Last week, as part of MTV’s Vote For Your Life Stream digital event, Mark Kassen and his pal Chris Evans talked to young, first-time voters about what was driving them to the polls this year. The issues ranged from climate justice to health care and more — nuanced topics with discernibly different views on both sides of the American political spectrum. But how can you get an informed take on what those sides are in hopes of digesting the issue in totality? That’s where A Starting Point — the civic engagement platform co-founded by Kassen, Evans, and Joe Kiani earlier this year — comes in.
Kassen, an actor who also directed Evans in the 2011 film Puncture, notes that, as they got more buy-in from elected officials in Washington, D.C., the site quickly evolved into an information destination on, say, the tech giants of Google, Facebook, and Twitter testifying before the Senate this week and what that might mean going forward. That information came from those in the know: senators Ron Wyden, Marcia Cantwell, and Rick Scott, who all spoke to Kassen and Evans for A Starting Point on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Our objective is to say: This is a changing face of media… and there’s legislation, and you may or may not know it has an effect on how you receive information,” Kassen told MTV News.
It’s all part of A Starting Point’s core, which Kassen said involves having productive conversations with young people — facilitated in part by a partnership with the Close Up Foundation — as a key way of communicating back with elected officials. We’re mere days away from the 2020 presidential election, and amid a surge of student voting and massive early voter turnout, Kassen keeps A Starting Point’s focus in mind: “I hope that people will vote, first and foremost, and I hope people will treat each other with respect.”
Below, MTV News talks to Kassen about A Starting Point’s recent efforts, how Gen Z can benefit from understanding what’s happening in Washington, and the ongoing classroom impact of COVID-19.
MTV News: Can you tell me a little bit about what the idea was for this platform and where it came from? What was the starting point for A Starting Point?
Mark Kassen: Chris [Evans] originally wanted to have a place for good, basic information. We’ve been friends since we worked together over 10 years ago, and I just kept hounding him, like, this is a really cool idea. I looped in my friend Joe Kiani, who’d had more experience working with elected officials than I had. We started very simply, with what we used to call Section One, which are the starting points, which centers around basic questions that people might want to know around policy and finding things from a left and a right perspective. And every question that would go up would have three Democrats and three Republicans answering them.
When we started, we kind of had to beg people to join. We asked people to do these interviews, and there was no site to show them what we were doing. They just had to trust us, which seemed pretty obscure. So there was a little bit of knocking on doors and pleading. And then as those went well, we started to be able to fill them up, and people had more that they wanted to talk about. So we realized we can kind of make it not just about a well of information, but make it a larger source of connectivity between elected officials and their electorate. So then we came up with these other two sections, which were the Daily Points, which now are user-generated.
Then there are elected officials uploading their take on whatever they want to of the day. It’s usually tied to something that’s going on in the quote-unquote news or in society. And then there’s Counterpoints, which is our version of almost a structured debate. Some of them are a little more conversational, but it’s one Republican right now and one Democrat. Sometimes they talk about what they disagree on. Sometimes they talk about what they agree on or the disagreements they’ve solved to get there.
MTV News: Based on the conversations with senators like Ron Wyden, Maria Cantwell, and Rick Scott that you’ve had this week about information and news, is the idea that A Staring Point can now provide Gen Zers, who might not have ever read a local hometown newspaper in their lives, more information than they had before when it comes to understanding the larger media ecosystem and how it works now?
Kassen: The answer is sort of. We don’t have an objective, per se, in terms of saying, hey, there are newspapers out there that are dying. Our objective is to say: This is a changing face of media based on what they’re hearing, and there’s legislation, and you may or may not know it has an effect on how you receive information. The thing that I think is unique to [Gen Z] is the way they are experiencing information. They didn’t know life without social media.
So, how technology companies — now formed with media companies — use data and give us information is going to be governed by the legislation that is either continued, adjusted, or rewritten. And so for us, it was a great opportunity to say, “This is going on.” We’re not telling you to pay attention to it. It’s happening. We’re letting you know it’s happening, and using that as sort of an anchor to reach out and say, hey, we now have built a relationship with a lot of these elected officials, so we can reach out to them and say, hey, will you come talk to us directly about the thing that you’re going to do this week?
MTV News: Speaking of Gen Z, in your interactions with young folks, especially people who are going to be voting for the first time, what have you learned from them?
Kassen: How much smarter they are than we are and how much more informed a lot of them are. We have two partnerships, one that we’ve had since the beginning, which is with the Close Up Foundation, which we’re very proud of. They have been committed to civic engagement since literally before I was born, or maybe around the time that I was born, which makes me feel old, but they really are committed to bringing people to Washington and getting them to experience the mechanisms, meet their elected officials, and demystify, and educate. And then not only that, they’ve been bringing tools to classrooms to help guide teachers around conversations around issues that otherwise people might be hesitant to talk about. Our goal is to help people have conversations around these issues.
So working with Close Up first and foremost, they have brought kids from across the country to us. Chris and I have gotten to talk to them and find out what interests them and really use that kind of as a north star to go back to our elected officials. Then, you know, we have a second part that we’re just beginning with BridgeUSA, which is college students. So we’re beginning to have a back and forth where we’re listening to them and then asking them questions. But really now we will be listening to them on a myriad of issues starting with right after the election.
MTV News: This school year, how have those classroom tie-ins been going, given how many schools have had to shift to virtual learning due to COVID-19 safety concerns?
Kassen: We set out to make a digital set of easy-to-access tools to allow you to feel close to your governor wherever you were in the world and obviously to the country. That happens to be of use to educators now. We’ve had over 2,500 schools already sign up for when we release our version that will be called ASP Homeroom, through Close Up. So as I said, a large part of Close Up’s world is bringing kids to D.C. Obviously that’s not appropriate right now. So they’ve been shifting a lot in their focus toward finding different tools to help bring what they’re committed to classrooms and keep their programs going like that. And so we’re here to help support and grow that.
They really responded to the mechanism that we created, so we’re just taking our mechanism, curtailing it a little bit more toward their needs, and then using our technology and our mechanism with their guidance. It’s not suddenly us teaching them, per se; it’s them using our tools. There are a lot more people needing digital tools to learn. And you asked me something about being inspired: One of the things I’ve actually become hopeful about around watching this — cause I’m really in the middle of it, I’m like a cheap seat in the middle. I’m trying to help facilitate, but there are other people who are far more qualified.
A place like Close Up, and what we’re trying to do and empower them with some tools, actually gives you the ability to people to actually have a digital mechanism to create cross-economic and cross-cultural education. I know that’s something they’re really focused on. If you have digital tools that go between schools and districts, you actually have the ability for people to experience each other in a way that they wouldn’t digitally because they would never do that in person. So that’s been exciting to watch, watching people try to find ways to get closer together when people actually are more separate right now in your world.