@16 (part two) with R.T. Rybak: The former Minneapolis mayor talks life out of office and the achievement gap

Selam Berhea, article author, headshot
Selam Berhea, Blaine High School

Editor’s note: More than two years ago, ThreeSixty Journalism interviewed R.T. Rybak for “@16” – a series in which ThreeSixty journalists interview Minnesota newsmakers and differencemakers about life as a 16-year-old high school student – when he was mayor of Minneapolis, a tenure that ended in 2014. In April, ThreeSixty circled back around to Rybak to ask him about his new role with Generation Next, and more.

During his 12-year tenure as mayor of Minneapolis, Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr.—named after his father, but nicknamed “R.T.” due to his parents’ mutual dislike of the name, he said—accomplished many things in the city, including helping put 18,000 youth into STEP-UP jobs since 2004 and creating affordable housing.

However, Rybak, who was in office from 2002 to 2014, cited the achieve­ment gap as one of the biggest issues during his time in office—and says it’s an issue that still needs to be fixed.

“I came in as the mayor of a city with the largest achievement gap in the country, and 12 years later, I left as the mayor of a city with the largest achievement gap in the country,” Rybak said in an interview in early April. “So my life after being mayor has been focused around fixing the one thing we haven’t fixed yet.”

In fact, I had come to Minneapolis to ask Rybak, now the executive director of Generation Next, a coalition of organizations and leaders aimed at narrowing the achievement and opportunity gap, about this effort and his post-mayoral life.

Within a few minutes of meeting the former mayor and Minneapolis native, I got the impression he still leads a busy life. I entered the Generation Next conference room in downtown Minneapolis just as his team was finish­ing a meeting. Before we could start the interview, he had to ask Generation Next’s director of operations, Janna Hottinger, where he was heading next and how much time he had.

R.T. Rybak. (Photo courtesy of Generation Next)

Obviously, being out of office has not slowed Rybak down.

What is Generation Next? How does it work, and why did you get involved?

When you can predict the likeli­hood of a child’s success by looking at the color of their skin, you have a huge problem. When you are in a community where that is more likely than any other place in the country, you have a massive problem. We are a coalition of mostly major founda­tions, business and civic groups, and political leaders and nonprofits and citizens. Our goal is to do whatever it takes to close the achievement gap and opportunity gap for young students. We are a big coalition that represents 500 organizations and works very closely with people in schools and out of schools with kids.

We see this as a tremendous crisis but also a tremendous opportunity in being the most diverse generation we’ve ever raised and moving them into the economy. If we can fix this huge problem, we will be in tre­mendous shape because we’ll have a much more diverse population living in cities. That also means we have students with tremendous language and cultural capacity, and it also means that young people who grow up in a minority and develop skills in crossing boundaries and code-shift­ing, that gives them an advantage. …

Why is closing the achievement gap so important to you? And how far has Generation Next come with this goal?

The first thing we did was identify five very clear, simple goals. And then we said, “Let’s do something about each of them.” So what we really did was bring 500 groups together and we looked at a lot of data and info, and we determined there’s a lot going on for our young people. Our job is to figure out what is not being done that can do the most. So, in our first goal of getting every child ready for kindergarten, there are tremendous programs in early childhood development and childcare, but our teams identified the biggest gap was screening kids to identify issues, and we found where that was done the least was screen­ing 3-year-olds. Solving this big, huge problem with the achievement gap starts with us taking this narrow approach and screening 3-year-olds. So there are 10,000 3-year-olds in Minneapolis and St. Paul, 7,000 are not screened by a doctor or the school district. If we can close that gap, we can impact the school readi­ness of thousands of kids.

When we look at our second-grade reading, we realize there is tre­mendous work in schools and with tutors and volunteers, but their work is not connected. So we brought together the largest literacy organi­zations and their daring strategies, who are trying to coordinate better how we train volunteers … We are trying to connect all that better so our young people will benefit not just from one smart teacher or one great school program, but from all of us sharing all our knowledge so all our kids will benefit. We’re now beginning to look at what we can do with eighth-grade math, in high school we’re looking to have all of the out-of-school mentoring pro­grams connected much more with the like plans in school. We’re also developing strategies to better iden­tify which kids are short of credits or off-track earlier.

And now we’re in our fifth goal and looking at doing work after high school and post-secondary, and some of that will be in four-year colleges or two-year colleges or apprentice programs, so we’re doing initiatives all across the board. We’ve also just begun a new body of work in social and emotional (learning) … Along with the academic goals of third-grade reading and eighth-grade math, factors like this about growth mindset and the social-emo­tional factors are also what we are looking at. It will be a sixth goal, but that’s to say every one of our young people are socially and emotionally ready to learn.

How can community organizations, such as ThreeSixty, or even students like myself, help with this problem?

The most important contribution a student can make right now is to help this whole community under­stand the value that we all have because of our diversity—not in spite of it. We’re building a picture of a new Minneapolis-St. Paul, where there is tremendous value in looking across a lunchroom, a classroom or street and seeing someone who is different.

But before we ask people to do any of the huge systems change or anything else, we really need this generation to demonstrate better than my generation has that we see value in reaching out and crossing boundaries. This is not about helping this part of the population or that part of the population; it’s about the entire population being something very different and that is one that is stronger because of our diversity. And so I think the most important thing for this generation to demon­strate what I already see, because I’m in schools and I’ve been with young people a lot for many years, that there’s just a dramatically better value in elevating diversity for people your age and for middle-aged people like me.

The second thing that is impor­tant to do is to help other young people to understand that every single child can learn. Too many young people give up too early or lower their expectations or limit what they believe they can know, like saying I’m not a quote-unquote math student or science student. Raising each other’s expectations is hugely important. There are a lot of people who can help young people suc­ceed, but the one thing we do know is you’re not going to achieve if you don’t think you can achieve, and so we need to help peers convince each other that everybody can succeed and, by the way, this community needs everyone to succeed.

Then there is some pretty seri­ous systems change that have to take place. There are issues of racial values and poverty, and homeless­ness, and many core issues behind all of this that need to be worked on.

Finally, there is work that I think young people can do in mentoring and tutoring. A lot of young people who weren’t necessarily rock stars in school think they don’t have much to offer. But it’s interesting that the research shows that sometimes the very best tutors for younger students are those who were maybe average students more than the brilliant one. Sometimes the student who maybe struggled more with math can relate better to the younger student who is just trying to learn math. And I think for those students who are just starting to get nearer to the end of high school, finding a peer who is younger and reaching out to them, especially working for an established tutoring organization, can really be powerful. …

You had to deal with a lot of tough issues in your tenure as mayor, such as the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007, the tornado in North Minneapolis in 2012, and more. How did you handle those tough issues without folding under pressure?

That’s a really good question (laughs). I had the strategy that there are many things I didn’t know, but I was always going to show up. And I was new to politics, I hadn’t been a mayor, and was remarkably over my head in some areas, but I felt the one thing I could always do was show up. So I was there at murder scenes, when tornadoes hit, bridges collapsed, and frankly, at a lot of very horrible moments. I think people appreciated the fact that I was there. One of the things that happens over time when you happen to be around as much violence and death as I was around is, it does take a toll. It’s hard, frankly. But it’s also strangely a privilege to be in a position where you can help.

I remember when the bridge collapsed, so many people would be walking up to me after watching this on TV and seeing it on the news with horrified looks in their eyes, asking, “What can I do to help?” And the answer was, “Frankly, not much.” I happened to be in a position where I could with my wife go to the funerals, to meet the families, to give somebody a hug, just any of those expressions of individual support. As horrible as those moments were, sometimes it was really a privilege on behalf of all the people I represented to say, “I’m sorry,” and try to find some ways from one human being to another to relate. If you walk into situations like that all the time as “the mayor,” it’s not that successful. You’re in that situation because you are the mayor and because you represent people and you’re there to say on behalf of everyone, collectively, “We’re sorry.” …

As a former journalist (for the Minneapolis Tribune and other publications), how has jour­nalism affected your life and career?

It had a huge impact. … I loved being a journal­ist because it gave me tremendous access, and as a pretty nosy person I got to ask people some questions, so you get into some remark­able places, meet some really amazing people you never would have met. I ultimately decided I wanted to be the person who was out there doing it rather than asking questions about it, but my journalism was hugely important to me in my other jobs. I was a better mayor because I had been a journalist, because even though I have a pretty big mouth I was trained to stop and ask questions. That was very, very helpful because if all you’re trained to do is to walk into a room and give a speech or have some brilliant idea and shove it down people’s throats, you aren’t going to get very far. …

So I highly recommend it as great training. Being a lawyer is perfectly good training, but it teaches you to argue one side of the case. Being a journalist is really great training because it forces you to listen and understand many points of view and then tell the story. That’s great training for almost anything I know, and it was great training to be a mayor, because don’t you think more politicians should learn to shut up and ask questions? (laughs)

You’ve been in several different careers. Do you think teens need to have it all figured out in high school?

No, I think it’s important to recognize people your age are increasingly not going to have careers but a body of work. I’ve had seven careers and I won’t have another for a few years, but who knows what happens next, I’ll probably have a few more. You will probably have multiple careers and things will happen that will be very different.

We were just talking, about a couple hours ago, in the middle of my career this thing called the Internet came around and I got offered a job as vice president of an Internet company and I hadn’t been on the Internet because it had just been invented. Now how would I have prepared for that in college? I would have pre­pared for that by having a broader knowledge, by being really interested in technology and multiple other issues that were not on the radar of somebody who was going to be this journal­ist and mayor. So what was helpful is that at that point I had cross-trained my brain to do lots of different things.

So the encouragement I would most give to a young person is to broaden their brain, but I do think, however, too many students just kind of expect something to happen without you beginning to map out careers and success. You don’t have to do the same thing your whole life. You probably won’t. In fact, for someone your age it is highly unlikely you’ll do one thing your whole life, but I do believe in living intention­ally, not floating through life, but trying to grab as many brass rings as you can.

Fail. It’s great to fail as long as you tried something. Take risks, be OK saying, “That wasn’t a perfect thing, but I learned this.” Just don’t be frozen by looking for that perfect thing that it doesn’t allow you to do anything.

And I think, probably more than anything, (that) they have very, very high aspirations. You’re lucky, you’re living in the most blessed period of time with huge issues like the achievement gap and climate change, huge inequity issues and huge opportunities where the world is literally being reinvented in front of our eyes. The times where people don’t have opportunity are the times where everything stayed totally the same. The times when people had opportunities is when there is a reshuf­fling. There’s maybe never been as much of a reshuffling as there is right now in our climate, in our politics, in our economics, in our racial makeup. Everything is shifting and if you just think about it, when things move, that is when there is opportunity. So embracing the seeming chaos that is around you as a time to try some­thing new, to invent something, to propose a whole different way of doing things. That’s pretty exciting.

In a previous interview with ThreeSixty more than two years ago, you said, “The best is yet to come,” in reference to your life after being mayor. Is Generation Next and all the things you’re involved in right now part of that, or is there still more to come?

This is absolutely the most important work that I have ever done and I feel that much more strongly now than even a year ago. Also, I feel that we can win, which is a really big deal. I don’t have my eye on anything other than fixing the achievement gap because it is so big and so critical and potentially so exciting. It’s just that if we can figure this out, we can soar as a community. I’m starting to see ways that that can happen. I’m seeing huge challenges in getting there, but I’m starting to see what is over the hill.

… A lot of our work is like crossing the mountains and not knowing exactly what’s on the other side because no one’s ever really solved this achievement gap, so we have to take risks, but we have to keep climbing the moun­tain. I think some days I leave here thinking this is harder than heck, and most days I leave thinking this is hard, but we’re going to make it. And that possibility of raising a generation that is this diverse is the most exciting thing I could possibly think of.

Are you planning to run for governor? Is your life in politics over?

I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I don’t have to think about that right now.

This is an edited transcript of this interview.