With numbers such as this so dire, area civic and business leaders have expressed a sense of urgency to address the issue and implement solutions that will drive that number down. To that effort, several leaders met with the newly minted U.S. president of the United Way Worldwide, Stacey Stewart. Stewart, who is the first to hold the organizational post of U.S. president, was in town this past week meeting with area leaders. The United Way U.S. president said to eradicate poverty; the first step is to address educational hurdles facing the nation’s poor.
“In Washington, D.C., 40 percent of the adult population can barely read,” said Stewart who was the chief diversity officer and vice president for the office of community and charitable giving for the federal home lending giant, Fannie Mae. “It occurred to me that if I wanted to fix the housing problem, I had to start earlier and fix the education problem.”
Stewart said one of the top goals within the United Way is to assist in improving the nation’s high school graduation rate, which current sits at 78 percent according to Stewart. She said that number is about 20 percent lower for students of color.
“If we are serious about improving these numbers, we have to be better about working with communities of color,” said Stewart, who said the goal is to have a national graduation rate of 90 percent.
With the Twin Cities schools having some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, Stewart said solutions lie in our own backyard.
“In the Twin Cities, you all have the answers; you have the ability to fix this problem,” said Stewart, who pointed to success stories in Cincinnati and Madison, Wisc., in eradicating student achievement gaps.
According to Stewart, who has oversight of 1,100 United Ways across the nation – part of the larger 1,800 global network, a key to improving education and solving poverty is building cohesive coalitions.
“When I was in D.C., and was working for Fannie Mae and working with different groups, we all came to the realization that maybe (we) can work together with other groups, then we can really make change,” said Stewart. She suggested that her current organization can serve as a facilitator for such coalition building. “The United Way is the one entity that can pull together these type coalitions. At our (United Way) core, we’re about collaborative action – collaborative change.”
But building coalitions does not come without its challenges, especially when people come to the table with varying thoughts and agendas.
“We have to work hard at the turf issues or ego issues,” said community volunteer, Phyllis Goff. “How do we get beyond the turf issues?”
Stewart said participants must check egos and focus on the common shared goal in order for any such coalition to work. The 49-year-old president, who is the highest-ranking African-American within United Way Worldwide, said building a productive coalition is an exercise in patience and trust.
“A lot depends on do you trust each other,” said Stewart. “It doesn’t happen overnight. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be mindful of what’s the common goal – why we are at the table together. Everybody needs to see the mutual benefit of being in this collaborative effort.”
Velma Korbel, civil rights director for the city of Minneapolis said gathering leaders at the same table is valuable, but only if talk turns to action.
“I hope we leave here with some real action steps,” said Korbel. “If we identify something, we need to take action. I hate when I’m in a room with a bunch of talk and no action comes of it.”
Stewart’s two-day visit to the Twin Cities culminated in a meeting with Northside Achievement Zone staff.