On November 21, 1996, a woman who served as president of a coalition of blocks in her community rose to speak to a group of over 150 teachers, police officers, religious leaders, and community activists from throughout New Jersey. In a quivering voice, she described how she decided to stay in her neighborhood in East Orange not in spite of the community’s decline, but because of it. “I can’t break away, because it’s such a need here, so destitute, some of the situations I’ve seen….and I’m sick….but I want to keep going. If I have to go from house to house to meet with [my neighbors] one on one, then I’ll do it, you know; I don’t mind the hard work, as long as my health will hold up. But we’ve got to get messages across…”
When she concluded, two more women – one a teacher, one a resident working with a community-policing department in the town of Orange just next door – rose to introduce themselves and offer their help. The women worked in the same area, on the same set of problems and possibly with some of the same people, but without knowing each other.
This scene reoccurred several times during the conference, “Strengthening Families and Communities; the Role of Leaders and the Civil Society.” The conference brought together leaders from four key civil institutions – schools, faith organizations, community policing departments, and community- based housing and development organizations to examine the principles, strategies, and skills that nurture and sustain “civil society.” This diverse base of leaders focused on the realities of civil society in New Jersey and came to exchange ways to promote civic engagement, build trust, strengthen families, and solve community problems.
The Decline of American Civic Life
What brought these leaders from across New Jersey together?
They assembled out of a concern that the bonds of community are dangerously eroding; that the basic institutions in neighborhoods – schools, families, religious, and political institutions are, if not deteriorating, at least suffering from serious fatigue. And the character of our civic life rarely expresses the collaborative nature that was once a hallmark of American society.
There are a number of possible explanations for this decline in civic life: economic dislocation, the influence of acquisitive values on people’s everyday lives, the need for two working parents in our families, the growth of bureaucratic government, social mobility, and even the rise of television.
Whatever the cause, civic disengagement and discontent has troubling implications for our society. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and author of Democracy on Trial, puts it this way, “The testimony of events is eloquent and often terrifying: violence, suffered and perpetuated; children unhappy, ignored, home alone, often neglected; teen mothers isolated, hovering in the dangerous places they are forced to call home; teachers afraid of their students; students afraid of other students; civic leaders gazing at a precipitous decline in involvement and participation in all community activities at all levels.”
The lack of civic association – not government handouts or ignorance or evil politicians – explains why, for example, parents in the inner city who want better educational opportunities for their children don’t work collaboratively with others to improve their public schools. It explains why residents in many communities who share an interest in safer streets don’t get together with their neighbors to control crime.
When civic life is vigorous, education improves, families are more likely to remain together, poverty lessens, and crime is abated.
The Civil Society
For centuries scholars and political leaders have argued that a vibrant civil society is necessary to make democratic institutions thrive. The term “civil society” has its roots in the democratic traditions of classical Greece and Rome. While many see the term as a yearning for a society more civil and humane, it more formally refers to the civic space between the government and the private sector. In the keynote address, prepared by Senator Bill Bradley, he defines it as:
The place where Americans make their home, sustain their marriages, raise their families, hang out with their friends, meet their neighbors, educate their children, worship their god. It is in the churches, schools, fraternities, community centers, labor unions, synagogues, sports leagues, PTAs, libraries, and barber shops. It is where opinions are expressed and refined, where views are exchanged and agreements made, where a sense of common purpose and consensus are forged. It lies apart from the realms of the market and the government, and possesses a different ethic. The market is governed by the logic of economic self-interest, while government is the domain of laws with all their coercive authority. Civil society, on the other hand, is the sphere of our most basic humanity – the personal, everyday realm that is governed by values such as responsibility, trust, fraternity, solidarity, and love.
Building and Sustaining Bonds
Civil society cultivates the norms of the larger society, including the moral codes of conduct, the trust to work with others, and the “habits of the heart” that make for good citizenship. The core institutions that comprise the civil society, especially the family and religious institutions, buffer us from the pressures of the market and the state, connect us to the government in a democratic society, and help cultivate democratic virtues, behaviors, and skills. Weakened core institutions mean higher crime rates, poorer education, and family breakdown. Strong ones help us solve the most pressing problems facing our communities.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, in her luncheon address, identified what the civil society means to us in everyday life:
Except in this room and in the halls of academia, people don’t say they are worried about the “state of the civil society.” But they will tell you they are worried about the family falling apart. They’re worried about marriages breaking up, about fathers vanishing from their children’s lives, about children growing up with one parent or no parents or unidentified parents or a string of foster parents.
They’ll tell you that people are aggressively uncivil. In public discourse, the ideal is to have sharp partisan debate in a climate of civility. Today, more often than not, we have a mushy debate in a climate of incivility, even hostility.
At the grassroots, people will tell you that other important bonds are weakening. They mourn the disappearance of the family doctor. They say that the HMOs advertise loving and caring doctors but that they are harder to find in real life. Parents say they can’t find old-fashioned teachers who pick up the phone and call them if their child is having trouble in school. Some people say they can’t find police officers who will treat them respectfully as law-abiding citizens rather than as potential suspects.
Then talk to the doctors, teachers, and police officers. Doctors say they can’t find patients who aren’t ready to sue at the drop of a hat. Teachers say they can’t find parents who will spend time supervising homework or enforcing bedtimes or chaperoning at school activities. Police officers say they can’t find citizens who will be their eyes and ears on the street and who respect them for risking their lives. Religious leaders say they have to find ways to appeal to what we might call the “religious unfaithful” who “shop around” for a place of worship.
There is also a sense that there are no bonds that you can count on. No bonds that are permanent.
Where the civil society is weak, that community has no respected institutions that encourage people to come together for everyone’s benefit; each person regrettably but rationally goes it alone, confirming one another’s sad, dispirited expectations. This conference brought together leaders whose life work revolves around strengthening those bonds.
A Quiet Civic Revival
Between the morning speeches and the luncheon address, a moderated panel began to examine the issues to be discussed during the most important part of the day – the afternoon workgroup sessions. Moderated by public television’s Steve Adubato, the morning panel discussed ways they currently deal with community problems, how they can enhance their ability to strengthen families within their institutional framework, and how that framework can change so they can more effectively work with other institutions in their community.
That afternoon, the 150 plus participants divided into seven geographically based workgroups, each with a mix of representatives of the key civil institutions, to continue the dialogue opened by the panel and begin a process of networking and relationship building.
Most of the conference participants were leaders drawn from the four core community institutions critical to the development of character and civic competence and that address the basic concerns of safety, schooling, shelter, and spirituality. These leaders have shown by their work that they stress citizen activism and operate from a belief that average “ordinary” people are capable of extraordinary things if given the opportunity. Their organizations are institutions around which neighborhoods congeal and grow.
The workgroups allowed participants to share information about the “promising practices” that enhance their internal capacity to deal with the needs of families and neighborhoods, to identify the challenges within and outside their organizations that inhibit that work, and to network within and outside their organizations.
In the weeks since the meeting was held, conference staff, volunteers, and attendees have begun devising plans to connect people working to revitalize communities throughout New Jersey and rebuild the bonds of trust and respect between families and civil institutions. A statewide steering committee is being assembled and local conferences, based on the model of the November 21st conference, are being planned. NHI is now in the process of establishing an Institute for Strengthening Families and Communities.
NHI participants in the conference included board president John Atlas, and members Pat Morrissy, Preston Pinkett, Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, Deborah Visser, and Robert Zdenek.
The National Housing Institute is pleased to welcome our newest board member, Donna Wharton-Fields. Ms. Wharton-Fields is an associate of the Conservation Company in New York City where she provides management consulting services to nonprofit organizations, corporate community affairs departments, philanthropies, and public agencies. Prior to joining the Conservation Company, she was project director for “One New Jersey,” a program of New Jersey Future. Ms. Wharton-Fields was responsible for planning and implementation of the project, which combined research, community action, and policy formulation to create “regional” solutions for the “twin problems” of urban distress and suburban isolation. Ms. Wharton-Fields was also director of development for the of NYC Housing Partnership and has had experience in both housing and economic development with many organizations including the New York State Urban Development Corporation, the Jersey City Department of Housing and Economic Development, and the Boston Housing Authority. Ms. Wharton-Fields holds a Master of City Planning degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.A. from Williams College.