@16: Mayor R.T. Rybak talks teen years, social media and his 'dream job'

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak discusses a variety of topics from his City Hall office with ThreeSixty reporter Maya Shelton-Davies.
Photo By: Briana Gruenewald
I’ve had seven different careers in one place. I far prefer that to one career in seven different places. To really be rooted in a place has given me the confidence to try lots of different things. And I’m not sure if I could have done that in a lot of different cities.

R.T. Rybak can’t imagine living anywhere but Minneapolis.

For him, there’s nothing better than looking out the window and marveling at the falling Minnesota snow. Yet as mayor of Minnesota’s largest city, he always has to wonder how the plows are doing.

“It’s a lot of work,” Rybak said. “There’s always something in the back of your head about the responsibility you have.”

It comes with the city’s top title — not just a job to Rybak during these past 11 years, but a “tremendous privilege” and a “chance to change lives.”

Having announced in December that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term as mayor, Rybak is in a more reflective state of mind to start 2013. But that doesn’t mean the work stops.

Even as a board in a nearby City Hall office counts down the remaining 300-some days, Rybak said, “I don’t use that because I’m anxious to get out of here. I’m anxious to use every single second of this.”

Rybak recently sat down with ThreeSixty Journalism to talk about a high school career filled with self-doubt, the difficulty of leaving his “dream job,” and why, no matter what he ends up doing in the future, Minneapolis is where he wants to stay.

What were your high school years like?

As I look back, I had a good time in high school. But as I look back, it was probably the period in my life where I was most confused about where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be, and what direction I should go in. I think I was probably a little depressed. It just was not a period that was anywhere near as exciting or fulfilling as it would be for me later.

I often think that’s important to people who are in high school, because not everybody fits perfectly. Not everyone has a clear rise to be a mayor or a person in business or … it’s not a clear road. It’s often complicated and rocky. Maybe one of the reasons why I spend so much time in high schools is I could have used more of that on my own. For the last nine years, I’ve spoken to every ninth grader in Minneapolis schools … and for all those years, I’ve asked that young people close their eyes and visualize what they’ll be doing when they’re older.

When I was their age, I had this bizarre idea that I wanted to be the mayor of Minneapolis. But I didn’t tell my friends that because they would have laughed at me. And so I often will encourage young people … to think big and not let peer pressure intimidate them to think they can achieve something big.

It’s a bit of a strange goal for someone so young. Why did you want to be mayor of Minneapolis?

I found myself at that age moving between different worlds. I lived in a middle class neighborhood in south Minneapolis. I went to Breck, where there were a lot of people who had some wealth. And my parents owned a drugstore at Chicago and Franklin at a period where that area was very poor and somewhat violent. I spent a lot of time crossing boundaries between those worlds. So I’m pretty sure that what began going on in my head was that I wanted to help those who had less than I did.

My dad died when I was about 10, so my mother ran our drugstore for a couple years. And she fixed up the basement there, so we’d be picked up after school, brought down to the basement after school, eat our dinner at the restaurant at Chicago and Franklin, close the store at 8, and deliver prescriptions around the neighborhood. And I got the chance at that point to go up to front doors of homes, to see people who were in very different circumstances than I was. That experience has colored why I went into politics and my view about using political life to close gaps so that others had opportunity.

What was life at Breck like?

It was on most levels a really good time to go to the school. It came right after the very open period of the ‘60s … and there were tremendous opportunities for a self-directed student to do a lot. However, I was not self-directed in class. At all. So I did poorly. But I was very self-directed in leadership. So I was president of the student body. I was president of my class every year except when I was president of the student body. I was editor of the newspaper. I was captain of the baseball team. I started a band. I did everything. If you saw the movie “Rushmore,” it’s sort of the story of my life. (Laughs).

And the good part of that is it taught me a little bit about how the world is your oyster. You can make it how you want it to be. In retrospect, I probably should have taken much more advantage of the opportunities I had. And I just didn’t. I was a poor student. I thought I was dumb. I didn’t think I was going to be able to succeed in anything that had to do with learning. So I figured I would pour it all into (being) the leader, the organizer. I wish, in retrospect, I would have focused more on language, science and some of these things that I now have a real interest in. I think in high school, people spend too much time worrying about what adults and others want them to do, and not enough about how they can take control of their own life.

You’ve said that being mayor is your dream job. Why do you enjoy this role so much?

This is an amazing opportunity to be able to lead a city that I love, and be able to focus on things that matter to me. Especially with young people, environmental sustainability, bringing peace to neighborhoods, so many other things.

Even when it’s tough, when I’ve had to go to shootings or the bridge collapsing, there’s a privilege to not just watching it on television, but being able to get up and help. To do something. So many people get so heartbroken seeing something horrible happen. And even in those times, you get the privilege as the mayor to say, “On behalf of everyone, I want to help.” It doesn’t make some tragedy better. But it is a privilege to be able to do something about it.

You wear your love for Minneapolis on your sleeve. Why is this city so special to you?

There are people who live places and people who are of a place. I’m the second. The opportunity to get a job in another place has never been on my radar because when it snows, I want to go cross-country skiing at Theodore Wirth (Park). When it’s hot, I want to swim in Lake Calhoun. When it’s fall, I want to walk down the river road. When it’s spring, I want to walk through the wildflower garden at Lake Harriet. There’s just so much of me that’s fulfilled by the nature of this place. The art, the culture, the people. I’ve had seven different careers in one place. I far prefer that to one career in seven different places. To really be rooted in a place has given me the confidence to try lots of different things. And I’m not sure if I could have done that in a lot of different cities.

What’s changed the most about Minneapolis since you became mayor?

The single biggest change is that the people of Minneapolis are dramatically different. We are far more diverse, and our diversity is more diverse than other cities. We have the largest Somali population outside Mogadishu. One of the largest Hmong populations in the world. A large part of the population from Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America. Immigrants from places like Tibet.

That could be a challenge, and there are problems with it. My mission as mayor has been to find ways for that to be an asset. And the single best thing that we’ve done here, by far, is the Step-Up summer job program — where over time, we’ve taken 16,000 high school students, 86 percent kids of color, 93 percent kids in poverty, 50 percent immigrants and gotten them quality summer jobs. I’m fully convinced that by the time I’m retiring, the mayor’s office and all these office buildings, many of the jobs will be populated by this very diverse population of young people who’ve come through our Step-Up summer jobs program. They’ll now be leading this city.

What’s changed the most about you?

Aside from having no gray hair to having all gray hair? (Laughs).

I have changed from a person who needed everyone to like me to one who wants everyone to respect me. Huge difference. You can’t make the tough decisions you have to make in this job, especially in the period that I’ve done it facing some of the crises, and make everyone happy. You definitely have to do something that someone won’t like.

You were one of the first mayors, if not the first, to embrace Twitter. What role has social media played in connecting with young people?

Before Facebook and Twitter and some of the other parts of social media, I found myself being defined by the established media. I was a reporter. I understand the established media. But I don’t want to tell my story just through somebody else’s eyes. Social media has given me the ability to speak directly to people in real time. So, when I leave an event and tweet about it or put something on my Facebook about it, I’m saying exactly what’s on my mind without a lot of spin or dressing. And people provide feedback on all of that.

People make the mistake sometime of thinking that I can solve city problems on Twitter when they should really be calling 311 or e-mailing my office. But generally, it’s given me tremendous ability to just talk directly to people. I also think, right now, that the younger generation wants people in political life to be real. To not fake something.

So my social media, I’m exactly who I am. That’s me. That’s not somebody else making it up under my name. A lot of political people have someone else doing it for them, and it shows. Mine is just me. I make grammatical and spelling errors. I make errors of fact. I say things that I may regret later. But mostly, it’s just me thinking in real time. And I think that’s allowed people to get a window into what it’s really like.

When I first went on social media, my kids were really upset. When I started my Facebook, my son and daughter said, “Dad, don’t do this. You will have no friends.” So when I had 100 friends on Facebook, I was bragging. They kind of rolled their eyes. When I had 300, I came back and they still rolled their eyes. When I got 500 friends, their eyebrows raised a little bit.

When I hit the 5,000 friend mark a number of years ago, which maxes you out on Facebook, I just shoved it in my kids’ faces. But they reminded me, “Dad, they’re not all your friends, OK?”

What are your favorite things to do in Minneapolis?

How long do you have? Let’s see, my top five would be cross country skiing at Theodore Wirth Park. Biking around the lakes. Eating at the (Midtown) Global Market. Hearing music at First Avenue or the Dakota, or some other venue. And … oh I know, going to the Walker or some other gallery.

What will you miss most about being mayor?

I’ll miss the ability to stick my nose in a lot of places where maybe it shouldn’t belong. (Laughs). No, when there’s a tragedy like the bridge collapse, when a team wins a championship, when a kid gets a big scholarship, when there’s something to celebrate or mourn or come together, I’m always at the center. And I won’t be. That’s one of the things you lose.

The good thing is that you’re also not responsible for all of that. I’m certain that I’m going to think that not being at the center of things is more of a downside than an upside. I’m definitely going to miss that. But I do think that the best is yet to come. I haven’t decided what that is yet. It’s not going to be one thing. It’ll be a collection of work, mostly here, but maybe elsewhere. But I’m going to live here. I don’t think there will ever be a job that fits me like this one. This is my life’s work. And I loved it.

— This is an edited transcript of ThreeSixty’s interview


This marks the second installment of ThreeSixty’s “at 16” series, where our teen writers interview Minnesota newsmakers and celebrities about life as a 16-year-old high school student. Who should we talk to next? E-mail thomas.rozwadowski@stthomas.edu with your suggestions.