Q&A: Jacob Soboroff on Detroit Pride

Living in and around Detroit makes you philosophize more than the average city resident. The old adage, “Live and let live,” seems the most appropriate given the city’s current state, but that approach is cold at best and cruel at worst.

So you’ve got to take a more active, meaningful approach. And that means participation. Getting involved. Putting yourself out there. And that is what so many people are trying to do for Detroit. Sure, you get slapped down – a lot. But you’ve got to at least try.

One example of the changes people are trying to make is in Detroit’s schools. On the surface, there is the kind of effort offered by the television show “School Pride,” which will air tonight on NBC. But there also is a deeper meaning to the show’s work here…fixing up what’s broken. Making what’s wrong right. Simple platitudes, changing attitudes.

I hope through this new blogging spot to highlight those making the big changes. And to highlight the changes in me, my family, my friends and the city. Some might say Detroit is outta TIME…I’d say the clock just started ticking on our fresh beginning.

Back to “School Pride.” I had a chance to talk this past week with Jacob Soboroff, co-host of NBC’s new reality show that improves distressed school districts. He also is Executive Director of Why Tuesday, a nonpartisan group working to increase voter participation. (You’ll see him on the show tonight: the cute, nerdy looking one. Yowza.)

Q: What did you learn about Detroit from working here?

A: Detroiters have extraordinary resilience. It is no secret that times are tough for Detroit and for the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Parents, students and teachers are leaving the district, and there are scores of schools being closed. The school we were working at, Communication and Media Arts High School (CMA), was on the DPS list of schools planned to close for the third time. Twice before the community had fought to save it from closing, and this community and this city was not going to take no for an answer.

Q: What lasting impression did the city leave on you?

A: Detroit is a city with character, class and compassion (and great food). It’s a city that isn’t going to go through struggles – or solutions – quietly or passively. When we first arrived I think some of the CMA community was skeptical as to whether or not “School Pride” could make a difference, and they let us know. By the time we left, we felt welcomed with open arms, whether it was when I was sitting at the desk of Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb in his office, or working on laying down carpeting in CMA’s new library.

Q:  How does “School Pride” fit into Detroit’s recovery?

A: “School Pride” certainly isn’t the silver bullet to fix every school in DPS or problem in Detroit, but it’s a powerful megaphone to show how powerful and passionate the people of Detroit are. And how important it is that the powers that be listen to the people of this city. Friday, when the show airs, there will be millions of people across the country watching Detroit very closely. We brought with us some friends in the form of financial and material donations from national corporations, but much of the work was done by local skilled labor, businesses and grassroots volunteers. It was because of them, not because of our TV show, that Robert Bobb decided to take it off the cut list, in his words, “forever.”

Q: What do you want people to know about this show and its potential?

A: The message of the show, and the potential for it to do good, starts and ends with its ability to show the power of community involvement and volunteerism. We are saying that we all, as individuals, small groups or as part of giant service projects, can take part in do-it-yourself education reform. We had over 15,000 volunteers come out this summer at seven schools across the country. It was truly extraordinary. The messages I’ve received since “School Pride” started on Facebook and through e-mail and Twitter about people being inspired to volunteer, or organize service days, or let us know about their schools are amazing. NBC has given us a powerful gift: a prime-time slot for a reality TV show with a good message. Now we just need people to tune in.

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