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I would like to introduce you to Lessie Handy. Several years ago, Ms. Handy moved from Houston to Milwaukee, to work as a secretary and receptionist. But she noted that very few people in her office shared her cultural interests—“no one to discuss James Brown with,” as she puts it. When she learned that few applicants for even entry-level clerical jobs had the skills and demeanor needed in a modern office, she prayed that God would send someone to provide that sort of training. But God responded, “It’s up to you, Lessie.”

And so Lessie borrowed $5,000 from her godmother, set up her own nonprofit institute in a run-down office building in inner city Milwaukee, and started to teach her neighbors computer basics and personal office skills. Today, two years later, Lessie has trained and placed over 200 individuals in jobs, 150 of whom are former AFDC mothers.

Lessie Handy is the walking, breathing embodiment of the uniquely American citizen that Alexis de Tocqueville discovered here more than 150 years ago. When Americans confront a problem, he noted, they don’t fold their arms and wait for government to solve it. Instead, they get together with their neighbors, form an association—a “mediating structure”—and tackle it themselves.

And so it was for much of American history. Within our mediating structures—our extended families, churches, neighborhoods, and voluntary associations—we erected our institutions, cared for our elderly, taught our children competence and character, and surrounded ourselves with a rich moral atmosphere that reflected and reinforced our deepest ethical and spiritual principles.

Mediating structures were built by, and in turn built, genuine citizens—citizens who not only participated fully in making the critical decisions of everyday public life, but who also carried out those decisions in the sweat of their own brow. Citizens did not influence social policy. They were social policy.

Today, we seldom speak about the citizen-building function of mediating structures. At least since the War on Poverty in the 1960s, we focus instead on their utility as “service providers,” as ways of extending publicly funded therapeutic services to ever larger clienteles, without expanding government payrolls. But because government increasingly funds and regulates mediating structures, they have come to resemble nothing so much as the very government programs they were meant to outperform and replace. They, too, have become top-down, bureaucratic structures, staffed by credentialed professionals and experts, delivering commodified packages of services to passive, helpless clients—and lobbying diligently to keep their public funding streams flowing.

As John McKnight points out, the service state does not build—because it does not need—active, self-governing citizens. Indeed, such people only get in the way. All the service state needs is docile taxpayers to write checks, docile clients to receive the services those checks pay for, and—the only active ingredient—the therapeutic elite itself, which guards jealously its claim on the taxpayers’ purses and its clients’ souls. Insofar as many of our nation’s mediating structures have become mere instruments of the social-service state, they themselves are today deeply and profoundly corrupt—as much a part of the problem as the solution in this epoch of the faltering welfare system.

Some commentators today have noted that citizens are increasingly disinclined to contribute to or volunteer for such organizations. Ironically, in decrying the decline of civic spirit, they blame citizens, not the organizations that prefer government grants to private charity and that can barely conceal their contempt for bumbling, amateurish volunteers.

The central task now for those of us who believe in mediating structures is to labor for fundamental reform of mediating structures themselves. We must cultivate vigorously those structures that are citizen-builders—rather than service-providers—rooted in the neighborhood, restoring it from the inside, reflecting and preserving its values.

This means a massive assault on the credentialing and regulatory barriers that suppress citizen-building, grassroots initiatives—barriers more often than not erected by professional service—providers chiefly to protect their prerogatives. It means directing financial support, both private and public, to initiatives that work from the bottom up, rather than the top down. It means welcoming to the struggle against poverty those who preach God’s soul-transforming Word, not just those who have logged the necessary hours in schools of social work.

An openness to mediating structures born of faith would be nothing more than a return to the originally religious character of most of our society’s mediating structures. And it could make mediating structures, not political parties or PACs, the preferred vehicle for the spiritual stirring that some call America’s Fourth Great Awakening.

Christians are surely not called to support a welfare state that has so manifestly hurt the poor. Nor are they called to cast their ballots according to some “Christian scorecard.” But they are called by the story of the Good Samaritan to suffer with and minister to the broken of this world—directly, immediately, personally, not through paid professional substitutes.

That sort of commitment can be effectively expressed and facilitated only in a society rich in mediating structures. But this is a new kind of “mediating”—not mediating vertically, between individual and state, as in the original Berger-Neuhaus formulation, but mediating horizontally, between suburb and inner city, between the wealthy and the poor.

What is required is a radical transformation in the way we think about mediating structures. In the future, that term must bring to mind not some gleaming, downtown high-rise social services agency. What comes to mind, rather, must be something like Lessie Handy’s cramped offices in Milwaukee’s inner city. The downtown agency has none of the vitality of American citizenship. Ms. Handy’s office is a little frayed around the edges—the donated furniture tries bravely to conceal the electrical tape mending the threadbare carpeting—but it throbs with the energy and zeal that Tocqueville described as the glory of America.

If we are to be once again a nation of citizens, rather than a nation of resentful taxpayers, arrogant service providers, and passive clients, this rethinking must become the mediating structures agenda for the next twenty years.

William A. Schambra, who has held senior positions in the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, is Director of General Programs at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. This essay originated in a talk given at the American Enterprise Institute on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of To Empower People by Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, the work that first popularized the contemporary idea of “mediating structures.”

Image by CIPHR Connect licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.