Ken Kragen knows what it’s like to accomplish the impossible. He’s done it time and time, again. This time every California College Campus and Student is his beneficiary with his Hands Across California campaign on April 17th, 2011.
By Merry Elkins, LuxEco Editorial Assistant
Best known for being a star-maker, Ken Kragen, who is also an author, teacher, and film and television producer, has charted the career course of some our most celebrated entertainers including Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Tricia Yearwood, Olivia Newton John, The Bee Gees, The Smothers Brothers, Harry Chapin and more; but nothing he has accomplished in his illustrious career has ever achieved the significance or the scope of his philanthropic work.
For breathing life into Hands Across America in the 1980s where young and old alike joined hands across the country to call attention to hunger and homelessness here in the US; for setting in motion and organizing the recording We Are the World, that brought together 45 prominent recording artists including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Bruce Springsteen to raise $64 million to feed people in Africa and for founding USA for Africa to distribute the money, he received the United Nations Peace Medal, something few civilians receive and an honor for which he is most proud.
Now, 25 years later, he’s at it again to give every California College Campus and Student Gets a “Helping Hand.”
On April 17th, he’s going to rock California with an event set to resonate throughout the state: Hands Across California.
Like Hands Across America, Hands Across California plans to join students, alumni, faculty, friends and family together, creating a 1500-mile chain of people standing hand in hand from San Diego to north of Sacramento, in support of California’s community colleges and in turn, raise funds for them and create an awareness of how important education is to our community and to our economy.
At a time when educational financing in California is in crisis, when 90% of full-time students are in need of financial aid and almost half have no resources to pay for college, Hands Across California couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
I had the opportunity to talk to Ken Kragen about Hands Across California in his wood-paneled home office, surrounded by photographs of him and his wife Cathy taken with the likes of Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela; his clients’ gold and platinum records; his collection of letters and autographs from historical figures and the numerous awards he has received throughout his lifetime.
Merry Elkins for LuxEco Living: Why are California’s community colleges so vital to the state?
Ken Kragen: California’s community college system is the largest educational institution in the world with 112 colleges and 2.8 million students. It’s a huge operation. It is a system that credentials 80% of our police and firefighters and 70% of our nurses. It is an educational system that we keep cutting money out of and yet it’s key to our economy, it’s key to our future, it’s key to people’s lives.
ME: What is the message Hands Across California will communicate?
KK: By participating in this spectacular event, the message is that the community colleges are a vital part of the state’s economy, of the health of individuals, of the economic health of the state and of the country. We want this event to shine a light on this. We want to show solidarity and move politicians to understand that the educational system is an area that they can’t constantly cut back on.
It has been said there are more people in the prisons than in the colleges; yet people don’t realize how interrelated those are. If we can educate people and give them hope and train them for jobs, you keep them out of situations where crime is what they turn to. It all has an impact. I think that’s the objective.
ME: How will you measure its success?
KK: Hands Across America raised $34 million; but it wasn’t just the dollars that were important to us. It was the fact that we called attention to the issue of hunger and homelessness. And two weeks after the event, President Reagan dedicated $800 million that he had been holding back to the cause of feeding women and children and infants. So, in reality, we made a huge impact. That was 1986.
Hands Across California has the same kind of dual objective. We want to raise money to complete the $100 million Community College endowment fund which will provide thousands of scholarships each year to needy students. We hope to raise about $30 million. At the same time, we want to call attention to the situation that exists in this massive educational system.
ME: How did Hands Across California come about?
KK: Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife and a community college professor, was unable to speak to symposium that the Foundation for California Community Colleges (the foundation that helps to raise money for the colleges – FCCC) was holding last October, so at the last minute, they asked me to come in and speak.
When I got up to talk, I showed the footage of what we did on We are the World and Hands Across America. I spoke about what I give lectures on nowadays: How it’s easier to accomplish the impossible than the ordinary. People pay attention when something is impossible; if you get people’s attention, you can get them to participate.
When I sat down after that speech, sitting on my left at the table was Paul Lanning, the president of the foundation. He said to me, “What if we restage Hands Across America” and connect many of the community colleges in the state. We have an endowment fund we need to complete, and we have matching funds that will run out by the end of June. Why don’t we do this? We have a whole organization we can put behind it and we can pull this together.” The man sitting on the other side of me was Jim Kelly, the EVP of So Cal Edison. Jim, who was being honored that night. He said, “I’ll take a piece of that. We’ll sponsor that.”
Hands Across America was so successful. We had 6 ½ million people standing hand-to-hand from NY to LA through 17 states. People always thought we’d do it again. I had maybe 100 people coming to me over the last 10 years wanting to redo it. I don’t believe in redoing something just to redo it. You lose that “Impossibility Factor.” It’s already been done, so you’re always compared to the original and it never has the same impact.
But I believe things happen when they’re right to happen. And with this, I had something I didn’t have before. Here was a good idea and a terrific cause, at a moment in time when educational financing in California has been reduced so drastically. Here was an existing organization that could back it, put the staff into it and allow us to do it cost effectively; and, we had some financing from So Cal Edison.
So I said, “OK, let’s do it.” By early November we were rolling. Soon after that, we had a web site www.handsacrosscalifornia.org.
ME: I remember when you were involved in USA for Africa, We Are the World and Hands Across America, I wrote you a letter that said, “How lucky you are to have the opportunity to make a difference because so many of us don’t.” And here you are doing it again. Even with all your incredible accomplishments in the entertainment community, you have made such a difference with your community activism and philanthropy.
KK: When I started to organize We are the World, I thought that everything that occurred in my life prepared me to make a success out of that project. My parents instilled charity in me. I remember they sent me a photo – I was in high school – giving a check for $64 to the American Red Cross. It started way back then, in the 1950s; and then again, I had the chance in the late 1970s to manage and represent Harry Chapin, who was a big activist.
ME: Tell me about Harry Chapin.
KK: Harry Chapin was an incredible singer. He had a big hit with “Cats in the Cradle” and many songs in the late 70s. And, he was a tremendous activist in terms of hunger and homelessness in America. He got President Carter to create a commission to take a look at those issues.
A lot of times Harry was tilting at windmills. But where Harry would spend a year raising say $150,000, doing it $5000 here and $10,000 there, Kenny Rogers, who was also my client, did one concert and handed a check for $180,000 to Harry and Harry was speechless. It was the only time I’d ever seen Harry speechless.
Harry was the inspiration for me. And because of him, I had the background to engage these issues and do something about them. Then Harry died. He was killed in a car accident in the Long Island Expressway in 1981.
Kenny Rogers picked up the torch from Harry and carried it forward. He had grown up in absolute poverty in Houston, with 8 kids in one room, and as a result, he was also interested in these issues.
Then, USA for Africa and Hands Across America came about. I felt that I was the right guy in the right position with the right skills with the right organizational abilities with the right clients to make these things happen. I felt like it was all orchestrated and set up in that way. This was the moment that it was going to happen and I was going to make it happen. As a result, these projects were incredibly successful.
ME: And yet, there must have been problems and crises along the way.
KK: In both cases, We are the World and Hands Across America almost didn’t happen.
I don’t know if the story has ever been out there about We are the World. The night before the recording session, the manager of one of the musicians came to me and said, “The rockers don’t like the song and they don’t want to stand on the stage next to the non-rockers because they feel it will make them less hip and that it won’t be good for them to be associated with pop stars.” It was the night before the recording session, and I was at a rehearsal for the American Music Awards. I said we can’t do anything about that. It is what it is. If you’re going to go, go. And then we went to Springsteen. Springsteen said, “I’m not going anywhere. I came out here to feed people. I came out here to save lives and I’m not going anywhere.” He essentially saved the day because he was the biggest rocker of them all. He was “The Boss.”
The same last-minute crisis happened a year later with Hands Across America. We were a month out and we didn’t have any insurance. I was told that unless we got insurance that week, there wouldn’t be an event. We’d already run a commercial about it in the Super Bowl, and we had 2 million people signed up. I went out and got insurance from the last company that would possibly give us insurance. I flew to New York on the redeye to meet with the insurance man. I knew he was a Kenny Rogers fan. I had Kenny call him and at 9 in the morning, and at noon I showed up at the guy’s office and he gave me the insurance.
Every event has its crisis. It is more than just conceive an idea and then think it will go smoothly. There’s a great quote from Thorton Wilder: ”Every great thing in the world balances at all times on the razor-edge of disaster.” There’s that moment when you’re standing on the razor-edge when you can throw in the towel and say “we can’t do this, it’s impossible,” or you can say, “I believe in this so strongly and I can make it work” and then you solve the problem.
ME: What have been the greatest challenges with Hands Across California?
KK: Initially, it was insurance, because without insurance nowadays, you can’t do these things. It was going to be costly to get insurance. Then the Foundation realized that for only a few thousand dollars they could have this event attached to their overall policy. That solved a huge hurdle for us.
The next one was, and is, sponsorship. In a tight time frame in a tight economy, with a singular event, it’s difficult. We have some of the financing, but we don’t have all of it yet. But the event is going to happen, no matter what. The other challenge is the domino effect, where you need to get certain celebrities on board; then all of a sudden, everybody wants to be on board. The celebrity community is approached from so many different directions. If you’re Oprah Winfrey, you could be approached 200 times a day, every day, day in, day out. So the walls build up around celebrities and they’re reluctant to commit because they have too many demands. They do commit to things, but usually have personal reasons to get involved. But, they all want to be on board when it’s the thing to do. And you have to make it that.
WATCH: On May 6, 2008, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined with California Community College leaders to announce the single largest gift ever pledged to community college education in this nation. Net proceeds from Hands Across California will benefit the California Community Colleges Scholarship Endowment and will be matched by funds from the Osher Foundation’s gift announced here: