The Kids Are All Right
Ten9Eight, a new documentary by Mary Mazzio, looks at how turning kids into budding businesspeople may be the antidote to the dropout...
When President Obama
delivered his stay-in-school speech, reminding students for the umpteenth time that they can't all grow up to be rappers and basketball players, he caused a stir. It sparked overblown controversy, but it also brought into the national conversation the fact that every year, 1.2 million kids drop out of school-or, one every nine seconds. It's a shamefully high number, which is why filmmaker Mary Mazzio focused her lens on the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship program in her new uplifting new documentary
Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon
. NFTE is a program that helps students from low-income communities learn skills that will actually help them more forward in life-preventing them from dropping out in the process. Her film, which opens today, offers a dynamic picture of inner-city life, following a handful of kids as they compete in NFTE's business-plan competition, all the way to the nationals. We asked her a few questions about the process.
The competition starts with tens of thousands of kids. How did you choose who to focus on?
The competition starts in the classroom, then it goes to the school, then it's cities, states…. I waited until it was regional, it was down to 1,000 kids: I saw all of them, and to be honest, I wanted to follow all of them. It was unbelievably hard to choose. I originally wanted to just do six kids, but that was almost impossible. I thought, I can't just do six kids! So I then looked for kids I thought would win, and who had compelling and diverse stories of the inner city.
You seemed to go to great lengths to paint a dynamic and upbeat picture of the inner city.
So many stories that come out, and so many documentaries, it's so effing bleak, and it's all stereotypes. I didn't know much about inner-city life going in so I learned a lot in the process. And one thing I learned was that for all the Rodneys [a character] in the film, who are so sweet and aspirational-there were hundreds or thousands of kids just like him and they need so little. All they need is a good education. This program isn't the be-all end-all, but this is a pretty great tool in the anti-dropout toolkit.
Because kids are learning things that are relevant to their everyday lives?
What, that kids stay in school?
No, that they're given a reason to be excited about school. Instead of losing a generation of kids, we do something about it. These are tomorrow's job creators. They can help take us out of the recession: they have the chutzpah, the smarts, the energy, they just have no money.
Right, but since not everyone can win, I guess the idea is more that it gives kids a sense of what is possible. What did you think of Obama's stay-in-school speech a couple of months ago?
Oh my god. It shocked me with the controversy it created. I was stunned. I think we're so polarized in this country that it's paralyzing for the nation. But here's the one thing about this film: I am as left as they get-full disclosure-but I have been getting calls from all kinds of folks on the right, about how excited they are about this film. Here is a common ground, because it's business, and it's "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," and that makes sense to someone on the right, and someone on the left. The idea of creating your own opportunity is appealing to the right, but opportuinity and education to me are nonpartisan issues.
Or, they should be.
The message about teaching people to be entrepreneurial is nonpartisan. Tom Friedman wrote an editorial recently about how you can't just be good at what you do, you have to be entrepreneurial and you have to be an innovator. We call it "entrepreneurial" in the film but really it's about teaching kids and encouraging them to be innovators.
The bootstraps argument can be a little contentious when you're talking about kids, though, because it can be argued they can only do as much as they are set up to do. Not every kid gets to go through this program.
Well that's the point: Every kid needs this kind of education. The second goal of this movie is for policymakers and people in positions of influence to say "Whoa, this kind of education is life changing. Why isn't this in every high school economics curriculum?" Why is it-and let me get on my soap box real quick-that you have to go to a vocational school to learn quote-unquote business. That is ridiculous. When you have a generation of people, especially women, who can't balance their own check book, who don't know what a 401(k) is, and you have to go to a vocational school to learn that? It is so backwards that to learn financial literacy you have to go out of your way. The issues have to be taught to our kids.
And that's what this program teaches them?
It's innovation and financial literacy. It is my hope that the people who serve these kids to realize how aspirational they are, and that they only need a little bit of water! What is that water? This kind of education so they don't drop out.
You have said you want to make sure kids to see it. How will they?
We signed this innovative arrangement with AMC theatres. It's unprecedented to have a documentary in a multiplex-in an urban multiplex-and not just your arthouse cinemas for the NPR crowd. There [were] free screenings for kids and teachers on November 12, then there is a wider release. We're also having a screening at the Smithsonian in DC chaired by policymakers, people from treasury, and influencers. We are taking a multi-pronged approach.
Gabriel Echoles and Rodney Walker, pictured at top, were finalists in the competition. Photo by Richard Schultz.
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Ten9Eight opens today in major cities.
, a new documentary by Mary Mazzio, looks at how turning kids into budding businesspeople may be the antidote to the dropout crisis.