Twin Cities Thinkers

Joel Barker
Nick Vlcek

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.

"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.

"Gaudi was an absolute genius, and replicating that could easily come off trite," McKee says, adding that Shea kept the details from going over the top. "I'm really proud of the job he did."

Shea's focus on restaurant design started shortly after he moved from Boston to Minneapolis in 1978. Carl Pohlad introduced him to Leeann Chin, who hired Shea to design first one restaurant, then 20 more.

Over the years, Shea frequently dined out, which is how he got to know the city's top chefs. Among the restaurants in Shea's portfolio are the Dakota Jazz Club, La Belle Vie, Barrio, Tryg's near Lake Calhoun, and the Guthrie's Sea Change. Each has a different look, but all share a keen attention to detail.

"David has a lot of ideas," says Warren Beck, owner of the Galleria Shopping Center in Edina that houses Crave, a Shea-designed restaurant. "He travels a fair amount—he pays a lot of attention to retail and architectural environments, and he always brings that influence here."

Schmoozing the Rich to Help the Poor

Joe Selvaggio believes that society functions best when the poor are empowered to help themselves—and that the wealthy have an obligation to make this happen.

But Selvaggio doesn't foment class warfare; he charms the rich into following his lead. For 50 years, Selvaggio has helped poor people get housing and jobs. His influence has contributed to a culture of giving in the Twin Cities.

"Joe is extremely soft-spoken, but he's the king of the hard asks," says Minneapolis Mayor Rybak. "To know Joe is to know that you will have less of your free time and money. And that's fine, because he uses them for the right things."

The son of Italian immigrants, Selvaggio was raised in Chicago, where he studied to become a priest. He served in a Minneapolis parish during the 1960s, where he got involved in the social movements of the era.

After three years, Selvaggio left the priesthood. A friend suggested he ask wealthy contacts to sponsor his social work.

"For $5 a month, he would be our personal advocate in the areas of peace, poverty, and racism," says Lee Lynch, founder of ad agency Carmichael Lynch, who became one of Selvaggio's first sponsors.

Selvaggio persuaded Harold "Hal" Greenwood of Midwest Savings & Loan to start a million-dollar fund for building homes for poor people. He'd pay the building contractors $25,000, then sell the houses at cost. This was the beginning of the Project for Pride in Living.

"I think Joe is viewed as a person ahead of his time in terms of bringing attention to the issues of the inner city, and the need for investment and helping people have the resources to build a better future for themselves," says Steve Cramer, executive director of Project for Pride in Living.

Selvaggio stayed with the organization for 25 years. While he was at the helm, the project built hundreds of homes and thousands of rental properties. Now it counts a $17.9 million annual budget.

In 1997, Selvaggio founded the One Percent Club. Kenneth and Judy Dayton, heirs to the Dayton department store fortune, were the first to sign up. The goal was getting the richest to give 1 percent of their net worth to charity. Each year the club added 100 members. When it hit 1,000, Selvaggio moved on.

"He's got these connections to the Daytons and the crème de la crème of the rich society, and I think they're sort of humbled by this very ordinary man," says local businessman Terry McGann.

Selvaggio's most recent endeavor is Microgrants, a nonprofit that has given out 1,500 $1,000 grants for job-related costs. Selvaggio makes sure the recipients are worthy: He has enlisted a network of social service agencies to screen applicants and recommend the most deserving.

Most days, Selvaggio works out or eats lunch at the Minneapolis Club. He joined 20 years ago for the express purpose of hob-knobbing with the city's elite.

"That's my unique thing: I love good rich people," Selvaggio says. "Most of my cohorts in the nonprofit world say, 'You're sucking up to rich people, and I hate that part of the job.' I work the heck out of that."

The Vehicle of the Future Is a Bike


Twenty years ago, Minneapolis was a city with lovely recreational bike trails along its lakes and riverfront. But Tim Springer and George Puzak wanted more than that: They wanted bike trails to become commuter routes.

Puzak was the first to imagine a cycling highway in the 29th Street railroad gorge. He mapped it out and sent letters to leaders of the 16 neighborhoods abutting the gorge. Puzak created a slideshow—the old-fashioned kind that clicks loudly—and screened it around the Twin Cities.

Then Springer joined the cause. In 1992, with a few of their friends, the pair formed the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

Actually getting the pathway built was a Herculean effort. It took 15 years and a lot of lobbying, starting with trips that were dubbed milk-crate tours—Springer would stand on a milk crate on a bridge above the railway path and lecture about the city's bright biking future to anyone who would listen.

"The term he used to use is 'bird-dogging people,'" says Eric Hart, a Greenway board member. "A bird-dog will point at something and just point at it until a master does whatever it's supposed to do."

Now that the greenway is in place, Springer is bird-dogging even bigger quarry: entire roads that are car-free.

"I think it's inevitable," Springer says, "because it makes so much sense."

Designing Cities for the Creative Class

To Tom Hoch, theater is more than just entertainment: It's economic development.

The theater scene, he argues, sets the Twin Cities apart from other Midwestern towns. It's a way to attract smart, educated professionals, and to keep them here.

Hoch has dedicated three decades of his life to Hennepin Avenue. He's played a major role in the restoration of the city's theaters and the creation of the downtown theater district. Now, as president of the Hennepin Theater Trust, Hoch is responsible for the theater's artistic direction, educational programming, and for keeping the seats full.

"More than any leader I've met recently, he really understands how it takes all those things to contribute to having downtown Minneapolis be vibrant from a cultural perspective," says Linda Ireland, a board member of the Hennepin Theater Trust.

Hoch came to his interest in arts thanks to educated parents who regularly took him to the orchestra and the theater while he was growing up.

"That was part of being from Minneapolis," he says. "I felt strongly about it and felt it was part of the DNA of our city."

In the early 1980s, Hennepin Avenue was a ghost town: The sidewalks were cracked and the street furniture rusted. The city's historic theaters were in disrepair: The Pantages was shuttered and the State was operating as a church. The Orpheum was in such bad condition that one performance had to be halted after a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling into the orchestra pit.

When the city purchased the State Theatre in 1989, Hoch was assigned to oversee the restoration. He worked with Fred Krohn, another longtime theater advocate, to return the theater to its former grandeur.

Just before the State reopened in 1991, the city purchased the Orpheum from its longtime owner, Bob Dylan.

A few years later, Hoch convinced the city to buy the Pantages—then the old Mann movie house—which was slated for demolition.

"You really have to have three theaters to be a theater district," he told the City Council. "Two is not quite enough."

With three theaters open and a real theater district in place, Hoch focused on improving the streetscape. He convinced the city and the downtown business owners to invest in new lighting, sidewalks, and trees.

In 2000, Hoch founded the nonprofit Hennepin Theater Trust. As president, he schedules the majority of the shows and coordinates educational programs for local schools.

"Tom clearly loves theater, but he also loves Minneapolis and has a vision about the role of culture and the role of classic architecture and how those can really contribute to making Minneapolis a vibrant and exciting place," says U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum, who serves on the theater trust's board.

The success of Hennepin Avenue has revitalized downtown. Now Hoch is brainstorming ways to get people to go the theater more often.

"We have all of these large companies, and those companies move people to come here," Hoch says. "And if we don't have a vibrant cultural scene for them, and someone else does, why wouldn't they go to another city?"

Earning Women Their Fair Share

Forcing employers to pay men and women equal wages for comparable work is no easy task, but Aviva Breen made it happen in Minnesota.

For 18 years, Breen was director of the state's Commission on the Economic Status of Women, a nonpartisan research arm of the Legislature.

"Everyone just loves Aviva," says Bonnie Peace Watkins, executive director of the Minnesota Women's Consortium. "She has done so much."


Breen went to work on women's rights after a traditional career path for a woman of her generation: teaching, marriage, motherhood. She moved to Minneapolis from Chicago in 1960 with her husband, a social worker.

When Breen's fourth child reached school age, Breen went to law school. Armed with her degree, she worked at Legal Aid, where she helped pass the Domestic Abuse Act. The law made Minnesota the second state in the country to empower women to file a restraining order without first filing for divorce.

When Breen took over at the commission, most female government employees—teachers, nurses, secretaries—were paid less than men for comparable work. A study found that women working for the state were paid, on average, 69 percent of what men made.

For several years, this information was used at the bargaining table, but Breen also pushed through fair pay legislation that made the biggest difference.

"Aviva's piece of it was getting through the local government pay equity act, which affected way more people," says Watkins. "It affected every county, city, and school district in the state. I believe that's about 163,000 people."

By 1994, women working for the state made 84 percent of their male coworker's salaries, and local governments were reporting areas for improvement to the state.

Breen also worked on the Minnesota Family Leave Act, the first law in the nation that guaranteed both parents a right to six weeks of family leave. Six years later, the federal government nationalized a version of it.

"I was very lucky in how my career developed," Breen says. "I got to do things I really loved doing."

Conserving Our Most Important Resource

David Hartwell says conserving the outdoors is important not only from an environmental standpoint, but for our physical and mental well-being. For more than three decades, Hartwell has been working to preserve Minnesota's undeveloped land.

"Without his leadership and vision and energy, I can honestly say we wouldn't have as many conservation success stories as we've had over the last 15 years," says Kris Larson, executive director of the Minnesota Land Trust. "The public itself are the great beneficiaries of David's work."

Hartwell—the grandson of former General Mills president Charles Bell and great-grandson of James Ford Bell, who founded the company—grew up in Minnetonka. Hartwell spent hour upon hour beside his mother on Minnesota's lakes and rivers, fishing with a cane pole and bobber. He still makes time to fly-fish for small bass on the St. Croix River with her.

"Nothing's going to dissuade me from figuring out how to do that trip once a year," he says.

One of Hartwell's first conservation projects was in California in the mid-1970s, when he co-funded a study that showed that a power company's diversion of water from streams surrounding Mono Lake was destroying the ecosystem. The research became key evidence in a court case forcing a Los Angeles power company to change its practices.

Back in Minnesota, Hartwell worked to expand the Belwin Conservancy, 241 acres of family land in Afton and West Lakeland Township that his grandparents donated to teach kids about nature. Today, St. Paul schoolchildren visit it as part of their outdoor education.

In 1984, the Nature Conservancy recruited Hartwell to its board, and he helped the organization acquire land for the public. Back then, Minnesota was fairly unusual—in most other parts of the country, land trusts had sprouted up. Instead of placing land into public ownership, these trusts kept the land private but protected it from development by getting landowners to add conservation easements. But that hadn't happened here.

"Because Minnesota had avoided most of the serious development pressure that most of the East and West Coasts had seen, you ended up in a situation where there hadn't been a need to do conservation easements in Minnesota," Hartwell says.

But Hartwell saw that need coming. In 1991, he pulled together a group of people to form the Washington County Land Trust. Two years later, that group became the Minnesota Land Trust. Since its creation, the trust has placed 400 conservation easements on private land.

In 2001, Hartwell was on the board of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota in St. Paul when Gov. Jesse Ventura slashed $3 million in proposed parks funding. The council raised the money to make up the difference.

"There was great celebration at Parks & Trails," Hartwell say. "I looked around and said, 'These folks are crazy. If $3 million is success, I don't know what failure is."

Hartwell thought Minnesota conservationists needed to think bigger. So he began pulling together a group to talk about the future. By 2007, they decided to ask for an amendment to the state constitution that would dedicate more funds to the outdoors.


In 2008, voters approved the effort, known as the Legacy Act. Now a dedicated portion of state taxes will go toward preserving Minnesota's land and water.

Hartwell is pleased. But the best way to guarantee that conservation efforts continue, he argues, is spending time in nature, especially with kids.

"If we all care about—and we all need to care about—environmental protection, we need to create opportunities for people to have a personal interaction that moves them," Hartwell says. "It's important that kids get their feet in the mud and aren't afraid of it. Because as adults they'll make choices about their energy consumption, their resource consumption, as voters."

Encouraging Young People to Lead

When Matt Hemsley noticed that local nonprofit boards were lacking younth, he decided it was a problem. Sure, kids might have less money, but they probably had plenty of energy and time.

Four years ago, Hemsley and seven friends launched an organization called the LEAD Project, short for Leadership Emergence and Development. The group tries to match up-and-comers with leadership opportunities.

Hemsley, a McKinsey consultant, got the idea for LEAD after attending a black tie event with his parents. "I went to this event, and I was easily the youngest person there, by 25 years," he says.

During the past four years, LEAD has held 10 fundraising events and raised about $110,000, and connected 300 young professionals with charitable organizations. LEAD volunteers are helping several major nonprofits—including the Minnesota Zoo, the YMCA, and the Science Museum—come up with plans to engage kids.

"Most young people, in my opinion, don't think that they ought to be on a board," says Hemsley. "It sounds intimidating—they think they have to be the CEO of some organization."

Exploring the Economics of Early Childhood Education

Art Rolnick spent most of his life studying arcane economic history. But in the last decade, Rolnick's attention has turned to a very modern problem: the need to fund early childhood education.

Rolnick pioneered the idea that investing money in preschool makes economic sense. Before he came along, early childhood education funding was merely a moral issue. Rolnick proved it's also a smart investment.

"His voice was a really important one to add, because he's an economist and he's well-liked," says Don Fraser, the former mayor of Minneapolis.

Rolnick first began thinking about the idea nine years ago at a luncheon in downtown Minneapolis. Fraser and Al Quie, the former governor of Minnesota, had helped start a nonprofit to raise money for early childhood programs, and the nonprofit's executive director was making his pitch.

Rolnick raised his hand.

"I don't think a moral argument would take you very far," he announced. "I really think you're going to have to go deeper. I think you should look at the economics behind it."

Shortly after, Rolnick got a call from the nonprofit: Could he provide some data? Rolnick and colleague Rob Grunewald crunched the numbers based on four studies of the long-term benefits of preschool.

Their results were astonishing: Money spent on early childhood education programs had a 16 percent rate of return.

Rolnick and Grunewald were instant celebrities in the education world. They traveled the country on the heels of that success, sharing their findings.

They published a second paper, this time arguing that low-income parents should get scholarships to use at the preschool of their choice. They also advocated for one-on-one mentoring that starts even before the child is born.

Now these ideas are being tested in Frogtown, along with Denver and Sioux Falls. Here in the Twin Cities, the pilot program has already shown promising results: More children from low-income families are going to preschool.

"I've been to the White House on this," Rolnick says. "How many more kids are we going to leave behind?"

Telling Stories That Change the World

Fred Haberman has a gift for telling stories.

"He's one of those rare characters that can take his real vision for a better world and also make a business out of it," says Ann Bancroft, the arctic explorer.

Haberman helped Bancroft publicize her vision of becoming the first woman to ski across Antarctica. He guided the process of getting the word out, organizing interviews with the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, The Early Show, the BBC, USA Today, Reuters, David Letterman, and NPR's Morning Edition.

Haberman also brainstormed an event that showcases one of Minnesota's most cherished pastimes: pond hockey. Last year, called Haberman's U.S. Pond Hockey championships, "One of 12 'must see' events in 2009."

Haberman has worked with many local nonprofits, including the Wedge, the Minneapolis Bike Tour, and the Museum of Russian Art. He helped the Community Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit that connects low-income people with loans.

He also guided the storytelling for the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund, which supports veterans of combat zones who have served since September 11, 2001.


"We've been fortunate to have raised over $10 million since launching the effort," says Michael Gorman, one of the fund's founders.

Haberman's grandfather was chair of the communications department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught a course on great speeches and speakers throughout the ages. The way Haberman sees it, he's just carrying on the old traditions.

"In today's world, there's a big value around being authentic," Haberman says. "Our mission is to tell the stories of pioneers who are making a difference in the world."

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Do you know someone who is thinking about ways to make the Twin Cities better? Let us know. Email nominations to [email protected]. We'll publish the best in a future issue.

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