No Matter the Heat, Think Twice Before Banning Books

MERCUTIO: ...I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg and quivering thigh
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us!

That’s Mercutio summoning Romeo in Act II, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and deploying one of the less intense pieces of sexual innuendo scattered throughout the play. That one of the most commonly taught pieces of literature, from one of the most celebrated writers in the history of the English language, contains such themes and passages is worth keeping in mind as we observe Banned Books Week this year. Schools, naturally enough, are one of the centers of these controversies.

Close to home this year is the Wednesday evening meeting of the Reconsideration Committee in Rochester to evaluate a parent’s request that The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich—a Native American author from Minnesota—be deemed inappropriate for her daughter’s advanced 10th grade English class. Her primary concerns are about offensive language and a sexual theme that she described to the Rochester Post-Bulletin as, “what I call teen erotica.”

Of course, definitions of “erotica” will vary from person to person, but it’s worth noting that neither the New York Times nor Kirkus Reviews evaluations of the book, to pick just a couple of mainstream publications, mention anything of the sort.

Based on the Post-Bulletin’s reporting, it would appear that the teacher provided an alternative text following the parent’s complaint. That this issue is still coming before the Reconsideration Committee suggests that the teacher’s accommodation may not have been enough to settle the matter.

As a former English teacher, I sympathize with the challenge of picking texts. One wants to present a diverse range of authors covering many themes, and most of the great literature will at some point cross someone’s boundaries. Creating a space for discussing important and problematic passages is part of the job. Especially in the age of the Internet, trying to shelter teenagers from sex isn’t a viable option. We shouldn’t let that get between students and the works of anyone, especially well-regarded Minnesotans of color. Accommodating individual requests is fine when necessary, but I’d hope we’d have learned by now that banning books outright isn’t the answer.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Libraries 

I Marched There to Come Home Here

I wanted to go from my university in Massachusetts to the climate march in New York City so that I can come home to a Minnesota that has a brighter future.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesota where the Iron Range again has good middle class jobs. The northern forests can provide the basis for a sustainable economy. With careful stewardship our people can provide biofuels that can power our state and nation. With our manufacturing skill, we can provide new tools for a new economy. With clean lakes we can enjoy our lives for centuries to come.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesota where the Southern plains have stable jobs, free from the great swings in commodity prices. The southern prairie can provide the basis for a sustainable economy. With methods, old and new, our people can provide the food that can feed our state and nation. With our skill in caring for people, we will have a population healthy and ready to face all new challenges. With clean rivers we can enjoy our lives for centuries to come.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesota where the Twin Cities can be a place of opportunity for all. The Twin Cities can provide a basis for a sustainable economy. With care and precision, our people will discover new techniques and technologies that will make our state and our nation more sustainable. With our skill and commitment to education, we will have a population with the knowledge to build a new economy. With our plenty of parks we can enjoy our lives for centuries to come.

I went to the climate march to come home to Minnesotans. Climate change affects each and every one of us, but especially those already struggling. Each of us can be a part of the fight to turn the tide against an economy that exploits both people and the earth. Each of us can be a part of the movement to build a new economy that cares for both people and the earth. What will you do?

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Environment  Climate Change 

New Ride Sharing App Empowers Women

Transportation isn’t usually associated with female empowerment, but a new Twin Cities ride-sharing app aims to promote exactly that. Unlike its competitors, RideSqirl is a service run exclusively by female drivers.  

The app’s founders developed RideSqirl to make transportation easier and safer for women. Using female-identified drivers will reduce the sexual harassment and assault many women have experienced at the hands of male cab or rideshare drivers, as Olivia Nuzzi documents in this Daily Beast article. New statistics reveal that over 30 percent of women worldwide have experienced unwanted noncontact sexual experiences, but apps like RideSqirl could help to actively reduce those numbers. All of the RideSqirl drivers will undergo domestic violence and rape crisis training, and the service plans to offer free or discounted rides to women in crisis. Of course, male passengers can and are encouraged to use RideSqirl’s services as well. 

The app will operate similar to the popular Uber and Lyft, with a few notable differences. RideSqirl users will be able to select their driver and price from the three closest options. Unlike other ridesharing apps, the final price will be displayed as clients make their selection, not at the end of the ride.

RideSqirl not only offers a safe and respectful space for its drivers as well as its passengers. Along with other female-based taxi companies such as SheTaxis in New York, RideSqirl is working to change the face of the male-dominated transportation industry. Only 5 percent of New York City cab drivers are women, and this lack of gender diversity can be found throughout the USA. By using women drivers trained in social services, RideSqirl could expand our perception of a driver beyond a faceless male stranger.

This app is still under development, and the RideSqirl team hasn’t yet announced when it will be live but you can watch a demo here. It joins the community of Twin Cities Tech Start-Ups looking to impact our community through innovative solutions and flexible ideas. RideSquirl provides an easy, technologically-savvy way to get from place to place, but also begins to finally address safety and equity for women within transportation.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation 

Recalling Cooperative Roots for Building Communities

For Mary Alice Smalls, the struggles black families faced in America are well known from stories handed down from generation to generation. Far less is known, she said, about what people of color did to combat and overcome barriers to markets and opportunities.

That is changing. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a professor of political economics at John Jay College of the City University of New York (CUNY), is coming to Minneapolis on Sept. 29 to discuss her book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.

“I wasn’t at all aware of this long history,” said Smalls, a board member for Seward Community Co-op in south Minneapolis who has been involved with worker co-ops and housing co-ops for more than 30 years. “I was shocked when I started reading her book.”

In Minnesota, Smalls added, “you hear about European experiences” and what those immigrants did to overcome problems. Until now, there hasn’t been available material showing African American use the same market-correcting tools.

“So much of our history has been about exclusion. Cooperatives are all about inclusion,” she said. For Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) that operates a cooperative farm in Dakota County, black and white history with co-ops is important for newcomers to Minnesota. “Cooperative principles are embedded in the Hmong culture, but we’ve had different names, or words, for it,” she said.

Hmong, other Asians, and immigrants from all over the world “can learn from this wonderful history because cooperative action works today,” Hang added.

Gordon Nembhard traces black cooperatives back to 1780 but said during a recent interview that she was surprised by the extent to which African Americans started and joined cooperative businesses when they were excluded from participating in area markets. That led to 15 years of research leading to her writing Collective Courage.

She will discuss her book and engage in a community discussion billed as African American Cooperatives and the Struggles for Economic Justice with a panel of co-op people at the Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway in Minneapolis. The event is open to the public but people should reserve seats at CoMinnesota.coop.

Smalls and Hang will join Collie Graddick from Community Table Co-op and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on the panel with the author. LaDonna Sanders-Redmond, the Seward co-op’s education and outreach coordinator, will moderate the discussion.

Earlier that day, the author will also participate in a brown bag discussion at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, 12:30 to 2 p.m., hosted by Dr. Rose Brewer of the Department of African and African American Studies. Reservations for the free event can made here. 
 

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture  Co-ops  Economic Inequality 

Reconnecting with the Original Charter Idea

Pay attention to any policy area long enough and you’ll see good ideas twisted out of the hands of their founders and turned into something else entirely. At a certain level, that’s what happened to charter schools. Minnesota just might be the place to start fixing that.

At the Shanker Institute’s blog, Esther Quintero has written a piece revisiting the origins of the charter school concept and the early role played by the Shanker Institute’s namesake, union leader Albert Shanker, in discussing the idea. This was, at its foundation, a vision of collaboration, including the notion of teacher-led schools-within-schools as tools of innovation as well as positive, student-focused interactions between charter schools and traditional district schools. Quintero also discusses the advantages offered by schools working collectively in the same place.

Exploring similar themes, a recent report by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University also calls for a less confrontational relationship between schools, identifying as its first standard for good charter school policy that, “Traditional districts and charter schools should work together to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children.” They emphasize the counterproductive effects of excessive competition— ideas which we’ve discussed at Minnesota 2020 —and the potential (if too often unrealized) benefits of genuine collaboration between district and charter schools.

This dream of schools and leaders from both sectors working together to build good schools and help each student find the right school is not what most of us have seen, however. The weaponization of charter schools and the market mindset for education minimized the student-centered core of the charter idea. Instead of charter schools being transparent partners with districts in pursuit of equal access to opportunities, we saw the two groups pitted against each other in what were too often marketing and public relations competitions rather than conversations about quality or equity.

As the birthplace of charter schools and a state where some homegrown charter schools are still holding onto the founding dream, Minnesota could be the place to display a healthier kind of charter culture. That doesn’t work if the charter advocates who want to dismantle districts lead the movement, and may well require lower-profile collaboration between individual schools that builds into something better. However it ends up manifesting, a return to the original charter ideal would be better for students than the current arrangement.
 

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Charter Schools 

Hubert Humphrey 2.0?

Prompted by last week’s Tuesday Talk, I spent most of the last week attending “Twin Cities Startup Week” events, including the Tech Startup Crawl, MinneDemo (a kind of tech show and tell at the Riverview Theater), Twin Cities Startup Weekend, and the CURA-Tech Demo (which technically wasn’t part of “Startup Week”, but felt solidly aligned with the rest of the proceedings). I left energized, and excited to see this aspect of the Twin Cities community get to scale and realize more of its potential.

It was energizing to see entrepreneurs applying a different set of tools and approaches to solving social problems than what Minnesota 2020 and the rest of the nonprofit advocacy community do. While we identify opportunities to solve social problems through policy change, there are Minnesotans in garages (or more likely in CoCo’s relatively comfortable and networking-conducive co-working spaces), trying to solve the same problems with tech. There are times when the policy work we do is the best path to meaningful social change, but this week also showed me cases where policy advocacy feels like a dull, blunt instrument, and got me thinking about the situations where we’d move more efficiently toward social change goals by creating new tech.

That’s not to say the local tech startup community doesn’t have its own social problems to solve internally, or that it’s all progressive. The whiteness and maleness of the presenters and the audience at most of the events raised questions about startups’ potential role in a metro area attempting to close opportunity gaps and build a more inclusive economy. A great deal of external pressure prompts innovators and aspiring enterpreneurs to focus on their “revenue model” early and often, sometimes (at least it seemed to me) drawing focus and energy away from projects' problem-solving potential. The need to make projects sustainable is no trival matter, at for-profits and non-profits alike, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the relentless focus on revenue streams drew innovative energy away from social problems in search of solutions, or at least drew a brighter line than needed to be drawn between profit-focused “tech startups” and the kind of “civic tech” happening at CURA (which also featured a more race- and gender-diverse group of presenters and participants).

Still, the energy was infectious and the ideas being generated showed a lot of potential. One Startup Weekend team, Wee Mentor, created a set of tech tools to connect busy professionals with up-and-coming female tech talent to facilitate mentoring relationships and overcome the gender gap in tech. Another Startup Weekend team, Cash Cow, built a web app to help farmers track each field’s inputs and outputs and make better decisions about when to sell their crops in the volatile commodities market. Startup OMG Transit, featured in the Startup Crawl, is giving people real-time bus information, saving all of us who use public transit time waiting for buses in the Minnesota cold. At CURA-Tech, Duane Johnson presented Tuloko—a tech platform to help consumers and business purchasers support minority-owned businesses. To help the Minnesota 2020 audience see the connection, he framed Tuloko as “Hubert Humphrey 2.0,” citing the Minnesotan Vice President’s support for policies that encouraged black entrepreneurship in the 1960s. The team behind Our City demoed their tools for helping Minneapolis residents access city information online at both Startup Weekend and CURA-Tech, bridging the two events. There's a lot to take inspiration from on this list, and these are just a few of the highlights.

We’d do well to encourage this sector, and also to challenge it to focus on problems and solutions that can really change people’s lives. Public policy continues to play an important role in social change, and it should. So does the kind of direct action and public demonstration we've seen this week around civic engagement organizers' arrest in North Minneapolis. Especially for the toughest challenges facing our state, it's worth trying multiple approaches. Minneapolis is already seeking to solve issues of police and community trust at least partially with technology in the form of badge cameras. What else could tech do? We're lucky to have a vibrant startup community full of smart, creative people working to figure that out. 

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Business Growth  Technology 

Friday Reads from the Minnesota 2020 Staff

What's making you happy this week? Every Friday we like to put together a list of stories we are enjoying. Here are the top picks from the staff of MN 2020.

 

From Elliot: A rural community responds to climate change. Through a citizens jury formed through the Jefferson center, the citizens of Morris, MN explored the effects of climate change on their local community. They have issued a statement outlining expected difficulties and possible adaptation methods to deal with a changing climate.

From Lee: The whole rigmarole over the pending vote on Scottish independence got fun treatment by the UK's The Telegraph this past week, noting that German newspapers suggest the Duke of Bavaria, a descendant of Scotland's James I, could make a good king of Scotland. Yikes. But then, the Germans haven't had much use of such royalty in recent centuries.

From Tanner: It's good to know that the loss of a star athlete is not as important as the cost of not addressing abuse as we look towards the future for the NFL.

From Conrad: Global shift to mass transit could save more than $100 trillion and 1,700 megatons of CO2.

From John: We have a winner in fivethirtyeight.com's Buritto Bracket.

From Rachel:  Grumpy Cat as Disney Characters.

From Deb: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

And, a nine-year old boy shares the meaning of life and his take on the universe.

 

Enjoy your day.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Friday Reads 

Investing in School Infrastructure Means Investing in Internet Access

When I was on the speech team in high school, I spent a lot of time pacing in the libraries and classrooms of schools in small towns around southeastern Minnesota. Even with my focus mostly on the speech I was about to deliver, I still noticed the differences in how old the books and computers were compared to my newer, better funded high school in Rochester. However, there was at least one major difference that I didn’t see because I never turned on a computer: Internet access.

Roughly one out of every four households in Minnesota lacks even the lowest rate of broadband access in line with the state’s goals. This affects families struggling to get by in the metro area, as well as in many rural communities in greater Minnesota.

This isn’t just a Minnesota problem, of course, and the countrywide disparities in rural Internet access received some attention recently from The Atlantic. In its profile, it described one rural district in Maryland which was able to use a federal grant to bring reliable access to its students. Teachers were ready to take advantage of the new infrastructure, enabling expanded learning opportunities for students.

Regular readers will know that I don’t think of technology as a panacea, and we shouldn’t expect much from Internet access that goes untapped or that’s used only to replicate the same teaching and learning that was already happening. This isn’t just about iPads versus laptops. Ensuring that students have access to reliable, high-speed Internet access in and out of school can enable a wide range of opportunities.

As we discuss how best to incorporate technology into our school system in a way that changes pedagogy, we need to make sure our schools have the necessary infrastructure. Only then will we be in a position to work with teachers, families, and students to take advantage of these tools in a way that’s genuinely beneficial for learning. Private philanthropy can help, but to truly get the job done, we’ll need greater public investment.

(If you’d like to learn more, check out the Minnesota Broadband Task Force’s report from earlier this year, the Blandin on Broadband site, and/or the upcoming Broadband Task Force meeting on September 25.)

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Technology 

The Growing College Market

Recently, Campus Pride released its top 50 LGBT-friendly colleges and universities list. Out of all the colleges listed, two University of Minnesota schools made the cut (Twin Cities and Duluth). Colleges are now beginning to welcome the growing population of students who are comfortably out about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

This is starting to become a trend; colleges and universities are competing to recruit this market of students. According to a Pew Research article, the median age for coming out is 20 years of age. This is right around the time a person is typically in their college years.

Campuses are beginning to launch programs meant to attract and retain LGBT students. These include college fairs, support offices, special graduation ceremonies, etc. “Campuses today want to be called gay friendly. They see they’re going to lose students if they’re not, [and] realize the pool of non-LGBT students is dwindling” says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, in a Hechinger Report article. It was only three years ago that Elmhurst College, located in Illinois, became the first institution to ask students about their sexual orientation on their college applications.

A guide to college by the Princeton Review states that it’s important for students to do the research and pick a school where they will be the most comfortable. Homophobia still exists in the real world and many colleges still do not support LGBT rights. However, the growing amount of resources available for the LGBT community in the college setting is a good sign that we are on the right path.

As the LGBT rights movement continues to move forward in our country, we should be encouraging colleges to become more welcoming and aware of this diverse group of students. Colleges that are lacking in these programs should look at how they can start better supporting the sexual identity of their students enrolled.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

Turning the Corner on Great Lakes Clean-Up

The St. Louis River used to look bad. And smell bad. Dead fish were belly-up in the water, and industrial foam covered shorelines. The river looks a lot better these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy yet.

It’s been over forty years since the passage of the Clean Water Act. This groundbreaking legislation has made significant progress in protecting the rivers, streams, and lakes of the nation from being polluted. In 1987, the St. Louis River was designated one of 43 Areas of Concern around the Great Lakes, citing nine major problems, including “Degradation of Aesthetics.”

Since then, we’ve watched as, one by one, sources of pollution into our waters were eliminated here in Duluth. Reserve Mining is no longer dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior. Duluth’s sanitary sewer system now collects most of the pollutants coming through the system. The St. Louis River has begun to turn the last corner on its pollution issues.

Recently, Representative Rick Nolan and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Susan Hedman were joined by Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin to make the exciting announcement: One of the nine Beneficial Use Impairments is now officially off the list. The river looks better than it has in many decades. Twenty-seven years after identifying the river’s problems, with decades of water treatment and habitat restoration completed, the agencies have determined that one problem had been fixed.

More than 50 Minnesota citizens gathered at the base of Spirit Mountain ski area in Duluth, just above the banks of the St. Louis River, to hear about the successes and lessons from our investments in cleaning up the river and Lake Superior. Representative Nolan and Administrator Hedman spoke about the big picture, all the contaminated sediment removed, all the clean-up milestones reached. Minnesota is checking off its clean-up to-do list, thanks in large part to the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

It was inspiring to listen to local citizens talk about what the restoration of the river and lake have meant to them. Fishing guide Carl Haensel talked about his clients finding fish in sections of North Shore streams that were freshly restored to their natural state. Local resident Connie Moeller talked about the loons returning to the bay by her house—a bay that has been a federal Superfund site. Hydrologist Marty Rye ticked off statistics about fish habitat improvements through the coastal areas of the Superior National Forest.

Thanks to the GLRI, and matching funds provided by Minnesota’s Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment, plans are in place to take the remaining eight Impairments off the list. The work should be done by the year 2025.

Many of our environmental issues took decades or even a full century to create. Attitudes about our waterways and our industries have changed dramatically in that time. While the 1970s and 1980s were about raising awareness of the awful issues we faced, and while the 1990s and 2000s were about cleaning up the messes, in this decade we are turning the corner and beginning, cautiously, to call parts of our work done.

With visionary leadership from across the Great Lakes basin, with support from St. Paul and Washington, we are turning the last corner at the far end of the Great Lakes. The finish line, where water in our community is fishable and swimmable, is in sight. Thanks to the GLRI and the Legacy Amendment, we’re headed straight to that glorious finish.
 

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Environment  Lakes & Rivers 

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