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Issue No. 15 (June 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor
our children's potentials:
I’m leaning against a railing at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street, in the heart of Manhattan, and people of extraordinarily different ethnicities and lifestyles are passing me by. What’s more striking than the diversity, though, is that nobody’s looking at each other.
One of the most important political questions of our time -- so fundamental that it often goes unasked -- is, What’s going to hold us together as a people, now that we don’t have an overridingly dangerous enemy anymore?
On the right, the answer would appear to be -- a guiding morality. But how many of us want to be ruled by morality czars, even wise ones?
On the left, the answer would appear to be -- another War on Poverty. But there’s no consensus on how to understand poverty today, let alone how to end it.
I’d been standing at 52nd and Sixth because a couple of blocks away, at the Hilton New York Hotel, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) was about to hold its annual conference. And the conference’s theme offered an imaginative “third answer” to the question of what can unite us as a people.
When I entered the hotel, there it was, on a blue banner:
“Taking Responsibility for Our Children in the 21st Century.”
Inside the hotel, pandemonium reigned. Over 2,000 child advocates, social workers, schoolteachers and psychologists from across the U.S. were milling about -- all of them talking, talking, talking.
If ever a group was going to put children and their needs at the heart of the American experiment, I thought, this one was it.
I got hold of the conference booklet and opened it to find these words:
“At this critical threshold, our future depends on the strength, skills, and success of America’s children.”
The CDF’s annual yearbook, State of America's Children, was even more insistent:
“It’s time for a revolution in values and political priorities . . . for our children’s sake.”
Earlier that day, unbeknownst to me, Marian Wright Edelman -- founder and president of CDF -- had told the Today Show’s Maria Shriver that we need “a movement” in this country focused on children.
Can the CDF carry it off?
Can it break through the terrible aimlessness -- and partisanship -- of American life and inspire us to focus our collective energies on meeting all our children’s needs and unlocking all our children’s potentials?
To find out, I went to as many workshops as I could, took over 100 pages of notes, and paid special attention to the following questions:
Does CDF have a leader who is truly “adult”?
Does CDF focus only on poor kids, or does it focus on all kids?
Does CDF emphasize simple answers to complex problems, or does it relish grappling with complexity?
Does CDF need to “own” the movement, or is it willing to link up with groups representing different perspectives -- groups such as Colin Powell’s America’s Promise: The Alliance for Youth?
I left the conference impressed. The CDF is, in fact, torn both ways on each of the last three questions -- but there’s plenty of energy in the organization pushing it towards openness and inclusiveness.
Marian at the helm
Everyone at the conference knew who was in charge. And everyone seemed to be fond of Marian Wright Edelman. Every day “Marian sightings” were enthusiastically reported, and half the attendees seemed to have their favorite “Marian stories.”
It’s hard not to feel good about Marian. She grew up in the 50s in the most conservative part of South Carolina, her father a Baptist minister, her mother a community activist. A scholarship took her to Spelman College in Atlanta, the most prestigious black women’s college in the U.S., where -- inevitably -- she got caught up in the civil rights movement.
But instead of throwing herself heedlessly into that movement (like your editor did), she decided she could be of maximum use if she acquired some skills. So after Spelman she obtained a fellowship to Yale Law School, and after Yale she set up shop as the movement’s lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi -- the first black female lawyer in the state.
By the time I got to Mississippi in late 1964, she’d already acquired a rep as tough (aka “controlling”) and pragmatic. She led the push to centralize Mississippi’s famously decentralized Head Start program -- saving it from certain death at the hands of Mississippi’s racist senators (but outraging many movement purists). In 1967 she not only testified in Congress, she talked Senator Robert Kennedy into accompanying her to Mississippi -- and what he saw there changed his life.
In 1968 she married an up-and-coming young Kennedy aide, a Jew from Minneapolis named Peter Edelman. Soon they had three sons. In Marian’s most compelling book, The Measure of Our Success (1992), one of her sons wrote this in the foreword:
“My parents raised me to be an individual. . . . In the absence of the civil rights period, though, the person that I have become -- the cultural mulatto, the well-to-do Black liberal wary of the political process, the sheltered Bar Mitzvah boy who has struggled with his blackness -- never could have existed.”
By the 1970s, the Edelmans were in Washington, D.C. Peter became a law professor at Georgetown, where he is to this day. Marian ran a small, idealistic think tank, where she discovered that no matter how much good information you feed to sympathetic senators, you accomplish exactly nothing without an organ- ized constituency backing you up.
So she started CDF in 1973, and quickly built it into a multi-million dollar organization producing a fount of no-nonsense studies on the needs of children, initiating or coordinating a myriad of projects, and whispering in many a Congressperson’s ear (Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch have both publicly thanked her). Her own books have become less polemical and more reflective, some might say more spiritual.
If the NAACP still sometimes sounds as if the civil rights movement never happened (see RAM #3), CDF -- proudly multiracial, and convinced that “Asking the right questions and measuring the right things may be more important than finding the right answers” (Marian, Lanterns, 1999) -- now sometimes sounds as if it could launch a movement unifying all classes and races and generations.
Perhaps it just has.
Celebration of complexity
Ever the efficient organizer, Edelman structured the CDF’s yearbook -- and the conference itself -- around five themes, five goals that a Movement for All Our Children would seek to achieve:
-- a safe start (including training in conflict resolution and emotional skills);
-- a healthy start;
-- a head start (life-affirming parenting and pre-school);
-- a fair start (poverty not to be a debilitating factor); and
-- a moral start.
The biggest danger for a movement based on such ambitious goals is that it’ll gravitate to certain quick and easy half-truths (some Taxpayers Union spokesmen, you’ll remember from RAM #2, blamed the undeserving poor for high tax rates; some NAACP stalwarts blamed the police for high black crime rates). So to my eyes, the most telling plenary session at the conference was the one called “Growing Up in America.”
It brought together half a dozen authors, most of them much younger than me, to talk about what it’s really like being young in America today. And rather than blaming “guns” or “poverty” or “capitalism” for young people’s problems, every single one of them went deeper.
Junot Diaz, from Edison, New Jersey by way of the Dominican Republic, is the Guggenheim Award-winning author of a book of acclaimed short stories, Drown (1996). His talk focused on racism, but his message was miles removed from that of the NAACP.
It’s easy to pick on the white community, he declared (goatee bobbing, shaved head gleaming), but I got as much shit growing up from the black community as from the white. And the Puerto Rican kids, especially the ones who hadn’t spoken Spanish in two generations, they might have been the worst. . . .
Drown itself is subtle, even profound. One of its slightest pieces, “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Half- ie,” perfectly conveys why the politically correct worldview is a barrier to human understanding.
Both books convey the kids’ lives so honestly (as distinct from sob-story-sympathetically), and in such compelling and colorful detail -- the bravado, the street life, the secrets, the fears -- that you can’t help thinking, Jesus, I don’t know anything about kids’ real lives today.
Which is just what Myers wants us to think. Our kids are being abandoned, he told his rapt audience. Somebody’s got to write about that. I went back to school at the age of 40 to learn how to write about that.
For Myers, the abandoners include not just governments but teachers, neighbors, employers, the criminal justice system, even parents with their penchant for conditional love.
Nina Revoyr is author of an acclaimed novel, The Necessary Hunger (1997). Her talk stressed her “history of confusion that came from being of mixed race” -- Japanese mother, white Midwestern father. When they moved to L.A. she felt like “a walking Rorschach Test of other people’s racial agendas.”
In the end, she said, she learned to welcome her mixed heritage, finding that it enabled her to both “function as a spy” and begin wanting to “create a place where we [all] really belong.”
Her novel is about a female half-Asian, half-Polish-American high school basketball star from L.A., and it’s made clear that honest competition and the striving for excellence -- “the necessary hunger” -- is an integral part of the good society. It’s also made clear that for many young people in L.A., the game is rigged and the hunger is twisted or absent. (All this without a dollop of preachiness -- only jump shots, teriyaki sauce and lots of funky conversation among friends.)
When the plenary ended, it received the loudest applause I heard at the conference. Many people stood and cheered.
I’d spoken with enough conference-goers by then to know that they weren’t just cheering the panelists. They were affirming that any new movement would have to do what the panelists did: Embrace complexity rather than avoid it.
Culture of violence
The depthful tone of the conference was established on the first full day, at a plenary workshop called “Stopping the Killing of Children.” I was hoping against hope that the speakers wouldn’t just rail against “guns” and “bad apples,” and I’d like to tell you why.
The shootings last month at the Washington, D.C. zoo took place about 300 feet from my window.
The media focused -- as it always seems to do -- on the boy who shot the gun. The Bad Guy. The kid who spoiled African-American Family Celebration Day for thousands of good Washingtonians.
It also focused on the possible source of the gun.
I was more struck by the fact that for two days prior to the shooting, thousands of kids were pouring into the neighborhood, and many of them -- girls as well as boys -- were unusually rude, loud and aggressive; “cruisin’ for a bruisin,’” it used to be called.
To avoid trouble, I took to walking in the street rather than challenging them for space on the sidewalk.
No reporters mentioned the steady build-up of tension in the area -- and few reporters mentioned the immediate build-up to the shooting, the confrontations among roaming bands of 20-30 youths lasting several hours in the zoo.
The media preferred to focus on the One Bad Kid and the GUN!!!!, as if the problem of youth violence could be isolated and dealt with so easily.
What does the violence mean? What are the kids struggling to express? Those were the questions I wanted the media to ask and try to answer.
It didn’t, of course. But many of the participants at CDF’s “Stopping the Killing” plenary had the courage and understanding to do just that.
Olara Otunnu, the United Nations’ “special representative for children and armed conflict,” said there’s a culture of violence among children now, not just in the U.S. but all over the world.
Geoffrey Canada, president of New York’s Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families and a tough guy once himself, spoke of the huge role of alcohol and drugs. He recalled for his half-horrified, half-fascinated audience the joys of “40s” (40 ounces of malt liquor packaged for one person) and “blunts” (cigars packed with marijuana).
Canada’s book Fist Stick Knife Gun : A Personal History of Violence in America (1995) makes a pretty good case that in many youth cultures in America today, “respect” is the totem, and violence is inextricably associated with respect. To be seen as weak by your peers is to go through adolescence with a big “Kick Me” sign on your butt. (In some youth cultures, doing well in school is automatically associated with weakness.)
Canada further shows that most adults are constitutionally incapable of grasping the importance of “respect” -- and the shamefulness of weakness -- in youth culture. Literally, “they just don’t understand.”
(Junot Diaz, in his talk at the “Growing Up in America” plenary, offered up another explanation for the culture of violence, especially among “young people of color”: It’s a result of self-hatred.
(Look how all the coming-of-age books by people of color are built around struggles against self-hatred, he said. Look how all the dark-skinned cultures have invented something called “light-skin privilege.”
(In Diaz’s short story collection Drown (above), you laugh along with the youthful protagonists as they shoplift, break windows, pull off a girl’s bikini top, piss on people’s stoops. But you also sense that their behavior is not coming from a happy or healthy place.)
Susan Schechter, social work professor from the University of Iowa, pointed to the link between bad parenting and community violence.
She summarized studies showing that kids who are abused or neglected at home are far more likely to use violence against others.
She also reported that kids who watch “repeated assaults against a spouse” are “at greater risk to commit violence.”
Deborah Prothrow-Stith, public health professor from Harvard, basically seconded Schechter -- pointing out that troubled kids seem to be “carrying huge amounts of pain and violence around with them.”
The scary thing is that Canada, Diaz and Schechter could all be “right” -- and none of them traces youth violence to lax gun laws or Creepy Bad Guys. (In fact, Prothrow-Stith stresses that girls are now 25% of those arrested for youth violence . . . which doesn’t surprise me after the scene at the Washington zoo.)
Agenda for all our children
With competent leadership, a post-ideological acceptance of complexity, and a willingness to look deeply at issues like youth violence, CDF is the perfect vehicle to launch that gleam in Marian’s eye, a Movement for All Our Children -- a movement even more inclusive than than civil rights movement of the 60s.
What it lacks is a firm agenda. But if you attended the workshops faithfully, as I did -- and if you peruse two books that Marian recently endorsed (James Garbarino’s Lost Boys, 1999, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West’s War Against Parents, 1998) -- and if you sneak a peek at Colin Powell’s website (www.americaspromise.org) -- then you’ll have a good sense of what that agenda should contain.
Safe start. Handguns should be given trigger locks (Hewlett and West), and aspiring gun owners should have to pass the equivalent of a driver’s ed test (Geoff Canada). But gun safety alone can’t ensure kids a safe start.
At a standing-room-only workshop, which got even more crowded as the afternoon wore on, Linda Lantieri -- co-author of Waging Peace in Our Schools (1996) -- described the work of her Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (www.esrnational.org).
“It’s a myth that we only need intellectual competence to be well-educated,” the gritty, middle-aged Lantieri told the adoring crowd. “Young people are [falling backward] on 40 variables having to do with their social and emotional lives.”
She wants programs in every school -- and from K through 12 -- that will teach kids conflict resolution skills, intergroup relations skills, and “social-emotional competencies.”
“We need to teach young people how to habitually respond in situations of conflict and violence,” she said, “so the violent responses do not lock in.”
Lantieri wants ongoing conflict resolution and social-emotional training for teachers and parents, too. “You need [to reach teachers and parents] to change the culture of the school,” she said.
When Columbia University’s School of Public Health tracked 5,000 students taking part in Lantieri’s program, it found a significant reduction in incidents of “aggressive behavior.” It even found that the students improved academically faster than others.
Geoffrey Canada wants to create a new federal program called the “Peace Officer Corps.” It could do in communities what Lantieri is teaching kids to do in schools.
“Peace officers would not be police,” Canada says. “They would not carry guns and would not be charged with making arrests. Instead they would be local men and women hired to work in their very own neighborhoods, responsible for knowing the children in the neighborhood -- their schools, their playgrounds, their afternoon programs . . . as well as kids just hanging on the corner.
“[They] would try to settle ‘beefs’ and mediate disputes. [And t]hey would make a real effort to connect with parents and other adults. . . .”
They’d have certainly been able to stop the Washington zoo tragedy in its tracks.
Healthy start. The CDF wants to “expand health coverage to every uninsured child.” (So does Colin Powell.) A sensible approach -- because it doesn’t invite cheating -- is in Hewlett and West: “Government pay[s] for health insurance for [all] children of parents earning under $30,000” not covered by Medicaid.
At a workshop on “State Child Care Developments,” CDF state and local policy maven Helen Blank said that because of one Human Services Administrator who’s “really zealous,” Rhode Island -- Rhode Island! -- now provides health insurance to all children, without exception. Her moral: It isn’t ideology OR dry competence we need now. It’s dedication.
Head start I: parenting. Garbarino wants government to promote “positive parenting practices.” He has two initiatives in mind, home visits and formal classes.
“Home visiting programs [could] introduce a caring person who represents the community into the life of a child before he is even born,” he says.
“[In certain circumstances, you could have] a caring, competent woman [establish] a long-term, supportive relationship with the mother-to-be. The home visitor [might come] to the family’s residence on a regular basis . . . for the first two years of the child’s life.”
Parent education classes could be sponsored by state or local governments; parents could be induced to attend. Garbarino reports that, after one mother completed a ten-session class, she finally understood “how smart . . . young children could be.” She started reading to her kids every night, “and was more confident she could handle them without resorting to hitting.”
Head start II: pre-school. In a moving ceremony at the end of the conference, Marian presented North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt with a special CDF Award for launching that state’s Smart Start program, “now a model for the nation,” Marian explained.
“The vision expressed [by you] is the vision we have in North Carolina,” Hunt told 2,000 cheering CDFers (three weeks before repeating essentially the same line to Colin Powell in Greensboro). “Our top [priority] has been seeing that every child starts school . . . ready to learn and, as I like to say, ready to fly.”
Helen Blank includes a thorough description of Smart Start in her CDF policy book Seeds of Success (1999), and it really does sound like grassroots government at its best:
“In 1998-99 spending on Smart Start was $140 million. In addition, cash and in-kind contributions from the private sector totaled [an additional] $13 million. . . .
“Local ‘partnerships’ -- [covering] one or more counties -- are given responsibility for determining how to use the community’s Smart Start funds. Communities assess what gaps exist in their early childhood programs and determine how to target their funds accordingly. . . .
“Funds may be used for direct child care subsidies; improving the quality of child care and early education; teacher education and support; health and dental care for children; parent education and support. . . . At least 70% must be used for early care and education. . . .
“The membership of local partnership boards of directors MUST consist of representatives of public and private non-profit health and human service agencies; child care providers; the business community; foundations; county and municipal governments; local education units; families. . . .”
Fair start. Like Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action (RAM #7), the CDF’s Yearbook suggests expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit -- particularly for families with three or more children -- and increasing the Child and Dependent Care tax credits for low-income families.
(It also suggests making the credits refundable if a family doesn’t earn enough to claim them . . . in effect, providing a tiny guaranteed income.)
Hewlett and West would have the government give tax incentives to companies so all workers could be paid a wage “above the poverty line.”
Colin Powell would drastically increase the number of internships open to teen-agers.
Moral start. How to put moral values into the lives of young people? Hewlett and West prefer an indirect approach. They’d have the government provide tax incentives to employers to encourage “family-friendly” policies -- especially flexible working hours, and benefits for part-time work. More parents could then spend more time with their kids.
Colin Powell’s group is taking a more direct approach. It’s pumping tens of thousands of volunteer tutors and mentors into places where they’re most needed.
One of CDF’s after-dinner speakers, Ted Sizer -- co-author of The Students Are Watching (1999) -- is calling for a nation-wide commitment to character education in the schools. He’s well known for insisting that character education means modeling good behavior. “We [teachers and administrators] must -- for [students’] benefit and ours -- model [informed] citizenship,” he says. “The routines and rituals of a school teach, and teach especially about matters of character.”
Garbarino agrees -- and adds that character education should include a spiritual dimension. “It would mean starting off the institutional day at the school with a period of meditation. . . . It would mean that in the cafeteria, time would be set aside . . . for some statement of appreciation of the food.
“It would mean that each day each child would spend some time talking, reading, writing, and reflecting about . . . core values. . . .”
Turning of the wheel
Last fall I reported that the NAACP was becoming less inclusive, more simplistic, and more strident (RAM #3). I am happy to report that the Children’s Defense Fund is on its way to becoming for our time what the NAACP, SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC were for the Sixties -- a place where the new America is being born.
Perhaps that wheel was meant to turn. The old civil rights groups were all founded in what could fairly be described as a racist nation. They sought to instill racial pride.
The CDF was founded in 1973, nine years after the Voting Rights Act, at the beginning of what can fairly be called the most ambitious multiracial and multiethnic social experiment in the history of the world.
The CDF seeks to break down barriers among races and ethnic groups . . . to pave the way for, so to speak, black Bar Mitzvah boys and half-Asian, half-Polish-American female basketball stars from L.A. (And all their spiritual cousins, of all races and ethnicities.) It seeks to forge a new unity, a new common purpose, among us all.
Nowhere was this better on display than at CDF’s “Beat the Odds” plenary, guest hosted by Maya Angelou. It honored six New York City high school seniors who’d overcome adversity and achieved academic success. And it gave them $5,000 each in college scholarship funds.
Two blacks, two Hispanics, a white girl and a teen-age Chinese immigrant each had to walk past thousands of applauding CDFers, go up to the stage and say a few words. It didn’t look easy for any of them, but they did it.
Raquel Cardona, chunky, Hispanic, 18, spent her so-called years of innocence dealing with sexual abuse, mental depression, a terrifying stalker, and -- not least -- drug-dealing parents. She’s an honors student and captain of her high school debate team. Last December she tried to commit suicide by cutting her wrists.
She hopes to become a history teacher. “I like inspiring thought in other people’s minds,” she told the crowd.
Angelou hugged her tight, then told her, “Courage is the most important virtue. Because without it we can’t sustain any of the other virtues.”
Steven Rocker, tall, black, 18, grew up in a family split apart by drugs and violence. When he was seven his mother went to jail -- and he was sent to a foster home. He re-united with his mother four years ago, and cooks, cleans and does homework with his five younger brothers and sisters until his mom gets home from working as a switchboard operator.
His first words to the CDF crowd were, “Washington Irving, one of my favorite writers. . . .”
To his high school English teacher (who was somewhere in the crowd), he said, “Your excitement for literature has changed the way I view the world.”
To his mom, he said, “You were a single mother, and yet you made me a man.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t committed to making the well-being of All Our Children the unifying American project of the 21st century.
CDF: 25 “E” Street NW, Washington DC 20001, www.childrensdefense.org.
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
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