Let's talk about the future of our families

February 23, 2005|By Robert M. Franklin

IT'S BEEN an unusual Black History Month.

The black community needs trusted leaders and popular celebrities sounding the alarm over the worsening condition of African-American families living in poverty. Just as I prepared to celebrate Bill Cosby's courage in alerting the black community to numerous signs of internal decay, serious allegations of his bad behavior toward women surfaced. He has denied wrongdoing and charges against him have been dropped.

Mr. Cosby may be one of America's best comedians, but he sure knows how to make people mad. Like a restless revival preacher, he has been criss-crossing the nation, delivering an impassioned moral plea for better parenting and adult responsibility, a call that demands more than the usual "Amen, brother."

In the black church, oral communication assumes a call-response format. Worshipers don't listen passively to a sermon; they talk back to the preacher. Although his remarks were aimed at a small percentage of black parents, his call is one that every American adult should heed. This is what we should do.

First, we need to begin a village-wide conversation about the future of our families - not just in the black community, but in all of our villages. The data tell us that marriage, family and child well-being are in trouble across all American communities.

Responsible civic leaders should convene town hall meetings to address questions such as: What do we expect from every father and mother? What can we guarantee to all of our children? What things do people who are considering divorce need to think about? Where can people who are being abused in relationships turn for help? How can we intensify our efforts to educate young people about the risks of unprotected sex? How can we protect the traditional family while respecting the aspirations and rights of our homosexual neighbors?

We don't need these village conversations to become talk fests. We need information and stories about what other communities are doing to help their kids and preserve their families. That means we'll need university scholars and not-for-profit leaders with expertise in these fields to help keep the conversations informed.

Second, we need curricula and training materials that can help community leaders educate everyone about the nature of "healthy relationships." That may be a value-laden term, but everyone can acknowledge the difference between relationships that encourage people to flourish and those that cause harm.

For the past year, I have served as a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation to convene focus groups of clergy in low-income black communities. One of the most surprising and disturbing things they report is that our kids don't know what it means to have a date. They assume that dating automatically involves sex.

Third, money will be needed to ensure that community leaders are trained to lead village conversations and that follow-up resources are available. Here is a role for local business and philanthropy. Money will be necessary to train personnel, provide materials, monitor effectiveness of the conversations, and record and evaluate the progress of the effort. It could yield benefits that far exceed its modest financial requirements.

What local communities should do after the conversations occur will emerge from the clear thinking and good will in the room. Each community will determine what it must do to sustain this focus on nurturing healthy children and citizens.

Clearly, some people are so worried about family life that they're willing to march in the street. Others are just as worried but not so sure about what marching can accomplish. Mr. Cosby might agree that growing anxiety about families and children is a good thing. It means that we've noticed what is going on around us. But I'd like to find a more productive way to channel that energy. Responding to Mr. Cosby's call with concrete, ongoing action would be a noble way to express our faith, hope and love.

Robert M. Franklin is presidential distinguished professor of social ethics at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.

Columnist Cal Thomas will return next Wednesday.

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