Thursday, June 19, 2008

Creating a better Prince George’s

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I have written several times about cultural and social capital, the heart, backbone and nervous system of democracy and communities. They lead to active citizenship and the creation of many nongovernmental, self-governing civic organizations that are essential for making communities attractive, civilized and livable. At its optimal level, when a critical mass of citizens with the same high-minded values is thriving, the synergy can make communities not just good places to live but wonderful places to live.

This summer, I made the rounds of festivals and had an opportunity to meet organizers and members of many civic organizations. I must say that civil society in Prince George’s County is rich. It has not reached the optimal level yet because there are still too many bystanders and much of the work is done by a few, but the potential is there.

By my count, there are more than 700 civic⁄homeowners’ organizations. This does not include the many others organized for various purposes. I have met many of these at the festivals across the county.

One new organization that I discovered is the College Park Youth Orchestra, organized about two years ago by a group of parents who did not want to commute to Washington, D.C., northern Virginia or Montgomery County and wanted a less intense⁄more enjoyable learning experience for their children.

Research shows that enjoyment is key to keeping children interested and encouraging them to become lifetime music appreciators and music makers. Music, after all, is about play. That’s why saying ‘‘play” music or an instrument is significant.

After reading my column about the Prince George’s County Philharmonic, Jennifer Shannon, one of the founders of the youth orchestra, invited me to the final recital for the season at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The process of organizing the youth orchestra was a classic example of the benefits, practice and application of rich social and cultural capital. Shannon and one or two other parents started out to create something for their children and students. As is usually the case, they created an organization that benefits many more.

According to Shannon, the effort started with two or three parents, gradually picking up supporters along the way. They eventually started regular meetings Sunday evenings.

When they finally got to the action stage, they advertised and held their breath; they had no idea how many would respond. They were surprised when more than 50 showed up, several from Northern Virginia.

Because of their collaboration and teamwork, Prince George’s County now has a youth orchestra that enhances the county’s image and creates opportunities for young musicians.

I am reminded of a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French social scientist who came to see what this new country called America was all about in the early 1800s. His acute insightful observation into our national character published in his book ‘‘Democracy in America” still resonates: ‘‘The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”

Van Caldwell, a lawyer, lives inKettering. He can be e-mailed