By Jon Berry, Insight Trails
I FIRST MET JOE KELLY A DECADE AGO, WHEN he came to
It was a formula that Joe and his wife, Nancy Gruver, had
honed to great success with New Moon
magazine, the bimonthly publication by, for, and about girls that the couple founded in
1993. The publication, which
For the past eight years, Joe has advocated for girls on a larger stage, as co-founder and president of Dads and Daughters (DADs), a non-profit group dedicated to advocating for the importance of fathers in daughters’ lives. He has written six books, including Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter (Broadway/Random House, 2002) and The Dads and Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship (Broadway/Random House, 2007).
He has testified before Congress, been featured in The New York Times, People, and The Today Show, and talked to hundreds of groups, from professional associations to local parents groups, on issues from fathering, to Title IX, eating disorders, and marketing to kids. The Women’s Sports Foundation and iParenting.com have named him “father of the year.”
I talked with Joe, an easy-to-smile 52 year old, about his career path, the cues he has taken from his wife and twin daughters, and his belief in the power of transformation, which he has experienced personally as a recovering alcoholic with 27 years of sobriety.
Question: If you could go back to when you were 25 years old and offer yourself a piece of advice, what would it be?
Answer: Be in your own life. Look for inspiration in your
own life. The things
Insight: Look to your own life for inspiration. "The things
Nancy and I have done that look remarkable to the outside world all sprang out of our own personal lives, loves, and concerns."
Q: Would the Joe Kelly of 25-30 years ago be surprised at where you are today?
A: Very surprised. If someone had said to me in my first year of sobriety, “Sit down and make a list of all the things you dream of doing with your life,” that list would be so pathetic compared to what has actually happened. My imagination, my sense of what’s possible, and my sense of my own capabilities were all so stunted.
Q: What would have been on your list?
A: Hold a steady job. Provide for my family. Be a marginal husband. That would have been about it. If someone had really pushed me and asked, “What is the most wild and outrageous thing you could do?” what probably would have come up is a dream I had when I was nine or ten years old to write a book. I would have had no idea what it would have been about, though.
Q: What happened to shift things in your life?
A: Sobriety, and by sobriety I don’t mean just not drinking, but continuous engagement in growing spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, socially. That and having children, and having female children, and two at once!
A lot of the shifts in my life, though, can be traced to stupidity (laughs) – being young and naïve and stupid enough to take risks.
Insight: Be open to taking risks. "A lot of the shifts in my life can be traced to...being young and naïve and stupid enough to take risks."
Q: What do you mean?
A: In 1981, we moved from
About four years later, after the gallery had closed, I decided to enroll in a radio and TV broadcasting program at a for-profit tech school in the Twin Cities. I thought I could get a job doing play-by-play for a Major League Baseball team (another bit of naivete!). I got a job at a hole-in-the-wall breakfast diner, and worked a couple of hours in the morning before school. On the weekend, I delivered newspapers.
In the course of the program, though, I landed an internship
at a radio newsroom. I
learned how to call people up, interview them, and write
copy, and found I was good at it. While I was still in school, I got hired to
be the news director for a radio station in Marshall, a small farming town in
But I learned on the job. I got to be good at it. It was a big adventure. My stories got picked up. I won awards. I ended up being president of the Minnesota Advisory Board for United Press International.
Out of that experience, I was hired by Minnesota Public
Radio to work in
In retrospect, we took a lot of stupid leaps not fully realizing how stupid they were. But they worked out. It was the same thing with the magazine. We were too dumb to know it was dumb to do.
Q: How so?
A: We had no experience in magazines. I had experience in journalism, but it was in radio, not print. Serendipitously, the style of writing for radio and the style of writing for children are very similar. Writing for radio is all in active voice. It’s all short sentences, one thought per sentence. And that’s how you write for children. I didn’t know this at the time, but it worked out perfectly.
Insight: Be open to serendipity. "The style of writing for radio and the style of writing for children are very similar. I didn’t know this at the time, but it worked out perfectly."
The idea for the magazine occurred to
It became a crisis moment for her: “What do I really want to do?” She knew she’d be passionate about working on girls’ or women’s issues, but had no idea what or how to get there. So the two of us went off for a weekend to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to figure out what we were going to do with our lives. Of course, when we got there, we never talked about it. We read books the whole weekend.
Finally, on the way home, driving through the Upper
Peninsula – this beautiful, desolate landscape –
When we got home, we sat down and talked with the girls, who
were 11 at the time (they are now in their late 20s). Their response was,
“You’re crazy. You don’t know anything about magazines.” And
Literally nine months later, the first issue came out.
Q: This was
A: We had talked for some time about wanting to work
together. We thought it would be fun to do.
As I look back on my work life, in nearly all of the cases, the jobs I’ve taken and careers I’ve had have been presented to me. They came along and I was ready. I’ve sometimes longed to be the kind of person who plans ahead and plots things out, and decides with certainty that this is the work they want to do for the rest of their life. But that’s not how my life has worked. Experience has shown me that good things will come along in life, and I have faith they will.
Insight: Have faith. "Experience has shown me that good things will come along in life."
Q: When did you start pulling back from your jobs?
A: I quit my job first, before the first issue came out. I had
written a press release on New Moon and
sent it out to a bunch of newspapers. A reporter from the
So I left my job and started answering the phone and
Q: Was there an a-ha moment, when you realized “we can do this”?
A: Not exactly. We did things instinctively. We were
presumptuous. We had faith. Looking back, a lot of things converged to help us.
And not just the successes.
The way we ran the magazine, with the adults creating a space for the kids to exercise their own powers, was something we learned from unschooling our children. That also was risky – in unschooling, kids set their own path – but it worked.
Q: Was there fear?
A: Mostly fear about money. We still are fearful about scarcity. We have always been frugal. Since the first loan, New Moon has never taken out a loan. It's cash-flowed everything it’s done. We didn’t want to be beholden to anyone.
Q: What was it like to work with your wife?
A: It was a lot of fun. But it could also be a source of
tension. We had to work really hard at separating our work life and our home
life. That meant not investing a work disagreement with the baggage of our home life. We had to learn that, when we disagree about a color to use in
the magazine, there’s a fairly decent possibility we’re just disagreeing about
the color. It’s not just one more example that
It still happens when we work together, but I think we’re better at surfacing the tension more quickly. One of us will recognize right away, “This is about something else,” and pierce it, or back off, until we can sit down and talk about what’s really bothering us.
Q: How have you applied the lessons you’ve learned in your current job with Dads & Daughters?
A: A lot of what underlies my work is questioning the way things are. It’s the journalistic instinct. I think it’s especially true for people who have gone through life-or-death transformations like getting sober. You realize it’s possible for things to be radically changed.
Insight: Change is possible. "[When you've been] through a life-or-death transformation, you realize it's possible for things to be radically changed."
Q: DADs has gotten attention for challenging companies’ marketing messages.
A: There are a lot of ads out there that celebrate qualities you don’t want to see in kids. What we’ve tried to do is track down the head of the companies – many of whom are men and fathers – and ask them to re-imagine the ads’ messages as something they would say to their daughters. It’s making the personal political.
If you put it in this context, an ad that says, “4 out of 5 girls you hate ask for it by name. Stop hating them. Starting being them” – a real ad, by the way, for a hair product – is absurd. You wouldn’t teach your daughter to hate other people, or to become like the people they hate.
In that case, the company’s first response, from the marketing director, was to ignore us. But then we got a personal letter from the CEO. He said he’d been on vacation with his children when our letter arrived. He went on to say that when he got back, he called together his team and told them pull the ads and “never to do anything like that again.”
A lot of times, when we send letters to companies, we get no response. But almost all the time, when we can engage companies in conversation, they do what we ask.
Insight: Connect. "What I enjoy most is helping people understand how important the father-daughter relationship is, and inspiring them to do something about it."
Q: You also focus energy on education.
A: In a sense, my role is to be the “spokesdad.” The core of that is working to raise the profile of father-daughter relationships, to inspire fathers and stepfathers to get more involved in their daughters’ lives, and to give them tools to be better fathers. Fathers and stepfathers have an incredible influence in their daughters’ lives. Too many don’t realize it, and the culture doesn’t acknowledge it.
What I enjoy most is helping people understand how important the father-daughter relationship is, and inspiring them to do something about it. Sometimes that just means creating a space for dads to think and talk. When I go out to a school and speak about fathering to a room of 200 fathers, the thing that happens that makes a real difference is when those 200 guys sitting in the room look around and say, “There’s 199 other guys here who feel this is important. I’m not alone.” It’s an inspiring experience. It certainly inspires me.
Resources for going further:
For more on Dads & Daughters, including tips for fathering daughters and ways to get involved, see www.dadsanddaughters.org .
To learn more about Joe's new book The Dads and Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, and buy a copy, go to www.amazon.com .
To learn more about his book Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She's Growing Up So Fast, go to www.amazon.com .
For more about New Moon magazine, or start a subscription, go to www.newmoon.org .