Neal St. Anthony
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Business and nonprofit leaders, impressed with some recent results in north Minneapolis, are aligning efforts to ramp up training and employment for people of color in hopes of igniting economic growth and spreading wealth throughout the Twin Cities.

The collaborative Center for Economic Inclusion (CFEI) is expected to launch Friday at the Greater MSP “Critical Issues Forum.” It will include a charge from employers, trainers, fundraisers and a growing group of other stakeholders to close the employment and wealth gaps for minorities by improving access to transit systems and training while addressing the growing demand for talent and the quest for opportunity.

Tawanna Black, the business and foundation veteran who has run the Northside Funders Group since 2013, started CFEI this year.

“No one in the country has figured this all out,” Black said last week. “But we know that some things are working and we all need to be at the table.

“The data says if we work to close the income gap with whites, our regional economy would have been $32 billion-plus greater than it is now. We are at $248 billion in the Twin Cities area. This is not just about job-training programs. Our success will be measured by income and wealth parity.”

Black has been coordinating and measuring human development work among nonprofits for business and foundation partners who are focused on helping low-income households become more self-sufficient. The broader scope, and there’s research backing this, is that when those with the least do better economically through personal development, training, employment and housing, we all do better.

Moreover, more than 60,000 people of color could be added to the metro-area workforce by 2022 if employment and labor-force participation equaled that of whites, according to a 2017 report by RealTime Talent & MSPWin.

Our economy is among the strongest, and our unemployment rate among the lowest in the country. However, the Twin Cities also boasts high racial disparities in education, employment, income and homeownership. Business and civic leaders have concluded that we cannot succeed as a region until more people are empowered, trained and economically advanced.

Moreover, it will take more inclusion to address the region’s growing talent shortage. Even to maintain a static workforce in the face of baby boomer retirements, we will need to reduce the number of long-term unemployed and dislocated workers by half, 85 percent of whom are people of color.

About 40 percent of Twin Cities residents are projected to be minorities by 2040.

Good news: Minority employment has grown at up to double the rate of overall employment since 2010 in critical areas such as health care, technology, construction and business services. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those jobs are at the entry level. It’s a start.

The CFEI is a “cross-sector” organization that includes dozens of businesses.

Among Black’s key allies is David Mortenson, who leads the national construction firm that has been a leader of the Itasca Group that studies business, education and community issues. Another key backer is Mary Brainerd, the recently retired CEO of HealthPartners.

The Mortenson family and its foundation are seven-figure investors in the Northside Achievement Zone and related organizations that integrate the work of 43 partner schools, nonprofits, trainers and others working with hundreds of low-income families to overcome long-term poverty.

The CFEI will work with funders, business partners, nonprofits and neighborhood groups on the East Side of St. Paul, another diverse, slowly upticking low-income community, and along key city-to-suburban transit corridors. Hennepin and Ramsey counties also are on board.

The center is raising an activist board of investors whose organizations will fund the infrastructure. Greater MSP, the regional economic development organization, will incorporate the inclusive-economy benchmarks and progress into its periodic economic-growth scorecard.

Minority-owned businesses, starting with Minnesota’s largest, Thor Cos., generate $5.2 billion in annual revenue and collectively amount to Minnesota’s ninth-largest employer. Minority-owned businesses also are growing at 3.5 times the rate of all Minnesota businesses.

“We’re starting to see our business leaders and other partners increasingly think about north Minneapolis and the East Side of St. Paul, and [low-income] parts of Brooklyn Center or Brooklyn Park, not as problems, but as great assets in addressing the worker shortage,” Black said. “Not unemployed people, but [developable] talent.”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.