My grandmother used to say, “Take care of yourself, take care of your family, take care of your community.” It’s a simple creed, but it has made a profound difference in my life. Her words inspired me to serve as MinnCAN’s founding board chair in 2011. And now, I’m thrilled to join the national board of 50CAN and help bring the lessons from my state to other communities around the country.
I’ve had the opportunity to work across the business, government and philanthropic sectors in a wide variety of roles, all with a common purpose: to expand opportunities for all. With each job, I’ve grown more optimistic about the difference we can make in our communities when we work together. I have also had my eyes opened to the stiff challenges we must overcome if we are to reach our goal of providing every child an opportunity to achieve their dreams.
The hard truth is that in Minnesota – and across United States – girls who look like me are being failed by our school systems every day. But I believe deeply in the power of public education to be the great equalizer in our country: to cross the boundaries of gender, race and socioeconomic status and open the doors for a child’s future.
As Hennepin County administrator I was charged with ensuring that our $2 billion budget and 12,000 employees were all working to better the lives of our community members. I saw that local government could be a tremendous force for good. But I also saw that despite investing vast amounts of time and resources to address poverty and inequality, our “wins” were too few and too far between.
At The Minneapolis Foundation I am working with community members to build “OneMinneapolis” where everyone benefits from a vibrant arts scene, beautiful green spaces, world-class education system, thriving workforce and engaged residents.
I helped launch MinnCAN in 2011 because I knew we needed to do more to achieve the goal of a world-class education for all. My state used to be a leader in educational innovation, yet had fallen drastically behind. We needed a unified agenda, grounded in research, working for the common good of students. We needed great local advocates leading the charge.
MinnCAN provided that and so much more: an opportunity to give a voice to people who were often overshadowed in the larger education debate. We still have a long way to go, but I draw inspiration for the progress made in our first three years including:
- Opening up alternative routes to teaching.
- Supporting great teachers and leaders through trusted evaluations grounded in student achievement.
- Dramatically expanding access to high-quality preschool through a quality rating system and $44 million in new funding.
I’m proud of our policy wins in Minnesota, but I know we still have a lot to learn. That’s why it is so exciting to be part of the 50CAN network, which brings together local leaders from across the country who share a commitment to improve the lives of children in their communities. By learning nationally and acting locally we are one step closer to securing the policy breakthroughs that our kids deserve.
In the coming months and years we will be focusing on two key goals as we work to grow this education advocacy movement.
First, we will continue the crucial mission of finding, supporting and connecting diverse local education advocacy leaders in each state. Earlier this year we launched the 50CAN education advocacy fellowship to identify, select and train local leaders to build a roadmap towards creating new advocacy campaigns in their communities. When we opened the application process in February, we hoped to receive 10 applicants for this inaugural class. Instead we received 76 applications from 28 states. Our first cohort of fellows will be selected this summer, and the inaugural class will kick off in the fall of 2014.
Second, we will invest our time and resources in a new effort to create a culture of learning and teaching across the 50CAN network that will support the growth of those leaders and their partners. For example, we are partnering with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to create an online policy course launching in September. Participants will engage with some of the best professors in the nation so that they can use this research foundation to help ground the advocacy efforts in their states. We are also partnering with EdFuel to develop a series of advocacy workshops that will bring everything we are learning through our local advocacy campaigns to partners across the country.
It’s an exciting time at 50CAN. I hope you will join us in our effort. Working together I am confident we can ensure that local advocates across the country have the strength and wisdom to reach our goal of a high-quality education for every child, regardless of address.
Sandy Vargas is Chair of the 50CAN national Board of Directors and President & CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation.