At noon on January 2, 2014, the mayor of Minneapolis’ top priority for young people was the Minneapolis Promise, a series of efforts that provided career counseling, summer jobs and college scholarships to youth transitioning from high school.
Five minutes later, this priority shifted to a “cradle-to-K” effort focusing on helping children from birth to the start of school.
This abrupt change wasn’t about mayoral indecision but, instead, about mayoral transition. My time as mayor of Minneapolis came to a close on that January day as Mayor Betsy Hodges took office and began her term. As is often the case, this change in leadership corresponded to a change in focus. Both Mayor Hodges and I built community partnerships around our efforts, but the significant difference between our top priorities did not mean the city’s community leaders had to suddenly change their agenda during the transition. I believe that this surprising success is largely due to a collaborative effort called Generation Next, which brought city hall together with philanthropy, school, community and business leaders around a single table to develop a shared, birth-to-career youth agenda.
Generation Next’s agenda included both my and Mayor Hodges' work, but it also filled in the blanks where we weren’t focused. This meant that the civic, education and philanthropy communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul had a comprehensive birth-to-career roadmap that included, but wasn’t limited to, the mayor’s goals. It also meant that important elements not at the top of the mayor’s list of priorities kept their momentum.
I have thought a lot about this experience over the past year as I’ve traveled the country writing on the complex relationships between mayors and urban school districts. My interviews with mayors and other leaders in cities and schools taught me there are impressive examples of local innovation in education and youth, and some mayors are doing very meaningful work in this area. I also learned, however, that very few mayors are achieving the kind of deep alignment made possible by collaborative tables like Generation Next.
I found that especially surprising because these types of efforts, many of which are inspired by the Strive Together initiative in Cincinnati, now exist in more than 70 communities around the country. Almost all these Strive efforts are collective impact models that attempt to get school, community and civic players at a single table to define a common set of actions and measurements to help schools and youth. Many mayors participate at these tables in some way, but few see the work as central to their youth agenda. Some make reference to the effort, others participate in meetings, but it is very rare to find a mayor who sees collective impact tables as indispensable.
Mostly I found mayors who were either skeptical or had a hands off approach, an attitude which I shared when I was first approached to help launch what would become Generation Next in my eighth year in office. I wanted all the help I could get to help Minneapolis close unacceptable achievement and opportunity gaps for kids of color, but a “collective impact table” sounded at first to me like a lot of talking and meetings rather than a recipe for action and progress. I also worried that this new organization would take focus from The Minneapolis Promise, a collection of school-to-work efforts I was leading that included privately-funded career centers in high schools, a summer job program that employed 22,000 kids and a college access program that provided full, two-year scholarships to qualified students.
What changed my mind about Generation Next was when it helped me with one of the biggest obstacles I faced as a mayor leading The Minneapolis Promise. While my effort was generally seen as successful, advocates for early childhood, school reform, out of school programming, vocational training and a host of other youth efforts all wanted my focus too, and I was already stretched too thin. Suddenly, the Generation Next table gave me a way to help align all these efforts into a deeply-focused but broader agenda with schools, foundations, business, advocacy groups and the non-profit sector all pitching in. Once Generation Next came along, I no longer had pressure to fix everything but, instead, could partner with the organization to align my work with what everyone else was already doing. It felt almost like a barn-raising—the work just went so much faster when I realized my team and I didn’t have to do it alone.
In fact, it mattered enough that when I finished being mayor, I became executive director of Generation Next and immediately began aligning the rest of the community’s work with the focus of the incoming mayor.
Mayor Hodges came into office with a far more defined agenda for early childhood than most other mayors and immediately after taking office she convened a highly-qualified community team to draft the plan. Significantly, she invited the Generation Next team to be at the table in those discussions, which made it possible to seamlessly and quickly connect these efforts to the work we were doing in other areas. When she announced a new part of the effort, we fused that onto our agenda. For example, when she began a focus on helping families close the word gap in the early years, Generation Next incorporated early literacy into our work with licensed family child care providers.
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Promise work I focused on as mayor continued once I left office, in part because it was also incorporated into the Generation Next agenda. I didn’t “own” the body of work anymore; the community table did. While people no longer saw these efforts as belonging to former Mayor Rybak, it also meant the work was much more likely to continue.
After talking to so many mayors and education leaders over the past year, and to so many people who run efforts like Generation Next, I have to say I am still somewhat baffled why the Minneapolis example is so rare. I can’t be certain why more mayors aren’t deeply engaged in these collective tables but I do have a few theories:
I believe one reason is that youth issues are not central to the agenda of all mayors and some actively avoid the complex school issues where they often have little or no control.
A second factor may be that much of the work of these collective tables involves nuanced, data driven assessment of education practice, and most mayors don’t see that they can add significant value to conversations that can seem so in the weeds.
A third factor is that mayors often have a team of youth and education advisors, who often have their own work plans that can clash or be misaligned with a community’s plan.
A final reason many mayors aren’t involved is the most abstract but also the most significant. It has to do with the mismatch between collective impact and the perception many mayors have about what leadership means.
Think for a moment about the picture you get when someone says “mayoral leadership in schools.” The image that projects is a single, powerful leader at the head of the table he sometimes bangs for emphasis, rallying, sometimes even bullying, the group but, in the end, clearly in charge.
That is just not what works in collective impact when tables of equals come together, crossing sectors of schools, philanthropy, business, and community. The mayor as disruptor is a great image, and effective in a lot of settings, but it doesn’t always work so well when the goal is to drive true balanced consensus.
I have seen that in my own city when Mayor Hodges entered office articulating a clear agenda for early childhood but also partnering to support the broader agenda of the collective table. This did nothing to diminish her work and, in fact, elevated it, but the table also gave her the ability to show those who cared about more than early childhood that she was also engaged in the full cradle-to-career continuum. It brought her work to scale immediately, when that would have likely taken years if she tried to do it alone.
A few months back I had a conversation with a relatively new mayor. I was extremely impressed with his youth agenda and, seemingly, the execution of it. But when I asked about the Strive partnership in the city, he gave only tepid support. As I asked his policy aide about this in more depth later, he spoke of details and nuance that they felt made alignment difficult. In the end, they began to see these nuances as justifications for going it alone.
This sounded familiar to me because it mirrored where I was for the first eight years of my time in office—before Generation Next came along. It was only after a lot of mixed results going it alone, a couple years running Generation Next and this exploration of mayors working with school systems in cities across the country that I fully realized something too few mayors see today: Leading the parade doesn’t always mean being in front.