Public policy does not get us up in the morning; our core beliefs do. It’s the principles we do not articulate every day that nonetheless motivate us to be our finest.
I think it’s time we stop being afraid to bring to light the words that quicken and move us. Funders have been known to ask faith-based programs to “get rid of the praying part” of the social services they provide, or at best to take a euphemistic approach to programs that have a religious dimension. But many times the spiritual element is a strong, if not essential, part of what makes a drug-treatment program or a crime-prevention program work or what sustains those who work in such programs. Why not make these core values, and the words that express them, a legitimate part of our public policy and program language?
I spent most of my life helping to design and run programs in the public policy arena. I know that success requires certain policies and practices. But policy-speak does not capture the essence of what brings out the true magic of prevention.
Policies don’t explain Matty Lawson, who lost two of her children to gang violence. As a father of two, I cannot imagine a more horrible pain. But Matty was not destroyed by her staggering grief. Instead she turned to action, saying, “I no longer have two children. I have 400 of them. Not one more child in my neighborhood will die.” Why did she not fold up in her grief?
And how do you explain MAMAS, Mothers Against Murder And Assault? MAMAS, mothers of slain children, volunteer to work in the California Youth Authority with some of the state’s most violent youth, youth at the end of a long train of broken relationships, abuse and street violence.
Why do they come?
They have no reason to feel for these youth, no reason to care for them. They are not there as professional fixers or monitors, not as probation officer to client, not as assigned caseworkers. They do not come as whole persons to broken persons, perfect to imperfect. They are there because they hurt. They are there as part of a mutual struggle to heal, to try and make sense of pain, abandonment, grief, violence and death.
This is not policy. They come as wounded healers. Aren’t we all?
We Need Another Glossary
I began my work probably by accident, having been swept up in the civil rights movement by Martin Luther King, Jr., almost 40 years ago. The changes that stream from his work dazzle to this day: Head Start, Job Corps and such monumental laws as the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts.
I believe that if King had begun with policy, he would have failed.
But he didn’t begin there. He began with a passionate moral commitment. His framing was Exodus escape from slavery, wandering in the desert, a view of the Promised Land, a dream of equality. Unheard of. Madness, perhaps, but the story found itself in every living room and every heart. Everyone who has lived has experienced some injustice, some pain, some desert. The story of Exodus brought us all in.
So while we hold the language of policy as precious, we must be unafraid of another glossary, perhaps the oldest, lurking just beneath the surface in all of us. Let me explore some of the words and concepts that I find are helping further the cause of building communities that do not produce crime:
Claim. We must not simply “fix youth” or “control youth,” we must communicate to youth that they are needed. Many youth feel disconnected and act on their profound loneliness. Said one juvenile murderer: “I would rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.” We need to focus on the opposite of disconnection: passionate involvement.
I am privileged to sit on Attorney General Janet Reno’s Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice. One of our meetings last year was held in a junior high school. One presenter, a minister, described what his church was doing: Head Start, mentoring, family counseling, after-school programs. He concluded: “We also go out on the streets and simply get to know the kids by name.” He said this almost off-handedly, casually, at the end of his presentation. I was stunned. How wonderful, how powerful! For underneath the bravado of many kids we work with, we find the ache of not being claimed and not being loved by anyone.
How basic, to be called by name. This evokes the God of Genesis, the God who names. It is parental. We name our kids. It is love; it is protection: “You are mine.” There is wonderful social policy and theology to be found in Isaiah: “Oh, Israel fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name; thou art Mine.”
For those who don’t care for a biblical reference, I can give you a real-life example. Second graders in New York’s PS 163 decided they should feed the homeless who were harassing them en route to school. “Feeding them is not enough,” said one child. “They need more than that. Let’s put love notes in the bags with the food.”
Loneliness. I think that too many of America’s kids are colossally lonely. One might argue that the Columbine murderers were motivated by a primordial pain, manifested in anger toward those they perceived had rejected them. They murdered the source of their pain, and then as the ultimate antidote against their pain, killed themselves. This does not in the least excuse their horrible acts, but it may help to explain them.
We must have tight school policies to curb violence. Superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, police, teens all must be clear about their roles in preventing violence or reacting to it, should a violent incident occur. Yet I stress that sensible prevention policies must go beyond the incident to reach out to the excluded.
Many of the policies that fearful school communities are implementing after our rash of school shootings seem based on further exclusion rather than on taking the risk to know those on the outside to bring them in, to help them, to make them engaged, responsible members of the human family.
There are too few adults in the lives of children. Listen to some of the voices recorded by the Chicago Tribune in an article entitled “Psychic Orphans,” published on October 4, 1999:
The director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University, William Damen, says, “There has never in the history of the civilized world been a cohort of kids that is so little affected by adult guidance, so attuned to peer culture.”
Robin Favelli, a mother in the community about which the Tribune wrote, says, “Everybody is too busy. There are no block parties or even family picnics. Even on the weekends, parents will put up their feet on the couch and watch TV. The kids will be upstairs playing video games.”
Nobody’s talking. This is a wellspring of loneliness. It affects adults, surely, but it affects children even more deeply.
Transformation. In our new glossary, this means being willing to take the risk of change in order to be with other people. That means being truly with them, because we are open to a relationship with them, not because we want to fix or control. We might just enjoy it, have fun, and who knows, be transformed. It’s much safer, much easier to be distant from those with whom we serve and work.
Holy. This is about sanctity, not of objects or places, but of persons. Sister Eunice Shaw in Oakland, California, at the Allan Baptist Temple calls the spouse abusers with whom she works “holy.” After sitting in on one of her sessions, I said, “You know, sister, these are pretty rough guys. How can you call them ‘holy’?” “You don’t understand,” she responded. “No one has ever called them holy.”
Maybe that word is too heavy for every day. But what about telling a kid (or an adult) “you’re terrific, you’re wonderful”not just for scoring a touchdown or getting good grades? We need to recognize and honor the holiness in each other.
Reconciling. Communities and teenagers have shown that they can take more responsibility for preventing crime. And victimizers can be held clearly responsible for their actions. But without a context of reconciliation, there is no healing and no restoration. The obligation to make whole, to reweave the community fabric torn by crime, means that as the victimizer is responsible and reconciles with the community, so too must the community reconcile with the victimizer.
Caring. Think about preventing school violence. Perhaps like me, your first image is all the policies about exits and entrances, cameras, emergency procedures and responsibilities of key actors administrators, teachers, parents, police, and kids. All these things are necessary for a safe school.
Now imagine if our goal were, instead, a caring school. What would it look like? What if students felt more connected to each other and to caring adults? Would it mean a smaller or more intimate school? What if we committed ourselves to a dense network of caring big buddies, little buddies? What if every child were mentored, and every mentored child responsible for another child in turn?
Being there (or staying there). Ours is a pretty atomized, over-busy world with people bumping into each other, talking to someone else on cell phones over lunch, too busy to chat. It’s also an impermanent world. Social services are generally episodic. A counselor, a probation officer, a social worker comes and goes, depending on the need. But who stays? Who says, “I am here. I will not leave you. I love you. Thou art mine.”? Staying is hard work.
Forgiveness. All of us are working diligently to make life better for children, youth, families and entire communities. This is hard work, too, and we feel we always fall short. But we must forgive ourselves for not being perfect. Forgiveness can even reach public-policy levels. Remember that Nelson Mandela, during his swearing in, was flanked on one side by his prosecutor, who had asked for the death penalty, and his jailer, who locked him up for 26 years. He publicly forgave them. Thus began the Reconciliation Commission in a nation that vowed not to pursue a witch hunt but to pursue a policy of healing.
Freedom. Most of the nonprofit leaders working in crime prevention programs that I’ve worked with don’t feel the need for public recognition or a higher salary. They do the work because they’re grounded in a belief in helping. Many have spoken to me of the grace, inspiration and courage exhibited by those they served. There is a correlation between their sense that their power came from serving and that their serving gave them a feeling of freedom.
Under It All
My conclusion? We should keep searching for ways we can help prevent crime (or teen pregnancy or falling literacy rates or homelessness) and build caring communities, as individuals, in the neighborhood and at the policy level. But, under it all, we should not be afraid to say that it’s passion, commitment, risk and, quite often, faith that make our efforts succeed.
John A. Calhoun is the founding chief executive of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a 20-year-old Washington, DC-based nonprofit whose mission is to build safe and caring communities. He was appointed by President Carter to head the Administration of Children, Youth and Families, and before that was commissioner of youth services for the state of Massachusetts.
* Originally published in the July/August 2000 edition of Foundation News & Commentary, a publication of the Council on Foundations