Washington is a city with far too many people who are living wasteful, painful and unfulfilled lives. The poor, the unemployed, the mentally ill, the institutionalized, the undereducated, the placeless and the dependent make up more than a 100,000 of our residents. Many are without adequate support systems or family or sense of community, with little prospect for bettering their lot or that of their children.
This is also a city that doesn't know what to do about it. There is very little overall planning or public-policy debate. There is a dearth of new ideas, no reform movement, little serious program development or evaluation. Effective leadership and community organizing are almost nowhere to be seen.
It's not that the social problems of the city have gone unnoticed. They are only too visible. The real problem is that they go unsolved, and what's worse this state of affairs is accepted as being inevitable.
This is a divided city, a collection of separate sectors and neighborhoods and special-interest groups. We are split by income and race and geography and personal agendas. We are divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots," the national and yuppie city versus the local community. It is rare for diverse groups to coalesce around a major citywide issue. It's sad that the Redskins are one of the very few things that can excite just about all of us.
This is an apathetic and uninvolved city. We have a local government that is inept, managing by crises, and sometimes outright crooked -- one that has lost the confidence of a good share of the population no matter what the election results show. We have a business sector that involves itself very little in local issues except to make sure it controls development and banking.
Our universities and think tanks act as if the local community does not exist. Our mass media are dominated by a giant that would sooner report on what's going on in Congress or at a Georgetown bash than grapple seriously with local issues.
Despite the great deal of wealth concentrated here, we have an abysmal philanthropic giving record. According to a recent study, it is the worst of seven major comparable cities. All too often this money finds its way to pet charities that happen to find favor this year with "high society" or the Style section reporter. Our beleaguered and tired local nonprofit sector now concentrates almost totally on direct services, having largely abdicated its advocacy role.
Many former local activists have been "turned off" through frustration, or bought off by the local bureaucracy, law firms or private enterprise. Although there are still a few brave souls putting up the good fight within their own neighborhoods and for their own narrowly defined constituencies, these people are desperately in need of allies, recognition and support.
One may point to an isolated citizen victory or to a heroic neighborhood leader, but I would still argue that, overall, this is a city with what must be called a "bad attitude."
This is true despite the existence of many powerful organizations and councils and advisory committees, some of which even recognize that apathy and a leadership malaise exist, but not one of which is publicly doing anything about it.
The rationalizations offered are a pretty lame bunch of excuses. People blame the lack of home rule, the transient nature of the population, or even the fact that this is a "black city." People in other cities -- New Haven or Pittsburgh or Minneapolis -- would never put up with what we shrug off as inevitable in Washington. They would be too embarrassed.
Paradoxically, this city is filled with institutions and people with great expertise in solving problems that occur elsewhere in the world, in business, in international relations and in politics. These people are effective, skilled, hard-working wheelers and dealers who have the resources, know-how and contacts to make this a much better city. But they don't pay any attention to the problems in their own back yard.
Even more ironic, Washington has a sizable contingent of socially aware researchers and activists who focus their professional attention on causes at the national level or organize in communities a thousand miles away, but then remain silent and aloof when it comes to speaking out for the poor in this community.
Despite its special problems, Washington has a lot going for it. Its social problems, in many ways, are by no means as formidable as those faced by other cities. The economy is visible, the leadership is hidden here somewhere, and there is a great deal of money stashed away or misspent. Washington is a beautiful city. Its architecture, natural features and cultural facilities are outstanding. But an enormous segment of its population is mired in misery and much of the city does not care.
Apathy, then, is a major contributor to the problems faced by the disadvantaged in Washington. A great deal of human suffering could be reduced if even a small amount of the expertise, energy and problem-solving ability that exists in such abundance in this city could be diverted toward the resolution of local concerns.
This approach is not, of course, the total solution. The local government needs to be re-energized, social programs modified, more money raised and a stronger sense of self-help and individual responsibility inculcated in those who are disadvantaged. But in our city not much is going to happen without the involvement of those individuals and institutions that have the ability to make a difference but currently feel no such responsibility.
Over the past month or two, I have talked to more than a score of people who love this city, who have felt frustrated by the problems described here and who wonder if the time isn't right to begin to do something about it.
These are bright, understanding, caring people. They are people who -- over their lives -- have made a difference but who know how difficult social change can be. They come from all walks of life. Many of them hold leadership positions within their own sectors. Most are experienced and skilled "community organizers" in the broadest sense.
I have described to them -- much as I have in this article -- the problems of the disadvantaged in the city and the widespread apathy among those who could be helping. They immediately agreed with the description and the notion that apathy has something important to do with it.
As these conversations went on, they became excited. Many spoke emotionally about what they see as a city that doesn't seem to care about itself. They interrupted to add their stories to mine. They felt the need to share with me their pent-up frustration and anger, their disappointments and accusations. They were quite surprised to learn that others felt the same way.
There was a consensus that it would be very difficult to wake up the city, but that it might just be possible. They wanted to have the opportunity to sit down with other people who also care and might want to do something about the apathy.
They saw their role as becoming a gadfly, a conscience, an advocate, a catalyst, an investigator, a problem solver and, in the very best sense, a "community organizer." But not dealing, in this case, directly with organizing the poor, or fund raising for a particular cause or program, or with elected politics.
What is needed, then, is a forum through which these people can act and say what must be said, a forum that currently does not exist.
Even a small group of people, a Committee of the Concerned, could do a lot for this community. Such a group could, through its collective commitment and understanding, devise a process that would make a difference. Its members could think through what needs to be done, stir things up, co-opt others to take the necessary initiatives. Here activists and advocates would gather, share ideas and resources, establish citywide strategies and goals and take joint actions.
This group would document the survival problems faced by half the population and expose the apathy and force the city to take an honest look at itself.
It would work to motivate the business sector, the religious community, the think tanks, the nonprofits, the national organizations, federal workers and Capitol Hill and the mass media.
They would find, promote and train a cadre of dedicated and capable local leaders who have the will and ability to carry out the reforms and to deliver effectively the much-needed services.
They would assist, support and honor activists and advocacy organizations that are already in the thick of things locally.
This forum would act as a matchmaker and clearinghouse to bring activists together with resources and issues.
It would devise solutions to the problems facing this community and make sure they are put into practice.
It would make this a better city.
The writer is director of the Association for a Better City, a forum for community problem solving.