Sara’s story, and Minnesota’s future


“Three years ago, I met a young girl, now eight years old, whom I will call Sara. And who, when placed with foster parents at the age of five, couldn’t count beyond three and didn’t know her alphabet.”

Carolyn Roby, a high-powered Wells Fargo Foundation executive, had trouble talking about Sara at the January 26 Compass annual meeting. Her voice broke as she described Sara’s background – no learning disabilities, just an impoverished environment as the youngest of 10 children in a single-parent family where English was not the home language.

“Children can’t teach themselves what they don’t know,” Roby said. Sara was on her way to becoming one of Minnesota’s left-behind children and adults. Disparities between white Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color are large and growing on all kinds of measures – education, employment, income, housing, health.

In education, the achievement gap between white students and students of color continues to widen. So does the gap between lower-income students and the rest of their peers.

But back to Sara – Roby reported:

After only a couple of months of living with her foster family, who took the time to teach her, Sara learned her alphabet and could count to 100. When I was sitting with Sara at a wedding reception, she was so proud of her newly acquired skill that she asked if she could count to a hundred for me. Her eyes were bright and alive … without a doubt, her spirit was alive.

We need to make sure that Sara and all the children like her, learn the skills that they need to fulfill their dreams.

The story, of course, does not stop with education. With strong family support, Sara could star in school. That still would not ensure her future as an adult. What will Sara’s employment future hold, 10 or 12 years from now?

Dr. Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute studied thirty other large metropolitan areas, and reported in Uneven Pain that the Twin Cities had the worst black/white employment disparities of any of the metropolitan areas, and was 4th worst in Latino/white disparities. This disparity exists apart from educational achievement. The employment disparities persist between black and white workers with high school diplomas, black and white workers with associate degrees, or black and white workers with college degrees.

I met Sara’s foster mother after the annual meeting. She told me that Sara wants to be a nurse, and was as excited as any eight-year-old can be about wearing scrubs (hand-made by her foster mother) to a recent school career day event. Her foster mother is confident that Sara will beat the odds.

“I know without a doubt that she’s going to be okay,” Sara’s foster mother said. “She knows a dream, and she’s going to pursue it.”

Other children (and adults) are still falling through the achievement gaps, still stymied by the racial disparities in education and employment. Closing the gap matters to all of us, not just to those left behind, said Roby,  because Minnesota residents and businesses are competing with people and businesses around the world.

Despite the bleak statistics, Roby’s message communicated both urgency and confidence that change is possible. There is hope, she insisted, and disparities can be corrected. Teaching skills is only part of the answer, she said. Both personal and professional networks need to be expanded to be more inclusive.

“Our current systems, strategies and programs are not eliminating the disparities,” Roby said. “We need to talk more about what is working, share those ideas, and let go of what is not working. … Can you imagine how vibrant, dynamic and prosperous our families and communities could be?”