Scott, City Councilman, FL
To start off the interview, just take a minute or so to think about a child in your life that is important to you. Could you tell me a little bit about him or her and what it is that makes them special and unique?
Well, the only child in my life directly is my nephew, Owen. He’s seven years old and lives here in Dade County. He is very much at that fun age where he’s able to comprehend things that are happening around him. He’s very inquisitive, and loves putting pieces together. He’s taken up the guitar recently, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him learn to play chords and move his little fingers to try and stretch - even though he’s got a child sized guitar - which, I didn’t even know they made. He’s got a new interest in music, and he has always had his little cartoon characters that he’s into, but it’s just fun to watch him discover things, as anybody with a young kid can tell you. He’s a good student. I’ve not visited him in the classroom, so I don’t know what the level of education is that he’s getting or who his teachers are - that’s largely been up to my sister and my brother-in-law, but he gets good grades, he is smart, he’s inquisitive, his vocabulary is good for somebody his age. He likes all the things kids his age like - he likes soccer and he likes Pokemon and all of that. He’s very normal in that sense. He’s kind, from everything I can see so far. He’s got a very kind personality. I have several pets - I have a dog and cats and he always likes to interact with the cats and the dog. When he meets people out in the world he is friendly towards them. He’s not reserved. He doesn’t duck and hide. Being kind is a hugely important trait. A lot of that depends on how a kid is raised, and how their environment is. He comes from a very steady upper-middle class family - mom and dad are still in the picture, they’re married, you know, that kind of thing, so everything for him is what you would hope it would be.
What a lucky boy! When you think about Owen, say, thirty years from now -maybe he’s out of school and starting out in life. What do you hope for him? What would make a good life for him?
I’d want him to be doing something that makes him happy. I can’t even begin to guess what his academic career might take him towards, but the good news is that he’s going to be able to afford to go to college. I know his parents’ income is going to allow him to do that, so he’ll have a leg up with a college degree - what field he will be in.. who knows! It’s way too early in the game to try and figure that out, but whatever he ends up doing I would hope that he’ll be happy doing it. Too often people go into careers for the money, or because there was a family push, or they get scared away from doing something that they enjoy doing just because the salary isn’t great. I mean you talk about education - my dad was a teacher and I was a teacher. Great field, poor money. Especially here in a big city like Miami, where the cost of living is higher, teachers often leave after a year or two because they become disillusioned with the money, they become disillusioned with all of the bureaucracy and politics that are played in a school. I just want him to do whatever makes him happy. Whatever that might be.
And what do you think it takes to be happy?
You have to have a level of self-confidence. You have to be mature. You have to realize that you can’t control everything in the world around you , so you can’t be thin-skinned and have a pity party for yourself every time something doesn’t go your way. You’ve gotta have strength of personality, strength of character, strength of emotion to be able to sort of balance it all because bad things do happen to good people, and how you handle it as a result affects your happiness. I’ve dealt with some crazy stuff in my last five to six years being a city councilman, and if I let it eat me I would be not only miserable as a politician, but miserable as a person. I think what’s allowed me to keep my head on straight is just recognizing that you gotta roll with the punches, and you do your best with what you’re dealt. I think for any kid that would be important.
What do you think the role of schooling is in achieving that good life?
School is critically important. Teachers spend more time on a daily and weekly basis with kids than sometimes their parents do, especially at the elementary school level. You’re with the same group of kids for five or six hours a day. When the kid goes home, mom and dad together might not get five or six hours for the day. So, especially here in Miami Dade County where we’ve got very economically challenged schools and students, the only normalcy that these kids sometimes get is in the classroom. One of the schools that my non-profit works with is literally in the heart of arguably Miami’s toughest neighborhood - Liberty City. It’s interesting because all of my volunteers are corporate people, they very rarely get inside of a school classroom. They very, very rarely get into a school classroom in a tough neighborhood. This particular group of people was at an elementary school - they’re CPA’s and bankers from Brickell - and they were blown away to hear second graders talking about someone who got shot in their building over the weekend. For those kids, that’s their reality at home. Living in project neighborhoods, project homes, where crime rates are high - that’s what they have to deal with. So when they come into their school - that’s where things are normal, things are predictable, there’s food, there’s protection, lights, all of that stuff. So schools are very critical in helping kids become adults.
It sounds like just having the stability of being IN school is helpful for helping kids achieve that good life. Do you think that there is anything specifically that schools can do, or that they can teach to help kids have a leg up in getting to that good life that we were talking about - having that strength of character and being able to find jobs that make them happy?
I would like to see schools get away from the rote memorization and testing that has dominated the classrooms for over a decade now. I recognize that you want to hold teachers accountable, and I recognize you want to measure student progress, but when all they’re doing is teaching to the test there’s so many wonderful things that kids could experience that they’ll never get to know about. I grew up here in Miami Dade County and went to North Miami Senior High. My alma mater, for a decade from 2000 to 2010, did not produce a school yearbook. That was seen by administrators as fluff. That’s not on the test. They’re held so accountable to how kids do on this test that they let everything else go. School newspaper? Fluff. School yearbook? Fluff. And as a result, it’s tragic, there’s no historical record of the school for that decade but also the kids didn’t learn editing, story writing, photography, page layout, sales. All of these are skills that kids really should learn that come from something that's’ “fluff”. I really would like to see schools allow a more well rounded experience during the day, not all this “test test test, pressure pressure pressure”. Let the kids go out and play. I’m really happy to see Dade County Schools circling back. One school this year has cancelled homework. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. Kids are coming out of school with some good skill sets in Science or Math if it’s on the test, but if it’s not they don’t know anything about it. Financial literacy? They don’t know anything about it. Civics? Kids don’t know anything about the difference between political parties, political ideals. Bernie Sanders, who’s never been a member of the Democratic party, almost captured the Democratic nomination as a socialist, and kids don’t know the difference between a Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Communist. None of that is taught. My partner is Cherokee, and he is a product of the Oklahoma Public School System. In Oklahoma, they learn a lot about the trail of tears - when American soldiers were relocating Native Americans to different places, but they didn’t learn anything about the Holocaust. It’s only when he moved to Miami that he even realized what the Holocaust was. Here in Miami it’s a bit more of a hands on thing - you can see the Holocaust memorial on Miami Beach, now with cable TV he’s watching all of these things about World War II and the Holocaust. He’s fascinated. What is that saying that his school didn’t teach him that? Likewise, here in Miami, we don’t talk very much about the Trail of Tears. So we’re skipping out on that whole atrocity. Schools need to do better in civics and social activism, and teaching kids to be active members involved in their community.
Aside from you writing this I’d already been writing an op-ed piece in my head about how schools are failing to teach basic civics, good citizenship. That’s why we have an election like what we have right now. We’re so focused on math, science, and tech - which is good - but kids don’t know why it’s important to vote, the difference between parties, what Democracy means. You say you want a revolution Bernie bros, but it takes more than tweeting and firing off a Facebook post to do something like that. You’ve got to become an active participant. You’ve got to come home from work , and yes I get it, you’re tired, but you have to go to that community meeting, lead that rally if necessary - you’ve got to get involved and that is lost on an existing generation of people. Even now I’ve been on my city commission going on 18 years - I’m not 50 yet - I’m still the “young guy” because everyone involved in political stuff is old, so to speak. I don’t see people my own age involved to a very large extent. At some point, the kids born in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s are going to have to step up and get involved. I wish I saw more of that, and I think schools could do a lot towards emphasizing that. We have all these magnet schools - I-Prep, I-Tech and none of them are focused on civics. What about I-Vote, where community service is taught and the reason why it’s important to vote is taught?
Right, teaching children to be active participants in their communities is so important. Now, do you think that schools are currently playing the role that you think that they should for children?
Probably not at this stage. I don’t see anything coming down the pipe that indicates that. They might get better at less rote testing. That FCAT test is starting to fall off in popularity, so maybe by the time Owen’s in high school maybe he is allowed to take yearbook if that’s what he chooses. Unless you create the time in the school day there’s no time for kids to learn about civic activity. Yes there are civics classes, but any civics teacher can tell you that if they need to interrupt the school day, civics and the electives are the first ones to get cut. They don’t dare interfere with english or math, but civics is the ugly stepchild. Unless more of an importance is given to those types of things… and even civics is limited in what they’re teaching, They might talk about the upcoming election, but I don’t know if you remember I used to have kids make campaign posters and go to the campaign headquarters. I don’t know if I ever had you in an election year, but when I was teaching, and again my political background plays into this a lot better than most , but I had kids live the campaign experience as much as the issues and voting experience. Why don’t more young people run for office? They don’t know how. That’s not taught anywhere. I’m self taught. I just got out there as a crazy 20 year old. Most people don’t have the wild crazy side of them that I did to go out and do stuff like that, so how do they know how to raise money. ? They don’t. How do they know how to file these forms and fill out a campaign finance report? How do they know how to register people to vote? They don’t. There’s a lot more that could be done in a civics classroom.
You brought up a good point about what you were able to teach us at Miami Country Day. At our school I felt that we had a wide selection of electives open to us and it was par for the course to be a part of a lot of different public service groups. We had a requirement of completing a certain number of community service hours, we had teachers like you who were passionate about things like civics, and had access to a lot more stuff than someone in a public school may have depending on the school system. How do you think that difference between private and public school plays a role in whether the education system can do the job that it should for all children rather than just some?
Private schools have the flexibility of independence. During that 2000-2006 period when I was teaching at Country Day School, that’s when the FCAT was rocking and rolling through the public school system. Thank God I never had to teach it because at Country Day you didn’t have to, and you had the ability to go do the trips overseas that are hugely beneficial in a lot of ways, exposing you to different cultures around the world. Public schools don’t have that kind of income. The teachers probably don’t have that much background in fundraising themselves to try to raise the funds from outside sources because they themselves were not taught how in school. Fundraising is not taught in schools. “How do you raise money? I don’t know, what do we do?”. Country day had the flexibility to teach and do what it wanted and didn’t have to answer to a monstrous bureaucracy. That’s helpful.
Looking at those three levels that we talked about - what makes a good life, what the role of schooling should be in achieving that good life, and whether or not schools are doing that for all children - do people agree with your opinions there?
I think most people would certainly say that people should be happy in what they do and that makes a good life. I think most people do, yes. Some maybe would be less altruistic and go “what makes a good life is making a million dollars a year, buddy!” Okay you’ll find those people out there but I think most people in general would say that being happy is a solid life. People who you ask whether you ask whether schools should do that will say that yes schools should do that. Some may place more emphasis on the parents, will say that schools shouldn’t have to be so worried about things and that parents should get more involved - that’s a mixed bag. It also matters what school the adult that you ask has experience with. So if you say to John Doe “are schools doing a good job?” - he’ll say yes if the schools that his kids are involved with are doing a good job. He’ll say no if the schools that his kids are involved in are not doing a good job. Some of these teachers are certainly great, outstanding, forward thinking individuals, and others just collect pay checks and duck out the door when they get 30 years experience. So, the school experience depends a lot on the administrators and teachers within the school. There will never be an across the board yes, across the board no.
Do you think that a lot of people agree with you on your definition of what happiness is?
Everybody will probably have their own standard of happiness. Some people will say kids are really important - for me, I don’t have any kids! Happiness is relative. I enjoy a middle class life style so I don’t think of money as being this holy grail to aspire to, but somebody coming from a poorer background probably would place more emphasis on money, because they see it as a way out of whatever bad situation they’re in. It’s all relative, but to me as long as the individual is doing what makes them happy - if earning a million dollars and working 60 hours a week is making you happy, God bless you, that’s good! If you want to be a hippy who goes and hikes the world, and lives at hostels… if that’s making you happy then go do that. As everybody will say, life is really way too short, and if you spend decades doing something you have no interest in doing then that’s time you lost.
Growing up, what was an empowering educational experience you had? This could be inside or outside of the classroom.
Well, I always tell the story - I was a bad kid. I was always getting in trouble with the law, getting in trouble at school. I was very mischievous. I was putting my energies to bad use. My 11th grade year a former English teacher of mine said “Scott, you should run for student council. You’d be good in student council.” At that time I had a couple of juvenile arrests under my belt, I was not active in student council, I was not in the clubs, I was certainly not a good student - so for this teacher to suggest to me doing this was sort of like…”Huh. There’s something I never thought of doing.” So I put all my energy into campaigning, into making buttons and posters. Long story short, I won the election, and that teacher certainly changed my life and saved my life. Who knows, when you talk about the 80’s in Miami, a lot of dangerous stuff was happening - who knows what kind of trouble I could’ve gotten into - jail, getting shot, who knows. That teacher turned me around, and showed me that there was a positive way to expend my energies. So when I got elected in 1999 I had him come administer the oath of office to me, because no doubt, he’s responsible for that. That’s a pretty powerful example of school making a difference - one individual making a difference.
What in particular do you think made that experience empowering, and helped turn things around for you?
I think that was one of the first times that I got positive feedback from a teacher. Being the bad kid, you’re usually told you’re bad. So that’s what you’re gonna live up to - “that’s right I’m bad. You think that was bad? Let me show you what I’ve got in store for you next”. So here was somebody saying something positive to me, and then one by one I was getting positive feedback from everybody. “Oh you’re running this pep rally really well”. “You’re doing a good job”. “Oh, okay so I can do things that expend my energy and not have to face some sort of penalty or consequence”. And, trust me, even when I was doing the bad stuff I didn’t enjoy the getting in trouble, I enjoyed the rush of the pranks I was doing but I didn’t enjoy sitting in the back of a squad car heading down town, having to call my mom and say “mom I got arrested” or going to court and having my parents stand in front of a judge as i’m getting scolded. The good thing was that all of the stuff I was doing was just mischievous vandalism I’d never knocked down an old lady and stolen her purse or anything like that, but there’s a direction I was going. And this is true of many people who are doing bad things you start small and it grows and grows. I guess I just felt empowered in part because I thought “hey there’s someone who thinks I might be good at something, let’s see what this is about!”. I was always good in civics and history so I did have a bit of an inclination toward those topics, but I never imagined I’d be running for school office, I never imagined I’d be an adult running for office. It wasn’t something I aspired to as a teenager.
How do you think that experience at school affects your perspective today?
I still run into that same teachers and he follows me on Facebook and gets my emails. I often reflect back - because I just had my 30th high school reunion and those kids - well kids, here we are turning 50 - but those kids all see me as the badass little guy that I used to be. And they're like “Scott, how the Hell are people voting for you, my God don’t they know you’re crazy?” and then the people who know me now are like “what do you mean you were bad? We assumed you were student body president and straight A student and Mr. glee club. So because I run into that so often, I still live and serve in my hometown where I went to high school, I often am reminded and reflect back - that teacher saved my life. I have lots of opportunity to pause on that.
Taking a step back, what do you think the purpose of schooling is for individuals and society broadly?
It is to give them an education - but education is more than just reading writing and arithmetic - you’ve got to give kids education on topics like financial literacy or civics, and you’ve also got to show them what being a productive member of society is like. They’re not necessarily getting that example from their home. Schools have a tall task, but with the work day the way it is, those teachers are interacting with the kids a lot more than their parents.
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