3Q New Minneapolis Foundation President-to-be Sandy Vargas

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Earlier this week, trustees of the Minneapolis Foundation announced they had chosen Hennepin County Administrator Sandy Vargas to succeed Emmett Carson as their new President and CEO. As the top unelected executive in Minnesota's largest county government since 1999, Vargas has played a major role in the way Hennepin County wields its $2 billion budget. She comes to a venerable foundation boosted by Carson's successful 12-year tenure, particularly in its highlighting and addressing of racial disparties in this region, and in promoting and managing philanthropy. The Minneapolis Foundation currently manages $640 million in assets, administers more than 800 charitable funds and distributes about $40 million in grants each year. Vargas will begin her new position on April 1.

City Pages: Okay, we know the usual deal is to be modest and self-effacing, but put your thinking cap on for us please and tell us why you were the right hire for the Minneapolis Foundation.

Sandy Vargas: I think there are several reasons. I do feel some modesty, but to be frank with you, because of the work I've done in Hennepin County, I understand strategic thinking and know how to implement the strategic positions of the Minneapolis Foundation. Not only the words on paper, but how the mission and the plan get materialized in a concrete way in projects and initiatives that make this community a better place to live for everyone, not just certain people. Second, I have broad, long-term, senior management experience. Hennepin County has a $2 billion budget and 12,000 employees, and my job here is to figure out how to be more responsive to taxpayers and the people we serve. We have five fundamental goals [at Hennepin County]: Create the highest level of health for all of our citizens; create an environment and programs that support people on a path to self-reliance; ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults; make sure that due process is carried out for all through our work with the court systems and criminal justice; and finally the huge issue of mobility in the Twin Cities area.

This background brings me up to speed on the things critical to the Minneapolis Foundation and allows me to help convene different groups of people and connect the dots when taking broader strategic action on these issues. For example, the Minneapolis Foundation has been a leader in the area of identifying racial disparities. I see something like using that knowledge in the area of immigration and immigrant health disparities as fitting into that framework.


CP: There is already a fair amount of interaction between Hennepin County and the Minneapolis Foundation. You probably have a very keen knowledge and opinion about what is most needed within Hennepin County right now. Does that give the County an advantage in getting Minneapolis Foundation dollars?

Vargas: Well, we tend to be dealing with the same strategic issues, so there has been an ongoing dialogue. But what I would like to see in the future is real partnership around the really tough issues, like multigenerational poverty. How do we get these chronically poor kids ready for school? All-day kindergarten is a priority for the Minneapolis Foundation, so how can we get the right commitment in a partnership with Hennepin County to educate all our kids and really move that agenda forward? Housing and homelessness is absolutely another issue. The City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County just finished a ten-year plan to end homelessness, working specifically around issues of supportive housing. The Minneapolis Foundation can bring flexible dollars to this problem in areas where because public housing dollars tend to be less flexible. And in health, I could see a very good partnership being created with the Hennepin County Medical Center, where a lot of indigent people are treated. One focus of the Foundation is health disparities. Many people without resources don't have as much access because they don't know or don't understand where the resources are or how to get them. I think a partnership with the immigrant communities, and the Native American community, and with HCMC and the Minneapolis Foundation would be very interesting.


CP: Right now you are at Hennepin County. When you go to the Minneapolis Foundation, how much of it is jumping the fence, from public government to nonprofit donor, and how much of it is essentially the same?

Vargas: What is the same is that I believe in collaboration. I don't think any single government or group can do it on their own. Again, we want to tackle the tough issues. Why don't kids of color do as well as other kids in the school system? And even then, we know that all kids of poverty are in greater need of help with their academic achievement. So public dollars need to be brought to bear, but what about providing incentives to help kids achieve in the public schools? That would be an example of maybe how Minneapolis Foundation could be utilized in ways that public dollars can't.

I think we have to look at systems. The criminal justice system has a high presence of men of color in it. We have to ask ourselves why is it so predominantly men of color; not saying right or wrong, but can it be better? There too, we need to learn how to get kids on the right tracks at a tender age and give them positive options for activity, and then as they get older give them a chance to work and be successful.

I have a tremendous respect for the work of Emmett Carson because he had a very strategic view of what this community needed to do, especially around the issue of racial disparities. The projects he funded left us with a rich set of knowledge for us to continue on with. What I would like to do in same area is try and convey an urgency and build a big tent for everyone to come in. We need to emphasize that as a community we are interdependent, and if we want to continue to thrive as a community we can't ignore poverty and the lack of opportunity and education, regardless of whether it is people of color or not. And we need to make everyone feel welcome so we can work together to remedy those things.

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