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Guest Column: A rural perspective on seeking equality

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny

 

“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” I grew up in the 1960s inspired by these words from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, I am heartsick that today, over 50 years later, racial injustice continues to be a stain on our national character and a strain on our national unity. Recent tragedies have highlighted how far we have yet to travel in advancing the cause of justice.

You might ask, “What does the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests have to do with rural Minnesota?” More than you may realize.

Obviously, the outcry in response to this tragedy is about more than this one incident. It is about a legitimate sense in the Black community — based on their own life experience — that equal justice and equal opportunity are not within reach.

Equal justice. Equal opportunity. These principles are at the core of what it means to be an American. The belief in these principles unites us as a nation. But when they are not made real in the lives of all Americans — it should matter to all of us.

I am currently reading “American Rebels” by Nina Sankovitch. The book highlights the courageous role played by the Hancock, Adams and Quincy families in protesting inequities and championing the cause of liberty. Their story affirms why and how the right to “peaceably assemble” and “petition the government for redress of grievances” became enshrined in our Constitution. Today’s grievance is about injustice and lack of opportunity. Are we listening?

Because it directly relates to the mission of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, let me explore the matter of equal opportunity. It is a sad fact that racial disparities in Minnesota are among the worst in the nation. When it comes to educational achievement gaps these are among the numbers: In fourth grade reading and math, Minnesota has the second worst gap in the nation between black and white students; in eighth grade math, Minnesota has the largest gap in the nation between white and black students, as well as between white and Hispanic students; in graduation rates, Minnesota is the third worst state between whites and blacks — and has the largest gap between whites and Hispanics. We also know that too many of our preschool age children enter kindergarten unprepared and that reading at grade level by third grade is a key predictor of lifelong success.

The inequity reflected by these statistics is unacceptable. I chose to highlight educational gaps because they translate into economic opportunity gaps. These glaring statistics amplify why we all need to take educational — and other inequities — more seriously. To ignore these disparities is to deny our nation’s promise as a “land of opportunity.”

Now to bring this message closer to home. Even in rural Minnesota, too many of our neighbors feel unheard and marginalized, left out, left behind. Disparities exist and persist along economic and racial lines. We can and must do better. Individually, collectively and through our places of worship and work — we all can do our part.

Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, this speaks to our own core values of community and respect and inclusion. Our vision is for a prosperous and growing region with vibrant communities, innovative and successful economies, and engaged and valued citizens.

These values and this vision guide our work. Our programs in early childhood development, entrepreneurship and community vitality are designed to advance equal opportunity in our 20-county region. But in all these activities we know we still have work to do. That is why we are currently engaged in extensive diversity training for our staff — including racial injustice and inequities. That is why we are seeking to enhance efforts toward outreach and inclusion in all our programming. Together with partners across the region we are committed to this effort — knowing that for our region to grow and prosper all of us must have the opportunity to succeed. No one can be left out or left behind.

We also know that we still have much to learn and so we lean on those organizations in our region who have long been engaged in advancing racial justice, and the value of diversity and inclusion. Especially now, we strongly encourage others to reach out, offer support and learn from these organizations: Greater Mankato Diversity Council, the Rochester Diversity Council, the Rochester Branch of the NAACP (Minnesota/Dakotas Area State Conference), Winona’s Project FINE, Austin’s Welcome Center. These are among the outstanding regional resources that we all can and should turn to at this time to help bring us together and move us forward.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.

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