Guest Column: As we move forward, bring others together

Published 9:43 am Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Guest Column by Tim Penny

I was asked to reflect on what it looks like for rural voices to be heard, which has been a big talking point during this last election cycle. I referenced an op-ed from a friend of mine, former Congressman Dick Swett of New Hampshire. He stated, “Don’t insist that everybody worship at the alter of global warming, just talk to them about common sense approaches to conservation. We don’t need to sing out of the same songbook to be singing in harmony.” 

TIm Penny

TIm Penny

Naturally, I don’t think we’re going to agree 100 percent on many things, but I do think we agree a lot more than we’re letting ourselves think. One of these issues is that of equity; rural folks strive for equity with urban dwellers, just like within both urban and rural communities we seek equity between genders, races, generations, and more. As Minnesotans, we have typically done a good job of agreeing that our state does better when everyone succeeds. This includes all kids getting a good education, businesses of all sizes being able to succeed, and all residents no matter their skin color or religious background having access to economic opportunity.

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Statistics, however, continue to show that we have work to do. For example, we know that 14 percent of Minnesota kids ages 0-4 live in poverty (39 percent for black children and youth, 26 percent for Hispanic children and youth, and 25 percent for Native Americans) and that 8 of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s 20 counties are in the highest range of income inequality in the state. When SMIF surveyed minority business owners in our 20-county region, we found that the main barrier to success was access to capital. Yet, studies continue to show women and people of color, especially new immigrants, are driving entrepreneurship.

Economic inequalities and educational achievement gaps are not solely issues affecting the urban core. Earlier this month, MPR News host Tom Weber interviewed Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice, as well as Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski. They pointed out that there are areas of great inequality in parts of Greater Minnesota.

They mentioned issues ranging from access to high-speed internet and good infrastructure to racial disparities. Today, Greater Minnesota is more racially diverse than most people realize. I share the view put forward by Dane Smith that “community leaders are addressing this and embracing this issue,” because I see evidence of it every day.

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is another institution undertaking a study on equity, and lack thereof, as a cause for economic concern. In that same vein, here at SMIF, we have launched The Prosperity Initiative to give minority-owned businesses one-on-one technical assistance. We received an Emerging Entrepreneur Loan Program allocation from DEED to supplement our business lending to groups that have trouble accessing traditional bank financing. SMIF’s Early Childhood team and partners are driving the conversation around affordable, quality child care in rural communities. All of our resources help rural populations trying to make a difference in their community.

As Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, noted when announcing their new Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute, “A lack of economic opportunity does not know racial or ethnic or even geographic boundaries. There are people in all communities who are struggling to get a fair chance at a good education and a good job.”

Investing in people of color, new Americans, women, veterans, people with disabilities, low-income people, young leaders and other historically under-resourced groups across all Minnesota communities is a win-win proposition. It can lead to increased economic opportunities for all Minnesotans. By creating welcoming communities that people want to move to and start businesses, raise families and volunteer their time, we create a state that is vibrant and strong.

My colleague Diana Anderson, president of SMIF’s sister foundation, Southwest Initiative Foundation, has the following African proverb on her office wall: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As we go forward, who can we bring along?

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.