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Community building elevates youth esteem, motivation.

Community must be learned. Elements that indicate the presence of community-community mission, common history, shared affection, or shared faith--are internalized by community members through practice and discipline. Such internationalization is both conscious and unconscious. However, when integration takes place, members--or in the civic community, citizens--absorb the ways of community (or civility) by formal instruction, observation, and their own participation.

Children must know community in their daily lives if they are to become tomorrow's community builders. Cities will need their children as community builders in tomorrow's work places, neighborhoods, nonprofit associations, and units of government. If families, schools and civic institutions fail today to instill in children the understanding of community values, they not only betray our young people, but also fail themselves, for they fail to ensure the future of their own community builders.

Current Conditions for Children:

A Crisis for Children.

The occurrence of violence in a neighborhood breeds fear, anger and expectations of further violence: one's own survival entails becoming practiced in violence or hiding from it. The premature self-care practiced by some "latchkey" children can breed an expectation of loneliness--quite the opposite of community. Routine hunger and homelessness do not teach a child community: they teach the ways of wandering and hopelessness.

Violence, hunger and homelessness are more the plight of poor children than middle-class children (although domestic violence affects children of all income levels). Yet, as David Popenoe argues in Disturbing the Nest, there are other forms of community decline that affect middle class children as well. The eroding "social ecology of child-rearing," as Popenoe terms it, could also be seen as an eroding ecology of community practices.

Just as it is possible to identify how children learn ways of life that do not constitute community, it is possible to envision ways of life, or practices, that would bespeak community. The task of envisioning such practices is made easier by the presence in some cities and towns of living examples of community for children.

The Farrell School District

About halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie in western Pennsylvania lies a comparatively small (close to 1,000 students), yet urbanized and racially mixed school district: the Farrell School District. Of the 502 school districts in Pennsylvania, Farrell ranks among the ten poorest. It is in an area still suffering from the decline of the steel industry. Despite all of the excuses this district might cite to allow its school system to deteriorate, however, Farrell can boast of a one percent dropout rate. It sends a disproportionate number of graduates to college.

Farrell experiences a minimum of discipline and security problems. Its hallways are virtually free of graffiti. Its students address visitors directly and politely. Finally, Farrell has received national recognition for the quality of its programs--a living vision of community for children.

Community for children depends on building trust, which then leads to hope, which in turn makes possible a sense of common mission. The district's leadership is deeply aware of the need to build trust with students. John Sava, the district superintendent, explains to visitors that the district makes a promise to each pupil upon his or her entrance to school: to offer a high-quality education and make sure that he or she graduates. Younger students learn to trust that promise as they see their older siblings graduate.

The trust nurtures hope that they too will graduate, and that hope breeds in the children and their families the conviction that they have a common mission in the Farrell School District. The common mission is evident in the remarkable array of uses to which the community puts the school facilities after hours and during the Summer. It is evident in the number of teachers and administrators at Farrell who themselves were students in the district. In a community tarnished by economic decline, the school is its gem, its own testimony to excellence, and glistening pearl of hope for every child. Small wonder there is so little vandalism.

Community assessments on caring for children. Painfully aware of the fiscal limitations faced by state policymakers who want to help children, the Pennsylvania Governor's Office on Child Care Policy, led by Elizabeth Milder Beh, has issued an invitation to boroughs and cities throughout the state. That invitation is to conduct their own broadly participatory studies of how their communities care for children.

More than 12 such groups currently have studies underway. The scope is broad and inclusive: representatives of government, children's agencies, libraries, businesses, churches and other groups sit on newly convened task forces that study the entire span of local institutions and how they serve children. They examine demographic trends, compile service statistics, hold community meetings, and produce reports that help push concern for children to the center of the local civic agenda. They also report their findings to the state-level Commission, transmitting important local perspectives on issues to the state capitol.

Although these broad study and planning groups do not serve children directly, as does the Farrell School District, they do mobilize a diversity of interests around children at the level of local politics. They turn the lenses of officials and institutions toward the needs of children. And, as they mobilize institutions, they mobilize concern, making more tangible the strategies that they should adopt to serve cities' children.

Reconnecting generations.

One of the casualties of the decline of community around children has been the bond between the youngest and the oldest citizens. This is no small loss to community: The bond between young and old is unique in its capacity to build in the young the attachment to history and renew in the old their attachment to the future. One of the exemplary efforts underway to rebuild this bond between young and old is the University of Pittsburgh's "Generations Together" program.

Under the direction of Dr. Sally Newman, Generations Together promotes, studies and implements "intergenerational" programs in child care facilities. Older, retired persons are recruited and trained to serve as teachers and aides in child care centers desperately in need of experienced caregivers. Others make daily phone calls to latchkey children with whom they are matched. Still others serve as mentors in Pittsburgh classrooms. Moreover, there is a mutuality of care structured into inter-generational programs: Children and adolescents bring their own youthful vitality to the frail elderly in nursing homes.

Many of these older, highly experienced caregivers bring the patience and historical perspectives that could never be taught to younger child care aides. For many children whose grandparents live far away, they fill an important gap in their understanding of the older generation. The elders' stories from their own childhoods open windows into history through which children could not peer without these older friends.


These kinds of enabling relationships between nonfamilial institutions and families can create a continuity of practices between family life and non-family life that parents and children do not experience to any significant extent today. The great diversity of institutions in cities and towns, and the rapid changes those institutions face, put considerable pressure on them to neglect the importance of families. But, diversity and change also highlight the need for renewed community. For there to be community builders tomorrow, there must be community for children today.

Richard L. Kordesh is an assistant professor of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, Pennsylvania. He recently completed an 18-month tenure as Chief of Staff to the Governor's Advisory Council for Young Children in Pennsylvania.
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Title Annotation:includes related information on encouraging a sense of community; Futures Forum: Toward Family-Friendly Communities
Author:Kordesh, Richard
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Feb 24, 1992
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