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When Everyone in Town Has a Stake in Raising the Children

NEIGHBOR TO NEIGHBOR: One in an occasional series about community building


ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — It all began five years ago when Carl Holmstrom gave his now legendary it-takes-a-village speech to the Rotary Club.

Nearing retirement as school superintendent, Holmstrom wistfully recalled the old days when teachers and neighbors would step in and correct or encourage children, like himself, whose parents were going through hard times. Their own middle-class suburb bordering Minneapolis, like every hamlet and urban core in the rest of the country, had changed--children were growing up in poverty, or with distracted parents, sleeping in cars, taking drugs, having sex too soon. America, he told them, was selling out its own children by all adults, not just parents, putting themselves first.

Holmstrom got the club's first-ever standing ovation and the offer of a check from one of the town's wealthiest businessmen. He turned it down at first, he said, because he hadn't the foggiest notion of what to do. Even in socially progressive Minnesota, nicknamed the "land of 10,000 treatment centers," children's programs seemed to come and go without changing much. This time, however, civic leaders, afire from Holstrom's speech, were determined to come up with something different.

What they ultimately pioneered here--a research-based initiative that aims to rally the whole community around building specific strengths in children--has now spread to hundredsof communities in Minnesota and as as far away as Maine and Alaska, from Native American reservations to the entire state of Colorado, each tired of despair, hungry for solutions and believing the answer lies in engaging disparate elements of cities and towns for the common good.

The fervor for community building can be traced partly to the devolution of money and power from the federal government to the states, which has sparked a search for low-cost solutions to local social problems. But more, "There is a readiness for a language of hope, a language about human beings that shifts from deficits and problems to the possibilities," said Peter Benson, a social psychologist and president of the Search Institute, the nonprofit research organization based in Minneapolis that was hired by St. Louis Park's original partnership to find a new approach.

By reviewing research literature, the institute had already identified 30 (now 40) "developmental assets"--such as sustained attention from at least three adults, structured use of time and church attendance--that can be correlated with healthy behaviors in young people. Questionnaires of 250,000 students across the country showed that as the number of assets rose, there were corresponding reductions of many forms of "high-risk" behavior, such as drinking and driving, violence and school failure.

While it may be obvious that children do better with more community support, public policies and programs have tended to shift from problem to problem, from teen pregnancy to AIDS to violence, Benson said. "As a culture, we keep looking for the silver bullet, the one program we can put kids through that will shape them up."

Youthful and enthusiastic, Benson said his work, funded by many private foundations, primarily the Lutheran Foundation, underscored the point that desirable developmental assets are cumulative. "Kids need not 8 or 10 of these things, but all of them," said Benson, whose book on community asset building, "All Kids Are Our Kids," will be published by Jossey-Bass in the fall. "The average kid has less than half of them."

To encourage other cities to come up with their own programs, the institute developed a Healthy Communities-Healthy Youth initiative, including surveys, materials and advice. In response to the interest--most of the 220 communities have signed up in the last year--Search Institute has upped its staff from 50 to 70 and is now opening a branch in Colorado.

Even so, the initiative has yet to be tested; controlled studies have only just begun.

Benson said the questions remain: "How can a St. Louis Park, a Seattle or an Albuquerque change the public will, and change the action of citizens so that most kids in the city will become more asset-rich? Can you actually raise the bar so the average kid has 30 of them?"

Some researchers from the University of Minnesota cautioned that correlations are not the same as causes. "You can say kids should play music because somebody has found some correlation between music and kids' well-being. It doesn't follow that if you tell kids to play music, they will function better," said Alan Sroufe, a researcher at the university's Institute for Child Development. The cures for today's social ills are more complicated than providing opportunities for youths because the most troubled children are not likely to take advantage of the opportunities, he said.

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