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"Mother Teresa didn't need billboards"

ANSWER TO DECLINE? Institutions Could Revitalize By Helping the Poor

"Mother Teresa Didn't Need Billboards" Failed to Convince Sister Superior

August 26, 2016       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Dr. Jean Goodnow, the president of Delta College, was absolutely right when she noted Tuesday that the tri-county high school age population has dropped precipitously in the past 15 years.

That intriguing statistic was offered up at the school's opening convocation as the main reason for Delta's difficulty in maintaining enrollment. The Bay City Times headlined: "As K-12 Population Drops, Delta Struggles for Students." But that headline and the statistics do not tell the whole story.

Yes, the number of people ages 15-19 in Bay-Midland-Saginaw dropped from 29,200 in 2001 to 25,119 last year -- a fall off of 4,081, or about 14 percent, according to the U.S. Census. (That is the only demographic statistic that roughly correlates to the age group of high school students.)

In 2001, Bay had 7,467 in the 15-19 age group; Midland had 6,381 and Saginaw 15,352, for a total of 29,200. Last year Bay's population of 15-19 year olds was 6,187; Midland's 5,557; and Saginaw's 13,375, totaling 25,119.

Perhaps more pertinent to public concerns about educational, economic and social decline is the "less than high school graduate" rate of 18-24-year-olds in 2014: Bay, 9,108 (14%); Midland, 7,806 (12.4%); and Saginaw, 20,875 (15.8%).

That's 37,789 people, male and female combined, in the tri-county area who have a built-in barrier to employment -- and an express ticket to poverty. However, these are 37,789 -- mainly struggling -- prospective students for any school or college willing to recruit, transport and support them additionally if necessary to deliver education to them.

What does the number of young people in poverty mean to the general population of citizens? Higher taxes and a lower standard of living as a result of more single parent families, crime, costs of law enforcement, adjudication, incarceration, welfare, etc.

Painting with a broad brush, as editorial writers are wont to do, where can we place the blame for the decline that is pervasive, exacerbated by globalization and technological automation? In Michigan there is plenty of blame to go around, for instance:

1. The K-12 educational establishment, for insisting on inordinately high (politically driven) academic standards and an obsession with micro-testing; for excluding any marginal student who "just doesn't fit in;" and legislators for turning schools (and massive funding) heavily over to Wall Street firms through so-called "online education."

2. Politicians of 15 years ago (can you say John Engler and the Republican Legislature?), who dismantled the adult education system with the motto "Work First," a misguided idea that mainly benefitted the minimum wage employers like McDonald's and fast food purveyors, Wal-Mart and low-wage retailers, and industrialists eager to slash payroll costs. In other words, "no education for you, Work First." That created a permanent underclass, working for "the man" with little hope of climbing out of poverty.

3. The higher education establishment (including Delta, Saginaw Valley, U-M and MSU, etc.), for failing to research, identify and promote trends and policies to guide legislators and secondary educators back to the "promised land" envisioned in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that states: "Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

4. Hard rock conservatives, and liberals who stand by wringing their hands, for failing to recognize that "people are our most important product" and encouraging the various establishments to fulfill their societal purpose rather than merely enriching themselves and others of their ilk.

5. The Religious Establishment, especially the Catholic Church but also including the Protestant denominations, all very well meaning but without the foresight and spine to effect necessary changes in society. For instance, I can identify no religious leader (including my Roman Catholic bishop I'm sorry to say) who advocates effectively for the poor and downtrodden and whose voice might stir needed reforms.

I will close this Jeremiad with a tale of another of my failed attempts to jolt institutions out of the status quo. Some years ago, while working with a fundraiser for Catholic charities in the Detroit area, I met with an order of nuns who were all in their 80s and 90s but still hoping the order would survive.

This group of exemplary individuals, dedicated to self-sacrifice and prayer, had a huge endowment. Millions of dollars sitting idle in the bank. After spending $1 million on advertising in one year (billboards, TV ads, brochures, etc.) the nuns were desperate. Not one prospective novice had responded to their ads. Zip, Zero, Zilch, Nada -- a million clams down the drain.

They were so desperate they deigned to talk to me, and unknown marketing consultant and grant writer at the time. What could I possibly tell them that might allow them to begin to revitalize their moribund group of aged sisters?

I reflected on my career in adult education. Why did it work back in the day and how did it benefit the rest of the education world? We took everybody, recruited door-to-door and at the county market all summer. We enrolled hundreds of marginal students and coaxed them to a diploma or a GED, the vital stepping stone to Delta or trade training programs. When necessary we provided transportation and service workers to help the poor and uneducated gain the minimal credentials to join the working world with at least a chance of success.

I know it was a wild idea, and a long shot that it would even be considered by the aged nuns, but I gave it a shot. "Sister," I told the Mother Superior, "you are surrounded with the people who can breathe new life into your order. You just need to talk to them."

An incredulous look invaded her visage and her body language was not welcoming to any new idea, I realized, nonetheless continuing: "The poor, Sister, the poor. All those hundreds of thousands of poor women living hand to mouth on the stark streets of Detroit. Those women can be your salvation. Send representatives door to door in the poor neighborhoods. You may find only one in 100 willing to listen, but offer them free education at your many schools and colleges and give them free health care. You have plenty of money and can easily do that. Those things are the pathway to respectability for them and revitalization for your order."

"You may only find one in a dozen who will persevere in education and be inspired to join your order, but that's better than any other plan -- especially given the failure of advertising," I concluded.

When a slight amount of interest seemed to arise in the Mother Superior, my hope for acceptance of my idea was quickly squelched. "Young man, we only accept novices of substantial means and adequate education whose families are willing to make a large donation to our endowment."

"Sister, you just spent $1 million in advertising to try to find novices, how many did you get to apply who met those qualifications?" She answered sheepishly, "none."

Even the truism, "Mother Teresa didn't need billboards," was not enough to move her.

The rest of the story: Of course they didn't take my advice. Their status quo and elitist attitudes blocked any consideration of such radical action, even if it was the only way possible to save their group and continue their exemplary work -- albeit mainly among the shrinking pool of parishioners making up their aging congregations.

And, of course, their cosseted female offspring who had no motivation to give up their privileged lifestyles to do the work of the Lord. So the order died out, as has others with leadership of similar mentality who ignored how their black-robed predecessors had risen from mean streets a century or more ago.

So, how does this little allegory apply to the broad panorama of the need for social change? In the world of today, the unwashed 12-15 percent, the bottom rung of the social ladder, should be the constituency of educators, legislators and social scientists -- and, yes, religionists. The poor neighborhoods are the fertile fields the nuns neglected and we as a society neglect at our peril.

The number of churchgoers is in free fall in many denominations, especially the Catholics. Churches are closed, some magnificent temples slated for demolition, schools shuttered or abandoned. Neighborhoods around them jammed with people desperate for religion and education. But hardly anybody is talking to them. Encouraging them. Bringing them into society.

I rest my case and hope for a miracle, or many miracles.


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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
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