October 30, 1994 - From the October, 1994 issue

Rebuilding Our Communities

The following is an excerpt from a keynote address given by John Gardner, Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor of Public Service, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, in Los Angeles, at the first annual conference of The Communitarian Network in August, on the state of communities and community building in America.

I want to talk about cities and the sense of community. But let me begin with a few observations on community building generally… I would argue that communities have to be built. And rebuilt. The forces undermining community never let up. The building and re­building can never let up. So we must ask ourselves what it takes to build and re-build. 

As someone said, "Children are our best known source of adults," so the first step in building community is the nurture and development of children who will grow into community-building adults. It begins in the earliest days of life when bonding occurs between the infant and one or more loving care providers. Infants with drug-addicted 15 year old parents may never experience that bonding, and consequently never develop the trust, the sense of security and the caring interaction that such bonding engenders. They are disabled, and there are no ramps for their particular disability. Research has shown that the consequences are unfortunate. 

Beyond infancy the child should experience and participate in the web of reciprocal obligation and interdependence that characterizes the healthy family. Such an environment will give the child everything that a sound community will give later - the basis for self-esteem that comes from a sense of identity and belonging, the confidence that stems from security. 

Ideally, the next step is a school which is itself a healthy community, a network of caring individuals. Many schools, of course, are not communities in any sense. The school should continue quite explicitly the child's education for responsibility and the other values that characterize a sound community as we conceive it. 

I single out responsibility as a key ingredient: responsibility for the other, for the group. Early childhood education and kindergarten involve many group activities; but it is a curious fact that from first grade on, group activities in the classroom are progressively phased out. With each succeeding year it is more firmly impressed on young people that the issue of overriding importance is their own individual performance. It is a question of how well I solve that equation, how well write that essay, not a question of how I relate to others. Me and my SAT score! It is a system designed to produce solo performers. It is not a system that produces community builders. Or for that matter, leaders: leaders must, after all, have a keen sensitivity to the group. The emphasis grows steadily more obsessive through high school, college and graduate school, so that junior executives or law firm associates in their late 20s are still pirouetting for some imagined score­keeper, giving virtually no thought to the group. 

A school which is itself a community will not only teach responsibility for the other, it will foster habits of empath, tolerance and understanding for people who "are not like us." 

In the booklet I wrote on Building Community, I focused on face-to-face communities because that is where values are generated. It is not hard as a rule to build community in such settings, if one has the will. But in human groupings the size of cities, the difficulties are substantial. The possibility of extensive mutual acquaintance drops precipitously. Diverse cultural or economic groupings can exist with little understanding or even awareness of one another. But we can't let the difficulties deter us. Linus, the little fellow in the Peanuts cartoon, said "There's no problem so big and complicated that it can't be run away from." Unfortunately, in this case Linus was wrong. 

How, in cities, can one even approximate a sense of community? There are four main resources: (1) city government, (2) the media serving the city, (3) the schools and, (4) the "civic infrastructure" - the rich institutional variety of the private sector, in both nonprofit and for profit segments. 

First, city government. Just by existing and functioning with moderate effectiveness, city government makes a considerable contribution to community. Yet many of those who are enamored of the idea of community give little thought to city government - and if they do they are apt to be defeatist about getting help from that direction. That is a foolish attitude. Officials of city government preside over structures and processes that can be immensely valuable in community building. We can't afford to turn our backs on any potential allies. 

With encouragement, city government could do more than it is now doing. City officials could be trained in the techniques of collaborative problem solving and could employ those techniques in working with non-governmental groups and with other levels of government. They could foster communication among diverse elements of the population and avert emerging polarizations. They could represent all stakeholders fairly and scrupulously.

The media constitute the second major resource for building community in the city. Here, as in the case of city government, those most concerned to build community are apt to be quite defeatist. They think of the media as a negative rather than a positive force - and they have reason. But, again, the defeatism is not justifiable. Something is stirring. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts have put up $4.5 million and are working with National Public Radio, The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to explore the role of the media in community-building. Two Knight Ridder newspapers, the Wichita Eagle and Charlotte Observer have already achieved considerable success in stimulating community involvement, in partnership with local commercial television stations. The efforts will be extended to 15 cities in which Knight Ridder owns newspapers. National Public Radio will include some 3 dozen cities in special community issues forums, experiments in citizen-oriented reporting and collaboration with newspapers. I could go on but the point is that the new civic journalism, as they call it, is going to get a fair testing…

Schools are the third major resource for community building in the city. I've already discussed their role. As Eric Schaps of the Developmental Studies Center has demonstrated, the schools can educate for social responsibility from the elementary grades on. High school programs of community service can contribute importantly. But the most valuable contribution the school can make is to be a community in its own right. Few circumstances will more surely prepare young people to contribute to community in later years. 

The last major resource for community building in the city is the extraordinarily diverse array of institutions in the profit and nonprofit segments of the private sector: churches, corporations, neighborhood associations, community development corporations, unions, cultural institutions, and the like. In a city, they are the nearest thing toa substitute for the web of mutual acquaintance that characterizes the neighborhood and other smaller groupings. They can do much to make the city an authentic community. Unfortunately, many of them are not living up to their potentialities. They must be taught - and good people are working at that task. 

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Churches, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces - all of these should be communities in themselves, and beyond that they should be builders of the larger community. 

Citizen action and community service are not just marginal activities to be performed by a few public-spirited citizens. They are important sources of morale. A large and complex society tells the individual in a thousand ways "You aren't important. What you do won't make a difference," and as a result many citizens feel powerless. To take action on a community issue or to perform a community service strengthens citizen confidence. It is the best medicine for passivity. Itmoves the citizen toward a sense of ownership, and cuts through the sullen, disengaged, "What are they going to do to me next?" attitude. Tackling a community problem with one's own hands - doing something doable in one's own community, something with visible consequences - diminishes the feeling of having lost control that afflicts so many today… 

And now let me tell you about some grassroots activities that hold great promise for the regeneration of community. There is going on, at the grassroots, right now, an extraordinary wave of innovation in every field of social problem-solving - from prenatal care to parent education, from drop-out prevention to job training, from affordable housing to community-oriented policing. It represents an astonishing burst of vitality. The innovators represent a great diversity of racial, religious and occupational backgrounds. 

The men and women working on these problems are virtually unknown to the public. But Americans are hurting, and these virtually unknown men and women are working on some of the things that hurt the most. The things we label "problems" vary immensely in their impact on American morale. The country's decaying infrastructure and the nation’s horrendous debt do little damage to the American psyche. Perhaps the damage should be greater but it isn't. Americans generally are not going around wringing their hands and moaning, "Oh dear, the decaying infrastructure!" 

What is undermining our confidence, angering and frightening us, eating at our souls and making us sick at heart is the senseless violence, the obscenity of racial hatred, the destruction of human dignity under extremes of poverty, 11 year­olds dealing crack, 6th grade children having children - in short, the shredding of the social fabric, the collapse of community…  

To meet the challenge, the National Civic League, of which I am chairman, has invited other interested groups to join us in the movement that we are tentatively calling America's Future. We recognize that it must extend far beyond any one organization. The League does not hope to coordinate the movement, not to act as its spokesman, but we are willingly serving as conveyor in the early stages.

In launching America's Future, the League is not violating Brian Urquhart's famous rule for the negotiator: "Never dive into an empty pool." We have many allies. As of now, more than 85 national organizations have expressed an interest in relating themselves to the movement. What is contemplated is not a new organization. It is a movement. Every participating organization will pursue its own agenda autonomously. The Enterprise Foundation will continue its important work on affordable housing. Points of Light will redouble its efforts in volunteering. The4-H will carry forward its lively program of renewal. The burgeoning youth community service movement - in and out of government - will continue its vital growth. And so on. Virtually all of the scores of organizations involved will launch new efforts…  

One of the goals of America's Future is so ambitious that I mention it with some hesitation. We'd like to turn the mood of the country around! Nothing less! 

In my judgment, the mood of the American people today is dreadful beyond description. They are negative and mistrustful toward virtually all of our institutions, public and private. They are cynical, and their cynicism is making them mean-spirited toward other groups not like themselves. They are inert, passive, quick to complain and criticize, not at all inclined to put their shoulders to the wheel, or to say, "How can we help?" Heaven help the athletic coach with players so unwilling to pull together, so reluctant to sacrifice for a common objective, so afflicted with a "can't win" spirit.

That must change. With such an attitude pervading the public, no community can effectively solve its own problems…  

We must do everything possible to turn around the mood and attitudes of the Americans generally. Let them emulate the problem-solvers, who see the grim realities but refuse to be daunted. Cynicism and negativism are the enemy. Indifference and passivity are the enemy. Mean-spiritedness is the enemy. I don't believe that Americans even like themselves in that frame of mind. We are a positive-minded people. We always have been. Let's return to the style and spirit that suits us best. 

In closing, let me say how heartened I am by the achievements of the Communitarian Network. We will do everything we can to be good partners with you as we both move ahead.

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