How to make the Twin Cities the best region in America

The good life in Minnesota: A 12-step plan to greatness in the Midwest

If it were up to Michael Langley, the Twin Cities bumper sticker would simply be "Business and people prosper here."

"We tend to be somewhat reticent to brag about the strengths of our region," he says. "That's a cultural thing. We need to get over that and be more willing to tell our story very aggressively to a broader national and global audience."

But what to do about winter? We shouldn't be shy about promoting our coldest season, says Rybak. "What we need to do is take lots of pictures of a spectacular night on the City of Lakes Loppet, when there are thousands of people on Lake of the Isles, with two-story ice globes, dog sled races, and cross country skiing, and say, 'You can't do this anywhere else in the world, and in the summer you can be swimming in the same lakes.'"

And once people come, they tend to stay, says Dane Smith, the director of the social advocacy group Growth and Justice in St. Paul. "I don't know how many times I've heard stories about how when you're trying to lure executives to the Twin Cities, they resist at first, because they really don't know what the place is like, and then they come here and it's impossible for the corporations to get them to move elsewhere."

9. Embrace diversity

The theory you hear from politicians and business honchos is as simple as it is optimistic. Our population is quickly becoming more diverse, and we should see that as a strength, because the fresh perspectives and talents of people from different backgrounds will help us thrive in the global economy.

Reality is more complicated, says north Minneapolis writer and educator Chaun Webster, who is set to open Ancestry Books, an independent bookstore that will highlight authors of color.

"This is the best place if you're a white male. But the gaps are increasingly large. We see some of the largest gaps in the nation between communities of color and their white counterparts, whether it be work opportunities, income ratio, or education."

For all our growing diversity, we're still a place where white people greatly outnumber minorities. And even though outright racism isn't the norm, many people of color note that they often feel out of place and overlooked.

"Some people might call that benign neglect, but I don't think neglect is ever benign," says Dane Smith. "This feeling that they're left out, consigned to a separate fate and really not part of the community is overwhelmingly real."

Webster aims to help fill the gap with his bookstore. "We need more spaces that are outside of the home and outside of work that facilitate opportunities for educational advancement," he says.

Politics has a role to play, says Webster, but he doesn't expect salvation from elected officials. "I don't think our answer is with our politicians. Our answers have never been with our politicians. It's happening on the grass-roots level, where people are beginning to do work. I'm starting a bookstore. Somebody else might start a garden in some of the empty lots that exist in north Minneapolis. Another person might set up spaces at their homes where children can be safe after school, and read, tell stories, and have healthy foods."

The majority culture needs to do some tough introspection, says Smith. "We might actually have to surrender some short-term advantage that we enjoy, in the form of taxes and maybe our kids not getting the job that we think they ought to get, because some kid of color is equally qualified."

10. Correct the racial education gap

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Education released figures that show we are well on our way toward the goal of cutting the racial achievement gap in half by 2017. But we've got a long way to go. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Minnesota's gap between minority students and their white counterparts in math and reading hovers around 30 percent. That disparity is one of the largest in the nation.

R.T. Rybak's Generation Next is just one of the groups that is trying to fill the gaping chasm between affluent white students and others.

"We have a phenomenal opportunity in taking the most diverse population we've ever had, and turning the achievement gap into a highly successful global workforce that can help us soar around the world," says Rybak.

But on a human level, it's a long way from the world stage to the classroom, says Toki Wright. "My child was in private school all the way up until last year. She's 13 now, and it's the first time that she's ever told me that she didn't want to go back to school."

Many kids of color face a tough set of hurdles, says Wright. They often end up in overcrowded classrooms, with rookie teachers who have no idea how to deal with their problems.

Chaun Webster refuses to see the problem as an achievement gap. He prefers to call it an "opportunity gap."

"'Achievement gap,' in terms of language, places the onus of responsibility on the student," he says. "We need to think about education as a human right. Education isn't something that some folks should get at a better rate and a higher quality, while others just have to deal with the scraps."

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