Harvard-Convened Group of Nationwide Leaders Releases Plan for Rebuilding Community Ties

Contact: Adrianne Kaufmann
Phone: 617-495-8290
Contact Organization: Saguaro Seminar
Date: December 19, 2000

Washington, DC – The Saguaro Seminar today issued the report Better Together, calling for a nationwide campaign to redirect a downward spiral of civic apathy. Warning that the national stockpile of "social capital" – our reserve of personal bonds and fellowship – is seriously depleted, the report outlines the framework for sustained, broad-based social change to restore America’s civic virtue.

"America throughout its history has been exceptionally civic-minded. However, we now see a public that is withdrawing from communal life, choosing to live alone and play alone. We are becoming mere observers of our collective destiny," said Robert D. Putnam, professor at Harvard University, founder of the Saguaro Seminar, and author of Bowling Alone. "A civic renaissance is a proven possibility and the future well-being of our nation depends on it."

The report attributes the decline in social capital primarily to the demographic shift that has taken place across the nation. Namely, an exceptionally civic generation of older Americans is slowing down and dying, and far less civic-minded generations of Baby Boomers and Baby Busters are taking their place. Other contributors include two-career families, urban sprawl, and television.

"Despite declines in civic engagement, such as voting, volunteerism, or time spent with family and friends, there are numerous efforts across the country to build social capital," added Putnam. "To mention only a few unusual examples: in Chicago parents are given report cards on their school participation; in Maine there are new limits on compulsory overtime; and Missouri’s William Woods University is giving tuition discounts to students for extracurricular participation."

The report addresses why those efforts are important and how they can be supported by foundations, by businesses, by faith-organizations, by government, by schools, by communities, and by individuals.

Better Together examines social capital and recommends methods to replenish the stock in five categories: The Workplace, Youth and Education, Arts and Culture, Religion and Faith, and Government and Politics.

Launched by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Professor Putnam, Saguaro Seminar draws its 30 participants from academia, the arts, clergy, business and the top leaders and policymakers of both major political parties. Since 1997, Saguaro members have studied the essential character of public participation in their effort to develop remedies to redirect a decades-long decline.

"We must learn to view the world through a social capital lens," said Lew Feldstein of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and co-chair of the Saguaro Seminar. "We need to look at front porches as crime fighting tools, treat picnics as public health efforts and see choral groups as occasions of democracy. We will become a better place when assessing social capital impact becomes a standard part of decision-making."

In its examination of civic and social relationships, the report identifies organizing principles for each of the five sectors identified with approaches to cultivate social capital. Better Together recommends:

Overhauling Business Practices

Better Together puts business at the center of civic renewal and calls on employers to help workers create social capital in their families and neighborhoods. Among the report’s suggestions to transform the Workplace: Corporations and small businesses invite civic groups to meet and form chapters on site; private companies and government agencies provide incentives for employees to perform community service; and legislators pass laws that expand leave benefits and require or incent more flexible work hours.

Changing Curriculum, Size and Goal of Schools

In its analysis of social capital in Education and its impact on Youth, Better Together lists shifts in attitude and practice that schools, youth groups and families must undergo to provide the next generation with civic pride and a common spirit. Saguaro believes service learning should be a mandatory part of each year’s middle- and high school schedule. The report also calls for small schools and classes, more public money for after-school activities and entreats community organizations, City Councils and other public and social policy groups to put young people on their Boards and Advisory Committees.

More Artistic Activism

In examining the role of Art and Cultural Institutions, Saguaro outlines principles to transform patrons to participants. Saguaro sees the arts as a tool to help cross cultural divides, by bringing music, theater and art to those outside their natural audience. Better Together argues that cultural events must become community institutions and artistic leaders have a strong voice in community planning. The report urges increased government funding for community-based art and recommends artistic productions that address community problems to catalyze civic dialogue.

Strengthening Influence Of Spiritual Faith

Religious and Faith Based Organizations represent half of the nation’s total stock of social capital. Better Together endorses fortifying congregations as civic institutions and encourages inter-faith partnerships. The report also calls for corporate and foundation funding for churches and religious groups; partnerships between issue advocacy and faith organizations; and instilling values of virtue and morality in lay organizations.

Showing Citizens They Have Impact

Despite lackluster voting turnout in the 2000 national election, Americans clearly wish for a democracy in which they have a meaningful say. Better Together maintains that in a compassionate society, both voluntary action and government social programs are essential; and that federal, state, and local governments’ must consider the impact of their policies on family and community connections. Political reform must include financial campaign limits, increased citizen access to public spaces, an end to sprawl, government grants to harness the Internet for civic ends, and real decision-making and budget responsibilities for local communities.

Saguaro is supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; The Lilly Endowment; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; The Rockefeller Foundation; The Rockefeller Brothers Fund; The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; Surdna Foundation; and the Lila-Wallace Reader's Digest Fund.

The saguaro [pronounced sah-WAH-ro] is a cactus that grows in the Sonoran desert in the Southwestern United States. There are rich parallels between the saguaro and social capital (or civic engagement). Saguaros were for some time undervalued by modern American society and often razed. Saguaros are bellwether indicators of the health of the ecosystem, and play the role of welcoming host for an environmentally-rich community: vines grow on its trunk; birds make nests in the saguaro; Native Americans have lived off its fruit and celebrate its blossoms in festivals; and animals use saguaro for precious shade. And like most social capital, saguaros grow slowly and are tough, long-term survivors.

More information on the report.

Better Together web site: www.bettertogether.org

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