One of the most important tasks is to create a social and political climate within which people would feel comfortable in participating in family support networks. We believe that such participation could be an important step towards overcoming the fragmentation that keeps people in patterns of self-blaming and powerlessness.
We envision two kinds of family support networks:
- Family Councils. These would be discussion groups in which people in a relevant community (be it the neighborhood, community center, school, voluntary civic organization, church, synagogue, mosque, ashram, labor union, sports club, etc) would meet together once every few weeks and explore the social and economic needs of their families with an eye towards developing legislation or political activity to address the problem or concern. These groups would focus on the Family Bill of Rights, but would hopefully greatly expand that document, give it shape that fits the needs of their own community, and develop strategies for how to accomplish their goals politically. Shaping political discussion in this way, as we have argued above, inevitably leads to challenging the basic forms of organization of a competitive and profit-dominated society.
- Family Support Groups. These would be more personal—based on the model of the women’s movement small groups. The goal would be to provide a safe context for people to learn about the ways people share common emotional problems, similar patterns of self-blaming, and similar ways of discounting their own strengths. Through these groups, people would learn form each other’s experience, and get validation and strength to face the problems that any attempt to create loving relationships in this society inevitably generate. It is our belief that the very meaning of being in a family will be transformed when families become part of this kind of network of support. The isolation will be broken, the destructive dynamics potentially undermined, and the strengths and capacities for loving will be greatly reinforced. For this reason, we put a very high priority on creating the preconditions for this development. If they were to be started today, these groups would be primarily composed of people like those who are drawn to reading this kind of paper or are involved in self-help groups or engage in reading self-help books. But to change things, they would have to appeal to other sectors of the population. Much of the rest of the strategy of Friends of Families will, we believe, create the kind of societal climate in which people can feel safe in joining these groups without feeling that they have thereby identified themselves as “having special problems” or “being sick.” When that happens, these groups will become the vanguard of undermining the powerlessness that suffuses people’s lives and keeps them participating in structures of oppression. Hence, the Friends of Families strategy, while it emerges out of a response to the Right, actually is a strategy for creating the pre-conditions for much deeper social change: a genuinely democratic society based on people who feel good enough about themselves that they feel that they have the right to actively shape their common destinies in the public world.
The creation of family support groups in neighborhoods begins to address another major issue facing families: crime. In an obvious way, the family support system could help prevent crime by bringing neighbors together to discuss their common problems and fears and by providing ways for neighbors to begin to look after each other’s homes. But in a deeper way, family support groups may provide a long-term strategy, because so much of crime today stems from family violence or from the reactions of children to family lives that have been distorted and destructive. Family support groups may prove to be the most effective crime prevention measure, more likely to be effective than any automatic increase in the number of police or the years of penalty tied to a crime.
Creating family support networks could be greatly advanced if educational institutions, religious institutions, and government agencies were to train people to organize and lead these groups in the same way that it now helps finance public education. But if none of this happens, another model is possible: the 12-step programs that are so helpful to many in dealing with their own individual problems might be adapted to family support needs, with significant changes appropriate to the needs of family support.
Another task of family support networks is to counter the increasing isolation of the elderly from their families. In part, this requires combating the values of the society that teach us to look at each person as someone we can use for our own needs and discard once he or she no longer provides us with something of immediate value. Here again, the worldview of a competitive marketplace may shape the views of the young about their aging parents. That same marketplace has encouraged newness as the highest value, as a way of getting consumers to discard older goods to purchase something newly produced. Reinforced by the images of the media, we are constantly being urged to abandon the past for some elusive future, one that will be shaped and produced for us by the multinational corporations. If we are to understand the present, we must learn from the past, and those whose experiences have shaped us. This is not just an issue of “being respectful” when we go visit the elderly. Rather, our daily life and community life must be reshaped to include the aged in a realistic way, and to listen to their concerns and learn from their experiences. For those without the benefits of older people in their natural families (which is increasingly true as the economic realities force people to move around to find new jobs), we want to create ways for them to have regular contact with, and integrate into their daily lives, the elderly of other families, or aging people whose children have moved away.