Cover Story

Home court advantage

Far removed from the high-powered politics of intrigue inside the Washington Beltway, state family policy councils are dealing with Beltway issues on the local level. From Mississippi to Massachusetts, citizen activists are shaping policy on education, the family, and law enforcement--and winning hearts and minds one by one.

Issue: "JOhn Q. Citizen," Feb. 8, 1997

from Boston

More than 200 ninth-graders filled the auditorium of Charlestown High School in inner-city Boston to hear another presentation on sex. The students were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, the teachers and administrators almost uniformly white. It looked like an episode of ABC television's Dangerous Minds, but with acne.

If any teachers harbored thoughts of ditching the assembly and hiding in the teachers' lounge, school nurse Esther Splaine quickly reeducated them. Their presence was required, too.

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On the stage were two doctors from the Massachusetts Physicians Resource Council, part of the Massachusetts Family Institute--one of the leaders in a growing group of state-level family policy councils. Lately, these state groups are showing themselves to be effective advocates, not just minor league counterparts to heavy-hitting Washington groups.

The doctors waited nervously while a janitor searched for the switch to turn the stage lights off so the overhead projector could be seen. It took a few minutes, but then someone else remembered the switch was in a room backstage--a locked room. No one had the key, and no one even knew who should have it. Finally the kid running the sound sighed, climbed atop chairs and boxes to scale a wall of the roofless room, and dropped down into it. He flipped the switch, then climbed out and returned to the sound board.

Dimming the lights didn't help much, though. The ineffective shushing of the principals and teachers was drowned out by raucous students, already responding with Beavis and Butthead giggles to the prospect of seeing more condoms on cucumbers.

Mrs. Splaine, a compact black woman and one of the few staff or faculty members at CHS who lives in the Charlestown section of greater Boston, went to the microphone. She was the one who brought in this group of nervous doctors, and she was determined that they be heard. They were bringing something more than the usual safe-sex message, a message Mrs. Splaine sees as sloppy social policy and an arrogant dismissal of her students'--her students'--potential.

When Mrs. Splaine learned in church of the Massachusetts Physicians Resource Council and its clear presentation of the medical consequences of sex before marriage and the falsity of &quotsafe sex," she was heartened; these willing doctors could fill a void in the lives and education of CHS students.

Without anger, but without much misguided patience, either, Mrs. Splaine brought order to the room. &quotYou sit down and pay attention," she said into the microphone. &quotThese people have something to tell you. And it's something you're not going to hear anywhere else."

The auditorium grew quiet. The students were ready to listen.

Family policy councils are bringing the fight for families home to the states. Even as Washington politicos have talked of decentralization, family policy groups have lived it, opening offices and initiatives in the states. Their cup is running over: In recent days, the Rocky Mountain Family Council has sent a divorce reform bill to the Colorado state legislature; the Mississippi Family Council has released its annual &quotMississippi Index of Leading Cultural Indicators" and a television spot developed as a pro-fatherhood public service ad by the Washington (state) Family Council has won a PSA Emmy award.

&quotAll politics are local," says Steve Knudson, state and local affairs coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. &quotWhen you get right down to it, the states are in a far better position to deal with almost every issue we're concerned with: divorce reform, welfare reform, abortion, education, gambling issues. Just as Thomas Jefferson said, 'The states are the laboratories of democracy.' That's where the experimentation--the search for answers--should take place."

Matt Daniels heads the Massachusetts Family Institute, and he says Boston--and Tallahassee and Oklahoma City and Sante Fe--are closer to the problems and to the solutions than Washington is. &quotIf you think about the things that government does that really impact most people, you'll realize that most of the real action is at the state and local level," he says. &quotAsk yourself this: Who polices your streets? Who runs your schools? Whose decisions have the most day-to-day effect on your life?"

Mr. Daniels is a tall, intense 30-year-old, a native New Yorker who earned college and law degrees through scholarships and guts (determination may be the polite way to say that). The determination is still there--he grins and admits that his wife, a physician, has developed progressive signals to tell him when he's lecturing friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. First comes a touch on the arm, and finally a gently asked (but to-the-point), &quotHave you had too much coffee?"

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