taking the initiative

During the 1980s, rural America came under pressure from an intensifying farm crisis.  In Minnesota, the mining industry was facing tough times too.  Concerned about the long-term effect on local communities and the overall health of the state, the McKnight Foundation led the creation of six regional foundations.

Known as the Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs), the organizations have fostered economic development and tackled a range of challenging problems in the three-plus decades since they were founded.  A year ago, I had the opportunity to join the board of directors of one of them, Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF), which serves eighteen counties and two native nations.

Last week I attended a meeting of all of the MIFs.  To be honest, I came away with mixed feelings:  impressed by the work of these organizations, challenged by the extent of some of the problems of today, and hopeful that good people will continue to step forward to solve them despite the roadblocks constructed by a partisan political divide.

The six MIFs face different challenges, but there are some commonalities among them.  Each has a loan program for local businesses, ranging from microloans to ones of significant size.  They work with banks and loan providers, often supplying incremental capital that starts a business or keeps one going.  More than a quarter billion dollars of loans have created tens of thousands of jobs across the state.

In addition, grants totaling a similar amount have been disbursed to fund local and regional programs — and many foundations have been established with the guidance and support of the MIFs, to help address the particular needs of individual communities.

The organizations have become known for their innovation.  For example, SWIF is the national leader in farmland giving, having established a program that keeps land in production, farmed by locals, through the generosity of those whose love for the land is matched by their civic spirit.

The meeting of the MIFs highlighted the biggest crisis in Minnesota:  child care.  The lack of good child care options is hurting families and businesses and communities.  This should be a bipartisan issue, although almost nothing is these days.

The research is clear that the nature of the preschool years of a child is a key determinant of his or her success in life, yet that seems to be ignored in many public policy debates.  But while the promise of future benefits might not seem tangible enough, the problem is manifesting itself in a more immediate way:  it is impeding business growth right now.  All of the MIFs are working to alleviate the crisis, but they can’t do it on their own.

Three years ago, SWIF decided to face the broad problem of the opportunity gap in southwest Minnesota, to address the fact that more than one in six children in the region lives in poverty, and those children face a number of hurdles through no fault of their own (including the lack of quality child care options).  The effort, which drives the strategic priorities of the foundation, is called Grow Our Own.

When I was growing up in Luverne, I had friends from across the economic spectrum.  I had a sense of some of the challenges that those who struggled financially faced, although I’m sure I didn’t see the whole picture.  Today, children who are disadvantaged face a tougher road because of a changed economic landscape and, especially in bigger towns, more isolation from their peers.

Imagine not being able to play a sport because of the participation fees that are required.  Imagine not even being able to attend a game with your friends because you can’t afford a ticket.  Now extend those imaginations into all of the other situations where our kids have been separated from others.

Yes, I wrote our kids.  We need to grow our own.  The children might not live in your house, but they live in your world, and how they develop and what opportunities are available to them will determine what that world looks like.

I was lucky to have parents that worked hard to make their town and surrounding region as good as it could be.  My dad was out front (loudly), involved in a variety of local, state, and national efforts to address the needs of rural America.  In contrast, Mom worked behind the scenes, in her job and her volunteer activities helping people where they were, understanding that we’re all in this together.

It is that combination of advocacy and care that the MIFs foster.  Taking the initiative is often hard, but necessary if we are to move forward.

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