Where is the village?
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, but where is that village today?
I was listening to a talk by Bill Milliken, now 75, reflecting on lessons he has learnt from helping troubled students in the USA stay in school, graduate, and succeed in life. A school dropout himself, in the 1960s he helped develop “street academies”, one of the earliest alternative school models in the USA to support students with a network of community services. He later co-founded the organisation now known as Communities In Schools, which he served for more than 25 years as national president. This currently helps 1.5M students through a network of 38,000 volunteers. 98% of the students stay in school and 93% graduate from school.
Bill has advised U.S. presidents of both parties and has received numerous awards, including the Edward A. Smith Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership, the Champion for Children Award from the American Association of School Administrators, the National Jefferson Award for Public Service, the Visionary Ambassador’s Award from Usher’s New Look Foundation, and an honorary doctorate from Bard College. He has authored four books: Tough Love; So Long, Sweet Jesus; The Last Dropout; and From the Rearview Mirror.
Here are some edited excerpts from the talk:
"I'm not a theologian, I'm not a professor, I'm not an educator. I eventually finished three freshmen years of college, which is why I'm in education. God has a great sense of humour. And as my granddaughter says, 'You're the only person I've met that has written four books and read four books in your lifetime.'.
"My first calling came when I was 17 because I had given up on life by the time I was 17 - was so angry because I couldn't make it in school. They didn't use words like 'learning differently', you were just considered dumb. And so I wasn't able to hang out with the people I wanted to, I got in trouble because I hung out with the wrong people 'cause they accepted me. And when you feel you're dumb you live with that your whole life, you always feel like, 'Hey, they're gonna find me out.' And because I didn't understand what those books were saying I didn't feel like I had any hope.
"I kept looking for life and then somebody from this group Young Life came into my neighbourhood and got me back in school and helped me, helped me at least try to make it and gave me an introduction to Jesus Christ. I didn't believe there could be a God that would put me in the world I was in. I didn't see anything about love or trust. The only people you could trust were those who you could see and keep in your face. But that was just the beginning, and I'm still working at it.
"When my friend Vinny got out of prison in 1960, [after returning to do his time after becoming a Christian], we moved into Harlem, New York. And we started an urban Young Life work there and we were in a place uptown. I had one gift at that time, and that was hanging out. I had the privilege of being on a lot of kinds of streets in those 11 years from 1960 to 71 in New York City. Love goes where people are. I'm alive today 'cause somebody walked through the valley of the shadow of adolescence and loved me into change. And the first lesson I learned is my answer to this question at government hearings, 'What programs did you see, in all those years you were in the streets, that changed people?' I said, 'I didn't see one program change anybody.' And I give that same answer today. It's relationships that change people, not programs. That was the most important thing I learned early, that it's all about relationships.
"Recently I was asked the question, 'If you thought of all kids, not just the kids you've had the privilege of working with, what do you think comes to your mind as the biggest thing, the biggest issue out there from your viewpoint?' And I said, 'That this generation doesn't know the difference between an informationship and a relationship. That ipad does not give you a relationship. Those aren't your friends. Friends happen by breaking bread with people, being in their face, listening to their hearts, living out life, being committed. That path's very important because it keeps us connected..We're more connected now and less relational than any time I've seen in my journey.'
"The next thing I learned about was about community. I didn't know how to be community. I didn't have it at home, I had the wrong kind on the streets. But one day Vinny said, 'How can we say we love kids and let 'em live on rooftops here in New York City? You can go out there and tell them about Jesus, you can go out there and care about 'em, but then you go home.' So Trinity Parish had two empty tenement apartments which we used - one for young ladies, one for young men. So for 5 1/2 years I learned about community and I suffered a lot because I didn't know how to be it. In the first few years I spoke at 12 kids funerals. By the time I was 26 and I was so angry. I couldn't understand how I was living, speaking to kid's funerals and 40 blocks away were the richest people in the world. And I said, 'Where's God? Where's God's people? Why are we the only ones breaking bread with people down here?' I was beginning to see the separation between the have and have nots and that these kids were being left behind but they had all this potential.
"But we loved the kids and we stayed focused on it but what I learned in living together was along with caring you've got to have accountability. And that's when I cried and wrote the first book about tough love. I learned that you can't lie 'cause that breaks down community, and I caught a young man in a lie that I loved so much but I had to kick him out. He said he was going to kill himself, and fortunately he didn't, but that brought some stability. And I learned how to be honest and open and share.
"I told Congress in the early 70's, "Education's gonna become the number one issue in America and you're gonna think it's education.but it's not gonna be solved because of education, we've had a breakdown in community. And schools have fallen into the vacuum that was creating by this breakdown in community. Schools are being asking to be mother, father, sister, brother, social worker, hall guard because they don't have that community anymore.' I trace it back to right after World War Two. There was a major shift, Farmers, instead of going to the farms, a lot of them went into the cities. Then the economy heats up and the African American community migrate. Then we had a little thing called suburbs, My theory is that we pulled apart the safety net for children, which was the extended family and relationship with the faith community which were the mediating structures.
"Hilary Clinton writes a book, 'It Takes a Village to Raise a Child' and I said to her, 'Where's the village?' Over all those years, we lost the village, then we built these institutions around. How can you have community? I said the kids don't see community. If they don't see us loving one another and working together, how could we ask the kids to do it? So my journey has taught me that it's about relationships and it's about communities. We've all been put into silos and the poor were put into silos. Public defenders, public welfare, public housing. So the people who know God have to understand how to transform those institutions as well as the lives of the individual. I have learned through the schools that every kid needs a personal relationship with a caring adult. I learned that we all are hungry for community and we're unnaturally separated from one another. We've put older people out to pasture earlier and earlier, little kids in the institutions younger and younger. And then we wonder and then we try to solve it around the fragmented pieces.
"Lastly one other thing I've learnt. Kids also have to have the gift of giving back. I found that the greatest gift you can give somebody is to allow them to give something to you. Help is not always helpful. It can be very paternalistic and hold people in slavery because if you think you're better than that other person then you're not gonna change him. The reality is that we are a beggar showing another beggar where to find bread. So we created these small, caring environments where everybody was expected to give and we could receive their gifts. Art is one of the ways kids find their identity, where they can do something. Where we can say, 'Hey, that's wonderful.' And they discover, 'Well if I can do this I want to learn that.'
"No matter what you do, whatever your job is, there's a calling in that job. And you're there because God's given you that gift to be in that job. But if it's not a calling then you need to get out. Because God's kingdom needs us to be there because we know we're in the right place, and we need to be bonded together with others who are part of that. You and I both know that hope is not a soft word, hope's the game changer. You know that if somebody doesn't have hope they're gonna do one of two things, they're gonna hurt you or they're gonna hurt themselves. Vinny, who was my partner in starting this, was putting a needle in his arm, I was part of people that was hurting people. Jesus transformed us because somebody came into our lives that lived it out. I doubted all that stuff but that guy kept showing up, he believed that I had some skills that nobody else could see. And he said, 'If you just take your organisational skills that you're doing negatively and use them positively, you have no idea what God's gonna do with that calling.' It's all about grace, folks. And we need each other. And when you're in relationship with somebody and believe in 'em, that's God giving them hope. And when we're a community of people bringing our gifts together as one orchestra, then we are giving away love and relationship in community, and that's what transforms lives and that's what transforms cities."
Watch the talk:
As a church, you may want to investigate TLG and Safe Families for Children who help put caring adults in touch with troubled kids.
Of wider concern is the notion that the village has disappeared or been replaced with public services. Is that true in the UK or are we less mobile than families in the USA? Certainly when I think back to my childhood, all my grandparents, aunts, uncles lived in a 5-10 mile area. Now my two brother's families and I live in 3 different counties. Our daughter and children live locally but we moved to be near them. Our son and his family live 90 mins away. Successive governments and economic forces may have encouraged mobility but at what cost?
But the local church stays and is in an ideal position to foster relationships, community, safe places and above all, hope.
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