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Panelists tackle dilemmas confronting the human side of cities.

Five panelists, representing city government, schools, police, and community-based organizations joined MacNeil/Lehrer Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault in frank conversation about crime, drugs, education and family values for the Congress of Cities Resources and Relations Plenary.

Hunter-Gault presented the panelists with a fictitious situation where they had to imagine that President-elect Bill Clinton was calling them collect to ask for input for his state of the union address based on their individual experiences and expertise. Because it is a collect call, the panelists have to keep the call short in the interest of keeping the telephone cost at a minimum.

George J. McKenna, III, superintendent, Inglewood, Calif. United School District was the first to get the Clinton call. He was asked to keep in mind that neighboring Los Angeles schools are battling bankruptcy and tremendous budget deficit woes and should consider ways that may help that system.

"Schools are in trouble because it's been a political system rather than an educational system. I look forward to a Secretary of Education who has been an educator," said McKenna.

When asked what he might say to President-elect about the issue of school choice--an issue throughout the campaign, he said, "I would ask that he would choose to make all schools work so that the choice could be any school. That's what I call choice. Schools are supposed to work. We should be outraged when they don't work," said McKenna.

Avance President and CEO Gloria Rodriguez has been working with disadvantaged families through her community-based organization for 20 years. As a former school teacher of young children, she was asked to use her experiences to talk to President-elect Clinton about what to do to help families.

"Parents are the first and most important teachers, yet 60 percent of our families are experiencing depression. How can we expect them to be good teachers," said Rodriguez.

As a challenge for the new administration to do more than pour dollars and emphasis into the Headstart Program, Rodriguez said, "What we need throughout the country are family centers directly in the neighborhoods, or the housing projects, where families can get the help they need before Headstart--to get prenatal care, literacy training, job training and employment services."

Ed Turley, deputy director, Youth Gang Services in Los Angeles was told that because he works directly in the community, the President-elect would have to reach him by portable telephone which means the reception may be difficult and he would have to get his point across loudly and quickly.

"The reason I am so hard to find is because there are not enough resources in the community to address gang problems. I hope that his agenda while it will be national in scope and while ensuring that we have international security that he will address issues right here at home," said Turley.

Working directly with gang members, Turley said he sees young men and women who, if born in a more productive and encouraging environment, could have been model kids because they have the same abilities to be as successful as other youth.

"These are young people who weren't born gang members, but they were born into an environment and poverty that made them gang members. They are intelligent, but they have not been allowed to develop their minds beyond the limitations of their environment. All they need is an opportunity and a feeling of hope," Turley said.

"I believe we need to rethink the metaphor for dealing with drugs," said Minneapolis, Minn. Deputy Chief of Police Dave DeBrotka. Debrotka's comments were met by cheers from the plenary audience of about 2,500 especially his criticism of the term "war on drugs." "Putting people in prison is not working. Treatment is an issue that needs more attention and some additional funding as well," DeBrotka said.

When asked by Hunter-Gault if he thought the Brady Bill was a part of the solution to decreasing crimes committed with guns, he said it may be a part of it, but that the new administration needed to redefine its approach to dealing with drugs and crime and get away from the "lock em' up," be tough on crime approach. He said, as a law enforcement agent, he has had to stand up against some community sentiments where citizens "want us to behave as if we are in a totalitarian state."

Fort Wayne, Ind. Mayor Paul Helmke wants to stress to the new Clinton administration the need to put federal dollars directly in the hands of local government. "We see the crack addict. We see the AIDS patient. We see the bridges that are falling. We don't need another structure created at the federal or state level. We need the money to go directly to the cities."

The panel talked about programs and approaches that are working and failing in their communities such as curriculum in conflict resolution and non-violence along side traditional reading, writing and arithmetic; to knocking on public housing doors and offering family support; to redefining government roles in solving community based problems.

Rodriguez strongly urged against government-operated programs to help solve community based problems like strengthening the family and redirecting gangs and troubled youth. She said government programs bring along bureaucracy and the traditional red tape associated with government run operations.

Mayor Helmke agreed that certain community needs should be met by non-profits and community organizations. He added, however, that government does have a role to offer including financial support to help start such programs and ensure that they can be maintained. In addition, he said government can form coalitions of programs with similar objectives to strengthen program approaches and offer referrals to clients who come to government in need of such services.

In Inglewood, McKenna was instrumental in getting a law passed that allows working parents to use up to four hours per year in paid leave to visit their child's school. The premise behind the law is to increase parent interaction with schools, so that the values and teaching going on in the schools can be shared with parents in hope that those same values and teachings will be reinforced at home. "Every school ought to have a parent center on every campus," McKenna said.

Rodriguez encouraged the audience not to get locked into a particular approach, but rather "we have to have different strategies for different people," she said. Further, "It takes a village to raise a child... We must be very inclusive and understand that when one part of the community hurst, all of us hurt."

Turley said among the gang members he works with and the many families that live in the neighborhoods there is a lack of incentive to seek a better way of life. He talked about the need for young people to have real role models and not the over exaggerated definition that role models have to be entertainers. People like those on the panel, who take the time to come into their communities and work with youth become instant examples and the incentive the youth need to seek a better way of life.

Dave Marsted, mayor of Beatrice, Neb. was the first member of the audience to address the panel. His concern was the emphasis on inner city and urban communities while rural areas are struggling as well. "We have entire communities evaporate before our eyes because while we work to feed the world, farming prices are being deflated purposely," he said.

Turley proposed that in his travels to non-urban areas he discovered "the same elements exist in rural cities as in inner cities--neglect."

McKenna interjected that "equity is not equal. If you give equal, everyone will not get all that they need. Equitable is fair because some areas need more."

Mayor Helmke, whose mostly urban community of Fort Wayne, Ind. boarders rural communities, said he realizes "if we don't deal with the problems in my city, it's going to affect the other areas."

Norfolk, Va. Vice Mayor Joe Green, asked McKenna to explain his plan to implement a non-violent curriculum in Inglewood schools.

"To teach domestic and conflict resolution. To help them (school children) live in a world free of systemic violence," he said. He added that while some may argue whether schools are the place to teach such lifeskill tools, the traditional turn to churches is not enough.

"I'm not knocking the church," he said. "But it is not enough. Most people who need it never get there. Gang members aren't going to church. Church is not mandatory... Education is mandatory. Those children have to come through me (the school). We can't let schools off the hook."

McKenna posed to the audience to go back to their cities and read their school codes. He guaranteed that there would be no mention of love. "Our laws are precisely codified on how to punish, incarcerate and eliminate."

Addressing a question from the audience about pregnancy prevention to discourage a drain in the welfare system by parents who have more children than they can afford to care for, Hunter-Gault asked the panel about the subject of prevention.

Rodriguez argued that her organization's' statistics suggest most mothers find welfare "degrading" and would prefer to be self-sufficient, given the opportunity.

Both McKenna and Rodriguez agreed that more emphasis has to be placed on encouraging and helping fathers stay in the home and to help more couples marry and raise families together. "If we rescue young men, I don't know of any young lady that will be disadvantaged by that," said McKenna.

The two disagreed over how much input the school system should have on helping fathers and fatherless homes.

The entire panel articulated a sense of optimism in the newly elected presidential administration and were willing to openly share their respective stories. Despite varied backgrounds and professions, each had a common belief in more community involvement and a need to take a more human apprach to solving community problems.
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Title Annotation:National League of Cities
Author:Baker, Denise
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 7, 1992
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