United by Children

No one thought President Clinton's call for racial dialogue should end with talking the talk of harmony. Americans would have to walk the walk, taking action to make their growing diversity a positive, not divisive, national trend.

What could bring together black Americans and white Americans, indeed all Americans, as happened to such a degree in the quest for civil rights during the 1950s and '60s?

Could it be a national crusade in behalf of children?

The other day Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, who is African-American, suggested that uniting Americans in a common commitment to children would "do more for racial healing than any amount of dialogue on race." He said the importance of the future of children "transcends the lines of race, ethnicity, region, politics, gender, religion, and age." He saw it galvanizing a movement like that for civil rights when "thousands took active roles, and thousands more helped with material and moral support - and things changed."

What needs changing for America's children? Impoverished homes. Unequal education. Inconsistent health care. Surroundings of crime, drugs, immorality in the media and in behavior. The list could go on.

A movement for the children would have plenty to do. Fortunately, one children's crusade has already begun - Stand for Children. Its hundreds of endorsing organizations are a spectrum of America. Its Citizen's Action Guide asks: "Just commit to doing one thing to help at least one child who is not your own." Among guide points:

To parents: Remember your children are watching what you do.

To employers: Don't produce or advertise products or programs you wouldn't want your child to use or see.

To office-holders: Ask yourself if your vote will make more or fewer of the country's youth healthy, safe, poor, homeless, hungry, or hopeful.

To religious and community institutions: Are you building bridges to or fencing out the children and communities you live with and serve?

To cultural and media leaders: Are you contributing to the glorification of violence, greed, materialism, and irresponsible sex? Do you make hope as newsworthy as hate and cover positive individual and community action? Are youths who are beating the odds being highlighted as much as those who break the law?

Many see potential disadvantages in the welfare law that just went into effect. Stand for Children reports the federal safety net has been of help. It keeps 8.2 million children out of poverty, though more than 15 million are still poor. It ensures health care for 18.2 million children.

As for states, Ohio leads the way in serving Head Start children, adding $77 million to federal Head Start funding. Missouri's Parents as Teachers program is now in 45 states. In Lynn, Mass., after the tragic shooting of a teenager, religious leaders persuaded city officials to fund after-school and summer youth activities.

So children's crusader Raspberry has much to build on when he urges: "Some of us might spend time - individually or in organized programs - tutoring inner-city youngsters or improving their schools, some working to turn around young criminals, some helping suburban teenagers find their moral and ethical footing. Some might target substance abuse, others environmental responsibility, others physical development. But all would be part of the new movement."

Joining hands of all colors in such a movement for the young would give a new-millennium meaning to "a little child shall lead them."

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