R. T. Rybak, president and CEO of the
Minneapolis Foundation to play stronger
role in public policy
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview September 30, 2016
John Adams, Dave Broden,
Janis Clay, Paul Gilje (executive director), John Hayden, Randy
Johnson, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, R.T. Rybak, Dana
Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter, T.
Williams. By phone: Steve Anderson.
According to R.T. Rybak,
president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, the
101-year-old foundation played a large role in helping develop
Minnesota's civic infrastructure-perhaps the largest role as an
institution. That civic infrastructure has gotten us a long way,
he says, although it has never been driven or led by the state's
political community. He contends that the civic infrastructure
has been stronger than the political parties and an easier place
to convene and solve problems.
But he believes our civic
infrastructure is not well situated for the very complex issues
of race and equity. He believes the infrastructure and the
participants are nowhere near what they need to be. If we want
the benefits of living in this community-among them, low
unemployment and high educational attainment-to be available to
everyone, we must have a dramatic rethinking of how engagement
works, he says.
Rybak stresses that the Minneapolis
Foundation intends to more dramatically assert its role as a
community foundation by creating more convening opportunities
and stepping into public policy. He says convening is an end in
itself to a certain degree, since it's so important to keep the
lines of communication open across wide areas. But convening, he
admits, does not often lead to a certain proposal or solution.
To help stimulate quality proposals
for change, Rybak says that as a community foundation, the
Minneapolis Foundation would be open to helping bring back the
type of nonpartisan, non-special-interest study process that, in
the past, gave deep study and analysis to an issue and came up
with specific, actionable proposals for change. And he finds it
an interesting idea for a foundation or a group of foundations
to take a more aggressive approach to motivating organizations
to use that type of approach in order to develop quality
proposals for solving community problems.
R.T. Rybak has served as
president and CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation since July 2016.
As leader of one of the oldest and largest community foundations
in the country, Rybak oversees the management of nearly $700
million in assets; the administration of more than 1,200
charitable funds created by individuals, families, and
businesses; and the average annual distribution of more than $50
million in grants.
A Minneapolis native, R.T. Rybak spent
almost 30 years working in journalism, the commercial real
estate business, publishing and the Internet before being
elected mayor of Minneapolis (2002-2013) in his first run for
public office. Most recently, he served as executive director of
Generation Next, a coalition of civic, business and school
leaders focused on closing the racial achievement gap in
Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
He is the author of Pothole
Confidential, a book about his 12 years as mayor of
Minneapolis, serves as a senior advisor for municipal practice
at Living Cities and is a vice chair of the Democratic National
Committee. He is a graduate of Boston College.
Caucus is undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems. The Caucus
interviewed R.T. Rybak of the Minneapolis Foundation to get his
assessment of the kinds of proposals for solving public-policy
problems the community needs and the role a community foundation
can play in helping in the development of those proposals. .
The political community has never been at the center of civic
life in Minnesota. R.T.
Rybak of the Minneapolis Foundation said there have always been
a lot of solid, middle-of-the-road, well performing political
leaders in the state, but they've never driven Minnesota's civic
life or led the state's civic infrastructure.
The Minneapolis Foundation was one of
the first community foundations in the world.
The Foundation was
founded in 1915, when five individuals came together to create
an organization to benefit the community for years to come.
"That's how we got civic infrastructure," Rybak said. "When new
executives came to town, Ken Dayton would tell them, 'In this
town you don't just do business, you contribute.' This is a
phenomenal legacy and the Minneapolis Foundation played a huge
role in it-maybe even the biggest role as an institution." Over
the last 100 years, the Foundation has invested over $850
million locally, nationally and globally to address issues and
The Foundation, Rybak stated, now has
three core areas, all about equity, that it funds with about $6
million a year: education, employment and civic engagement. But
funds in the Foundation that together put $60 million to $80
million into the community each year. "Those are individuals
making individual choices," he said.
Rybak asserted that
there is more capacity within those individual funds. He'd like
to broaden that, if possible, by convening the funders and
aligning their giving much more.
In recent years, there has been more
convening of people around tables, because we've figured out
that there's not a single thing you can solve by yourself.
During his 12 years as mayor, as he helped formed bipartisan
organizations like the Regional Council of Mayors, Generation
Next, Itasca Project and GREATER MSP, Rybak said there was a
real sense of coming together around these issues. With these
bipartisan groups sitting together at the tables, the tables
became safe zones, he said.
"I feel pretty good about the civic
infrastructure continuing to evolve in some ways," Rybak said.
But our civic infrastructure is not
well situated for the very complex issues of race and equity.
Rybak said this is one of the challenges facing the region
and the state. "The infrastructure and the participants are
nowhere near what they need to be," he said.
He noted that there have been
organizations formed like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change,
grassroots, member-led organization building power in
under-resourced communities and communities of color across the
Twin Cities. It focuses on the intersection of race, the economy
and public policy. "It's important to put the community-based,
neighborhood organizations into the mix," Rybak said.
"We have a phenomenal community with
the lowest unemployment rate of any metro area in the country
and with high educational levels. But I don't think we can get
to the next step, which is to make sure that's true for
everyone, without a pretty dramatic rethinking of how engagement
Generation Next is really about taking
the compassion we have in this community and doing more to drive
alignment. Rybak served as executive director of Generation
Next prior to moving to the Minneapolis Foundation. He said his
job there was to drive that alignment by having a table of all
the foundations and superintendents in town focused on equity in
"We could really dive into the data
and look into race and culture and understand that," he said.
"We could say it was great that all of the funders were
investing in literacy. But we have 17,000 kids in Minneapolis
and Saint Paul not reading at grade level and you're funding
interventions for 7,000 kids. We're not moving the dial on
And most of the interventions were for
kids a couple of months below grade level, Rybak pointed out.
"What about kids who are several years behind?" he asked. Most
of the achievement gap was caused by kids being one or two grade
He said data show that an African
American boy has a deeper average commitment to learning than
his white counterpart. But looking at personal identity shows a
very different picture, he noted. The African American boy has a
much lower positive identity than the average white kid.
Math or science, where you fail and
fail until you get it right, Rybak said, is only going to
reinforce a student's low personal identity. "So, we should stop
spending so much time asking African American boys to work
harder and instead focus on telling them they can do it," he
stated. "That's a very different frame. That's smarter. It's
disaggregating data and understanding culture."
Rybak said Somali kids are very high
on personal identity, while Latino kids have a much lower
personal identity. "The teachers better know that, so they don't
make assumptions," he said.
Our civic infrastructure needs to be
culturally richer. "We've gotten a long, long way with the
civic infrastructure we have," Rybak declared. "But for us to
really, fully have an asset-based way of looking at diverse
cultures, we're going to have to pivot these institutions to be
more culturally rich."
There is a rapid deterioration of
identity with political parties. "That's changing very
rapidly," Rybak said. He noted that different parties have
different blind spots. In the Democratic Party, the blind spot
is urban education. "We have to do really disruptive things to
deal with urban education," he stated. "Look at school board
nominations. The Democratic party is not qualified to be the
sole arbiter of who sits on the Minneapolis school board."
An interviewer asked whether the
strong civic infrastructure in Minnesota has kept the political
parties from taking leadership on public-policy issues. Rybak
said the political parties and the civic infrastructure are
somewhat independent. "I don't think it's one or the other," he
said. "It's that the civic infrastructure has been stronger and
an easier place to convene and solve problems."
Minneapolis and St. Paul must work
together. An interviewer asked whether having two central
cities makes it harder for the metropolitan area to tackle the
issues of the central city. "It's very different on either side
of the river," Rybak responded. "I never got this Minneapolis
vs. Saint Paul thing. It's not the way I was raised. But it is a
very live issue, especially for people in Saint Paul, who have
seen the evolution of businesses out of the downtown. I never
fully appreciated that."
He said by construct in this region,
the two cities have to work together. "You don't have an
option," he asserted. "Arguably, a major city could go it alone,
if it were the only major city around. But it's not about the
geography of east and west. It's about the large talent shed
this region has."
How can we communicate to younger
people the critical lessons from the past about how policy is
made? An interviewer commented that there are critical
lessons for younger generations to learn from past policy
changes like the Minnesota Miracle, 1971 legislation that
brought a major shift in school finance in the state. He asked
how we can update and communicate to younger people how policy
is made and what the key lessons are that could be applied.
"There's little or no focus on that in the schools," the
Rybak responded that the best thing in
politics is to be totally yourself. "The most successful people
are the ones who are laying out on social media what they are
thinking," he said. He thinks social media is really helpful.
"It has some challenges, but it's like the town square," he
said. "I'm not down on these new tools. We just have to use them
in a transparent way."
"If social media didn't exist, we'd
not be as far along in the discussion of equity and equality,"
Rybak said. There are disruptive voices on social media, he
noted. "But at least I hear them. It's different from someone
else interpreting them."
He asserted that the dialogue has
brought us to the following point. "Equality," he said, "is
saying 'black lives matter, but so do white lives.' Equity is
saying we must explicitly say 'black lives matter,' because we
have all these videos of black people being killed and it's not
the same for white people."
Where is the concept of deep study of
an issue by a nonpartisan, non-special-interest group happening
today or how might it be possible? An interviewer asked that
question, saying the deep study should include redefining the
issue, listening to people, taking some time and doing sober
analysis, leading to the group coming up with a proposal that
reflects the best interests of Minnesota.
Rybak responded that there are lots of
places in the civic structure where that works, like the Itasca
Project and the Regional Council of Mayors. "That kind of table
exists in formal and informal places," he said. "Those sorts of
things happen. It's OK to have it be informal and have a culture
"I hear the word 'calm' in the
description of the study and proposal process," Rybak said.
"When we fully engage all the voices in the community, there
will be lots of anger and rage. We're not going to have the
privilege of calm discussions about really hot issues. We're
going to have to develop the internal armor to handle all of
that. We're going to hear the voices of people who haven't been
at the table, who are angry-rightfully."
The Minneapolis Foundation is a
foundation, but it's really a community of 1,200 people at
various levels of access and levels of wealth. Rybak said
the number one thing he's working on is communicating that the
Minneapolis Foundation is a foundation, but it's imbedded within
a philanthropic community. "We want our community to be
integrating with other communities," he said. "Our community of
1,200 givers can do much more together and can be interacting
much more with others for significant change."
He stated that the Minneapolis
Foundation plans to create more convening opportunities. The
Foundation used to run the Minnesota Meeting and it might bring
"We're going to more dramatically
assert our role as the community foundation, helping to convene
people around issues," Rybak declared. "That also means we'll
step into public policy. We're very resolved that we must
support the Minneapolis Public Schools referendum. We're putting
out a piece of literature on that, because community foundations
can do independent expenditures."
What role should higher education
institutions play in engaging with the community? An
interviewer asked that question and Rybak responded by pointing
to Augsburg College as an institution that has been deeply
engaged with the community.
He commented that big research
institutions like the University of Minnesota (U of M) are
complicated. He noted that U of M President Eric Kaler, founding
co-chair of Generation Next, convened the smartest people
working on different aspects of math learning and math
education. "But none of this work is being deployed together,"
Rybak said. "The University is not wired to bring this
He said Generation Next istaking all
of those ideas to Anne Sullivan School in Minneapolis this year
through a program called GopherMath. The program will also
include the Northside Achievement Zone. The goal is that
students will master math by eighth grade. "We've learned that
the gateway is learning fractions by third grade," Rybak said.
"The University doesn't package things like that."
Rybak noted that the U of M convened a
conference on educational equity, bringing in a number of
outside experts. "But the University should have been talking
about its own work," he said.
We can't put blindingly large issues
on the table. An interviewer asked how we can focus on small
pieces of larger philosophical issues so we can begin addressing
parts of the total. Rybak responded that we're human beings who
only can digest so much. Looking at issues like the massive
restructuring needed in the education system is blinding people.
"We need to break these huge things apart into digestible
chunks," he said.
He cited the example of Generation
Next looking at the state's early childhood quality ratings and
finding that the gap is not in school-based preschool, but in
less formal child-care settings, such as friends and family care
or licensed family care. So Generation Next started a small
program where multicultural teams go to licensed family
child-care homes located in neighborhoods that feed into schools
with high achievement gaps. "It was more scalable and focused on
the areas that mattered most," Rybak said.
We must harness the knowledge of the
huge surge of baby boomers coming out of their careers.
"These people are relevant," Rybak said. "There's massive
knowledge that needs to be harnessed right now. This group has
massive potential. We shouldn't forget the fact that they're an
incredible asset with more time, more experience and more
knowledge to share."
It's hugely important now to keep
lines of communication open across wide areas. Because of
that, Rybak said, convening is an end in itself to a certain
degree. But the problem is that the convening is not leading to
a certain proposal or solution.
Bringing back the type of nonpartisan,
non-special-interest study process that, in the past, came up
with quality proposals for change is an interesting and logical
place for a community foundation to go. Rybak said he's open
to helping bring back that type of study and recommendation
process. "If you want to resurrect the past Citizens League type
of convening and have the foundations be more involved, I'd be
interested in that discussion," he said.
An interviewer asked if there would be
interest from a foundation or a group of foundations to taking a
more aggressive approach to stimulating organizations to develop
proposals for change. The foundation or foundations would come
up with a list of the 100 most urgent issues facing Minnesota
and choose the top five, the interviewer suggested. Then the
foundation or group could say it was open to proposals from
organizations that would take on one of the top issues. Rybak
called it a "really interesting idea."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,