Community and citizenship

NOT many American schools offer civics courses these days, and signs of eroding citizen activity are evident everywhere - in low election-day turnouts, for instance. Good citizenship starts with caring about the community. And grass-roots community service organizations involving youth are one example of successful action taken by citizens who care.

Enlightened self-interest is characteristic of the American democratic system. In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville, the insightful French observer of American democracy, noted that an American ``sees the public fortune as his own.'' The United States was founded on the belief that the people could do more working together for individual rights than they could do as isolated individuals. This precept still holds.

But all too often ``We the people'' are saying, ``We don't care.'' In 1984 only 52 percent of eligible citizens voted in the presidential election. Identification with the two major parties has fallen in recent years, and fewer Americans are putting their trust in the government. Only a small portion of the American population ever volunteer to work in a political campaign or take a personal interest in public-policy issues by writing their congressman or senator, or penning a letter to the editor.

Many people are frustrated with government's lethargic, bureaucratic pace. This frustration should be aggressively acted on rather than passively accepted.

Youth service organizations are tackling this challenge. New York's City Volunteer Corps, now in its fourth year, is providing opportunities for young people to help their community through service projects.

The pilot program of City Year, a Boston youth service program, received generous funding from major Boston corporations. This kind of public-private cooperation is useful for the renewal of citizenship.

Under the Boston program, youths are banding together to do tasks that otherwise would not get done: restoring overgrown neighborhood playgrounds, assisting the elderly, staging a Special Olympics for handicapped children, sorting and salvaging food for a city food bank.

Organizations such as these are cropping up across the US. Yet, too many young people remain unaware of such opportunities.

Civic education may be better found in the community at large, not just in the classroom.

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