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Strengthening America's families: what municipal leaders must do.

When I ran for mayor of Indianapolis for the first time, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could do to make my city a better place to live.

One of the key conclusions I reached is that I had to pay attention to families and neighborhoods.

I believe--and I think most elected officials would agree--that strong families are the foundation for strong neighborhoods, and strong neighborhoods are the foundation for strong cities. From strong families come successful young people who grow into successful adults.

Most elected officials would agree with these statements. The challenge lies in figuring out how to turn our concern for young people and strong, well-functioning families into an action plan, one with clear roles not only for government but also for the private sector, nonprofit groups and the larger community.

A Shared Vision

As chair of the NLC Council on Youth, Education, and Families in 2004, I worked with fellow local elected officials, representatives of national organizations and businesses and youth to develop a shared vision for municipal leadership that responds to this challenge.

Together, we developed a statement, entitled, "Strengthening America's Families: What Municipal Leaders Must Do," that was endorsed by NLC's Board of Directors at its December meeting and released at the 2004 Congress of Cities recently held in my city.

It reflects the lessons we've learned in our diverse communities--where we have succeeded and where we have failed. It also sets out a framework for future action, almost like a city's constitution lays the groundwork for a municipal code.

I urge you all to read the full statement and look for a forthcoming publication from NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families with many more specific ideas for action. Highlights from the Council's statement are summarized below.

Cost of Inaction

Over the years, we have learned that the costs of not taking steps to strengthen families are enormous. When families are struggling, adults become less reliable workers and more stressed or harried parents.

And we know that it takes nearly Herculean efforts to reverse the damage to children when families cannot support and nurture them. In simple terms, we can pay now by investing time, resources and political capital--or we can pay much more down the road.

Partnerships with Residents

As mayors, councilmembers and other community leaders, we can stimulate and lead efforts to strengthen families and the neighborhoods in which they live.

At the same time, during my tenure in office, I have learned that the best ideas often come from the community, and that what residents and community leaders typically want most is support and partnership.

The most valuable partners we have in any effort to strengthen families are residents who feel empowered to improve conditions for themselves and their neighbors. Too many residents in distressed neighborhoods, however, feel powerless and abandoned by government systems that have been unresponsive to their needs.

To regain their trust and nurture resident leadership, we need to provide training, develop meaningful neighborhood councils and create opportunities for communication and joint city-neighborhood initiatives.

Pathways and Springboards

For families to succeed, they must also have access to what the council has termed "pathways and springboards"--opportunities for families to succeed today and for children to end up better off than their parents.

In order to thrive, families need connections to quality education and training, good jobs and options for building financial assets. They need strong social networks, through civic and faith-based organizations, volunteer opportunities and social activities. And they need effective services and supports, from affordable housing to public safety and afterschool programs.

A Call to Action

Strong families must be a national priority. But even as we advocate for federal and state investment, we can put our commitment to families into action right now at the local level.

As mayors and councilmembers, the steps we take to strengthen families are among the most important we make in the health and vibrancy of our communities.

I urge you to make one more New Year's resolution: to step forward as a catalyst for action on behalf of families and neighborhoods in your community.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson is second vice president of NLC and the immediate past chair of NLC's Council on Youth, Education, and Families. Copies of the council statement, "Strengthening America's Families: What Municipal Leaders Must Do," are available on the NLC website at:
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Title Annotation:NLC Officer's Column
Author:Peterson, Bart
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 10, 2005
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