The New Culture of Renewal

It's neither liberal nor conservative; nor is it self-absorbed. It's reaching across traditional lines to take part in and improve a community.

A YEAR ago, a group of Riverside, Calif., citizens, working with the county's school districts, concluded that the way to improve education was not to reform schools, but to reform the community.

This group included conservatives, liberals, educators, a building contractor, an insurance agent (and self-described survivor of the 1960s), and a feminist activist in her 70s. On some issues, they had agreed to disagree. But they had found their common cause: the renewal of community.

Today, with a mix of public and private money, they are busy creating family centers, undertaking neighborhood crime-prevention efforts, and forming senior volunteer programs in the schools.

Groups like this seem to have multiplied dramatically within the past four or five years. This growth doesn't fit the cosmology of despair or the current political-cultural spectrum; and the participants lack a hook on which they can confidently hang their hats.

``I've felt ideologically and intellectually homeless for a long time,'' says the insurance salesman. What about Ross Perot's organization? ``Close, but no cigar,'' says an educator. ``Too paranoid.''

So where do they fit in? Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and columnist Pat Buchanan talk of an emerging cultural war in America. They say that the battle is between what they consider right-minded cultural conservatives and libertine liberals. They're right about the war; they're wrong about the combatants. The real cultural war is between the culture of narcissism and what might be called the culture of renewal, which is where these folks fit.

During the past two decades, the culture of narcissism assumed a variety of costumed identities. First came the benign - often constructive - human-potential movement. But the culture of narcissism moved on; it led to the abandonment of the traditional neighborhood and the rise of walled communities and private residential governments that offer elite services and private cops in exchange for personal freedom and privacy. It led to a political landscape that has less and less to do with our lives and more and more to do with the vanities of handlers and pollsters.

The radical religious right and the intolerant far left are also part of the culture of narcissism. They cannot see past their own slim agendas; they pursue a kind of cultism, the group expression of narcissism.

Even the self has been diminished: Now we have narcissism's offspring, the culture of stuff - the deafening, electronic roar of commercialism without meaningful human content. The results? The starkest evidence is the effect on the emotional and physical health of children, who are the canaries in this mine shaft.

But now comes some light: Americans who have become increasingly dismayed by the disappearance of the public space, of community, of true safety. The culture of renewal shows up in some odd places.

Florida professor Ray Oldenburg describes the ``great good place'' as cafes, coffee shops, community centers, and general stores - the ``third place'' between work and home where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversations. During the '70s and '80s, these places virtually disappeared from the social landscape. But today, you can find great good places in a remarkable number of otherwise antisocial shopping malls, in the form of coffee houses.

Companies across the country are becoming more profitable by becoming more connected to community. Many churches and synagogues are deciding to create support systems for parents and children and experiencing a dramatic upsurge in membership. At campuses where, just a few years ago, social activism was moribund, half of the students - members of the so-called and much-maligned Generation X - are now doing volunteer work.

Today, over 16 million citizens participate in about 20,000 crime-watch programs. In the past two or three years, many of these programs have moved from merely reporting crime to preventing it by building community.

RENEWAL career tracks are emerging. For example, across the country, thousands of lawyers - most of them women - are rejecting the excesses of the adversarial justice system and becoming professional mediators, especially for domestic and neighborhood disputes. In effect, they are creating an alternative system of justice.

In many institutions, Americans are challenging the old directive style of leadership and adopting a more collaborative leadership. Foundations and community-action groups that only a year or two ago were turf conscious and duplicative are beginning to pool their resources. In many cities and towns, governments, foundations, and businesses are banding together to attack some of our most entrenched social problems. ``Two years ago, we weren't even talking about education as an issue of disappearing community,'' one Riverside educator told me recently.

But during the past decade, we have learned something - that personal and institutional renewal comes in two forms: transitory or sustainable. Transitory renewal, focused on the self or on a narrow interest group, is neither lasting nor fulfilling.

In contrast, sustainable renewal is wedded to community, to the public good and the public space. It creates a web of support that helps other persons or institutions work toward renewal. This web will be there for them when they falter. Across the country you can sense the emergence of the culture of renewal. It's growing, steadily and surely.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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