A call to community action

Published 9:23 am Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We have long shortchanged our children’s future to satisfy our immediate needs. If this were not so, most of our public school classrooms would have 15 to 20 students for each teacher and the largest challenge school administrators would face would be how to best coordinate and apply a constant flood of volunteerism from every quarter of the community.

And in hard times, our myopia is exacerbated by the fires raging around us, demanding that we quench the spreading flames of such ills as gang-induced crime, teen pregnancy and the loss of employment and revenues all ‘round. Indeed, we have no choice but to address such immediate threats as best we can, or we will be done for.

We should remember, however, that the immediate threats we face today are a direct consequence of our own previous lack of foresight and lack of proper investment — many years ago — in our infrastructure, our environment, our public security, our financial security, but especially in our children’s education and welfare; for now a whole generation is beginning to pay the price for our indulgence of immediate wants.

Will we continue on this same course toward disaster? We will indeed, unless we undergo a fundamental culture change. Such a change must occur at the community, grass-roots level and involve our most basic values, such as how we portion our personal time and that of our organizations’ employees.

Such a change must entail a shift from blaming poor parenting, by example, to filling the void; from divisive agendas that sap energy away from progress to a spirit of partnering and cooperation against a common enemy. What common enemy? The unpreparedness of a generation of young adults to succeed to the standards of their predecessors through no fault of their own.

Such a change must entail the taking of responsibility and the application of cooperation. Yes, there is a great deal of this already extant in our community, but a much greater magnitude of both will be required if we are to succeed against our common enemy. Such a change will require all of us to become less passive and less reactionary and instead be more active and proactive. But this is all so much great talk, isn’t it? We all nod our heads in affirmation, but just who is it that can and must make it more than just great talk? There’s the question.

Such a change recognizes that society has morphed in ways that mean we can no longer expect our institutions to operate independently as they were largely designed to. Hence, our Police Department will need more than a certain number of additional officers in order to deter and minimize lawlessness in our community to the extent necessary. And our schools have become unable, alone, to address the complexity and profoundness of the problems that confront education today. Things will only get worse if we fail to act appropriately.

Such a change will find representatives of our churches, police, public housing, school administration, volunteer services, teachers, public health, City Council, social services, community college, PTA, Chamber of Commerce (business community), charitable organizations, recreation and youth organizations and others — all working together in a coordinated way on a long-range mission: the preparation of our community’s children for a successful future. Each institution will continue to do what it does best, but each will dedicate a portion of its human capital to this mission.

At the heart of all this is our system of education, which, like an aging ship in a sea of increasingly troubled waters, is in need of both refurbishing from within and assistance from without. Indeed, FCPS has been blessed to a greater extent than many other school systems with its exceptional administrators, teachers and programs. However, without a sufficient culture change that permeates every nook and cranny of the community — including the school system — we will remain a community of exceptional resources and capability which, lacking synergy across the whole, will fail its most precious treasure and doom its future. And this, being avoidable, defines a tragedy.

Some of the more urban areas to our east are beginning to understand the critical importance of a coordinated partnership across the community. We are seeing more frequent news articles about teen summits, youth and community advisory councils and community forums such as the series being hosted at Maury High School as just a few examples. They are further along on the path of gang-related activities affecting crime and education than we, but should we wait until we reach the same place before we begin to pool resources from across our own community to identify the roots of our problems and to take decisive steps to remedy them? Will we continue to be reactionary (with inadequate results), or will we become proactive?

I was fortunate to attend the introductory portion of a training program in results-based accountability (“RBA”) for those who will lead the development of our regional Smart Beginnings program. (As an aside, I rate Smart Beginnings as potentially the single most important activity that can proactively support the best-possible education of our children.) RBA is an effective tool that can be used across our whole community to organize, research, plan, execute, assess the results, troubleshoot, and modify actions to improve any vital element of community life, such as education and law enforcement.

The participants in the RBA training introduction were broken into several groups, each tasked to define a particular problem within our community and to identify factors contributing to it. When the groups reported their conclusions to the whole assembly, I, for one, was astonished by the obvious: The same factors were at play in contributing to all the grievous problems that face our community and minimize the opportunities for our children to realize a productive and happy future.

It followed, of course, that effective solutions will be achieved only with a concerted, coordinated campaign of activity that draws upon resources all across the community. This is true because our community is an interwoven, interrelated, interdependent fabric of entities, such that one solution can reduce problems in multiple entities within the community; but more importantly, resources in many entities must be brought to bear in a coordinated way to result in one such solution. Thus the Police Department, no matter how great its effort, can no longer be as successful as is needed independent of meaningful involvement and support from other entities within the community; nor can the school system.

We are beginning to understand the concept of an approach that can help us address the problems we face. In his excellent commentary, Bob Edwards recently focused on crime and looked past the need for 10 additional police officers to point out the benefits of a culture change at the street level, and for the active—even proactive—participation of citizens in helping the police to deter and reduce crime. And now Robert Brewbaker has eloquently written of the undeniable link between student achievement in school and problems with drugs and crime in our community—and of how we must draw upon multiple resources in the community to address our problems. Notably, Mr. Brewbaker draws upon the old expression “It takes a village to raise a child,” but I do not believe he is using it as an easy, empty slogan.

It sounds like the use of concerted, cross-community activity targeting common problems is the concept. So, then, how do we activate this great concept? Three components come to mind:

The first is leadership. We must have leaders from every entity across the community who, leading by example, define community issues from their own perspectives, confront obstacles, garner resources, and inspire participation on the part of many others. As vital as it is, however, leadership alone is only one of the necessary components for success in our time. By example, it would be delusional to expect that Franklin’s new school superintendent can come in like a knight in shining armor to vanquish the enemies of education without the full cooperation and great effort on the part of employees across the system.

This segues to the second component: the participation of a critical mass of the general citizenry. We are living in a time when our enemies have become such that our knights are not enough to handle the fight alone anymore. We villagers, and in sufficient numbers, are going to have to grab our pitchforks and join the fight, each doing what we can at our individual level and manner of capability. Indeed, we each have this as a duty of citizenship, in my view.

As Mr. Brewbaker pointed out, our community is already extraordinarily blessed with capability in both of the first two components, each already doing a great job as best it can. The third leg on our stool — the third necessary component—is a vehicle, a structure, an administrative agent to put it all together into a well-oiled, functioning machine that begins to eat away at our community’s problems, which, remember, are profoundly intertwined.

By example, our trouble with students’ dropping out of school is one best-addressed by a solution that grows out of the coordinated involvement of teachers, parents, the police, the churches, social services, et al. We just need for there to be some third-party, overall, coordinating vehicle to facilitate it—third-party, remembering that the developed solution will be addressing a problem just as important for the police, by example, as it is for the school system. Thus, a given solution will need to be developed on a consensus basis rather than “under the control” of a particular community entity.

Whether an existing third-party organization steps up to the plate or one is created, we must have such a vehicle to initialize and then further apply what is now only a great concept. The wealth of leadership and participation we have available within our community amounts to a potential at rest until harnessed and coordinated by this third component.

An atmosphere of hope is inescapable for me. It is clear that we cannot continue as we have; we seem to be at some kind of turning-point within our community and all across our nation. We are presented with an opportunity to make things better for our children if not for ourselves, and the first thing for us to accept is the fact that we each are profoundly interdependent.

Next we must realize that thinking someone else will do what we can do must be replaced by a willingness to contribute whatever may be within our capability no matter how insignificant we think that may be. We simply must extend our hands to each other in ways and to an extent that we seldom have had to before. Indeed, we have met the solution, and the solution is us.