While those of you who regularly read my interviews already know that, thus far, I haven’t really ventured into children’s literature, when a Press Release about Voting With a Porpoise by Russell Glass and Sean Callahan and illustrated by Daniel Howarth (Books With a Porpoise, 2018) landed in my inbox one afternoon, I immediately took notice. For one thing, though I do not have children myself, it was immediately apparent that it is a story for our times, emphasizing the importance of participating in our democracy and of making your voice heard. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Sean. Read on to see what he had to say about how the book came about, the disconnect that too many voters feel between themselves and those meant to represent them, how culture impacts voter participation and more.
Andrew DeCanniere: I have to say that your book, Voting With a Porpoise, struck me as particularly timely with the Chicago mayoral election having just taken place, the runoff election coming up in just a matter of weeks, and the 2020 election looming ever larger. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
Sean Callahan: Yeah. We certainly think so. So, I co-wrote the book with a friend of mine, Russell Glass, and there’s an interesting backstory. I worked with Russ — Russ started a company called Bizo, which was a Silicon Valley start-up, and I worked with Russ for a few years over there. I was a marketer, Russ was the CEO and, in 2014, he sold that business to LinkedIn and we both went over to LinkedIn as part of the deal, along with a bunch of other employees. I’m still working for LinkedIn and Russ left after about three years. He’s the CEO of another company right now — Ginger.io — but in the interim between when he was at LinkedIn and when he took this job, he became very interested in voting rights and voting and politics in the U.S. He became part of the board of Rock the Vote. He also started an organization called Votergy. Part of what they did was develop an app that was designed to help millennials understand the importance of voting. It also allowed people to share why they were voting, why voting is important to them, et cetera. It was an effort to get younger people to the polls in greater numbers.
Like a lot of people, 2016 was a huge wake-up call to Russ and myself. From our perspective, an unqualified person became President of the United States, in large part because a lot of people didn’t show up to the polls for one reason or another. It’s amazing how many people aren’t voting — especially young people. In the midterms, it was considered a huge win to have 31 percent of people age 18 to 29 to make it to the polls. So, what Russ sees — and what I agree with — is that there is a huge need for a change in culture around voting. As a country, we have to make it easier to vote, we have to spread the word as to why it is important to vote, and spread the word that your vote matters. So, in the initial efforts, Russ was focusing on people who were already eligible to vote, but I think that he and I agree the problem is bigger than that. It’s that schools are not creating an atmosphere of participation in the democracy, and he thought we should start at a younger age. He felt we should start with kids right when they’re beginning to read. He wanted us to write a book together that would speak to people about the importance who are four, five or six years old about democracy, and about the importance of making your voice heard.
He approached me, for one, because we had worked together and, for another, because I had written a number of children’s books before. I have a few books out there. Saint Patrick’s Day is an important time of the year for me because I have a couple of leprechaun books out there. One is called The Leprechaun Who Lost His Rainbow. So, Russ had this idea of a book about some animals voting — maybe they’re in a jungle and they don’t have enough water and they have to figure out how to get water. Do they dig a well? Do they go near a river? What do they do and how do they decide? So, he gave that basic concept to me and I went back and I took the story to the ocean and I made it about dolphins because, for one thing, I love dolphins and porpoises and whatnot. I also knew a friend of mine, Daniel Howarth, who I had worked with before as an illustrator, could do a killer job of drawing these animals in that atmosphere — being in the ocean. I took that story back to Russ and I’d written it in prose. He’d said that every book he and his kids love is in rhyme and so he took the sort of rough story I wrote and turned it into a book of rhyme. Then Daniel Howarth layered on the illustrations, which I think are fantastic and engaging, and that’s how we came up with Voting With a Porpoise.
DeCanniere: And I think it really is such a wonderful story. As you alluded to, it can be really difficult to get adults engaged and get them to see the relevance to their own lives. I feel like sometimes they feel there’s this huge disconnect between what’s going on in Washington D.C. — what’s happening on Capitol Hill — and themselves and so they just aren’t all that involved.
Callahan: I think what’s interesting is that people feel like their voice doesn’t matter. Depending on the size of the election, they see themselves as just one vote among many hundreds or thousands or millions and they feel it doesn’t really matter. They see themselves as voting and politicians aren’t responding to them. I think people are discouraged for a number of reasons. I think they feel, to some degree, that donors are controlling the political process. I think what’s happening is that politicians are responding to donors and doing what donors want because donors are who get them elected right now, because not enough people are getting out there and voting. If more people voted — in fact, if all of us voted — I think the donors would become less and less important and it would be the people who were voting who would determine who is elected. Then, the politicians would respond more to the people. The more of us who vote, the more politicians would respond to us.
DeCanniere: Right. I think that, as you say, they would feel more accountable to the people than these big corporations or lobbyists or industries or what have you. If nothing else, they would be forced to listen to the people they are supposed to represent.
Callahan: I think that’s exactly it. They would respond to the people they represent rather than the people who are giving them money to get elected. That’s a big thing. I also think a huge thing is the culture. There has become this culture of disaffection and disengagement, where people aren’t involved in politics and they aren’t voting — which is sort of like the atomic particle of politics. Many people are not involved at all. It’s amazing how many people aren’t registered to vote. I go back to the fact that more people didn’t vote than voted for either Donald Trump or for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Something like 75 million people of voting age did not vote in that election. Only something like 65 million voted for Hillary Clinton and 62 million voted for Donald Trump. That means that more people voted for none of the above. If they had gone out and voted, I think there would be many different things happening today on Capitol Hill than there are right now.
DeCanniere: Right. I definitely agree. Though I voted for Hillary Clinton, I think too many people had qualms about her or just didn’t connect with her. Of course, while I didn’t agree with her on everything, I wasn’t one of those people. From my own point of view, she was clearly the more capable person. That said, perhaps the lack of voter turnout or voter participation is, at least in part, because of what voters may perceive of as lackluster options — maybe there aren’t enough candidates people can really get excited about and get behind.
Callahan: I think if more people got involved, we’d have better choices, too. I go back to culture. Getting back to Russ, as an executive he really is a huge believer that culture is critical. You have to have the right people, and they have to behave respectfully towards each other, and you have to build that culture in order to make a successful business. I think the same is true for a country. There is a certain culture in the United States we’re all proud of, but one area where we are kind of falling down is that we do not have a culture of participation in our government. I think we need to change that and I think there are a number of steps we can take. One is beginning to teach kids, from an early age, that voting is sacred, that it is a duty, and that you have to participate. Then there are other things we can do, like making Election Day a holiday so people can vote without having to get up incredibly early before they go to work. Think about someone who works a nine-to-five job and has to commute an hour each way. They have to get up exceptionally early or leave work early to get to the polls on-time. To me it’s designed that way to keep people from voting. If you had the day off, people would vote. We also need to extend early voting and that has to be universal. I think if we do these things, it will go a long way to creating a culture where people understand their vote is important, encouraged and wanted.
DeCanniere: I certainly agree with you and, as you say, it is so important to engage people from early on. Right now it can feel like more people may know their Kardashians than there are people who could tell you who represents them in their communities. I don’t think that’s a failing on the part of the people, but rather is more reflective of a problem in government, and I will say that I think that is thankfully changing. That said, the system hasn’t done a good job of engaging voters for a long time now. So, like you, I certainly feel they need to find ways to be more engaging and to make voting easier. Certainly, finding candidates who are inspiring never hurts. Just finding someone people are excited about can go a long way. Unfortunately, I don’t think that always happens and I think, as I’ve said, that it really can be down to lackluster candidates sometimes.
Callahan: I think it’s interesting — and this goes back to culture, too. I think we’ve created this problem for ourselves to some degree by lionizing the heads of business. Publications like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and Inc. have really lauded successful CEOs and they have big personalities, et cetera, and I think we’ve created a culture where talented people are going more towards business than towards government. You go back to Ronald Reagan saying that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ He also said government is not the solution. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think business should be demonized and I don’t think government should be demonized. Both have done great things and both have done things that weren’t so successful. On the business side, there’s Enron. On the government side, you can take your pick. Both, government and business, are just groups of people trying to achieve a goal. Neither of them should be demonized and when government does well, we should really celebrate the people who do it — sort of like we did in the past with inspiring people. We attracted inspiring people like Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and FDR to government and maybe we’re not doing that anymore. I think it’s a part of our culture.
DeCanniere: Right. I can’t say I agree with Reagan, either. Government is a tool, like so many other things. It’s neither good nor bad but depends on how it is used.
Callahan: Right. I also want to say that while we obviously have a message in Voting With a Porpoise — we want to get more people participating in our democracy, and to change the culture and the thinking around the ballot box — it’s a good, entertaining story, too. There are great illustrations and a nice little entertaining story with some good characters.
DeCanniere: And, as I said, very timely — particularly with the runoff in Chicago’s mayoral election coming up in just weeks.
Callahan: Yeah. I don’t have the numbers, but the turnout in Chicago was pretty low.
DeCanniere: I heard it was something like 30 percent or thereabout. At least that was what one estimate was on the day of the election.
Callahan: That’s in the neighborhood of what I heard, too. I’m in Chicago and Russ still lives in Silicon Valley out in California, so we’re trying as best we can to promote our ideas by getting out into schools to do readings, and by talking with classes, and by holding votes to show them how it works. That’s one way we’re trying to get the message out and change the culture, school-by-school, classroom-by-classroom — and we’re actually available to come into schools and talk about these ideas, to have a discussion about them.
Russell Glass is a serial technology entrepreneur and author, having founded or held senior positions at five venture-backed technology companies and writing The Big Data-Driven Business. He is currently the CEO of Ginger.io, a company providing instant behavioral health support whenever and wherever needed. He sold his last company, Bizo, to LinkedIn, where he ran the Marketing Solutions products group. Since leaving LinkedIn in 2017, Russ joined the board of Rock the Vote and has been focused on using his experience with technology, data science, and narrative/branding tactics to help develop novel strategies to increase engagement and turnout among young voters.
Sean Callahan is a content marketer at LinkedIn. He has written several previous books, including The Big Data-Driven Business, The Leprechaun Who Lost His Rainbow, and A Wild Father’s Day. A former reporter, his freelance journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Notre Dame Magazine. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Chicago. He’s also a voter.
Daniel Howarth is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. He has illustrated dozens of children’s books including I Love You, Grandpa and A Wild Father’s Day. He lives near Exeter with his wife and family and is a cofounder of How On Earth, a vegan food company.
If you would like more information about Voting With a Porpoise, or to get in touch with Sean or Russell, please visit their website.