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Loving Our Community to Failure

(Note: a longer version of this article will appear in the July 14 issue of Southwest Journal)

by Mikki Morrissette


A few years ago, Roy Scranton, an opinion blogger for The New York Times, wrote that climate change “won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.” He said the biggest problem we face is that there is nothing we can do to save our current civilization, and we need to get down to the hard work of adapting to a new reality.


One of our choices, he wrote, is that “We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain.”


Pessimistic? Yes. But in a way, I recently heard a similarly kickass message about wishful progressive thinking from Pam Costain, retiring executive director of Achieve MPLS, about the achievement gap in our Minneapolis public schools and how we are failing our students of color – and by natural extension, our communities of color and ourselves as a city.


Pam Costain prepares to take the stage for her hard-hitting "retirement" message about Minneapolis education, with Don Samuels (foreground), former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, former mayor R.T. Rybak, and current Mayor Betsy Hodges in attendance.

I  have known Costain for more than a decade, since her previous work around civic dialogue and education with Wellstone Action. She is the first person I contacted to talk to young student reporters about Paul and Sheila Wellstone for a book project titled “Be the Change,” with roots to the family that go back to her Carleton college days. She talks with heart, passion, and determination, and describes her past decade in public education as the most significant – and emotionally battering, frustrating and grief-stricken – of her long life in public service. 


In a private gathering that included the former and current mayor, City Councilman Don Samuels, former School Board colleague T. Williams, current Board member Carla Bates, former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, and many democratic-minded activists, education reformers and Minneapolis Public Schools representatives, Costain delivered a candid retirement speech about the six daunting reasons we are “loving our children to failure.”


A few of her points:


  • Education reformers like herself have sometimes communicated with arrogance and erroneously given the impression that they do not respect teachers. 

  • White people in our city have lower expectations for children of color. This is “one of the most subtle forms of racism.” She believes that more affluent people have, through their choices, contributed to de facto segregation in our housing and schools. ALL children are our children, she said.

  • Perhaps the one I admired hearing the most: Silent progressives. Costain said she does not understand why social justice activists who express so much concern about banks, corporations, police, and fossil fuels do not have the same level of outrage about our failure to educate all children. Is it because this would mean diving into teacher quality issues? 


Costain also lifted up the bright lights, including Kingfield’s work toward inclusiveness at Lyndale. She has hope that if adults can leave squabbling behind, and our city can combat its unexamined racism, we can develop a more unified and focused vision on our kids that goes beyond the next election and donation.


So much of what I’m seeing and hearing these days brings to mind for me the message physicist David Bohm told us in his 1980 book “Wholeness and the Implicate Order.” Bohm’s message was that “wholeness is what is real,” and that our human need to break things down into fragments creates an illusionary sense that our world is not, at its essence, interconnected.


In a more “Sustainable We” vision, Bohm – and Costain – might argue that if we start with the notion that our community/world/universe is connected, then maybe the ways we divide ourselves up politically, economically and socially will no longer make sense to us and we’ll get about the business of repairing it.


Mikki Morrissette is developing a book of essays about the visibility and fragmentation issues that interfere with our “Sustainable We.”

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