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Longtime Florida child advocate Jack Levine receives this year’s Chiles Advocacy Award

The founder of 4Generations Institute discusses his commitment to children and families.
Child and family advocate Jack Levine.
Child and family advocate Jack Levine. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jan. 24, 2020
Updated Jan. 24, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Jack Levine was just 28 when his probing led him to discover that boys were being severely abused at the now-shuttered Arthur G. Dozier reform school in Marianna.

He took a stand against the abuse, a decision that launched a 40-year career as an advocate for Florida’s children and their families.

In the decades since Levine discovered that boys were being hogtied and held for weeks in isolation cells, he has crisscrossed the state, chalking up more than 4,000 workshops, speeches, and conference appearances for his cause.

Related: They went to the Dozier School for Boys damaged. They came out destroyed.

Fourteen years ago, the former president of Voices for Florida’s Children founded the 4Generations Institute in a prescient nod to increasing longevity and with the goal of expanding his focus to embrace families of not just children, parents and grandparents, but a fourth generation — great-grandparents.

Over the years, he’s assembled a network of allies, wooed politicians and the media and amassed an impressive email list to which he regularly dispenses his tenets.

Levine is being recognized for his work by the Children’s Week Committee, which will present him with the Chiles Advocacy Award, which honors former U.S. Senator and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, and his wife, Rhea. The annual award is presented to a Floridian “who has dedicated his or her life to improving the lives of children and families, and who has successfully engaged others to promote policies and programs that benefit" them.

Levine, 68, and his wife, Charlotte, have two adult sons, Aaron and Josh, and are doting grandparents to 2-year-old Julianne. Recently he sat down with Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore to talk about his life’s work and the inspiration behind it. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Child and family advocate Jack Levine poses for a photograph Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Child and family advocate Jack Levine poses for a photograph Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

What was the biggest influence in your calling to protect children and families?

I don’t think I had a choice. There is probably no such thing as advocacy DNA. If there were, I’m sure that my interest and my sensitivity to children were inherited from my elders. Whenever there was a wrong to be righted, it seemed that either my father or my maternal grandmother had something to say about the problem. It could have been a neighborhood problem or something as broad as civil rights, but I remember distinctly hearing those two voices.

Why did you transition from Voices for Florida’s Children to 4Generations Institute?

When I first came to Florida in 1978, Voices for Florida’s Children was a very young 2-year old organization called Florida Center for Children and Youth, and they needed a researcher. I had some experience in the area of special kids and teaching and I signed up with them.

Then in my mid-50’s, I started hearing the voices of my father and grandmother from the back seat of my car. They were saying things like, 'Why just one generation? Why don’t you talk about children in the context of the multi-generations of real life – children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents?”

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I saw the 4Generations model as a way of frankly amassing more power to whatever cause was out there.

How do you work with organizations, individuals and government bodies to address your cause?

There are audiences which need to be influenced to understand more and act more on behalf of family issues. Some of those are audiences are already “in the game.” These are our nurses, our teachers, or therapists, our foster care parents, our juvenile justice entities. They need bolstering. They need inspiration, because the work is very, very hard and frankly, they need some strategies and skills to leverage what they know to another audience.

Another audience are policy makers. All programs operate under the context of laws and budgets. And those are the two pieces of public policy that we specialize in. What does the law say, and how do we pay for it?

The policymakers need substantive ideas as to what to do with that power. So leveraging the voice of interest and the experience of those who work directly with children and families into the ears of those who make policies and laws is an essential part of my work. I think of myself as the advocates’ advocate.

How do you approach policymakers?

The earlier the better. When I hear through the grapevine that someone is thinking of running for office, I pick up the phone or find them in their office or in their civic club and I say, “Listen, I have no power to support you. I don’t give a dime or a minute to politics, but I think I can help you in your agenda if you care anything about children and families.”

How do you convince others to join your cause?

Empowerment is a factor. Next is leadership. There’s also legacy. And if we think about legacy on a regular basis, I think that becomes a beacon for us to behave in a certain way and follow that beacon forward.

You are receiving the Chiles Advocacy Award. How do you think your work exemplifies what the award represents?

As a strict nonpartisan, it’s always been my philosophy to find those in office, irrespective of party affiliation, with whom I find a certain affinity and create a conversation beyond just a meeting. And there was something about Lawton Chiles.

In between the time he did not run for his fourth term for the Senate and the time he declared for the governorship, he went through a very, very dark emotional period. He had already been grandfather to a low birth weight baby, Lawton IV, and he had, as a senator, championed the cause of infant mortality. So, he was already on record as an investor in the welfare of children through his own personal experience.

Lawton IV, by the way, was born under 2 pounds and is now in his 30s and doing very well.

Related: Column: Celebrating Mother's Day with a Healthy Start message of support

During the two-year hiatus, 1988 to 1990, he called some people — I was honored to be one of them — into his office and he pretty much sat down in his inimitable style and asked, “What are you working on?” At the end of these conversations, he would also say, “Who else should I be speaking to?”

When he decided to run for governor, he talked mostly about infant health care, fighting big tobacco and the importance of early childhood education. And he had a powerful partner in his wife, Rhea. After his election, his first initiative was creating Healthy Start Coalitions.

In founding 4Generations, you have chosen to address a certain type of diversity. Please talk about that decision.

When we speak of Florida in all of its diversities, usually we’re talking about ethnicity, origins from foreign countries or from around the United States. And, of course, there’s age diversity. But the diversity that I like to think about are the diversities of experience ... Since we are such a magnet for people over age 50, that’s one of our true untapped natural resources, the power of our elderly voices.

The reason elders are so important is because they vote at 75 percent — under 30-year-olds vote at 17 percent — so that’s political power. Elders, those with the means, give between three-quarters and 80 percent of all large gifts to charity. So if those two definitions of power are really analyzed, the power of politics and the power of philanthropy, how dare we not engage our elders?

Looking back at your career, please talk about the systems that have been put in place to protect children and families.

For me, this honor is not personal, it’s collective. I pay homage to those who support every cause that makes a positive change in the lives of children and families.

The foundation of my advocacy is prevention ... keeping bad things from happening. Whether it’s through Healthy Start, quality early education, Healthy Families to prevent child abuse, Guardian ad Litem volunteers for dependent children, or Pace Centers for Girls, an ounce of prevention not only avoids a pound of cure, but far outweighs a ton of punishment.

Related: Bowen: It's time to invest in Pasco's children

And one more great example of wise investment is our Children’s Services Councils. In 1946, Pinellas County voters created the nation’s first taxing district for children. Now we have nine, including Hillsborough, and these councils represent some two-thirds of Florida’s population. These councils are proof positive that wise investments save dollars and save lives. That’s what I call compassionate and powerful advocacy.