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We’ve got a lot of work to do. A reflection on MLK Day.

By Emma Olson, Workforce Connections Specialist – East Side Neighborhood Services

Almost every year that Martin Luther King Day comes, I feel a little frustrated. There’s always a friend (or thirty) who posts about how glad they are to have another day off. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is not exactly what Dr. King had in mind.

This past Martin Luther King Day was different though. I had the privilege of leading the planning committee this year with three of my fellow VISTAs (shout out to Kia, Alyssa, and Maya!), and together we decided that our goal for this year’s event was to address one of the most important issues in the Twin Cities: addressing the learning and achievement gap and the structural inequality that maintains it.

Let’s take a quick look at this gap. Here’s a look at the graduation rates by race from Minneapolis Public Schools.

grad rate mps

Those figures are pretty astounding. What they’re showing is that some communities of color are graduating students at about half or at less than half the rate as white students in Minneapolis Public Schools. Here’s how they’re faring across the state

mn grad rates

Graduation rate of students by race after 5 years of entering high school.   Data taken from the Minnesota Report Card from the Minneapolis Department of Education and reflects the class of 2013.

Minnesota is one of the most educated states in the country. According to the United States Census Bureau, 92.1% of Minnesotans over the age of 25 was a high school graduate or more and 32.6% had a Bachelor’s degree or more.  Compare this with national average of 86% and 28.8%, and we’re doing quite a bit above that overall! Yet, the majority of our students of color aren’t even receiving a high school diploma. At the very, very least, I will say that the statistics for students of color are abominable.

What do we do now? We have a group of individuals ready to plan the day, a problem we wanted to address, so how in the world do we go about addressing it? Our first meeting was all about brainstorming places we could make some sort of impact on the community that could possibly address the achievement gap in some small way.

One of the things we decided was that we needed to focus on children. Studies have shown that early childhood education can dramatically help reduce the achievement gap so focusing on working with pre-adolescent children was something we decided would be important for us. And let me tell you, there are a lot of places that focus on this. We eventually decided as an entire cohort to use our day to volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnesota, since it is both an organization that focuses on educating and encouraging learning in children, as well as the organization many of us thought would be the most fun.

In the end, did we achieve the goal we set out to; to help eliminate the achievement gap in the Twin Cities? Not as much as we would have liked. There are quite a few pitfalls that some of my fellow VISTAs have pointed out that didn’t make the day as effective as it could have been. For one, who was our audience? Well, quite honestly, the majority of children and families were white, probably middle-class, or both. The Science Museum has an admittance fee and, while there are options to get this waived for low-income families, many people don’t know about it. I’m a native Minnesotan and have been going to the Science Museum since I was a kid and didn’t know about these options until Martin Luther King Day. Another thing that should have been kept in mind is that many people have jobs that don’t give them Martin Luther King Day off, especially low-paying jobs like retail, especially families in the target population we were trying to reach.

What I think we did learn is to be more critical of where we invest our time. Maybe volunteering a homeless shelter or helping out with Habitat for Humanity will be on our agenda for next year.  If there’s any big take away for this day, it’s that there is a lot of need in our community and we have a lot of opportunities to give back.

PSEI VISTAs, like most AmeriCorps members across the nation complete volunteer activities on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national service day. To learn more about this national day of service visit To see pictures of PSEI VISTA’s volunteering at the Minnesota Science Museum check out our Facebook page

Phillips Family Foundation

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