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Our Voice: Kate Wolford: Comments at Project for Pride in Living anniversary

June 2012 - In May 2012, McKnight president Kate Wolford delivered this speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of Project for Pride in Living, a McKnight grantee organization.

Good morning. I am delighted to be here today. On behalf of the board of directors and staff of The McKnight Foundation, I want to congratulation Project for Pride in Living on 40 years of impactful service in our community. From its start under the visionary leadership of Joe Selvaggio to today with Steve Cramer and his team, PPL has been a center of excellence and a beacon of hope in our community. While its programs and services have changed over time, its core mission has remained constant: helping low-income people become more self-sufficient.

The McKnight Foundation supports the people, places and possibilities that help our state create a more vibrant future for everyone. So, it is not surprising that we have provided financial support for PPL for most of the past four decades, totalling over 5 million dollars.  As I looked at our past grants, I was reminded of the broad scope of PPL’s work—housing purchase and rehabs, employment training, revolving loan funds, youth enrichment, business assistance and multiservice. 

When Steve and I first talked about this breakfast, I recall him saying, “yes, we are celebrating 40 years, but this is no time to rest.  Our focus must be forward looking.”

I agree with Steve. I believe it is very important to celebrate legacy, and how resources have been deployed for impact, and how knowledge and reputational assets were built over the years.  And, this is not a time for any of us to rest on past accomplishments.  The Great Recession has meant sharp job losses, especially middle-income jobs, and making it harder for low-income or hard-to-employ people like ex-offenders, with whom PPL works, to enter the workforce and to move up the ladder from entry level positions.  The Brookings Institution describes it as a structural recession in which “we stopped innovating and producing jobs in value-added industries that create wealth…; having become more of a consumption-oriented society instead of a production-oriented economy.” In this scenario, it is clear there is no silver bullet, no quick or easy fix.

As a metropolitan area, we have many strengths to draw on, including a diversified economy and a strong public, business and civic infrastructure. But, as budget cuts cascade across the federal, state and city levels, we are seeing dramatic cuts in investments necessary to help families reach and maintain self-sufficiency. The opportunity gap widens into a deep chasm when budgets are balanced on the backs of the poor. And, don’t for a second believe it when someone says that non-profit and charitable giving can make up the difference.  A sustainable future depends on making equity and integral part of our future growth model.

PPL works with individuals to secure stable employment.  It operates a schools and out-of-school time programs. Through its programs, its staff know firsthand the importance of creating a strong education pipeline from cradle to career. Education is more closely correlated with upward mobility than any other single factor. By now, we are all familiar with our stark and persistent achievement gap across race, ethnicity and income.  Only 60% of our children of color are reading at grade level by the end of third grade, a key transition point when kids move from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’  That is just one of many indicators to say that we have the wrong trend line and need a major transformation in how we use time in schools and out of school enrichment.

I used to work in disaster response overseas—it was easy to generate a sense of urgency and resources for a sharp onset emergency like an earthquake or tsunami, or closer to home, a tornado. It was just the opposite for a drought which builds slowly, even when the consequences are severe. It feels like the same situation in Minnesota around our educational achievement.  Awareness is growing, but we need a collective mind-shift to an educational earthquake that mobilizes the entire community to raise the bar and close the gap. And while it is a crisis, it is also an amazing opportunity when you think about the many languages and global connections represented by our next generation – building on those assets will be crucial to our future workforce and economic competitiveness in a global economy, and to the health and vitality of our democracy.

At a time of rapid changes in our economy, demographics, and technology, we need non-profit organizations that combine strong governance, business acumen and the mindset and ability to innovate in both its products and practices. We need organizations that serve and lead.  PPL has all of these attributes.

The families and individuals served by PPL know how valuable this organization is. As you heard from Ernestine and Chico, they can tell you from powerful direct experience. 

PPL’s influence and impact extends beyond its direct service.  PPL is a leader in successfully navigating mergers with other non-profits, ensuring the continuation of important services in a more sustainable way.  PPL shares its development expertise with community based efforts throughout the region, diving deep into partnership with the Northside Eco-Village and partnering to preserve critical scatter-site rental and ownership properties in Frogtown, Phillips and north Minneapolis, neighborhoods which are home to many families facing conditions of poverty.  PPL is an important partner in new ways to connect housing to transit options, so that residents have better access to jobs as well as educational and health services. In fact, McKnight’s most recent grant to PPL is to increase its capacity to redevelop and manage foreclosed affordable rental units close to transit options.

PPL’s president Steve Cramer is looked to by his peers and beyond as a thought leader and an action leader. For example, as Chair of the MN Ballpark Authority, Steve successfully advocated for minority workforce goals, and small business, women and minority owned business goals which set new standards for ensuring such public investments deliver multiple bottom line results. This is a great example of influencing public investments in ways that expand opportunities for all. Through its leadership role, PPL contributes to our community’s capacity to create new solutions where doing more of the same won’t get us to where we need to be.

Like McKnight, PPL weaves together a focus on people and places in ways that yield new possibilities for the people it serves and accompanies on their path to self-sufficiency.

And so I want to close with words from PPL’s own strategic plan.  It reads, “While it would be easy to view the future through a scarcity lens, anticipating limited resources and diminished capacity….., if we are to succeed in the future, we must use an abundance lens that magnifies and energizes the profusion of strengths, skills and expertise within PPL and the people we serve.”

Wise words, and great advice for us all.  Thank you PPL and happy anniversary!