Margaret Brodkin, mother of 2 and grandmother of 4, has spent her entire adult life advocating for other people's children. At an age when most of her peers have retired from public service, Brodkin is as busy as ever. On September 27th, she hosted over 200 attendees from around the state at a conference
in Oakland on establishing local dedicated funding measures for children, youth and families in California.
Few people in the country have Brodkin's depth of experience in helping kids. She served for 26 years as Director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, before being tapped by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to head the city's Department of Children Youth and Families in 2004. In 2009, she launched the Community School Initiative - New Day for Learning, but she remains most proud of her leadership in the development of the SF Children's Fund in 1991, the nation's first local dedicated fund for children.
As a result of her work, over a billion dollars has been added to the city's budget for children over a 20-year period, developing programs for kids in every part of the city. These programs include everything from afterschool care to early childhood education, from violence prevention to child health and wellness.
I met with Margaret recently to talk about her new project, as well as the current status of the Children's Fund, the role for private philanthropy in kids' issues, and the impact of poverty on children's lives.
Your list of accomplishments is so inspirational; what are you up to these days?
I'm very excited about my new project
, "Funding the Next Generation", to promote local dedicated funding streams for children's issues in communities throughout California. This gives me an opportunity to take what I've learned in over 3 decades advocating for children in San Francisco, and help other cities and counties around the state do similar work.
The focus is on helping communities develop mechanisms for getting local public dollars for kids – like SF's Children’s Fund, which was the first such fund in the country, like our Public Education Enrichment Fund, our childcare developer fees, and fees on sports tickets – all to fund services for children.
That sounds like the perfect initiative for you to be leading! I've been hearing so many people talking about the conference you just hosted to launch this.
We convened over 200 people, from 31 different counties around the state, to talk about the very specific ways that they can work to get funding streams for kids and families – the first-ever conference of its kind. I have been so fortunate to have been able to recruit some of the smartest and most seasoned people in the state as advisers and partners – pollsters, political consultants, veteran local organizers and campaigners, and ten statewide organizations that are collaborating partners.
At the conference, elected officials, advocates, and service providers in the public and private sectors talked about local possibilities – minimum funding guarantees, sales taxes, parcel taxes, new fees, hotel taxes and more. The conference ended with county and city-level teams identifying and submitting their next steps, which included everything from exploratory discussions with allies, to meetings with the local Chamber of Commerce, to finding a champion in law enforcement in the community.
Many chose to start by developing a Children's Budget and researching local expenditures on children, youth and families. Some counties are considering measures to fund preschool; others are thinking about soda taxes to fund health services; and still others want to replicate the children's funds of San Francisco and Oakland.
Is this the right time to be talking about seeking funding for children's issues at the local level?
Funding the Next Generation is based on the premise that now is a great time to focus on generating public revenue at the local level. As Bruce Katz, author of the new book called “Metropolitan Revolution” says, “The Feds have left the building” and it looks to me like they might be gone for some time – so we have to focus locally.
We also know that even folks who are skeptical about public funding for services are much more likely to support measures in their own community. That’s where trust can be built, and where creativity, innovation and the ability to target the right needs for their specific community is greatest.
In addition, the children’s movement has allies that we haven’t had before – military leaders and economists talking about the need to invest in our children. And lastly, the economy is starting to improve.
Many other interest groups are organizing and waiting in the wings – children’s advocates have an edge, according to public opinion polls, because on all issues, voters are most motivated by helping children. It’s time to seize the moment.
You are most well-known as the “mother of the Children’s Fund.” What is the current status of the Children's Fund?
The Children’s Fund went into effect in 1991 with 54% of the vote, and was renewed 10 years later by 74% of the vote. Prior to the Children’s Fund, we faced cuts in services every year; it was impossible to plan because funding was so unstable, and there were thousands of children and many neighborhoods that never received local public funding. The Children’s Fund changed that, and now 250 agencies serve 47,000 kids all across the city, with the annual allocation of close to $50 million.
The current legislation has a 15 year sunset, so it runs out at the end of the 2015-2016 budget year. The Children’s Funding Community Coalition, comprised of over 40 organizations and dozens of young people, has been coming together for a year to identify issues they want to see addressed in the new legislation, including issues related to transparency, oversight, accountability, who needs to be served and how much the fund should be.
The Coalition uses an open and engaging process, focusing on the concrete issues involved in re-drafting what could be an even better piece of legislation. People should know that the Coalition is sponsoring a Town Hall to expand public input into its work on October 22 (see details at end of the article.) Chelsea Boilard from Coleman has been doing a terrific job of helping staff the Coalition.
With so many wealthy people (old guard and new tech) in SF, would it be possible to fund children's causes just through private donations?
Absolutely not. The most important thing that people of means can do is advocate for a progressive tax system so that everyone pays his fair share. It is important for folks to realize that private dollars, even when very generous, will always be a small share in meeting need. And they should be. We need the use of our dollars for kids to be determined through a public process – not just the private priorities of a handful of people.
Of course, private dollars are an important supplement to the public dollars. San Francisco raises fewer corporate dollars for its schools than most other major cities, and with the implosion
of the local organization whose goal was to raise those dollars for the schools, we have our work cut out for us – to sustain and expand the public funding streams, and find a better way to raise corporate, philanthropic and individual funds.
What is the impact of poverty on children's lives? Is that just an excuse for setting low expectations for low income children?
The impact of poverty is profound – most of the inequities and challenges that children face correlate with poverty – health problems, poor school performance, family instability, and trailing behind their peers in intellectual and emotional development.
I am so glad the school reform pendulum is swinging away from this notion of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” a philosophy which ignored the overt bigotry of economic injustice. The idea that the devastating impact of poverty and discrimination, which go hand-in-hand, can be overcome by testing and a phony definition of “rigor” prevents us from focusing on the most important issues.
After many years of “no child left behind,” we are finally recognizing - again - that we must address the underlying economic, social and equity issues that prevent children from entering the classroom ready to learn. That’s why I was so excited to lead San Francisco’s Community School initiative for 3 years.
Are you hopeful about the future of San Francisco’s children, youth and families?
San Francisco has the most inspiring and creative people working for and with our children, youth and families! I am so proud of the Children’s Funding Community Coalition – how it has brought so many people together to do the tough work of exploring the details of the legislation. There is such passion and intelligence to bring to the table.
Of course, San Francisco has a lot of work to do – we have one of the largest gaps in the country between those families who have the means to meet their children’s needs and those who don’t – and a particularly huge gap between African American and Latino children and the rest of our children. Sometimes we wonder whether San Francisco can really become a better city for children. But I believe that if everyone (from the Mayor on down) prioritizes making this a family-friendly city, we can do it.
The Children's Funding Community Coalition Town Hall will take place on Tuesday October 22nd, 5:30-8:30 pm in the cafeteria at Everett Middle School, 450 Church Street between 16th and 17th. Food, childcare and translation will be provided, and there is free parking in the school parking lot (enter off 17th Street.) All are welcome to attend and participate; please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.