Janine Turner is a busy woman. When the Northern Exposure and Cliffhanger star isn’t tending to her Texas ranch, she’s writing essays on the Federalist Papers, directing short films, writing op-ed pieces for the Washington Examiner and the Washington Times, recording her “God on The Go Minute Daily Podcast,” writing books, or traveling the country as a motivational speaker. Turner is also still acting, with roles in the Friday Night Lights television series and films like Occupy, Texas and Solace with Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as well the upcoming Runnin’ from my Roots and Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. Oh, and also throw in going to graduate school to get her master’s degree in Theological Studies. But her biggest passion project is Constituting America, a program aimed at educating American adults and students about the non-partisan relevancy of the U.S. Constitution. We recently spoke with Janine about Constituting America, as well as her time filming for the program at New Republic Studios in Austin.
What can you tell us about Constituting America?
I launched “Constituting America” in 2010 as an organization dedicated to teaching the Constitution in a way that is non-partisan. The Constitution is a document that I consider to be completely non-partisan, but Republicans love the constitution when the Democrats are in office, and Democrats love the Constitution when the Republicans are in office. Everyone loves the constitution when they need it.
Constituting America multi-tiered program that focuses on the arts, but teaches about the Constitution in ways that students may not have previously understood. We have contests for kids from across the country, all the way from elementary to college or graduate schools, for categories like best short films, best public service announcements, best song. We have opened it to STEM as well. So, if they’re a director or a singer, an actor, they’ve done a public service announcement for arts or even STEM, we connect them with a mentor in their field. We have had some really wonderful mentors and judges like Gary Sinise, Vince Gill and John Rich. We re-record with the winners in major studios with professional producers and we make music videos with them, as well as make documentaries with these kids. We also hire a company to promote the public service announcements the kids make and get them on TV, so we actually use the kids’ works. We have six new songs with over 102 million impressions and public service announcements that have been seen in 7 million households.
We have three students that won “best rap song.” I had been giving a 90-minute speech to a class at the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in South Dallas, which was followed by a speech to another class. By the time I finished the second class, three young men from the first class came up to me, and said, “We have written a rap song about the constitution!” They submitted it and they won! And so now they have been able to travel to Nashville and we recorded their songs and music videos and they’ve traveled to perform with us. Now, they’re getting ready to travel to Washington D.C. to perform with some of our other winners at the Department of Education on Constitution Day. One of the students hadn’t even been on an airplane before and now they’re going to go to Washington D.C. and they’re going to get a tour of the West Wing. So we get to provide amazing opportunities for these kids.
What has the response been like from the students? Have you received a lot of submissions?
Oh yeah, we have received lots of submissions. Great enthusiasm from kids who are all over the board, politically. We have presidents from Democratic clubs and kids who are Republicans and kids who are Independent, and we have kids who don’t know. Our big focus right now is to teach the kids how to have a civil, civic conversation. We’re going to get into the hot button issues. We’re going to take these kids, some Democrats, some Republicans, some middle school, some high school, and sit around a table and talk about how to have a civil, civic conversation. I’m going to also do it in the classrooms but also in different areas across the country because I think we have lost that ability to have a civil, civic conversation. So, that’s a new branch and I’m very very excited about that.
We have taken our winners in the past to Philadelphia and New York and Washington D.C. and Hollywood, but this year it was Austin. We filmed some documentaries at New Republic Studios that featured the kids discussing what they had learned. It was five the of the winners, all of whom were women, sitting around on bean bag chairs. They had listened to two-hour speeches about the constitution and on this was on about their third day of the trip and I said, “Okay, I want you all to talk about how to have a civil, civic conversation,” and what these kids were saying was amazing (Editor’s Note: the video can be viewed here).
I feel it’s almost taboo in today’s political climate to even mention for bi-partisanship, particularly given social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
Well, we are such a divided country right now and that is something that George Washington warned us about in his farewell address when he was retiring from eight years of the presidency. He said that he was worried about the political party system. He said that he felt it would be the demise or the ruin of America because people would care more about their party than about being an American, and I think we see that. I think there is such a divide and it’s very, very concerning and so it permeates down to the children. I teach in a lot of classrooms and you can pick it up. But they’re also pretty open, especially in middle school.
A lot of children, particularly in that age group, communicate with each other online and via social media, I kind of feel that perhaps that is it’s easier to form an opinion without hearing the other person’s point of view online.
Exactly. Yes. One of my recent books is on this topic and how we have forgotten how to be a community. We used to come together in this country. We’re a nation of immigrants and we all emigrated from one place or another and we found a common ground. Not that we have been perfect by any means, but we have come together. I think we’ve lost any essence of that, and social media doesn’t help. So, I think to get into the classrooms with the kids and to be able to say, “Let’s find some things where we agree.” Social media is so dangerous because you don’t have to hear anybody else’s point of view, and then you get into the real world and you don’t think you need to either.
Is there any particular aspect of the Constitution that you feel has been overlooked that you focus on?
Well, one of the things that I concentrate on is about what tools are their toolbox, even at their age; that the constitution isn’t just something that they do up there in Washington, D.C. It’s actually something is that is for you. We talk about some issues that they have had and how they call their local representatives and how they can write a petition. I talk about protesting in the streets as one of the things they can do. But I also say “Wouldn’t it be better if you had written a petition, you had people sign the petition, and you took it to your representative and you go out and then you call the press?” Those are the tools in the toolbox – they can take it to the press and then they go out and assemble and they can try to make the change through the legislative branch, because if they really don’t get it to the legislative branch or the amendment process, it may or may not have impact. So, it’s just utilizing all of those elements of the first amendment into one is something that I think is overlooked.
I’m also talking about how we really need to pay attention to what is really going on. I love to tell them that we hire them, and we can fire them. I think unfortunately there is so much pressure on teachers today to deliver in the realms of English and Math and things of that nature that are not only civics overlooked but also character is overlooked, and that is unfortunate because I think we don’t need to spit kids out of the school system purely to be able to read and write. We need to teach them how to cope in the world and teach kids how to be a part of our self-government.
Now, you are promoting bipartisanship, but you produce a lot of faith-based content. Do you think it will color someone’s opinions as to whether or not this is truly a bipartisan program?
Well, you know if it does, it’s unfortunate because there are Democrats that are Christians, too! But that is what people think, isn’t it? They think, “Oh, she is this radical right-wing person and –“
Yeah, exactly. People do have that perception, and I’m wondering if that is an obstacle to overcome at all.
They do perceive it that way. The irony is I’m a single mother. I raised my child all by myself. I started my career in New York City at age 15 and Hollywood at 17 and I have led this socially-left life, but people want to pigeonhole me. Quite frankly, I’m tired of the party system. I think that it’s dictating our lives and people are getting tired of being told what to do by their parties.
I really enjoy doing the “God on The Go Minute Podcast” because I feel that there is really more to life than even politics, like counting the good in my life and how can I be a better person. It’s just fun-based scriptures, “Here is your scripture and here is how to get through the day and survive.” I don’t bring those up in the schools, though and when I work in Hollywood, I never discuss my faith or talk about politics on the set.
Your daughter Juliette is an accomplished author and speaker as well, which is impressive for her young age. Do you credit that to putting her to work on the ranch?
(Laughing) Well, I think there are many dynamics. First, she was just born a beautiful, sweet, loving spirit. She is my greatest blessing in the world. Her father was in the vicinity, but he didn’t really ever show up, so it’s just been the two of us. There’s always been a special bond. I was dragging Juliette to the opera at six months and if I had an event, I took her with me. She just has this wonderful desire to join in and has this amazing work ethic. I think that a lot of it is innate within her. But we’re just really really close and best friends and I’m incredibly blessed by her.
I also stopped drinking when I was 23-years old, so, I’ll take her to 12-step meetings with me and let her see what it’s like and how to cope without. So, she doesn’t drink or do any of that and I think it gives her a lot of time to do other things. I do a lot of public speaking, and I talk about this because Juliette has got this disease on both sides of her family and they say if one parent has it, a child is 50% likely to become an alcoholic. If both parents have it than that child is 100%. So, it’s best to teach them not to pick up. That doesn’t mean they will, or they won’t. But she said to me the other day “You know, mom, if you hadn’t taught me and showed me how to live life sober, I don’t know that I would have gone to college and not picked up [alcohol], but I see that you don’t and so I don’t.” So there is a lot of clarity and so I guess that kind of helps.
You mentioned your speeches, and you said you lecture about a variety of topics. What kind of subjects do you talk about?
Well, I’ve given over about 340 speeches and they vary. It’s anything from corporate motivation to overcoming rejection. I was in New York City at age 15 and modeling with Wilhelmina modeling agency, but then I didn’t book Northern Exposure until I was 27. I auditioned 3-4 times a day for 12 years. That is a lot of “nos.” I give speeches about rejection because I feel like it’s rejection every single day, especially in Hollywood. Hollywood is so incredibly difficult, but it makes me feel even more challenged when that happens. And it’s currently happening. So, it’s like, “Okay. I will overcome that.” I also give speeches on health, sobriety, faith-based speeches, motivational speeches to women’s groups, and then I’ll give speeches about the Constitution. So, it’s interesting.
If someone were interested in participating in the “Constituting America” program, where can they go?
If someone wants to enter, they can go to constitutingamerica.org and click the contest entry button. We also have scholarly essays that we do and white papers, as well as other tiers to our foundation. If anyone wants to book a speech, whether it be in the classroom or via Skype, they can do that there, too. Or you can go to janineturner.com and click the “My Foundation” button.
We would like to thank Janine Turner for taking the time to speak with us. Submissions for the newest Constituting America contest can be submitted until September 17th, 2018.
Transcribing services provided by Eaya Moore.