Editorial Published: Foundation News and Commentary
July/Aug 2000 (The Council on Foundations, Inc.) by John A. Calhoun
Many successful prevention programs are driven by deeply held moral or religious
beliefs. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that. 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.
Do We Fear Core Values?
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 nor essential, part of what makes a drug-treatment program or a crimeprevention 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-speaking does not
capture the essence of what brings out the true magic of prevention.
Not One More Child Will Die
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?
MAMAS Reaching Out To Violent Youth
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. Most often the case, it is youth who are at the end of
a long train of broken relationships, abuse and street violence.
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
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?
Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement
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 me 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 desertion. The story of Exodus brought us all in.
A Glossary of Hope
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–A New Word in the Youth Policy Lexicon
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
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 3
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.”
The Anguish of 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.
Policies that Exclude
Many of the policies that fearful school communities are implementing after the rash of
school shootings seem to be 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 5
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 yeas. 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 makes
our efforts succeed.