In the Fall of 1988, a unique summit was convened in Washington, D.C. called "Families in the Nineties." Eighty people from a broad variety of political, professional, and ethnic backgrounds gathered to discuss how families can provide more nurturing and caring environments for all their members, as well as how society can be more supportive of the important role families play. Originally funded with government money, summit plans continued under their own steam after funding fell victim to deficit reduction efforts – an episode that testifies to both the intrepid spirit of the organizers and the misplaced priorities of the government.
The summit kicked off a three-year program to engage the American public in an exploratory dialogue on supporting the family as a strategy for reducing the rising tide of social problems. More summits are planned, the next being scheduled for Detroit sometime this year. (If you’d like to get involved, write to organizer Robert Theobald at PO Box 2240, Wickenburg, AZ 85358.)
Two of the articles that follow – Arvonne Fraser’s piece on the changing status of the family, and Stephanie Coontz’s synopsis of its recent (and idealized) U.S. history – are adapted from papers prepared for the summit by the authors. Our interview with Tonya Green, a young single parent from North Carolina, occurred thanks to our meeting in Washington as well.
But the summit also started our own wheels turning as we considered the place of the family in a humane sustainable culture, and in a global context. The more we thought about it, the more the primacy of the family in all its forms stood out to us in bold relief. What is family, after all, but a microcosm of culture? As the smallest, most adaptable, and most enduring social institution, the family is where we learn the bulk of our lessons in being human. Changes there greatly affect the culture as a whole, and vice versa.
This family/culture symbiosis means that the scope of any inquiry into the family must be broad. The articles that follow look not only at the history of the family and the many challenges families face, but at the meeting points between family and economics, social policy, population growth, and even architecture. We also hear from an alternative family, a binational family, and a family of travelers who felt a need to "make the connections" between themselves and the world of people to whom we are all linked.
The common language spoken by all these different voices is caring. People who are well cared for become good caretakers. As the articles here demonstrate, there are workable solutions to many of the problems families face today. And by caring for families, we take one of the many important steps needed to birth a culture that can in turn care for our planetary home.