Acceptance Remarks by Stephen Buckley, Dean of the Poynter Institute

  • February 8, 2013

Good afternoon. First of all, congratulations on your centennial. Thank you for your untiring efforts to both expose and prevent bigotry, for reminding us that extremism is a deeply corrosive societal vice and for calling us, again and again, to heed the better angels of our nature. Thank you, ADL, for your terrific work.

And thank you, of course, for this wonderful prize. On behalf of Dr. Karen Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, and the institute's teaching team, I accept this award with a real sense of pleasure, as it represents so much of what has made Poynter such a special place during its 37-year history.

In a few minutes, I'll say more about one particular program that I think epitomizes the kind of values that the ADL and Poynter stand for, but first I want to answer the question that many of you may be asking:

How in the world did a school come to own a newspaper?

It started with a dream in the heart of Nelson Poynter, who ran the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) for some 40 years.  In the later years of his tenure, Mr. Poynter grew worried about threats to the independence of his beloved newspaper. He worried that corporate raiders would take over and make the Times beholden to the interests of stockholders rather than the interests of readers.

So, when Congress passed a law that made it possible for educational entities to own corporations, Poynter saw an answer to his prayers. He created a school called the Modern Media Institute, bequeathed his controlling stock to the school, and thus devised an ingenious solution to arguably the most challenging puzzle he faced during his four decades as an editor. He literally gave his newspaper away in order to save it.

That was in 1975. Today so much of what the institute stands for mirrors what Mr. Poynter believed in to his core. We promote independent, ethical newsgathering, public service, accountability reporting, and responsible and forward-looking leadership -- all because we believe a stronger press means a stronger democracy.  And we do our teaching, and promote these values, all over the world -- from Austria to Azerbaijan, from Chile to China.

Most of all, Mr. Poynter believed that responsible, effective journalism must make communities better. And at the Poynter Institute, we believe that we must not only promote journalism that makes communities better. We believe we also have an obligation to improve the lives of those who live within our own community in St. Petersburg -- particularly the lives of young people who may not be as privileged as some of their peers.

And so let me quickly tell you the story of The Write Field -- that's W, R, I, T, E. It's a program for young people that embodies so many of the values that Poynter and the ADL believe in -- including diversity, personal responsibility, education, and the vast  potential of youth.

The program actually was sparked by a tragedy -- or more precisely, a series of tragedies.

First, in January 2011, two St. Petersburg police officers were killed inside the home of a sex offender they had come to arrest.  They were the first St. Petersburg police officers killed in the line of duty in 31 years.

The killings occurred in one of St. Petersburg's tougher neighborhoods, one addled by gun violence and drug dealing and petty crime -- all laid over stark poverty.

Then, one night a couple of weeks later, a second St. Petersburg police officer was murdered. He was shot after investigating suspicious activity on a street in downtown St. Petersburg.  His killer was 16 years old.

The killings of the three police officers had a profound impact on the city, and on The Poynter Institute.

For years, our president Karen Dunlap had yearned to create a program aimed at bettering the lives of young people -- especially African-American and HIspanic boys -- in the neighborhoods near our campus on the edge of downtown St. Petersburg. The killings of the officers heightened her sense of urgency.

She wanted to create something that would help the students develop both academic skills and life skills, something that would honor the values of the institute while impacting the community for good. The primary qualification for the program? The students had to be interested in writing.

We reached out to community groups, businesses, and law enforcement officials, and we were very pleased when the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to be the program's primary funders. Hence the name -- The Write Field.

From the start, we recognized the depth of the challenge. Here are some facts about the children in the program, which is led by Poynter senior faculty member Kenny Irby, who oversees our programs in photojournalism and diversity.

*70 percent of the students in the program live in single-parent families.

*Several have had run-ins with the law.

*A number of them struggle with issues such as attention deficit disorder.

*A few of them have been homeless.

Add to those figures this reality:  Less than 50 percent of Pinellas County's black male students graduate from high school.  And so, as you might imagine,  the biggest challenge many of the students in our program face is the burden of low expectations.

As Dominic, an 8th grader, wrote: "The meanest thing I've never been told was that I would never be anybody."

Contrast that against the words of Hubert Humphrey, who once said, "Never give up on anybody."

He also said, "Life's unfairness is not irrevocable. We can help balance the sales for others…."

And so, in that spirit, we tell the boys thatwe seek to send them the message that they're not victims, that a hard life doesn't allow them to run from high standards and personal responsibility.

We do this with the generous help of numerous mentors -- including several from the St. Petersburg police department.

When the program began in October 2011, many of the students admitted that they were nervous, to put it nicely, about having police officers in the room. They viewed officers as the enemy. They said seen police abuse their authority, unfairly arrest a neighbor, or simply ignore the ills of their community.

But that began to change as we taught them that police officers use many of the same skills good writers do. They have to be expert interviewers; they have to listen carefully; they have to observe intently; they have to write with precision and clarity.

We also bring in guest speakers who tell the boys that good writing is an essential skill, no matter what profession they ultimately pursue. And beyond that, we're teaching them that writing is a tool -- a way for them to articulate their feelings and perspectives, especially during those turbulent teen years when no one seems to understand.

At our last session, the boys got to hear from State legislator Darryl Rouson, who told them about his journey from prominent lawyer to crack addict  to homelessness to sobriety. The boys heard Darryl talk about spending $60,000 on crack cocaine in 6 months, about how he ended up sleeping in a lawyer's office, using the men's washroom to bathe, because he had no place else to go.

At one point Darryl held up a notebook whose pages were worn and creased with age and use. It was the journal he began keeping when he embraced sobriety some 15 years ago, and he said it was an essential tool in his staying clean. As you can imagine the students were riveted -- and deeply moved.

We talk about -- and write about -- their experiences and struggles: the temptation to be wooed by bad company, the ubiquitous presence of illicit drugs, and the suffocating daily reality of violence.

"Guns are not the way to go," 13-year-old Kevin wrote, "because they can lead to horrible things like jail, or even the grave….because when you fire that gun, don't forget that (a) bullet has mind, doesn't know where it's going and….that bullet might be coming for you."

These are middle school boys, so we also try to inject some fun into the program. We teach them to tie neckties, and we've had impromptu ping pong tournaments. Kenny Irby has taken the boys to a photo exhibit and to the ballet (the Chocolate Nutcracker, to be exact). Last June, as the culmination of the first year of the program, we took them to a Tampa Bay Rays game. Some of them had never been to a baseball game.

And their writing isn't always about somber realities of their lives. A couple of months ago, we asked them to write about the worst Thanksgiving dish they'd ever had.

One boy, Adan, recalled the time his dad decided to roast Cornish hens instead of turkey.

"The first problem was how it looked," Adan wrote. "Basically, it looks like a miniature rotisserie chicken that's made to be a single (serving) just for you. Everything on it is too small to enjoy. It has tiny wings that look like q-tips with crusty skin stretched over them. The legs are skinny and stick straight up in the air. You could probably stick them in your mouth and eat them in one bite. There were three little hens on the big plate where the big turkey should have been. I wondered if they knew each other before they were sent to the grocery store."

At the start of the school year, the boys come in nervous and fidgety; after a few sessions, we rarely have to pause to tell a student to sit still.

At the start of the school year, they come in shuffling and mumbling, their pants sagging. Eventually, they learn to speak in a clear voice, shoulders back, and pants held up neatly with a belt.

Elliott, an 8th grader who went through the program last year wrote that the mentors at Poynter instill  "storytelling skills into us, improving our writing skills, and even reviewing how important it is to use our manners. He wrote that the boys had learned "simple things such as speaking up so others know that you have something to say."

He continued: "I have noticed numerous changes in the other Write Field graduates. Some have grown intellectually. Others have grown out of their shells and are now more confident."

The program, he wrote, "is helping minority boys transform into young men."

We are proud of Elliot. And Hubert Humphrey would have been proud of him, too.

So on behalf of Dominic, Kevin, Adan, Elliott, and the other boys in The Write Field, and, again, on behalf of The Poynter Institute, we say thank you -- for your attention, and for this wonderful award. 

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