Trying to come up with a solution for you, I thought right away of potlucks—regular, city-sponsored ongoing interneighborhood picnics. But after a few days of thinking I realized that something wasn’t real about this solution. Who would have the time and inclination to do all the work of putting together such a program?
What I was hitting was an evolutionary wall. Evolution tells me what my priorities are—I need to take care of myself, my family, and some of my friends. It isn’t my business, it isn’t a priority, to take care of a bunch of strangers. I don’t feel that I have the time or energy.
This evolutionary set of feelings also tells us why we allow poverty at all. The others, those strangers, are “not our business”. But we are not just selfish. We are also altruists. That is why I am writing this essay, and, presumably, why you are reading. And so, hard as it may be, we need to harness that altruism and come up with ideas to knit our communities together. My solution didn’t work. I challenge you to find a way. You don’t have to implement it. Just come up with something and tell us all.
The second problem has to do with children. I read three books on crime control and prevention in preparation for this article. They all agreed that normal methods, including most community policing, aren’t effective in preventing crime.
What shines out of those books, what does work effectively, is intervening in the life of an at-risk child while they are forming their ideas of how to behave—while that 60-70% of their conscience that is adaptable is being formed.
What those children need is the respect of the whole community. They need good education. They need economic equity for their families. These are things that we can’t provide. We have no control over the political situation at that level. We must all continue our political work toward those goals.
But the books I read talked about much more manageable things that we all can do now that really work. Those children need mentors. They need news of hope. They need opportunities created and brought to them, and something that is proven to be very powerful: formal or informal training in making good decisions.
Our church has a program that does some of this—a reading program at Cleveland Elementary School, the “Everyone a Reader” program. I urge anyone with the time and temperament to get involved in that program or a similar one.
I tutor at the other end of the age scale—at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena. Marshall could use many more volunteers. Big Brothers and Big Sisters has a proven track record. So please, if you have the temperament, go out and get yourself connected to an at-risk child.
What I am asking you to do is to take a good look at the situation, at where our species is going as the population unfortunately continues to increase and poverty continues to rise, and find a way to push our communities in the right direction. If we intend to bring what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community” to an overcrowded world, we must do this.
Oakland is already out of control, and it is a warning. But we don’t have to go there. These ways of helping that I’ve been discussing have already been proven. They will lower crime. But more, I hold out the hope in my heart that they will also bring more equity to our communities.
It is much easier to ignore inequity when it happens to strangers than when we are knit together with those strangers until they are friends. As an individual you can make a difference. One person with compassion can change many lives, even if it is one at a time.
This is a short list of the best books that contributed to the thoughts I’ve expressed above.
- The Moral Animal, by Robert Wright – a fascinating book on evolution and morality
- Strangers in a Strange Land, by Douglas S. Massey – the history of cities, including discussion of how they fit, or don’t fit, the human psyche
- Crime Control in America…What Works?, by John L. Worrall – very readable, but thorough and encyclopedic, review of what works in crime control and prevention
- Robin Dunbar’s paper on the “Dunbar number” is: R.I.M Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution (1992), vol. 20, pp. 469-493.