Why Haven’t Foundations Responded to the Newtown Shootings?

Vince Stehle headshotBy Vincent Stehle / Chronicle of Philanthropy

The horrific bloodbath at Sandy Hook Elementary School has triggered a response that feels fundamentally different from the dozens of mass shootings the nation has endured in recent decades.

The outrage shown on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere can no longer be dismissed or ignored by a political culture of conventional wisdom that says it is impossible to enact sensible regulations of guns and ammunition. In less than a week, more than 200,000 people have signed an online petition—by far the largest of its kind—on the White House Web site, demanding fast action to curtail access to guns.

Just about every aspect of American life has been represented in our collective grief: media, politics, entertainment, and sports have all found a way to call attention to the tragedy. But American philanthropy has been largely absent and strangely silent. Read the full op-ed.

mikel_ecclessor photoGun Violence is a Chronic Public-Health Disaster

By J. Mikel Ellcessor, General Manager, WDET, Detroit

Vincent Stehle, Media Impact Funders’ Executive Director put an important flag in the ground in his recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed.

His central premises are correct: gun violence has not been sufficiently addressed as a public health issue and the non-profit media has taken some modest steps, at best, to impact public awareness.

The big question he asks deserves a serious look: with such a horrific social cost, why haven’t foundations and the NFP media community made broad cultural awareness and meaningful action more of a strategic priority?

America is facing a public health crisis that rips apart our families, weakens our social fabric, shatters our neighborhoods and, when you live in cities like Detroit, saps the economic vitality of the region. If we are honest and consider our history with Thalidomide, seat belts or safety packaging for over the counter medication it’s obvious we aren’t trying that hard. If this country saw a commensurate level of death and disruption from any other consumer good there would be a loud, prolonged debate and demand for action. Gun violence, whether in high profile tragedies like Sandy Hook, the nauseatingly persistent street violence or the tens of thousands of annual gun-enabled suicides, reaches into every corner and crevasse of American life.

Perhaps the difficulty, for both foundations and media, in addressing the roots and causes of gun violence is the fact that it’s a tangled mix of issues. Any meaningful response will require long-term commitment to achieve results. If my reading of recent trends is correct, both foundations and the media are favoring approaches and projects that have a distinct beginning, middle and end with clear, measurable impact and outcomes.

This is a mistake.

The reality of gun violence doesn’t fall into a clear, linear storytelling narrative and making a difference in the space won’t show up in a 12 or even 24 month impact report.

At the same time, public service institutions are struggling to confront and address their relevance and truly serve their communities. Focusing on crises like gun violence is at the core of public media’s mandate – to inform, engage and discuss critical social concerns as citizens, communities and as a nation.

At WDET, we have seen how engaging with this issue in a deep, principled way opens up new layers of relationship between our organization and the community we serve. But it’s not an easy net positive.

In Detroit, talking about gun violence can contribute to a kind of shunning, and one’s allegiance to the economic revitalization agenda gets called into question.

WDET stepped into it last summer. In a year of record violence, one weekend in August, 2011, saw a particularly loathsome outbreak of violence in Detroit. When we scanned the terrain and saw seven dead and 16 shot in 24 hours we (WDET) felt a burning need to challenge the community to look in the mirror and ask what each individual in the area is willing to do to change this equation. Through a rapid series of online, social and broadcast interactions, we asked people to go on record and declare one principled action they were willing to take that would make a difference.

16 Shot, 7 Killed This Weekend. What Are YOU Going to Do About It? was the editorial response. While we got great feedback from the base listenership and it definitely built our credibility in working and middle class African-American communities, the New Urbanists were not amused. Several recoiled from questions about how their economic gain would make the city safer and more equitable for the perpetual citizens. The net trade-off for WDET has been the deepening of relationship and furthering our stance as an authentic voice for a broad range of metro Detroit residents and some distancing from the New Detroit.

A year later, Detroit has just posted a record, upward-trending murder rate. The city’s homicide rate ranks among the worst in the nation. It’s clear that Detroit has lost ground on the issue through a lack of action.

WDET has continued to engage with the full diversity of people who care about the issue. After Newtown, we were determined to create a space where gun owners could come into WDET’s spaces, be respected and add their voices to the conversation. When the NRA announced their press conference we seized on the opportunity as a way to get card-carrying NRA members on the air and make room for a broader conversation. By their own admission, many of the callers admitted they were new to WDET. It was clear the new audience and the core want to learn and want to engage – if given the opportunity.

WDET’s NRA Special, capping a week of emotional, challenging public conversations was a high water mark for WDET, but it should be seen as an utterly normal event for a public media organization.

Public radio is struggling to build competency and balance itself between creating authentic community engagement, provoking a healthy civic space and engaging in advocacy.

WDET is learning, in deeply imperfect ways, how we can respond to the profound NEED in our community, by asking for the audiences’ guidance. Since we initiated this organizational shift four years ago, WDET has made relevance and engagement that stretches beyond the core public radio audience our driving objective. It is both a mission and a business imperative. Decades of outmigration have left Southeast Michigan with a depleted base of core public radio listeners. If we want to survive, we have to find relevance beyond the traditional base and strike a new value proposition in our community.

The question that dominates my mind when I read Vince’s post is how far are public service media makers and the foundations that support us willing to adapt and test our comfort zones in the pursuit of real relevance and deeper service?

WDET has found a new public radio business model through an expanded, multi-ethnic audience. This audience is passionate about the issues that run through and around gun violence.

Can we find it within ourselves to find equal levels of passion and courage and find ways to serve our communities around this critical issue?

One thought on “Why Haven’t Foundations Responded to the Newtown Shootings?

  1. Pingback: Changing the Debate: Funders’ Role in Gun Safety | Media Impact Funders

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