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Local View: Narrowing the opportunity gap starts this week, with listening

Narrowing the opportunity gap in the Twin Ports starts with listening. That has been the focus of the Opportunity Rising Initiative since it began in 2015 with work by the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and our partners.

After identifying the issues of children and families living in poverty as a major focus, we began holding listening sessions that opened ears as well as eyes and provided the basis for more than $1.5 million in grants issued since 2016 to begin narrowing the gap.

Holly SampsonNow, with public understanding of this issue critical to taking next steps, we have invited nationally known guests to town to explain the challenges of the opportunity gap and why it's important to work to narrow it. Events will be taking shape in the coming weeks and days, allowing Northland residents to witness them as well as participate.

First, programs underway locally to address families and children living in poverty will be part of a national documentary series airing on PBS (WDSE/WRPT-TV Channel 8 in the Twin Ports). The series is called "Our Kids — Narrowing the Opportunity Gap" and is produced by the Media Policy Center in Santa Monica, Calif. Twin Ports programs will be featured in the second installment of the series, airing at 9 p.m. Friday. All four parts of the series also will be broadcast on WDSE/WRPT's digital Channel 8.2 in the Twin Ports from noon to 1 p.m. today, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. (More information about the "Our Kids" documentary series is available at ourkidsseries.org.)

The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation also soon will welcome to town StoryCorps, a nationally known nonprofit that records, preserves, and shares stories of people from all walks of life in order to build a more just and compassionate world. Since 2003, the organization has recorded and distributed audio stories of people from all backgrounds and beliefs through storycorps.org and National Public Radio. In late May, we will bring StoryCorps to the Twin Ports to conduct 15 interviews over three days with local residents about issues surrounding the opportunity gap and the Opportunity Rising Initiative. Stories will include dealing with the opportunity gap in daily life, working to help children and families rise up from poverty, and sharing how families have taken action.

A StoryCorps representative will make a special presentation to guests at the community foundation's annual celebration, from 4 to 6 p.m. May 22 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. All members of our community are welcome to attend.

Four years ago, we began work to address the opportunity gap locally by inviting Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University to give the keynote address at our 2015 annual celebration. Putnam is the author of "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," a New York Times best-selling book examining the opportunity gap.

In 2016, we followed up by awarding $1.5 million to 10 nonprofits in the Twin Ports for groundbreaking work to help narrow the opportunity gap. The projects, still underway and now joined by others, are connecting children and families to services, including education, transportation, mentoring, and employment. Many of the grants were for innovative efforts that may serve as national models for improving the lives of children and families.

In Duluth, 3,346 children, or 21.5 percent, live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Superior, the number is 1,038 children, or 25.8 percent. Both numbers are higher than the Minnesota average of 12.2 percent, the Wisconsin average of 15 percent, and the national average of 18 percent.

Experts have warned that the gap between rich and poor children and families is widening across the United States, creating increasingly separate societies. That chasm threatens the ability of individual communities and the nation as a whole to solve problems, seize opportunities, and achieve goals for economic growth and quality living.

How can we work to address the difficult issues of poverty and increase opportunities for people whose lives and families are affected? To make progress, we must understand our neighbors' lives and what it means for our community to help people achieve their full potentials.

The first step in that journey is listening, which I hope all of us will do with these upcoming opportunities.

Holly C. Sampson is president of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation (dsacommunityfoundation.org).