Standing in front of more than 500 employers, community leaders, elected officials, educators and students at the Grow Our Own Summit, 24-year-old Adam Strong of Kentucky shared deeply personal details of growing up in a
poor, dysfunctional family. He spoke of getting beat up on his way to school, substance abuse in his home, foster care and experiences unimaginable to many of us.
“I am not an anomaly,” Adam said. And he’s right. In our region, 11,000, or one in six kids lives in poverty. That number is the reason for Southwest Initiative Foundation’s new focus.
“This is monumental for Southwest Initiative Foundation and our region,” said SWIF Board Chair Bob Thurston. “Nearly two years ago when our board and staff were doing strategic planning, we dove deep into data and trends in southwest
Minnesota. Looking ahead, we’ll continue the work we do best, like business finance, community philanthropy, grantmaking and early childhood, all with a focus on helping our next generation succeed right here in our region.”
We’re calling this work Grow Our Own and it was officially launched at the
December 15 summit in Marshall. Its focus is the “opportunity gap” faced by American youth, where the division of economic classes is widening and children born into poor families are unable to access the opportunities they need to become successful. Research shows that not all of these kids—no matter how hard they try—will be able to reach their full potential.
“Too many kids in our region aren’t getting the best possible start to their lives,” SWIF President/CEO Diana Anderson said. “We can, and must, do something to change that.” Diana said leaders across the state and country are watching SWIF’s work unfold.
Coming together at the summit
Experts, including summit keynote speaker Robert D. Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, illustrated how kids from low-income families have less access to everything from quality early childhood education to Advanced Placement
courses in high school to sport and enrichment activities that provide mentoring, teambuilding and other life-long skills they need to be good citizens and good employees.
Professor Putnam also pointed out that people saying “our kids” used to mean all kids in the community, not just their own children, and we must get back to that in our society. “Our sense of ‘we’ has shriveled,” he said. “This is a big deal
for all of us.”
Additional speakers included Kevin Walker, President & CEO of the Northwest Area Foundation; Kelly Monson, Minnesota Children’s Cabinet, Office of Governor Mark Dayton & Lt. Governor Tina Smith; Janet Topolsky, The Aspen Institute; and Kathleen Moxon, YouthBuild USA. Joe Sertich facilitated discussions that got
participants sharing ideas and talking about what they see in their own communities.
Adam capped the day with a message of hope. In addition to his trials, he talked about being supported by safety net programs and receiving food bags from local churches. When his second grade teacher realized Adam couldn’t read, he received extra help and attended after-school and summer programs. He was laid off from his first job after high school but was introduced to YouthBuild, a nonprofit that
provides career pathways for low-income youth to learn skills and serve their communities.
He put himself through community college and earned his bachelor’s degree, and today is a medical laboratory scientist and advocate for changes that will help others reach their American Dream.
“I just was given the right opportunities at the right time,” Adam said. “If we give these opportunities to other kids in poverty, they’ll be just as successful… We can’t just hope and pray that kids aren’t born into a poor family.”
Sharing the message
Participants have taken this message back to their communities, in large part thanks to the summit’s 54-member volunteer outreach committee. This group
worked with SWIF from July through December, serving as a sounding board for our early work and recruiting summit attendees.
Beginning just days after the summit, examples of local action were popping up throughout the region. The Redwood Area Youth Foundation kicked off a
campaign to pay off all past-due student lunch account balances in their district. A Hutchinson book club is reading Professor Putnam’s Our Kids. A group in
Luverne is working to end “pay-to-play” and “pay-towatch” so all students can participate in extracurricular activities. People in the Ortonville area are exploring
weekend food programs for students.
Media coverage has also boosted this work, including a partnership with Pioneer Public Television to air a special summit program April 20 at 9 p.m. and April 23 at 12:30 p.m.
“Southwest Initiative Foundation will be thoughtful as we move forward with the Grow Our Own work,” Diana said. “This is economic development and we’re
approaching it from cradle to career. These kids are our future employees, entrepreneurs, community leaders, volunteers, homeowners and taxpayers,
and our region’s economy depends on their success.”
Regional report guides work
The University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy has been working with community foundations like ours across the country to understand regional data and trends. Director of Research on Vulnerable Families Marybeth Mattingly presented at the Grow Our Own Summit and authored a report released in February, “A Profile of Youth Poverty and Opportunity in Southwestern Minnesota.”
SWIF will use this information to guide community conversations about the
opportunity gap and local strategies to close it.
Open invitation for community presentations
Want to share this work and research with your community? SWIF staff are ready to visit with civic groups, schools, employers, city or county officials, faith communities, diverse communities and more.
Contact Nancy Kaping at [email protected] or 800-594-9480 to request a presentation.