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Common Sense

Are We Still in This Together?

By Betsey Culp


One little word.

One word led to another, and then to another. “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...” And so the United States of America was born.


War between states nearly destroyed the perfect union and so, when the fighting ended, the president offered comfort:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Economic and social chaos nearly destroyed the perfect union, and so, when a new president took office, he offered reassurance:

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.


No longer.

In the twenty-first century, the word is obsolete. In the new ownership society, the operative pronoun is “I, ” and its mirror image “you.”

And so the president talks about personalized social security accounts:

Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver — and your account will provide money for retirement over and above the check you will receive from Social Security. In addition, you'll be able to pass along the money that accumulates in your personal account, if you wish, to your children and — or grandchildren. And best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away.

As for the governor of California, the word “we” falls easily from his lips. But if you listen carefully, you discover it means “we, the government,” as in a statement he made this morning, “We need to deliver big solutions for the big problems we face including a huge fiscal crisis that will only get worse if we don't take action right away.”

“We the people” have become “they the people,” a tool for a confident politician:

I will build the momentum right out there with the people.

It's not what I can do. It's what I will do.

I will not stop. I will not slow down. I will not give up because I know that our fullest potential has not been achieved.

For Schwarzenegger, as for Bush, the people are the components of a consumer society: “I want a California where people spend less time sitting on the freeway and more time in the homes that they own.”

Closer to home, Mayor Gavin Newsom has been rampaging recently against the filth clogging San Francisco’s streets. He has put together a twenty-first century version of the Vigilante Committee, 400 deputized city employees who will fan out over the neighborhoods four times a year, ticketing litterbugs.

But according to Ken Garcia, the greatest hope lies in “the idea of forming a number of new assessment districts to bring merchants and residents together in an effort to instill neighborhood pride and a grassroots clean-up effort.” Garcia adds that the mayor “acknowledges that the long-term vision for cleaning up the city is in the formation of such special districts. ‘Eventually, that's how we'll respond to the clean-up problem, because people have to take ownership of their neighborhoods,'’ he said.”

Such districts are the equivalent of suburban gated communities where the residents tax themselves to pay for services. It’s a good old-fashioned concept: Pay the piper; call the tune. You get what you pay for. Pony up and get clean streets. But what happens in low-income districts where residents haven’t the wherewithal to pay assessments like these?

A similar principle has been at work for years in the school system. Even though the state sets a base funding level for every district, it’s obvious as you drive around California that some districts are richer than others. Some districts are awfully good at silent auctions and bake sales and organized money-making campaigns. Others lack talented fund-raisers and affluent donors.

It’s true within San Francisco as well. It’s no accident that, as the school website says, The Lowell High School Library is open and staffed by two credentialed library media specialists ten hours each school day.” Lowell is a large school, with nearly 2,600 students. About 25% of them receive free or reduced-price lunches; less than 4% are special ed students or English-language learners. And its PTSA is very good at raising money.

Wallenberg is another San Francisco high school that prides itself on the academic achievements of its students. It is much smaller than Lowell, with just over 600 students. More than half of them receive free or reduced-price lunches; more than half are special ed students or English-language learners. Because Wallenberg has the same basic administrative expenses as Lowell, it feels per-student, district-wide budget cuts more deeply. And the parents of this small, relatively low-income student body with its high percentage of special needs are less likely to have the time or experience to do much outside fund-raising. Like Lowell, Wallenberg has a library stocked with books. But it has no librarian.

More gated communities. A lot more “me.”


The question is how to flip the M upside down.


In the case of San Francisco’s schools, one solution may be a citywide parcel tax that will funnel money into a citywide fund. Look for this to appear on the November ballot.

But that’s only one possible solution. New York City is trying another one, with the romantic title of the Robin Hood Foundation.

The foundation, which has “targeted poverty” since 1988, promises to “give every cent of every donation directly to help poor New Yorkers.” How is this possible? The prominent members of a large board of directors underwrite all administrative costs, and the foundation works with already successful nonprofits in the city. One of its latest projects is a partnership with the Department of Education “to address low literacy and improve student performance among poor children by re-imagining public school libraries and transforming them into vibrant learning centers.” So far, 21 beautiful new libraries have opened, with 25 more scheduled to open by fall 2006.

But for these Robin Hoods, school libraries are only a small piece of the “we” that makes up New York City. The foundation targets the fields of early childhood, education, job training, survival, and youth and after-school programs.

Is such an organization possible in San Francisco? Are there any Robin Hoods lurking in the hills?

The merrie men are already gathering. School superintendent Arlene Ackerman works with a Business Advisory Committee that has agreed to provide the district with a chief operating officer to handle its day-to-day affairs. The committee is chaired by Warren Hellman. Hellman is also trustee of the San Francisco Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that is “second in grantmaking and fifth in assets among the nation’s community foundations.” The San Francisco Foundation targets affordable housing, youth exploitation, environmental health and justice, and community action. Why, then, are we spinning our wheels?

Would somebody, please, send Warren Hellman a bow and arrow?

We need him. And he may not know it, but he needs us. It’s only common sense.