent. I don't want to get religious, but my theological understanding is that God gave the earth and its resources to all of us to share roughly equally. So I'm just standing behind the Bible on that one.

Photos of Jon Spayde (in white shirt), Maureen Ramirez, and Dane Smith by Bill Kelley.




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