The premise for FirstFocus, a public policy adjunct to America’s Promise-The Alliance for Youth, is sensible enough: Provide what FirstFocus calls “that missing voice” needed to make children, especially poor ones, Congress’ top domestic priority.
Who better for that visionary task than America’s Promise, the would-be Methuselah of the youth fieldIt began its announced three-year lifespan nine years ago at a Philadelphia summit led by retired general and future Secretary of State Colin Powell. With impeccable GOP bona fides, America’s Promise could go to precincts where no liberals can now win passage – or so went the thinking of The Wise Ones.
To that end, four foundations in 2005 put up an estimated $8.3 million to underwrite FirstFocus. The first focused, philanthropic thinking on how to reach Republicans in Congress on behalf of kids was done by Lois Salisbury and Kathy Reich at the Los Altos, Calif.-based Packard Foundation, which packed in $2 million to be spent over 31û2 years.
The largest funder, New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies, put up a $6 million three-year grant through its Disadvantaged Children and Youth program, run by Charles Roussel. The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation added $200,000, while an opaque donor topped the venture off with an unknown amount, perhaps $100,000. Not too shoddy for a start-up lobby, even by K Street standards.
But in FirstFocus’ first year, change, not focus, has been the constant. Hired to run the enterprise was Christine Ferguson, well-respected but not necessarily beloved by many of her old colleagues on and off Capitol Hill. (“A tough cookie,” says the head of one national children’s health group.) Ferguson’s expertise is children’s health, not organizational development. On the job in June 2005, Ferguson and a platoon of kibitzers tried to take the fuzz out of the campaign, tentatively called the Children’s Investment Project. A staff was hired, with rollout expected in early fall 2005. Then it was December, then February, then March with invitations in the mail, then a week later it was “never mind” again, and Ferguson was gone. Says one insider, “Christie was not the right person.”
Unfortunately, says this supporter of the FirstFocus concept, Ferguson and America’s Promise President Marguerite Kondracke (formerly Sallee) could never quite decide if the operation to influence GOP members of Congress should be strong on policy development or on state-based campaigning to win better deals for kids. Says one frustrated player,
FirstFocus “just didn’t pick an issue” of broad benefit to children in its first year.
The Delayed Debut
Finally, on July 12, FirstFocus held its coming-out party at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, across Lafayette Square from the White House – the rarest of venues for supporters of more spending on kids. In the first six months of 2006, the chamber spent $14.3 million on lobbying for such anti-kid measures as holding down the minimum wage and repealing the silver spoon tax on the wealthiest of estates.
Kondracke calls the event “a soft rollout.” Others might say soft, silent and surreptitious. Originally conceived as an autonomous part of America’s Promise, that bifurcated setup exited with Ferguson, her deputy Colleen Sonosky and virtually all of FirstFocus’ initial professional staff.
Kondracke, the mistress of ceremonies and master of America’s Promise, presided over the “Gathering of Minds.” Excluded was the mindless press (that would be Nose Knows – who else cares?). The first agenda item, “Where We’ve Been,” flew by at the speed of light.
Other than good intentions, the only substantive thing for Kondracke to report was the naming of four FirstFocus fellows, who have been placed for two years in an ideologically diverse group of Washington think tanks to work on kids’ tax and budget issues. (See box.)
To the relief of supporters and detractors alike, Kondracke, the former commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, was able to announce two areas to correct FirstFocus’ heretofore blurred vision. Chosen as action items were reauthorizing the joint federal/state Children’s Health Insurance Program (known as SCHIP) and preventing teens from dropping out of high school.
FirstFocus’ SCHIP priority makes sense. The program was enacted in 1997, with bipartisan support, to provide health insurance for children of the working poor. Each state sets its own eligibility guidelines. In concert with Medicaid, SCHIP has reduced the number of uninsured children by one-third, or about 4 million. That still leaves 9 million kids, especially teens, among the nation’s 44 million uninsured.
The program is scheduled for reauthorization in next year’s 110th Congress. On this priority at least, FirstFocus seems to have touched the right bases. Yet it’s the safest of issues: a slam-dunk for reauthorization, with future appropriations and funding formulas the only really contentious issues.
FirstFocus’ second priority is high school dropouts. At its briefing, America’s Promise/FirstFocus trotted out John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, where Karen Morison, former staff director of the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth, serves as deputy. Bridgeland was deputy policy director of the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign and worked for U.S. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) before becoming an assistant to President George W. Bush. He directed the USA Freedom Corps, a vapid PR venture set up by the White House after 9/11. He serves on the board of Youth Service America, the Earth Conservation Corps and various volunteer-boosting groups.
Two groups long active in dropout prevention were surprised by FirstFocus’ newfound interest in America’s high school graduation rates. Betsy Brand, director of the American Youth Policy Forum – which recently issued an excellent study, “Reconnecting our Dropouts to the Mainstream” – and a former senior GOP staffer in the House Education and Labor Committee, was in the dark.
So was Larry Brown, president of Work, Achievement, Values & Education (WAVE), a national group that for a quarter-century has focused exclusively on keeping teens in school until graduation.
Also at the July meeting, Kondracke introduced FirstFocus’ new paid advisory board chairman, former U.S. Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.). A moderate who served in the House from 1980 to 2001, Porter favors gun control and abortion rights, hardly the member profile of the budget-slashing 100-plus-member Republican Steering Committee, led by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Says the 1996 edition of The Almanac of American Politics, “Porter’s stands on some cultural issues have made him an anathema to many on his party’s right.”
Porter, 71, is a partner at Washington’s powerful Hogan & Hartson law firm, an appropriate place to hang the 275 awards given to him by various health, business and nonprofit groups during his years as a member and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.
Also on board at FirstFocus to handle SCHIP is Patricia Kempthorne, wife of former Idaho senator and governor Dirk Kempthorne. He is now U.S. secretary of the interior. Mrs. Kempthorne, while first lady of Idaho, was co-chair of the Governor’s Coordinating Council for Families and Children.
While inquiries from Nose Knows on the performance so far of FirstFocus brought forth a barrage of opinions from optimistic to skeptical to downright critical, as usual, only the Happy Talkers would go on the record.
One is Salisbury, director of Packard’s children, families and communities program and former CEO of Oakland-based Children Now. She credits FirstFocus with “a solid startup” with which Packard is “very satisfied.”
A little more tempered is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Mike Laracy, a veteran of New Jersey’s tax and budget wars, who is sanguine about FirstFocus’ progress. “In most new projects,” he observes, “there are setbacks.” In an e-mail, Roussel of Atlantic Philanthropies acknowledges “growing pains,” but continues to “believe strongly in FirstFocus as a unique bipartisan effort.”
Casey, says Laracy, “is in it for the long haul.” So, apparently, are the other funders.
Now Kondracke is interviewing candidates to become the next president of FirstFocus. Hired to run America’s Promise as chief operating officer is Charles Hiteshew. Gone is the pretense of a firewall between the two entities, which share offices in Alexandria, Va. Hiteshew and the new FirstFocus hire will report to Kondracke.
Given Kondracke’s proven ability to get things done, the demise of the fiction of FirstFocus as an independent political actor is mourned by only a few. Still, says one anonymous source, “It’s not what Packard and Weill wanted.”
Can rational, measured and evidence-based policy proposals persuade Congress to see the need for more spending on kids? As former slave Frederick Douglass wrote shortly before the Civil War, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” It remains to be seen what the American voter will demand in the way of policy change in November.
First Focus Fellows
Fellow: Sarah deLone
Fellow: James Capretta
Fellow: Kelleen Kaye
Fellow: Julia Isaacs
Youth Work’s Republic Of Yesteryear
Exactly 100 years ago, philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana’s observation is only half right for the youth-service field. Most American youth workers, managers and policymakers don’t even know that there is a rich, informative history of youth work to forget.
Thus the importance of a recent History of Youth and Community Work conference at the University of Minnesota. Like so many enduring developments in youth work – such as the creation of the YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the corrections-reforming John Howard Association, youth clubs and settlement houses – this latest good idea was hatched in Britain.
Last year, Tony Jeffs and colleagues at Ushaw College in Durham, England – one of 34 United Kingdom colleges that are accredited to train youth workers – held a similar conference. A delegation lead by Joyce Walker, a professor of community youth development at the university’s renowned Center for 4-H Youth Development, was in attendance. Walker and Jeffs decided to attempt to organize an American history conference on even years and a British one in odd years. Walker’s gamble that anyone would care enough about youth work’s history paid off when, without marketing, 50 youth workers showed up, including Jeffs and two other British scholars/practitioners.
Several speakers – including Walker, Jeffs and Fellow Jerome Stein of the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work – offered insight into the intellectual roots of youth development. (Yes, once upon a time the intelligentsia strived to inform not just each other, but actual practitioners.) One G. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University, published the encyclopedic Adolescence in 1904, which introduced the word into the American language. Name a college president today whose views are sought by those who work with youth and I’ll buy you a good five-cent cigar.
One particularly informative paper was “The Playground of Today is the Republic of Tomorrow: Social Reform and Organized Recreation, 1890-1930s,” written by Linnea Anderson, an assistant archivist at the university’s impressive and underutilized Social Welfare History Archives.
It may seem hard to believe in the psycho-babble, rule-setting and overstructured world of today’s youth programs that “play,” as in “playground,” was once an overriding concern of the era’s greatest youth advocates and promoters of what is now awkwardly labeled “positive youth development.” When the nation’s first public playground, the Charlesbank Gymnasium, opened in 1886, it was staffed by a youth worker. When Stanton Goit founded New York’s University Settlement in 1886 and Jane Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House in 1889, play opportunity for children and youth was seen as a most essential core service.
By 1905, reports Anderson, 35 American cities had supervised playgrounds. That was enough to trigger the American compulsion to bond together: The Playground Association of America (PAA) was born in 1906 – a centenary, it is safe to say, that will be observed by no one at the American Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers.
The PAA functioned much like today’s hundreds of national cause-driven children and youth agencies, offering training, consultation, advice on community mapping and promoting advocacy campaigns, sports and recreation and, Saints Preserve Us, fundraising. For the entire paper, contact Anderson at (612) 624-6394, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next year, it’s Britain’s turn to host the event. It will be held March 2-4 at Ushaw College in Durham. Social history buffs need apply.
Contact: Joyce Walker (612) 624-8449, email@example.com; Tony Jeffs 0191-4142554, firstname.lastname@example.org.