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Growth, Justice, Kindness, and the Minnesota Way

Date Published: 01/04/2018

Author: Jane Leonard

“Be kind absouloutly to everyone!” was the message greeting me in the mudroom at my sister-in-law’s home in Missouri over the holiday break, on a hand-made sign created by my five-year-old grand-niece. 

The words gave me pause to consider my guiding tenets as I begin my new job as president of Growth & Justice.   As the Minnesota policy world knows and as our website declares, we are a 15-year-old research and advocacy organization that seeks a more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota, through innovative public policy proposals based on independent research and civic engagement. We believe when Minnesota makes smart investments in practical progressive solutions, it leads to broader prosperity for all.

This persistent push for equity – emphasizing that social justice and greater shareholding by all is actually good for sustainable business growth –  really drives the work of Growth & Justice.  And reflecting on my grand-niece’s wise words, it occurred to me that there truly are unbreakable links between basic kindness and equity and growth and justice. These words all involve sharing our abundance, an important belief to re-embrace, especially when too many laws and policies coming from Washington D.C. emphasize scarcity and selfishness and fear of our neighbors.

Be kind absolutely to everyone. 

I reflected on what had transpired over the past turbulent year, when kindness and empathy diminished in national policy-making, and as democracy’s guiding moral pillars quake in the chaos.

Colleagues, friends, relatives, and political pundits from the left, center and right have all pointed to the irresponsibility (and the  lack of kindness and equity) of  the recently passed federal tax bill, especially in light of an economy that’s already enormously lucrative for those at the top.   An equitable, responsible tax bill would have built on the economic gains we’ve made in recent years, to close gaps and plant seeds for the future. It would have encouraged more investments in all the ways our democracy can create more abundance and share it: through investments in human capital and physical infrastructure, such as affordable health care, education, roads, bridges, broadband, clean water – the things that give a healthy return on that investment.  In addition to staggering new debt and worsening inequality,  the federal tax bill also actually reduces many incentives for non-profit, charitable giving, and increasing economic opportunity through community action.

Deeper down, however, the way the tax bill came together and passed was the ultimate act of irresponsibility in a year of massive assaults on our democracy.  That is perhaps the most worrisome characteristic of our political system today, because it means policy is no longer created by We the People. It is policy by fiat, decrees by the few without enough public input. We have an allegedly representative government as our Constitution sets out, but a slim majority of those elected representatives voted against the clear, overwhelming wishes of a majority of their constituents, to benefit a handful of ultra billionaire donors at the top of the economic heap.

I’m old enough to remember that this “voodoo’’ economic policy (a term coined by former Republican President George H.W. Bush, and who later in his career famously called for a “kinder, gentler nation”) ultimately breaks those promises and worsens economic conditions.  The voodoo attempted by President Reagan a generation ago almost tripled the national debt, weakened the middle-class and flipped the United States from being the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor in less than eight years.

It is in this fraught environment that I begin 2018 as the President of Growth & Justice. I take over from Dane Smith, who after 10 years at the helm, will continue as Senior Fellow in his transition to semi-retirement. I’m thankful for this, as together we make a formidable team. We’re both former journalists trained to get to the bottom of the story, and to shine the light on policy that is “kind absolutely to everyone,” to build an economy that is fairer and more prosperous across the board.

Be kind absolutely to everyone.

I come to Growth & Justice with a 35-year career in community, economic, and rural development behind me. I’ve worked in every sector and started a business, too. I just completed a three-year stint as the broadband grants administrator for the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development. There I had the honor of working with public and private sector partners to build out over 100 Border-to-Border Broadband grant projects constructing advanced  fiber, cable, and fixed wireless to thousands of households and businesses, and to hundreds of community institutions across unserved and underserved areas of Minnesota.

Border-to-Border Broadband construction, much like rural telephony and rural electrification 85 years ago, is one of the finest examples of  equity, and yes, kindness, on today’s policy stage.   It invests money from our common pot and kindly shares the wealth of the Twin Cities to equalize opportunity between urban and rural regions of the state.   It’s the old-fashioned Minnesota Way, a rural-urban socio-economic contract championed by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the Minnesota Legislature.  It’s been supported by a non-partisan state broadband task force, by the Governor and Lt. Governor (now a United States Senator), and guided by a small office of dedicated public servants, motivated by an  indomitable “We Can Do It” spirit, aided by thousands of local broadband providers and local citizens and businesses.

Broadband supporters see universal statewide access as the right thing to do – the kind and just thing to do -- to bring universal equity of opportunity and rural-urban interconnectedness across our state for the good of all.   And it is so very good for business, competitiveness and free enterprise.  In recent months as the first- and second-round grant projects finished and advanced broadband was “turned on” for the first time in homes and businesses, I witnessed first-hand a distinct upsurge of entrepreneurial energy. It’s always been there, but is now clearly amplified by robust connections to markets, to education, to health care and to government services in ways not possible just a year ago.  My hope is that the recent overturn of  “Net Neutrality’’  principles by the Federal Communications Commission will not snuff out this bright light of ingenuity and innovation.

Minnesota’s broadband policy exemplifies the “One Minnesota” concept also being championed by Growth & Justice and our partners across all policy areas.   Yes, we are a state of diverse regions with diverse economic drivers and cultural frames, diverse towns and neighborhoods, and diverse races and people.  AND, no matter where we call home, we know we must care about each other,  listen to each other, and look out for each other because we are also one gigantic family, one community, One Minnesota.  We are interdependent economically and socially whether we know it or not.  Instinctively, and sometimes intentionally, we understand that by helping one another through local acts of kindness and equity and statewide progressive policy, we have each other’s backs. That is how we survive and thrive in this seemingly cold, inhospitable northern clime. That is the Minnesota Way. Our hearts and minds and hands work together to keep our homes and enterprises warm and welcoming to all.

Be kind absolutely to everyone.

A recent visit to the Someday Isle microenterprise hub the in Isle-Wahkon area of Minnesota, on the southern shore of Lake Mille Lacs where my family farm is located,  got me thinking about the realities on the ground. It’s here and in similar co-working sites such as those in St. Paul and Minneapolis that you see inspiring grassroots efforts to create a sustainable and just economy at the local level.

What if state policy, in contrast to the federal tax bill, was focused in coming years on holistic local community development  and local microenterprise?  What if  our state policy and Minnesota tax bills supported more public/private investments in broadband infrastructure and digital literacy?  What if  state policy was a catalyst to invest in lifelong learning and affordable universal health care?  What if  state policy was “Kind Absolutely to Everyone?”  What if instead of tax giveaways and hand-outs to the wealthy, we concentrated on a fair hand-up to anyone seeking the opportunity to help their families, help their communities, and help start and strengthen businesses, across all economic and social strata?

In 2018 and beyond, these questions  will guide our research and story-telling, toward building and supporting coalitions, that lead to policy development,  that help create a more prosperous and progressive Minnesota, a state that continues to live up to its reputation for fairness.   At Growth & Justice, the goal is clear, and our journey will be guided in part by the wisdom of a precocious five-year-old: Be kind absolutely to everyone!

Happy New Year!


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