Why We Are a Nation at Risk

Birmingham Agency Commits to the Future by Working to Keep Kids in School

By Published on .

Shelley Stewart
Shelley Stewart
It was an easy decision for our Birmingham-based agency to reach out to change lives across the country by reducing our nation's alarming dropout rate.

You see, I've been the victim of the brutal effects of illiteracy.

I saw my illiterate father kill my beloved, uneducated mother with an axe when I was only 5 years old. I was homeless at age 7 on the streets of Birmingham. Yet, my first grade teacher at Rosedale Colored School told me, "Son, if you learn to read, you can be anything you want to be."

Those words lived on in me, through a childhood where books were my only friend, through more than half a century in radio and as the owner of the longest-running privately held advertising agency in Alabama and perhaps in the South.

O2ideas is more than an agency. We want to be a model for the U.S. We believe all people share a common dignity. We focus not on skin color, cliques or country clubs, but on the betterment of humanity and the sheer will to be the best in our industry.

Our agency works for some of the greatest brands in business, and we are part of the global network of agencies known as Worldwide Partners. Yet, for our business to succeed, many other businesses must be successful. That is becoming a scarier prospect.

America is at risk. Not so much from terrorists or bombs from other shores, but we are at risk due to declining education levels in this country. At the bottom end of this funnel, untold numbers of children are dropping out of school only to come face to face with crime, drugs and, more often than not, prison.

We face poison from two ends of this spectrum. One end is declining competitive educational levels compared not only with the developed world but also from developing countries that have shot past us in performance.

On the other end, our cities and rural areas alike have become more dangerous for children and all of us to live in. Our economic foundation is at risk because the educated work force we would have had in years to come, is today killing itself off with everything from crime to sex to drugs and prison, and many parents are asleep at the wheel or feel they are powerless to stop it.

That's why our agency got behind the creation of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, named in honor of my late mother. She would be humbled to know that her legacy is a nonprofit organization keeping kids in school so that they can lead successful lives.

MCSF creates tools to help influence children make the right choice: to stay in school and pursue education with passion. These tools are at work in 44 states. We get these tools into communities through the help of corporate partners, America's Promise Alliance, Communities in Schools, National Dropout Prevention Center and countless school systems and community groups across the country.

One tool is "InsideOut," our DVD documentary that has been seen by 4 million students and parents across the country. "InsideOut" is a tender message from prison inmates telling students that a lack of education is what led to their lives in prison.

Another tool MCSF uses is the Choice Bus. This bus, half classroom and half prison cell, illustrates the essential choices students face -- stay in school and get an education or drop out and increase the likelihood of a life of crime. There are currently two Choice Buses rolling in states from Virginia to Missouri, with more than 114,000 students touring the buses since October 2007. We are attempting to get 10 more buses fitted for road use.

"The Road South," a book published by Time Warner, is my own personal story and is used by the foundation to promote success through perseverance and education.

I've been privileged to speak before state legislatures and other officials across the country, to tell them about our foundation and the dramatic impact it is having on children's lives. But it's not enough.

It takes both the black and white keys of the piano to play the "Star Spangled Banner." It takes us all -- rich and poor, black and white, haves and have-nots -- to unite and improve the quality and quantity of education in this country.

For without it, we are all at risk.

Shelley Stewart is president-CEO of o2ideas, a Birmingham-based agency.
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