Common Good: Grounded in Community (By Susan Maas, photo by Sara Rubinstein)
Melvin Carter III (M.P.P. ’11) woke up on Election Day in 2000 and figured he would go vote if he could get around to it. Carter, a St. Paul native, was an undergraduate at Florida A & M University living with his sister and brother-in-law in Tallahassee. His brother-in-law, it turned out, felt strongly about showing up at the polls. “He insisted that everyone living under his roof was going to go vote,” Carter recalls. So they went together—and then Carter’s brother-in-law, who was registered and had voted there before, was turned away.
“They said his name wasn’t on the list. He was registered; he’d voted there before. We found ourselves at this table, arguing his right to vote . . . it felt like a Twilight Zone experience.” That presidential election was the Bush vs. Gore race that hinged on Florida and ended up going to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“That was the most profound sense of powerlessness I’ve ever felt. I just couldn’t reconcile it with this notion I’d always had that the United States is a place where everybody gets a say,” Carter says.
That political awakening fired Carter’s career in public service. Most of what he’s done since earning his graduate degree at the U’s Humphrey School goes back to that table in Florida. “I hope that when it comes time to eulogize my life, it can be said that I worked to keep people from feeling the way we felt that day,” he says.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration and a brief stint in banking, Carter followed his heart into nonprofit work training candidates and community organizers. From there he went to work in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office before winning a seat on the St. Paul City Council representing the neighborhood where he’d grown up. At the time, new light rail transit from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis promised economic development along its route—but not all the affected neighborhoods were included in the planning, including Carter’s.
The train was slated to run “right through our community, four blocks away from where Interstate 94 went through what used to be Rondo,” Carter says. Rondo was the vibrant heart of St. Paul’s black community, where Carter’s family had lived for generations, that was severed by the interstate in the 1960s. He recalls riding in his father’s car as a child: “Every time we’d pass under the Dale Street bridge my dad would go, ‘We’re under my bedroom now.’” The parallels were striking; light rail plans called for no stops in the neighborhood.
“A lot of us felt the train could be a great thing for our community; light rail is a proven catalyst for development. But it was hard to argue that we would get all these great benefits from a train that wasn’t even going to stop to pick us up.” Carter’s quest to engage neighborhood residents on the issue resulted in a more equitable plan with three additional stops.
On the council, Carter also fought to eliminate employment discrimination against people with criminal backgrounds and helped create St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity. But the effort he’s proudest of is bringing city, county, school district, corporate, and citizen stakeholders together to form the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, an initiative aimed at combatting educational disparities.
The Promise Neighborhood exemplifies Carter’s belief that different units of government can and should work together to address urgent problems. “How do we create seamless systems to support children’s and families’ success in a way that doesn’t require them to memorize the bureaucratic labyrinths we’ve set up to fund and administer these different functions? Families don’t actually organize their lives around units of government,” Carter says. His leadership on the Promise Neighborhood led directly to his current role as executive director of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet, housed in the governor’s office, where his mission includes trying to persuade policymakers that investing in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers yields major returns.
“You know the saying, it takes a whole community to raise a child? I’ve always felt like I’m a child the community raised. Whether it was at school, at the after school program, at the rec center, at home, when I just walked down the street in my neighborhood, I was always surrounded by adults who cared. Irritatingly so!” he laughs.
Among his most beloved early mentors was his parks and rec track coach, James Banks, who now coaches his 7- and 9-year-old daughters in the same program.
“To have consistent adults like that, in addition to my parents, had a transformational effect on my life.” Carter helps with the program when he can, and volunteers with Save Our Sons, the mentoring organization his father, Melvin Carter Jr., founded, and teaches storytelling to young kids through the St. Paul-based ARTS-Us.
Carter is proud to live in a place that considers itself an education state, and he aspires to make it a reality for all Minnesotans. “When we talk about disparities in Minnesota, one of the things that’s always felt true to me is that if we could get a little more Minnesota into more of our neighborhoods, we’d be doing all right. I think we’re up to the task.”