People often say that there are no seasons in Los Angeles, but the end of summer is felt almost as deeply in L.A. as it is anywhere else -- particularly in beach communities like Venice, where the number of tourists and casual surfers begins to shrink as the slightly colder temperatures set in. For children, of course, the seasonal shift presents the same bad news for everyone: time to go back to school.
For the handful of kids enrolled in 826LA's English Language Learner summer camp, it also means putting aside their temporary day jobs as comic book designers and music critics. Fortunately, 826 will still be waiting for them during the school year, offering free drop-in tutoring for students aged 8-18. In a city where the numbers in the education system are overwhelming, 826 is the rare sanctuary where a student can find one-on-one assistance, whether with a tricky poem or with the multiplication table.
"We'll do any subject, although parents tend to come here because they know we work on writing," said Mac Barnett, the programs director for 826LA. "We really focus on one-on-one attention. That doesn't mean we always have a one-to-one ratio in drop-in, but the numbers are small, and we make sure there's an individual focus on the student's work and the student's needs. That one-on-one attention is so crucial -- and so hard to get. I think that sets us apart from a lot of tutoring centers."
The six weeks of the summer's English Language Learner program culminated in a performance by the class, who had been writing and revising monologues -- the tutors consistently stress the importance of revision -- in which each student took on his/her own character, such as a solider who eases his mind by building towers of plastic cups. But even if these flights of fancy are often replaced by the pragmatic demands of homework once the school year begins, the tutors at 826 are determined to show students that there isn't such a gulf between the two areas.
"Even cell division and fractions involve some element of comprehension, writing and story-building," said Joan Kim, director of education at 826NYC.
Another approach to the 'business' of tutoring
Tutoring has become big business -- the Los Angeles Times reported last month that the tutoring "industry" is worth $2.2 billion -- and that's particularly the case as colleges become more competitive and as schools scramble to keep up with the No Child Left Behind act. Children are given benchmark tests at an increasingly early age, even as classroom sizes have continued to expand. There are over 725,000 K-12 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and while efforts have been made to improve the teacher-student ratio and to support after-school programs via the Beyond the Bell program, many students are still being lost in the shuffle.
Set on the second floor of a converted police station several blocks from Venice Beach, the sparse but inviting headquarters of 826LA present a refreshing change of pace to tutoring-as-commerce. McSweeney's founder and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" author Dave Eggers started 826 in San Francisco in 2002 (the flagship center is called 826 Valencia, after its street address), and its effects were so immediate that is has already spawned offspring in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich.
As befits a center founded by a professional writer, the programs and activities at 826 unusually present creative expression as a viable vocation. At 826LA, Barnett and his colleagues have a bottomless pool of working professionals to interact with the students by giving readings and leading hands-on workshops.
"Professional writers and creative professionals talk about doing things a little differently than teachers do," said Barnett. "Teachers do a great job, but they're so busy with all their state standards that I think it's hard for them to design a curriculum that juggles all these demands. How can they read four drafts apiece for all these kids? So we've sent volunteers into schools so they can assign multidraft pieces. You need the chalkboard stuff, too, but to actually talk to a writer about writing, there's something different about that. Kids get really excited and have 10 million questions about what it's like to work as a journalist."
In workshops this fall at 826LA, students can prepare for their college application essays, put on a fashion show under the guidance of Movies.com editor Lien Ta, or try their hand at designing spaceships. The eclecticism reflects the tutor base, which is largely made up of entertainment types -- screenwriters between projects, freelancers with flexible schedules -- but also includes a barber and, yes, a rocket scientist.
When they made their entry into the saturated world of punk rock, Chicago's Rise Against had humble goals: play some shows, put out a few records and maybe, if things went well, book a show at their city's famed (but smallish) Fireside Bowl. Four albums later, they find themselves signed to Geffen, playing amphitheatres as a co-headliner on the Warped Tour -- still the premier punk festival each year -- and being widely considered as one of the heaviest hitters in their genre.
Rise Against have long encouraged social activism, and have walked the walk by involving themselves with Punkvoter and PETA. Their latest video ("Ready to Fall") features a gut-turning parade of footage, from factory farming to stripped forests to melting icecaps. Frontman Tim McIlrath blends the political and personal in his songs; some are fiery anti-government inciters, others are straightforward stories of fractured relationships and lost love. If there is a thread connecting the bulk of the Rise Against catalog, it is simply "The time to change is now."
There comes a point, though, when increased popularity can result in preaching to the converted; few fans at a Rise Against headline show are going to be surprised or challenged by the band's beliefs. For McIlrath, this is one of the great perks of the Warped Tour, and their co-headlining tour with Thursday this fall: having to prove themselves to an audience that may not always be starting on their side.
WireTap: What do you think has helped Warped keep from fading away or falling apart like the original Lollapalooza and so many festival tours after it?
Tim McIlrath: I think [tour founder Kevin] Lyman really respects the fan, and that's important. He keeps bands on there because they are credible and he likes them and the real punk fans like them, instead of filling the lineup with the flavor of the week, top selling bands of the summer. People appreciate that and they come back.
WT: Some of the bands who have participated in the Warped Tour have enjoyed talking some loving shit about it, saying that the big appeal for everyone is that you can play a quickie set and get out of there and hang out with your friends. Is that a draw for you guys, too? What makes it a good fit for spending your summer?
TM: That's certainly a nice benefit of the Warped Tour. We've spent the last few years of our lives on the road, and when you do that, there are so many people in your life that occupy these little snapshots of time. I'll spend six weeks with this one bass player from one band as we go across Europe, and we'll have a great time together and explore Austria and Germany -- and then at the end of the tour, it's like, "See ya later." Sure, we'll keep in touch, but the nature of what we do is going to make sure that we hardly see each other ever again, unless we do a tour together. Warped Tour is this giant reunion of all these bands you've toured with; when you've toured for six years, you can't even list all the bands. Chances are, a lot of them are going to be on the Warped Tour. It's really cool, after the last kid goes home and the place shuts down, everyone hangs out by their buses and talks about all the stuff you've been doing -- this person got married, this person has kids, whatever. That's a personally gratifying part of the tour.
I like Warped Tour, too, because it's such a slice of life. You talk to so many different kinds of people. If we play a Rise Against show, I'll talk to Rise Against fans -- it's a fairly safe place for me to exist. The chances are pretty small that I'll run into somebody who doesn't like the band or is challenging something that we're saying. It's a fairly safe bubble, and punk doesn't survive in safe bubbles. On Warped Tour, you get people who are just walking in because it's a giant festival that comes to their town, or because they like that one band's song on the radio. It kind of reminds me of when we first started this band, when we were making a point to challenge a lot of people's thought processes. As the band has gotten bigger, we've kind of lost that challenge -- but Warped Tour brings that challenge back. There are Rise Against fans there, but when you're talking about a show with 20,000 people, the majority of people aren't Rise Against fans.
WT: So in addition to proving yourself to fans who might not know you guys, do you also get negative feedback?
TM: For sure. You get kids who hate your band -- or just hate what you're standing for, like, "Fuck you, I came here to have a good time with my friends, and to drink a lot of beer, and this guy is up here talking about the war in Iraq!" When Rise Against plays shows near military bases, that's always a good time. A lot of Warped Tour is like that. The couple years that we've done it, the fucking Army and the Marines have been out there recruiting. They'll sign kids up and give you free dog tags if you give them all your information. They don't really tell you what you have to give in exchange -- which, in reality, is all of your contact information, down to your dog's name, so they can haunt you for the rest of your life.
In St. Louis, it wasn't even guys from the Marines or the Army who were giving the dog tags and getting information -- it was all beautiful girls in tiny shorts and bikini tops. They were doing all they could to get these dudes to walk over there -- and kids were lining up to do it. You've got to give it to the Marines: they know how to market to the kids. It was so bad and desperate and disgusting and pathetic. They make it out as this big, amusing carnival of dog tags and whatever else, but the big picture is that they're signing people up to go to war. They're signing people up to say 'I'm willing to put my life in the hands of the Bush Administration. I will go wherever they tell me to go.'
There's such misinformation -- now you have Army recruiters being caught teaching kids how to fake high school diplomas. This shit is really happening. They're out there like salesmen, telling you anything they can tell you to get you to join. So when we go up and we have our half hour, we tend to make sure that the Army recruiters get a piece of our mind.
That's not to say that a lot of Rise Against fans aren't troops; I get e-mails from Iraq every day. I've been told that there's an Iraqi radio station that plays Rise Against. It's been really cool to hear from these troops, and I completely and obviously support all the people in the Armed Forces. These are our brothers and sisters. I just don't think it's appropriate for recruiters to be at a place like Warped Tour.
WT: Did they have the same presence this year as in years past?
TM: While they weren't a constant presence, they did show up from time to time to conduct the ever important chin-up contest. The times I did see them this year, kids were passing them right by. I think the current administration and the pathetic, misguided and ongoing war in Iraq is doing more for the anti-recruitment effort than we could ever hope to do.
WT: Is your co-headlining tour with Thursday this fall a continuation of the challenge you face with Warped audiences, or do you see their fanbase as being pretty in tune with what Rise Against stands for?
TM: I really think that Thursday and Rise Against exist on the same wavelength -- and, for that matter, so does Billy Talent, who will be joining us. Thursday have songs that challenge society's idea of sexuality and women's empowerment, and I think their last record was pretty damn political, actually. We come from the same world, Thursday and us, and I've always known that they are here for the right reasons.
WT: In those cases when people in the audience do react against you, do you think that stems from the content of the songs, or what you may be saying between songs?
TM: I think there are a significant amount of people who listen to music as background and only skim the surface of certain songs without digging into their meaning. Maybe they just like the way it sounds, or maybe they just really don't care what we're talking about. Sometimes, live, I will put the song into context be prefacing it with a statement, and then somebody realizes that the song they've been working out to or just driving around listening to is really something meaningful and important, and perhaps that rubs them the wrong way. I figure if people aren't being challenged, then we're not doing our job.
WT: When we spoke around the time of your last album [2004's Siren Song of the Counter Culture], you were saying that a silver lining of the Bush re-election was that people had woken up and realized that challenging or questioning the government was more of an American activity than an anti-American one. Do you think that people have stayed awake?
TM: I think that people are becoming awake. In the punk scene and hardcore scene, people were against the war and asking questions from the beginning, and I remember getting so much shit about questioning the war. Everybody was ready to attack us, everybody was ready to challenge us -- 'I can't believe that in a time of national tragedy that you would question our government.' In those first few years after 9/11, I really felt that we were in the margins, and that our position was really radical. The punk/hardcore scene was at the place that the American public is getting to now. People are waking up to it. Being against the war is no longer a thing that's going to get the windows of your car smashed. When the war started, we got a lot of crap about the cost-of-war counter and the anti-militaristic stuff on our website -- we don't get that crap anymore. It's been interesting to watch the sea change.
WT: While the costs and the casualties are obviously mounting, the core reasons that people are anti-war now are pretty much the same as they were in the beginning. Could the position have been better explained at an earlier time, or was the majority just not ready to hear it?
TM: 9/11 hit the American people so emotionally, and when you're hit with something that's so emotional, it affects your decision-making process -- whether it's your girlfriend breaking up with you or terrorists bombing a symbol of your country. You make rash decisions. You jump to conclusions. It turned a lot of Americans into overzealous patriots who weren't willing to look at 'Why are we bombing? Who did this? What's the best course of action to rectify this?' Everyone got trigger-happy and blood-thirsty. We were gonna get our man -- and of course we haven't even gotten that man yet. I think it also gave some people a reason to act on their violent or racist inclinations.
But people are starting to change, starting to realize that they did jump to conclusions, and that the attack on the Trade Center was retaliation after years of corrupt American foreign policy. That in no way justifies it -- nothing would ever justify it -- but it looks at the cause and effect.
WT: There was definitely a time when people were pariahs just for saying, "Hey, maybe we should think about why this happened."
TM: Yeah, the atmosphere has really changed, and it would be nice if the general way of thinking continues in this direction. Maybe in the big picture, they'll look at the Bush Administration as being such a shitty, shitty administration that it caused America to hit rock bottom and make some changes. If there's any sort of positive impact that the Bush Administration makes, maybe that'll be it. (laughs) He did such a bad job that people finally turned against the right wing.
This month, an unusual assemblage will make a return pilgrimage to Capitol Hill, appearing before the press and logging face time with congressmen, all with one goal in mind -- increasing funding for suicide prevention. On March 1, punk band Matchbook Romance -- along with 11 other bands -- and their Take Action! tour mates began a two-month trek across the country, raising money and awareness for a quiet, misunderstood epidemic.
Before the tour kicked off, fans got their hands on the annual Take Action! compilation, a two-disc affair stuffed with 44 songs -- some unreleased -- from the likes of Sugarcult, Against Me!, Cursive, Hawthorne Heights, Lagwagon and many more.
While the names of the bands on Take Action! CDs are changing from year to year, two men behind the project are constants -- the National Hopeline Network founder Reese Butler and Hopeless and Sub City Records founder Louis Posen. Butler and Posen will be speaking alongside Sen. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., during the conference on Capitol Hill, and their joint efforts have helped make the Take Action! tour a shining example of all the good that can occur when music and activism cross paths.
But nobody is resting on their laurels. How could they? Not with kids in the United States between the ages of 10 and 24 taking their lives at an alarming rate of one every two hours. The suicide statistics are alarming; the prevention statistics are infuriating. As recently as 2000, the federal government allocated zero dollars to fund suicide prevention programs. In part because of the public efforts of the Take Action! tour -- and the 100,000 plus petitions the tour has brought back to Washington -- Congress has finally put it into the budget. But, in the grand scheme of D.C. spending, the crisis is merely getting chump change thrown at it.
"This year, it's a whopping 16 million [dollars]," says Butler. "That may sound like a lot to some people, but, to put it in context, we just appropriated 17 billion to fight AIDS in Africa. I am not against helping save every man, woman and child everywhere on the planet, but if we can come up with 17 billion to help reduce the AIDS epidemic in Africa, do you think we might be able to come up with a billion for suicide prevention in America? We're talking about a disease that literally takes more lives than homicide and AIDS combined in the U.S."
Unfortunately, Congress has been slow to act -- after a long period of not acting at all. Two members who have become important allies to the movement are Sens. Kennedy and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. As is often the case, it became a lot easier to gain traction once Congress had its own personal stories to tell.
"The one that sticks out most in my mind is Patrick Kennedy, who admits himself to being bipolar," Posen says, recalling last year's assembly on Capitol Hill. "He mentioned that in the last three years, three members of Congress have had kids commit suicide. So why is it so difficult for this group of people to realize that this is an important issue, and that funds should be allocated? The Surgeon General has said that this is the most preventable form of death."
"If I was to take Patrick Kennedy's perspective and flush it out," Posen continues, "I'd say that [suicide prevention] is not getting federal funding because there is a stigma against mental health. When you see someone on the street acting crazy and weird, you run from them. When you see someone bleeding, you run to them. That's kind of what's been going on with Congress as far as funding goes."
Butler agrees wholeheartedly. Prior to his founding of the National Hopeline Network and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center -- named after his wife, who died by suicide in 1998 -- there was no networking of crisis centers nationwide. Not only were there no resources, but there was no initiative and no leadership. By the time Posen and his Take Action! tour came looking for a partner, Butler was running the only game in town -- a confidential 24-hour service that linked crisis centers together, a true national suicide hotline.
"Mental health has traditionally been the stepchild of the health arena," Butler says. "You wouldn't even find it in the public health arena; it would be shunted off to asylums and then state institutions and then eventually community mental health centers. We always want to separate the brain from the body."
Butler tells the story of polling a group of 100 clinicians at the time he was starting his organizations, asking them what toll-free number they provided to patients for when the doctors were not available. While all 100 doctors insisted that there was a crisis hotline, none could provide the number -- because there wasn't one.
"It was an indictment of our treatment of the mental health crisis in America," he says. "How can health insurance for your body be ranked differently than health insurance for your brain? Yet they manage to discriminate and say, 'Well, you get ten office visits, even if you need eleven.' If you have cancer, are they going to say, 'Well, we can give you five of those chemo treatments, but you're on your own for that sixth one'?"
To succeed, every cause needs a powerful champion. Politically, the mental health issues have found one in New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici. Butler believes that any inroads in Congress will have to come from the Republican side of the aisle, as that party has traditionally resisted mental health causes. Like Kennedy, Domenici has his own personal reasons for joining the fight.
"Sen. Domenici has been the lone standard-bearer from the Republican Party," he says. "His daughter suffers from several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia." But the kind of champion that every cause really hopes for is the celebrity champion. On that token, Butler's side has kept coming up blank, despite an abundance of candidates.
"Everyone from Gregory Peck to Paul Newman has lost children to suicide," Butler says. "But Michael J. Fox, the fact that he had Parkinson's for six or eight years -- Parkinson's! Nobody inflicts Parkinson's on themselves, so what was the big deal about him coming out? Because it would hurt his star credibility, and nobody would want to put him in a movie because of the risk liability."
"Think about the impact of a Paul Newman coming out and saying, 'My kid died by suicide,'" Butler continued, "Nobody regards suicide as the result of an untreated disease -- they look at it as a willing act. If somebody were to do that to themselves, then obviously it was their wife, husband, parent, child, boss, whatever -- somebody drove them to it. It's not even the fear of what it will do to their careers It's how they will be perceived by the public. It would take a lot of guts to get up there and say, 'Hey, I am for suicide prevention,' when 99 percent of Americans don't believe that you can prevent suicide."
The bands involved in the Take Action! tours and compilations may not have the star power of Michael J. Fox or Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor -- who were instrumental in getting attention focused on the AIDS epidemic after the Reagan administration generally opted for avoidance -- but they have had a major impact on the movement all the same. For starters, they have allowed 1-800-SUICIDE to fend off the advances of outside competition trying to buy them out.
The government is now spending $2.2 million to essentially redo the 1-800-SUICIDE infrastructure set up by Butler and the National Hopeline Network. "It's not even just a waste of money -- they're actually competing with us!" Butler says, appalled. "They're hurting an existing, successful effort, and for what?"
Butler credits the Take Action! tour -- along with individual donations, which the center relies upon heavily for helping him stay independent. For the tour organizer, it was an easy fit, although he hadn't always envisioned linking up with only one organization.
"We did the tour one year where it benefited various nonprofits, and a different one in each local city," Posen says. "We learned from that tour that our message was a little cluttered by having so many different organizations, and some of those causes didn't necessarily connect with the fans going to the shows. We talked to the fans of the bands that would typically go out on Take Action! and found out the things that affected people most were things that could lead up, in the most severe case, to suicide -- drug abuse, depression, problems at school, domestic problems at home."
The subsequent search led Posen to Butler, and they've been in the trenches annually ever since, with the tour raising over $220,000 for the Kristin Brooks Hope Center. It also wasn't the last time that their efforts were directly shaped by fan feedback at the shows. They later developed the Youth America Hotline (1-877-YOUTHLINE), which links peer-to-peer networks together, providing kids across the country with one easy number to remember in times of trouble.
"After the first couple years of doing Take Action!" Posen says, "a lot of the feedback was 'Well, I'm not feeling suicidal, but I am having problems, and I don't feel like 1-800-SUICIDE is quite the place to call. And I'm also feeling that I'd rather talk to someone my own age rather than a trained adult.'"
Despite the problems of today and the uncertainties of tomorrow, Butler is busy moving ahead, trying to find new ways to reach the at-risk. One of the growth goals for Youthline, for example, is to provide live online counseling. And it doesn't stop there.
"We need to be doing text messaging on cell phones, we need to be doing online counseling in chat rooms, we need to be doing email -- wherever they will meet us and be willing to open up, that's where we have to be," Butler says.