Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field

by / May 31, 1997
At the end of April, I had the honor of serving as a California delegate to the Presidents' Summit for America's Future. As reported in the media, the two-day Philadelphia summit -- hosted by Gen. Colin Powell -- was attended by Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush and Clinton. Also in attendance were most of the nation's governors, delegates from states and communities around the United States and scores of corporate CEOs, Hollywood celebrities, and religious and community leaders. The purpose of the summit was to draw attention to -- and mobilize volunteer resources for -- the fight to improve the plight of many of America's youth.

Politics and cynicism aside, this high-profile event says a great deal about the changing nature of governance and citizenship as we close out the 20th century.

At a time when the United States is rich in information, material goods and opportunities to learn and earn, some 15 million youths face a crisis of unprecedented proportion in illiteracy, drug abuse, gang violence and teen pregnancy. Clearly, centralized, "one-size-fits-all" public-sector programs -- built over the last century in education, housing, welfare and public safety -- are failing us as we enter a new century.

The summit drew hundreds of unrecognized heroes -- men and women of all ages who are already engaged in giving their time and energy as mentors, tutors and volunteers in communities around the country.

Dr. Andy Mecca -- director of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs and lead for Governor Wilson's California Mentor Initiative -- said that nothing has been as effective in stemming the tide of illiteracy, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and youth violence as the committed involvement of individual mentors and local leaders in the lives of young people in crisis. Thus the Mentor Initiative's goal to recruit 250,000 volunteer mentors in the state by the year 2000.

The summit's message was clear: Future success in solving these domestic crises will come from communities taking more responsibility for themselves. And, even more fundamental, success will come from individual citizens taking greater responsibility for one another.

President Clinton put the matter succinctly in his opening remarks when he noted that "the era of big government may be over, but the era of big challenges for our country is not ... we need an era of big citizenship. That is why we are here." Those words -- echoed by governors and other delegates -- were at the heart of the summit.

As we enter the 21st century, the art and practice of governance -- driven in no small measure by the revolution in computing and telecommunications technologies -- is becoming much more local. We are beginning to recognize something Alexis de Tocqueville said in Democracy in America 150 years ago. Our nation's greatest strength lies in our communities and in the active engagement by individual citizens in the health and outcome of their families, neighborhoods, towns and cities.

The Presidents' Summit for America's Future recognized that citizens are not and should not become passive recipients of government services. If we wish healthy, safe communities and a promising future for our youth, individual Americans -- together with public, private and not-for-profit groups -- must be active participants at the community level to create a new era and a Renaissance of big citizenship.