There is no shortage of military and political big shots who would appreciate the advantages of forging an alliance with retired Gen. Colin Powell. The National Endowment for the Humanities has beaten them to it. The endowment officially unveiled its partnership with Powell's nonprofit organization promoting volunteerism, America's Promise--the Alliance for Youth, at its summer meeting yesterday.

Cross-promotion of NEH youth programs with Powell's efforts through America's Promise should stimulate both, and signal the endowment's expansion of its educational programs. Powell, who spoke to the endowment's governing council and 100 employees and humanities supporters, said his work and the humanities field could link to help provide tools for youngsters to develop "a vision" of their future success.

"The longer I get into America's Promise, the more I work with nonprofit organizations, the more I work with government agencies, the more I realize we have to get into the lives of these youngsters as early as possible. It is more than throwing computers at them," said Powell.

The NEH brings almost 35 years of education experience to the partnership and has established or funded a series of programs that reach young students and families. Some of its newer efforts include Schools for a New Millennium, a pilot program for the use of computer technology and teaching; Girls Dig It, an archaeology program for young teenagers; and Prime Time Family Reading Time in Louisiana, one of several literacy efforts it supports.

"Programs like those are going to be linked in a more official and focused way through America's Promise," said NEH Chairman William Ferris. "In the future we will be creating new programs with this in mind."

Powell said NEH made a natural partner. "When you get an organization like that, that says we want to make a commitment to a group of youngsters. We want to make sure we are touching their lives, not just those who are at the forefront of the humanities and intellectual life," he said.

Aligning with Powell gives the NEH a needed boost in visibility. Usually its work is known through its sprawling network of scholars, and its media products, such as Ken Burns's series on public television. But with congressional funding flat, the endowment has had to seek out private funding as well as new partners.

The Powell partnership is no quick fix for America's ills, both sides readily admitted. "You are not going to snap your fingers and solve it. You do this one squad at a time, one platoon at a time," said Powell, "and I picked up a platoon today."