People, not agencies, make the difference


April 29, 1991|By Michael Hill

It's a lesson that is taught and taught and taught, over and over, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. But somehow it always needs to be taught again.

The lesson is that social problems are not solved by "isms" -- be they capitalism, socialism, liberalism or conservatism -- but by local communities, by individuals uniting to show the way, to lead government and business, not the other way around.

"From the Bottom Up," an hour-long PBS documentary that will be on Maryland Public Television tonight at 10 o'clock, tries to teach it again.

Hosted and narrated by former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, "From the Bottom Up" looks at a diverse variety of community-based programs that have successfully combated social ills that seemed to resist all cures.

Jordan ferrets out heroes like Gale Cincotta, who for more than a decade now has been organizing neighborhood groups on Chicago's west side and has turned her work into a national campaign. Cincotta refused to follow most of her fellow whites in flight to the suburbs when her neighborhood began changing complexion. Instead she united with her new neighbors to stand up to political and economic establishments and demand what is rightfully theirs, be it fair treatment from business or decent government services. It's an inspiring story.

In southern Texas, "From the Bottom Up" finds groups of Mexican-Americans who live in rural slums without the amenities most of us take for granted, like running water and working sewage systems. In these communities, known as "colonias," the people have begun organizing just as black Americans did at the beginning of the civil rights movement, around their churches, to

fight for these basic services. Carmen Anaya is a leader of Valley Interfaith, a church-based group that is pushing a statewide referendum to fund water and sewer lines.

The tourist image of the southern Texas city of San Antonio is of beautiful canals and the romance of the Alamo. But this documentary finds a neglected side of town, the Hispanic side, that was literally flooded by the water diverted from the more well-to-do neighborhoods. A grass roots organization called COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) has gone far beyond its initial public works goals to change the political makeup of the entire city.

The documentary also goes to the tiny town of Embarrass, Minn., population 822, which was essentially facing extinction as the mining industry that gave work to generations of Finnish immigrants deteriorated into erratic seasonal employment. Many left, but a few thought that a community was more than a paycheck, that it was a network of people. They got together under the banner of an organization known as Sisu -- an untranslatable Finnish word that loosely means gutsy stubbornness -- and found that the ruins of wooden settlers' houses that dotted their countryside were the makings of a tourist attraction. Renovation and development followed and though the future is not secure, it is a bit brighter.

Finally, inevitably, "From the Bottom Up" goes to the South Bronx, where it finds a bit of hope in that bleak urban landscape in the form of a couple of groups known as the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes and Banana Kelly, which rescued and renovated blocks that were slated for demolition.

The lessons that "From the Bottom Up" teaches are many. But it is clear why it is so hard for them to get through. The bottom line is that in every case, the key to success is not an ideology, but pure, plain hard work by dedicated individuals who are constantly in risk of burnout.

"From the Bottom Up" tells of that simple, profound piece of political territory where left and right wing ideas intersect, the place where the individual is paramount, both in his rights and responsibilities. Where he is unfettered by big government or big business, where the social and economic institutions are designed to support him, not suppress him.

It is a scary place that empowers the individual that way and expects him to act on that power. For that reason a lot of people of all political persuasions run away from it. But it's a place we'd better not abandon. Because it's called America.

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