National child policy conference — Miami

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Speech on Jan. 12, 2010 before a national child policy conference in Miami sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

We are special people gathered this evening. That is said without even a smidgen of smugness. Those who know me best know that I am a complicated blend of thinking I might be able to do something, and propelled by doubts as to whether I can. But I call us all “special” because each of us is driven by a commitment to a high-quality, full future for children – all children.

We – you and I — are idealistic. We are skeptical, but we are not cynical.

We – you and I – are glass-half-full people, leading purposeful lives. We find joy in making a difference in the lives and futures of children.

We – you and I – have the courage to be sometimes naïve, and the courage to acknowledge our vulnerability.

We – you and I – do not accept things as they are. “All progress depends on unreasonable people,” George Bernard Shaw told us decades ago. We are lifelong learners. We read history, and learn its lessons. We read biographies, and see the potential within all human beings. We read good fiction and value the human insights as well as the beauty of the well-crafted word.

We – you and I – have the humility to know that we build upon the bedrock of progress that others fought for and achieved, even if that progress often didn’t arrive in their lifetimes. We are “American” to the core, but with the wisdom to appreciate our part in a larger world. Our aims are not “revolutionary”; rather, we see the world in “evolutionary” ways, but insist on progress being made at a faster pace than others might be willing to “settle” for. We – you and I — believe in individual initiative, and just as deeply in collaboration. We recognize the power of the individual, but we know our wherewithal increases exponentially when we do things together.

We – you and I – are dreamers, and do-ers. “Not much happens without a dream,” Robert Greenleaf told us in “The Servant and the Leader.” “And for something great to happen,” he wrote, “there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams.”

This conference, sponsored by our genuine friends at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is about dreaming, and doing. John Quincy Adams, our sixth President, wisely said two centuries ago: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

We are leaders, but we also are practical people. The spirit of this gathering is practical. I share with you what I have learned in my own work and how those lessons might be applied elsewhere. And I will learn from you, I promise.

I work with many people more knowledgeable than I. But I have a decent sense of what I do not know, and hence surround myself with others who make up for my shortcomings.

Measurable success, enduring success is particularly difficult when you are trying to build a “movement” for all children. Niccolo Machiavelli, writing “The Prince” a half-millennium ago, reminded us: “There is nothing more difficult to conduct, or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of the new order of things.”

For me “the new order of things” means this: Every child in my community – and our country – is entitled to affordable high-quality basics in the early years. That won’t be fully achieved in my lifetime, but we will continue to progress toward that great goal. Others, then, will build upon that stronger foundation.

In my community and my state, here are two examples of the progress we’ve made and from which we build:

No. 1: Proportionate to the wealth and size of Florida’s population, this state is the least funded in public education of any of the 50 states. Despite that woeful record, back in 2002 Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that guarantees the availability of a free prekindergarten quality experience for every 4 year old in this state. This year parents of 160,000 4 year olds will take advantage of that. Tomorrow you will hear how that came to be from Alex Penelas, the then mayor of Miami-Dade and among the most politically astute people I know.

No. 2: In this community, larger than 16 states, a community of more foreign born than any urban area in these United States and a community more diverse than just about anywhere else, the people of Miami-Dade – not even a year and a half ago, and just as the economy was beginning to tank – voted to tax themselves in perpetuity on behalf of early intervention and prevention for all children. What made it possible is a state law that says any county can do this if voters agree to raise their property taxes to invest in children. I live in a place so frequently distrustful, yet Miami-Dade voters nonetheless agreed that The Children’s Trust should invest at least $100 million extra every year forever in children.

How could these things, and more, happen? Mahatma Gandhi told us: “You must be the change you wish in this world.” What, then, is the “power” within each of us to make great things happen?

I share some advice, to the power of 8:

One: The power of real expertise: Work with people who know more than you do. However much I love politics, I shouldn’t be running anyone’s campaign. The single smartest thing we did in getting The Children’s Trust passed in perpetuity was teaming up with Sergio Bendixen, the nationally known political researcher and strategist. He made every significant campaign decision. You will hear his wisdom tomorrow morning.

Two: The power of the long view: Success can take years. Learn from the past. Back in 1988 good people in this community tried to pass a dedicated funding source for children, and argued that the community needed to help at-risk children in certain neighborhoods. The paltry dollars raised went toward an on-the-side-of-the-angels campaign. Voters said, “No,” 2-1. A dozen years later when some of us were figuring out how to succeed in an especially tax-averse community, we committed (1) to spend the next two years on this effort, and (2) we said it was about all our children and the entire community (while understanding that some children need and should receive more). We passed it, 2-1. Then because we put a “sunset” on this – meaning it could be gone by 2009 – a huge chunk of the next six years was spent in trying to make sure it would stay with us forever. Because we took the time, and all the right steps, and had a trustworthy and powerful story to tell, it passed with 85.4 percent of the vote.

Three: The power of the dollar: Not a dollar of the money you raise to tell the story will be tax-deductible. The first time it took three-quarters of a million dollars, and the second time – when the stakes were “forever” or “gone” – more than twice that. The strategist tells you what a real chance of winning would take. Your job is to make that money available. We valued all those donors who gave anywhere from $5 to $100, but we needed a boatload of $10,000 and $25,000 contributions (and we needed to realize that making the case to prospective givers is frequently about who’s already given and how much). Money begets money; momentum begets momentum.

Four: The power of if at first you don’t succeed….: Money-raising is up front and personal. It is the right person with the right cause seeing the right people. It’s follow-up…follow-up…follow-up. It’s about relationships built over a long period of time. One quick story: I went to see retired business leader and now philanthropist Kirk Landon back in 2002. He told me quite forthrightly that he wasn’t going to give anything, and indeed was tempted to spend some money opposing this. “Typical liberal thing,” he called it. If you pass it, come see me, he said. It did pass, and I did come to see him, telling him what we planned to do. Fast forward several years, and I am raising money for the second campaign, and I go see him again. “You did what you promised,” he said. “I was wrong.” He gave $100,000. Such splendid moments make up for the toughest times.

Five: The power of the discipline to focus on the basic message: What would be the most resonating messages about The Children’s Trust to be told in multiple languages on radio, television and in print? For that you need real focus groups, real research and a major league professional – in our case, Sergio Bendixen. Laced through everything was the biggest single issue in Miami: Can I trust you to spend my money prudently, wisely, honestly? The name “The Children’s Trust” did not come about coincidentally. “Trust” was at the core of the campaign.

Six: The power of overcoming objections or, better said, responding to concerns: I tell you another short story: The Children’s Trust gets its money from property taxes, and a lot of folks don’t like taxes. A major figure in our community is former Gov. Jeb Bush, not exactly a tax-and-spend liberal. I went to see him. “I like you,” he said. “But this feels like liberals giving away money with no real controls and with less than really measurable outcomes.” I came back to see him again, this time with a list of Trust-funded organizations in Trust-imposed performance-improvement plans because they had failed to live up to their agreements with The Trust. Subsequently, Jeb Bush not only contributed money to the campaign, but agreed to be on the honorary steering committee, and made highly effective Spanish-language television ads.

Seven: The power of many: In my experience, in journalism and elsewhere, most everybody seems pretty sure as to what works in marketing, communications and winning elections. But very few of us really are experts. Nor am I. The sagacity of Sergio Bendixen was the difference in figuring out, in a practical and organized way, how to use people who wanted to help in a grassroots campaign that effectively targeted hundreds of precincts.

Eight: The power of one: Someone’s got to raise the money…be the well-known face and vision of the campaign…meet with anyone anytime…be collegial even when it’s really hard…smooth ruffled feelings…and generally devote to the cause the biggest chunk of one’s life for a sustained period of time. That was me. I know that seems immodest, but I tell you that because you will need such a person whatever big you decide to do.

So that is that, and there is so much more to be done. (I have no plans to retire, and hope I never do. It would be unhealthy for me to do so. Indeed, I keep in mind what the long-lived playwright and social reformer George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is a privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die; for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”)

This is no time for me to rest. No time for any of us to rest. Whatever our achievements, we have so much more to do.

Thus, these days I am deeply embedded in a statewide project that began – way below the public radar – one year ago this Friday in Miami. A year later, the distance we have come, and what remains to be done, will illustrate the work on which this conference is focused.

Back last January, building from the momentum of what the overwhelming passage of The Children’s Trust could mean, Don Pemberton, Judy Schaechter, Ana Sejeck and Abby Thorman – all four with us this evening – and other leading citizens from throughout Florida gathered to talk about whether there might be support for a statewide campaign for children’s issues. Sergio Bendixen facilitated and furnished the strategic and political expertise. In the space of two hours, the group came up with several specific policy ideas to make a significant difference in the lives and futures of children. Toward the end of that gathering, one participant – former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez – urged that we involve more Republicans, reasoning that they often frame things differently. (While “likely voters” in Florida split equally between Democrats and Republicans, our governor and Legislature are distinctly Republican.)

Sergio Bendixen and I next facilitated gatherings in Orlando, Panama City and Tampa – each of perhaps 15 people, all civic and business leaders, not all Republicans but each hosted by Republican political and civic leaders.

By now, four cities past January, we had six strong children’s policy ideas. But where to go from here? How to achieve any of these? Which of these ideas might most appeal to voters and lawmakers?

It was time for tough-minded advice from the pros. We already had on board the strategic wisdom of Bendixen & Associates, generally identified as a strategy and research firm focused on Democratic issues and candidates. On the advice of former Governor Bush and others, we hired The Tarrance Group of Alexandria, Va., nationally known for its work with Republican candidates and issues. These two firms designed a questionnaire of all six issues, then surveyed 1,515 “likely voters” in Florida. Two issues strongly resonated – one dealing with children’s health, the other screening and treatment for children who might have special needs.

At this point, eight months past our starting point in January, it was time to widen the circle and share with others what we had learned. So – and you can imagine the logistical challenges in this – we asked well-known business, civic and political leaders in 10 Florida cities – a full sampling across the political spectrum – to put together leadership groups of 25 or so people to hear our presentation and offer their counsel.

That meant five nights away and five full traveling-and-meeting days in the field for Sergio Bendixen, Roberto Martinez, Brian Nienaber of The Tarrance Group and me. In one grueling and inspiring week we shared survey results, listened to leaders’ opinions and sought their “ownership” of what they heard and where we were headed.

Summertime turned to fall, and it was time to take what we learned in those 10 gatherings and turn it into actionable policy. We asked one of Florida’s outstanding children’s advocates – Dr. Judith Schaechter, a pediatrician in Miami – to gather a group of genuinely knowledgeable health leaders and turn this into a specific policy proposal. That took 45 days. What her group of experts arrived at went next to a Washington firm with expertise in turning policy details into an understandable-to-the-public proposal that could be acted upon. After that, we hired another firm to analyze the financial consequences. What would it cost, and what would be the return on such an investment for the people of Florida?

In the next three weeks, we will meet in Jacksonville, Orlando and Panama City with 20 civic, business and political leaders – all prominent Floridians, all recruited from our 10-city tour of Florida. If we can get every single one of those key civic and political leaders – Democrats and Republicans – on our steering committee to support the proposal I just described (and we should know the answer to that by early next month), Sergio Bendixen and I believe that within a couple of years the objectives of health coverage for all children in our state plus a comprehensive screening and treatment program for children with special needs can be a reality.

Why am I telling you all this? What possibly could be the lesson in such detail? I give you three to underscore:

One: Take it a step at a time. Do it deliberately, and do it right. The world’s not waiting for a “miracle” from any of us. Real progress can take years to achieve.

Two: Politics in my definition is about getting things done. Our work is not about the “partisan.” What we want to achieve should be neither a “Democratic” or a “Republican” imperative, but rather what can be done together on behalf of everyone’s child and everyone’s future in Florida.

Three: Our work is not about “raising taxes.” While sometimes more dollars will be necessary, the heart of our mission is about priorities, and that’s how we need to explain ourselves. Prison building has a constituency. So, too, does the environment. And education. And agriculture. Is it not time – and is there not an opportunity – for children to be a real priority…for children to have an effective constituency? Could we help make that so?

We could. We should. We must.

The very future of community and country depend on this.

I am an old-fashioned American, building from what I learned in eighth grade civics in Bradenton, Florida, about our country’s promise and commitment to fairness and equity. Our lifelong challenge is to live up to that promise.

If I seem a tad evangelical this evening, it is because I am. We do toil at the side of the angels, even if we are not ourselves angelic. We are people of good souls with the passion to do good and to be unceasingly focused on a mission that embraces all children. Sometimes you and I can feel pleased with progress, but we should never be satisfied that we have done enough. It will be time to rest when we enter the next world.

None of us will “save” this world. But we can surely “save” many children. Those children, upon succeeding themselves, will make better lives possible for the next generation of children. And we will have shown other places and other people what it is possible to do.

If Alabama could do this…if Alachua and Collier counties in Florida could do this…if Colorado could do this…if Hawaii could do this…if Minnesota could do this…if Mississippi could do this…if Virginia could do this…then surely the rest of America could, too.

Thank you for what you already have done, and most of all for what you will do. May God bless all our work.