As our founder leaves, we reflect on what he’s taught our community about ending family homelessness
By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director
On a day when news organizations around the country are uniting to talk about homelessness, we honor a man who was responsible for facilitating intelligent news conversation as a journalist, and for elevating the stories of homeless families as a communicator.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the graduation of our three fantastic students and said that there was one more departure to come. Now it’s here: As of June 30, our founder, Prof. Barry Mitzman, is leaving Seattle University.
Barry is the reason our project exists, the reason it was established at Seattle U and the reason why it has thrived. Today we reflect on Barry’s legacy on our project by posting a trove of wisdom — the recording of his fascinating lecture about lessons learned from telling the stories of vulnerable families.
But first, a little background.
How did we get here?
A longtime journalist and communicator, Barry had joined Seattle U in 2007 to lead the Strategic Communications major and the Center for Strategic Communications. Then one day in 2009, the phone rang; it was a program officer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asking him if he would be interested in a grant. The foundation was seeking to increase public awareness and understanding of family homelessness, which was still quite unrecognized at the time, despite the fact that as many as half the people who were experiencing homelessness in our state were families.
Who would say no? But then again, what was he getting himself into? This grant would fund a series of Journalism Fellowships on Family Homelessness, something that had never been done. There was no telling what kind of interest we’d get, nor what kind of coverage the Fellows would produce.
We didn’t expect to get nearly three dozen proposals, some of them so strong that we expanded the program to six rather than four Fellows.
Those six original news organizations and independent journalists, and the two that followed later, produced exemplary, unprecedented, award-winning journalism that cast new light on the hidden story of family homelessness. You can connect to that amazing coverage here. While some of the numbers might have changed, the stories are timeless and still worth sharing.
Stories are what make people care and we’ve seen that time and again. Under Barry’s leadership we’ve been able to tell stories about family homelessness via journalism, art, film and much more, including partnerships with two of the country’s most beloved storytelling organizations, StoryCorps and The Moth.
In 2014, we used the successful Journalism Fellows model to create the Film Fellows project, in which six wonderful filmmakers crafted four extraordinary animated short films about family homelessness, packaged as “American Refugees.” Barry directed that “sister project” along with project manager Lindy Boustedt.
Here’s the “American Refugees” trailer, to give you a sample:
You can watch all four of the animated shorts at americanrefugees.org.
In 2012 we evolved into our current structure, in which we’ve been serving as a nimble and cost-effective mini-communications agency, with our terrific pool of SU students producing communications tools for our partners. We also take on special projects like “StoryCorps Finding Our Way“ and The Moth “Home: Lost and Found” and our current support of The Seattle Public Library’s Streetwise project. Through it all, Barry has been a visionary leader, a stellar boss and a trusted colleague for our partner organizations.
“A Quiet Crisis”
And the rest — well, why don’t we let him tell it? Here’s the video from the lecture Barry delivered this spring for the Communication Department’s Sharon James Lecture, “A Quiet Crisis: Telling the Stories of Vulnerable Families.” Barry shared lessons for all communicators and advocates about was once considered “hidden” homelessness.
It’s about 84 minutes long — it’s a college lecture, after all — and it’s crammed full of valuable insights, delivered with the wit, humor and charm that made Barry a popular TV host and discussion moderator. I hope you can find some time to watch it. Consider yourself fortunate that you get to learn from a brilliant communicator, without paying tuition.
Working with Barry
Like many Seattleites of a certain age, I first encountered Barry years ago when he was the host of the Friday-night local business show on the local PBS affiliate KCTS 9 Public Television. At KCTS, Barry was a Peabody Award-winning television producer and reporter. Being news nerds, my sweetie and I used to crash in front of the TV and watch the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” (now the “PBS NewsHour”), followed by “Wall Street Week” and Barry’s show, “Serious Money.”
Years later I found myself in the Eastlake Starbucks talking to Barry about an adjunct faculty position for the fast-growing Strategic Communications major at Seattle U. Another Starbucks meeting with him a couple years later led to my joining the project as coordinator and helping him implement the Journalism Fellowships program.
So even as I am sad to say goodbye to Barry as my boss and mentor, I treasure having been able to work with him and learn from him these past six years.
“Predictably Generous” – Not just a great book title
I’m not the only one who looks up to Barry. Our partners greatly valued being able to call upon his insight and experience, and his generosity in sharing it. He was in high demand for communications counseling and advice.
Barry balanced his work leading our project with his teaching duties, sending a generation of excellent strategic communications students out into the world with the knowledge they soaked up from his decades as a communicator and the skills they honed through the work he arranged for pro-bono clients. He always found ways for his students to participate on our project.
He said he would prefer to stay in the background; but when partners asked him to moderate or emcee their events, he graciously agreed — and we got to watch a master at work. For example, he facilitated a media panel for the Housing Development Consortium, “Homelessness and the Media,” that yielded these great tips on working with media. Last fall, he was host of the Building Changes “Talk it Up” event, featuring storytellers from our project with The Moth, recorded by our partner Firesteel.
In his campus lecture about on our project, he talked about one of the greatest learning moments for him, and why we always need to think about why we’re here — to connect people to action and answer the all-important question, “What can we do?” He regretted that we missed an opportunity with filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, director of one of our favorite films about family homelessness, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County.” When we brought Alexandra to the region in early 2011 to screen her film, we booked her onto the KING-5 TV show “New Day Northwest.” Toward the end, host Margaret Larson asked her “What can we do?” It put Alexandra on the spot because she didn’t feel she was in a position to answer; and Barry always felt we should have done a better job prepping her so that she could easily respond. (We made sure not to repeat that mistake on later spokesperson events like the Inocente screening.)
So, it was only fitting that Barry delivered the “call to action” last spring when we showcased our StoryCorps project at an event co-hosted with KUOW, Puget Sound Public Radio, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Visitor Center. You can hear the full recording of that event here and link to our “10 Things You Can Do to End Family Homelessness,” StoryCorps version, here.
While a grant from the world’s largest private foundation carries prestige, Barry was equally nurturing of a project of much smaller scope but with nonetheless impressive impact. In 2012 through a $5,000 gift from SU alumna Donna Franklin, Barry designated homelessness researcher Graham Pruss as a Research Fellow. Graham led a team of students from both SU and UW doing important research on people living in their cars, the Seattle Vehicle Residency Research Project. Their report was used by the City of Seattle in policy decisions. Since then, Graham won a grant from the National Science Foundation to do this research on a larger scale; was accepted to grad school at UW; and worked for the City as one of the first staff assigned to vehicle residency. He has become a nationally recognized expert on this issue and has just launched the WeCount technology tool to connect people who are homeless with people who want to help, funded by noted angel investor Jonathan Sposato. Barry recognized the spark in Graham, and gave generously of his time to help Graham grow as a researcher and scholar.
Barry has had an active professional life outside of Seattle University, including as a consultant and commentator. That will continue, as he joins the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in July for a one-year position in corporate communications. He’s also writing “Predictably Generous,” a book about behavioral science research that can help nonprofit marketers and fundraisers become more effective.
Though he’s leaving us, he made sure we landed in a good place. As of July 1, our project will become part of the SU Institute of Public Service under the leadership of Prof. Larry Hubbell. Barry also recommended two more great Strat Comm students who will be joining our team this fall; more on them later.
The founder makes an indelible mark, whether it’s a scrappy startup or a communications and advocacy project about family homelessness. We are forever indebted to, shaped by and inspired by Barry Mitzman’s legacy.
Want to join the conversation? Share this post, Barry’s video, the American Refugees films, or all of the above on social media on June 29, 2016, using the hashtag #SeaHomeless.