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Highlights Magazine Denounced Migrant Family Separations. This Is What Happened Next.

"A magazine should stand for something. We believe in a certain set of values, of inclusiveness and basic human rights and dignity. We have to stand for something."

On June 25, 2019, Highlights for Children Magazine — yes, the one you always see in the doctor’s office that features those excellent spot the difference “My First Hidden Picture” drawings — called out the Trump administration. The company published a letter written by CEO Kent Johnson that condemned detention centers and family separations. “Highlights,” Johnson wrote, “is an organization that believes that children — all children — are the world’s most important people.”

The letter was posted to Twitter, where it went viral and received some 23,000 Retweets. The reaction to the letter was overwhelming, both negative and positive. People threatened to cancel their subscriptions; others expressed gratitude and shared their immigration stories. For the company, the decision to post the letter was in accordance with their values. It wasn’t political. It was about human rights. 

Now, about one and a half months after the letter was published, the dust has settled. Fatherly spoke to Kent Johnson about his decision to write the letter, and what it means to him and his company.

What compelled Highlights to make a stand on family separation?

Highlights for Children is a mission-driven company. We’ve been around a long time as a brand. We try to really keep alive, in our culture and in our management decisions, the discussions of the values as an organization. The beliefs we have about the kind of world we want to see and what the world would look like if we were successful in our activities. We had some leadership and staff discussions about our values. The idea emerged that we ought to think more deeply about whether or not we have any role with respect to family separation, and how kids were being adversely affected through the policies around immigration.

We didn’t see any opportunities to have a direct, positive impact on those kids. We thought, our role could be to make a statement that would reframe the conversation, to focus on the kids, and away from the political pointing of fingers.

So it really wasn’t an overly organized process. It came up in some meetings; people in the hallway said, “Yeah, we really oughta say something.” So we started writing. We asked: “Can we write something that we can really stand behind and want to share?” Really, we thought we’d just share it with our community of adult fans. And we looked at what we came up with and felt pretty good about it. 

Were you worried about how people would react?

I have to admit, we knew it could have adverse consequences. We knew people would be critical of us getting into politics. But we looked at each other and asked, “Is this right? Is this something we need to do, because it’s so important to our values?” And that’s what led us to hit “post,” I guess.

You mentioned the Highlights values. What are your values as an organization?

We believe that children are the world’s most important people. We believe that childhood is short, sweet season. It’s really important for adults to take it seriously and to care and invest our energy into everything that kids experience, because they’re not kids that long. 

We believe that we need to raise kids who have a fundamental belief in human respect and dignity of all people, and the power of respecting everyone. We believe that kindness is never wasted. We believe in a world where kids grow up, love learning, and always continue learning throughout their lives. What would the world be like if all children had access to the resources to become their best selves? By becoming their best selves, we mean: helping children become creative, caring, curious, and confident. When you think all the hopes and aspirations you have when you hold a small child in your hands, if we could make a world where those resources were available to children, so they can develop into their best selves and then grow to be adults that will change the world, what kind of better world could we have?

Our aspiration is that every kid would have those opportunities, which is how we were confronted with the realities of family separation. The conditions in detention centers. There’s this whole swathe of children that are not getting access to the resources they need; and the conditions and relationships with their parents and the adults in their world. 

That’s really the conversation that had us then say “We oughta say something about this.” 

Let’s talk about some of the reactions.

We got a lot of comments on social media. I prepared for the negative backlash, but I was humbled by the overwhelmingly positive feedback.

We had a number of people reach out and share their emotional connection to Highlights and the role it played in their lives, as well as their own immigration stories. One woman, who came over after the Vietnam war, reached out to us. She described how she was treated at age 8, being afraid for her life on a boat leaving Vietnam because they’d helped Americans. They were rescued by the Navy. She described how incredibly powerful, kind, and strong the Navy was, bringing them to a refugee camp. She told us how the teacher at the refugee camp was such an example to her that she became a teacher. She described how she got Highlights before she even knew how to speak or read english. She learned English reading Highlights, and now her kids were getting Highlights. She talked about how proud she was to be an American, and how appreciative she was of her own story, as an immigrant. I think we’re going to do a piece on her in highlights, where her nine-year-old daughter is going to interview her about her experiences. 

Was the negative backlash severe?

When people reacted in a strong, negative way, to the political implications of the statement, one of the cool things we saw was that other people, our fans, would respond and point to the words in the statement and say: “They’re not attacking any particular individual in the government. They’re calling out [the treatment of these kids.]” We didn’t respond to them, but people would articulate on our behalf: “Wait a minute. Highlights for Children is about kids. They’re talking about kids.” We’re not trying to choose a political side. We’re choosing the side of speaking up for children who don’t have a voice.

I think it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to act when being authentically committed to your values requires you to act or speak. 

Did you see an impact on your subscriptions?

The business will be fine, either way. I tend to look at the decision as not overanalyzing what it will do short-term to subscriptions, losing or gaining, but more: “Is this consistent with our beliefs that are part of our long term strategy?”

Of course we got cancellations and [increased] web traffic, because it went pretty viral. But someone asked me in an interview, “Was this just a ploy to generate subscriptions?” So I issued this edict within the company that I wanted no reports of how many cancellations or new subscriptions we got. Because we’re a big enough subscription base, whether its our magazine, or our clubs, that the short term ebbs and flows of cancellations [doesn’t have too big of an impact.] 

Every subscriber is important to us. I hate that someone would cancel [their subscription] for their child because of this. But in the larger scheme of things, it was more about doing right than gaining or losing subscriptions. But my gut, and intuition is that this probably helped our social engagement, our following. It probably helped our business. But that wasn’t really why we did it.

A magazine should stand for something. We believe in a certain set of values, of inclusiveness and basic human rights and dignity. We have to stand for something.