Friday, September 16, 2011

Modern Day Vampires: Politicians & CEOs are Sucking the Life Out of America’s Children

Child Poverty in America
In 2011, you can’t scroll through the TV menu without seeing something to do with vampires or zombies. The living dead it seems are all the rage these days. True Blood, Twilight Saga, Vampire Diaries, Zombieland, The Walking Dead, and myriad other shows dominate both the small and silver screens. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good zombie movie as much as the next person, but lately I’m starting to see a disturbing pattern. It could be life imitating art, or maybe it’s the other way around. The image on the screen is an eerie reflection of what’s actually going on in our society. The clear message to young people since the millennium washed over them ten years ago is that there is a menacing presence out there ready to suck the living daylights out of you. My advice to kids: heed your basic instincts, the threat is real and they are going for your jugular!

I have always liked Jay Leno’s definition of “politics.” Just divide the word – “poli” meaning many and “tics” meaning blood suckers. Now you understand politics. The dual vampires of political gridlock and economic recession are sucking the life out of our children and our schools. During the first decade of the 21st century the children of America have been caught in the vice-like jaws of increasing poverty and decaying educational systems. Schools are being choked to death financially and child poverty is escalating to record levels not seen in over half a century.

I spent some time recently reflecting on how lives have changed for the so-called 9/11 Generation since that tragic day ten years ago when innocence was shattered and security threatened. A report released this week from the Census Bureau puts it into stark perspective. The 2010 economic numbers are in and the U. S. Census Bureau reports there are 46.2 million poor people in America – the largest number in the last 52 years. The data suggest that our children have been a primary casualty as our government waged war on terrorism and Wall Street waged war on the American middle class and poor families.
 Some startling statistics:
  • One in three of America’s poor are children
  • 22% of all children in the U.S. (over one in five) live in poverty (16.4 million children)
  • That’s almost one million more children than last year (over 950,000 kids)
  • 7.4 million children in America live in extreme poverty
  • More than one in three Black children and one in three Hispanic children are poor
  • Children under five years old are suffering the most: one-fourth (5.5 million) come from poverty households (defined as a family of four living on less than $22,000 per year)
It isn’t enough that these poor kids have to battle for their very survival each day, now the sanctuary they called “school” is no longer able to give them the shelter and hope they deserve. In California, we are desperately trying to maintain a 2011 program on a 2000 income level. The politicians and CEOs who pray at the anti-tax Prop. 13 shrine have been systematically draining the lifeblood from public education. The vampires have permanently recalibrated the economic and educational support system for an entire generation. The impact of inaction on behalf of children will resonate for decades to come. The 9/11 Generation has been hit by a pandemic of poverty. We are already seeing the casualties. They will not do as well in school, will have more health and social problems, and will be permanently under-employed.

One of my heroes is Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Her life’s work to “Leave No Child Behind” was a passionate call-to-arms long before No Child Left Behind was a glimmer in the government’s eye. In looking at the Census numbers she captures the sense of outrage we should all share. “Shamefully, children are the poorest age group in our country, are getting poorer, and have suffered more than any other age group during this recession and slow recovery. A country that does not stand for and protect its children—our seed corn for the future—does not stand for anything . . . This is a national disgrace.”

People often say that children are our future. I disagree. We are their future by the actions we take and the decisions we make. Children don’t have a voice and they don’t have a vote. They rely on adults to do the right thing. As a society we must get past political gridlock for the sake of our kids. We owe it to the 9/11 Generation to fix our economy, fix our schools, and fix our politics. It’s about time we insisted that our business and political leaders start acting like the grown-ups in the room and learn to “play well with others.” Adults have mortgaged their future and children are paying the price. We need to stop sucking the lifeblood out of our kids.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Power of Stories

“So this duck walks into a bar . . .”

When you hear a phrase like this, you know instinctively that a joke or story is heading your way. It could be a hysterical one that makes your drink come out of your nose from laughing so hard or it could rely on a corny pun that makes you groan and shake your head.

Why do so many stories or jokes begin with someone walking into a bar? It’s probably because the pub, saloon, or tavern in a community has always been a focal point for interpersonal communication. The bar was the original chat room where stories were the stock in trade and they were “shared” and “liked” before there was an Internet. Good story-telling doesn’t always fit into the cadence of 21st Century social media communication. Now, thin-sliced communication comes at you at the speed of light while a compelling story takes time to unravel, usually over a cold beer.

I have known some great story tellers in my life. Most came from a generation before there was Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. They came of age in a simpler time before we tried to convey our stories in 140 characters or less. These 20th Century raconteurs relied on the power of verbal stories, told and re-told to share their experiences and reflections on the ups and downs of life.

My family tree is rife with a long line of fascinating story tellers (BS artists if you will). Three come to mind immediately: my late father-in-law Donald Parker and my two uncles – Bill and Don. It may come as no surprise that they all were sailors who served on ships in wars dating back to WWII, Korea or Vietnam. As an impressionable young man, I can remember shooting the breeze with each of them for hours on end as they regaled me with stories that to this day still make me laugh. Their stories are a reflection of them, their times, and their lives.

We don’t remember facts and figures, but we do remember the stories that have touched our lives. We remember stories because they can be riveting, funny, poignant, and chock full of common sense and homespun wisdom. Information by itself is not compelling, but add to the facts the visual image of the case study or anecdote and data can come to life. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words, but a story is worth a 1,000 pictures because it embeds the message with mental images as we personally relate to the story and to the story teller.

As public relations professionals our job is to translate numbers into words. We decipher financial or assessment hieroglyphics into understandable and meaningful prose. But the story teller takes that to a higher level. He or she paints a vivid picture of what the prose means and how it makes us feel. They put us into the picture emotionally and intellectually.

My late friend Charlie Binderup was a masterful story teller. Charlie was superintendent in a very small school district in Northern California. He often joked with pride that the Tulelake Basin schools had the first wood burning fax machine. He also had the same delivery as the veterans mentioned above. He would reel you into the tale with an “aw shucks” style so you couldn’t be quite sure if he was telling the truth or making the whole thing up. But it didn’t matter because the story was so endearing or funny. Great story tellers also have a shared affinity for laughing along with their own jokes and reminiscences. They often crack themselves up as the words come out. I’m convinced that the best part of story-telling is when you get caught up in the telling and it reminds you all over again of how you felt the first time you heard it or experienced it.

[By the way; the punch line to the duck walking into the bar joke is: So the duck says, “I can’t take a job like that . . . I’m an engineer!”]

One of the best things about attending the annual seminar of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) each summer is that I get to swap stories with some of the best BS artists in the country. Guys like Steve Knagg and Jim Cummings are keeping the fine art of story-telling alive and well.

Their tall tales use the same formula for success: their reflections are based in reality, the events are plausible but maybe not believable, just a hint of mischief is added like seasoning, and they linger with a slight pause before delivering the punch line with a wry smile and a laugh as they crack themselves up telling it. They enjoy the story as much as you do. Stories are infectious.

We have some very powerful stories in public education. Everyday miracles, snapshots of success, touching tributes to the human spirit, and the indisputable evidence that education is the cornerstone of our society and the rock upon which our freedom and democracy are built. Now, that is a story worth telling!

The public desperately wants to still believe in public education. So my advice is to be more than a public information officer; be a public story teller. Be the chronicler and conveyor of the story of your schools. Story telling is one of the oldest and most effective teaching tools. Use your arsenal of social media and digital tools to point people to the stories of success and triumph in your classrooms, playgrounds, and school buses. Make the complexity of teaching and learning come to life by adding a few choice stories to your communication repertoire. Great stories make for memorable messages.

“So this little boy walks into school one day . . .”