“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” I grew up in the 1960s inspired by these words from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, I am heartsick that today, over 50 years later, racial injustice continues to be a stain on our national character and a strain on our national unity. Recent tragedies have highlighted how far we have to travel in advancing the cause of justice.

You might ask — What does the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests have to do with rural Minnesota? More than you may realize.

Obviously, the outcry in response to this tragedy is about more than this one incident. It is about a legitimate sense in the black community — based on their own life experience — that equal justice and equal opportunity are not within reach.

Equal justice. Equal opportunity. These principles are at the core of what it means to be an American. The belief in these principles unites us as a nation. But when they are not made real in the lives of all Americans, it should matter to all of us.

Because it directly relates to the mission of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, let me explore the matter of equal opportunity. It is a sad fact that racial disparities in Minnesota are among the worst in the nation. When it comes to educational achievement gaps, these are among the numbers: In fourth grade reading and math, Minnesota has the second-worst gap in the nation between African American and white students. In eighth grade math, Minnesota has the largest gap in the nation between white and African American students, as well as between white and Hispanic students; in graduation rates, Minnesota is the third-worst state between whites and African Americans — and has the largest gap between whites and Hispanics.

Even in rural Minnesota, too many of our neighbors feel unheard and marginalized, left out, left behind. We can and must do better. Individually, collectively and through our places of worship and work — we all can do our part.

Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, this speaks to our own core values of community and respect and inclusion. Our vision is for a prosperous and growing region with vibrant communities, innovative and successful economies, and engaged and valued citizens.

Our programs in early childhood development, entrepreneurship and community vitality are designed to advance equal opportunity in our 20-county region. But in all these activities we know we still have work to do. That is why we are currently engaged in extensive diversity training for our staff – including racial injustice and inequities. That is why we are seeking to enhance efforts toward outreach and inclusion in all our programming. Together with partners across the region we are committed to this effort – knowing that for our region to grow and prosper all of us must have the opportunity to succeed. No one can be left out or left behind.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Reach him at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.

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