“Meet us in this distant parking lot at 6:45am at UC Riverside. We’ll figure it out from there.”
Driving out from LA at dawn and heading east is the direction you want to be heading – away from incoming traffic to the city. I’m driving an hour and a half to spend the next three days working long hours with a group of people I’ve never or barely met, supporting a project I know little about. You see, I’m new here, a summer intern, and this is my first day on the job.
We unload equipment, prepare camera gear, and set up rooms. I’m shadowing the event’s producer, and one of my primary tasks is to make sure that the Our Kids Solutions Forum’s presenters and participants are well cared for and on schedule. I find myself very suddenly meeting and conversing with a diverse cast of deeply inspiring people. Over the three day event, I hustled from room to room, from Detroit’s youth activists to New Hampshire’s, from Harvard scholar to Riverside City College administrator, from grant manager to program director.
The Forum was my first introduction to the Our Kids series and its projects. Our Kids series started when MPC co-founder, Harry Wiland, read the New York Times bestselling book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Dr. Robert Putnam. Harry shared the book with Dale Bell, MPC’s co-founder. They were moved to action by the importance of Putnam’s work, and together created a docuseries based on the book. The book examines one of the most fundamental tenets of the American Dream and how it is dying. The American Dream is to believe in equality and opportunity - that our children may have better lives than we do, limited only by their talent and willingness to work hard. The American reality is that in the last 25 years, a disturbing “opportunity gap” has emerged. The divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” used to be economic. Now it is increasingly both social and economic. Dr. Putnam’s book demonstrates how the top third of American society are investing more in their families, community engagement, and civic activities while the bottom third are retreating. This is fracturing American society through an ever-growing gap between those children who are all but assured success in life, and those who will suffer poverty and hardship.
Dr. Putnam’s keynote speech at the Forum was engaging and full of brilliant research. It was clear why he is considered one of the world’s most important scholars, served as Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, and advised Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His keynote covered some of the driving research behind his book. He presented many graphs showing the top pulling away from the bottom. He covered marriage rates, single parenthood, maternal employment, church attendance, family dinners, and the “pay to play” policy for after-school programs and activities in cash-strapped education districts to name just a few.
The Forum moved to a “breakout session” format after eight more speakers followed Dr. Putnam’s keynote. Breakout sessions were smaller, more focused groups that relied heavily on participatory engagement with the session leader’s presentations. Breakout session presenters traveled from all across the country - linked together through their participation in Our Kids series. Most were featured in the docuseries for their community specific, grassroots-driven work that has been narrowing the opportunity gap for kids in their areas. I was lucky. My job was to move between each presentation session. The constant flow gave me the opportunity to experience most presentations. I witnessed the exchange of ideas and information between people from small and large organizations on opposite sides of the country. It occurred to me that this space was valuable. The ability to react to conversations in real time, ask questions, and get to know one another doesn’t happen through a screen. The power of proximity is a real force for change. When folks fighting for the same cause come together in the same space and share, a different valence of action is catalyzed.
Kevin Skwira-Brown’s talk on power, privilege, and inequity was especially informative and he presented ideas that were new to me. He spoke about the difference between inequity and inequality. While at first these words may feel similar, they mean very, very different things, particularly in an education setting. Consider the questions:
“Should per student funding at every school be the same?” That is an issue of equality.
“Should students who come from less get more to help ensure they catch up?” That’s where equity comes in.
All students should have access to the resources needed for a high-quality education. Yet, often students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color need more of these resources to narrow the opportunity gap. From an equality perspective, students who come to school lagging academically (for reasons beyond the school’s control), will be given the same resources as more advanced students. This does nothing to narrow the gap. Communities need to make sure that low-income students and students of color are allocated resources from an equity mindset. Resources need to be given to the students who need them the most. This is the only way that resources can be allocated to effectively narrow the opportunity gap.
The Media Policy Center not only creates social impact content – it goes further. You must go further if a real commitment to social change is made. Documentaries and media content standing on their own often function as tools of extraction – taking stories and knowledge from communities in other places and using them in a way that ultimately furthers the interest of the media company. It does little for the community that the film is about except to mirror back to them what they already know. It is when a docuseries like Our Kids is paired with local initiatives like the Our Kids Solutions Forum, that the engine of change starts to rev.
Radical knowledge, the kind that innovates, creates, and generates new relations to power is not exclusively the purview of ivory tower scholars, impact organizations, charitable funders, and policy makers. Often the most powerful ways of knowing come from the body, from experience, from the ground up. Powerful knowledge is generated in activist spaces. Grassroots, local programs are where magic happens. Our Kids Solutions Forum honored and centered the activist’s way of knowing and engaged cross functionally through varied impact sectors and partners. This was the Forum’s greatest strength. It showcased and expanded the core of Our Kids series. It highlighted what has been under the radar. Community programs are laboratories of democracy. We can’t always rely on what comes out of Washington, but we can go back into our own communities and try to make things work. We must create a more equitable society where every child has hope and is not destined to fail or succeed based on the success or failure of his or her parents, or on their zip code.
Perhaps you, like me, are new to the Media Policy Center. Or maybe you’ve been loyally following their dynamic social impact media and projects for 20 years. One thing is certain, NOW is an exciting and critical time to be part of the impact media landscape.
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