Ask thoughtful people disillusioned with big government programs how Americans can best fix their continuing social problems, and the answer is likely to be: "civil society," the nation's thick, vital network of voluntary associations, from churches to Girl Scouts to the Rotary Club.
Not only is civil society more flexible and personal than any government program, they say, but also it is more likely to foster trust and strengthen civic responsibility. This high-minded idea, however, has remained murky in application. How much hope could the institutions of civil society bring, for instance, to the inner city, particularly to poor, uneducated—and often distrustful and isolated—blacks?
A group of loosely affiliated religious and civic organizations in New Haven, Connecticut, offers an intriguing answer. Calling itself the Waverly Extended Family, the group has descended upon a small housing project, the Waverly Town Houses, to do a little old-fashioned child saving. Members provide math tutoring, seek scholarship money for private schools and summer camp, mediate with school or police officials, and offer plenty of time, advice, and support for some 75 at-risk youngsters. The group's goals are still evolving, but it is not too early in the post-welfare era to conclude that the Waverly Extended Family bears out some of the hopes of civil-society optimists. In the past five years, no unmarried Waverly girl has had a baby. Several teens graduating from high school this year will be attending college in the fall, and some of the younger children's grades are going up. Older Waverly residents are showing signs of coming awake after the dark, torpid decades of urban decay. But it's clear as well that whatever victories are achieved at Waverly will be small ones—and even then, some, especially among the boys, are likely to be left behind.
Orlando Patterson, in Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries, dismisses the romantic notion spun by writers and movie directors that black Americans have compensated for their historical suffering by creating rich, informal kinship ties. In reality, says Patterson, blacks have fewer friends, kin, and neighbors—not to mention community affiliations—than their white and Hispanic counterparts. "The simple, sad truth is that Afro-Americans are today the loneliest of all Americans," Patterson concludes. "There are no 'hoods' out there."
The history of the Waverly Town Houses and its environs illustrates this bleak fact. Back in the 1950s and sixties, New Haven became the site of one of the nation's most ambitious plans for urban renewal and slum clearance. Under charismatic mayor Richard C. Lee, a Kennedy ally, renewal efforts, funded by record amounts of federal money, engulfed close to one-third of the city's land. One cabinet officer somewhat prematurely called Lee's New Haven "the greatest success story in the history of the world," while a Saturday Evening Post headline, only slightly more temperately, read: he is saving a dead city.
But instead of the model city planners envisioned, New Haven quickly became a prototype of urban blight. The city's vital, if poor, neighborhoods—like the once vibrant Dixwell area—lost their centers, and small, local businesses faltered. Much of the middle class and the solid working class moved out, leaving behind the less employable poor—largely black—in newly built public housing. Crime and vandalism overwhelmed the public-housing projects and blighted them. Today, an empty and centerless downtown surrounded by slums dominates the "greatest success story."
The modest low-rise architecture of the Waverly Town Houses, built in 1973, could be said to reflect a humbling of government expectations, after Mayor Lee's dream of large-scale public housing ended in bleakness, decay, and social fragmentation. After the project opened, Waverly residents briefly kept up a coherent, if fragile, sense of community, as women watched over one another's children and planned cookouts and volleyball games. But over the following decade and a half, it became clear that architecture wasn't enough to inoculate Waverly against the near-universal afflictions of inner-city neighborhoods. Drug dealers conquered the streets around the project, drive-by shootings echoed around the courtyard, and stray bullets sometimes ricocheted into kitchens and bedrooms. Mothers began to train their kids to hit the floor at any loud noise, and most ventured out as little as possible. Bored, unsupervised, and itchy with adrenaline and anger, kids fought frequently. The schools degenerated, and no one seemed to bother graduating. What was the point?
By the early nineties, Waverly exemplified Patterson's theory; it wasn't a "hood" so much as a complex of bleak and lonely bunkers, commanded, if such is the word, by mothers sunk in hopeless passivity. Even as the streets became safer in the nineties, when community policing cut New Haven's violent crime by 47 percent, the community gave little sign of rousing itself. While essential, public safety alone was not going to be enough to revive the spirit of personal responsibility or mutual obligation.
In their enthusiasm for institutions and associations, civil-society theorists don't have much to say about individual leadership, but the changes at Waverly highlight its importance. Leadership came to the project in the unlikely person of Mercedes Drummond, a large woman with modest speech and a slow gait, who moved in with her four daughters in 1991. Little in her history or demeanor suggested that she could be an inspirational force in Waverly's turnaround. By the time she was 15, Drummond had run away from her mother and already had one child of her own; three more children quickly followed over the next four years—after which their father was shot dead on a Brooklyn street. But perhaps because of some lucky mix of innate resilience and the lingering memories of a rooted early childhood in Jamaica, Drummond resisted the bunker mentality of many inner-city mothers. As Sharon McBlain, a white suburbanite member of the Extended Family, put it, "Mercedes didn't blame other mothers for doing what they did to keep their kids safe, but she always saw her family as part of a community. She didn't want to keep her kids hidden away in the house."
Drummond had no money and little education, but she did understand how small, shared rituals can inspire a sense of common purpose. She began by enlisting the local children for a cleanup day. To the amazement of some of their mothers, four-year-olds held the bags, while older kids swept and cleaned the lawns around Waverly and then ate the hot dogs and hamburgers Drummond had promised them in return for their labor. Encouraged, she went on to hold Halloween parties and Easter egg hunts, to arrange for trips to amusement parks, skating rinks, and the Mystic Aquarium. Gradually, residents noted a change. The Waverly kids seemed to think of themselves as a neighborhood group. The older children were more inclined to watch after the younger. There were fewer fights.
Still, Drummond knew she couldn't do much more by herself. For one thing, she needed money. To raise funds for more trips and activities, a housing official put her in touch with the Unitarian Society of Hamden, a comfortable, leafy suburb just a 15-minute ride outside New Haven. But, intrigued by Drummond's energy and feel for children, the members of the Unitarian Society quickly became more personally involved. One member recruited Waverly kids to help renovate a badly deteriorated basketball court across the street from the project. Others began appearing at the complex on Wednesday evenings, packing children into their station wagons and vans, and taking them to the Unitarian Society building in Hamden, where they cooked dinner with them and offered sewing classes and bull sessions.
Unlike government social programs, civil society's voluntary organizations depend on strong personal engagement. In the Unitarians' case, the money they raised, though considerable, would not have been worth much had they not grown personally involved with the children of Waverly. Sharon McBlain saw that it was not important to go on elaborate trips. "I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and we were so excited to go to town," she says. "That's what it's like for these kids. They are entertained by simple things, even the teenagers—a coloring book, or gazing out the window when we drive to the Unitarian Society, or just bringing them to your house."
The Unitarians quickly moved past their own uneasiness to grasp what other observers of inner-city kids have noted: that the tough exterior forged in inner-city conditions often hides a childish and fearful core. They came to believe their goal should be to help the children transcend their considerable bitterness and trust others enough to shed their armor. With this in mind, John Pawelek, for instance, an eminent Yale professor who with a colleague has made an important cancer breakthrough, has on four occasions risen before dawn to drive one Waverly boy who had a minor scuffle with the police last summer to Springfield, Massachusetts, where the case, whose details remain unclear, was being tried. Sharon McBlain, who runs a rare-book business with her husband, drove from her home in Hamden early every morning to ferry a parentless teenager to community college for an entire semester of 8 am classes and, for some months after that, to a Stop-and-Shop job inaccessible by bus. Other members have stepped in when a child expressed interest in horseback riding or when an older teenager couldn't pay the insurance on a car she needed to get to work.
Yet in their single-minded generosity, the Unitarians point up the limitations of past social activism, with its nothing-in-return ethic of unconditional compassion. Although they are exquisitely sensitive to the children's need to be loved and protected, their determined nonjudgmentalism makes it difficult for them to notice the children's equally urgent need for clear adult guidance about the rules of mainstream life. Pawelek recounted how, during his trip to Springfield, he had the car radio tuned to a news show, when one of the boys leaned forward and, without asking, tuned it to a rap music station. What many would see as thoughtless immaturity begging for adult correction, Pawelek excitedly announced to be proof that the boy "trusted" him. Similarly, when I visited the Unitarian Society, though the youngsters had either played or hung out all afternoon at Waverly, no one did any homework, and no adult asked whether any needed to be done.
The limitations of the pure compassion approach are especially evident now that a number of middle-class blacks have joined in to provide the Waverly children with some hard-nosed realism to balance the Unitarians' nurturing acceptance. Perhaps the most important newcomer has been Enola Aird, a onetime lawyer with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington who is now seeking ways to help children in person rather than through advocacy. Aird learned of Waverly through contacts at the Yale Child Study Center, where the Unitarians had sought some help. She felt drawn to the Waverly children immediately, in part perhaps because of the vulnerability the Unitarians had brought to the surface. But she knew also that if they were to have any real future beyond the street, they would need a clear set of expectations and a good dose of realism about what the world would ask of them. And she knew the key was education.
Aird first turned to Jack and Jill, a black women's organization dedicated to helping poor minority children to which she belonged, and the organization responded enthusiastically. It provided money for a math tutor to go to Waverly several afternoons a week, and several members also volunteered to help. Another member of Jack and Jill contacted Bennett Pudlin, a black lawyer with children at private Cheshire Academy in Hamden, who was able to arrange partial scholarships for two nine-year-old Waverly girls to the school for at least three years. Two Jack and Jill families with children already at Cheshire will mentor the girls. Aird has also helped to get a scholarship to St. Thomas Episcopal School for Mercedes Drummond's four-year-old grandson, and she is now trying to raise tuition money for a boy to go to Piney Woods, a Mississippi boarding school.
These new members have applied their clear-eyed realism to the incident of the scuffle in Springfield. The Jack and Jill organization arranged for a black judge, lawyer, minister, and psychologist to hold a meeting with the Waverly teenagers at St. Paul's U.M.E. Church, around the corner from the project, whose black membership has also become interested in Waverly. There the kids got a commonsense lecture about the life-or-death necessity of shedding all attitude and anger in their dealings with the police.
The more sober, old-fashioned spirit that the new black members of the Extended Family—in particular, Enola Aird—have introduced into the Waverly child-saving effort grows out of a set of life experiences different from those of the Unitarians. Aird grew up poor but eventually went on to Yale Law School, and she now lives a comfortable suburban life with two children and a well-known husband, Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor and author of Civility: Manners, Morals and Etiquette for Democracy. Aird wears her success uneasily, with an almost Victorian sense of grave Protestant duty. "Talent, time, and treasure," she repeated to me: that's the debt of obligation defined by Protestant churches. In addition to bringing her children to Waverly on many of her numerous visits, she has brought the Waverly children to her own home—as much, one senses, to teach her own kids about their responsibilities as privileged black children as to provide an outing for their inner-city peers. Aird has pondered thoroughly the problems of black poverty—a meditation that seems for her a deeply personal and life-defining intellectual journey. It is not surprising that such a person would intertwine with her charitable impulses a belief in reciprocity and self-sufficiency.
Yet as in the nation at large, the transition from the Unitarians' spirit of nonjudgmental compassion to an ethic of responsibility and self-improvement introduced by Aird and the other black members of the Family has come only with a painful struggle. Mercedes Drummond worried that she would lose some of the kids if they felt that the group offered them nothing but schoolwork. Members of the Unitarian Society accused Aird of being "paternalistic" when she suggested that the kids chosen to go to a conference in Colorado last year should write essays about their experience.
"Everyone was angry with me," she explains earnestly, "but I do this with my own kids. I ask them to notice things, to converse about them. It's not fair just to give them trips." Aird admits that she knew her color conferred authority on her, and she was willing to use it. "I use the privilege of my blackness. I want for these children what I want for my own, and everyone sees that. I'm not treating them any differently from my own." Still, the arguments became so fierce that the group hired a professional mediator.
But now that the three private school scholarships have come through, the battle has subsided. When Aird took Mercedes Drummond and several children to see Cheshire, Drummond was clearly moved. She reminisced about a parochial school she had briefly attended in Jamaica in her early childhood, and she wondered how different her life might have been had she stayed there. Resistant at first to anything—like the prep school scholarships—that might add to the children's feelings of alienation and bitterness, Drummond now saw that she could accomplish more than mere damage control. She could give the Waverly children a shot at a real future.
Deeply aware of the profound cultural isolation of the inner-city blacks, the new members of the Extended Family saw it as vitally important to reconnect the black middle class to the black poor—a step that civil society theorists have long advocated. Until they began to meet the judges, professors, and lawyers tied to the Extended Family, Waverly children rarely saw successful black people, except for the drug dealers who are often enough their cousins or uncles and who, whether related or unrelated, attempt to recruit the boys by taking them to the movies or buying them gifts. "I am in genuine competition with the drug dealers down the street, who are also interested in these kids," Enola Aird cautions. For this reason, says Mercedes Drummond, "we need people to come back to the neighborhoods and play a role in kids' lives." And even though many of New Haven's successful blacks have moved into nearby suburbs, they often return to the city to go to church—and they connect to Waverly that way. Jacqueline Bracey, now a prominent member of the Waverly family, lives in Hamden, for example, but goes to church, as she has since childhood, at St. Paul's U.M.E. around the corner from the housing complex, and Aird and her family attend another church only a mile or so from Waverly.
Reconnecting the middle class and the poor has a practical purpose beyond merely providing "role models" for youngsters. Most readers know that, when they are confronting a legal or medical or employment crisis, they call on a friend, relative, or acquaintance who either has or knows someone with the expertise to help them. The members of the Extended Family know that this is not the case for the inner-city poor. "It's not just that they don't know how to make things happen; they often don't know what questions to ask," says Aird. "They need a translator between two worlds. We're bicultural, bilingual. We can do that for them."
This kind of aid is as important to the adults at Waverly as to their children, now that parents must find jobs when they reach the limits of their welfare benefits. That time is fast approaching, since Connecticut's 21-month time limit is one of the nation's strictest. Several members of the Waverly family have arranged for a door-to-door survey of the Waverly women, to find out exactly how long each has been on welfare, how much work experience she's had, and whether she could benefit from a local job-training program. Anticipating a jump in the number of working mothers, Aird has proposed seeking a grant for "block parents," adults who will watch over Waverly kids from when they come home from school to when their mothers get home from work. Some residents would like to try to get grant money to start a day-care center at Waverly.
But unlike conventional social-service workers, civil-society stalwarts like Enola Aird and Jacqueline Bracey have no stake in keeping the poor dependent. Quite the opposite. "The long-range goal is to have the people in these 52 units run their own place," Bracey says. "My hope is that we put ourselves out of business." And some Waverly women, as they see more hope for their children's futures, are beginning to come out of their bunkers, rubbing their eyes, and setting about picking up the shattered pieces of their community. As Sharon McBlain explains, "Mothers are starting to notice and believe—especially since Enola got involved. People used to say things were going to happen, but they never did. Now they believe something is really happening."
This new hopeful spirit, not so much for themselves as for their children—and especially their daughters—appears to have received an extra shot in the arm from welfare reform. "Life is different for my daughters than it was for me," Marie Heggie, the mother of five children and a welfare recipient for many years, told me. "When my girls were kids, welfare was plentiful; you could stay on as long as you wanted. Now our girls want more. They're more career-minded. They want a high school diploma and a $30,000-a-year job and benefits. They want their own homes. Some of them are embarrassed by welfare." They don't want to be tied down by children right away, either, she continues. "They want to have fun, to go to clubs, to go out of town."
In other words, they want to live a life similar to their twentysomething middle-class peers. "They're beginning to feel they're not satisfied with just the neighborhood," another resident, Beverly Conyers, says of her younger daughters, one of whom already works two jobs. "They want to do better, go to school, get more training." Mercedes Drummond is convinced that the new pride in women will change the dynamic between the sexes. "Education is going to make women pickier," she predicts. Heggie agrees: "It will make women consider who the father is."
If this is true, the future for the boys of Waverly does not look so rosy. The consensus is that there is far more to worry about with the boys than the girls. "Boys are having a lot more trouble in setting goals than girls are," according to Heggie. "Some of them don't see past high school. And they're followers. They're not independent; they only hang out in groups"—a fact borne out during my visit to Waverly, when the boys clung together in the courtyard in a protective, tightly coiled knot. Perhaps it was no coincidence that when I spoke to two teenagers who had recently been accepted to college at Virginia State, the girl was smiling with excitement at the prospect, while the boy shrugged: maybe he would stay closer to home.
Though the women of Waverly and the Extended Family all speak of wanting to get fathers more involved with their children, it is clear that this is only a pipe dream. Some years ago, Sharon McBlain recalls, Adrien, a 16-year-old Waverly boy she was driving to the Unitarian Society, wondered out loud, "Why is it that women are so much better than men?" Startled, McBlain asked him what he meant. "At least the women stay with their kids." Yet Adrien's insight was not enough to save him. Within a few years, he fell in with local drug dealers. McBlain says that when he sees her now, he merely hangs his head, proof that though she had reached him, it was not deeply enough.
Responding to hopeless stories like these, Aird has concluded that the best thing she can do for these boys is to find ways of getting them out of the neighborhood altogether to places like Piney Woods, where they will not have to struggle to resist the seductions of the street. And luckily, the first boy she has in mind, Durrell, 14 and showing all the moody signs of getting sucked in by the street, appears receptive. "There's nothing for me here," he told Aird in response to her plan. "I'll go to summer school—whatever it takes."
Still, despite the hopeful signs, for now the lessons of the Waverly Extended Family can only be modest ones. Small-scale and friendly, Waverly's architecture easily invites the sort of human connection that voluntary civic and religious organizations promote, but this is not the case in many urban neighborhoods and housing projects. More troubling, the boys of Waverly suggest that, however dedicated and vibrant, civil associations like the Extended Family may not be able to compensate for the attenuation of the two-parent family. For civil society ultimately depends on strong families to socialize the next generation and to create the qualities of character necessary for its own continued flourishing: two-parent families are civil society's fundamental building block. How much schools and voluntary organizations can do these things on their own without the support of intact families remains to be seen.