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An Education Path to a Brilliant Future:
Interview with Jay Levin
Why training the next generation in emotional intelligence is a tremendous way to double down on your missions. and goals
We find that our mission is the mission of most nonprofits, which is to heal what is wounded and open pathways to unfold a more universal well-being. that cares for all and ends the misery of many from familiar societal issues. We support a movement that can change an entire direction and has the potential to diminish dramatically eons of human pain and conflict. We encourage mutual support among nonprofits and causes.
Jay Levin is best known as the founder and former editor-in-chief and CEO of the Los Angeles Weekly, which under his editorial, business, and sales/marketing leadership became the largest circulation and most advertising-rich weekly newspaper in the country while winning numerous journalism awards. He has led six media companies and, as a social entrepreneur, has started six nonprofits. His current nonprofit focus is on transformational learning that will have profound positive effects on human affairs and the creativity and skills needed to keep up with a rapidly changing world.
More about Equip Our Kids at https://equipourkids.org
Do “Any One Thing” https://equipourkids.org/social-emotional-learning-one-thing/
Jay’s Lecture “HOW AND WHY WE ARE WHO WE ARE” https://youtu.be/27KBmYVjz4I
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. Welcome back to The Nonprofit Exchange. This is Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. Not every day is a good day with my voice. Today is a frog voice; you get some variety today.
My guest today is a special new friend who is doing some important stuff for our younger citizens. Jay Levin, tell people about your background, who you are, and what your passion is for doing this work.
Jay Levin: My career has been in journalism. From day one, when I was 20/21 years old, I was an alternative journalist. That came out of my sense of being both from a semi-dysfunctional family life with a lot of quibbling and tension around, and having an early sense of racism as well. The world could use a big fix. I was always interested in what would make a better world.
When I wrote a series of columns about LSD use in mental health treatment among other things, and then about drug addiction being treated with post-Freudian techniques, where I sat in on a lot of group sessions, this confirmed for me something I already sensed. Human dysfunctionality on an individual and collective level derives from lack of skills, not lack of character. The circumstances we’re born into, known as the hierarchical training, passing generation to generation of child-rearing, is actually the cause. The effect is the world we know. The individual pains, the racial pains, the facts we have. Ukraine, etc. It’s a mindset. It’s a way of dealing with the challenges that have to go historically, or we’re not going to survive.
I saw that and became very interested in the human development movement. Flash forward to a few years ago. I started at LA Weekly, which grew to be the largest newspaper in the country. By then, I had been participating in a number of human development workshops. We were the only urban weekly in the country that covered the human development movement on a regular basis, among all the other things we did, like getting the air cleaned up in California. We won loads of awards. We were a major cultural, transformative force in Los Angeles.
Early on, I also became a social entrepreneur, which meant I was interested in doing grassroots work and helping grassroots organizations, going on boards and starting my own organizations. I have started six nonprofits that deal with elements of social change. The early ones dealt with poverty and hunger in LA and human rights abuses in nearby countries.
But I followed this path and actually took a Master’s degree program in psychology. I found I had the skills to do this. Part-time, I was coaching people. It proved a point. It’s a skillset. I train people in different mindsets with different skillsets who behave differently. Their lives would change. Their self-images would change.
About a dozen years ago, I learned about these programs and practices that at this point, 35 years ago, had been regularly developed, brought down to school levels, and allowed for a lot of subtly sophisticated if not often gamified practices to teach kids how to deal with the stuff that adults go into therapy with long before they have to go into therapy and before their neural nets are so trained into reactive behavior and judgmental behaviors on other people and themselves. I went to a bunch of schools and saw how remarkable it was. I decided the next time I started a nonprofit, I would look to start a nonprofit that helped forward this movement.
It’s called Social-Emotional Learning. It’s a piss poor name in terms of marketing. It’s by academics and child psychologists. The evidence-based work they were doing, the tests, the improvements, where they brought in outside investigators or surveyed people were pretty remarkable. Seeing kids in these schools who had these experiences, which we could show in a few minutes, were pretty remarkable. I decided I was going to go forward with this.
What was needed were two things I had the skillset to provide. One was public awareness, getting people aware of this, particularly parents. The second thing was helping on the grassroots organization because it was fairly weak. There were two or three good organizations, but there was work to be done there. I started the Equip Our Kids campaign and took it from there.
Hugh: You call it social-emotional learning. Is it a replacement for what we see in education, or is it an addendum to it?
Jay: It factors in as a curriculum and a culture. That’s a great question. As a curriculum, it’s like taking kids from 2+2=4 to quantum physics. They will start them out very early on with some easy self-awareness practices, emotional awareness practices, emotional management practices, being aware of other emotions and how to respond to them, right up to very sophisticated conflict resolution skills, collaboration skills, self-achievement skills. Dealing with your traumas and seeking peer group approval in healthy ways. Or your reactiveness is interfering with your ability to learn and to achieve.
It’s a set of skills under the boring label of social-emotional learning. The second most-used one is character development. We did tests on all of these languagings. What we found worked in terms of parents as clickbait to get people to our website was the idea of linking emotional intelligence, redefining it as the ability to manage yourself, your life, your relationships, and your career in healthy, brilliant ways that lead to success. Here are the skills we need, here are the outcomes. That became clickbait. In time, the general movement started picking up on our languaging, morphing some of their languaging about social-emotional learning.
We get to social-emotional learning as a second stage, which is if you want this for your kids, you have to go to your schools. You will likely have to use those words, SEL. That’s what they call it in the education world. There was a recent survey done last year by a conservative organization that found that if you list the skills, you can get 75-95% buy-in on each of these individual skills from parents. Republicans, Democrats, etc. If you mention social-emotional learning, everyone hates that word. No one wants that for their kids.
Hugh: There is an educational component for the parents with that because of the misunderstanding.
Jay: There needs to be, yes.
Hugh: Does this work in the context of public education? Or is this an add-on that people register for in private school or even in after school learning?
Jay: Here’s a breakdown on that front. Parents are overwhelmed mostly in this country. COVID made it super overwhelming. It will be a growing movement. Very few schools are bringing in parents to give them a good education about this in advance. To date, it’s been, “This is happening in a school for my kid. I like it or don’t.” Now, the kids come home, and they find that they are teaching the parents more than the parents are teaching them. That is some of the history.
This movement functions in waves. The current wave is using this now to deal with the critical mental health crisis that more than half the kids are experiencing. Inevitably, parents will go into the field and learn more about it going forward and adopt more of the practices at home. We curated some of the best home stuff. We don’t create programs. We only promote programs on a pro bono basis. We don’t pick and choose. We curated on the website a toolkit for parents. They can start looking at one of the 40 or so we list that might be most helpful to them and relate to their family situations.
Hugh: You started a nonprofit. Tell us about your nonprofit.
Jay: The major nonprofit is Equip Our Kids. This is the way we bring the parents, the public, and businesses in particular some level of awareness and action steps about moving this movement forward. We are trying to decode what it is and make it palpable and viable for people to understand. Then give them a choice of things they can do to move this forward.
Two years into this, as I learned about what’s happening on the grassroots level, I found dear to my heart a group called Massachusetts Social Emotional Learning Alliance, which has brought together supporters of this, educators, program providers, community organizations working in underprivileged areas and brought them together to promote it on a district level and state education dept level and legislative level. They are making real progress in Massachusetts.
I had them mentor me. I brought together a group of organizations in Los Angeles. We had 30 in the room, and I piped in the people from Massachusetts. At the end of it, 25 of them said, “Let’s do this.” We founded the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California, which I ran for the first two years. Thank God I found a great executive director who spun it off with his own 501(c)3. Now we’re up to 2,600 members and making a real difference in the state.
Hugh: Equip Our Kids is your primary site. The other site is?
Jay: The Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California. It’s SEL4CA.org. We have been growing over the years and helping them grow across the country. Helping them with business plans. We’re up to 21. The past two years, there has been an umbrella organization at SEL4US.org that we work with very closely. We approach businesses together. Our team handles it, but we go talk to businesses on behalf of both organizations.
Hugh: That’s pretty powerful. That’s a significant impact. Let’s talk about the results of the work. *Video plays*
It seems to me that society as a whole is gravitated toward the IQ measurement, which is memory comprehension. That video triggered the work of Joy Guilford, the structure of intellect, where you measure creative thinking, problem solving, all the different aspects of the intellect. It sounds like emotional learning is in that camp, where you are exploring all of the thinking skills.
Jay: Right. Businesses are catching on, not as fast as we’d like, but there is a movement in businesses to hire for emotional intelligence. There are studies where they broke down teams of high IQ and high EQ and gave them similar projects to do. Pretty meaningful within the larger culture. It confirmed we should hire for more emotional intelligence from kids who have these skills.
Hugh: We have a colleague watching online who has a nonprofit for kids and philanthropy and a philanthropy youth conference. We found that even the really young kids—7, 8, 9—inspire their parents.
Jay: It’s true.
Hugh: In 40 years of church music ministry, we work with the children to teach them some fundamentals. The parents gravitate toward that higher bar. Anybody that functions up impacts everybody else in the group. It’s system-thinking. I was fascinated. What stories do you have about how children influence others, including their parents?
Jay: Anybody who goes to our website can see a ton of videos, including some we made of full classes, and watch how children start relating to each other in really caring, supportive ways, appreciating the other person’s qualities rather than finding fault with them. That sense of safety means they start doing project-driven learning together. They get involved in their communities together. It’s a higher way of living. You may want to share the other video, so people can see some of the outcomes, what some of the kids are like after they have gone through these programs.
Hugh: What a profound video. That says it all. These kids ought to run for Congress now. Not when they get to be adults.
Jay: I was at a school with 10-year-olds doing a conflict resolution circle. As I walked out, I thought I would put these 10-year-olds in the White House today.
Hugh: What do you want people to do? You run a nonprofit, and of course you need volunteers. What can people do to support this really worthy cause in terms of actions?
Jay: For us, it’s awareness and buy-in and action steps by the people who have the influence they have. Everyone has some influence. We created a menu of things you can do. It may be just taking one of our messages and putting it on your social media. Our payoff isn’t in money although of course we love donations and need them. But our payoff really is in people buying into it and understanding it and wanting to bring it to their communities.
Hugh: Do one thing. If we had everybody do one thing, what a difference it would make. Then you could do it again tomorrow. There is the website, EquipOurKids.org. Breaking it down like that is so smart, Jay. You’re championing this. You set up nonprofits around this to make sure this continues as a legacy after we’re gone. You built a system for this to continue. It’s probably more than social-emotional learning; it’s a movement to empower.
Jay: It’s a historical movement to take us out of the way we’re trained to be in the world, which is very frequently not healthy.
Jay: That’s why you have mass drug addiction. 25% of Americans are on meds at some point. We’re medicating rather than fixing at the core. The core is exactly what I want to do. The skills we are taught or not taught or the misskills we are taught to deal with the real challenges in life.
Hugh: This has been so helpful and challenging people to step up. When people refer to our younger generation, people normally want to say this is our future generation. Really, in addition to that, it’s our current generation of influencers. What this kind of work is doing, and thank you for being a champion of it, is influencing today’s youth, who are influencing others. This is above important and has gone to critical in our culture. What do you want to leave people with?
Jay: Not to sound too catastrophic, but I want to say this: The things in the world that are most threatening to us, another Bay of Pigs potentially, the nukes standing by for 75 years with only five misreadings and near accidental nuclear wars, the fact that we’re mismanaging our relationship to Planet Earth in very serious ways, the effects we know and the effects it can go worse, the struggles in your own life, the drug addiction, all the pains we can think of personally and collectively, all of that derives from the paradigm we need to change. This is the best shot I have seen of how to change this. It’s been under the radar, but the right wing is starting to attack it as falsely as critical race theory.
Secondly, it’s effective, and it shows. If it’s done right and supported to do right comprehensively in schools, it’s a major gamechanger. We get the entire human race operating from the way you see these kids operating. The world is in effect. Imagine all the world living life in peace.
Hugh: Brilliant. Thanks for your work, Jay Levin. Thanks for being our guest today.