2013_KYKidsCount_FINAL_12-10-13 1I’d like to start with two seemingly disparate paragraphs.

The first is about Edward DeBono.  DeBono is one interesting guy.  He holds multiple doctorates – including a medical degree – from places like Oxford and Cambridge.  A Rhodes Scholar, DeBono has held faculty appointments at his two alma maters and Harvard.  He is widely viewed as the leading international researcher around the neuroscience of thinking.  While he has written over seventy books, his research was mainstreamed by one work – Six Thinking Hats.  In that work, he coined the phrase “lateral thinking,” and built the case that lateral thinking is a means to finding new solutions through looking at data from different angles.  DeBono asserts, “Focusing on things that are normally taken for granted can be a powerful source of creativity.  Most … believe that you have all the data, that alone will give you new ideas.  Unfortunately, that is totally wrong.  The mind can only see what it is prepared to see.”

And the second paragraph is about KIDS COUNT, the seminal project that Kentucky Youth Advocates leads in Kentucky as a partner with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  KIDS COUNT is animated by two key annual releases, which I view as the report cards around the well-being of children.  The first report card comes out in the summer and is the national KIDS COUNT book. That is when Kentucky discovers how its children fare compared to its own history and compared to other states.  Every fall, we release the second “report card on kids,” which is the Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book.  In that publication, we apply an array of metrics to county level data to help counties analyze their own progress as well as where they stand compared to Kentucky’s other 119 counties.  This year, we adopted the ranking system of the national publication and ranked every county on overall child well-being and in each of the four domains – economic security; health; education; and family/community.

This week we released the 2013 Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book and I – for one – hope that there are a lot of preachers and politicians, pediatricians and superintendents, business leaders and grassroots advocates who heed the challenge of Robert DeBono.  There is a default manner in which to respond to a mountain of data.  A cursory glance.  And then something akin to a, “What’s new?” attitude.  I mean, most counties had a pretty good idea of where they ranked before the rankings came out, didn’t they?  And it’s so easy to adopt a, “Why worry?” stance if you are in one of those Top Ten places to be a Kentucky kid or equally tempting to posit a “We really can’t do anything” stance if you are in one of those “Bottom Ten” locales.  I find DeBono’s hypothesis fascinating – if we open our minds, the very things that are taken for granted can spur creative and future-focused solutions.

What would that look like at a county level?  Actually, I have already heard from DeBono-like thinkers in Todd and Harlan Counties, from several Northern Kentucky counties and the Bowling Green Region, and from the Mayor’s Office in Louisville.  In those locales, leaders, journalists and other key thinkers are looking at county profiles deeply.  In one case, they are asking, “Why are we are doing so well in health and so poorly in education?  Are there cross sector lessons to be learned?” In another case, parallel counties in the same region have discovered that one county soars in this area and lacks in that area while its neighboring county is a mirror image, excelling in the second while lagging in the first.  And they have begun to posit the idea of cross-county learning so that all of their kids win in all of the areas that so affect those young lives.

Let’s hope that kind of lateral thinking percolates in Frankfort’s halls of power as well.  When you crunch all those county numbers together, what is taken as normal for Kentucky’s kids actually paints a canvas of opportunity.  That is the exact approach that Representative Tilly and Senator Westerfield are taking as the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force moves towards action.  They have looked at the problem – far too many Kentucky kids locked up for minor offenses – and are moving towards creative ways to help kids and protect community safety.  So the question is whether that same approach can spread to other arenas:

  • Will state leaders look at the economic security of families in their county and realize the imperative call to restore child care and kinship care cuts as well as moving towards a state Earned Income Credit?
  • Will state leaders look at the rather astounding issues associated with tobacco – such as low birthweight and women who smoke during pregnancy – and realize that a comprehensive, state-wide smoke-free law can be a protection for us all, but especially for pregnant, working women and unborn children?
  • What would happen if state leaders saw that kids’ challenges do not come in silos?  What if they acknowledged that instead kids’ issues cannot be fit into a neat committee structure where this issue was in health and welfare and this one in education and maybe that one goes to agriculture?  Instead, what if legislators banded together to form a Kentucky Children’s Caucus? What if they created a mechanism through which complicated issues like early childhood or K-12 achievement were explored in that lateral thinking way so that what is generally taken for granted instead becomes a source for creativity and progress?

Here’s hoping that Santa brings every county judge and every legislator, and even Governor Beshear, a copy of DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats.  Maybe – just maybe – then we can move closer to that day when Kentucky Youth Advocates’ vision is realized and Kentucky becomes “the best place in America to be young.”