No sector can do “it” unless we all do something

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Dane Smith was engaged all last week with Peter Nelson of the Center of the American Experiment in an MPR Insight Now online debate and broadcast on the proper roles of government and the private sector. MPR asked, “If the private sector can do it, should the government get out of it?”

Meanwhile, I was doing what I do every Thursday — volunteering in the preschool run by People Serving People — the largest and most comprehensive, family-focused shelter in Minnesota. It brings together public dollars, private philanthropy and other community resources to help homeless families get back into stable housing. Its Early Childhood Development Center provided provided childcare and learning experiences for 698 children in 2010.

[You can read more about my adventures at PSP and the Catholic Outreach Day Center in Colorado here, in The Shelter Report feature of my personal blog. This work is a great antidote to getting too abstract and policy-wonky when it comes to issues.]

We took kids from the pre-school out to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. I wrote about a boy I met on my trip there a year ago. This time was different because we had a smaller group of children and more volunteers.

Our field trip was mostly uneventful and unstructured — spent walking around the grounds, looking at flowers, splashing hands in fountains, climbing structures, watching koi swim around and keeping kids away from several batches of goslings — so I’m not certain how much the kids got out of it. Or the adults, for that matter.

It’s hard for both the adults and the kids to adjust to each other for the first time. The adults leave their corporate headquarters, come into a busy urban homeless shelter and get matched up with a small child, usually of a different race. The kids have enough turmoil in their lives that they aren’t in a hurry to bond with yet another stranger who shows up out of nowhere.

But I shouldn’t be jaded just because green plants and garden follies aren’t on my personal must-see list.

There isn’t any grass where these children are living now. There are no ponds or flowers or squirrels and geese. Their shade comes from tall buildings and a lone tree in the playground. So it’s not surprising when a new discovery would evoke a child’s heartfelt “Bee-YOU-tee-ful!”

The field trip was sponsored by a major corporation in the news for its political contributions, and lately, its union-blocking efforts in New York. The volunteers were all from the company’s legal department. In my regular life, I’d want to talk to insiders about those issues, but this wasn’t the place. Nor did I get a chance to ask them about their motivations for and quality of their volunteer experience.

Still, it got me thinking.

The Arboretum has the University of Minnesota attached to its name. It receives 12 percent of its budget from the U, and the University Foundation manages its $23-million endowment. A walk through its grounds will turn up familiar names of private benefactors who provide most of its support — MacMillan, Cargill and Wurtele, Xcel Energy, Comcast and Best Buy — but there are also smaller, four-figure donors, including Seward Co-op, and lots of people who send in $25. 

If you allocated a portion of all the contributions that enabled these kids to see this Bee-YOU-tee-ful place, the line items in the spreadsheet would have to list state and local governments, corporations, wealthy people, small donors, volunteers, nonprofits and celebrities. If this were funded entirely by the state, a governor facing a budget shutdown would likely have to declare this place a “non-essential service.”

Thanks to the small government orthodoxy sweeping our state houses, we get hung up on an unbridgeable dichotomy between what the government should do and what the private sector should do.

The beautiful reality in this community is we are working alongside each other all the time, in ever-changing combinations of public and private, with funding by taxpayers, customers, supporting members, individual givers, foundations, church congregants, kids and adult volunteers.

We should all take a deep breath once in a while to give each other credit, while recognizing the limitations of any one sector going it alone.