Minneapolis’ most ambitious antipoverty and community empowerment network just got a big boost. In early October, Northside Achievement Zone
(NAZ) received $6 million in combined grants from Target and General Mills
— $1 million per year for three years from each company. These funds will help replace a federal grant that is ending.
NAZ has a revolutionary mission: to coordinate and empower “more than 40 local organizations and schools...working in radically new ways to permanently close the academic achievement gap and end poverty,” according to a Fallon-produced promotional video
. Partner organizations include early childhood program providers like the YWCA and Minneapolis Public Schools; public, charter and private K-12 schools; expanded learning/mentoring programs like Plymouth Youth Center; health, housing and career organizations like Washburn Center for Children, Urban Homeworks and Twin Cities RISE!; and higher education institutions like Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Minnesota.
NAZ is broadly modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, an antipoverty and childhood education network in New York City. But its huge partner network and bottom-up approach to empowerment make NAZ arguably the most ambitious initiative of its kind anywhere in the U.S.
NAZ specifically seeks out the most vulnerable, hard-to-reach families, many of whom face housing insecurity, chronic joblessness and other obstacles. Ideally, each participating mom enrolls her child before birth, signing a commitment to make college a top priority for the little one. She and her partner, if present, pair with a coach responsible for building a customized support plan with the family’s input — complete with “specific, individualized goals that make sense for that particular family,” all framed in terms of college-readiness, says NAZ communications director Katie Murphy.
The typical NAZ family works with various partner organizations to find suitable, stable housing, stay on top of their healthcare needs (including mental health, a big issue for new moms), improve financial literacy and enroll in parenting classes, among other things. As they grow, kids tap into these networks too; North High School, for instance, has NAZ academic coaches who work with students on site.
“When it’s time to meet with their academic coaches, students can just walk down the hall,” says Murphy.
NAZ’s new grants could help the organization reach a long-held goal — to impact 1,000 families and 2,500 kids, representing 40 percent of Northside families with children under 18 — as early as next year. NAZ is already most of the way there: At last count, the network had about 870 families and nearly 1,900 kids.
By 2020, says NAZ President & CEO Sondra Samuels, NAZ is poised to impact 1,700 or more families per year. That number includes families actively engaged with partner organizations, plus those who’ve “graduated” and no longer need to tap NAZ’s services.
Graduated parents and older students often assume mentorship or advisory roles within the NAZ structure. With preexisting social networks and ample reserves of community trust, says Murphy, current and past participants are NAZ’s most effective on-the-ground recruiters. When NAZ hires family coaches, they look exclusively at their roster of enrolled parents.
NAZ is so confident in its approach, and in the power of community-driven family empowerment in general, that it hands out T-shirts — to toddlers—proclaiming their expected college graduation year. For parents used to hearing that their kids won’t amount to much, or that they need to have “realistic” expectations, something as simple as a T-shirt can inspire belief in what’s possible.
“NAZ addresses the achievement gap by striking at the heart of the belief gap,” says Samuels, “and coupling the power to inspire with a proven system that provides our families with a ladder out of poverty.”
Though today’s NAZ takes a holistic approach to antipoverty work, its predecessor organization did far more targeted work. Founded in 2003, the PEACE Foundation was a “grassroots movement across race, class and geography [with] the common goal of significantly reducing violence in North Minneapolis,” according to NAZ’s website. The PEACE Foundation enjoyed ample community support, but stakeholders worried that it wasn’t doing enough to address the root causes of violence, including what Samuels calls “a direct correlation” between poor educational outcomes and violent crime.
“In recognition of the clear link between poverty, the educational achievement gap and violence, the PEACE Foundation was already moving toward” an approach that included support for families and early childhood education initiatives, says Samuels. “When we heard about the Harlem Children’s Zone, we realized that it was
possible to pull all the levers that hold the people back and empower the community to change.”
“We’ve been told that what we’re trying to do is unrealistic,” she adds. “But we remind ourselves that every great advance” — women’s suffrage, marriage equality, putting a man on the moon — “was also ‘unrealistic’ once.”