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Janet Reno, U.S. Attorney General
103rd Landon Lecturer
Oct. 24, 1995

 

Following is the text of Reno's lecture titled "Too Many Americans 'Isolated, Alone'" Due to technical difficulties, approximately 40 seconds of the speech was not documented. That spot is marked by an ellipsis.

Thank you so much for your warm welcome. I appreciate all the efforts of all the organizers that made it possible for me to be here tonight, for it is a great privilege and a very great honor for me to deliver the 103rd Alfred M. Landon Lecture on Public Issues. It is a special honor, because although a Democrat, Governor Landon represents to me what public service is all about, both as governor and as advisor, and I think it is fitting that this important lecture series, with its focus on public issues, stands as a lasting tribute to him and to his legacy and example of public service. Part of that legacy is very special to me, because Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum has been a wonderful mentor for me in Washington. She's an example for me of what public service should be about, thoughtful, actions based on common sense, a sensitive bipartisanship, and you should be very proud that she represents this state so gallantly and so excellently.

This is a time of great challenge and great opportunity in the life of this nation. I see Americans rising to the challenge wherever I go. I see young people committed to public service. I have met wonderful public officials. I have seen caring Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds working in their communities for the good of the people. But I've also in these two and-a-half years that I've served as Attorney General seen too many Americans isolated and alone, separate and apart from each other. It may be a three-year-old walking unsupervised across a housing development, an elderly person afraid to come out behind their door because of the violence on her streets, rich separated from poor, as more Americans become poorer. The professions too often isolated in their narrow disciplines, afraid to link with each other to solve the problems of the world. Gated communities too often keep us apart. While much has been done in this society to address injustices based on racial ethic backgrounds..........These have historically been the vehicles through which we have worked cooperatively to build communities.

Thus we find ourselves at a critical junction. Do we go it alone by ourselves each in our own way? Some may say it's an example of America's tradition of rugged individualism, but the history of this great nation teaches us to the contrary. If we look at our history, if we look at our experience, it teaches us why we must come together. Our experience teaches us the value of community. In the 19th Century the keen observer of American society, the Frenchman, Alexis DeTocqueville, wrote with great admiration of the American tendency to reach beyond family, to find linkages with the broader community to form a strong civic culture. The history of this great state teaches a similar lesson. At the heart of the bold individual pioneer spirit that developed the vast and beautiful Kansas landscape, one I saw tonight as I came in, with a magnificent sunset. At the heart of all of that we're a series of communities, communities of people who boldly set themselves upon the historic Chisholm or Santa Fe Trail, or upon one of the many other historic pathways that crossed this state to find better lives for their families. Yes, these were communities of caring people who were never too busy, never too busy to help their neighbor with a barn raising or a community harvest. These were communities of people who provided the underlying support upon which the pioneering efforts were built. This land was settled by brave souls, but not by souls in isolation.

I have seen another example, a stark and dark one for me initially, for on August 24th, 1992, in Miami at 3 o'clock in the morning I heard the winds of Hurricane Andrew begin to howl. For four hours it wrecked the devastation across the land. As we came out in the dawn we saw a world split apart and turned upside-down, as we talked to people as we walked around. In those days that followed we saw a fear, an isolation, an aloneness. We saw the results of isolation. We saw those brief hours when physical forces had broken the bonds of community. but then I watched that American spirit come forward. I watched people come together. I watched police working with citizens as they worked 36 hours without stopping. I watched black and white together stand in intersections, directing traffic just of their own volition. I saw the elderly come out from behind doors to mind children of neighbors so that they could help to clean up and to get food for all. I saw the community's most prominent citizens working side by side to help restore housing projects, and I saw not only the people of that community respond, I saw this nation respond with supplies, with help, with people who drove hundreds of miles to help, to be involved, to be counted. Countless brave souls overcame Hurricane Andrew, but they were not souls in isolation.

And then more recently on April the 18th, 1995, I saw the tragedy of Oklahoma City. On that Sunday that followed I came to Oklahoma City for the memorial service, and I watched a strength of community that I will never, ever forget. I watched people come together, to speak out against the violence that had spawned that blast, to reach out to victims and to their survivors and to help them begin to heal, to reach out to help and to support law enforcement, and to stand up and to defend this nation we love. We have seen what America can do when it comes together.

And now as we stand on the cusp of a new century, communities with their backs to the wall and a range of problems staring them in the face, our building partnerships, engaging citizens and moving forward to deal with the issues and the challenges they face. But as we do so we must confront together a crisis in this nation, a crisis of isolation, the isolation of our young people, the youth violence that it spawns. Youth violence is probably one of the greatest single problems in America today. We must confront the fact that according to a recent Carnegie Corporation report, young adolescents from all economic strata often find themselves alone in communities where there are few adults and no safe place to go.

Ladies and gentlemen, a close look at the nation's young people discloses something that is very alarming. Since 1985 we have seen an increase in the level of youth violence that is simply staggering, particularly for youth aged fourteen to seventeen. The tragedy of this youth violence produces similarly tragic corollary, youth as the victims of that violence. This surge in youth violence is particularly frightening when we realize that it occurred for the most part in a period when the number of young people in the category of age fourteen to seventeen was decreasing in the United States. The distressing story that we must confront is that as the number of young people in this age category was falling, the percentage of those youth committing homicide was rising steeply.

The nation's demographic data make quite clear that the next twenty years will produce a significant increase in the number of young people fourteen to seventeen. Unmistakably then the current rise in youth violence presages the next generation of even more tragic crime and violence, unless we do something now. The Carnegie Corporation's new report preparing adolescents for a new century, describes the more general situation in which our young people find themselves. As it says, across America today adolescents are confronting pressures to use alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs and to have sex at earlier ages. Many are depressed. About a third of adolescents report that they have contemplated suicide. Others are growing up lacking the confidence to handle interpersonal conflict without resorting to violence. By age seventeen about a quarter of all adolescents have engaged in behaviors that are harmful or dangerous to themselves and others, getting pregnant, using drugs, taking part in antisocial activity and failing in school. All together nearly half of America's adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances. The damage may be near term and vivid or it may be delayed like a time bomb set in youth. In this situation exacerbated by the erosion of neighborhood networks and other traditional social support systems, children now spend significantly less time, the report goes on to say, in the company of adults than a few years ago. More of their time is spent in front of the television set or with their peers, an age segregated, unsupervised environment. Noting, the report said, that such conditions are especially severe in neighborhoods of poverty, it stressed, however, that such conditions occur among families of all income levels and backgrounds and in cities, suburbs and rural areas.

Wherever we go in America too many of our youth are afraid, alone and angry. Where do we begin? It is time to come together, to reach out and re-weave the fabric of society and community around our youth. As our forefathers went west together, as they raised barns together, as we came through the tragedy of Oklahoma City together, let us come together to build a future for our youth and to speak out against the violence and the isolation that too often surround them. Each has a role to play. The businessman, the doctor, the police officer, the home-maker, the local and federal governments, the local civic association, the church, the elderly volunteer.

I will always remember a man I met at a community meeting in Miami who stood up and said, "Do you know how old I am and what I do three days a week?" He explained he was eighty-four years old and that for three mornings a week, three hours each day, he volunteered as a teacher's aide for a first-grade teacher. A young woman was seated next to him, and she stood up and said she was the first-grade teacher, and the children who had learning disabilities in her class could not wait for their time with this gentleman, because he had the patience of Job and gave them such wonderful opportunities. And the gifted children could not wait to meet with him, because he enabled them to travel beyond the sunset in the baths of all the western stars through his imaginations. It doesn't make any difference how old we are, or where we come from, we can all touch the lives of our children and give them a sense of community. But we must start early. We cannot wait till the child is in trouble, it is often too late by then.

But there are real things that we can do to make a difference in the lives of our children. We can support community policing, programs where police involve themselves with the neighbors they serve in identifying the problems, in identifying the priorities of that community or that neighborhood. Police officers working with the community to build trust, not to build suspicion, not to create isolation. police officers working with young people in the community to provide support and to be mentors. Community policing is a powerful tool. Throughout the country we have heard stories of how it has been working in these last years.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, where for the first time in twenty-five years they had a year pass without a single homicide, community policing has brought renewed peace of mind and safety to residents. That is the power of the community policing and that power is being unleashed as we move forward in the Justice Department in this year to put twenty-five thousand community police officers on the streets of this nation where they count.

For as we work together we must reach out and hold our young people accountable when they do wrong. We must love them enough not to give up on them, but to work with them and to let them know that there will be fair, firm, certain punishment when they hurt others when they last out. But we must also let them know that with the punishment comes after care and support as they return to the community, otherwise, they will become part of a revolving door. We can do so much through community-based after school and evening programs, for youth can make a real contribution to reducing crime and violence amongst our young people, if they can be involved in efforts and if we give them positive programs to participate in.

Statistical data tells us that the offending rate for young people rises dramatically after 3 o'clock in the afternoon when the kids are generally released from school. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development concluded that communities should provide more attractive, safe, growth promoting settings for young adolescents during the out-of-school hours, times of high risk, when parents are often not available to supervise their children. In this country there are more than 17,000 national and local youth organizations, including those sponsored by religious groups, but they do not adequately provide support or provide opportunities for about one-third of young people who most need their support and guidance. These organizations must now work, said the report, to expand their reach, enlisting the help of community residents, families, schools, volunteers and adolescents themselves in offering more activities that convey information about life careers and places beyond the neighborhood, as well as to engage them in public service and other constructive services. Communities must play the lead role in creating and supporting these efforts, but there is an important federal support role as well. One of the things that pleased me most about the 1994 Crime Act was that it provided monies to fund these kinds of programs in communities around the country. The federal government needs to support local community initiates, and the Crime Act has pointed us in that direction.

Thirdly, through mentoring efforts we can now make a meaningful connection with a young person. The Department of Justice is supporting efforts around the country that seek to connect caring, committed adults to young people who need that positive connection to help direct their lives in a positive way. But the private sector has also played a key role in sponsoring mentoring programs. One program that has produce impressive results that demonstrates the potential of mentoring is the quantum Opportunities Program. Funded by the Ford Foundation Quantum has had a real impact on youth in Philadelphia, Saginaw, Michigan and Oklahoma City. Through this program mentors provide sustained support, guidance and real assistance to high school students over a four year period. Students were required to participate in a range of activities, including academic-related activities outside of school hours and community service projects. The program results have been impressive. Sixty-three percent of the participants graduated from high school. Fort-two percent are currently enrolled in college. That's compared to forty-two percent and sixteen percent respectively for those not involved in the Quantum program. Mentoring cam make a difference.

Two years ago I went to a detention facility in Omaha, Nebraska. I always try to ask young people who've been in trouble or who are in trouble, what could have been done to prevent the problem in the first place. And the answer is always the same, but it was most vivid that afternoon. The young man in detention said, "I just wished I'd had somebody to talk to, somebody who understands how hard it is to grow up, somebody who could give me a pat on the back when I needed it, but chew me out when I needed that too." Each of us can make a difference.

Fourthly, we must do all we can as communities to ensure that our children get the education they need to be competitive in the 21st Century. I remember my elementary school. I remember the names of all my teachers, and they were so important in my life. We have got to let this nation know how important our teachers are. We have got to make being a teacher as important as being a lawyer. We have got to do something about the fact that this nation pays its football players in the six digit figures, and pays its teachers what we pay them, and we've got to correct that if we are going to make a difference.

But we must also focus on a new part of education. For so long there was a parent at home with small children, but now either single parents or both parents are working. And we must make sure that we provide not just child care, but educare for those terribly formative years in a child's life. As a prosecutor in Dade County I was required to figure out what to do about crack-involved infants and their mothers, whether to prosecute the mother, to pursue dependency proceedings for the child. And the doctors took me to our large public hospital to the neonatal unit to observe these children. At that point the epidemic was cresting. The community had not been prepared, and there were babies in the bassinets who had not been changed, or talked to or held, except when changed and fed, and they weren't really responding, whereas children with sever defects born at birth with birth defects, were across the room beginning to respond to their pain with human emotion. Those ages of zero to three are so critical, and as we consider education, we must consider educare in its finest sense.

If we can teach people to spell, if we can teach our children how to do arithmetic, we can teach them how to resolve conflicts without knives and guns and fists. We, through the great power of our teachers, can teach them how to appreciate the differences in each, to appreciate the differences in races and ethnic background, if we start early. We must use our schools to prepare our young people for work. Our whole school-to-work program can make such a difference, and I've often wondered why we have high school graduation requirements that did not include--or do not include a requirement that we graduate with a skill that can enable us to earn a living wage. Somebody said, "Well, but I'm going to college." But how many people have you met that have a BA in English lit that are sitting around trying to figure out what they're going to do because they don't have a skill till they go to graduate school.

We can do so much if work together, if we develop a partnership with the business community and local educational facilities, if we teach our children the international dimensions of this world and the global consequences of all that we do. We must keep our kids in school. The connection between truancy and subsequent offending is powerful. Through a joint effort with the Department of Education we have produced an initiative to help communities deal more effectively with the problem of children who are falling out of the mainstream of our educational system. But this is an area where local community based leadership will be crucial.

This nation has made great strides in dealing with the problem of illegal drug use since the '80s, but there is still more to be done. We are having great success against the Cali cartels. We are making inroads against drug-related violence in our communities, but there is still, still much to be done, particularly when we recognize that drugs are still prevalent amongst our young. We must renew our efforts to educate our children about drugs and to reaffirm prevention efforts that have proven successful across this country. I don't know what you call my equivalent to the Red Ribbon Council, but in terms of the Miami Coalition, in terms of community people coming together from all walks of life, they can be so effective in terms of the development of prevention programs.

And finally, we must give our young people an opportunity to serve. They want so to be somebody. They want so to make a contribution and to feel like they've helped other people. And we see young people taking up the President's challenge to engage in national service through Americorp. These young people are responding powerfully and positively to the President's call to give something back to their country and to their communities. I am proud that many of these Americorp service workers are working with the Department of Justice to enhance public safety and to build strong communities in some of our operation weed-and-seed neighborhoods around the country. Others are working to ensure that children are immunized, while other national service workers are building and renovating homes for poor families. I am heartened when I see that kind of a response to a call for service and I think this nation needs to continue to find ways to encourage that spirit.

But communities cannot succeed by themselves, because to give our adolescents a chance we must give them a strong foundation, and early childhood is so vitally important, as I learned in that visit to the neonatal unit. What those child development experts taught me was that fifty percent of all learned human response is learned in the first year of life. During the first three years of life the child develops the concept of reward and punishment and develops a conscience. There is no substitute during that period of life for a strong and caring family. Raising children is the single most difficult thing I know to do. About ten years ago a friend died leaving me as the legal guardian of her fifteen-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. The girl was in love and I've learned an awful lot about raising children in the last ten years. It takes hard work, love, intelligence and an awful lot of luck, but there is nothing as rewarding. I will never forget putting that young lady on the plane and then going to see her graduate in three years cum laude, and on each occasion she threw her arms around my neck and said, "Thank you, I couldn't have done it without you." Being Attorney General has been a great honor, but nothing can compare with what you can do if you reach out to children.

This administration has taken steps to recognize that there are caring, wonderful families in this nation that need just a little bit of support to reinforce what they are doing with their children. The administration has led the way to expand earned income tax credit, which is crucial for working families who are working hard and doing all they can to give their children a full range of opportunities. We must continue to support the earned income tax credit, which enjoys a long history of bipartisan support. President Reagan once called it the best antipoverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.

We have led the way in the enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which supports families by giving working people the opportunity to be with their loved ones during crucial times in the life of a family. And we have focused on domestic and family violence. When I first served as a prosecutor in 1978 in Miami, judges and police officers would look at me and say, "But that's just a domestic." But we did a study with the medical examiner in Dade County and found that forty percent of the homicides in the county during the previous twenty years were related to domestic violence, husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, ex-spouses. It's not too much different now. About two years ago I participated in a fiber-optic hookup in Iowa with fifteen cities or towns. They had met for about an hour before to establish their priorities, police chiefs and other community leaders, and in approximately eight of the fifteen cities or towns domestic violence was at the top.

Why is it so important? Because the child who watches his father beat his mother comes to accept violence as a way of life. And unless we start to intervene and tell the world that we will not tolerate this type of violence, we will see it handed down from one generation to another. But supporting families is not just something the government should do. All sectors of the American community need to lend a hand in providing this crucial support.

I look at young parents today, struggling to get breakfast on the table, the children dressed and off to school. They get home through rush hour. They get dinner on the table, the children bathed, the homework done, and everybody collapses in bed. They run errands on Saturday and go to church on Sunday and start to prepare for the next day on Sunday evening, and they don't have quality time with their children.

I remember my afternoons after school and during the summer. My mother worked in the home. She taught us to play baseball, to appreciate Beethoven symphonies, she taught us to play fair, she punished us, she loved us with all her heart. And there is no child care in the world that will ever be the substitute for what that lady was in our life. Somehow if we can send a man to the moon we ought to be able to develop work places which are far more family friendly. This is an area where technology can help to support our family and community building efforts, with flex time, job sharing, telecommuting and other workplace policies that allow working parents to become involved in the lives of their children. What so many principals will tell you is that they can't get parents to come to school. Let's start giving parental leave for just a little bit of school time.

Many American businesses are taking the lead in this area and really making a difference for families around this country. Some of these companies are making flexible schedules available to parents and are finding that their rates of tardiness and absenteeism are reduced. Others are going even further, and in addition to providing job sharing, condensed work weeks and telecommuting, they are offering informational videos and materials on child care, parenting and other concerns to help parents balance work and family demands. These efforts can make such a difference.

So much of what we face seems so daunting, the problems seem so large, the homicide statistics so grim. I have no doubt that we can meet this challenge, for I remember looking at the devastation of the hurricane and wondering how we would rebuild. I remember looking up at the Merrill building and wondering how a city would cope. We know the answers.

What does the future hold for our children? these are our most precious possessions. These are our future. I think I know the answer. As a matter of fact, I'm sure I know the answer. wherever I go in this nation I see people starting to work together across social, economic and racial divides in both traditional ways and new ways, to address the problems they face in their local communities.

It may seem daunting, but I see America accepting the challenge. I see America coming forward together unafraid, and I know that child by child, family by family, block by block, school by school, city by city, state by state, we will build thriving and healthy communities across this great nation that all of us want for ourselves and for our families. Thank you and good night.