Islands of Excellence: A Congressional Strategy for Community Renewal

Article excerpt

As Washington lawmakers grapple with the federal government's fiscal deficit, America continues to suffer from a deficit in its social, cultural, and moral resources. Among teenagers, the rates of crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, suicide, and dropping out of school have escalated alarmingly. Every night, four in 10 American children go to bed in a home in which their father does not reside. Fatherlessness and the breakdown of the family undermine the fundamental building blocks of community. In the face of such destructive trends, what can we do?

Conservatives and liberals alike agree that the current welfare system is broken. But they continue to clash over exactly how government policy and private initiatives can help the poor. The time has come for political and community leaders to identify the "islands of excellence" within our low-income neighborhoods that can inform public policy and ensure its success. The newly enacted welfare-reform legislation will expand opportunities for secular and faith-based charities and other nongovernmental organizations to provide services directly to the poor. But we will move forward only when we engage grass roots groups in the decisionmaking process.

This process has already begun in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where I served until recently as a leader in the state legislature. In 1995, when Pennsylvania's policymakers needed information and advice about renewing its distressed communities, we looked to the state's volunteer organizations. Our efforts to build relationships between government officials and neighborhood leaders at the grass roots was a breakthrough for legislative deliberation. Not until many state representatives personally witnessed the transforming work of inner-city neighborhood groups did they recognize this critical component of the battle against poverty.

Arriving by bus in center-city Philadelphia, lawmakers from rural and suburban parts of the Commonwealth spoke with Korean-Americans about urban economic development and toured a faith-based, residential drug- and alcohol-recovery program. The lawmakers met nearly 100 young children at Children of Safe Harbor, a Latino community center in one of the most disinvested neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Hundreds of neighborhood children go there daily for after-school tutoring, drama groups, "chorus time," and arts and craft projects. We also visited People for People, the faith-based job-training center founded by Herb Lusk, a former lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles. Located in the heart of North Philadelphia, People for People has developed cooperative training and job-placement programs with local banks and other businesses in need of responsible, computer-literate employees.

We were astounded at the healing and transforming power of these community-based efforts. And so we decided to invite the leaders of these organizations to share their success stories at a special session of the state legislature dubbed the "Pennsylvania Community Hope Summit."

Working with Robert L. Woodson's National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, we first documented proven remedies and methods in such areas as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, economic development, and job creation. We solicited information from a cross-section of the service providers in the state's low-income urban and rural neighborhoods. More than 100 grassroots leaders then met with state lawmakers in the chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature. This exchange of ideas led to the formation of a permanent Grass Roots Advisory Task Force. Their advice provided valuable insight on topics from welfare reform to corporate tax breaks for community development, and has proved critical to the legislature's review of state regulations.

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