The Crying Game vs. The Power of One

Wednesday, 8 Jun 2005, 5:00:00 AM

(unassigned)

It’s impossible to know who was using whom in a recent L.A. Times story.

Either unnamed City Hall employees were using the Times to simultaneously snipe at City Council member Bobby Shriver and paint themselves as martyrs or the Times was using City employees to exploit Shriver’s family one more time.

In either case, it backfired – as the unnamed City Hall employees sounded more petulant than credible and the Times wound up with one more non-story.

According to the story, by Times staff writer Martha Groves, “City employees … say he [Shriver] is merely the latest to tackle an issue that has long bedeviled the community … They privately express some resentment that a Kennedy with connections has come along suggesting that they haven’t accomplished much when they feel they have made progress … Shriver’s action and comments have caused some consternation….

“Councilman Richard Bloom who voted against Shriver’s proposal said the notion of a regional approach is hardly new. He thinks it’s a mistake for Santa Monica alone to appoint a honcho to seek a regional solution…

“Bloom is a member of the executive board of committee of Bring LA Home, a task force that plans in early June to roll out a plan to end the region’s homelessness within a decade…”

As a kind of afterthought, Groves also noted that “Shriver’s supporters say it’s worth trying his approach ... and they appreciate that he has sparked a new level of discussion.

“‘Bobby has brought the issue to another level by keeping it on the agenda all the time and bringing the resources in,’ said Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions, a program that aids homeless veterans on the VA campus in Westwood.” (See related story about Reimis on page 4).

In saying that Shriver is “merely the latest,” are the anonymous employees saying that the problem is insoluble and therefore Shriver will fail, like all the people who preceded him, so he might as well not try?

A “Kennedy with connections?” By now, it’s a journalistic cliché, and it’s a slap, not a compliment, suggesting that because his mother is a Kennedy, he has advantages he hasn’t earned.

In fact, he’s a Shriver with credentials. And his credentials are both sterling and relevant. His mother founded the Special Olympics. In addition to literally dozens of other accomplishments, his father founded the Peace Corps, Vista, Head Start, Community Action, the Job Corps and Neighborhood Health Services, in an era when the federal government actually believed it should end poverty.

A lawyer, Shriver has worked as a journalist, produced an album that has raised $60 million for Special Olympics and co-founded Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa (DATA) with U2’s Bono in 2002. The multinational non-government organization aims to lift Africa and its people out of the fringes of The Third World, end centuries of exploitation by richer nations, and, most urgently, stem the AIDS epidemic that is currently killing 6,500 Africans every day.

If the “unnamed City employees” weren’t feeling quite so sorry for themselves wouldn’t they welcome someone with those credentials?

And how can we expect any progress in the struggle to end homelessness from people who seem to be more concerned about their reputations than about the people they are supposed to be helping?

Contrary to the employees’ complaints, Shriver has publicly praised the staff for the progress it has made, and his proposal is designed not to denigrate what they have done, but to give them a hand up by focusing more time, energy and thought on finding solutions.

In fact, Shriver’s proposal that the City hire a short-term, high level, high octane official to bring fresh fervor, energy and ideas to bear on the extraordinarily complex problems of homelessness on a regional basis has enormous promise.

Bureaucracies are not designed to create new policy, but to apply existing policy. If, as has been said, the committee that sets out to design a horse inevitably comes up with a camel, a bureaucracy would probably come up with rules for would-be designers of horses.

The most cursory glance at history shows that virtually all the world’s advances have been made by individuals … one by one by one. In the right time, place, and circumstances, one person can do more than 10,000 or 100,000 people. Indeed, one person can change the world.

Every significant work of art, scientific advance, social change and great invention has been made by one unterrified unorganized, unfettered individual.

Galileo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, Frank Lloyd Wright, Dr. Jonas Salk and Martin Luther King, Jr. … from the beginning of time, the power of one has been paramount. More often than is reasonable, such people have been despised, reviled, mocked and occasionally punished, because change frightens people. But the changes they make prevail, even if they don’t.

Bureaucracies operate on the more the merrier thesis, but are too cumbersome to operate very well, are seldom merry, and are, by their nature, the principal defenders of the status quo. They are the world’s way of institutionalizing change, slowing it to a crawl and controlling it, to the extent that it can be controlled.

City Hall “policy-makers,” as they now call themselves, have ordered an extended and often contradictory array of ordinances and programs over the years – ranging from primitive penalties to a “continuum of care.” Staff members have struggled to translate the orders into productive action, and over time, thanks, in large part, to staff’s devotion, many people have been helped off the streets. But, for the most part, the policy-makers’ orders are simply variations on the same old failed programs.

What Shriver has proposed, and his Council colleagues have approved, is a radical departure. It posits that one smart, creative, determined person who focuses all his or her time and talent on the problems can literally deconstruct them.

History is on his side. What we need here is a revolution, and individuals are infinitely better at revolutions than bureaucracies.

Naturally, Shriver’s proposal has kicked up a storm in City Hall. The aforementioned “unnamed employees” are pouting. Bloom’s nose is clearly out of joint. Mayor Pam O’Connor voted against the proposal, and Council member Ken Genser, who was absent the night the proposal was approved, has made his disapproval clear and seems bent on sandbagging the proposal. To say that City Manager Susan McCarthy, whose job it is to find the new homelessness czar and whose office he or she will work out of, is unenthusiastic is to understate the degree of her hostility to the notion – perhaps because she fears he or she will threaten the status quo.

Revolution is the natural enemy of the status quo, but the status quo is insufficient and homelessness is the antithesis of community. If we cherish this community, then we must stop repeating ourselves and make a revolution that will end this community tragedy.

As that old revolutionary Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country. “

Ed. Note: Shriver’s complete proposal can be found in the April 27, 2005 issue of the Mirror (smmirror.com/MainPages/DisplayArticleDetails.asp?eid=535).

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