With all this talk about candidates for Election 2016, it can be easy to forget that there’s someone else that’s had quite an impact—from a presidential perspective. And no, we’re not talking about Barack Obama.
About three years ago, a 9-year-old donned a suit, gave America a pep talk, and became a viral sensation (we’re talking hundreds of millions of YouTube views) with his fresh take on dancing, politics and joy. That young fellow is Kid President, the central character of a popular YouTube channel produced by SoulPancake. In real life, Kid President is Robby Novak, a current 6th grader from Tennessee whose brother-in-law, Brad Montague, created the concept of Kid President with Robby back in 2013. Though Robby suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a congenital bone disease, he nonetheless has helped create more than 100 videos in the past three years—and yes, he’s met Beyonce. "I think Robby was more excited to meet Beyonce than he was to meet Obama," Montague laughs.
During the recent CUE conference in Palm Springs, CA, Montague gave the opening keynote on March 17th to an auditorium overflowing with teachers and administrators from up and down the West Coast. His theme? How to be “awesome”—specifically, how Robby’s worked to bring joy into people’s lives, and how some of that joy gets lost when kids turn into adults. EdSurge got the opportunity to steal him away for a half hour, to better understand how his message relates to student voice.
EdSurge: So, let’s start off with the basics. Why—or really, how—did you create Kid President with a 12-year-old kid? A young student talking about politics, that’s powerful!
Montague: Well, I’ve always felt like a kid at the grown-up table. I’ve always felt like I’m supposed to work with young people, somehow. When it started, my wife and I were running a summer camp, and we were around all of these incredible students. One was raising money to build wells in Africa; another girl started a beauty pageant for kids with special needs. And they’re students! It wasn’t a project where there was a grown-up behind it.
Seeing all that, and having the election [of 2012] happening right behind that… it was all of these stories of people being angry, and I thought, why can’t we listen to kids? Why can’t we elevate these kids’ voices? My wife had this silly notion of Robby—her brother, my brother-in-law—being President. When he comes into the room, it’s like he’s the mayor of the room. He always had such a way about him.
So, we thought, we’ll get him in a suit… but it turned out to be a little more profound than we thought it would be.
I remember when the “Pep Talk” video went viral. It was all over the internet. What is it about that particular video (and Kid President, in general) that’s so special?
I’ll never fully be able to comprehend how far it’s spread, or why—but I have an idea. I think it’s because we crave things that are full of hope, that remind us why we’re here, and do it in a fun way... This was just a video made out of love, inviting people to remember why we’re here. It taught me that a lot of things are contagious, but hope and joy and pep and dancing—those are the best kinds of contagious.
There’s a line in [the Pep Talk video] where Robby says, “What is Michael Jordan had quit basketball? He would’ve never made Space Jam,” which is funny! But we immediately flipped that, and ask, “What will be your Space Jam?” It’s not about what you make—it’s where you make it from, and that video happened to really click. What is it that you’re going to make that will inspire, and exist, and last?
Earlier, as teachers exited your CUE keynote, I heard them ask, “How can I do more things like this with my kids in my classroom?” You talked a bit about why you decided to focus on an adolescent voice in your videos. What keeps educators and schools from bringing more student voice into the classroom?
I think it’s something that’s natural for us—that is, to grow up. And, I think it’s a bit of a mistake to grow so far away from the child that you were. There’s important things we have to lose, like childishness. But, there’s a child-likeness that we have to keep. If we can really stop and listen to not only the kids in our classrooms, but the kids in all of our teachers and administrators’ hearts, we’ll approach things in a different way.
When we first started making the videos, that became my big mission—if I can at least for two minutes have somebody stop and listen to a child, and remember what it’s like to be a child—maybe the way they live their life that day will be a little different. Maybe they’ll be a little more forgiving, or a little bit more understanding.
I’ve had to learn to involve Robby more in the process, and it’s been cool to see what that brings to it. People really think he’s a president!
Really? Right up there with Barack Obama?
Yeah! They’ll write to him! So we discussed what political party he would want to be in, and I explained to him Republican vs. Democrat. But Robby was not interested, and said, “I’m not in a party, I am a party.” And that was so much better than what I would’ve said! Again, and again, I try to have anchor points on what I want to teach him, but also have flexible times to find out what he wants to teach me.
What has Robby, the Kid President himself, taught you as an adult?
He’s taught me a lot about terrible music that he likes [laughs], but also about joy, about being consistent. He’s taught me a lot about how to interact with people. He has a gift for seeing the best in people and bringing that out. The two of us together are what makes this so fun, and what makes me enjoy it.
That being said, we’ve found a healthy way to do this with each other, and we’ve found a great way to make this work.
So, what’s next for Kid President? Barack Obama’s term is coming to an end. Granted, Kid President could live on forever.
Well, we’ve declared this “Year of the Kid.” This year, in the midst of an election and the Olympics, we’re saying, how can we challenge our community online to make the world more awesome for kids? If you’re in education, healthcare, fashion, gaming… how can you commit to doing something for children, and how can we make the conversation about children? And then for kids, we have a question: How can kids and grown-ups work together?
As for Robby, he will transition to civilian life, [and] I’m excited for him and I to travel somewhere where nobody cares about what we’ve done. We want to just work with kids. We’re going to children’s homes, and let him find his own voice—for real. I’m excited about him growing into his own voice.
Looking to hear more? Check out the full interview on the EdSurge On Air podcast, included below.