More than 500 people flooded Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall for SWIF’s Grow Our Own Summit on December 15. The event brought in individuals from all over Minnesota, with some attendees coming from as far as Pennsylvania. With the goal of equipping all attendees with knowledge and a sense of urgency in this work, SWIF used a full lineup of experts to convey this message.
The day’s focus was 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.
“Our sense of ‘we’ has shriveled,” said keynote speaker Robert D. Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. “This is a big deal for all of us.” He 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.
Southwest Minnesota data was shared by Beth Mattingly from the Carsey School of Public Policy. Her team’s full report will be released in January.
In southwest Minnesota, approximately one in six kids lives in poverty; research shows that not all of these kids, no matter how hard they try, will be able to reach their full potential. This impacts not just individual families, but also companies’ bottom lines and entire communities.
As Beth stated, “Small things can make a big difference—one of the advantages southwestern Minnesota has is that with these small populations, we have the ability to make a large impact.” Although a quarter of southwest Minnesota children are facing risks, most kids feel they can come to their parents with any problems they may be dealing with, and the region boasts great youth engagement.
Strategies for closing the gap were also discussed, like inclusion as an economic growth strategy and how kids can be supported from cradle to career in order to prepare the next generation of workforce. Speakers included Kevin Walker, President & CEO of the Northwest Area Foundation; Kelly Monson, Minnesota Children’s Cabinet, Officer of Governor Mark Dayton & Lt. Governor Tina Smith; Janet Topolsky, The Aspen Institute; and Kathleen Moxon, YouthBuild USA. Special messages were shared from Minnesota Children’s Cabinet Executive Director Melvin Carter and a video from Sen. Al Franken. Joe Sertich facilitated discussions that got participants sharing ideas and talking about what they see in their own communities.
“This is the most compelling way we can bring this message to our communities,” President/CEO Diana Anderson said. “Southwest Initiative is really known for the economic development work we do, and Our Kids is economic development in a different way. From cradle to career, this is a way to make sure that when our kids are ready for the job market, they’ll be poised to take part and be successful.”
Adam Strong, an alumnus of YouthBuild USA, wrapped up the day by telling his story of overcoming poverty to now be a public speaker and medical laboratory scientist. “I am not an anomaly,” he said, “I just was given the right opportunities at the right time—if we give these opportunities to other kids in poverty, they’ll be just as successful.”
SWIF believes the region’s economy depends on the success of our next generation, and this event kicked off SWIF’s new focus on supporting all southwest Minnesota kids and the communities they call home. As these kids are the region’s future employees, entrepreneurs, community leaders, homeowners, volunteers and taxpayers, SWIF wants to work to ensure that the American Dream can stay within reach of these kids.
Looking ahead, SWIF will use its resources and tools of business finance, grantmaking, early childhood and community philanthropy to ensure that the next generation has the opportunity to succeed in southwest Minnesota.