Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Andrea Kaiser and her neighbors in Dorchester have a dream: to build a community center that will truly serve the needs of the youth in a part of Boston where a hand up at the right time could make all the difference in a kid’s life. But despite detailed plans, cooperation with the City of Boston, and extensive fundraising, the new Bird Street Community Center (birdstreet.org) remains just that: a dream.

The Bird Street Community Center has actually been around for 27 years, serving Dorchester in a number of ways, but in the main providing a solid foundation for youth, a safe and affirming place in a sometimes hostile city in our age of sink-or-swim. Bird Street provides kids not only with the possibility to dream big, but with the practical skills and the confidence to turn those dreams into reality.

According to Ms. Kaiser, the Executive Director, Bird Street Community Center faces two big challenges today. First to its current programs: one of the most important services Bird Street provides is job training and placement for high-risk youth. Funding for the program is tight, of course, and a shortfall could mean it would have to be cut by as much as 50%. The other challenge is to the center’s future: while the organization has raised over $6 million to date for the construction of the much-needed new facility, it must come up with the remaining $4.8 million by December. A tall order.

There’s something of a ripple effect in society, so what happens in Dorchester doesn’t necessarily stay in Dorchester. When a kid can’t get skills training, can’t land a decent job, and eventually succumbs to despair, drugs, or a life of crime, it has ramifications for all of us. We have grown accustomed in these last decades to what the Bush Administration has dubbed the “ownership society,” a society whose mantra is “mine, mine, mine”. We need to get back to the bigger challenge of The Great Society, where the key word is “ours”. A world of “mine” is a war of all against all. Without “ours” there really is no civil society to speak of.

It has been a swift, precipitous drop from the idea of The Great Society of the Johnson era to that of the Hate Society we’re living in now, from the waging a war on poverty to our current war on the poor. From daring to believe in the American dream to sowing the seeds of the American nightmare in less than half a century. Sadly Americans have not flinched at shelling out nearly $200 billion and counting for a sham war a world away, while good people trying hard to build a better future here at home have to go jonesing for peanuts in the face of general indifference.

Still, Andrea Kaiser and her community aren’t giving up on their American dream. In fact, they’re in the audacious business of encouraging others to dream big, too. Nowadays that’s downright un-American.

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