“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men . . . ”Frederick Douglas
I was in my late forties before I started to lose hope for the future. Unfulfilled dreams, disappointing relationships, middle age, pick one. Then one day the phone rang and my life changed forever. On the other end was a man who had suffered the tragic loss of a child, a loss he felt he could have prevented. In his grief he wanted to start a campaign to educate children on how to cope with life’s challenges and the various forms of abuse they can encounter in school, on the streets, and especially within families. He wanted to prevent what happened to his daughter from happening to anyone else. And he wanted me to help him.
It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea what I was talking about and all my skills as a storyteller couldn’t hide that fact, so I contacted a community engagement coordinator, and asked if she could get me into the classrooms. I needed to talk to some kids. What I encountered there and in the community centers, and after school programs was a shock. It opened my eyes to a paradoxical world—a child’s world filled with wonder and laughter and equally filled with pain, fear and confusion.
We visited 4th-7th grade kids from working class to upscale, city and suburban, African-American, White, Hmong, Hispanic, and more. None of these kids were older than 11, and many more than I would like to admit were at risk of losing hope for the future by the time they were 12.
How does this happen? This is what they told us.
“By watching your mother become hopelessly addicted to meth, by being thrown out the house by her abusive boyfriend and having to scavenge for food anywhere you can, by being relentlessly bullied because you are small, or not American, or simply perceived as different, by succumbing to peer pressure and getting involved in situations that you don’t know how to control, drugs, alcohol, gangs, the street.”
We were elated at the level of engagement, but as we were leaving, a little blond girl tugged on my sleeve and whispered to me, “If I am at my friend’s house, and her father comes in the bathroom when I am in there, is that bullying?”
It is hard to face, but these children live in these worlds, and we as adults cannot always protect them, and for some, it is the adults who are the abusers.
Since then, the original project has evolved into a movement to work with these kids, listen to what they are saying, involve them in our creative process, and give back to them a wide variety of media and entertainment that engages their imaginations and provides them with ways to protect themselves when we cannot be there for them.
It is called Block by Block and it is a clear path toward hope, and a direct way to help our kids see a positive future for themselves.
Founder / Artistic Director / Acting Executive Director of YA+M Works
From the very beginning we have involved the kids in the creative development of Block by Block. We listen to them tell their stories. We ask them what they want, how they feel, and where they see themselves in the world.
We then go away, and as professionals, absorb this world, and write fiction that incorporates standards of behavior for intercepting a bully or reporting an abuser, into their stories. These lessons appear in our heroes, in our villains who sometimes change into heroes, and our regular folks who are real and just trying to raise a good family.
We also involve kids in our creative process by asking for their opinions on what we are doing. Do they like the scripts we have written? Did they learn something? What do you think of our logo choices? Which one would you pick? They chose the one we are using.
As we move along, we will develop young media makers, give them a chance to work with the professionals on our productions, shooting behind the scenes video, interviewing the filmmakers, talking to each other. And for those who are too far away, or are more renegade, we will offer so many opportunities to create user-generated material on our website.
In addition, we have two sets of advisors, one filled with educators, sociologists, therapists, community servants. The other is made up of our kids. The president of the youth advisory council at the time of this writing is 8.
Block by Block is a vision for the future of children’s media full of stories based on real life, full of real characters, helping kids help themselves.
One day, after a read-through of our first script, a group of middle school girls initiated and created a short skit about bullying. They rehearsed it and then on their own presented to elementary school kids hoping to help them deal with any bullying they might encounter. That simple act of creativity and “paying it forward” so to speak started a conversation with these kids about how they can help themselves and each other in times of great challenge.
Block by Block is place where they can feel safe and if they want to come out, we will be here waiting for them.
We see a future filled with this kind of activism, participation, and leadership. We see a future where, through great storytelling, children are empowered to help each other. We see a future where these kids work with us creating comic books, and dramatic series, and games, and support groups, where they talk to each other and don’t hide behind fear and insecurity.
As a father of four grown children I have watched and been witness to the deep pain and life affecting results of issues that each one faced in the tough days of their young lives. I feel that Block by Block can offer solutions and/or tools for young people to use to handle these life issues through great storytelling. I have always believed in the power of storytelling, stories are how we learn everything. And through the stories that young people express about their particular challenges, and the lessons formed from them, Block by Block can create a positive tone and be a comfort in their lives while aiding in their growing up.
God’s calling on my life is to repair the breached bodies, minds and spirits of children and young people... To breathe life into those who don’t feel like they have anything to live for... To be a vision of possibilities... To engage them in possibilities, purpose and promise.
From day one of my involvement “on the Block”, I knew this project, this movement was the right experience to bring to young people in my life and work. The unique process of this Block by Block journey is so aligned with my 35 year philosophy and practice of creating a sense of ownership in the project among the key folks, the target audience... In this case the breached, but beautiful, bold, brilliant and blessed children. Their soulful touches are all over this movement, we have supported them in taking their rightful place “on the Block”.
I am Robert Ashmun. I am a white guy. Most people think that means I have it pretty easy. But I spent much of my childhood in the minority, part of a fractured and nomadic family that was unable to settle. Between the age of 5 and 11 here’s how it went.
Minneapolis, Mexico City with my dad. I don’t know where my mom was at this point. Veracruz to Acapulco, Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende, Zihuatanejo, and Cuernavaca until I was about 11 then back to Minnesota for a minute. Suddenly we were moved back with my mother who now lived in the San Fran area. We moved from Bolinas to Sausalito, to Mill Valley to Corte Madera to San Rafael then as far across the country as possible to a small island in Cedar Key Fla. Finally, part way through 7th grade I was moved back with my father in Wayzata, MN. I went to five different schools in 6th grade and two different schools in 7th. I was always the new kid, and in Mexico I was also a young unprotected minority in a foreign country where they hated me just because I was American. Without fail, some sort of abuse reared its ugly head right after orientation and usually before lunch.
I can relate to kids with no footing, those who are bullied or worse. I understand what it’s like to need guidance, but instead have to rely on the resources of a kid. The damage to individuals and society as a result of this kind of behavior has been well documented and is now at an epidemic proportion. I feel very strongly that it can be stopped or significantly reduced. I choose to be part of the solution, whenever, wherever and however I can.
I grew up in the Twin Cities, and started working with kids as a Swim Instructor and Lifeguard during my teenage and college summers. I also had a mother who taught 4th grade, during which time I volunteered to help kids learn in the classroom. Later on, when my mother returned to school to become a counselor/tutor for kids and their families in North Minneapolis, I had the opportunity to learn about life experiences other kids were going through and how resilient kids could be. Upon entering the workforce at GE Capital, I volunteered through organizations like Junior Achievement, the Roosevelt Mentoring program, CommonBond and Habitat For Humanity. I found I derived a certain satisfaction knowing my work would help kids and their families achieve more than they could alone. I also saw how such a small contribution of my time and energy brought smiles to so many peoples’ days each time I volunteered.
By chance, I met the Block by Block team while working on a project for an entrepreneurship class at the University of Minnesota’s MBA program. A few months after completing the project, I met with the Block by Block team again, this time to help develop a non-profit organization focused on positive ways kids could share ways to deal with issues as they grew up. I jumped at the chance and have since been applying my business acumen and passion for community service towards the launch of the Block by Block Universe!
I am a big proponent of education, and I always have been. I started my career by teaching a summer program for kids. Now that I work for Goodwill Easter Seals I see some of the effects of children that have grown up. When working with children it was easy to teach them how to be polite, to say please and thank you, and to share and be courteous to each other. As adults it can be challenging enough to keep them from fighting with each other. There is simply no need for people to treat each other badly. I also have always been the peacemaker, willing to find ways to get a positive compromise, even when the solution seemed hopeless. It is that crossroads that this country finds itself now. If we don’t start working toward a better future now, many of the children won’t be around to see any future for themselves. I bring to The Block by Block Project a passion that follows the adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Block by Block has the power to give out all the ounces of help to make a difference in the lives of each and every ‘tween that takes advantage of our offering.
Throughout my professional career in the entertainment industry I have been involved with many incredible and worthy projects. My decision to get involved with any given project is made only after careful analysis of different elements. This usually involves extensive number crunching, studying the project’s target audience and creating the initial plan to reach that audience. It can take a of couple weeks and I will employ a small team to assist me. Initially, is was what I had planned when approached to be a part of the Block by Block project.
It took my business partner and I about 1 month to develop a motion picture scopic for the BbB Project. What we produced gave (what we thought) a perfect understanding of what the BbB Project was, how it will make money, the target audience and its potential for success. Not exactly. What I found out over the last year became much more profound and incredible, impacting me in a way no other project has before.
Over the last year of working with the BbB Project and the other team members I have come to realize what an incredibly important project this truly is. The scopic touched on some of the key business points of the company, but the impact BbB has already had and will continue to have on the lives of children cannot be explained, or analyzed, on pieces of paper. I began this journey with the idea that we were simply producing content that focuses on the issues and obstacles today’s children, around the world, face and have to overcome as they navigate through the years to adulthood. It is so much more than that. The BbB Project not only produces content, we also produce, design, develop and execute tools and other applications that aid and assist children to face the challenges of growing up head-on, with a confidence that may have been lacking or not as strong before. Our utilization of new and existing technologies as well as proprietary platforms to produce and distribute our content, tools and applications to our members puts us ahead of the pulse, a position we need to be in order to attract, maintain and build membership in the future. Every meeting, a new and exciting approach, innovation or idea spawns from the creative and intelligent team that has been assembled, and this proves to me, and anyone else who has had the great pleasure to get to know the BbB Project and team, that the success of BbB will continue.
I began my journey with BbB looking at it from a business standpoint. Through my involvement, I realize that this is truly a movement, a movement with the potential to change many lives and instill a confidence in the hearts and minds of children that may have been void. My passion for the project and its mission is matched and multiplied by everyone who comes in contact with it. We have met with many individuals and companies to introduce the BbB Project to them, and it is fascinating to hear their personal stories and obstacles they faced growing up, all of them wishing something like Block by Block was around to help guide them through the rough waters. It is an honor to be a part of the Block by Block Project.