Twin Cities Thinkers

Meet the Minnesotans shaping our future

Four decades ago, an eclectic group of community leaders—CEOs, nonprofit directors, clergymen, educators, and bureaucrats—gathered for an invite-only, weeklong retreat at Itasca State Park. All the big family names were there—the Daytons, the Pillsburys, the Bemises. Eighty of the Twin Cities' most prominent citizens were all in the same room, listening to the same message.

Each morning, a world-class speaker took on a topic that would become relevant to the state of Minnesota in subsequent years. The speakers touched on urban schools, government, city life, and corporate responsibility. Every afternoon, the participants got together in teams of eight. They talked about the future and came up with ideas to make it better.

These annual meetings were known as the Itasca Seminars, and they are considered by many to be the golden age of civic engagement in Minnesota.

Joel Barker
Nick Vlcek
Joel Barker
Sondra Samuels
Nick Vlcek
Sondra Samuels

"What you got at Itasca was a true community," says Joel Barker, who participated when he was director of future studies at the Science Museum of Minnesota in the 1970s. "They set the stage for getting things done.... While the Itasca series was running, Minnesota was always known to be way ahead of everybody else."

By trade, Barker is a "professional futurist"—a fancy way of saying he spends a lot of time thinking about the world of tomorrow. In that capacity, he's worked with with a who's who of major local companies, from General Mills to 3M to the Mayo Clinic.

The Itasca Seminars produced tangible results, including the Minnesota Business Partnership, which works to improve quality of life in Minnesota, and the Center for Ethical Business Cultures at the Universities of Minnesota and St. Thomas, which helps businesses build ethical cultures. Itasca also sparked Minnesota's charter school movement.

The seminars were an annual event for 26 years, coming to an end in 1997. By then, most local leaders had been to Itasca at least once, and it was getting harder to find volunteers to sacrifice a week of their lives.

In January 2004, there was an attempt to revive the concept in the form of the Itasca Project. Its members are some 40 CEOs and a handful of leaders in government and nonprofits. But so far the group's impact hasn't matched that of its namesake.

Now Barker is trying to recapture the magic of the original Itasca Seminars. He hopes to recruit community leaders with visions for Minnesota and have the new group up and running soon.

"A small group of Minnesotans are trying to figure out how to get the state of Minnesota broadly and publicly thinking out its future," Barker says. "We can probably smarten up this state a lot."

Closing the Achievement Gap

For years, Minnesota's public schoolchildren have led the nation in test scores—but only the white kids. Black children regularly score at the bottom of the heap, making Minnesota's education gap among the worst in the country.

Sondra Samuels says that can be changed. She leads the Northside Achievement Zone, a comprehensive effort to turn north Minneapolis children into high school graduates ready for college.

"Her big idea is that every kid has enormous potential," says Mayor R.T. Rybak. "Sondra is somebody who's seen the ups and the downs of all the good intentions people have, and she's not willing to give up, or let people off the hook, or go for easy solutions."

Samuels grew up in hardscrabble New Jersey watching neighbors die young. After college, she landed in Minneapolis, where she met Don Samuels, the man who would become her husband.

Five years ago, Sondra Samuels became president of the PEACE Foundation, a nonprofit founded by long-time North Side activist Michele Martin and Samuels's husband—who by then was a member of the Minneapolis City Council. The PEACE Foundation held vigils at every homicide and worked to end the North Side's legacy of poverty and violence.

Samuels is heading up the Northside Achievement Zone, a collaboration of 60 nonprofits that provide services to north Minneapolis neighborhoods. An initial 120 families in a targeted zone are on board for early-childhood programs, parent mentoring, housing support, and after-school groups.

Samuels just finished a grant application for a chunk of the $10 million in federal dollars that President Obama has promised to fund 20 such projects, all modeled after a program in Harlem that has had impressive results. She'll find out in September if the Northside gets the money.

"Some people say you have to fix poverty first, and then education would be okay," Sondra Samuels says. "We believe, no, you fix education, and then poverty will be fixed."

Atmosphere Adds as Much Flavor as Food

For David Shea, the dining experience is about more than just food. As an architect of restaurant interiors, Shea is responsible for the look and feel of many of the Twin Cities' more upscale venues. His ideas about design have shaped the food scene and contributed to our thriving culinary culture.

Shea's philosophy is that a dining space should reflect the chef's vision for the menu. With Solera, the Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant on Hennepin Avenue, Chef Tim McKee wanted to echo the wild, curving designs of Antoní Gaudi, the architect whose bright creations grace Barcelona. The curved detailing on the wine cabinets is like the wrought-iron work in Gaudi's apartment buildings; the blue tiled mosaic of the restaurant's logo was inspired by his tile work.

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