Ed. Note: On March 23, 2017, Rolling Stone magazine published false allegations about Thrive Collective conspiring with Betsy Devos to undermine public education, and using murals and mentoring programs as a pretense for churches to evangelize. Below are our published responses in the magazine and on the website.
1. ONLINE: “Update” posted on Rolling Stone’s website on 4/5/17, appended to the bottom of the original story.
UPDATED: A response from Thrive Collective’s executive director, Jeremy Del Rio.
In “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War,” Janet Reitman alleges that the nonprofit arts and mentoring programs I lead are a “pretense” for churches to “evangelize” in public schools; and that somehow my association with the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative proves that Mrs. DeVos’ supposedly decades-long master plan to undermine public education was working even before her appointment as Education Secretary.
For a lifelong activist who came of age in the 1980s and 90s, I imagined a mention in Rolling Stone as a badge of honor, signaling that a lifetime of grassroots youth and community organizing had captured a wider public consciousness. Never would I have expected the magazine to offer me as Exhibit A in a misinformed conspiracy theory without even giving me an opportunity to comment on allegations before publication.
The pretension here: not once did Ms. Reitman or anyone from Rolling Stone speak to me or even reach out before publishing this defamatory libel. Had she done a rudimentary fact check, she could have met principals and students from twenty Brooklyn schools where we have worked without even leaving her home borough, or one hundred schools citywide plus others nationally. She could have visited fifteen school murals completed in Brooklyn since 2011 (and four currently in production), or thirty-five completed citywide (and thirteen in production).
Completed Brooklyn Murals
She could have watched thirty-nine student films produced last year, or interviewed 2,800 students, hundreds of parents and volunteers, scores of UFT teachers with whom we collaborate every day, or 100% of the graduating seniors from last year’s mentoring programs who are enrolled in colleges today. She could have interviewed eight current and former Democratic City Council Members who have invested in twenty-five of our projects since 2014, a Republican state senator, or Mayor Bill de Blasio, who commended Thrive Collective for, “empowering the next generation to rise and fostering a more equitable tomorrow.” She might have even interviewed the outspoken DeVos critic UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who hosted and sponsored our first annual “We Are Thrive” fundraiser last spring.
Had she done any of those things, she would have seen evidence of students working collaboratively with artists and mentors to reclaim public spaces and create enduring beauty. Our programs and impacts speak for themselves. Pretense does not.
Instead, Rolling Stone published alternative facts as fake news and missed the real story.
New York City, arguably the arts and culture capital of the world, and the city both Rolling Stone and Thrive Collective call home, lacks art teachers of any kind in 419 public schools primarily in low-income communities of color. At Thrive Collective, we cannot imagine a world without visual or performing arts, music or film, or any expression at all. Yet our City sentences 250,000 of our most vulnerable New Yorkers to that kind of artless education every day. By diminishing the work of nearly sixty affiliated Thrive Collective artists, filmmakers, musicians, and art educators, Rolling Stone helps perpetuate a perfectly curable injustice.
As far as my personal credentials and relationship with Betsy DeVos are concerned, I thrive building bridges between unlikely allies in the fight for educational justice. I have been a student organizer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side since the 1980s, a minister since 1994, a lawyer since 1999, a professor since 2004, and a graduate and faculty member of the nonpolitical, accredited youth ministry training DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative since 2011. I have briefly met Mrs. DeVos twice, and have never discussed politics or educational policy with her or anyone associated with her political or education-related activism. I have written and spoken extensively on public education reform for the last decade.
None of the school programs I lead feature religious evangelizing of any sort. When religion factors directly into a specific project, like murals that include women wearing hijabs, it is because those symbols inextricably reflect the cultural fabric of the communities that created them. Religion was neither the driving message, nor was it purposely omitted from that expression of community and culture.
Conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, unionized teachers, homeschool parents, American citizens, undocumented immigrants – all are welcome in Thrive’s big tent. Our one condition: do you care about restoring the promise of public education for everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us? If so, then you can fight alongside us any day.
If not, then we’ll respectfully bring the fight to you.
Jeremy R. Del Rio, Esq.
2. IN PRINT: “Letter to the Editor,” 4/8/17
Janet Reitman wrongly alleges that the nonprofit arts and mentoring programs I lead are a “pretense” for churches to “evangelize” in public schools; and that somehow my association with the nonpolitical DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative proves that DeVos’ supposed master plan to undermine public education is working. Never would I have expected the magazine to offer me as Exhibit A in a misinformed conspiracy theory. She should have asked me for comment or talked to the thousands of students, principals, and unionized teachers we serve in 100 public schools everyday. Thrive builds bridges between unlikely allies in the fight for educational justice. None of the programs we lead feature religious evangelizing of any sort.