Cultural Collapse

I'm very glad to be in Abilene and to see all of you here. I admire Lee Butler very much, and I am so sorry that I missed what I hear was an extraordinary morning session, but I am delighted to share with you this afternoon.

I know you have heard about the external threats to our security. I profoundly believe and my bottom line is that the greatest threat to our national security and future comes from no external enemy, but from the enemy within and our loss of strong moral, family and community values and support. I believe that parent by parent, youth by youth, voter by voter, professional by professional, congregation by congregation, club by club, community by community, foundation by foundation, corporation by corporation, city by city, state by state, that every American and all Americans must commit anew personally, and as voters and professionally, to a national crusade of conscience and action that will ensure that no child is left behind in our nation. I think that the bottom line must be that we must find a better balance between school readiness and military readiness. Indeed, I believe that school readiness is military readiness. That we must find a better balance between child welfare and corporate welfare in the distribution of our national resources. And that we must, continue to build strong security for our sixty-six-year-olds and all of us who are becoming senior citizens or are senior citizens. But I think we've got to extend that same security, health security, educational security, in the early years of life. There's no reason in the world why every six-year-old should not have the same kind of health care and investment that every sixty-six-year-old has and deserves. So we need a fundamental shift in priorities and in our paradigms, because every nine seconds of every school day, one of our children of every race and class drops out of school. Every ten seconds one of our children is abused or neglected. Every fifteen seconds, as we sit here, one of our children is going to be arrested. Every half-minute, in the richest nation on earth, one of our children is born into poverty. I think it's shameful that we let children be the poorest group of Americans. Every minute a child is born to a child, often the mothers and fathers have not started high school or finished high school. Every three minutes one of our children is arrested for a drug abuse offense. Every five minutes one of our children is picked up for a violent crime. Every hour and a half an American child is killed by gunfire. I was very struck when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Irish leaders, who are fighting for peace, much deserved, and the Washington Post wrote that 3,600 people had been killed in the violence in that strife-torn country. And that's a lot of lives to be lost, but then I realized that's less than we lose in American children each year to gunfire. We lose nearly 5,000 children a year, a classroom full every two days. What has happened to us that the killing of children by guns has become morally routine? Where is our voice? Where is our outrage? And every four hours, our children lack so much purpose, some of them, that they commit suicide.

While I don't think we can return to the good old days, I also believe that the more change there is, and we're seeing technological and other changes at a kaleidoscopic rate, it is all the more important that we have strong anchors, so that our children can still retain some basic sense of who they are. And we've got to reestablish the rituals of family and the rituals of childhood. I would hope to try to see how we can reinstall in rebuilding our families, because every Sunday morning, and I'm sure many of you had similar childhoods, in a different way, my parents, my sister and three brothers and I, gathered around the breakfast table. And each child had to repeat a Bible verse. And we can get away with "Jesus wept" only once. Then we would all say the Lord's Prayer in unison. After breakfast, we would brush our teeth, check out each other in the mirror, and then we would comb our hair, put on our best clothes, and then we'd go off to Sunday service, where my daddy was the Baptist preacher and my momma was the organist, church fundraiser and general everything. After church, when we were little, we would go with our parents, and we would drive elderly or disabled parishioners home. And then, we would come back and prepare dinner together. While my mother would fry or smother chicken or pork chops, the children took turns churning ice cream for dessert, setting the table, and entertaining any guests invited to join us for Sunday dinner. Many families don't go through these family rituals anymore too often in a regular manner. And with fast food restaurants, many children don't know how to make anything from scratch. That's how we were socialized in conversation and how we learned to be together. This rhythm of family life was very important.

Every Sunday afternoon we had to take flowers from the church up to the hospital, and then visit members of the congregation who were sick at home. Sunday evenings always were shared with one church family member or another, who prepared very scrumptious meals for our family.

Every school day morning we got up to the smells of breakfast cooking and came home every afternoon to a hot dinner and discussions about our day. There are many millions of mothers and fathers who are working today, and five million children come home alone. We've got to find a place for them to come, whether it's the congregation or the community center, because they need to have some adult be with them and be able to debrief, and to have some safe haven from the street. After school we had to clean up the kitchen, we did our homework, and then we would go out in the yard and we would play marbles, and dodge ball, and horse shoes, and red light, and momma may I, and regular jump rope, and from the sophisticated northerners, we learned how to do double Dutch and hopscotch. We'd then have a snack, play the game of jacks, Old Maid, Monopoly or Chinese checkers, and then we'd take our sponge baths, say our prayers, and go to bed about 9:00, to get ready for another day. We had a lot of fun without a lot of money, making up games creatively that didn't need store-bought toys, money or directions from adults. Regular checkers played with soft drink bottle caps, homemade stilts with discarded pieces of wood or tin cans, my favorite, attached to wire, was much or more fun than the expensive toys we are marketed today as parents that we think our children have to have. And they put pressure on us as having to have. Pin the tail on the donkey used to tickle our funny bones for hours and, as we got older, and I'm sure many of you have done this, spin the bottle titillated our young adolescent libidos, which were always kept in check by ever-present adults.

I was very lucky as a child, because books were always a part of our home life. And my parents considered them necessities, rather than luxuries. A new book was more important than a second pair of shoes, and I used to love to go down to my daddy's book-lined study, where he would read for many hours of the day. These kinds of rituals repeated themselves when I went off to college at Spelman and I rebelled against many of the rituals, including compulsory chapel, which we had to go to. But I now look back and most of what I remember from college years really came from chapel at Morehouse and Spelman, where Dr. Mays and other great leaders would come in and tell us about everything and about what life was about. And the first thing I did when I became Chairwoman of the Spelman College Board of Trustees was to re-institute compulsory chapel, which I had rebelled against, because young people don't have a chance to hear what adults think is important, and don't get the inspiration from the great role models that they need. Dr. Mays, who was Martin Luther King Jr.'s mentor, another inspirational speaker, shared with us on a regular basis what he believed, had experienced, thought we needed to know to make the world better, made it real clear that education was not about yourself, it was about giving to others and about making the world better. And no idea was too big and no detail was too small, as they trained us and prepared us to wade into the river of life with sturdy boats and oars and life vests to keep us afloat when we fell into rough waters. We were taught to be neither victims nor victimizers. They urged us not to hate white folks, because God created white folks, and black folks, and brown folks, and all folks out of the same dust, and that ultimately we would all be held to the same standards of justice. They preached that service to community was a higher value than service to self, that conscience took precedence over career, that respect for life, our own and others, was inviolate. And they taught us to value and respect ourselves and others by valuing and respecting us enough, as children and as young people, to carefully plan and prepare the daily rituals of fellowship, homework, community involvement and activities, and support of each of us at each stage of our development. Practical adult worldly advice to young people always was grounded in a deeper message of purpose and service, reinforced by example. They didn't tell us how to go about changing the world, they helped struggle to change the world with us. And we never lost hope, even though the wonderful old days were not so wonderful in the segregated South, but we never lost hope, because there were always adults who were there to say we can work together and struggle together to make it. And our young people today who are suffering from despair and see suicide as the only out and prison as the only protest need that same kind of assurance from the leaders in their communities, whether they're congregations, or they're community elders, or they're parents. We may not win, but we'll be there and we'll fight to make sure that this world will be better for you and for your children. And we need to make sure, as well, that education is there not just to lift self, but to lift the entire community.

I don't know how I could have survived the indifference, and the evil, and the violence so rife in our nation and in the world, the shallowness and pettiness of so much of Washington's self-important life without these seeds of faith, of prayer, of ritual planted in our young souls, my young soul, by parents and community elders. And I worry in every piece of my being about our many children of every race and income group, who, lacking a sense of the sacred or any internal moral moorings, are trying to grow up in a society without boundaries, without respect, without enough positive role models at home, in school, in religious congregations, in our communities, in our political and economic life, and in a culture where almost anything goes on television, in the movies, in music, and in how we treat each other. Without a sense of core values, like honesty, and discipline, work, responsibility, perseverance, community and service, we all become easy prey for the false idols of culturally manufactured glitz, materialism, greed, and violence. Never have we exposed so many children so early and so relentlessly to cultural messages glamorizing violence, sex, possessions, alcohol, and tobacco, with so few mediating influences from responsible adults. Never have we experienced such a numbing and reckless reliance on violence to solve problems, or to feel powerful, or to be entertained. Never have so many children been permitted to rely on guns and gangs, and on television rather than on parents and neighbors, and religious congregations and schools for protection and guidance. And never have we pushed so many children onto the tumultuous sea of life without the life vest of nurturing families and communities, caring schools, challenged minds, and job prospects that can allow them grow up and get a job, and form new families. Young families are not getting off the ground, not able to make decent wages. Forty percent of all of our young families with children are poor. And never before have we subjected to our children to such a tyranny of drugs and things, and taught them to look for meaning outside rather than inside themselves, teaching them, in Dr. King's words, to judge success by the values of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity.

I hope that, as we face a new century and millennium, we will recognize that the overarching challenge for America is to rebuild a sense of community, and hope, and civility, and caring, and safety for all of our children. I hope that we will reclaim our nation's soul and give back to all of our children a sense of security and give them their ability to dream about and to work toward a future that is attainable and hopeful, and that is real. How do we do this? How do we do this together? I think the first thing is that adults, each of us, need to just examine ourselves, take an audit from time to time. Our children don't need us to be perfect, but they do need us to be honest. They need to know how to struggle. And one of the things I remember most about Dr. King is he never was afraid to say when he didn't know an answer, and when he was afraid. He could share that with young folks, but he also taught us not to be paralyzed by fear. And this, again, ability to struggle and see adults struggling is really important, and James Baldwin said it a long time ago, that our children are confused because they see what we say, and then they see what we do. And they almost never do what we say, but they almost always do what we do. And we don't really have a youth problem in America, we have an adult problem in America, because we tell our children not to be violent, and then we are violent. We have over 220 million guns in circulation in this country and produce another handgun every eight seconds or import another gun every eight seconds. Almost every other house has a gun. What message does this send to our children, and how is it that we can let our children under 15 die at rates from gunfire twelve times the rates of twenty-five other industrialized nations combined? What messages are we sending to our children? Again, we often talk about our faith congregations. The drug dealers are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. How many hours a day are our congregations open, so that children have safe havens from the street? And how much do our children see us applying what we hear on Sunday morning to our professional lives on Monday through Friday, in the values that we stand for every day?

How can we begin to close the gap between what our children see us doing and what our children hear us saying? If any tell, or snicker, or wink at racial, gender, religious or ethnic jokes, or engage in or acquiesce in practices intended to diminish rather than to enhance other human beings, our children pick up those signals, and that contributes to the loss of community and our disrespect, one for the other, in a nation that must be indivisible if we are to go forward together.

I do hope we will not repeat the lessons of the past, and I do hope, as we face a century when America may see the majority become the minority, that we will have set into place a new series of tolerances in the way in which we conduct ourselves in our homes, in our congregations, in our communities, because our children are watching. And I do hope that we will move beyond trying to be good role models just for our own children, but that we will also reach out to try to make a difference in the life of at least one other child who is not our own. And I am always so moved by the fruits of generous action. I would like to tell the story right now of a foster child, who was born a little over forty years ago to a young teen mother, who couldn't take care of him and placed him in foster care. But the baby really did not thrive, didn't speak until he was three or three and a half, and the foster mother was so worried that he'd be put into an institution for the retarded. And so every day she began to nag, as the social workers began to talk about removing the child from her foster care, a couple that she knew, whom her husband worked with in the Post Office. And the husband said, "No, we can't adopt another child because we've got two of our own. My wife is pregnant and we've just got enough to handle. And besides, we can't afford the adoption." But the mother got the bug that she was really going to do something about this child. She was a gifted singer, and she got a bit role in Carmen, got enough money to pay for the adoption cost, and took this child in and loved him back to life. And in a year, he was talking, and learning, and eventually went on to Yale College and Harvard Law School, then picked up a degree at the Kennedy School of Government. He is now our new mayor-elect of Washington, D.C. We often don't remember that when we save a child, we often save much, much more. I'm very moved by the story of 4,000 years ago, of three women who crossed race and ethnic boundaries and faith. Moses' mother, Moses' sister and the Pharaoh's daughter, who took one Hebrew slave boy and sent him into safety. And by saving that young boy, saving that one child, these three women, who crossed many boundaries, ended up saving the child whom God used to liberate the Hebrew people. You never know, when we reach out to one child, whether we may be saving a whole nation or a whole community. Let's find a way through mentoring, through tutoring, through setting up after-school programs. If you can't find the time, send a kid to summer camp, support programs that are trying to set up mentoring, but let's reach out and make a covenant that we'll make a difference in the life of at least one child.

Third, we must counter the idols of our culture and the pervasive adult hypocrisy that are confusing so many of our children, and leading them astray. I hope that parents, and child advocates, and spiritual leaders will become profoundly and doggedly countercultural and reject our culture's glorification of violence, excessive materialism, truth shaving and easy feel goodism. We all must make an effort to teach our children the difference between heroism and celebrity, and not to confuse money with meaning, or educational degrees with wisdom and common sense, or power with meaningful purpose. In CDF, the Children's Defense Fund, I'm obsessed with how we create a new generation of servant leaders, or young people who see themselves as instruments of service, but who are skilled in understanding the means of change that will be needed in the twenty-first century, who understand the relationship between programs and policy and community empowerment strategies, and politics and technology, and can use the media effectively and form coalitions, but who are wrapped up in a sense of commitment to something beyond themselves, and who ask, "Why are we here and what is it that we are trying to accomplish in bringing ourselves together for something that's bigger than ourselves?" Our goal is to create at least 2,000 new leaders by the year 2000. I hope that we can all focus on how we can identify and nourish this sense of service in our leaders, and teach our young people what Walker Percy had one of his protagonists say, that you can get all As and still flunk life. I hope that in our political life and in our corporate life we will begin to broaden our concept of what a leader is, as we try to figure out how we bring our communities together, and rebuild our families, and recommit our nation to just opportunity for all.

But reaching out to just one person is not enough. We've got to build a movement. We've got to change the policies. Charity and individual action is very important. Service is absolutely crucial, but that's not enough to change the priorities of a nation that lets its children languish uneducated, that lets its children be the poorest group of citizens. And I hope that in Texas, because Texas is so important, one can take the lead.

I am excited to be reopening a Texas office in Houston. But Texas has one in twelve of all American children, and we have targeted ten states in America where a majority of all children live, a majority of all minority children, and the majority of all poor children live. And between Texas, California, and New York, a third of the children in this country that fall into these categories live, and you like to be big, and are big, and first, and doing good for children in Texas can do good for children and send a different signal all over America. You have one in ten of all poor children in Texas. You have one in fifteen of all uninsured children here in Texas. And I hope we can band together and build on a new marvelous step forward, with the enactment in 1997 of the bipartisan Hatch-Kennedy Child Health Insurance Program, and some powerful women here in this room helped make that possible. But I was so grateful that Senator Hatch and Senator Kennedy understood that children suffering from asthma, or who are facing life threatening diseases, don't know a Democrat from a Republican, or a liberal from a conservative. They just need some help, and they need all of us to put partisan politics aside and, as a result of this effort, backed up by a lot of community action and a national coalition, a $48 billion child health insurance program was passed to deal with the problem of eleven and a half million uninsured children in our country, 90 percent of whom live in working families. That's intolerable. This new bill will serve up to five million children, and I don't think the Lord really meant us to give only half of our children a healthy start, but I'm very eager to have it well in force, so we can make the case for why we've got to make sure that every one of Texas's children gets that healthy start. You have made enormous strides forward, and we cite you for educational attainment. You are one of the few states that's really closing the gap between black and white, and brown and white children, between rich and poor children, and many of you in this room have been instrumental in that, including Ernie Cortes. But I also do hope that Texas will take the lead in implementing a strong health insurance program. You've got between 1.3 and 1.4 million children uninsured in Texas. We are waiting for a final decision. You've been a little slower than other states in getting off the ground on this, but I do hope that we will see Texas move into a leadership role in seeing that as many of your children can get insured as soon as possible, because, as a mother, I find it unimaginable to think about having a child with a life-threatening cancer, and in addition to struggling to hold your child, yourself and your family together, you also have to beg, borrow and scrape to find enough money for the next chemotherapy treatment, which parents blessed with health insurance don't have to worry about. The closest thing I have to a daughter is a very wealthy young French woman, who has AIDS. And she's been a long-term survivor, thanks to the best health care that her wealthy family can afford. And I've been very moved by her courage in her thirteenth year of struggling with this disease. But I don't know how the parents whose children have AIDS and don't have this kind of family and medical support system, manage. And we should not have to have people face two-front battles against life-threatening diseases and health care poverty at the same time in our wealthy nation and in your wealthy state.

One of my sons had asthma and whenever he got ill, I could always rush him off to the hospital emergency room, or to our pediatrician, but I was very moved by a Texas mother's story, whose eleven-year-old daughter woke her up in the middle of the night, saying, "Mom, I can't breathe." Her inhaler was broken and Mrs. Coleman, whose eight dollar an hour job had no health benefits, rushed her daughter out to the car, but, debating all the time whether she would go into a hospital emergency room, which would cost about $100 and break her budget, or to go to an all-night drugstore and find an over-the-counter remedy. She chose the over-the-counter remedy. Happily, her daughter was all right, but she said to me that, "For eighty-eight dollars or a hundred dollars, I was gambling with my child's health and life." No parent in this wealthy nation should have to worry this way. We have got to begin to put into place the building blocks, the early investments, the sensible things that make cost-effective sense, as well as those that are right for every one of our children. It's unworthy of us that millions of parents, who are trying to work, don't have safe, affordable, quality childcare, don't have adequate nutrition, and don't have health care. Health care is a school readiness issue, or the children are not ready for school, because we don't invest in these early years, and we must come together to build a movement, again, to change the values of a nation that would rather invest twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars to lock our children up after they get into trouble, and won't invest the money in the early years, when it makes sense, to get them ready, get them educated, give them a stake in a society that values them. We must change that together by broadening and building a stronger constituency that is committed to saying to all of our political leaders, on all sides of the aisle, that we will no longer tolerate the neglect and abuse, and lack of preparation of our children for the new world, the post-industrial world, where America will not remain as the sole remaining superpower unless we really do prepare our future workforce and our future leaders, who are our children today, whose plight I portrayed at the beginning.

We can do this. We can do this. It'll take all of us coming together across race and class, and while it must be an inclusive movement, I also think that there's a very special role for women, and for mothers and grandmothers to come together and just to say it is time, folks, to change the priorities of this nation. We're going to take care of our children, and to say that through our votes, as well as through our voices and our organizations. And that must be our goal in the new millennium. I think that we can have America rise to its best self by making sure that every one of its children feels valued. Let me end with a prayer, which I always do, because I think that in our land of economic plenty, we are in the midst of a spiritual famine that is reflected in the suffering, and the lives, and the struggles of our children.

And so, I would like to ask God to forgive our rich nation, where our babies die of cold quite legally. And God, forgive our rich nation, where small children suffer from hunger quite legally. God, forgive our rich nation, where toddlers and school children die from guns, quite legally. God, forgive our rich nation that lets children be the poorest group of citizens quite legally. God, forgive our rich nation that lets the rich continue to get more at the expense or the poor quite legally. Oh, God, forgive our rich nation, which thinks security rests in missiles rather than in mothers, and in bombs rather than in babies. God, forgive our rich nation for not giving to you sufficient thanks by giving to others their daily bread. God, help us never to confuse what is quite legal with what is just and right in your sight.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a long time ago, said that America will be great as long as America is good. Our opportunity on the eve of a new era is to make sure that America is good, and that our children's lives reflect that good. I look forward to working with you, to see that we realize our best selves. Thank you, very much.