Sometimes, something just gets in the air, or the water. The Germans have a word — zeitgeist — or, the spirit of the moment.
For several months now, greater Toledo has been engaged in a spontaneous, simultaneous conversation about how we can do better. Specifically, how can we do better by the roughly 20 percent of our children living in poverty? (Lucas County has the highest poverty rate in northwest Ohio.)
The interesting thing is that the urgency of this question essentially asserted itself. All kinds of forces converged — a ministerial group focused on race; a new citizen’s group focused on poverty and youth; the last election focused on neighborhoods. And now, the X factor that was missing — a group of local business leaders with the same concerns.
Their core is about 100 “stakeholders” and their board, of 25, is a who’s who of the local power and corporate elite. They call themselves “Aspire” and they are based on a program called “Strive,” which has succeeded in Cincinnati and other cities. “Aspire” will act as a catalyst and convener. It will not fund programs or run programs. It will set priorities, identify best practices, and facilitate action.
Earlier this week I wrote that we need to get business people, especially big business people, involved in addressing Toledo’s problems. Well, it’s happening. The money men have put skin in the game.
What’s in it for them? Al Stroucken, chairman of O-I, gives an honest answer: self-interest. They want capable workers. A population mired in poverty, whose children who aren’t prepared to learn, can’t provide such a workforce.
At a news conference-kickoff Thursday to announce “Chapter One” of “Aspire,” its leaders said the first two goals will be to prepare children for kindergarten and to increase graduation rates in the county. (We have a 69.18 percent graduation rate, which is more than 20 percent lower than the state average.)
The answers to three questions nagging at me were positive and most encouraging:
Will this be just a “process” group or will there be action goals?
Answer: That is precisely the concern of the board. There will be action. Starting with two specific schools.
Is the board a vanity board or a working board?
Finally, will members of this group put their money, individually and collectively, into solutions that are tested and proven real?
This is big folks. It’s just a beginning — little more than an intention. But it is a truly serious intention. “Aspire” will have to bring in more players. And they will have to stick with it and not fade, as so many such groups do. But this could be the last piece of the puzzle; the force to propel us to the next level as a region. It’s a very good thing. Stay tuned.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.