On the Road with FMC

Building an Institution of Social Change

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Three years ago, I set off on the road with a cameraman and an idea: That we could use solution- based journalism to drive public and political will behind improving the foster care system.

What is clear is that the theory of change we tested, "On the Road With FMC," works: that solution-based journalism--the simple exposition of truth--is often the most compelling tool to impel positive reform to systems that serve children.

Over that time, and through a handful substantive successes, I have been humbled by the weight of the overall change needed. Improving foster care is not enough. To really serve the best interests of children, we have to improve communities. And what will that take? A popular and political movement that puts children first, that makes sure public resources are directed to those most in need, and that is steadfast in its commitment to equalizing opportunity.

How do we get there? We build an institution.

In the fall of 2010, on a rainy night in Cambridge, I visited the "Art of Social Change," a class co-taught by Elizabeth Bartholet and Jessica Budnitz of Harvard Law School's Child Advocacy Program. The night's topic was reforming the juvenile justice system. One-hundred-fifty students from the Law School, the School of Education, and the Kennedy School crowded the lecture hall to hear the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Bart Lubow and Tim Decker, Director of Missouri's juvenile justice system, discuss effective models to set kids who went astray back on the right path.

I was totally blown away. These students were being exposed to professionals engaged in the "Art of Social Change" as it affects children. This is the kind of information that needs to be in the hands of everyone, I thought.

One year later, I found myself speaking in that same hall in front of a new crop of students. There, I announced that I was launching the Journalism for Social Change Program at UC Berkeley in the spring. My variation on the Harvard model was that students would be required to write stories for public consumption. Not only would they be exposed to solutions, but they would be charged with producing media stories that would insert those solutions into the public discourse.

In its first year at Berkeley, the class drew students from the graduate schools of journalism, public policy, and social welfare. Over the semester and through a summer fellowship supported by the Stephen Bechtel Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, students produced stories that helped transition-aged foster youth in California and supported the education of foster youth across the country.

Over the spring semester in 2013, the program expanded. I found myself teaching at Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy on Tuesday nights and at the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy on Thursday evenings.

The subject material was at times hard. Guest speakers, including children who had suffered abuse and maltreatment themselves, told a tale too rarely shared in the public discourse: one of hardship and hope. Through both tearful moments and hard realizations, the students approached the issues with curiosity and respect.

On the last Thursday night of the semester, I watched my USC students present what they had learned to a packed house. In attendance were Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.); Phillip Browning, Director of the $1.8 billion Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Sydney Kamalgar, District Director for Assembly member Holly Mitchell, chair of the State Assembly's Foster Care select committee; and David Ambroz director of social responsibility for Disney, ABC Family. In addition there were representatives from First 5 LA, The Stuart Foundation, the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, the Alliance for Children's Rights, the Youth Law Center, the California Youth Connection, Peace 4 Kids, the LA Weekly, United Friends of the Children, the Children's Law Center of California, and many others.

The students had become the carriers of the solutions, and they were speaking to a room filled with the kind of people who can make change happen.

I was proud of them. And I thought about what this all means in larger objective of building a political movement that puts children first. In the fall, Journalism for Social Change launches at San Francisco State. Campus by campus, student by student, and story by story, we are not only driving social change today, but also building an institution of social change for years to come.

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