by Andrew M. Mecca, Dr.P.H.
As an enthusiastic champion of the California Mentor Initiative, I am frequently asked about the seemingly futile war we are waging on behalf of our kids. Far from caving into futility, however, my spirit is constantly buoyed by the many-faceted preventive measures we currently have in place to turn our youth away from drugs and alcohol and toward active, healthy, citizen participation in the greatest liberating high anyone could ever experience -- America.
Personally, I cannot help but reflect on the philosopher and historian Alex de Tocqueville's comments in the mid-19th century about the American experiment in democracy. To paraphrase, he said: "Thomas Jefferson is right about this democratic experiment in democracy -- it will work if people remain involved at the local level, and will fail if left to experts and central control."
The epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse -- specifically among our young citizens -- is eroding the foundation of our participatory form of government, but it is far from a lost cause. Those of us who have battled for the implementation of self-esteem in the lifestyles of the young know in our hearts that it is this very return to the core of dignity that will resuscitate America like the mythic bird of hope, the Phoenix rising from the ashes of despair.
Leaders, poets, scholars and historians from the earliest of times believed what we now know today. They saw a correlation too strong to be ignored -- that personal and social responsibilities are the manifestation of an individual's high level of self-esteem.
We have only to look to Aristotle's ethical philosophy in which he plumbs the depth of the meanings of "good" and of "happiness" for a deeper understanding of self-esteem and its co-parts, personal and social responsibility. It is no surprise really to see that Aristotle sees both good and happiness inextricably interwoven with participation in civic matters. The highest good is right action and the person so directed has the greatest chance at happiness.
Does all this sound a bit too esoteric for those of us living in the modern morass of big-city violence, youth alienation and rampaging drug criminality? Not at all. Happiness and living righteously are the flip side of drug and alcohol abuse. Our job is to find the right key to unlock the disturbed soul from the grip of addiction and set him free into the land of illumination.
Further proof for the philosophical foundation for the work being done in the realm of self-esteem is seen in the "unreal city," the nightmare landscape of T.S. Eliot's poetry. The landscape he creates is filled with the clutter of despair. His work is peopled with sallow unbelievers and ruined dreams. But ultimately, Eliot's poetry establishes a paradigm of hope. He reminds us that from death comes resurrection; from ruin comes repair; and only after the dead of winter can there be hope for spring.
That a person experiences an increase in his self-esteem when he acts effectively toward others and toward his community is not surprising. We recognize this as true and as vital. And so the extension goes that a healthy quotient of self-esteem in a person can be what initiates the cycle of good works and of a high level of personal and social responsibility.
As in any endeavor worth striving for, there are steps toward the goal. So it is with self-esteem and personal and social responsibility, the best ingredients for the effective prevention of drug and alcohol abuse.
Six specific steps show the way -- A return to dignity, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, integrity, realization and permission.
These steps form the foundation for one of the most exciting social revolutions yet developed in the late 20th century -- the California Mentoring Initiative, which is a proven and solidly effective weapon in the arsenal of drug and alcohol prevention among the state's young.
When a parent, teacher or other role model alerts a child to the possibility of his entering into a vitalizing cycle of self-esteem and social and personal responsibility, the adult enters the cycle, too. With a high level of self-esteem, personal and social responsibility will follow. This is the engine room of the mentor/mentee relationship that is currently the genius behind the California Mentor Initiative, a social phenomenon that is returning America to itself.
What we're discovering from mentors around the state is that young people are beginning to realize that there is actually a place for them in what is too often merely the rhetoric of America.
Almost universally, mentors point happily to the fact that their job is sometimes as easy as pointing the young person toward the front door of a university or into the foyer of jobs fair or onto the front step of a workplace that employs their skills.
The truth is that none of these young people has ever had an adult believe in them. It's not they are unskilled, unintelligent or incapable. Quite the contrary. Empowerment is about knowledge and belief. Knowledge unlocks the door of opportunity, and belief in the person makes it possible for him to flourish as a responsible citizen.
Just as 12-Step programs like to say they are based on attraction, not promotion, so it is with the American Dream -- once a person breathes the fresh air of full engagement in the process of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, the intoxication toward health is an all-powerful elixir.
The sense of fun and joy that occurs when a young person has a chance to blossom as an active participant in democracy is something that can't be adequately bottled or described.