Scaling the Mount Everest of Gender Equality in Minnesota

Lee Roper-Batker, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

“We know Minnesotans have many shared values, including equality and opportunity,” says Lee Roper-Batker, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. But getting those shared values to manifest in support for policies that advance women and girls is sometimes a task that feels comparable to scaling the world’s highest mountain. “We have to meet people where they are and bring them with us,” she says, which can often be a daunting task.

Lee Roper-Batker spoke to me by phone from her office at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFM) in downtown Minneapolis, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River. The WFM is the oldest and largest statewide women’s foundation in the U.S., and its mission is to engage in “systems change” affecting individual, cultural and community attitudes and behaviors. The goal is to move institutions and public policies toward gender equity, something that Roper-Batker describes as “Our Everest.” A Minnesota native, Roper-Batker has headed the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which started in 1983, since 2001.

Those living outside the Gopher State might perceive Minnesota as white and homogenous, but that would be incorrect. True, the first major waves of immigrants to the area were mostly of German and Scandinavian origin, but since then things have changed substantially. Minnesota now has the nation’s largest Somali and East African community, as well as major Hmong and Liberian populations. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and their surrounding towns and suburbs, constitute the thirteenth largest metro area in U.S, and are home to roughly half of the state’s 5.5 million people. The Twin Cities have sizeable Latino and African American populations, and Indigenous people live in communities large and small throughout the state. Minnesota is also a big place, comprising over 85,000 square miles (for reference, the United Kingdom is 94,000 square miles).

In order to “meet people where they are,” Roper-Batker works to integrate racial, cultural, class, religious and regional dynamics in its work with girls and young women. She acknowledges that effecting social change and promoting gender equity in such a large and varied area as Minnesota is enormously complex. An important first step is good research.

“Having full command of an issue is vital to gaining the support of donors, the media, lawmakers and the wider community. Know the data and make sure it’s bullet proof,” says Roper-Batker, but she emphasizes that, “Research without action is pointless.”

This focus on research and policy is essential to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which strives for changes in laws, regulations and practices to improve the lives of women and girls, not just piecemeal programs or grants to address immediate and specific needs.

Before you can change attitudes, you first must know what these attitudes are. One form of WFM research is learning what people think about gender-related issues, how they understand them, and how they impact their lives. The Foundation uses polling and survey data, and has found there is more consensus out there than one might think.

Some issues get greater buy-in from the public and lawmakers than others. This was certainly the case with sex trafficking of Minnesota girls, where “99.8 percent of Minnesotans, regardless of party or demographic checkbox, support using public funds to end this practice,” says Roper-Batker. The initial challenge in attacking the problem was getting Minnesotans to realize that it was happening, that children were being forced into prostitution, not on the other side of the world, but right in their own communities.

In 2010, the Foundation convened 100 people from around the state to develop a blueprint for addressing child sex trafficking on multiple levels. The five-year, $5-million “MN Girls Are Not For Sale,” campaign debuted in 2011, and in its first phase it sought to raise awareness about the issue, redefine sex trafficked minors as crime victims (as opposed to being classified as criminals themselves), and mobilize support to end the practice.

The initial goal, which included passage of Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Law, has been accomplished, and in 2016, the Foundation embarked on phase two, which seeks to reduce demand, develop prevention strategies for potential victims, and target underserved communities with greater outreach and services around sex trafficking. To date, $13.3 million has been allocated at the state level to boost law enforcement, housing, trauma-informed care, and funding for regional navigators to assist victims.

WFM is always taking the pulse of its constituents, and regularly convenes listening sessions around the state with girls and women (ages 12-24) and community leaders. Roper-Batker says such forums have brought to light the “damaging social narratives” around gender, race, and religion that girls and young women experience. The Foundation heard from girls who said they suffered from “expectations being lowered” regarding their aptitude for certain professions. In the Somali community, young women suffered from anti-Islamic prejudice, particularly if they wore the hijab. “Young women told us about walking in South Minneapolis and having men jump out of cars, hit them and spit at them,” says Roper-Batker.

For girls from indigenous backgrounds, school was part of the problem. They complained of not seeing their history as Native peoples represented in the curriculum. On an individual level, indigenous girls felt they were often ignored, and one related how she’d “sit behind the four white girls in the front, because the teacher always answered their questions.”

WFM contributed to the national conversation on gender equity in these communities. In 2009, President Obama established the White House Council on Women and Girls, which is dedicated to “advancing equity for women and girls of color.” Roper-Batker had met with the Council, and noted that it had not surveyed American Indians and Somalis and other East Africans for its report. The WFM stepped into the breach, and was able to provide data on these previously overlooked communities.

The research, the listening sessions, and the opinion polling all drive WFM grant-making and policy advocacy. Collectively, this approach has resulted in WFM’s newest project, the “Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota,” a seven-year, $9-million statewide initiative it is co-leading with the state’s Governor’s Office. The initiative’s goal is to improve opportunities for young women of color, including American Indians, and others facing high disparities in income.

Direct service and changing the culture can come together, sometimes in unexpected ways. In Two Harbors, a small town on Lake Superior in the northeast part of the state, a principal at the local high school was concerned about outcomes for girls. Girls were not getting the jobs that their male counterparts were, and one of the reasons was few were taking classes in industrial arts, STEM or technical fields. The principal had heard about the foundation, and he approached it about starting a program to get more girls involved in male-dominated courses of study. That program led to a partnership with a local community college, and then outreach to employers in the region to ensure that they were supportive of female grads in traditionally male fields. “Direct service and social change are intersecting cogs in a wheel that drives equity,” says Roper-Batker.

Ultimately, says Roper-Batker, there is no substitute for deep policy knowledge and knowing the lay of the land. “Get in your car and know your community,” would be her advice for new staff of women’s foundations.

Roper-Batker also notes that while it’s important to look to the future as a foundation leader, it’s also important to deploy resources to your maximum ability in the present, in order to move the gender equity agenda forward. “Now is not the time to be amassing money and sitting on resources,” she says in reference to the WFM’s spending rate of six percent, which is slightly higher than is typical for foundations.

Roper-Batker has been working in the gender equity, labor and progressive social change movements since the 1980s. She says that while there has been progress since her student days, new challenges confront today’s girls and young women, including bullying on social media, an increasing objectification of women linked to the proliferation of pornography, and a stubbornly high incidence of violence toward women. Still, she believes that while the gender equity Everest is daunting, it is ultimately scalable.


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Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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