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Checking In With the State's Task Force . . . : The Quest for Self-Esteem

June 14, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, the man who had the self-esteem (some say the political savvy) to get the state to fund the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, describes the group as "a scouting party for the rest of California."

This lookout team consists of 25 Californians, chosen from an eager pool of more than 350 applicants, the largest number ever to apply for any commission or task force in state history. The appointed pathfinders have all volunteered to meet for a minimum of one day a month over the next three years to figure out how self-esteem might reach the rest of us in larger quantities.

They're rolling now, with three meetings completed and general agreement reached on the group's mission, goals and operating procedures. (In general, the idea is a long way from mandating attendance at neighborhood self-esteem workshops--with or without hot tubs--as some have feared. Rather, the group's aim is to review the voluminous literature on self-esteem and figure out ways to make the most effective material available to all Californians.)

As might be expected, the gatherings of this group are not typical state-sponsored affairs. This month's meeting, for instance, was a two-day retreat last Thursday and Friday at Vallambrosa Center in Menlo Park, an event the group refused to call a retreat and promptly renamed an "advance." As task-force member Gerti Thomas explained, "We're not going backwards, we're going forward."

Though the task force is a long way from issuing its final report and its plan for providing Californians with information that could enrich the quality of their lives, it has already had an impact on the rest of the country.

Other States Get in the Act

According to the group's associate director, Ruta Aldridge (who is not one of the official 25 members), government representatives from eight other states have requested information on how self-esteem task forces can be implemented in their states.

And since the task force started meeting in March, it appears that similar commissions may soon be cropping up at the local level throughout California. Larry Naake, executive director of the County Supervisors Assn. of California, is encouraging the establishment of self-esteem task forces in each of the state's 58 counties. To assist that effort, Vasconcellos and other legislators have sponsored a new resolution calling for a task force to be set up in every county.

Getting on the Bandwagon

Even authors are jumping on the self-esteem bandwagon, with book titles that suggest self-esteem has become a bona fide buzzword of the late 1980s. Feminist Gloria Steinem recently announced that the title of her upcoming book will be "The Bedside Book of Self-Esteem." And actress Elizabeth Taylor is reportedly working on a book titled, "Elizabeth Taylor Takes Off on Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image and Self-Esteem."

In the meantime, increasing numbers of corporations are bringing in self-esteem experts to boost the productivity of their workers, adding further validation to the concept.

Vasconcellos, a Santa Clara Democrat who serves as chairman of the Assembly's powerful Ways and Means Committee, credits much of the group's impact and visibility to what some initially saw as an attack: a series of Doonesbury cartoon strips satirizing the task force.

But Vasconcellos turned out to be delighted that cartoonist Garry Trudeau appointed Barbara Ann "Boopsie" Boopstein to be one of his esteemed group's members. He points out that the task force might have labored for three years, released its report, made its recommendations and perhaps even have implemented some programs without raising the consciousness of the country on the subject of self-esteem as much as Doonesbury did.

As Dr. Emmett Miller, a task-force member and psychophysiological medicine specialist, commented, "If there's ever been someone who recognizes the incredible importance of what we're doing, it's Garry Trudeau. I see his cartoons as saying (to the task force), 'You've got a lot to live up to.' "

Why are self-esteem and a task force to study it suddenly important enough to warrant being satirized in the nation's comic pages?

Link to Social Problems

The underlying premise, which has been argued by countless social researchers, is that low self-esteem is at the root of virtually every social problem: chronic drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, welfare dependency, teen-age pregnancy and more.

Critics have questioned if it is the government's job to study and possibly validate that research. They argue that, no matter what the social scientists say, it is not the duty of the state to devise ways to promote the personal self-esteem of its residents.

Vasconcellos and task-force members are quick to respond that government has essentially been forced to be concerned with these issues, because government pays for the results of a society that doesn't have much respect for itself.

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