One of America’s finest foundations resides right here in St. Paul – The Wilder Foundation.
It’s unique combination of direct services, research and community initiatives has been a driving force in St. Paul and the East Metro since its formation in 1906.
Nowhere has Wilder’s impact been more profound than in the creation of the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood (SPPN).
As it describes it on its website,
The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood (SPPN) is a transformative education initiative that brings together families, schools, public agencies, and the community to change the odds for a generation of children. SPPN uses education as a tool to end multi-generational poverty in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods by creating early pathways of opportunities leading to college and career success.
At SPPN, we envision a thriving community where everyone can succeed – regardless of their race, income, or neighborhood. We strive to create an environment that expresses all youth and families can achieve at high levels by promoting self-determination and self-efficacy, which we believe is the ultimate form of sustainable change.
In other words, the SPPN is all about giving children and their families the best tools, resources and opportunities to achieve the American Dream.
As the Star Tribune reported this week, “For the past five years, the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood has helped families who live in a 250-square-block area in St. Paul’s Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods navigate the complicated network of social and financial resources.”
The Promise Neighborhood concept is the brilliant coupling of social services, education and community support designed not to be a hand-out, and not even a hand-up, but a leg-up for the future of children and their families.
Rather than put families in the position of having to go to the resources they need to build a successful life after generations of poverty the SPPN brings those resources to them and in a kind of potent cocktail of social services provides intensive support that is showing real success.
Today, the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood is primarily and publicly championed by liberal Democrats. And, kudos to them for understanding that the further away we make families have to reach to find the support they need to give their children a fighting chance to climb out of poverty the more likely they are to stay in that pit of despair.
While the temptation is growing among some of its advocates to stray from its proven, laser beam focus on children and families basic and fundamental human needs and access to knowledge and resources there is a lesson for my Conservative and Republican friends to learn from the SPPN.
In fact, if Conservatives and Republicans truly hope to find inroad into urban America they would be wise to understand the tremendous potential of Promise Neighborhoods to transform communities that many have given up on into swaths of opportunity and prosperity.
The brilliance of the Promise Neighborhood concept is that it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew.
Rather than stating the entire City of St. Paul will be one giant Promise Neighborhood – a typical approach of government programs – supporters of this initiative understood that focused, manageable and identifiable geographic area was a critical component of directing resources to their maximum potential.
There are no amorphous efforts in Promise Neighborhoods. No vague euphemisms and platitudes or slogans.
Just investment in the simple, proven notion that knowledge is power. And, the pathway to opportunity lies in giving children access to that power.
It starts, as Wilder points out in its Principles for Engagement, with Parent Power:
“We believe parents as the first teachers and greatest assets in a child’s life. Our parents are the lead partner in the work to reclaim power, culture, schools, and the neighborhood.”
Notice there is no message about government being the catalyst or the lead as it relates to the Promise Neighborhood.
It starts, as it has always started, with parents.
And, for my Conservative and Republican friends, the section of its principles titled “Build Community” from Wilder should make you weak in the knees:
- We look to the assets of our youth, parents, community first to develop systems to building up their assets.
- We keep opportunities and resources in the neighborhood.
- We engage families and communities in their own solutions; this is not a community consumption model.
- We organize with integrity, which requires SPPN and its partners to be accountable to children and families.
Accountability. Looking to the community first. Keeping opportunities and resources in the neighborhood. This is not a community consumption model.
All of these sound like words one might find in the plank of a Republican Party Platform.
As a Center Left Conservative I don’t believe government is the enemy of the people. I do believe that government has exceeded its boundaries in many areas of our life. And, more frustrating for me, I believe government has increasingly failed to live up to the expectations of the investment its citizens have made in it.
When that happens in the private sector we have choices in changing who we buy our services from. When that happens in the public sector the choices we have in making those changes are more difficult, complex and opaque.
The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood is government at its finest because it is not government in the lead. It is government as a partner with the family and the community leading the way.
It’s why these are the types of investments we ought to be making more of in St. Paul and throughout urban communities all throughout America.
Conservatives and Republicans should not just embrace the Promise Neighborhood concept, but at a state and national level they should celebrate, advocate and lead for it.
If there is a true bi-partisan model of community development that is intended to directly benefit children and their families, this could be it.
It’s okay to give Liberals and Democrats credit for being the cheerleaders of Promise Neighborhoods.
It would be a shame for Conservatives and Republicans to keep being spectators on the sidelines.