Self-esteem campaign ends with declaration of victory


LOS ANGELES -- The big question is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, do you feel better about yourself now than you did eight years ago?

That's when self-esteem as savior hit California government, to the hoots of Johnny Carson and "Doonesbury" -- and the earnest protestations of supporters who believed that efforts to build self-esteem and personal responsibility could help cure everything from welfare dependency to war.

Now, hundreds of thousands of dollars and eight years into the discussion, one of the parts in the governmental effort at feeling better has ended.

Last week, Los Angeles County's Board of Supervisors let the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility dissolve itself and go away.

"I don't think you should create a government thing that goes on forever," said its former chairman, Mike Lindsay.

The task force's most recent leader, county Office of Education administrator Alice Healy-Sesno, agreed that it was time.

"This was not a seated commission, " Ms. Healy-Sesno said. "It was indeed a task force, and we fulfilled our charge."

So, seven years after its creation and five years after a similarly named state task force closed its doors, the county body has folded its tent and gone home -- declaring victory as it goes.

Ms. Healy-Sesno acknowledges that there was "no major evaluation component" to measure the impact of the task force's work, but she and others believe the group made a difference.

"We increased the comfort level in the meetings in regard to the fact that they could make a difference in themselves and society," Ms. Healy-Sesno said. "What we were trying to do is make parents, schoolteachers and others aware they had the strength to support children."

Mr. Lindsay, a plain-spoken federal probation officer, put it more bluntly.

vTC "When we first started, we had religious fanatics there who were so angry they were almost ready to break into fights," Mr. Lindsay said. Now, "It's more of a non-issue. It's more accepted."

The task force held community meetings and an annual awards luncheon, published brochures, taped an instructional video and otherwise worked to get the word out on self-esteem and responsibility.

More recently, the group had been involved in improving the region's "collective self-esteem" in the wake of riots, floods, quakes, recession and all the rest, said Mr. Lindsay.

Long-time member Tom Rische said the task force helped "change the dialogue," leading people to accept the idea that self-esteem mattered at some level in building successful citizens.

"The emphasis has been on tough love," Mr. Rische said. "More (( than that, on emphasizing the positive things in people's lives. We were trying to get a lot of people in touch with who they are, particularly when abuse is involved."

Teacher training and parenting classes on the subject are now widely in vogue, where they weren't even talked about before the movement began, Mr. Rische said.

"I think a lot of people are aware of this new idea," said Mr. Rische, whose profanity-laced references to some critics betray a certain lack of esteem for their opinions.

"All we were trying to do is [promote] a religious idea: Be nice to people. Look at the ways in which you could make the world better," he said.

But as that message was percolating into the collective subconscious, the task force was getting less in the way of help from the county.

Initially, the county provided up to $20,000 a year, said Rita Thomas, whose staff in the county Executive Office of the Board administers the task force and many other county commissions.

But in the past several years, the agency only had the minimal staff help of Ms. Thomas' office and no county funding to get its work done.

"They just got the little hints," said Ms. Thomas. "Many of the commission members are or were county employees, and with the budget crunch, they felt it wasn't the best use of our time and their time."

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