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Essays on Civic Renewal

National Renewal

John Gardner

Copyright 1994 by John Gardner

John Gardner is the principle founder of the Alliance for National Renewal, which consists of over 120 groups committed to civic revitalization and collaborative community problem solving. Gardner is Professor of Business, Stanford University, Stanford, California and Chairman of the National Civic League. This article was adapted from his remarks to the 100th National Conference on Governance, Saturday, November 12, 1994, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Civilizations rise and fall-and sometimes if they are lucky-they renew themselves. Theoretically, the possibility of national renewal is ever-present but in fact it comes in bursts. I shall be talking about the coming burst or-to speak more precisely-the burst that has already begun and must be made to continue.

One striking sign of renewal is a wave of innovation in grassroots problem-solving that covers virtually every relevant topic-prenatal care, parent education, school-linked services, school to job programs, affordable housing, conflict resolution, and so on. It represents an astonishing burst of vitality. Of course such good news is hard to believe, given the unrelieved horror stories that we read every day. But it is happening across this country. The innovators represent a great diversity of racial, religious and occupational backgrounds.

Add to the ranks of the innovators a large number of Americans who are applying themselves with zest and commitment to keep their communities functioning effectively.

Because their work is local-and we are very much hooked on national news-the men and women working on the most serious problems of our communities have not come to national attention. But Americans are hurting, and these virtually unknown men and women are working on some of the things that hurt the most. 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 collapse of human dignity under extremes of poverty, the abducting of children, 11 year-olds dealing crack, 6th grade children having children-in short, the shredding of the social fabric.

Re-weaving the fabric calls for just the sort of grassroots activity described earlier-work with dysfunctional families, school-to-work programs, creating jobs, building community with its shared values, and so on. It's slow work, It's hard work in the heat of the day. But it must be done.

One could speak at length of the problems that afflict the nation-unemployment, housing,

Our 4.5 trillion dollar debt, environmental degradation, a decaying infrastructure, a troubled educational system, international crises. Our infant mortality rate is the second highest in the developed world-twice that of Japan. Only Portugal ranks higher. Over twenty percent of American children are growing up in poverty. The corrupting role of money in politics, the scandals involving Members of Congress, the gridlock produced by fierce partisanship and intransigent vested interests-all have contributed to a pervasive cynicism.

It is the sheer magnitude of these problems that has led to The Alliance for National Renewal, more than 90 organizations that reflect the diversity of American life-from the American Association of Retired Persons to the National Urban League, from the National Council of La Raza to Habitat for Humanity.

The National Civic League, which is serving as convener for The Alliance, is one hundred years old as you know. It has established productive relations with the whole spectrum of organizations serving communities, from the International City/County Management Association, to the National Urban League. Its programs bring it into intimate contact with the grimmest of domestic problems. Its All-America City Awards has, for 45 years, exposed it to the most forward-looking communities in the nation. Through its Civic Assistance Program it provides technical assistance to communities that need help in bringing their diverse constituencies into the solving of common problems.

The participating organizations in The Alliance for National Renewal are autonomous and they will follow their own diverse agendas. They are concerned with the whole range of problems on the domestic front. Thus The Alliance for National Renewal has its roots deep in the soil of our troubled communities. We have had exposure to all the significant ingredients needed for a good future. We know the technical and administrative problems of local government. We know the constituencies that must be brought into partnership at the local level-corporations, unions, ethnic groups, churches, foundations, neighborhood associations, citizen activist groups. We know the people who are producing the significant innovations. And we know from long experience how to engage all of the relevant groups in collaborative problem-solving.

We cannot hope to tackle all national issues; but we can hope to have a substantial impact on the devastating problems that afflict so many of our communities. We can stem the tide of social disintegration.

I have spoken of the impressive stirring of problem-solving energies at the grassroots level. It is the intention of The Alliance for National Renewal to give maximum effect and exposure to those new energies.

If time permitted, I would describe some of the hundreds of programs one could list. I think of the extraordinary work that Jim Rouse and the Enterprise Foundation are doing in Baltimore; of the innovative work that James Comer is doing in the schools; of the extraordinary burst of civic creativity that Chattanooga has exhibited.

We hope to provide an inventory of case studies, easily accessible to those who want to tap into the wave of grassroots problem-solving. With respect to any important innovation, we will encourage the development of appropriate materials for dissemination and training: videos designed for teaching, manuals, books and training programs.

The Alliance for National Renewal will work to interconnect the various fields in which innovation is occurring. Almost everyone now sees the connections between health and education, between dysfunctional families and violence, between community disintegration and crime. Virtually all of the problems of the city are interrelated, and those who work on the problems must work on them together.

The organizations participating in The Alliance will pursue their own diverse agendas with redoubled energy and will find ways of working together. With more than 90 participating organizations, the level of activity should be high. As a group, what concerns us?

One of the matters in which we have considerable stake is the extraordinary rise of interest in community. The difficulty that the American people are experiencing in the accomplishment of group purpose is traceable in part to a disintegration of shared values; and unfortunately, the soil in which such values are rooted and nurtured-family and community-is being blown away in the dust storm of contemporary life.

We will promote proven approaches to the rebuilding of a sense of community in families, schools, congregations, neighborhoods, with particular attention to the community's role in the protection and nurture of children, striving for shared purpose while valuing diversity. A healthy community is an arena in which we learn responsibility to and for others. It is a network of trust and social support and nurtures a sense of the common good.

It is particularly important to rebuild community in the most deteriorated parts of the city. Delivery of services to the poor is not enough. No matter how efficient the delivery, the poor will continue to feel helpless unless there is the rebuilding of stable social structures.

In facing the problems of deteriorated neighborhoods-crime, drugs, prostitution, abandoned buildings, decayed values, shattered families-it is futile to pick out a single item and work on it apart from the rest. We are dealing with the diverse consequences of something deeper-social disintegration. Only if we repair that will the consequences begin to disappear.

It must not be thought, however, that the rebuilding of community is necessary only in economically distressed areas. The sense of community may be wholly absent in the privileged family, in the affluent congregation, in the well-heeled suburb, with clear consequences in terms of white collar crime, substance abuse, child neglect and so on.

A vital community reconciles group purposes with individual diversity. On the larger scene the diversity is supplied not by individuals but by subgroups-national, ethnic, religious, linguistic, whatever. In either case the goal is to achieve wholeness incorporating diversity. That is the transcendent task for our generation, at home and worldwide. We must regenerate the sense of community from the ground up. Men and women who have come to understand in their own intimate settings-schools, congregations, neighborhoods-the principles of "wholeness incorporating diversity," the arts of diminishing polarization, the meaning of teamwork and participation will be far better allies in the effort to build elements of community into the city, the nation and the world.

In recent decades, much has been learned about the resolving of disputes, and it should be taught in every educational system. The ancient human impulse to hate and fear the tribe in the next valley, the ethnic group on the next block, those who are "not like us" is deep-seated.

That is why our interest in local community building is inevitably linked with a concern for collaborative processes. The diverse, sometimes extremely hostile, elements must learn the arts of communicating across boundaries and building consensus. The basic rules are that each group must be respected, and each group must reach back toward the whole community We know that communities and the sense of community can be revitalized through collaborative problem-solving, using well-tested techniques.

In line with the principle of devolving initiative and responsibility, the role of local government will have to be strengthened-and the weaknesses that prevent it from playing that role effectively will have to dealt with. Federal legislation and regulations must be so designed as to leave ample room for ground-level creativity and collaboration. If American communities are to play the role they can and will play in national renewal, there must be a dispersion-a devolution-of power from Washington. It is essential to relate all levels of government to the corporate and nonprofit worlds in mutually fruitful partnerships; and to relate local government to all segments of our communities-racial, linguistic, occupational and the like.

We do not believe that Americans should look to government as the only hope for solving their problems. We shall save ourselves or we won't be saved. But government is one instrument at our disposal, and it must play its part. We intend to help government to revitalize itself at every level. Today a very high percentage of the American people believe that their political and governmental institutions are corrupt and ineffective.

To begin to turn that around we must do a better job of calling our leaders to account. The simple rule is: Hold power accountable. We can no longer tolerate a system of campaign financing that makes our leaders accountable to donors rather than to voters. We can no longer tolerate any government-federal, state or local-that has created such an impenetrable web of power and money and special interests that it is no longer controllable by the electorate. We will work for open, responsive, accountable government at all levels, and will seek to create mutually trusting alliances between government and all levels of the community.

In the large intricately organized systems through which we pursue contemporary purposes-and I am speaking of all systems, corporate, governmental and others-dispersion of initiative and responsibility is an inescapable requirement. It isn't just a matter of democratic sentiment. Centralization doesn't work. There must be in every segment and at every level of the system individuals able to, trained to and motivated to make leader-like decisions with respect to problems in their part of the system. Otherwise, the system will eventually flounder. The corporate world learned that lesson painfully over the last 20 years.

So the role of local government will have to be strengthened and the weaknesses that prevent it from playing that role effectively will have to be dealt with. Federal legislation and regulations must be so designed as to leave ample room for ground level creativity and collaboration. If American communities are to play the role that they can and will play in national renewal, there must be dispersion of power from Washington.

Pursuing our belief in this wide sharing of initiative and responsibility, National Renewal will encourage active involvement by citizens in community issues, and will assist in the emergence of leadership within the community. Public forums and citizen deliberation enhance understanding of the issues, as David Mathews and Daniel Yankelovich have convincingly demonstrated. Voluntary community service is increasingly popular among all age groups. The Alliance for National Renewal will encourage volunteer and philanthropic efforts to re-weave the fabric of community life. America's immensely diverse world of nonprofit institutions is a rich resource in all that The Alliance for National Renewal is seeking to accomplish.

Great things happen nationally when topmost leadership is goaded and supported from below. It is impossible to imagine that our present extensive environmental legislation could have been put in place through the initiative of the Executive Branch and Congress acting alone. Governmental leaders were responding to a dynamic movement outside of government. The same can be said for the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s: had there been no civil rights movement, there would have been no legislation.

This does not imply an adversarial relationship between the people and the government. Everything we've learned in recent decades tells us that government-private sector partnerships are essential in tackling our complex domestic problems. But government needs the pressure, stimulus and support of vigorous nongovernmental leadership.

Citizen action and citizen community service are sources of morale. The sense of impotence grows like a great, life-endangering tumor in a huge and complex society. All too many citizens feel hopelessly separated from the centers of decision, hopelessly jerked around by circumstances they can't even understand much less combat. For them to act—in their own behalf and in behalf of the community—is curative. Even the simplest civic act helps-something in their own community, something doable, something the consequences of which they can see with their own eyes. It moves the citizen toward a sense of ownership, and cuts through the sullen, disengaged, "What are they going to do to me next?" attitude. That is one of the reasons some of us favor a universal ethic of personal voluntary service to one's own community.

People want meaning in their lives; but in this turbulent era a context of meaning is rarely handed to us as a comfortable inheritance. Today we have to build meaning into our lives, and we build it through our commitments-to our religion, to our conception of an ethical order, to our loved ones, to our community, to unborn generations.

Citizens should be involved in some form of citizen action or community service. An old farm proverb says "The footprint of the owner is the best manure." The footprints of citizens should be all over community affairs. Within the bounds of law and custom, The Alliance for National Renewal will seek to encourage the release of human talent and energy. The release involves effort along many lines, among them:

  • Removal of the caps on energy and talent imposed by poverty, racism, illness, joblessness, dysfunctional families and the like.
  • Lifelong education that seeks out hidden gifts and sets everyone on a path of self directed learning and growth. Education liberates. As someone said, if ignorance is bliss, there should be more happy people.
  • The redesign of large-scale organizations (corporate, governmental and nonprofit) that smother individual talent and energy under the weight of bureaucratic rigidities.
  • Jobs for everyone willing to work.

In addition to the consequences for the individual, the release of human possibilities can have powerful economic consequences. Released talent and energy builds civilizations.

But talent and energy in themselves are morally neutral. We have some remarkably talented and energetic crooks. What we seek is release within a framework of law and shared values. And that framework will exist only to the extent that a measure of community exists. Hence our strong and central emphasis on community-building.

A final objective of The Alliance for National Renewal-admittedly ambitious-is to turn the mood of the country around. Students of public opinion agree that the state of mind of the general public today is distressing. There is mistrust of virtually all of our institutions-governmental and non-governmental. There is inertia, negativism and an attitude of "What's in it for me?" There is fear that the framework of values we have lived by is crumbling. And there is a loss of hope and confidence that good American energy and sense will straighten things out, loss of the faith that if we all pull together, we'll solve our problems.

I have mentioned many hopeful signs of renewal, but the question is still open whether the menace of social disintegration is growing more rapidly than the healing processes. To solve our most grievous problems will require a massive effort extending over years. A short burst of energy won't do it. A short term boost to the economy won't do it.

There is a long, hard climb ahead.

But in the spirit of renewal it could be an exhilarating climb. Failure and frustration are not reason to doubt ourselves, but reason to strengthen resolve. Americans are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We are happiest when we are taking charge of our future and working together. How can the American people be awakened to a new sense of purpose, a new vision and a new resolve?

A movement to wake up America would have to be like the nation itself-not monolithic, not hierarchical, not dependent on a powerful, charismatic leader rousing the masses, but upon leaders dispersed through all segments of society and down through all levels of the society, and upon an even greater number of vital and responsible citizens who share leadership tasks. It cannot be centrally directed or tidy. Local effort is essential. Local responsibility is crucial. We see the rebirth of a nation rising up out of the nation's communities. Periodically, throughout our history, "the folks out there," out and around America, far from power but close to the good American earth have shown not only their creativity but their capacity to move the nation. We think that this is such a time. We believe that the next America will be forged "out there" in American communities.

All segments of the society must be involved-all religious and ethnic segments, the professions, government, the nonprofit world, business, labor, the educational world and so on. Everyone must help. And in the same spirit, the benefits must be widely shared. No one can be left out.

Whether you are an Asian immigrant seeking citizenship, a Hispanic pursuing upward mobility, an African American fighting for racial justice, a descendant of earlier immigrant groups (including the Mayflower passengers) or a Native American whose ancestors immigrated before recorded history-you have a stake in the health of this society. We're all in this together. Our tradition has been one of continuous renewal by streams of newcomers. The many ways in which the newcomers have contributed is a part of our tradition.

One of the greatest phrases in our history is "We, the people." But we must not be sentimental about it. We have our times of strength and our times of self-indulgence. We-we the people-have been living beyond our means, consuming more than any other nation on earth, tolerating mediocrity, dodging the hard decisions. And we have made self-exoneration a national habit. We have become a nation of blamers. What is tearing the country down is that other group, not my kind of people, those other people.

But I believe that Americans will welcome a new burst of commitment. The old spirit is still there-buried, but waiting for a wakeup call to lift us out of our sourness and self-doubt.

If we are to accomplish the painful tasks before us today we will require a positive public mood, a charge-ahead mood, a we-can-do-it mood. There will have to be an extraordinary resurgence of spirit on the part of the American people, a fierce commitment to the common good, a willingness to sacrifice. If we don't have it in us to respond, social disintegration awaits.

Like an athlete back from a lazy summer, we must get long-unused muscles back into shape. We must celebrate our obligation to one another and to the society that guards our freedom. We must make responsibility our watchword. We must redefine patriots as men and women who tackle the problems, resolve the conflicts and renew the values of their communities. If we can turn around the spirit of the American people, it will spread to every facet of our national life.

Many Americans now alive remember how we rose to the fierce demands of 1942-1945. The present challenge is smaller in scale but conceivably even more dangerous. External enemies are more readily responded to. Most civilizations die from within, and are conquered less often by traitors within the gate than by traitors within the heart-loss of belief, corruption, loss of a sense of control and disintegration of shared purposes.

The strength to do the job is there. We have the opportunity for a new cast at history-the rebirth of a nation. We have it in us to re-create a nation committed to deeply held values, highly motivated in pursuit of its shared purposes, economically vital, renewing itself continuously, and committed to the release of human possibilities; a nation that has mastered within its own boundaries the secret of wholeness incorporating diversity and is helping the world master it. If we regain confidence that we can master our own problems, our effectiveness on the world scene will be substantially enhanced.

As the poet wrote, "The light we sought is shining still." That we have failed and fumbled in some of our attempts to achieve our ideals is obvious. But the great ideas still beckon-freedom, equality, community, justice, the release of human possibilities.

We know that the flame our forebears lit-and I mean not just our American forebears but those of all origins who helped over the centuries to take us down the long trail toward freedom and justice-we know that the flame they lit long ago is not only still burning, but that sparks carried downwind are igniting new fires. But each generation must guard the flame. And we should do so not by righteous posturing but by moving with spirit and energy to tackle the problems of our communities.

Nothing good can issue from the sourness and negativism of the general public today. Nothing. 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.

Let's tell people that there is hope. Let's tell them there's a role for everyone. We can save the family and the children. We know how. We can demand and get accountable government. We can counter the mean-spirited divisiveness that undermines positive action. We can regenerate our shared values. We can release human talent and energy and renew our institutions.

Now is the time to reach within ourselves, each to his or her own deepest reservoirs of faith and hope. Let's say to everyone who will listen:

"Lend a handout of your concern for your community, out of love for your country, out of the depths of whatever faith you hold. Lend a hand."

As a people we are capable of laxity and self-indulgence. We are also capable of greatness. We have tremendous resources of strength and spirit-but we need to strike a spark to release that spirit. The time has come.

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