Penn's Associate Vice President and Director of the Center for Community Partnerships appeared last month before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Banking and Financial Services to discuss the issue of personal responsibility and accountability in building and sustaining communities. The essay below is from the testimony Dr. Harkavy gave to the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.

Face to Face: Building and Sustaining Communities

by Ira Harkavy

There is no more pressing issue for this nation's future than creating and sustaining hardworking, cohesive caring communities.

The great American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey noted in 1927 that the existence of "neighborly community" is indispensable for a well-functioning democratic society. In that same book, The Public and Its Problems, he also noted that creating genuinely democratic community is "in the first instance an intellectual problem."

Seventy years later, we still do not know how to create and sustain the face-to-face, caring and responsible community Dewey described. Given a world of intense and intensifying global competition and of continuous and increasingly rapid change, and given the human suffering found in our deteriorating urban areas, the need to solve the "Dewey problem" has never been more pressing.

I would like to provide some general ideas that might be useful to the subcommittee's important work. I will focus particularly on the need for an effective, compassionate, "democratic devolution revolution"--or as my colleague Lee Benson and I wrote in 1991, the need to "progress beyond the Welfare State."

As both political parties recognize, there has been a broad rejection of big, impersonal, distant government. Simultaneously, there are strong movements within corporations, unions, and schools to shift from big bureaucracy toward flexible, democratic, human-sized structures that foster individual initiative and action. A similar shift to small-scale, participatory, effective structures is needed at all levels of government. New and creative thinking and doing is required so that government can serve as a catalyst that sparks creative innovation throughout society. Both tired welfare state models and abdication to market forces will hinder, rather than spark, innovations, leading to further disenchantment, disillusion and despair among large sectors of society.

Calling for an effective democratic devolution revolution is much easier than actually putting it into practice. Let me suggest some approaches that might be considered:

To state the above in a slightly different fashion: In this approach, government serves as a catalyst providing funds to create stable, ongoing partnerships. Government, however, is a second tier service deliverer, with universities, local community organizations, unions, churches, other voluntary associations, community members, and school children and their parents functioning as the core partners that help enable society to go beyond the debilitating clientism of the welfare state. Government guarantees aid and significantly finances welfare services, but local, personalized, caring delivery of services occurs through the third (private, non-profit, voluntary associations) and the fourth (personal, i.e., family, kin, neighbors, friends) sectors of society. To put it another way, the delivery of services is not primarily the government's responsibility; but the government does have macro fiscal responsibilities, including the provision of funds.

Vehicles and agencies are needed to enable the government to function effectively as a catalyst for realizing the Deweyan vision sketched above. By way of illustration, I would like to note that HUD's Office of University Partnerships represents one such vehicle. It is a harbinger of how government in general can, should, and must work in the future. The Office serves as a catalyst for tapping the resources of a key institution--the university--that, in turn, can serve as an anchor, catalyst, and partner for local change and improvement in the quality of life in our cities and communities. Indeed, there may be no other institutions that can play so central a role in moving the democratic devolution revolution forward.

Those in higher education, quite simply, have both the interest and ability to make a profound difference. Universities have compelling reasons--including enlightened self-interest--to help to improve America's communities. They are among the only institutions rooted in the American city. They cannot move--the community's fate is their fate. Moreover, working to solve the problems of their university's locality provides students and faculty members with an outstanding opportunity for learning, service, and advancing knowledge. Universities also have enormous resources--human, economic, and other kinds--which can be used creatively to overcome economic and community disintegration.

To illustrate the point, just think of the possible impacts of university-assisted, comprehensive, integrated educationally-based (linked to learning) service provision on a public school, the children, and community. Among other things, it would go beyond co-location of services to a genuine integration of services through the educational process. Dental, medical, social work, education, and nursing students, for instance, would learn as they serve; public school students, in a similar fashion, would have their education connected to real-world problem-solving activities that provide service to other students and community members; and adults in the community would have locally-based opportunities for job training, skills enhancement, and ongoing education. The enormous untapped resources of the community would be tapped as individual members of the community would be able to function as both the recipients and local deliverers of service. This university-assisted community school approach would truly allow us to effectively and compassionately end welfare as we know it--indeed, end the Welfare State as we know it.

This approach, however, does not remotely imply that the federal government abdicates its Constitutional responsibility "to provide for the general welfare." On the contrary. It is designed to have the federal government provide for the general welfare far more responsibly, democratically, and effectively than it has to date.

The ideas sketched here suggest how government might function as a compassionate catalyst, stimulating effective local partnerships, helping America fulfill its promise as a fair, decent, and just society for all its citizens.


Volume 43 Number 25
March 11, 1997

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