An 'American Renewal' for a Society Dying of Disenchantment

May 30, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Does America need a renewal, a rejuvenation of spirit and will to combat the waves of cynicism and discouragement that seem to be washing over us? President Clinton seems to think so, and has been making the point in a series of graduation-season speeches urging youth in particular to ''take responsibility for the hard work of renewing the American community.''

A broad combine of public interest organizations is a hefty step ahead of the president and his speech writers.

At the invitation of the National Civic League, leaders of 66 organizations representing some 50 million people met in Washington earlier this month to focus on an ''American Renewal'' agenda. The participant organizations ranged from the National 4H Council to the National Alliance of Business, the Communitarian Network to the American Association of Retired Persons.

Leader of the renewal band is John W. Gardner, onetime Cabinet secretary, founder of Common Cause, writer on leadership and community, and still going strong at 81 as this year's National Civic League board chairman.

As Mr. Gardner sees it, American Renewal must begin at the family and neighborhood level, aim to transform governments and organizations, and reawaken Americans' belief in their capacity to effect positive change.

He notes Americans are discouraged by crises ranging from crime and poverty to racism, the neglect of children to lack of job opportunities for the unskilled. Many fear the United States is on a downward slide. ''No good,'' he says, ''can come from the cynicism and passivity of the public today. Nothing. Civilizations die of disenchantment.''

The grim public mood is confirmed in a new national survey by the Daniel Yankelovich Group, conducted for the Civic League and the Healthcare Forum. Fewer than a quarter of Americans have ''a great deal'' or ''quite a lot'' of confidence in the capacity of business leadership, and either federal, state or local governments to deal with the problems facing their communities.

Local media took a big hit too, dropping from 34 percent to 24 percent in public confidence.

The only possible bright spot is that 52 percent of the Americans surveyed express confidence in the problem-solving capacity of people like themselves and their friends. And it's that bright spot that American Renewal, in part, is trying to capitalize on.

Conference participants were quick to testify to a wave of spirited renewal efforts by grass-roots people -- reviving bitterly poor slums, building community gardens, developing community policing, signing up for local and national service programs.

National Civic Television director Ralph Widner told of an elderly black man in Richmond, Indiana, who became deeply upset by his neighborhood's decline, cocaine selling included. So he took his Social Security check, bought lily bulbs and distributed them to friends and neighbors. Others followed suit and in three years the neighborhood had bloomed so beautifully that tourist buses started visiting.

Voluntarism is nothing new in American life, but the conferees' sense was that it is increasing. And it's matched by the harsh but necessary restructuring American corporations have had to go through to respond creatively to global economic competition, and by today's parallel efforts to ''reinvent'' government at every level.

The idea of American Renewal is that Everyman and Everywoman must look to be a leader. ''Creative insurgents'' must challenge their own neighborhoods, churches, civic groups, corporations, governments to be more effective. A major thrust is to shed light on how successful communities are starting to solve problems -- less through ''go-it-alone'' power tactics, more through collaborative decision-making that draws in more of the people and talents of America's ever more diverse society.

To get the word out, the renewal organizations are considering public advertising campaigns, training through nationally interactive television courses, computer bulletin boards and series of national ''front porch'' or ''kitchen table'' discussions.

Among slogans suggested for the movement: ''Not Just Government, It's Us.'' ''Voting Isn't Enough.'' ''Think Forward: Children, Posterity.'' ''We're In It Together.'' And -- ''Message to the Media: You, Too.''

The Washington conference pinpointed real problems in the spread of American Renewal. If it's an optimistic movement, how does it deal openly and effectively with the racial divisions and unequal opportunities that participants said plague almost every American community? Will it welcome or repel groups like the religious and radical right? And the country is splintered today: How can the movement reach both the welfare mom and the corporate chieftain?

There may be answers to the strategy questions by fall, when dozens more partner organizations are expected to join. A grand celebration for American Renewal is set for November 12-14 in Philadelphia when the National Civic League celebrates its 100th birthday.

Even its backers agree American Renewal is still amorphous, tough to define. Its strength: almost everyone who hears about it agrees its time has come.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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